No wonder we feel the agony of Notre-Dame so acutely in Britain. Not only does the cathedral hold a special place in British hearts. But our greatest cathedrals and churches owe a huge stylistic debt to Notre-Dame.
Most of Britain’s great cathedrals are Gothic – and the Gothic style was born in northern France. And the greatest global example of French Gothic is poor, torched Notre-Dame.
The Gothic style began in northern France in the 12th century AD. Notre-Dame wasn’t quite the first Gothic building. That honour goes to Saint Denis Cathedral, four miles outside the Paris city centre. In 1144, Saint Denis was the first church in the world to have all the Gothic elements. But very soon after, in 1163, Notre-Dame emulated Saint-Denis’s Gothic style and pumped it up to a massive, heavenly scale. In 1831, the great Gothic revivalist Viollet-Le-Duc exaggerated and refined those Gothic features further – it was his delicate spire that so tragically fell burning to the ground on Monday.
There are three elements of Gothic style, and Notre-Dame has – still has, thank God – them all. They are the rib vault (many of which took a battering in Monday’s fire), the flying buttress (all of which appear to have survived) and the pointed arch (scorched but intact).
It was the combination of these three elements that came together magically to produce the Gothic look. That didn’t just mean the airy, spiky look that results from all those arches and flying buttresses. It also meant a much greater height than the Norman churches and cathedrals that came before. All three of those elements allow for greater structural support of the stonework above – meaning Gothic cathedrals could soar higher and higher.
Over in Britain, we were close on the heels of French Gothic, particularly at Durham Cathedral. It helped that, after the Norman invasion, our kings were essentially French for several centuries, with their architectural tastes.
Westminster Abbey was rebuilt in the mid-13th century under Henry III in a pure French Gothic style, with masons from Rheims – though some patriotic souls suggest they were actually from Raynes in Essex.
Until 1350, when we started developing the one Gothic style that can claim British origins – ‘Perpendicular Gothic’ – our churches and cathedrals were heavily French Gothic in style.
Salisbury, Lincoln, Wells, Canterbury, Ely… Our finest cathedrals – our finest buildings, full stop – owe it all to northern France and, by extension, Notre-Dame, the unsurpassed triumph of early French Gothic.