Le Prieuré Notre Dame d’Orsan was founded at the beginning of the 12th century by the ascetic and itinerant preacher Robert d’Arbrissel. Orsan was a dual monastery or ‘double house’ attached to the Order of Fontevraud, with separate communities of both Monks and Nuns over- seen by the Abbess.
D’Arbrissel died in 1116; his heart was bequeathed to Orsan and his body to Fontevraud. The Priory soon became a place of pilgrimage, bringing considerable fame and wealth.
However, the priory’s fortunes began to decline during the Wars of Religion of the 16th century and in 1569 its buildings were burned and looted, destroying all relics and archives. A year later, the priory was partly rebuilt under the auspices of Éléonore de Bourbon, Abbess of Fontevraud. Religious life continued, only to be interrupted – this time for good by the French Revolution. Orsan’s religious order was suppressed, and its lands sold off.
By the 19th century much of the priory had been abandoned. The church, cloisters and mill had been pulled down - their stone taken away to be reused. The four massive buildings that remained were clustered around a disused farmyard strewn with old agricultural machinery.
1107 - 1113
The Priory prospers and expands quickly. A church, no longer standing, was completed in 1113. The principal Lords of the region take the Priory under their protection. Envied by the other monasteries of the region, le Prieuré d’Orsan quickly finds itself embroiled in conflicts.
Robert d’Arbrissel decides to return to Orsan to resolve these issues, but most likely dies around this time. He leaves his heart to Orsan and his body to Fontevraud. Archbishop Léger of Bourges dies some years later, leaving his country lands to the Priory and requesting to be interred alongside the heart of Robert d’Arbrissel. The symbol of the heart is still present throughout the garden, in homage to its founder.
The following 5 centuries
During the next 5 centuries the Priory enjoys considerable prosperity. Orsan became a place of pilgrimage, since Arbrissel was considered a Saint, several miracles were attributed to his relic. Notre Dame d’Orsan received many donations, expanding its domain. It was remarkably well managed by its different Priors.
The Priory of Orsan escaped harm during the Hundred Years’ War but did not survive the Wars of Religion. In 1569, the buildings were burned and looted, the church, like almost 90% of the buildings, destroyed. The Nuns escaped to the Chateau du Châtelet, returning the following year, when they recorded the disappearance of many documents. Farmers and tenants thus refused to pay rents and dues. Orsan falls into debt and ruin.
Despite this, the monastery buildings were rebuilt in 1596 thanks to Éléonore de Bourbon, Abbess at Fontevraud. The boundary and main entrance gate were completed in the 18th century. During the revolution, the Priory and its contents were sold off, and the remaining buildings were used as farm buildings until 1989.
1991 - 1994
In 1991, two architects, Sonia Lesot and Patrice Taravella, bought Orsan and embarked on a project to restore it to its former glory. The buildings were cleaned, walls strengthened, roofs repaired, staircases put in and land cleared.
After two years of hard work, they turned their attention to creating Orsan’s gardens. As no original plans for the gardens remained, the architects decided instead to try and evoke an almost spiritual sense of what it must have been like to live and work at Orsan in perfect harmony with nature.
The grounds were partitioned and divided by hedges, frames and hurdles. The design mirrored the symbolism of medieval gardens, which were meant to provide a space for reflection and meditation. The result was a garden that was simultaneously both contemporary and of the past.
Inspired by medieval illuminations, manuscripts and visits to Silvacane, Senanque and Fontenay abbeys, they began to sketch out an idea of how the gardens would look. They also gathered information on the types of medicinal, vegetable and ornamental plants cultivated in the Middle Ages.
The gardens formally opened to the public in 1994. A bookshop and restaurant were added in 1998.
In 2004 the gardens were officially recognized as "Jardins remarquables" by the French Ministry of Culture.
In 2017, Orsan changed hands and was bought by Gareth Casey and Cyril Pearon. Their overriding priority was to keep the gardens open and continue its development, based on the founding values of the gardens but bringing a new vision to the site. Their first priority was to manage the gardens as ecofriendly as possible, starting by eliminating the use of pesticides in the gardens. Iconic elements have been reintroduced into the garden as well as the opening of some new areas where collections of plants have found a home.