The abbey was founded in 1032 in the middle of the forest by Duke Robert the Magnificent. It inherited the remote site of a small religious establishment founded at the beginning of the 6th century by St Vigor, Bishop of Bayeux, and destroyed by the Scandinavian invasions; the Benedictines thus restored, as at Saint-Marcouf or Orval, a religious continuity after this interruption. Nothing now survives of the ducal monastery and the current abbey church belongs to a reconstruction dating from the last quarter of the 11th century.
Externally, the church had the major part of its nave (five bays) cut off in 1811. The north transept and the upper stage of the crossing tower were re-built in the 18th century. On the inside, the choir apse was provided with its gothic vaults in the 14th century and the crossing piers were encased in sturdy cylindrical pillars in the 15th century. These additions have, however, had little impact on the Romanesque architecture of Cerisy.
The church follows the traditional ground plan of the great Norman abbeys (Bernay, Lessay, etc.); the elevation of three levels (large arcades with double roll moulding and composite pillars, galleries and clerestory), and the ceiling is of wood. In the nave the gallery has two large openings incorporated into a round-headed arch, and in the choir it has two twin openings. The Norman technique of using a thick wall enables the insertion of a passage at the level of the clerestory (another trait of the region’s architecture) and as a result of the double wall thereby created the outer has a large Romanesque opening, and the inner has three openings surrounded by a torus moulding with two lateral colonnettes (not unlike the original arrangement of the nave in Saint-Etienne in Caen).
The most strikingly original feature, however, is the superimposition both of three levels of openings in the end wall of the choir apse and of two ambulatory galleries (this considerable lightening of the Romanesque masonry in favour of the admission of light necessitated the later construction of two solid buttresses).
The objective of creating a feeling of openness and light by limiting the extent of the walls and multiplying the openings so as to harmonise and lighten the three levels (one, two, then three openings), and by simplifying the decoration in favour of the lines and rhythms of the arches, was inspired by the great abbey church of St Etienne (Caen). This is also a testimony to the degree of balance achieved by Norman Romanesque art at the end of the 11th century, before the great English abbeys and cathedrals moved things on to the next stage.