Unlike previous Benedictine establishments, Cluny created a centralized form of government over other monasteries by founding new houses and incorporating existing abbeys; these subordinate monasteries were known as priories. At the same time, the mother house at Cluny was subject only to the pope, making it the most powerful monastic establishment in Europe. By the 12th century there were more than 300 Cluniac monasteries in France, Italy, Britain, the Holy Roman Empire and Poland. Several remarkable abbots governed Cluny over the years, and four of its members became popes: Gregory VII, Urban II, Paschal II and Urban V.
The admiration for Cluny led to numerous donations and endowments that enriched the abbey and its many priories. The town that had grown up around the monastery benefited, as well. The abbey church, constructed from about 1088 to 1130, was the largest church in the world until St. Peter's was built in Rome.
The power of Cluny began to decline after the 12th century, and both the abbey and the town suffered during the wars of religion in the 1500s. The abbey was suppressed during the French Revolution and closed in 1790. The abbey church was for the most part demolished in the early 19th century, although its ruins testify to its former grandeur to this day.