In the middle of the verdant agricultural Bourbonnais landscape of Allier (03) stands a large religious edifice whose biggest draw in medieval times was its collection of tombs of influential dead people.
The priory church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Souvigny sheltered the remains of two saints, buried in the same tomb, and the necropolis of the dukes of Bourbon.
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While nowadays you can book guided tours of cemeteries to learn about the lives of the people who rest in peace there, back in the Middle Ages, tombs, particularly those of saints, attracted a different kind of visitor – pilgrims.
Two abbots of Cluny became saints
Medieval pilgrims were spiritual tourists hoping to fast-track their way to salvation or gain divine intervention to heal various mortal bodily afflictions by venerating the remains of saints.
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The priory of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Souvigny had a double whammy with its single tomb that housed not one but two saints.
Mayeul and Odilon were abbots of the immensely powerful Burgundian abbey of Cluny in the fourth and fifth centuries.
Mayeul was revered by the king
Mayeul was Cluny’s fourth abbot, he had the ear of kings during his lifetime, and was recognised as a saint immediately after his death in 994 in Souvigny.
The king himself, Hugues Capet, arranged Mayeul’s funeral, and went on pilgrimage to his tomb each year until his own death in 996.
Before the year 1000, the dead saint’s tomb had transformed the church of Saint Peter and Paul into a thriving pilgrim centre.
Mayeul had died unexpectedly in Souvigny en route from Cluny to Saint-Denis near Paris, on a mission for the king.
Odilon was made a saint for his miracles
His tomb mate, Odilon, wanted to be buried in Rome, but also expired in Souvigny (in 1049). Odilon earned his saintly stripes through some impressive miracle-working during his lifetime.
Not only is he said to have cured the blind, but to have turned water into wine, following in the almighty footsteps of Jesus himself.
The priory of Souvigny therefore found itself in the lucky position of possessing the remains of two sainted abbots of Cluny.
Pilgrims were soon beating a path to the remote location, bringing with them donations to the church and spending money in the neighbourhood.
An archaeological investigation of the double tomb from 2001 showed the sarcophagus was sealed tightly with three bands of iron in order to prevent theft of the holy bones.
No relics meant no pilgrims, and no pilgrims meant loss of income for the priory.
The prosperous town needed defending
So how did the Bourbon dukes come to choose the priory as their family necropolis?
To discover that we need to go back to the period when the king, Hugues Capet, came to venerate the tomb of his trusted advisor, Mayeul, in 996, allegedly seeking a cure for smallpox.
While there, he bestowed on Souvigny the right to mint its own coins, a privilege normally accorded only to royalty.
The town prospered and grew, and therefore needed defending. The local seigneurial family, the Bourbons, stepped in to oblige.
Pilgrims visited on their way to Santiago de Compostela
The influence of the town and its priory, and that of the seigneurs who defended it, developed alongside one another, until the Bourbon dukes came to look upon the church as their spiritual home.
From the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries, the priory expanded to accommodate the increasing number of pilgrims who came to venerate the holy tomb of saints Mayeul and Odilon – placed in the middle of the nave for maximum visibility – on their way to Santiago de Compostela.
The funeral chapels became more elaborate and regal
From the fourteenth century, the Bourbon dukes demolished the existing radiating chapels, replacing them with the chapelle vieille, the old chapel, in 1376, and then in 1448 with the chapelle neuve, the new chapel, to house their elaborate and costly funerary monuments.
Here lie the remains of duke Louis II of Bourbon (died 1410) and his wife Anne d’Auvergne, and Charles I (died 1456) and his wife Agnès de Bourgogne (died 1476), and several other noble Bourbons.
Attacked for royal connections during the Revolution
So elaborate were these funerary chapels that the priory began to be called le Saint-Denis des Bourbons, a reference to the basilica of Saint-Denis near Paris, the traditional burial place of French kings.
Perhaps because of this association with royalty, the priory of Souvigny came under particularly brutal attack during the Revolution.
Not only were the bells melted down, the archives destroyed, and holy relics burnt, but the stone effigies of saints Mayeul and Odilon were mutilated beyond recognition.
Named Sanctuary of Peace like Lourdes
The recent renovation programme rescued the remnants of their effigies from the crypt, made them whole, and reinstated them in the centre of the nave.
In 2016, the bishop of Moulins reinvigorated the cult of saints Mayeul and Odilon more than a thousand years after their deaths for the holy year of the Jubilee of Mercy.
The priory was named an official Sanctuary of Peace in 2017, alongside Lourdes and Mont-Saint-Michel among others, and Souvigny has become once again a thriving pilgrimage destination.
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