Paris – Notre Dame Throughout It’s History

When I stand before the great west front of Westminster Abbey I think of Edward the Confessor, the monarch, saint and fool, to whom we owe the beginnings of the great Abbey Church of St. Peter, and who would, were he permitted once more to stand upon the banks of the Thames, be appalled by the rubbish with which his church is now encumbered. At Rheims I think of St. Joan of Arc, the sturdy peasant mystic, a realist incapable, as most mystics have been, of sentimentality and shilly-shallying, who took a coward prince, as it were, by the scruff of his neck and compelled him to become a crowned king. At Lincoln it is St. Hugh, with his St. Francis-like love of birds and beasts, that comes to my mind. Who can think of any one but St. Thomas at Canterbury, his fine courage giving romance to what, alas, has become a dull fane, and who. at Chartres, most beautiful of all cathedrals, can think of any one but the master builders of the Middle Ages who, in an inspired co-operation, gave Europe the greatest of her treasures!

But Notre-Dame de Paris, standing on a bleak windswept square, is most intimately associated, not with a saint or a builder, but with a writer of romance, not with St. Louis, who brought to his city of Paris the Crown of Thorns, but with Victor Hugo. It is his cathedral, for so great is the power of the writer of fiction that he may steal from the rest of the world what he will, and if his genius be great enough, what he steals remains his until the end of time. Goswell Road belongs to Dickens-no one will grudge him its possession-because Mr. Pickwick lodged there with Mrs. Bardell. Wessex is no longer the kingdom of Saxon chieftains, but of Thomas Hardy. And in Notre. Dame we forget the kings and the emperors who have been crowned there, the brawling mobs who have desecrated the cathedral’s sanctity and, until by strenuous effort we escape from the thraldom of romantic association, think only of Quasimodo in the bell tower, of the saturnine Frollo, and the hapless Esmeralda.

It was not by hazard that Victor Hugo appropriated Notre-Dame. For him, at the beginning of the romantic era in French literature, the cathedral was a consolation and an inspiration with its gloomy aisles and its suggestion of sinister mystery, with its grinning devils hovering near the sculptured figure of Our Lady. France had passed through the Revolution and the Empire. The logical theorists had had their day. There had been excitement, constitutions by the dozen, conquests and defeat. Such literature as the Revolution had produced was to Hugo hideous and inept, and in the creation of romance he turned for a model to the supreme creation of Gothic architecture, with its order in gigantic chaos. Victor Hugo knew every inch of the cathedral that he loved, and his description of it is the finest prose that he ever wrote.

But Notre-Dame is greater than Victor Hugo, and it has one quality which he sadly lacked. There is humour in the grinning devils on its facade-there is humour in all the great work of man-but there is no humour in Victor Hugo, in his writing or in the man. Think of him in his old age, the ” Buddha on the bracket,” as Mme. Duclaux has called him, gorging himself with the adulation of the foolish, bewildered by foreign worshippers like Swinburne, posing to the end, writing in his will, ” I believe in God. I refuse the service of the churches. I beg a prayer from every soul.” The grinning devils must have grinned a little more broadly when they read that will.

But, indeed, the adventurer must escape for a while from Hugo and from Hugo’s by no means reliable history, if he is to find in Notre-Dame all the thrills that it enshrines. Victor Hugo asserts that the foundation of the cathedral was laid by Charlemagne, but as a matter of historical fact it was three hundred and fifty years after the death of the great Emperor that Pope Alexander III., who properly humbled the English King Henry II. for the murder of St. Thomas of Canterbury, exiled from Rome through the intrigues of Barbarossa, laid the first stone of the Cathedral of Paris. He was the guest of Louis VII., a King who himself had had uncomfortable experiences of the Papal power, having been laid under an interdict by Innocent II. The cathedral stands on the site of two ancient churches, built on the site of a temple dedicated to Jupiter. NotreDame was not completed until a hundred years after its commencement, when St. Louis, every inch a man. and every inch a saint, sat on the throne of France. Before the building was completed, St. Dominic, of all missionaries most maligned by partisan history, had preached from its pulpit.

For seven hundred years Notre-Dame has been intimately connected with the story of France. It has been the stage on which each outstanding figure has strutted for his little hour, and it does not require any excessive imagination to stand in its aisles and to conjure up one vision after the other of what has happened under the vaulted roof. King Henry VI. of England, a boy of ten, was crowned King of France in Notre-Dame, but though Joan had been burnt at Rouen, the nationalism that she had aroused was ever growing stronger, and the boy King, soon, it is rumoured, to be with Joan numbered with the saints, was smuggled out of France with his attendant bishops and dukes to live a long, sad life in England and to dower it with schools and colleges. He must have been a frightened little figure on that December morning when he was acclaimed king of a people who would have none of him.

