The first French king to be crowned in the Reims Cathedral was Louis VIII in 1223. The twenty-fifth and last was Charles X in 1825. Charles’s predecessor Louis XVIII and his successor Louis Philippe both decided not to have elaborate coronation ceremonies so as not to stir up even more animosity between royalist and anti-royalist segments of French society. (No wonder Charles X was deposed after just a few years. His coronation did inspire a lovely little opera, however.)
Victor Hugo was only 24 in 1825, but he was already a well-known author, and as such he received an invitation to attend the coronation of Charles X. It was here, strangely enough, that he got some of the ideas for names and characters that he used five years later in his novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame. After the coronation ceremony he took a walk around Reims and happened onto a street called Rue Folle-Peine (Street of Foolishness?), in the Saint-Rémi district several blocks south of the cathedral. Here he noticed a young gypsy girl dancing in a courtyard, and she inspired the character of Esmeralda in the novel. In the same district he visited the Basilica of Saint-Rémi, where he met the bell-ringer, a small humpbacked man in his thirties named Albert-Henri Nicart, who inspired the character of Quasimodo. (But the novel takes place in Paris in 1482, not Reims in 1825.)
Later Hugo returned to Reims several times. He wrote about his visits in 1838 and 1840, and about a visit in 1871 after the Franco-Prussian war. “Today,” he wrote about that one, “I come back in my old age to this city which had seen me young, and instead of the carriage of the King of France, I see the white and black sentry box of a Prussian soldier…”
The Reims Cathedral is one of the ‘big three’ High Gothic cathedrals that were built in France in the 13th century, the others being Chartres and Amiens.
The Reims Cathedral was badly damaged in the First World War and suffered additional damage in the Second. When I first visited Reims in April 1966 there was a photo exhibition in the cathedral documenting the extent of wartime damage and the slow process of restoration.
The street leading towards the front entrance of the cathedral is called rue Rockefeller because John D. Rockefeller made substantial donations of money to help rebuild the cathedral after the First World War.
As of 2013, cleaning of the outer walls was still going on. As I learned in Cologne, Germany, which also has an elaborate cathedral, this sort of huge and delicate building is always a construction site and always will be. I used to have an acquaintance who had lived in Cologne for nearly seventy years and walked past the cathedral more or less daily. He confirmed that he had never see it without at least a little bit of renovation work going on somewhere in or on the building.
Most English speakers, including me, have difficulty pronouncing the name Reims. It does not sound like ‘rhymes’ or ‘reams’ or ‘rems’ but rather /ʁɛ̃s/, using the French /ʁ/ and the nasalized vowel /ɛ̃/ that does not exist in English.
Click here to hear some French and Belgian people pronouncing the word ‘Reims’ (with slight variations) on forvo.com.
Location, aerial view and photos of the Reims Cathedral on monumentum.fr.
My photos in this post are from 2013. I revised the text in 2018.
See more posts on Reims, France.