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Notre Dame: a history of medieval cathedrals and fire
Many great churches and cathedrals have suffered catastrophic fires over their long histories and medieval chronicles are full of stories of devastation and ruin as a result – but they also tell of how the buildings were reconstructed and made better than ever.
The devastating fire that destroyed the roofs and spire of Notre Dame in Paris demonstrated the vulnerabilities of medieval cathedrals and great churches, but also revealed the skills of their master masons. The lead-covered wooden roof structure burned so fast because the fire was able to take hold under the lead and increase in intensity before it was visible from the outside, and it then spread easily to all the other sections of the roof.
Notre Dame was saved from total destruction because the medieval builders gave it a stone vault over all the main spaces, and also on the tops of the aisles which meant that the burning timbers and molten lead couldn’t break through easily.
But French churches and cathedrals are more at risk than ones in Britain because they don’t usually have a stone tower in the centre to act as a firebreak – this is what saved York Minster in 1984 when the transept roof caught fire but the tower stopped it spreading further.
Turning to Britain, medieval chronicles provide fascinating reading for historians as we can find eyewitness accounts of the unfolding disasters when fires occurred in the past. At Croyland Abbey in Lincolnshire, the monk who found the fire in the 12th century rushed to the cloister to wake the sleeping monks in their dormitory, but was burned by the red-hot lead falling from the roof and had to be taken to the infirmary for treatment.
Swift action by the other monks saved the building, and the next abbot restored it to its former glory, although the loss of precious manuscripts and documents, “caused them much sorrow”.
The canons of the great priory church of Gisborough in north-east England were very unlucky: the masons had just completed a very splendid, and expensive, rebuilding project when they had to start all over again. On May 16, 1289, so the chronicles tell us, a plumber – in medieval times, someone who worked with lead – and his two assistants went up onto the roof to make a few final repairs to the leads. Unfortunately, the plumber left a fire pan on the roof beams when he went down for his lunch, leaving his assistants to put out the fire. This they failed to do, and the whole roof went up in flames, followed by the building and all its contents.
Traces of the fire can still be found at the west end of the church, which is virtually all that they were able to save, and a new building arose from the ashes over the next hundred years. Plumbers had to be very careful, they were the only ones who needed to have fires burning close to where they were working, and at Ely Cathedral you can still see where a plumber used the hollow between two arches high up on the back of the west front as a makeshift chimney for his fire. Fortunately, nothing dreadful happened there.
At Lincoln cathedral, we can see where the fire in the west front in the 12th century damaged the staircases because these acted as chimneys and spread the fire quickly up into the rest of the building. The building’s limestone turned pink in the extreme heat and it’s clear that the masons had to take down the more damaged parts of the west front to repair the stonework that had been closer to the fire and had cracked. One fascinating detail remains: the masons had to check how deeply the fire damage had penetrated the stone and the marks they cut into the stone are still there.
Canterbury Cathedral was struggling to cope with all the pilgrims drawn to the shrine of the murdered Thomas Becket and a fire of 1174 gave the monks the chance to build a fine new building to house his shrine.
The eyewitness account has details of the heroic monks rushing into the building to save all its treasures, and it’s even been suggested that this fire wasn’t an accident and was started by the monks themselves as it brought so many benefits in its wake. The master mason gave them a superb new building in the Gothic style and with all the funds pouring in, the monks were able to move back into their church within five years of the fire, although completing the building work took a little longer.
For Sir Christopher Wren, the Great Fire of London in 1666 gave him the opportunity he’d been waiting for: to give London the cathedral it needed for the modern age. The medieval cathedral had been falling into disrepair for years and various attempts to patch it up had left it weakened and muddled in appearance. Wandering among the ruins after the fire, Wren was handed a piece of stone from a tomb monument with the word “Resurgam” – I will rise again – carved on it, and this encouraged him to press on with his plans for a whole new building. It took 50 years, but it gave us the St Paul’s Cathedral that we know today.
Coventry also rose from the ashes of despair after the firebombing of November 1940 in World War II. The cathedral had been built as one of the city’s great medieval churches and became the city’s cathedral in 1918. It was a fine late-medieval building with a huge timber roof, and this was no match for the fire bombs that rained down on it during Coventry’s blitz.
Burning timbers fell straight down into the building and caused a huge bonfire that cracked the slender stone work supports and brought them crashing down. By morning, the building was a devastated shell. Basil Spence, the architect of the new Coventry Cathedral in the 1950s, sensitively integrated the ruins into the design of his new building where they stand as a memorial to the events of the 1940s.
The 20th century has seen a few serious fires. York Minster’s huge 1984 fire was believed to have been caused by either lightning, or an electrical fault. York has been very unlucky over the years, it’s had a succession of fires and without stone vaults over the building, the minster has been very vulnerable. After the last restoration, York had the inspired idea of asking school students to design some of the carvings on the new transept vault.
The threat of fire in historic buildings is a constant one, and the people who look after the buildings, on a day-to-day basis, or in response to disaster, are unsung heroes who deserve gratitude and support. Notre Dame, Paris will be restored and made glorious once again – fires have always been a risk, and restorations have always been a part of church history.