The abbey that you see today is the 12th century Cistercian abbey of Notre Dame de Grosbot, but it is built on the earlier site of the abbey of Fontaine Vive.
Very little is known about the origins of the abbey because very few documents remain from this time, but we do know that in 1166, through the mother house of Obazine in Correze, Grosbot became part of the Cistercian Order. The Cistercian Order, founded at Citeaux in 1098 by a breakaway group of monks from the abbey of Molesme in Burgundy, was a reform of the Benedictine Order.
Their wish was to move away from the riches and worldliness of the monasteries of Cluny and to return to the purity of the Rule of St. Benedict . They wanted to live and pray in simple surroundings and to return to a life of manual work. They observed a strict silence and were not allowed to eat meat, eggs or cheese, unless ill. By the end of the 12th century, particularly because of the charismatic St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the Cistercian order had become immensely rich and powerful throughout Europe with abbeys such as Pontigny, Noirlac, Le Thoronet and Fontenay in France and Fountains, Rievaulx and Tintern in Britain.
Grosbot owes its existence to the important Marthon (La Rochfoucauld) family who not only gave the original land, but together with other benefactors such as the Counts of Lusignan, and the Seigneurs of Mareuil, made Grosbot a rich and powerful landowner in the 12th century. The abbey farms, called granges, covered a wide area and were as far away as La Jarne near to La Rochelle. The abbey also owned mills, forges, town houses in Angouleme, La Rochfoucauld and Perigeuex, and the original chapelle of Obezine in Angouleme. In the beginning the lay brothers worked in the fields themselves, but by the beginning of the 14th century, after the devastation of The Black Death and the 100 Years War the lands were in ruin, the population was depleted and the lands were rented out.
The church isn’t typically Cistercian, but is similar in style to many other churches in the area, in particular the church of Charmant near Villebois-Lavalette, and the cistercian abbeys of Cadouin and Bochaud in Dordogne which all have the same rounded apses.
During the Wars of Religion the abbey was attacked and burnt. In 1568 the monks were chased out by Vincent de Villars of the house of Mainzac who appropriated the lands and it wasn’t until twelve years later that they were able to come back. A contemporary document describes the state of the abbey: The buildings are ruined, water comes through the vault, the walls of one of the chapels have cracks in them that measure up to 30 centimetres, the vault of the belltower above the choir has lost its roof, the nave has lost its covering, only the first travee still has its vault (the last third fell down in 1991) Happily, the east and north wings were rebuilt towards the end of the 17th century by abbot Jean de la Font (1641-1673) and under him the abbey enjoyed a certain prosperity again. Between 1674 and 1722 the abbey had commendatory abbots, that is abbots who were appointed by the king, who enjoyed the benefits of the abbey but didn’t necessarily live there, and who left the prior to take care of the spiritual life of the abbey. However, in 1722 Claude-Francois Leoutre was named regular abbot and it was he who rebuilt the west wing.
The abbey was sold at the revolution and has had various proprietors until 1991 when it was bought by an English couple. When they arrived the west wing was in total ruin and only a few rooms on the first floor of the north and east wings were habitable. All the roof and the east and north wings have now been restored, as has the north wall of the church. Work continues on the house and it is hope to start work soon on the church.
Although not cistercian in origin this is a typically cistercian site, in a valley far away from the rest of the world. Apart from the church, only traces of the original 12th century building remain, and one feels extremely fortunate that the site still retains its solitude and peace. The reason for the abbey being here is the water. It comes from the springs that rise in the Pré de la Fontaine to the west of the abbey, which feed the house by a series of underground canals that were used to supply the abbey with water for washing, the kitchens and the latrines. The system is still in use today. There is a large underground canal that takes water under the vegetable garden and into the vivier (fishpond) to the east, and from there on down to the lake.