On a lonely hilltop in Burgundy stands one of the most hallowed sites of the medieval world: the shrine of Mary Magdalene at Vézelay.
Here also, Bernard of Clairvaux called for the Second Crusade before a massive assembly of the French aristocracy in 1145. In 1166 Thomas à Beckett used Vézelay as the place to deliver his sermon threatening the English king, Henry II with excommunication and later in 1190, Richard the Lionheart met his French counterpart Philip Augustus to plan the Third Crusade.
Vézelay’s role as a centre of pilgrimage goes back to prehistory and is associated with a salt water spring, known today as Les Fontaines Salées. Funerary urns dating back to 900 BC have been found there as well as the ruins of a very substantial Gallo-Roman sanctuary which incorporated a large circular temple and thermal baths. Ex-votos of the grateful recipients of miracle cures abound and two adjacent necropolises indicate that this sacred fountain was an important religious site where Gallic deities such as Belisande and Taranis were worshipped alongside Roman ones.
In the ninth century one of the most eminent Carolingian vassals, Girart Count of Vienne, known also as Girart de Roussillon acquired the lands of of the villa known as Vercellacus by the banks of the river Cure, whose domains included the sacred spring of the Fontaines Salées.
There, Girart established a convent. The relics of two roman martyrs Eusebius and Pontius were donated by Pope Nicholas 1st. These were borne in triumphal procession from Lyon along with the relics of two more local saints Andeol and Ostian. The relics of Pontius and Andeol were taken to Vézelay, those of Eusebius and Ostian went to nearby Pothières where Girart had founded another monastery. With the destruction of the abbey buildings at Vézelay by Norman raiders, the establishment was moved to the summit of the hill which overlooked the river valley and converted into a monastery. The Pope personally dedicated the new abbey to Notre-Dame in 879.
By the eleventh century a cult of Mary Magdalene began to develop at Vézelay. Miracles occurred and her memory was venerated at an altar which stood over a modest burial chamber. The rumour began to grow that this small crypt actually contained Mary Magdalene’s relics. On 6th March 1058 abbot Hugh of Cluny declared recognition of the authenticity of the relics and at the same time, bringing Vézelay into the Cluniac order.