Notre Dame De Rouen: The Test of Time

When I was a little girl, my parents took me to visit the Little Brown Church in Nashua, Iowa. The church was built during the Civil War (makes sense, given the uptick in prayer around that time), and it still stands today. I felt immensely excited to explore a building that greeted humans all the way back in 1862. I marveled at the candle-lit, cozy space, imagining the decades’ worth of things that had transpired there. The weddings, funerals, family gatherings, baptisms, prayers, tears, and laughter. Even as a little girl, I felt such strong ripples of history inside that church. It was the oldest building I had ever stood in…

…Until I went to New York City about fifteen years later. There, I visited St. Paul’s Chapel of Trinity which was built in 1766. Back then, it was the tallest building in New York. Alexander Hamilton (“we are waiting in the wings for youuuuu!”) drilled troops on the lawn for the American Revolution. George Washington visited the church on his inauguration day, and he frequented St. Paul’s when New York served as the nation’s capital. While I stood in that building and looked out the window, my head spun at how the view must have changed over the years. What must it have looked like when George Washington, sitting in his pew (preserved still today), stared out that exact same pane, turning his wheels about our new nation’s trials?

Old buildings, particularly churches, just have a thing for me. An energy. Although many old churches are quiet and empty now, they provided centers for their townships back in the day. In addition to spiritual needs, churches met governmental needs, charitable needs, town meeting needs, and I’m sure plenty of directional needs (“yeah, just hang a right at the church and tie your horse off nearby”). All that activity leaves quite a stamp on the historical energy timeline, so I find churches are excellent little time portals, allowing me to slip into the shoes of those past generations (you can learn more about my obsession with that here). And until my thirties, St. Paul’s remained the oldest building I had ever set foot in.

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Then I visited Europe. One thing the old world certainly boasts over the new is preserved history. In America, real estate moves in and the history goes out. Although they do exist, it’s hard to find buildings much older than sixty or seventy years. Standing in a building that existed during the Revolution is quite an exceptional treat.

In Europe, it’s almost laughable (who am I kidding? It’s completely laughable). And for someone who likes old churches, Europe was an absolute gold mine of ornate, beautifully carved, astounding works of churchy art, all housing centuries of history inside. These churches had things from time periods I never thought I’d come in contact with. Tombs from the Crusades. Scrolls predating printing presses. Architecture from the Middle Ages. Robes worn by some of the earliest priests and bishops.

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Rouen in particular knocked my history nerd socks off in the church department. Especially Cathedral Notre Dame de Rouen. I got interested in the place because my husband told me a king’s heart was buried there. Not like, a carving or statue of a king’s heart – an actual King’s heart (King Richard I – or Richard the Lionheart, who ruled England in 1189 until his death in 1199). Between that and the fantastic architecture, we braved the uncharacteristically hundred-degree heat that summer, and we made our way towards the big cathedral. And I do mean big cathedral. It was the biggest church I’d ever seen, dwarfing any mere mortal who stood before it. It was so big I didn’t have the right lens on my camera to fully capture it.

The same might be said about the history. When I entered Notre Dame de Rouen, I picked up a guidebook to direct me through the labyrinths of sweeping corridors, tombs, stained glass works, and historical artifacts. When I opened to the “brief history” page, my jaw almost went to the floor. “Brief” didn’t seem like the right word to describe a church that had seedlings sprouting all the way back to the third century.


Back then, Notre Dame de Rouen started as a private home donated for worship in the Christian religion’s earliest days, with a double basilica later built on the site. In 396 A.D. (I mean seriously….) a bishop of Rouen erected an official church building and linked it with the original structure. All was well until 911 A.D., when Vikings came knocking about and ransacked the entire site. That’s right. Vikings.

Although parts of those original structures survive today, they are mostly underground. In 1000 A.D., the son of Duke Richard I had the entire church rebuilt upon those ruins. This “new” version was slightly more impressive than the previous, with a massive cathedral design that didn’t differ much from the church we know today. It would actually serve as a prototype for many European churches to come. When builders completed it in 1063, some random gentleman named Duke William attended the church’s dedication. Like the sanctuary he stood in, he too would build a name to last through the ages…


While the site itself did last for centuries, only the crypt of this era’s cathedral remains. Because it wasn’t until the later Middle Ages that churches were really built to last. The present Notre Dame de Rouen took shape in 1145 A.D., ushering in the age of Gothic Cathedrals. This time, people figured out that strong internal structures and roofing designs would keep the cathedral standing a lot longer. You know, in case of any more Vikings. Builders reinforced the cathedral with a system known as rib vaulting. I’m no architect, but the basic idea is building a firm inner structure to support the outer, more ornate part of the building. Giving the church a skeleton, you might say.