A century passes, and another winsome British-born personage, Mary Queen of Scots, walked up the aisle of Notre-Dame to be married to the Dauphin, afterwards Francis II., the eldest son of Catherine de Medicis. Mary was then sixteen, ” le plus parfayt enfant que je vys jamaes,” and as she stood at the altar, tall and fair, in heavy blue velvet robes and a golden coronet, she appeared to an observer ” a hundred times more beautiful than a goddess in heaven.” Who of the princes and the nobles in the cathedral, and the citizens who acclaimed the royal pair at the banquet in the Palais de Justice, realised that they were taking part in the prelude of a very tragic drama ? Two years afterwards her wretched, sickly husband died, and the French chapter of Mary’s life, with its laughter and gaiety, came to an end, and she went back to Scotland to meet John Knox-and her fate.

Henry of Navarre, great soldier, shrewd statesman, good European-did he not dream of a League of Nations in the sixteenth century ?-and more even than most kings, enthusiastic amorist, came in state to Notre-Dame, publicly to proclaim his submission to the Catholic Church. To his sturdy Protestant mother, Jeanne d’Albret, that submission would have been unforgivable. But his mother was dead, and to Henry’s practical mind, Paris that morning seemed well worth a mass.

Notre-Dame was hung with the flags that celebrated the victories of Louis XIV., victories to be paid for at the Revolution. And when the great Conde died in 1687, Bossuet, the greatest of French preachers, who was dreaming of the reunion of Christendom, as good men are dreaming of it now, preached one of his famous funeral orations from the pulpit of Notre-Dame, on the death of the soldier whose victory at Rocroy established French military supremacy on the continent of Europe.

Louis XIV., safely guarded by de Maintenon, died after an old age of austerity, repenting for both La Valliere and de Montespan. Louis XV.’s reign, dominated first by La Pompadour, a woman of some vision and character, and afterwards by Du Barry, little more than a slut, came to an end. The armies of France were defeated in India and Canada, and the story of the Bourbons drew to an end.

One more scene before the curtain rang down in confusion. Louis XVI., that amiable incapable, with his Queen Marie Antoinette (and no more pathetic figure since Mary Queen of Scots had entered the cathedral) and his child daughter, Elizabeth, went to Notre-Dame to offer thanks for the birth of the Dauphin, the poor little boy whose home was to be a prison and whose death a mystery. Then 1789, and the devils of Notre-Dame grinned and waited.

Four years after the fall of the Bastille the Revolution, that had already swept away so many things, invaded the Cathedral of St. Louis. Gobel was the Convention Bishop of Paris-called ” goose Gobel ” by Carlyle, apparently because he was born at Strasbourg. In the Convention the ” goose ” tore off his episcopal raiment and declared that in France there should be no religion but liberty. Carlyle has told the story of what followed with incomparable skill, the bestial dawning of the age of reason, the destruction of sacred vessels, the turning of albs into shirts, the burning of relics, the insane orgy of atheism which, happily for France, was soon to pass. The culmination was the decree that Notre-Dame should become the temple of the new cult. The image of Our Lady was taken down, statues of Voltaire and Rousseau took the place of images of the saints, and a well-rouged ballet-dancer from the Opera was carried in state into the cathedral as the Goddess of Reason. Before the great doors of the cathedral a heap of breviaries and Bibles was set alight. But the Goddess had no worshippers. The new religion soon became a bore, and Notre-Dame was used as a storehouse for empty casks.

With Napoleon the cathedral was restored to its sacred purpose and, incidentally, played its part in advertising the glory of the Corsican. In 1804 Notre-Dame saw one of the most dazzling and also one of the most bizarre of the scenes of its long history. With pomp and circumstance Napoleon and osephine were crowned Emperor and Empress of the French in the cathedral, the Pope himself being compelled to journey from Rome to grace the ceremony. It was with Pius VII. that Napoleon had concluded the Concordat that had brought the disorders of the Revolution to an end and restored to the Church at least a part of its possessions and its rights. But whatever gratitude the sovereign Pontiff may have felt must have been materially mitigated by the arrogance with which Napoleon made it clear that it was for him to command and for the Pope, with the rest of the world, to obey. Pontiff and Emperor met on the high road near Fontainebleau. The Pope, weary from his journey, was obliged to get out of his carriage and stand in the mud to be received by the Emperor. Afterwards he took the lower place in the Imperial carriage. Dumas has described the talks between them that preceded the coronation, Napoleon alternately cajoling and threatening, the Pope, immobile and bored, merely commenting comediante and tragediante as one mood passed into another. Notre-Dame was very cold on the morning of the coronation, and the Emperor kept the Pope waiting, chilly and apprehensive, and at the culminating moment of the ceremony when, after having anointed the Emperor and Empress with the holy oil and having blessed their crowns and rings, Pius was about to place the crown on the Emperor’s head, he was waved aside, and Napoleon crowned himself.

