Notre-Dame: 856 years of French history

Notre-Dame hosts a Commonwealth memorial service every November (here, the British ambassador meets Chelsea pensioners).

“It’s our history, our literature, our imagination, the place where we lived our greatest moments” – so said President Macron in homage to Notre-Dame Cathedral, whose roof and spire were devastated in a fire last night.

His words might be a slight exaggeration, but they sum up the attachment of the French to the iconic gothic cathedral which was for centuries the tallest building in Paris and with 13million visitors a year (around 30,000 a day) is Europe’s most visited historic monument.

With its twin towers and rose windows it is one of the most beloved symbols of Paris and at 856-years-old it has traversed a large part of France’s history, much more so than that comparative newcomer the Eiffel Tower which has only half as many visitors.

Last night’s fire however is not the first time Notre-Dame’s future has seemed under threat. In the early 19th century it was in a dilapidated state, neglected and having suffered vandalism during the Revolution, and the city authorities were even considering knocking it down. Many credit Victor Hugo with his famous novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (known in French simply as Notre-Dame de Paris) with saving it.

Hugo had previously written an angry article in which he accused the current French authorities of being philistines who were letting the country’s ancient heritage go to rack and ruin, leaving medieval buildings in disrepair or demolishing them to make way for newer constructions. “We have to cry it from the rooftops,” he said. “This demolition of the old France… is continuing with more ruthlessness and barbary than ever before.”

He added: "All manner of profanation, degradation, and ruin are all at once threatening what little remains of these admirable monuments of the Middle Ages that bear the imprint of past national glory, to which both the memory of kings and the tradition of the people are attached.”

His novel, written in 1831 and since then often adapted for stage and cinema, deliberately centred on the cathedral and included long descriptive passages. It helped sensitise the public to it and brought visitors keen to see the setting of the adventures of the hunchback Quasimodo, the Gypsy Esmerelda and the villainous priest Claude Frollo.

It came just in time, especially as in the year of its publication the church had again been attacked by anti-monarchist rioters who pillaged its treasures, broke windows and destroyed the historic bishop’s palace located next to it. The government went on to form a commission on historical monuments which undertook a decades-long renovation under the supervision of Viollet-le-Duc. 

Today there have been some reports that Victor Hugo’s novel even predicted last night’s fire, however the passage which describes leaping flames above the rose window is in fact not about the cathedral being on fire, but describes Quasimodo melting down lead and pouring it off the building to fend off a mob.

It is thought there was a temple to Jupiter on the site of Notre-Dame in Roman times, which was then replaced by several Christian churches, before it was decided to build a large new cathedral in the gothic style starting in 1160. It took a hundred years before it was mostly complete.

Over the years it was linked to many occasions in French history.

In the Middle Ages, King (‘Saint’) Louis IX brought the alleged crown of thorns of Jesus there before the construction of the Sainte-Chapelle, and Philip IV ‘the fair’ held the first Estates General of the Kingdom of France there, the forerunner of a French parliament.

Henry VI of England was crowned King of France in 1431 during the 100-years war, though his claim was disputed and in 1447 Charles VII held a ceremony to mark taking back Paris again. Mary, Queen of Scots married the dauphin of France at Notre-Dame in 1558, and the future King Henry IV of France was married there to Marguerite de Valois in 1572.

The cathedral later saw the consecration of Napoleon Bonaparte as Emperor of the French in 1804.

In 1924 the Prince of Wales unveiled a British Commonwealth Memorial Plaque in the presence of President Doumergue and Marshal Foch, starting a tradition of an annual remembrance service on November 11 organised by the Royal British Legion. Each year on the occasion a wreath of poppies is laid by the British ambassador and the Dean of the Commonwealth. 

The president of the Royal British Legion Paris, David Bean, told Connexion: “I’m devastated about the fire. We’ll wait to see now how the authorities manage to overcome this over the coming months.”

After its restoration in the 19th century Notre-Dame survived the world wars unscathed, despite bombardments of Paris and Hitler’s – failed – instruction that Paris should be “left a heap of burning ruins” towards the end of the war.

In August 1944 at the end of the occupation of Paris the General de Gaulle led a march from the Arc de Triomphe, down the Champs-Elysées, to Notre-Dame where a ceremony was held for the Liberation of Paris in the presence of de Gaulle and General Leclerc.

Notre-Dame later hosted ceremonies of national homage on the deaths of de Gaulle, Georges Pompidou and François Mitterand and more recently the funerals of two well-loved French personalities abbé Pierre and Soeur Emmanuelle. November 2015 saw a service in memory of the victims of the terror attacks that year.

While Hugo’s novel remains the most famous artistic homage to the cathedral, that most Parisian of French singers Edith Piaf paid her own respects in her song Notre-Dame de Paris.

It includes the now poignant verse referring to one of its statues: “Henry IV, green-tinged, loves beneath his verdigris, the old spire, which licks the grey ceiling of Paris.”

Hopefully, it will do so once again when it rises from the ashes in future years.

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