10 Remarkable Facts About Notre Dame

Alice Roberts

5 mins

30 Oct 2019

Notre Dame Cathedral, known as ‘Our Lady of Paris’, is one of the most important landmarks of the French capital. With over 850 years of dramatic history, it has risen high to host the coronation of the world’s most powerful man, and fallen close to being victim of demolition.

Here are 10 facts to chart this tempestuous course of history.

1. It was founded by Louis VII

Notre Dame was commissioned by King Louis VII, who ruled from 1120-1180. As a champion of French Gothic architecture, he wanted this new cathedral to symbolise Parisian supremacy. Louis had been married to Eleanor of Aquitaine, although they had no children, and Eleanor went on to marry Henry Plantagenet, later Henry II.

Louis is famed for establishing the University of Paris, overseeing the disastrous Second Crusade, and championing French Gothic architecture.

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2. It is a triumph of Gothic architecture

Notre Dame asserted a key innovation in Gothic architecture: the flying buttress. Before the buttresses, the weight of the roof structures pressed outwards and down, requiring thick wall support.

Flying buttresses allowed greater windows and light to flood into the cathedral. Image source: CC BY-SA 3.0.

The flying buttresses acted as supportive rib outside the structure, allowing the walls to be higher and thinner, providing space for enormous windows. The buttresses were replaced in the 14th century, with ones that were larger and stronger, having a fifteen-metre reach between the walls and counter-supports.

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3. An English king was crowned here

On 16 December 1431, 10-year-old Henry VI of England was crowned King of France in Notre Dame. This followed the success of Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, which bolstered his position at the Treaty of Troyes in 1420.

At Troyes, Henry V was recognised as heir apparent to the French throne, and he was duly married to Charles VI’s daughter, Catherine of Valois, to cement the agreement.

Henry VI was crowned in 1431 in accordance with the Treaty of Troyes.

Henry V died of dysentery in 1422, leaving this newly acquired throne to his nine-month-old son, who never regained his father’s stronghold on the French lands. Indeed, Notre Dame was only used as a coronation because the traditional coronation venue, Reims Cathedral, was under French control.

4. The largest bell is named Emmanuel

The two towers on the west façade date from the early 13th century, and measure 69 metres high. The south tower is home to 10 bells. The largest, the bourdon, is named Emmanuel. It has tolled to mark the coronations of kings, papal visits, the end of the world wars, and the events of 9/11.

The bells of Notre Dame on display. Image source: Thesupermat / CC BY-SA 3.0.

5. It was dedicated to the Cult of Reason

After the French Revolution in 1789, Notre Dame was seized and nationalised. Many of the treasures were either destroyed or plundered – the 28 statues of biblical kings were beheaded.

The cathedral was used as an enormous warehouse to store food. In 1793, it was rededicated to the Cult of Reason, and later the Cult of the Supreme Being. This was an attempt at de-christianisation by the French Revolutionaries.

The Festival of Reason was held in Notre Dame in 1793.

6. Napoleon was crowned Emperor here

In the Concordat of 1801, under the orders of Napoleon Bonaparte, Notre Dame was to be restored to the Catholic Church. Three years later, it would host the coronation of Napoleon as Emperor of the French.

It was conducted in the presence of Pope Pius VII, and various customs and traditions were brought together from the Carolingian age, the ancien régime and the French Revolution.

‘The Coronation of Napoleon’ was painted by Jacques-Louis David in 1804.

While the Pope conducted the proceedings, Napoleon grabbed the laurel wreath and crowned himself. He then turned to crown his wife, Joséphine, who knelt beside him.

To update the cathedral for modern tastes, the exterior was whitewashed, and the interior received a Neoclassical makeover.

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7. Victor Hugo wrote a novel to save it from demolition

During the Napoleonic Wars, Notre Dame took such a battering that Paris officials considered its demolition. In order to raise awareness for the ancient cathedral and revive interest in Gothic architecture, which had become widely disregarded, Victor Hugo wrote the novel ‘The Hunchback of Notre-Dame’ in 1831.

It was met by immediate success, and in 1844 King Louis Philippe ordered that the church be restored.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

8. The centre of Paris is marked here

Notre Dame is the the official reference point representing Paris. On a square in front of the church, a tiny plate engraved with a compass is known as ‘point zéro des routes de France’. It marks where all distances to and from Paris are measured.

Point Zéro des Routes de France has existed since 1924. Image source: Jpbazard / CC BY-SA 3.0.

9. The 2019 fire brought down the spire

On 15 April 2019, the cathedral caught fire at 6.18pm, destroying the spire, the oak frame and lead roof. Half an hour after the fire alarms were rung, a fire engine was called.

At 7.50pm the spire collapsed, bringing down a cascade of 750 tons of stone and lead. It was later speculated that the fire was linked to ongoing renovation work. By 9.45pm, the fire was finally brought under control.

Fire destroyed the spire in 2019. Image source: LEVRIER Guillaume / CC BY-SA 4.0.

10. It will be rebuilt in the Gothic style

After the fire, President Macron acknowledged the disaster:

‘Notre Dame is our history, our literature, part of our psyche, the place of all our great events, our epidemics, our wars, our liberations, the epicentre of our lives … So I solemnly say tonight: we will rebuild it together.’

A day after Macron’s speech, €880million was pledged to fund the rebuilding of the cathedral. Despite many architects putting forward a plethora of designs, including one with a swimming pool, the French government have confirmed it will restore the original medieval style.

The cathedral before and after the disastrous fire. Image source: Zuffe y Louis HG / CC BY-SA 4.0.