A Brief History of Notre-Dame de Paris

When Paris was sacked by the Normans in AD857 the Cathedral of St. Stephen (founded by Childebert in 528) was saved from destruction only by the payment of a huge ransom. It continued to occupy its site at the easternmost tip of Île de la Cité for a further three centuries.

In 1160, Maurice de Sully was enthroned as Bishop of Paris and three years (1163) later he enacted his grand plan; St. Stephen’s was demolished and Pope Alexander III was there to lay the foundation stone for La Cathèdrale de Notre-Dame de Paris. Is it not curious that in my opening three sentences I have managed to use the most Holy number of the Trinity three times?

In both outlook and ambition he (de Sully) was extraordinarily similar to Abbot Suger who had completed the re-building of the Basilica de Saint-Denis only twenty years before construction work began at Notre-Dame. Indeed it is very arguable that the inspirational source for de Sully’s plans was, in fact, Suger’s work at Saint-Denis. It is worth noting that Saint-Denis Basilica is widely considered to be the first example of Gothic architecture.

La Cathèdrale de Notre-Dame de Paris stands at a pivotal point in the development of Gothic architecture; its scale is enormous and it is the last of the cathedrals to have tribune galleries. The Gothic style demanded thinner and thinner walls with ever more glass in an effort to epitomise the Glory of God and Notre-Dame was soon referred to as ‘The Gateway to Heaven’.

The demand for thinner walls and more and more decorative glass led to structural loadings that would lead to stress fractures particularly in the vaults of the nave and it is likely that Notre-Dame saw the first development and use of the true flying buttress. These were over the nave aisles toward the end of the twelfth century and were an effort to satisfy the French demand for clarté without sacrificing any of the graceful majesty of the Gothic style. These prototypes were replaced by the present design, spanning both aisles in a single, bold and imaginative leap.

Work on the chapels of the choir was commenced by Pierre de Montreuil but these were not completed until fourteenth century under the supervision of Jean Ravy. It was Ravy who supervised and commissioned the flying buttresses of the choir, with a span of almost fifty feet, a true combination of artistic design and engineering excellence.

When viewed from the eastern aspect it is easy to see that Ravy’s work on the flying buttresses contributes such a graceful, if not fairytale, appearance to the chevet that it comes as no surprise to discover that it has been likened to a galleon in full sail.

The choir chapels were completed in the early part of the fourteenth century, after which no further work was carried out until the end of the seventeenth century, when a disastrous sequence of ‘improvements’ was put into effect. Bad decision were followed by even worse decisions which in some cases caused great damage to the fabric of the cathedral and this ‘desecration’ continued throughout the eighteenth century culminating, in 1771, with the destruction of the trumeau of the central doorway.

As if this was not enough the twenty eight statues of the Kings of Israel, which were installed in niches across the West Front, were mistaken, by the crowd during the Revolution, for Kings of France and they were torn down and broken to pieces on the cobbles below. These statues would not be replaced until Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc undertook their restoration in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The restoration lasted twenty five years and included the construction of a flèche (a type of spire) as well as the addition of the chimeras on the Galerie des Chimères.

• During the early 19th century, the cathedral was in a state of disrepair, and city planners began to contemplate tearing it down. French novelist Victor Hugo, an admirer of the cathedral, wrote his novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame (originally titled Notre Dame de Paris) in part to raise awareness of the cathedral’s heritage, which sparked renewed interest in the cathedral’s fate. A campaign to collect funds to save the cathedral followed, culminating in the 1845 restorations.

Since 1991 a major programme of restoration has been underway and was scheduled to last for ten years; as of 2009 this work remains ongoing.

Building Chronology

• 1160 Maurice de Sully orders St Stephen’s to be demolished.
• 1163 Cornerstone laid for Notre-Dame de Paris.
• 1182 Apse and choir completed.
• 1196 Nave completed.
• 1200 Work begins on western façade.
• 1225 Western façade completed.
• 1250 Western towers and north rose window completed.
• 1260 Transepts changed to the Gothic style by Jean de Chelles then Pierre de Montreuil
• 1345 Remaining elements completed

Historical Chronology

• 1185 Heraclius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, preaches the third crusade in the new choir.
• 1229 Count Raymond of Toulouse does penance in the cathedral.
• 1239 Louis IX places The Crown of Thorns here during the construction of Sainte-Chapelle.
• 1271 Funeral of Louis IX
• 1297 Louis IX canonized as Saint Louis.
• 1302 Philip the Fair opens the first States General here.
• 1304 Philip the Fair celebrates his Flemish victory by riding up the nave on horseback.
• 1422 Funereal of the mad King Charles VI.
• 1430 Henri VI of England is crowned here.
• 1548 Huguenots storm Notre-Dame after the Council of Trent.
• 1558 Mary Stuart marries François II to become Queen of France, and is crowned here.
• 1572 Marguerite of Valoi is married to the Huguenot Henri of Navarre here.
• 1625 Marriage of Henrietta Maria of France to King Charles I of England.
• 1638 Louis XIII vows to rebuild main altar; Te Deum chanted at birth of future Louis XIV
• 1643 Te Deum chanted for coronation of Louis XIV
• 1675 Funereal of Vicomte Turenne
• 1779 Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette organize a mass marriage for 100 poor maidens
• 1793 Citizens remove statues from the Gallery of Kings
• 1794 Notre-Dame renamed the Temple of Reason; festival of the Goddess of Reason celebrated
• 1802 First Roman Catholic service held since 1793
• 1804 Napoleon is annointed by Pius VII and immediately seizes the crown to crown first himself, then Josephine.
• 1811 Baptism of Napoleon’s heir as the King of Rome
• 1852 Coronation of Louis Napoleon as Napoleon III
• 1853 Marriage of Napoleon III to Spanish Princess Eugénie de Montijo
• 1871 Notre-Dame set on fire during Paris Commune
• 1909 Beatification of Joan of Arc celebrated
• 1918 Armistice Te Deum sung
• 1944 The Te Deum Mass celebrates the liberation of Paris.
• 1970 The Requiem Mass of General Charles de Gaulle is held here.
• 1980 After the Magnificat of this day, Pope John Paul II celebrates Mass on the parvis in front of the Cathedral.


Gautrand J C Paris Mon Amour Taschen GmbH Cologne 2004
Henderson G Gothic Penguin Books 1967
Pevsner N An Outline of European Architecture Penguin Books Pty Victoria Ltd 1961
Swann W The Gothic Cathedral Omega Books Ltd., London 1961
Winston R&C Notre-Dame de Paris RDA, London 1971

A Brief History of Notre-Dame de Paris

Peter Reid

Houghton Le Spring, United Kingdom

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