There was nothing wanting in splendour in the scene. The Emperor himself glittered with jewels, the Empress looked resplendently beautiful in her robe of white satin. Around them were grouped the personages of the new Court-first-class fighting men come from the people, bearing resounding titles a little awkwardly-Grand Chamberlains, Grand Marshals, Grand Masters of the Hounds who, ten years before, were Jacobins and regicides, and some of whom had acclaimed the berouged goddess. There, too, was Napoleon’s family-Madame Mere, that steelynerved old woman, only one degree less wonderful than her son, the brothers puffed up and preening, Joseph’s wife furious that she had to bear Josephine’s train, and only consenting when she was bluntly told that the punishment for refusal would be exile in Germany. Fouche, the plotter, was in the throng, and Talleyrand, the master cynic, now dubbed Grand Chamberlain, and surely grinning behind his hand. And, as always at Notre-Dame, a figure of tragedy and pathos was in the centre of the picture. It was the culminating day in the career of Josephine de Beauharnais. Two days before she had been married according to religion, the first marriage being merely a civil contract, by Cardinal Fesch, her husband’s uncle, and she may have persuaded herself that her position was secure. At Aix-la-Chapelle she had been offered the arm-bones of Charlemagne, and she had proudly replied that she would not deprive the city of them since she had the support of a greater than Charlemagne. But as Emperor and Empress ascended the throne, weighed down by their mantles, they stumbled and nearly fell, and Josephine, who had already heard whispers of divorce, must have regarded the stumble as an omen, and have left the cathedral with a heavy heart.

On April 2, 1810, Josephine having been divorced, Napoleon married, in Notre – Dame, Marie Louise of Austria. For Napoleon, after his coronation, there remained ten more years of glory, and then Waterloo and St. Helena, and Louis XVIII., the dullest and least mischievous of the later Bourbons, back in Paris, attending Mass in NotreDame and offering thanks for his restoration. But the Bourbons were unbearable, and the 1830 revolution brought Louis-Philippe, the Citizen King, to the French throne. The king’s umbrella and the bourgeois trappings of his Court reinvigorated the Napoleonic legend. The eyes of France were turned to the lonely island in the south Atlantic. In 1840 another solemn service in the cathedral celebrated the coming home of the Emperor’s remains for burial in the Invalides. The power of the legend increased and, stimulated by eager plotters, in 1848 Louis-Philippe was in not uncomfortable exile in England and the great Napoleon’s nephew was Prince President. To me Napoleon III. is far more the man of destiny than Napoleon I. The uncle was a man of supreme genius and unbridled ambition, the architect of his own career, who sought power and loved it, who was at once, as are many men, a reckless egoist and a supreme sentimentalist. Louis Napoleon was from his youth convinced that fate intended him to reign in his uncle’s place. He was a good-humoured, tolerant, disillusioned cynic, quite without morals of any kind, extraordinarily able, but if he had genius at all it was a genius for being bored. The coup d’ Etat made him Emperor, but power, position, responsibility, all wearied him. Of all the outstanding figures of the nineteenth century he was supremely Mr. Facing-Both-Ways-a Liberal who made himself a tyrant, a man who never really knew his own mind and who always wished he had taken some other course than that which he had adopted. In 1853 he was forty-five. He had dull eyes, drooping moustache and pallid complexion. The Emperor must have an Empress, and Napoleon, after various snubs from German reigning families, selected the beautiful Eugenie de Montijo, a woman of supreme beauty and the smallest possible intelligence. It was a love match, so Napoleon told his Parliament, speaking French with a German accent, as his uncle had spoken with an Italian accent, and Palmerston, Napoleon’s peer in cynicism, approved this choice of a beautiful woman since ” he had no chance of a political alliance of any value or of sufficient importance to counterbalance the annoyance of an ugly or epileptic wife whom he had never seen till she was presented to him as a bride.” France resented the alliance. She would have preferred some sort of a princess, ugly or epileptic though she might have been, for Empress. So the Herald’s College was kept busy, and a Doge of Genoa, a Queen of Portugal and a King of the Asturias were discovered among Eugenie’s collateral ancestors.

The marriage took place in Notre-Dame on January 30, 1853. The Emperor and Empress drove to the cathedral in the coach of glass and gold that had carried Napoleon and Josephine to their coronation. Behind them rode King Jerome and Prince Napoleon in the coach which had borne the unfortunate little King of Rome to his baptism. Eugenie wore the diamond coronet that Marie Louise had worn on her wedding day, and Napoleon his uncle’s insignia of the Legion of Honour. The scene was gorgeous, but the crowd was cold. There was no enthusiasm, ” coarse jests passed from mouth to mouth,” and in the evening the bride was hooted. And yet another omen. As the Imperial carriage was passing through the archway of the Tuileries, the gilded crown that surmounted it fell to the ground.

