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The glorious (and tragic) history of Notre Dame Cathedral from de Sully to Disney

It took 200 years to build and has stood for more than eight centuries.

But in less than two hours, the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was in ruins, its future uncertain, after a horrific fire ripped through the landmark.

READ MORE: Fire tears through Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris

Smoke began pouring out of the ancient cathedral on the banks of the River Seine not long after noon EST on Monday and engulfed the crumbling Gothic landmark, shrouded in construction scaffolding as part of much-needed renovations over the last several years.

Buttresses around the cathedral had already begun to collapse and give way even as calls from Parisian officials as recently as last year urged speedy work.

However, early reports from Parisian firefighters suggest it may have been those same attempts to restore the iconic site now linked to its devastating gutting.

WATCH BELOW: Smoke pours from Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris

While the exact cause of the fire remains to be determined, what cannot be disputed is that the cathedral has stood witness to history spanning nearly a millennium and in doing so, became part of the history of the city, the country and the Western world.

Here is a (brief) history of Notre Dame de Paris, from the glorious to the tragic.


The site on which Notre Dame de Paris stands is no stranger to worship.

Centuries before Maurice de Sully, bishop of Paris, first ordered the start of construction in 1163, the Romans are believed to have built a temple there to Jupiter, god of the skies and of thunder. Even before that, there are some who suggest the land may have been considered sacred by the Parisii, the ancient Gallic tribe who lived in the area prior to the Romans, and from whom the city of Paris gets its name.

READ MORE: What ‘invaluable’ treasures reside at the famed Paris cathedral

By the 12th century, de Sully had the idea to effectively combine, convert and expand the ruins of two early Christian churches on the site.

Pope Alexander III laid the foundation stone of the cathedral in 1163 at the same time French King Louis VII was working to build up Paris as the functional capital of a kingdom still very much under the regional control of principalities ruled by dukes and counts.

The Gothic style of the new project was emblematic of that period and by 1345, work on the construction had largely completed.


Just years earlier, the Hundred Years’ War began in 1337 and would see the French and the English fight for control of the Kingdom of France.

During that conflict, a familiar figure arose from the northeastern village of Domrémy and led a battle that would change the course of history: Joan of Arc.

While she was captured and burned at the stake at the age of 19 by English forces and their allies in France, she was also exonerated at a posthumous retrial at Notre Dame that began in 1455 and ended the next year.

WATCH BELOW: France’s Macron speaks with firefighters at scene of Notre Dame Cathedral blaze

Religious warfare plagued the country next and in 1548 during the French Wars of Religion, Huguenots opposed to the Catholic Church destroyed many of the statues and decorations adorning the cathedral.

While the cathedral was (largely) restored, the attacks were the first in a cycle of damage and restoration that would come to underscore the life of the landmark.

Stained glass windows that had been in the church since its construction were replaced during alteration efforts over the next two centuries, as both Louis XIV (the Sun King) and Louis XV went about modernizing the building in a more classical style.

However, the cathedral was soon witness to tragedy as the French Revolution led to the execution of Louis XV, his wife Marie Antoinette and the dismantling of the French monarchy — the subsequent years saw the icon converted into a Temple of Reason after the Catholic Church was banned in 1792. The Reign of Terror began the next year, and the building came to be used largely for storage until 1801, when Napoleon Bonaparte agreed to hand the cathedral back to the Catholic Church. He was crowned there in 1804.

WATCH BELOW: Multiple angles show iconic Paris landmark engulfed in flames

Over the next 30 years, Notre Dame de Paris crumbled.

But even then, the cathedral was considered a vital part of history and French identity, and Victor Hugo began a push to save it. At the time, Hugo was one of the foremost poets in France.

In 1831, he released The Hunchback of Notre Dame (titled simply as Notre Dame de Paris in French) and made the cathedral essentially a protagonist in the story of the city and the characters that inhabited it. The novel became a huge success and is widely credited with sparking a push for historical preservation that led to a major restoration of the cathedral beginning in 1844.

That work lasted until roughly 1870.

WATCH BELOW: Notre Dame spire collapses as fire rips through cathedral

Despite the work to save it, the cathedral was endangered again a little more than 40 years later with the outbreak of the First World War. The Germans made it within about 30 kilometres of Notre Dame during the first week but it escaped the bombing unscathed.

In the Second World War, though, the stained glass windows in the cathedral were removed out of fear the Germans might bomb and destroy them.

Although the cathedral was hit by bullets during that war — during which the Germans occupied the city —  it emerged largely unscathed and was the site of a mass celebrating the liberation of the city in 1944.

And in 1996, Disney released the eponymous children’s movie based (loosely) on the Hugo novel. The Hunchback of Notre Dame introduced a new generation to the characters of Quasimodo, Esmeralda, Claude Frollo and Captain Phoebus, along with the well-known song from the movie about the famous bells of the cathedral.


Since then, there has been on-and-off restoration culminating in the work underway now that officials have suggested may have led to the fire.

Those flames have claimed the historic spire of the cathedral and caused the roof to collapse.

The insides of the historic landmark have also been destroyed by fire, leaving only a shell remaining along with the famous bell towers.

What happens next is unclear.

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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