Notre-Dame cathedral: 10 historical facts

A devastating fire has partially destroyed the 850-year-old Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, obliterating its roof and causing its spire to collapse. A masterpiece of Gothic medieval architecture and one of the most famous historical landmarks in Paris, over the course of its history Notre-Dame has hosted dozens of royal coronations, weddings and requiem masses, including the crowning of Henry VI in 1431 and the wedding of Mary, Queen of Scots to her first husband Francis, the Dauphin of France, in 1558

Notre-Dame cathedral, which dates back to 1163. (Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images)

Here, as the cause of the Notre-Dame cathedral fire and the amount of damage is still being determined, we explore the history of Notre-Dame de Paris (“Our Lady of Paris” in French), and share 10 surprising facts…

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1

Cathedral history

There have been four iterations of holy buildings on the site where Notre-Dame stands. The cathedral was built over the course of 200 years – construction began in 1163 during the reign of King Louis VII, and the first stone is said to have been laid in the presence of Pope Alexander III. Building work on the cathedral, the interior of which is 427 by 157 feet (130 by 48 metres), was completed in 1345.

2

Coronations, weddings and masses

The boy king of England, Henry VI, was crowned king of France inside Notre-Dame in 1431, two years after his coronation at Westminster Abbey in 1429. And in 1804, Napoleon I and Josephine were crowned as emperor and empress of France at Notre-Dame.

Notre-Dame has also hosted a number of famous royal weddings: James V, king of Scotland, married Madeleine of Valois there in 1537; Mary, Queen of Scots married her first husband (Francis, Dauphin of France) at Notre-Dame in 1558; and King Charles I of England married his wife, Henrietta Maria of France, in front of Notre-Dame by proxy in 1625, shortly after his accession to the throne.

Requiem masses were held at Notre-Dame for presidents Charles de Gaulle (who led the French Resistance against Nazi Germany in the Second World War) and François Mitterrand (president of France from 1981 to 1995).

3

Royal ransack

In the 18th century, Notre-Dame was plundered by King Louis XIV. According to National Geographic: “In the 18th century ideas of architectural taste radically shifted. In the middle of the reign of Louis XIV, the venerable cathedral faced a radical and controversial makeover, a ‘restoration’ that later generations would consider caused more damage than centuries of wear and tear.

“The rood screen, studded with sculptures, was pulled down. The stained glass windows from the 12th and 13th centuries were replaced with clear glass. Only the three Notre-Dame rose windows retain much of their original glazing. A pillar of the central doorway was demolished to allow grand processional carriages to pass through.”

4

Damage from the French Revolution

Notre-Dame suffered further damage and devastation during the French Revolution (1787–99): regarded as “a symbol of the power and aggression of church and monarchy”, the building was ransacked; sculptures and statues were destroyed; lead from the roof was pillaged for bullets and a number of bronze bells were melted down to make cannon, says National Geographic. By the end of the revolution, Notre-Dame was “a shadow of its former self” and had been de-Christianised.

Comparing the 2019 fire to the havoc wreaked during the French Revolution, Dr. Emily Guerry told History Extra: “Even during the French Revolution we did not have half this level of destruction. What took place during the French Revolution was targeted iconoclasm – holy images were destroyed because of the perception that they were associated with the Ancien Régime (the political and social system of France from the late Middle Ages until 1789); old Catholic traditions; and tyranny; it was an attempt to destroy Notre-Dame’s power. This fire is a very different type of destruction.”

Flames and smoke are seen billowing from the roof at Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, 15 April 2019. (Patrick Anidjar/AFP/Getty Images)
Flames and smoke are seen billowing from the roof at Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, 15 April 2019. (Patrick Anidjar/AFP/Getty Images)
5

Napoleon takes control

In 1801, the government of Napoleon Bonaparte signed a concord with the Holy See under which the Catholic Church would take back control of Notre-Dame. Having decided that his coronation ceremony would take place there, Napoleon ensured that repair work quickly got underway and ordered that the streets along which the cortege was to pass – namely rue de Rivoli, the Place du Carrousel and the Quai Bonaparte – should be entirely paved ahead of his 1804 coronation.

6

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

But in spite of Napoleon’s efforts, Notre-Dame remained in a poor state and was half-ruined inside. Nineteenth-century French writer Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel Notre-Dame de Paris, published in English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, sparked a campaign to further restore the cathedral. The Romantic literary movement “seized upon the cathedral as a symbol of France’s glorious Christian past” and campaigned vigorously for it to be returned to its former glory. In 1844 the famous French architect Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc was appointed to lead a complete restoration of Notre-Dame – a project that stretched over the course of nearly 20 years.

Hugo’s book was adapted into a 1996 Disney film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

7

Joan of Arc

In 1909, the tragic French heroine Joan of Arc, who led a French army to victory over the English at the Siege of Orléans (1428–29) during the Hundred Years’ War and was later burned at the stake as a heretic by the English, was beatified in Paris’s Notre-Dame cathedral by Pope Pius X. This is a recognition accorded by the Catholic Church of a dead person’s entrance into Heaven.

8

First World War damage to Notre-Dame

The cathedral was damaged during the First World War. According to the Washington Post, in 1914 more than two dozen German shells hit the cathedral and the wooden scaffolding was set on fire, which in turn lit the oak of the roof.

“The lead used to seal the roof melted, which in turn set the wooden pews on fire. Stained glass windows and pillars and statuary were destroyed,” reports the Post.

But thankfully, as with the 2019 Notre-Dame fire, much of the cathedral’s original facade remained intact.

9

Surviving the Second World War

During the Second World War it was feared that German soldiers might destroy Notre-Dame’s famous medieval stained glass windows, which include three rose windows [circular windows] dating back to the 13th century. The glass was therefore removed and reinstalled only after the war had ended.

Notre-Dame's south rose window. (Photo by Godong/UIG via Getty Images)
Notre-Dame’s south rose window. (Photo by Godong/UIG via Getty Images)
10

Notre-Dame’s bells

Among the most famous of Notre-Dame’s bells, the bourdon – named Emmanuel – has tolled at most major events in the history of France, says the Guardian, including the coronation of kings, papal visits and to mark the end of two world wars. It was also rung to mark the destruction of the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center on 11 September 2001. Immediately following the 2019 fire, the extent of damage to the bells remains unclear.

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Emma Mason is Digital Editor at History Extra.