Chartres: Monument and Legend

No monument of Christian architecture is more celebrated than the Cathedral of Chartres. Peter Quennell here traces both the origins of the great church and the effect it has exercised on succeeding generations.

During the night of June 9th, 1194, a conflagration swept through Chartres. Having engulfed the adjacent streets, it presently attacked the walls of the Cathedral, which Bishop Fulbert had begun to enlarge and embellish a hundred and seventy years earlier; and, though parts of the building escaped— notably the splendid West Front—the roof collapsed and completely buried the crypt, destroying, as it was at first supposed, the world-renowned Sacred Tunic. But after three days, while smoke still rose, a band of devoted priests succeeded in burrowing their way beneath the mounds of blackened rubble. They emerged carrying the reliquary, to be received with wild enthusiasm by the pious citizens. The preservation of the relic was saluted as a sign from God; and at once plans were set on foot for reconstructing the entire church. There followed one of those bursts of religious fervour often recorded in the annals of the early Middle Ages. The people of Chartres made generous gifts—during the fire, we are told, they had been less disturbed by the loss of their own property than by the destruction of their ancient shrine; but contributions also poured in from other towns and provinces.

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