Cathedral Rouen’s vaulting system got its first major bench test in 1200, when a fire broke out and ripped through the city. While most of the buildings in the community burned, the cathedral suffered only minor damage. So little that the master builder just shrugged his shoulders and continued his work once the smoke cleared.

I mean, I can’t really blame him for putting his head down and powering through. The task before him was a behemoth. Thanks to pesky interruptions like natural disasters and wars, it didn’t see completion until 1250.


But a work of art is never truly finished. Through the rest of the 1200s and into the 1300s, builders added ample embellishments such as extra spires, wider, more ornate stained-glass, and choir lofts. Which is neat, if you think about it. It’s like each generation gave this massive structure its own little bit of flare. And all while France and England descended into mass chaos with religious revolutions and the Hundred Years War. Then came the countless lightning strikes, storm damages, and other acts of God that picked away at the cathedral bit by bit.

Through the 1400s, builders and designers struggled to keep up with the crumbling carvings and decaying center pieces. More towers went up, the main door was demolished and reinforced, and the gorgeous rose window came in the late 1400s. In 1514, some careless workers accidentally set one of the spires ablaze, and that too had to be rebuilt.

As mankind left the Renaissance and crept towards a more modern and enlightened(ish) era, they still couldn’t shake off one of the biggest curses. War continued to wreak havoc on Europe, and Notre Dame de Rouen took a lot of hits from that. The Reformation saw another ransacking of the Rouen Cathedral, the French Revolution exposed it to yet more upheaval, and the spire caught fire once again in 1822. Then the World Wars rolled through…


While Notre Dame de Rouen escaped World War I, World War II was a different story. A bombing in April of 1944 completely leveled large portions of the historic cathedral. The entire south aisle collapsed, the pillars supporting the spire saw massive structural damage, and many of the priceless glass windows didn’t survive. As if that wasn’t bad enough, another bombing set fire to the church on June 1st of the same year. The tour pamphlet stated of that fire – “Words fail one to tell the distress of the people of Rouen beholding such a disaster.” Well, as we all watched Notre Dame Paris burn on live television, I think we can agree with the sentiment. The wholesale destruction of a building so old is indeed heartbreaking, a true loss to history and time.

But humans, as much as we destroy things, also have immense talent and courage to build them back up. So the builders of Rouen got to work in restoring their beloved cathedral. The pamphlet states again – “The courage, faith, and craftsmanship of 20th century builders was, by no means, unequal to their fathers.” A short comment on the total dedication and back-breaking work that hundreds of people committed to restoring Notre Dame de Rouen to their war-battered populace. And in 1956, their efforts saw enormous success when the fully restored cathedral once again admitted worshippers for services, weddings, ceremonies, and other celebrations of resurrected life.

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Whew…. That’s A LOT of history to pack into a few short paragraphs. When you step into a building that old, the same space that millions of people over hundreds of years have stood in, something takes hold. It isn’t just about the number of years that have passed between them and me, although that blew my mind on its own. It’s more about how similar we really are underneath it all. Like me, they too were frail humans with life dreams, hurts, and happiness. To think how many tears have washed that cathedral, how many knees have hit the floor in devastation, how many wedding trains have swept down the aisle, and how many songs of praise have echoed from the lofts. Each from a beating human heart, unique in its own sweet way.

And some very interesting people have walked those corridors at Notre Dame de Rouen. Some fought in famous battles, served on royal courts, and even wore crowns. A few of these figures reside there still. Like William the Long Sword (there’s a name) who ruled Normandy from 927 until his assassination in 942. Henry the Younger, one of the only English kings to be coronated while his father (Henry II) still lived, also has a tomb in Notre Dame de Rouen. Which is interesting, since his brother was Richard the Lion Heart, whose heart we went to the cathedral to see. The cathedral also holds the tomb of Georges I of Amboise, a Rouen cardinal and prime minister figure of the 1400s, who oversaw the construction of Rouen’s famous “butter tower.” Pierre de Breze, a famous French soldier and royal counselor of the early 1400s, is entombed in the cathedral too.


In the hundreds of years it has existed, Notre Dame de Rouen has seen some incredible faces, and it has endured an awful lot. Each generation has presented its own challenge to that ornate and beautiful building, yet it still stands tall over the city of Rouen. It still welcomes every visitor into its charming embrace, handing out water to drip on your forehead, candles to light in the sanctuary, and quietly guarding all that precious human history. Perhaps thanks to that clever rib vault system, and the determination of builders over the centuries, Notre Dame de Rouen has withstood the test of time.

