Founded under the reign of Charlemagne at the beginning of the ninth century by Barnard, a high-ranking military officer, Ambronay Abbey was attached to the Benedictine rule. During the 11th century, by papal privilege, it enjoyed total sovereignty, responsible only to Rome. The Abbey held sway over a large territory comprising 44 parishes, 21 priories and 9 deanships. Its monks became the administrators of a richer and richer tenure, coveted by high dignitaries from neighbouring areas.
Finding itself at the heart of the border disputes between Savoy and the Dauphiné, the abbey was forced to defend itself. The 'chateau' was built, a dwelling quarters flanked by two towers within the abbey compound. In 1282, looking for a more peaceful life, the Abbé Jean de la Baume chose to place himself under the protection of the Count of Savoy. The monks could thus devote themselves solely to prayer, in the strict observance of the Rule.
Over the course of time and with the arrival of supportive abbots, the monks began from the 16th century to enjoy certain freedoms. They abandoned, for example, the principals of communal living and constructed their own houses adjacent to the abbey, with horses and domestic servants. In 1652, Ambronay Abbey was attached to the Congregation of the Benedictines of Saint-Maur. The Maurist monks renewed their links with monastic life, renovating and transforming the buildings, carefully collating the archives and building a library.
At the time of the Revolution, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy decreed that the religious communities having neither an educational nor charitable role were, in effect, useless. The monastic community was dispersed in 1791, the abbey until then reserved for the monks became a parish church. In 1806, the church of Saint Nicolas, which was situated directly on the abbey square, was destroyed for reasons of public security. At the height of the revolutionary movement, the abbey was transformed into a Temple to Reason, only regaining its function as a parish church at the end of the Revolution.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the abbey buildings were allocated a series of new roles, part of them becoming a prison for around 60 counter-revolutionaries until 1798. They were then sold off to various private owners. Over the course of time, as events and personalities dictated, they were pressed into service in a variety of roles; housing, barns, a hospice, school, garrison, social housing. In 1839, the commune's charity office was set up there, in 1921 the building was used as a dairy, and in 1944 it was an air force regiment which set up temporary home in the South Wing.
In 1889, the listing of the church initiated a policy of conservation and restoration. During the 1960s, alongside an increasing interest in heritage conservation, the early music movement was born. In 1980, the Association Art et Musique created the Ambronay Festival to promote and then produce concerts of baroque and early music. Today, housed within the Abbey, the Ambronay Cultural Encounter Centre sits at the meeting point of heritage conservation and artistic creation.