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It was founded in 1128 in honour of the Blessed Virgin, by Giselbert of Castelré, who not only gave the land, but also himself became a lay brother in it. The first monks were sent from St. Michael's Abbey, Antwerp, under Henry, who had come with St. Norbert to Antwerp to extirpate the Tanchelmite heresies. The charter of its foundation was signed, amongst others, by Bernard of Clairvaux and by Waltman, first Abbot of Antwerp. The Bishop of Cambrai granted synodal rights to the abbots.
From small beginnings the abbey grew influential in a district called Campine, now in north-east Belgium and south Holland, then a wild area. The bishops of Cambrai, the chapters of Liège and Maastricht, and several landowners confided the charge of parishes, with the right of patronage, to the abbey. In time the abbey had to provide priests for some forty parishes, or small Norbertine residences, in these parts.
With the erection of new dioceses (1559-60) in Belgium and Holland, heavy burdens were cast on the abbey, for not only had it to provide the funds, but the new Bishop of Bois-le-Duc was put at its head as abbot. This state of affairs lasted until 1590, when, to obtain its independence, the abbey had to give up much property in support of the new diocese. The abbey was a centre of education. It possessed one of the largest libraries, and was able to take up the work of the Bollandists
The rise of Calvinism in the Netherlands caused conflict. Three monks of Tongerloo are Catholic martyrs: Arnold Vessem and Henry Bosch in 1557, and Peter Janssens in 1572. In the seventeenth century Francis Wichmans of the abbey rallied local Catholics.
The abbey is also the site of a Leonardo da Vinci Museum, which contains a 16th century copy on canvas of Leonardo's Last Supper, in approximately original size. The copy reveals many details that are no longer visible in the original fresco due to deterioration.
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