Fontevraud Abbey was founded by Robert d'Arbrissel in 1099, and soon spawned a few dozen daughter houses in France, Spain and England. The first permanent structures were built between 1110 and 1119. Within its walls were both a nunnery and a monastery, but its head and senior "officers" had to be women. This was possibly because the nuns' contingent included some formidable female talent in the form of royalty and nobility - and a few discarded royal mistresses.
After the death of Richard I in 1199, Eleanor of Aquitaine retired to Fontevraud and was buried there alongside her husband (Henry II) and son (Richard I). The Abbey became the burial place a number of other Plantagenets; at one stage containing 15 of their tombs (though no more kings). Just four are still identifiably there today - Henry II, Eleanor, Richard I and Isabella (John's Queen - his tomb and effigy are in Worcester Cathedral, though his heart was buried somewhere at Fontevraud).
A modern relic
The Abbey of Fontevraud is impressive both in its size and its originality. Transformed into a prison by Napoleon in 1804, it was saved from destruction and became a dreaded penitentiary centre. The last prisoners did not leave until 1985. Today, as a Centre Culturel de Rencontre (Cultural Encounter Centre, a label from the Ministry of Culture and Communication), the Abbey is a renowned site for concerts, symposiums and exhibitions. It also plays a role in creative development thanks to artists' residencies that are welcomed by the Abbey.