Deep in the Lyons Forest sits the ancient Abbey du Mortemer and its ruined church. It was originally built in 1134 on swampland, which is how it earned the name “Mortum-mare” or “Dead sea”. The first Cistercian Abbey in Normandy, the monks lived well off the land. Pigeons were kept in a dovecote, eels and perch lived in the lakes and wine and honey was produced by the friars. The abbey was prosperous for many years and was even rebuilt in the 16th century. However, by 1790, only five friars remained and, during the French Revolution, the last four monks were hunted down and killed in the cellar.
When I arrive, I take a walk around the grounds. I am aware that the abbey has a reputation for being haunted and when I step into the old dovecote I jump as a voice leaps out of the darkness. This is no ghost though, just an audio description of the abbey history and some interesting information about how the doves were kept. It also mentions that the dovecote was used to house prisoners and I wonder if any died here and whether their spirits remain.
As I walk around the lakes a gaggle of geese and ducks follow me, hoping that I have something to feed them, but they are out of luck. The young men fishing at the far end have caught no fish, but they do have many baguettes so maybe the birds will fare better with them. Returning to the Abbey, I take the path through the trees which leads me past a series of wooden sculptures, representing the thirteen Normandy dukes and two duchesses who ruled the land. William the Conquerer, Richard the Lionheart and Eleanor of Aquitaine are all uniquely depicted in oak while small iron crosses are planted at their feet to represent their wives and children.
The abbey church is in ruins. Piles of stones mark the bases of the columns and a few remains of towering walls, one with a rose window, loom precariously. The 16th century renovation still stands strong and it is here that I meet the guide for an interior tour that includes the stories of several ghosts who reportedly haunt the abbey. Like the dovecote, each room is described by an audio tape. As there are a few other people, the tour commences in French but they don’t venture beyond the fountain of St Catherine and so I am able to continue the tour with the English language version which is hilariously stilted and mistranslated.
St Catherine’s fountain is actually a 12th century washbasin that the monks used. However, many women believe it has miraculous powers and they come to worship it and throw a coin or hairpin into the waters in the hope of finding a husband. Framed letters from women who found their true love hang on the walls surrounding the fountain, inspiring many others to follow the dream. But I am not that interesting in finding a husband. I’m more interested in seeing a ghost.
Several ghost stories are told in the Abbey. There are the four murdered monks who inhabit the cellars and the goblin cat which appears in the church ruins and guards the Abbey treasure. Mathilde, the daughter of Henry I of England, was imprisoned in the Abbey for 5 years. Although she died in Rouen, her ghost is said to haunt the halls and she is known locally as the “white lady”. Even though the Abbey was exorcised in 1921, the hauntings continue. Guides and visitors have heard phantom footsteps on the stairs, paintings have leapt off the walls and the phone lines are frequently crossed.
My personal favourite ghost story told at the Abbey did not actually take place there but at a nearby village. A young man would regularly meet a young woman near the church and they would dance all night. One day, he arrived in daylight and asked an elderly woman who the young woman was. She replied “The woman is my daughter and she is dead”. Was he dancing with a ghost?