article | Reading time10 min

History of Reims Cathedral

A major achievement of Gothic art! Resurrected from the ruins, it has been asserting its unity of style, lightness, quest for light and statuary for 800 years.

The origins of Reims Cathedral

Did you know ? Reims Cathedral is the third building to be erected on the same site!

The first was erected on the site of a former thermal bath in 401 by Saint Nicaise (eleventh bishop of Reims).

A Carolingian cathedral was then erected in 820 and consecrated in 862, in the presence of Charles le Chauve, Charlemagne's grandson. It burned down on May 6, 1210 and was totally destroyed.

A year later, Archbishop Aubry de Humbert ordered the construction of the new walls of thepresent Gothic edifice on the site of the foundations of the earlier buildings. The cathedral was essentially built in just 60 years!

In addition to its historical importance, Reims Cathedral is recognized as one of the greatest examples of Gothic architecture in France, both for its architecture and for its statuary, which includes no fewer than 2,303 statues !

It's an extraordinary size ! Designed to hold huge crowds during the coronations in particular, it covers 6,650 square meters and is 122 meters long!

Façade occidentale de la cathédrale de Reims

© David Bordes / Centre des monuments nationaux

From the baptism of Clovis to the coronation of the kings of France

The baptism of Clovis

The baptism of Clovis, King of the Franks, by Bishop Remi, is a key event in the history of Reims Cathedral.
This sumptuous celebration took place on Christmas Day at the end of the 5 th century (496 or 498), and is a milestone in the history of Catholicism and the History of France !

But why ?

As is often the case in the Middle Ages, it's all about conquering territory ! In 491, Clovis asked for the hand of Clotilde, daughter of Gondebaud, leader of the Burgundians. This barbarian people, originally from Scandinavia and then Germania, settled in Gaul in the 5 th century. In 493, Clovis married Clotilde, and in 496, Gondebaud joined forces with Clovis to fight the Alamans at Tolbiac .

During this battle, which turned against him, Clovis raised his eyes to heaven and promised to be baptized by Jesus Christ if He granted him victory.

Queen Clotilde, loyal to Roman Christianity, also urged the king to convert .

Tapisserie du fort roy Clovis : Scène relatant son baptême

© Pascal Lemaître / Centre des monuments nationaux

Reims, city of coronations

There's a link between Clovis' baptism and the coronation of kings, and we're going to tell you why !

According to legend,a dove descended from the sky holding in its beak a vial of holy chrism, which bishop Rémi used to anoint the converted king.

In the 9 th century , Archbishop Hincmar imposed this prestigious tradition on Christian France in the city of Reims.

Since then, 32 kings have been crowned in Reims, 25 of them in today's Cathedral ! (Louis VI and Henri IV are exceptions: the former was crowned in Orleans in 1108, the latter in Chartres in 1594).

Iconographie d'un sacre dans la cathédrale de Reims

© DR / Centre des monuments nationaux

A robust cathedral

A devastating fire

During the First World War, Reims Cathedral was targeted by the German army. Nearly 300 shells were fired at the building !

Thanks to its sturdiness and perfect assembly, it did not collapse.

However, on September 19, 1914, Reims was subjected to an eight-hour German bombardment. Reims Cathedral , which had been surrounded by scaffolding since May 1913, was hit shortly after 3 pm.

The 15 th century roof structure caught fire. A thick cloud of smoke filled the Champagne sky. The Germans stopped firing.

The heat from the flames melted the 400 tonnes of lead sheeting covering the roof. The molten metal flowed through the gargoyles.

The cathedral, heavily damaged, and the city of Reims become the symbol of German destruction.

Cathédrale en feu septembre 1914

© DR / Centre des monuments nationaux

The rebirth of the cathedral

Thank you John-D. Rockfeller !

In 1924, this wealthy American made a donation for the restoration of this French heritage monument.

The program of work involved repairing the roof and restoring the Angel bell tower. The edifice was rebuilt identically... even to the point of reinstating the beginnings of an unfinished bell tower and the ridge crest of the roof decorated with alternating shamrocks and fleurs-de-lis, destroyed during the Revolution !

Today, you can admire the restored by Henri Deneux by Henri Deneux, inspired by the Renaissance. To resist fire, it is made of reinforced cement! Like a phoenix, Reims Cathedral rose from the ashes in 1938.

In 1991, it was consecrated ! Reims Cathedral is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

The tour of the cathedral towers is managed by the Centre des monuments nationauxa public establishment under the authority of the French Ministry of Culture.

Vue sur la toiture de la façade sud de la cathédrale : sagittaire et fleurs de lys

© Jean-Pierre Delagarde / Centre des monuments nationaux