The historic Notre-Dame cathedral has been a famous landmark on the Paris skyline since the 12th century - and a devastating fire in April caused millions of pounds worth of damage to the iconic structure.

Construction of the mighty Notre-Dame de Paris (which means Our Lady of Paris) Catholic cathedral began in 1163. King Louis VII and Pope Alexander III attended the ceremonial laying of the cornerstone. The building work continued until 1250, but further additions and remodelling continued throughout the ages.

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The first phase saw the completion of the choir area, containing seating for the clergy and choristers, followed by the two ambulatories, the covered passages around the east end of the cathedral. This section was completed in 1177.

Phase two of the construction began after the consecration of the high altar in May 1182. The four sections of the nave were built behind the choir area. The roof was constructed using a simple four-part rib structure, rather than the traditional six-part. This meant it could be made higher, as it was stronger than the standard design.

The Sainte-Chapelle was built in a Gothic style, followed by the addition of transepts in the choir area, where the altar was located. These provided the cross-shape prevalent in many churches, bringing more light into the area.


Construction of the original spire began in 1220, followed by building work on the upper gallery of the nave in 1225. The spire was completed by 1230, but over the next five centuries, it was battered and weakened by the elements. By the 18th century, it had bent over, so it was removed in 1786.

In the 19th century, the renowned architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc was charged with a restoration project and decided to recreate the spire. He made the new version from oak covered in lead. Although built in the same style, it was slightly taller and more imposing than the original.

As the sole architect of the project until it was completed in 1864, Viollet-le-Duc supervised a large team of craftsmen, including sculptors and glass makers, who worked from technical drawings and engravings to re-make or add decorations in the style of the original design.

Modern times

During the 20th century, Notre-Dame survived the second world war, suffering only minor damage in August 1944 during the liberation of Paris. Stray bullets shattered some of the old stained glass and it was replaced with modern glass with new designs.

To celebrate Notre-Dame's 800th anniversary in 1963, French culture minister André Malraux announced the cleaning of the cathedral's façade to remove centuries of grime. It was restored to its original 12th-century splendour and off-white colour.

Hunchback of Notre-Dame

The cathedral is famous for the legend of the Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Author Victor Hugo's Gothic novel, originally published in 1831, was said to have been written to make the public more aware of the importance of Paris' Gothic architecture, much of which was being replaced in the 19th century.

The novel was full of detailed descriptions of Notre-Dame and Hugo's love of its architecture was the reason why. It was said that his descriptions of the building far exceeded the requirements of the plot, which revolved around the title character, Quasimodo.

Set in 1482, it was essentially a love story, in which Quasimodo was publicly flogged for failing to obey Archdeacon Claude Frollo's unjust commands. A beautiful gypsy girl, Esmeralda, gave Quasimodo a drink of water while he was suffering on the pillory.

He fell in love with her and subsequently saved her life after she was sentenced to death for the attempted murder of Captain Phoebus, who had tried to seduce her. Quasimodo whisked her to safety in Notre-Dame, protecting her from arrest by the law of sanctuary.

The book has been made into a film numerous times, including the most famous version in 1939, starring Charles Laughton as Quasimodo. The most famous scene occurs when he swings down using Notre-Dame's bell rope to carry Esmerelda off to safety.

The story has helped to make Notre-Dame famous all over the world, as it has also been turned into many television series and theatrical productions over the years.

Devastating fire

The dreadful fire at Notre-Dame on 15th April 2019 was the worst disaster to strike the cathedral in its history. At its peak, around 500 firefighters battled the blaze, which destroyed the spire, its oak frame and the lead roof.

Damage to the historic building wasn't as bad as everyone at first thought. Amazingly, the main structure remained intact. Firefighters managed to save the façade, walls, towers, buttresses and stained-glass windows. The massive 8,000-pipe organ, built by Francois Thierry in the 18th century, was saved from the fire but damaged by water.

The stone ceiling of the cathedral suffered several holes but remained intact. Speculation has continued that ongoing renovation work was responsible for the blaze, although this has yet to be confirmed. The spire's copper statues had been removed as a result of the refurbishment, so they were safe before the fire started.

Restoration work

While the fire still burned, prominent and wealthy businessmen had already pledged millions of pounds towards rebuilding the cathedral. After the blaze, President Emmanuel Macron announced that Notre-Dame would be restored to its former glory within five years.

However, his decision to organise an architectural competition to redesign the roof and spire led to criticism internationally from heritage professionals and academics. Undeterred, the president passed a new law on 11th May 2019, making the cathedral exempt from heritage laws and procedures.

The move has led to controversy for the French government, with more than 1,170 heritage experts signing an open letter urging the president to respect the existing regulations - a plea that has been ignored so far. At this stage, no-one can say with any certainty what the future holds for Notre-Dame in terms of its design.

One unusual idea has been put forward by French companies Studio Nab and Summum Architecture, who wish to utilise the area directly below the new roof by creating a greenhouse that isn't publicly accessible.

They suggest it could be a unique home for birds and insects that have been threatened with extinction as a result of human activities. The designers say it should be "more than just a church or monument".

Only time will tell what the French government will do in terms of redesigning the historic building.

Fire safety

In the event of a fire, ISGUS UK’s innovative ZEUS® Roll Call app is suitable for fire officers to check who was present in the building when the fire alarm sounded. It's an extension of the proven ZEUS® X mobile app for mobile clocking and employee self-service.

The app means fire officers can view on their mobile device who was present when the fire broke out, ticking them off when they arrive at the assembly point. Easy to use, the app enables fire officers to assess who is safe and who is potentially still inside the building.

Please contact us on 01793 766211 or use our handy contact form for further information.