inside reims cathedral

Where Kings Were Made: Reims Cathedral

12-minute read

An ancient place known as the City of Kings lies a stone’s throw from Paris. Legend would have you believe this storied city was founded by none other than Remus, brother of Romulus, the originator of ancient Rome. This might explain its official name: Reims. 

Regardless of its origins, the city earned its majestic moniker thanks to the legendary Reims Cathedral, or Notre-Dame de Reims.  For hundreds of years, this is where kings came to make their name. 

Humble Beginnings  

Edward III of England besieges Reims in the Reims Campaign of the Hundred Years' War. The cathedral is visible in the background.
the renn faire is really good this year

Long ago, Reims served as the capital of the Remi, a Belgic tribe that flourished during the Iron Age and the Roman period. Fittingly, Remi means ‘the first, the princes.’ When the Romans conquered northern Gaul, the Remi thought it wise to align with them. Smart move, because they thrived under imperial favor. You can still see traces of this heritage in the city today. Thankfully, the Roman name for Reims, Durocortorum, fell out of common use. 

Christianity crept in by 260. Naturally, followers of this new faith were eager to establish roots. The first bishop, Saint Sixtus of Reims, founded the first church there between 250 and 300. Jovinus, one of Reim’s consuls and a Roman general, was an influential supporter of Christianity. When he successfully repelled attacks from the invading Alamanni in 336, the assumption was that God was on his side. 

Sadly, God took a coffee break in 451 when Attila the Hun and his vassals came knocking. They crossed the Rhine and sacked Metz (then called Divodurum) and other cities en route to Reims. Bishops and the devoted across Gaul got to praying. In Paris, Genevieve led a prayer marathon that people believed diverted Attila’s Huns away from the city. Lupus of Troyes also got busy, praying for many days and meeting Attila in person. Lupus was apparently impressive enough to snag a pardon for the city. While the evidence for this is thin, Troyes was indeed spared and its inhabitants rejoiced in divine intervention.

Nicasius of Reims wasn’t so lucky. According to lore, the Huns slaughtered him before the altar of his church. Other accounts say it was Vandals that killed him. Regardless, Reims was certainly not a boring place to live, Christian or otherwise. 

All Hail the King 

Reims cathedral as we know it today (and French people) can thank Clovis I for its inception. Also known as Chlodovech, Clovis is the guy responsible for uniting the Frankish tribes of yesteryear and founding the Merovingian Dynasty and, by extension, France. 

Clovis I leading the Franks to victory in the Battle of Tolbiac, in Ary Scheffer's 1836 painting
hail moi, je suis le GOAT

Born circa 466 to the pagan king of a Germanic tribe known as the Salian Franks, Clovis assumed the throne at just 15. His father Childeric fought invading Huns alongside Romans, earning a warrior’s burial. They entombed him in present-day Belgium along with precious trinkets, weapons, jewels, gold, and 15 horses. 

(Fun fact — the Habsburgs of Vienna gave this horde of treasure to King Louis XIV of France when they discovered it in the 1600s. Louis felt meh about it and sent it to the royal library for storage. Thieves later stole it and melted it down for gold.)

Clovis assumed the throne in 481. His father taught him well when it came to politics and military strategy. It didn’t take long for him to establish himself as a fearsome force in Europe. Clovis’ ascent to power came as the Roman Empire’s influence was dying in the west. Thanks to constant attacks from the Huns, Ostrogoths, Visigoths, and other barbaric tribes, the spread-thin empire was cracking under the pressure. When it did finally fall, there was plenty of opportunities for shrewd leaders to conquer portions of the old domains. Clovis had his eye on Gaul. 

I See the Light 

Within five years, the young Clovis went up against Syagrius, the last governor of Roman Gaul. He and several allies fought him at the Battle of Soissons in 486 and, for want of a better term, cleaned his clock. Syagrius fled to Toulouse hoping the Visigothic king Alaric II would provide him safe harbor. Wanting no beef with Clovis, Alaric promptly gave Syagrius up. They took him back to Soissons and had him beheaded. 