So as I pass out of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris into the great bare square, it seems to me that the cathedral is haunted by the ghosts of unhappy women who stood for a brief hour in glory and splendour within its walls as the prelude to heartbreak and disappointment. And, unlike most of the great ladies of history, these women of Notre-Dame have all been surpassing fair. Mary Queen of Scots walked down the steps of the cathedral to begin a journey that ended on the scaffold of Fotheringay Castle. Marie Antoinette went from the altar where she had offered thanks for the birth of her child to the Temple prison and the guillotine. Two years after she had been crowned the Empress Josephine was degraded, to eat out her heart at Malmaison. Marie Louise was married to become merely a troublesome political proposition. Seventeen years after her marriage to Napoleon Eugenie de Montijo endured Sedan and began an exile of long weary years, made greyer by the tragic death of her only son. And the men of Notre-Dame were no luckier. For the boy Henry VI. there was a long life of trouble and disappointment and a violent death. For Louis XVI., the guillotine. For the first Napoleon, Waterloo, and for his nephew, Sedan.

The most famous and the saddest of the stories of Notre Dame has nothing to do with kings or queens or emperors. It was in the house of one of the cathedral’s canons that Peter Abelard, a man of thirty-eight and already a famous philosopher teaching in the cathedral school, met the canon’s niece, Heloise, a girl of seventeen, and at once forgot his philosophy. Abelard lived for twenty-six years after he fell in love with Heloise, and they were years of shame, physical and mental suffering, insistent persecution, made beautiful at the end by the writing of the immortal letters which have caused Abelard and Heloise to be remembered among the great lovers of the world. The tomb in which they lie together in the cemetery of Pere Lachaise is a place of lovers’ pilgrimages, for it was a miracle indeed that preserved their dust together through all the troubles of France. And who of the lovers remembers that Abelard remained a philosopher, that he was one of the teachers who first gave Paris its fame as a place of learning, and that the school that he opened at Mont St. Genevieve is said to have been the beginning of the Latin Quarter and its scholastic traditions ?

Notre-Dame stands at one end of the Ile de la Citts, the oldest part of Paris, and the Palais de Justice at the other, cathedral and Law Courts being separated by the Hotel Dieu, a building of beneficence, and the gloomy Prefecture where, during the War, foreigners spent hideous hours waiting for visas. But even the Prefecture has a suggestion of romance, for was it not the home of Lecoq, Vidocq and those other amazing detectives whose adventures have solaced many tiresome hours ?

The Palais de Justice is magnificently situated, and if I had to go to law, which Heaven forbid, it would be more exciting to have the Paris Palais de Justice for the scene of the trial than the menacing Courts with their twisting passages that stand in the Strand. The Palais de Justice has for centuries played its part in the life of the French capital, and the beautiful Sainte Chapelle which used to contain the relics brought by St. Louis from the Holy Land dates back to the thirteenth century. The Salle des Pas Perdus is interesting to the foreigner because it is so noisy, so extremely un-English, lawyers and clients shouting at each other at the top of their voices, with none of the solemn hypocrisy associated with English legal proceedings.

But I have a common man’s terror of law and lawyers, and no law court is a place that I should select in which to spend a happy day. It would fill a book to give a list of the causes celebres that have been tried in the Palais de justice. Passing it I recall the fact that France since the Revolution has largely been governed by lawyers. Danton and Robespierre were both lawyers, so were Thiers, Olivier, Gambetta, Poincare and a host of others. When a French statesman is not a lawyer he is generally a journalist. Often he is both.

The Conciergerie prison which is part of the Palais de Justice has a host of tragic memories. Here in the courtyard Madame de la Motte, who plotted with Cardinal de Rohan about the diamond necklace, to Marie Antoinette’s undoing, was publicly whipped and branded.

The terrible Tribunal Revolutionnaire, with FouquierTinville as its prosecutor, had its sittings in a room in the Conciergerie, and there Marie Antoinette, Charlotte Corday and a host of others went for mock trial and certain condemnation. There is nothing in human records comparable with the proceedings before the Tribunal Revolutionnaire, except the almost similar proceedings that have taken place in recent years in Russia, and it is natural that Fouquier’I’inville, really a rather dull, conscientious lawyer, who was responsible for the Acts of Accusation, should be described in history books as ” venomous as a serpent and sanguinary as a tiger,” and should be denounced by the historians as a ” cannibal.” But none the less he was a good husband and father, and Louis Blanc has declared : ” Il sortit de la Revolution plus pauvre qu’il n’y etait entre.” Fouquier was a lawyer-and it is only the rare lawyer who declines to administer the law, however horrid it may be.