Historical background

Historical background


Vézelay’s origin


  • Ca. 858 or 859 a monastery is founded by Girard, Count of Roussillon, on the site where the present village of Saint-Père stands.
  •  In 863 a papal bull guarantees the new Vézelay Abbey direct protection by the Holy See, which makes it independent from the authority of the bishops of Autun. The privileges of the abbey will be confirmed by King Charles the Bald in 868.
  •  In 873 the abbey is devastated by Norman raiders sailing up the Seine, the Yonne and the Cure river. The abbey is then transferred on the hill and monks from Autun replace the nuns.
  •  In 882, according to some sources, a monk named Baudillon (or Badilo) brings the relics of St. Mary Magdalene from St.- Maximin in Provence to Vézelay.
  •  In 1027 conflicts erupt between the abbots of Vézelay and the counts of Nevers who are jealous of the abbey’s independent status.
  •  In 1098 the bishop of Autun who is himself jealous of the abbey’s independence attempts to ban pilgrimages.  The ban is lifted by Pope Paschal II but Vézelay must accept the spiritual authority of Cluny.



Vézelay’s heyday

  • In 1104 the Romanesque choir built by Abbot Artaud is dedicated. Two years later Abbot Artaud is killed by insurgent townspeople. 
  • In 1119 the monastery comes under further attack by the count of Nevers. 
  • On July 22, 1120 a gigantic fire destroys what remained of the original nave while thousands of pilgrims were crowded in the church. The construction of the present nave begins from the façade to the choir built under Abbot Artaud. 
  • In 1140 the nave is completed under Abbot Ponce de Montboissier who ca.1145-1150 has the narthex built in front of it.
  • Further conflicts erupt with  the counts of Nevers who incite the inhabitants of the town to rise up against the abbots. The conflicts are arbitrated by the Pope and the King of France but they erupt again and again in 1147, in 1149, in 1152, in 1161… 
  • On Easter Day 1146, at the request of Pope Eugene III, St. Bernard of Clairvaux preaches the Second Crusade  on the north east side of the hill  where a chapel, the Holy Cross chapel, now known as “La Cordelle” stands (10 minutes’ walk from the basilica). 
  • In 1152 the inhabitants, driven by the count of Nevers, rise up again. The abbey is looted. The town is granted rights and freedoms but these are abrogated three years later by the king. 
  • In 1162 a papal bull gives Vézelay its independence from Cluny. 
  • In 1166 Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury in exile, chooses the pulpit of Vézelay to threaten excommunication against his king, Henri II. 
  • Between 1165 and 1190, under Abbot Girard d’Arcy, the Gothic choir and transept are built. 
  • In July 1190 Richard the Lion-hearted and Philip Augustus meet in Vézelay before setting off on the Third Crusade. 
  • In 1217 a group of companions of Francis of Assisi establish the first Franciscan convent in France, “la Cordelle”, near the place where St. Bernard preached the Second Crusade, on the side of the Vézelay hill (10 minutes’ walk from the basilica). 
  • In 1244 King St. Louis IX comes on pilgrimage to Vézelay. He comes again in 1248, in 1267 and in 1270.
  • In 1260 the Tour Saint-Michel (St. Michael’s Tower) and the West front’s pediment are built.
  • In 1267 King St. Louis IX, on a visit to Vézelay, confirms the authenticity of St. Mary Magdalene’s relics that had been questioned since 1260, notably because of the rivalry  between Vézelay and St. Maximin in Provence.

Vézelay’s decline

  • In 1279 the relics of St. Mary Magdalene in St. Maximin are proclaimed to be authentic. Consequently the number of pilgrims to Vézelay falls sharply and rapidly and the abbey enters a period of decline.
  •  In 1537 Pope Paul III secularizes the abbey: the monks are replaced by a college of 15 secular canons under the authority of an abbot appointed by the king.
  •  In 1569 Vézelay is occupied and the abbey is thoroughly sacked by the Huguenots.
  •  In 1760 the abandoned monastery buildings are partially sold and demolished.
  •  In 1790 the college of canons is abolished and the church – once an abbey church and later a collegiate one - is downgraded into a parish church. The remains of the ancient monastery buildings are sold and razed to the ground.
  •  In 1793 the sculptures on the outer façade are destroyed.
  •  In 1819 lightning causes a disastrous fire.

 Vézelay’s revival

  •  In 1840 Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, aged twenty-six, is entrusted with vast restoration works on the basilica at the initiative of Prosper Mérimée, then Inspector of Historical Monuments.
  •  In 1859 the restoration project is completed.
  •  In 1870 and 1876 another Mary Magdalene relic is offered to the Vézelay church. Pilgrimages resume to some extent.
  •  In 1920 the Holy See grants the Vézelay church the status of “Basilica”, thereby recognizing its special place in the Church, in Christianity and in History.
  •  In 1945 – 1950 the monks are back: a small team of Benedictine monks from la Pierre-qui-Vire settle in Vézelay.
  •  In 1946 a “Crusade for Peace” takes place in Vézelay. 40,000 pilgrims gather to commemorate both the 800th anniversary of  St. Bernard’s predication and the end of the Second World War.
  •  Between 1953 and 1993 Franciscans settle in Vézelay, succeeding the monks from La Pierre-qui-Vire.
  •  In 1979 the Basilica and the site of Vézelay are added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.
  •  In 1993 the Jerusalem Community in Vézelay is founded at the initiative of Mgr. Defois. The brothers and sisters of the Community are in charge of the Basilica’s liturgical, spiritual and cultural activities.
  •  In 1994 a diocesan priest is appointed parish priest and rector of the Basilica by Mgr. Defois
  •  In 1997 a massive restoration project is started.
  • In 1998 the first internet site – the one that preceded this one- is on line.


    In 1999 by a decree of the new Archbishop, Mgr. Gilson, the thirteen villages surrounding the Basilica merge to become one parish.

  • In 2000 the first music festival “Les Rencontres Musicales de Vézelay” takes place end of August.
  • In 2003  four new bells are blessed on Easter Day and installed for the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene on July 22.
  • On November 1, 2003  Father François Tricard succeeds Father Daniel Rousseau as parish priest of Vézelay and rector of the Basilica.
  • On April 21, 2004 the 900th anniversary of the Basilica’s dedication is celebrated. The flight of steps is restored.
  • In the autumn 2004 the PA system is renovated.
  • In 2005  a new sign system is introduced.
  • In 2006   a technical refurbishing of the Basilica’s organ is carried out. The project to  have a new organ built is initiated;
  •                                 from May 9 to August 27 the anniversary of the 1946 “Crusade for Peace” is celebrated.
  • In 2009   a study is carried out with a view to consolidating the lintel that supports the  great central tympanum;

                                 the first Sound and Light Show “Vézelay s’enflamme” (literally: “Vézelay

                                comes ablaze”)  is held.


  • In 2010   the lintels of the three tympanums are shored up until consolidation works can start;

                                 the renovation of the basilica’s roof, which had been under way since 1997,

                                is completed;


                                 a new positive organ is inaugurated in the chapel of the cloister;


                                an archaeological exploration of the site of the ancient cloister is conducted

                                by Mr. Sapin.


  • In 2011 a new internet site is created to replace the obsolete one.


  • In 2012 a further archaeological exploration of the site of the ancient cloister is conducted by Mr. Sapin