Notre Dame

The History and Tragedy of Notre Dame

On Monday 15th April, fire gripped the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. The world watched in horror as the spire, made famous by novelist Victor Hugo in his Gothic novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, collapsed amidst the flames.

Talking to The Guardian newspaper, the city’s former mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, was unable to hide his emotion, describing the destruction of the cathedral as “an inestimable loss.” Many of his fellow French citizens share his feelings, though the damage could have been even worse. Notre Dame has been both physically and symbolically important to France ever since it was built, and to see the destruction wrought upon it by the flames has been painful.


Positioned at the eastern end of the Ile de la Cite, Notre Dame was first commissioned by King Louis VII. He wanted it to become a symbol of Paris’s political, economic, intellectual and cultural power at home and abroad.

The placing of the cathedral, over the ruins of two older church basilicas, was overseen by Maurice de Sully, Bishop of Paris. The first stone of what was to be a massive structure some 130m long by 48m wide, is said to have been laid in 1163, in the presence of Pope Alexander III, who went on to consecrate the Roman Catholic alter in 1189. However, it took a further 200 years to complete the cathedral, with various phases of construction being spread over time due to the demands of cost.

The two massive Gothic towers (68 metres high) which define the western facade of Notre Dame were built between 1210 and 1250. They are adorned with early Gothic carvings and row of figures of Old Testament kings. The cathedral’s three famous great rose windows contain the thirteen century glass they were first built with, but it remains to be seen how much damage the fire has done to them.

The iconic central spire, the most noticeable victim of the blaze, wasn’t the original spire, but one which had been designed by Viollet-le-Duc’s and erected in the 19th century, after the original was removed in the 18th century because of instability.

This is not the first time that Notre-Dame Cathedral suffered damage. Poorly treated throughout the French Revolution, it was only saved from destruction when the Emperor Napoleon decided he wished to be crowned there in 1804. It was after this that a restoration campaign began to repair the building that had stood, watching over Paris, for so long.


Ironically, it has been during a modern period of restoration and maintenance, urgently required, that led to the fire breaking out, in the cathedral’s attic. The blaze quickly destroyed most of the roof, spire, and some of the rib vaulting; not to mention the many items of value inside the cathedral. Of these, a large number succumbed to smoke damage or were broken by falling debris, rather than the fire itself.

As work begins on making the cathedral safe enough to enter, thoughts have already turned to is restoration. Millions of pounds have already poured in from well-wishers to help to save one of Paris’s most respected landmarks, and architects have been invited to submit proposals for the designing and construction of a new spire.

Before any structural conservation can be done however, a team of archaeologists will survey the building. Talking to the BBC, Dr Kate Giles, from the University of York’s department of archaeology, explained that “Early phases of the work will include the archaeological recording of surviving fragments of timber, stone and artworks…This will enable the Notre-Dame team to salvage what can be reused and provide crucial evidence for the design of new fabrics in the building,”

Paul Binski, a History of Medieval Art professor at the University of Cambridge, added, “The upper stonework, the vaulting and the top windows, will have been baked and the temperature will have spoiled and weakened the stone. The first thing they’re going to do is a massive survey of the stone…They’re going to have to scaffold the whole building and look very closely at its condition.”

Estimated to take between five and ten years before it can be returned to the people of Paris as a place of worship, we can only wait to discover just how much of the original Notre Dame has been destroyed beneath the rubble.

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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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