The first monks to settle in Orval arrived from the south of Italy in 1070. Count Arnould de Chiny, lord of the manor, welcomed them and granted them land from his own domain. Construction was immediately begun of the church and conventual buildings.
For reasons we do not know these pioneers moved away after about forty years. Othon, son of Arnould, replaced the monks by a small community of Canons who were able to complete the construction work begun by their predecessors ; in 1124 the completed church was consecrated by Henri de Winton, Bishop of Verdun. Soon afterwards, however, the Canons ran into economic difficulties, a situation which led them to request affiliation to the Order of Cîteaux, at that time in full expansion. Their request was transmitted to Saint Bernard who accepted it. He entrusted the re-establishment of Orval to the eldest of his daughter-houses, the Abbey of Trois-Fontaines in Champagne.
On the 9th March 1132, seven monks under the leadership of Constantin arrived at Orval from Trois-Fontaines. Monks and Canons formed one single community and began at once on the adaptation of the buildings to Cistercian usages. The new church was completed before 1200.
The Cistercians were particularly careful to establish a farm and a forestry domain ; these forms of work would allow them to live according to their observances. The land immediately around the monastery is poor and unsuited to farming. As early as 1132, the monks received a small domain about 20 kms. from the monastery near Carignan ; this was to become the hub of their finest grange, that of Blanchampagne. In the following years, the monks received further land in donations. Of these lands, mention must be made of the group of Bure-Villancy, in the Meurthe-&-Moselle region, which would be the centre of OrvaI's iron industry.
For five centuries, Orval led a hidden life, like so many other monasteries of the Order. During the 12th Century, the abbey seems to have been prosperous ; from the middle of the following century, calamities were often to be its lot for long periods. In 1252 the abbey was gutted by fire and the consequences weighed on the community for almost a century. Certain buildings had to be entirely reconstructed. So serious was the state of misery that for a time the authorities of the Order went so far as to envisage the suppression of the monastery.
During the 15th and 16th Centuries, the wars waged between France and Burgundy and later between France and Spain brought havoc and devastation throughout the Luxembourg region, and Orval was not spared. In this difficult context, the Emperor Charles-Quint showed his kindness in allowing a forge to be set up on the abbey's own land. In this same context of the early 16th Century should be placed the reconstruction of the nave of the church which was in danger of falling into ruin. The dedication of the church took place in 1533 and we know that in that year the community numbered 24 members.
While the 17th Century was to be one of disaster for the Low Countries, for Orval it was to be the highest point of its development. Two Abbots acquired a reputation throughout the whole Order. The first, Bernard de Montgaillard, from southern France, managed, despite the opposition of the community, to have himself appointed Abbot of Orval by Archduke Albert and Isabelle (1605). 'From that moment he devoted himself to his monks who finally became very attached to him. He put the monastery back on its feet economically and restored the buildings. But more especially he was a precursor in giving his community reform constitutions which led to an increase in fervour. Novices came in great numbers; in 1619 the community was composed of 43 members: 27 professed monks, 8 lay brothers and 8 novices.
Shortly after Bernard de Montgaillard, a new catastrophe hit Orval ; in August 1637 at the height of the Thirty Years War, the troops of the Maréchal de ChâtiIlon pillaged and completely gutted the monastery and its dependencies. The reconstruction took place in a climate of insecurity through to the end of the century.
From 1668 to 1707, Orval had another great Abbot at its head, Charles de Bentzeradt, a native of Echternach (Luxembourg). This austere monk was above all a reformer. Taking as model what Abbot de Rancé had accomplished at the Abbey of La Trappe in Normandy, Charles established the "Strict Observance" in his own monastery. He received numerous novices and so was able, in 1701, to found the Abbey of Düsselthal, near Düsseldorf, and to erect as Priory the house of Conques, on the river Semois. After his death, the monks of Orval sent reinforcements to the Abbey of Beaupre in Lorrain and reformed the monastery. In 1723 the community numbered 130 members and was "the most numerous of the Empire." Jansenism had, unfortunately, infiltrated the community and the crisis broke out in 1725. About fifteen of the monks preferred to leave the monastery; they were to set up, near Utrecht, the religious house of Rhijnwijk.
Material prosperity went hand in hand with religious fervour : the monks' agricultural and industrial domains continued to grow. From the end of the 17th to the middle of the 18th Centuries, the forges of Orval were the spearheads of the western steel industry.
From 1760 onwards, the revenues were mainly given over to the building of a new monastery for which the plans had been drawn by the famous architect Laurent-Benoit Dewez. The new church was consecrated in 1782 ; after that the work slowed down and then stopped for want of funds
In 1789 the French Revolution broke out and all the possessions of Orval across the border were immediately confiscated. The abbey lived through various alerts, more or less serious, until the decisive day, 23rd June 1793, when the revolutionary troops led by General Loison sacked and burned the monastery Everything was wiped out. The community withdrew to its refuge in Luxembourg and then to the Priory of Conques. The community was officially suppressed on the 7th November 1795 and its members disbanded. For more than a century the charred walls of Orval were at the mercy of the weather and of stone- and treasure-seekers.
In 1926, the de Harenne family offered the ruins of Orval and the surrounding land to the Cistercian Order so that monastic life could be re-established there.
Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard, Abbot of Sept-Fons (Allier region of France) accepted responsibility for the foundation and sent to Orval a group of monks as the nucleus of the new community.
The enormous task of reconstruction was undertaken by Dom Marie-Albert van der Cruyssen, from Ghent, a monk of the abbey of La Trappe. Very quickly a new monastery built according to the plans of the architect Henry Vaes, rose on the same foundations as those of the 18th Century monastery. In 1936, Orval became an autonomous abbey and Dom Marie-Albert was elected Abbot.
In 1948, the rebuilding was complete and on the 8th September the church was solemnly consecrated. Shortly afterwards Dom Marie-Albert resigned as Abbot ; his task had been accomplished. He died in 1955, and with him, the most recent page of Orval's history is turned. The years which follow belong to the present