There is one moment, in the long history of the Cathedral de Notre-Dame de Reims, that stands above the many momentous events witnessed by this ancient building. It was here in 1429, in the presence of Joan of Arc, that Charles VII was crowned King of France. It was a highly symbolic moment, coming only a short time after the raising of the English siege of Orleans. Charles would go on to defeat the English and his rule became one of the most important in French history.
Nearly a thousand years earlier, the tradition of crowning French Kings in Reims was begun by Clovis I, King of the Franks, who was Baptised in Reims on Christmas Day 498 AD. This is often considered to be the day France was born. Between Clovis’ coronation and the overthrow of Napoleon III in 1870, thirty-three French monarchs were crowned in Reims. This royal history has had a profound impact on the city, and the grandeur of Notre-Dame de Reims reflects its importance.
Our first introduction to Notre-Dame de Reims – one of the finest cathedrals in France, possibly Europe – was seeing it illuminated at night as we drove around trying to find where we were staying. We arrived around 10pm after a long journey, and headed to the square outside the cathedral for food and a glass of champagne. As we reached the square the nightly son et lumière show, projected onto the cathedral facade, started.
The projections were accompanied by music to narrate the history of the construction of the cathedral. It was pretty fantastic. It was also a reminder that facades of medieval European cathedrals were often painted bright colours. Even if they were a fraction as colourful as the son et lumière, they must have made a big impression on people. Add to this the glorious stained glass windows, and medieval cathedrals were “carnivals of colour and light”.
We visited Reims at the weekend and I was expecting there to be hoards of tourists and day-trippers from Paris, but the town was remarkably non-touristy. Even inside the cathedral the crowds were light, and it was possible to fully enjoy the glories of the immense rose windows in peaceful surroundings. The rose windows are the most spectacular, but the other stained glass windows that illuminate the interior are equally as fabulous.
Severe damage during the First World War means most of the windows are modern replacements, as is much of the masonry on the exterior. The cathedral received around three hundred direct hits from German artillery during the war, and in 1919 when reconstruction began the cathedral was virtually destroyed. Restoration has continued, more-or-less, to the present day, and scaffolding was on the exterior of the building when we visited.
Next door to the cathedral is the equally magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Palais du Tau. Formerly the home of the Bishops of Reims, this is also where French monarchs stayed and later celebrated during a coronation. The Great Hall, where the royal banquet was held, is decorated with 15th-century tapestries telling the story of King Clovis. The detail of the tapestries is exquisite.
The Palace of Tau dates from as early as the 5th century, but has gone through multiple incarnations and expansions. The current building dates from 1690. It was rebuilt in 1210 after a fire and, of course, it didn’t escape the ravages of the First World War. Rebuilding after the war took until 1972 to complete. It would be fair to say it has seen some history, good and bad.
Now a museum, it’s home to many ecclesiastical treasures, including golden loaves of bread and a talisman that belonged to Charlemange, and is alleged to contain splinters of the cross Jesus was crucified on. The talisman was buried with Charlemange at Aix-la-Chapelle, in 814 AD, and then removed from his tomb 200 years later. The Empress “not tonight” Josephine wore it at her coronation alongside Napoleon in 1804. It might just be me, but that seems a little gruesome.