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It was founded in 1132 as a Cistercian monastery by Guichard and Guillaume de Bourbon, of the family of Bourbon-Lancy which gave kings to France, Italy, and Spain; this gave rise to the name "Royal Abbey". The initial generosity of the founders ensured that the building of the church, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and of the monastery was soon completed.
Thereafter however the monks found themselves poverty-stricken, and were driven to selling off parts of the endowment in order to provide themselves with the necessities of life. They were much encouraged by a visit from Saint Bernard in 1138. Pope Adrian III took the monastery under his protection in 1158; and Pope Alexander III ratified the foundation by bull in 1164.
The community remained a small one, and until the reform of 1663, the number of monks never exceeded 15.
At first the monastery was only known under the name of "Notre-Dame de Saint-Lieu". It was only after a century that "Sept-Fons" was added, derived either from seven fountains or from seven canals leading water to, the abbey.
From the middle of the 15th century the abbey suffered a great deal from the incessant wars. The monks were often forced to leave it; it was frequently looted and its buildings demolished. Under such circumstances, the discipline of the community was bound to suffer.
In 1656 Eustache de Beaufort, at the age of 20 years, was made abbot. For the first seven years there was no improvement; but after that time he resolved on a complete change and decided to join the abbey to the Trappist reform. There were then only four monks, who refused to accept the new rule; he therefore granted each of them a pension and dismissed them. It was not long before a number of novices presented themselves for admission. They were sent to the abbey of La Trappe, to make their novitiate under the Abbé de Rancé, whom Dom Eustache also visited for advice in 1667.
In 1845, when the Trappists of the Abbaye du Gard were obliged to abandon their monastery, their abbot, Dom Stanislaus, purchased the ruins of Sept-Fons, where he installed his community and rebuilt the church and regular structures. In 1847 he was elected vicar-general of the Congregation of the Ancient Reform of Our Lady of La Trappe, which followed the constitutions of the Abbé de Rancé. In 1892, when the three congregations were united in one order, the then abbot of Sept-Fons, Dom Sebastian Wyart, was elected first abbot-general, and, a little later, abbot of Cîteaux.
More recently the community at Sept-Fons has settled a daughter house at Nový Dvůr in the Czech Republic, the first monastic foundation since the fall of the Communist government, and in 2001 commissioned the English minimalist architect John Pawson to undertake the building conversion.
- Sept-Fons Abbey website
- Abbayes de France : Sept Fons Abbey (French)
- Article on Sept-Fons and Novy Dvur