Within a few more years, Clovis had amassed more territories, including Reims and Paris. By 491 he had control of the entire west and eventually ordered the assassination of the Frankish kings who had previously allied with him. Then he took their kingdoms, too. 

Clovis I King of the Franks, baptized at Reims
god I’m good

During his ascent, Clovis was still pagan. But it began to occur to him that it might be expedient to convert to Christianity. It would be an easy way to secure the loyalty of all the Frankish people he was conquering, as well as the clergy he kept butting heads with. These holy men weren’t too thrilled that Clovis kept ransacking their churches. That included the Bishop of Reims, who demanded he return valuables he stole. So Clovis decided to lay it on thick. He returned a sacred vase, established an abbey in Paris, and married a Catholic. 

But he wasn’t quite there yet. According to Gregory of Tours, the Gallo-Roman bishop who wrote a detailed account of Clovis’ reign, his conversion was facilitated by his new wife. A Burgundian princess, Clotilde persistently urged Clovis to forsake his pagan idols and turn to God. Not soon after, Clovis became embroiled in a war with the Alamanni. As total destruction loomed, he looked skyward and promised his faith in return for a victory. He triumphed. 

Born Again 

While many historians doubt Gregory of Tours’ account, the result stands: Clovis converted to Christianity. He went back to that salty Bishop in Reims, known today as Saint Remigius, and allowed him to facilitate his rebirth at a little church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. This wasn’t the humble temple Saint Sixtus established in the 200s. By Clovis’ time, Nicasius (the one slaughtered by the Huns or Vandals) had transferred the modest cathedral. Now it sat at the site of a former Gallo-Roman bath built by none other than Constantine, the converted emperor who made Christianity cool in Rome. 

Roman Emperor Constantine, who converted to Christianity
you’re welcome

On Christmas Day in 496, Clovis had his baptism. Gregory of Tours describes a wondrous event with public squares draped with colored cloths. The church sported white hangings as sticks of incense puffed clouds of perfume alongside sweet-smelling candles that burned bright. A heavenly fragrance filled the baptistery while Remi got the pool ready. Or more likely gave the order for some lowly shmuck to go haul some water over. The place smelled so good that “God filled the hearts of all present with such divine grace that they imagined themselves to have been transported to some perfumed paradise.

Legend has it that Saint Remi used the oil of a sacred vial purportedly brought from heaven by a dove. Just for this occasion. For the next few hundred years, French kings used these fantastical events to claim their divine right to rule. 

remember to catch the sacred vial this time, clovis

Reach for the Sky 

As the centuries passed, Reims’ reputation only grew. Kings like Pepin the Short and his son Charlemagne held auspicious meetings with the Popes of the day there. Charlemagne’s son, Louis the Debonnaire (also called Louis the Pious, but that’s less fun) chose Reims for his coronation. The city was fast becoming a center of intellectual, political, and ecclesiastical culture.

The ensuing celebrations for Louis and his debonair self laid bare how insufficient the early cathedral was both in size and condition. Archbishop Ebbo and the royal architect Rumaud put their heads together in 818 to see what they could do about it. They decided to build a grander church from the ground up. A bold plan, but construction only made it to 835. It might have had something to do with Ebbo being deposed that year for having broken his oath of fidelity to Louis. His successor, Hincmar, resumed the holy work. 

The church saw the addition of gilding to the interior as well as mosaics, sculptures, tapestries, and paintings. Hincmar declared it good to go on October 18 of 862 with the support of the emperor, Charles the Bald. A few decades later, Archbishop Heriveus and company discovered an ancient crypt beneath the church. He had it renovated and rededicated to Saint Remi. A generation or so later, his successor Adalbero began to enlarge the cathedral and added a few flourishes, like thundering bells. Reims cathedral didn’t go a century without some improvement or another. 

There was also the prestige of the Holy Ampulla, the sacred vial filled with myrrh used to anoint French kings. According to Hincmar, the body of St. Remi was buried with two small vials that gave off an aroma the likes of which no one had ever smelled before. Shrugging off the fact that they were busting open the sepulcher of a 400-year-old holy icon, Hincmar was certain Clovis used one of these vials. 

