The Tragic and Triumphant History of the Reims Cathedral in France

Once upon a time there stood the Reims Cathedral in a kingdom not too far away. This beautiful lady towered over the city, showing off her beauty and acting as the center point for all who wanted to meet and gather to worship (or just gossip as many were prone to do before the telephone, emails and text messaging). It took 100 years for her to grow to her full height. Kings were crowned within her walls, babies baptized and sermons preached.

And then the war came.

Reims Cathedral

Significance of the Reims Cathedral

The cathedral of Notre-Dame de Reims, France was built over a 100 year period in the 13th century. Another one hundred years added the French kings to the façade, reminding the public that at least 25 French kings were crowned within the walls of Reims Cathedral. Why Reims? Clovis, the king of the Franks, was baptized here by Bishop St. Remy around 498 A.D., making it sacred ground for royals, especially since French kings claimed their rule was ordained by God. Legend tells us that St. Remy received a vile of oil from a white dove. This holy oil crowned every king up until Charles X in 1825.

Reims Cathedral saw many changes in the world, but none so devastating to itself than World War I. This cathedral was repeatedly shelled for over four years during the war. Eighty percent of the city of Reims disappeared between 1914 and 1918, as Germany relentlessly attacked France and tried to bring the country to her knees. The front line was just outside of Reims, and the cathedral was the largest target. Residents tried to protect the cathedral, placing sand bags at the base, which did help to protect the lower statues, but many of the magnificent features were lost. More than 300 shells fell on the cathedral during the war, melting away the iron roof and wooden interior.

By Gérald Garitan

Residents come back and began to rebuild in the 1920s. Arguments arose as to whether the cathedral should be rebuilt or if the ruins should serve as a reminder to what was lost, plus there was no money to rebuild. The Rockefeller Foundation donated money to resurrect the cathedral, so reconstruction began. Many of the surviving church statues were placed in the Palace de Tau museum with copies replacing the originals in Reims Cathedral.

Some of the celebrated stain glass windows from the Notre-Dame de Reims were spared by a family of glass makers who removed the windows they could and meticulously took others apart piece by piece so they could hide them and protect them from the shelling of WWI. These 12th generation glass makers then helped to restore the original glass into the newly rebuilt cathedral and replaced windows that were destroyed beyond repair with replicas.

Reims Cathedral

One of the only surviving windows, the North Rose Window from the 13th century, sits above the church organ and depicts twelves scenes of Adam and Eve, and the fall of man from God’s grace. This “Window of Creation” miraculous made it through the shelling of WWI, while its sister window, the South Rose Window, which depicts the beauty of Christianity, exploded during WWI. It has since been recreated, but is a mere copy of the original.

While World War I caused the most devastation to the city, Reims was again hit during World War II, but the Reims Cathedral stood proud over her city, taking on much less damage than she did in the first World War. On May 7, 1945 the allies signed the treaty to end WWII in Reims in the school room where General Eisenhower had set up his headquarters.

Reims Cathedral has seen princes, kings, queens, babies, and soldiers walk through her doors, sometimes proudly showing off her beauty, while other times praying for war to end. The walls continue to speak of what has happened throughout the city of Reims, the changes that have occurred in the city and society as a whole. Now she waits to see what will happen in the next one hundred years as man continues to evolve, and hopefully learn from the mistakes of the past that once brought the Reims Cathedral to her knees.

Reims Cathedral statues

Quirky Facts about Reims and Reims Cathedral

  • The statues at the top of Reims Cathedral weigh about four tons and stand four meters high. Many of the Reims Cathedral lower statues heads are missing. During the French Revolution, revolutionaries chopped the heads off, which was later put into practice with real people via the guillotine. The church and crown were directly linked, which is why revolutionaries took out their frustrations on the statues.
  • The icon of Reims is the smiling angel, which stands just outside of one of the main Notre-Dame de Reims doors. Her head fell down during WWI. There was a great celebration when her head was finally reattached as it symbolized to the city that they were finally recovering from WWI.
  • Before WWI the streets of Reims were narrow and hard to navigate, as the city had grown over the centuries, expanding for more family members, shrinking when disease or war hit, and growing again as modern life took over. After WWI, John Ford from New York was commissioned to draw up a new city plan, which included wider streets, gardens and a more organized layout. Citizens were encouraged to rebuild and were given the freedom to pick which style they wanted their homes built in. You will easily find more modern, art deco structors next to gothic-style homes, making this city a fascinating hodge podge of architecture and style.

Reims Cathedral

Reims Cathedral Light Show

Every May through September (and then again for the holidays) the city of Reims hosts a spectacular light show at the Notre-Dame de Reims cathedral. This is no ordinary light show though. It is a work of art. This UNESCO World Heritage site is one of Europe’s most important gothic structures. The city recreates what they think Reims Cathedral looked like after it was first built. Church facades were created to teach the local residents Bible stories, as many of them could not read at the time, and also the history of their country. The light show at Reims Cathedral, lasting about 20 minutes, depicts how historians think the cathedral looked when it was painted and the stories they might have told.

Reims Cathedral

Know Before You Go

  • Notre Dame Cathedral, Place Cardinal Luçon, 51100 Reims
  • Admission: Free
  • Palace of Tau is home to many of the original statues and artifacts from the Reims Cathedral
  • Hours:  everyday from 7.30am to 7.30pm (except during services)
  • Tours: For information on guided tour of the towers visit the Palace of Tau
  • Strollers? Yes, but it is easier if you fold up your umbrella stroller and carry the baby as it can be very crowded inside.
  • Food? No, but there are plenty of places to eat close by, including the Cafe du Palais.
  • Access for the disabled? Yes.
  • UNESCO World Heritage site? Yes.
Reims Cathedral

Historic Reims via WikiMedia. Cathedral of Reims vertical and Light Show at Reims Cathedral via 

Many thanks to the City of Reims, Champagne & Ardenne Tourism Board and ATOUT France for hosting my family and I as we explored WWI History throughout eastern France. As always, my opinions are my own. When they aren’t you will be the first to know. 

About The Author

2 thoughts on “The Tragic and Triumphant History of the Reims Cathedral in France”

  1. Amanda Keeley-Thurman

    So interesting. I would love to visit the Reims Cathedral. So much history in those walls. I didn’t know that about the statues’ heads before this article.

  2. Anna Korostova

    Thank you so much! Great story!

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