Saint Remigius baptizes Clovis I in Reims, by the Master of Saint Gilles, c. 1500
people are going to respect me forever after this

Nevermind that these vessels holding lost ancient Roman perfumes were probably placed there to cover the scent of his decaying body. Hincmar thought they sounded just like the ones from an old story called the Legend of the Baptism of the Moribund Pagan. The fable tells that Saint Remi was once about to baptize a dying pagan, but could find no christening oil. So he placed two empty vials on an altar and prayed. They miraculously filled. 

Hincmar was pretty sure that a) these little bottles were the ones from the story and b) one arrived from heaven for Clovis. Ergo, everyone should recognize Reims as the divinely chosen site for the anointing of all French kings. And they could use that second vial on the queens, or whatever. These sacred little ampullae made Reims the center of holy authority in France. 

Getting Gothic 

By the 1100s, the Archbishop of Reims was feeling pretty ambitious. Called Samson of Mauvoisin, he got to work enlarging some portions and rebuilding others. He took his cues from the Royal Abbey of Saint-Denis outside of Paris. By the end of the century, the cathedral was a mishmash of Carolingian and Early Gothic styles. Sadly, Samson’s hard work was wiped out in 1210 by a fire caused by “carelessness.” 

Reims without a cathedral was like a baptism with no miraculous oil, so they began building a new one with haste. Forward-thinking Reims used standard-sized stones that didn’t need to be cut to measure, so construction happened quickly. After the initial burst of speed, work was touch and go over the next century. And the next. And the next. In 1505, it was finally complete. Breathe. 

The result was a Gothic masterpiece. Replete with outstanding stained glass windows, flying buttresses, elaborate sculptures, and ornate decorations, it was a wonder to behold. The cathedral at Reims rivaled the Notre Dame of Paris and sprawled upward toward the heavens to God. All was well. 

Vive la Révolution!

let’s goooo

For about five seconds. More accurately, it was a few hundred years, but that’s nothing in cathedral time. Things took a turn when the French Revolution hit. Being the origin of the divine right of kings to rule, Revolutionaries naturally had a bone to pick in Reims. 

During the uprising, revolutionaries whacked the heads off small statues and hammered sculptures lining the grand portal. Somehow, the holy ampoule was shattered. The fleur-de-lis, Hand of Justice, and other obvious royal symbols were demolished. Rioters destroyed furniture and melted the bells and relics down for cannon and gold. 

They closed the cathedral and turned it into a storehouse for grain. Then it was briefly converted into a Temple of Reason. The intention was to replace Catholicism with a state-sponsored atheistic religion based on the tenets of reason, virtue, and liberty. 

Despite their disdain for the monarchy and faith, the revolutionaries were unable to resist good aesthetics. When it came down to it, they just couldn’t bear to ruin a place of such beauty and cultural importance. They left the cathedral largely intact. 

The Great War 

The Germans were another story. Some monuments survive war simply because they offer an easy to spot navigational point for fighter pilots. That was not the fate for Our Lady of Reims.

It didn’t take long for invading Germans to overwhelm cities in northeastern France after fighting began in 1914. Initially, they used the cathedral as an infirmary, packing it with thousands of cots and bales of dry grass for pallets. When the Allies arrived, Reims was at the front and center of the war. 

The Germans relentlessly shelled the city and destroyed around 85 percent of its buildings in the process. Artillery shells hammered the medieval cathedral without mercy, bringing fire along with them. The roof went up in a blaze, releasing scalding hot lead that oozed through the mouths of stone gargoyles. Windows shattered and the bells melted (again). The church was no match for four years of unremitting chaos and destruction; by the end she was a ruin. 

Reims in 1916 after being shelled by Germans
big yikes

This Too Shall Pass

A long and arduous restoration effort followed, bolstered by monetary donations from all over the world. It took twenty years to complete. Now Reims Cathedral is as glorious as ever, but if walls could talk, they may have asked Clovis to find a different church. 

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