And you know what else has? Humans. We have been through an awful lot together, my friends. Especially in the last few months. Some of it is a painful reckoning with our own wrong doing, and some of it is just rotten bad luck. But like that mammoth cathedral, we are taking the punches, we are staying on our feet. We have built buildings to survive the centuries, and we can build a society that will too.

Take a walk down the vast, open aisles of Notre Dame de Rouen. Let those walls and vaults whisper to you. They have amazing stories to tell, even if you aren’t spiritually inclined. Let it remind you that each and every one of us is our own little cathedral. We can use this Pandemic trial and time of unrest as a chance to reinforce, to put in some lovely stained glass and some sturdy rib vaults. With the courage to rebuild, we can come out more beautiful and stronger on the other side.



Cathedral Notre Dame de Rouen Visit

The Cathedral Notre Dame de Rouen: a Guided Visit – A.M. Carment-Lanfry


All photos by M.B. Henry. For more on France and Europe – click here 

99 Comments on “Notre Dame De Rouen: The Test of Time

    • 🙂 So glad you enjoyed it. I couldn’t believe the history in that place, it really stunned me. One of the few times I couldn’t even think of much to say while visiting a place!

  1. Thank you for this lovely reminder of the incredible human perseverance and persistence captured in a European cathedral. I, too, was amazed at the difference between European old and American old. Wow. Inconceivable. Words like ancient can’t really begin to describe the feelings Pretty and I had when we visited Europe in our traveling days.

    • Inconceivable – that’s an excellent word to describe it! And you’re also right about being an American, we just aren’t exposed to things that old. I still get blown away when I think about some of the things we saw over there.

  2. Wonderful post M.B. It’s 47 years since I visited there, Rouen has a special place in my heart. One day you must visit Northumberland, where you can walk in history just about everywhere 😊

    • I’d love to visit there someday! 🙂 I’m so glad you enjoyed the post, and I can see why Rouen hold a place in your heart. We absolutely loved our visit there.

  3. MB, this is a superb piece. You really captured the awe of visiting buildings that are so old, have so much history, and can be so beautiful. That’s indeed not as much of a “thing” in the relatively young and redevelopment-crazy U.S. 🙁

    • Yes, it does make me sad to see how readily old buildings are knocked down around here. Can’t wait to return to Europe someday and do some more exploring! Glad you liked the post 🙂

  4. This is such a wonderful post! I too am in awe as I stand at the threshold of the great cathedrals of Europe. I’ve not been to this one – yet – but it will certainly be a stop on our bucket-list trip to France! By the way, I love your reference to each of us being our own little cathedral!

    • Oh I do hope you are able to go – I know you would love it there. Rouen as a whole is a pretty amazing city, with a lot to see and do. So glad you enjoyed the post, thanks so much for reading and sharing your thoughts.

  5. What a beautifully penned ode to human endurance enshrined in historic churches. I do like visiting old churches though I am anti-religion. They are the soul of a society, a beacon of an embracing community. Modern churches generally do not feel that way to me. Maybe they will to someone, someday.

    • I agree with you on both counts – those old churches still have a lot to offer even if one isn’t religious, and I definitely do not get the same sensations and sense of awe in the modern-built churches. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post, I hope you’re right too in that people can enjoy our modern churches further down the road – I only hope they last long enough.

    • I’m glad you brought that up, because that crossed my mind a lot while I was there. Amazing what they were able to do for that time period!

      • Your post makes me want to see the cathedral. I am reminded of Claude Monet’s many paintings of the cathedral. He painted it from the same spot in all kinds of weather and at different times of the day

      • Oh I didn’t know that about Monet! How cool, I’ll have to look up those paintings I bet they’re beautiful. I hope you are able to visit someday, I really think you would love it

  6. Great post! My wife and I visited there two years ago. I wish I had your post to read before our visit. It would have made it much more interesting. Thanks for enhancing the memories of our visit.

    • How interesting, my husband and I were there two years ago as well. In July of 2018 🙂 Glad the post could bring back some memories, it truly is a remarkable place!

  7. I like the way you symbolized the moral message at the end. It was aptly put.
    Here in the middle east, it’s common to find a family living in a house built by their great great grandparents. In my village alone, we have houses that are more than 120 years old. And trees that are centuries.
    Great post!

    • There are some houses in the Midwest here that have hit the 100 year mark, but those are quite rare. How amazing for you to be able to walk among all that history! So glad you liked the post, thanks so much for giving it a read 🙂

      • It’s always my pleasure, M.B perhaps if you’d been my history teacher, I would have paid more attention in school – you always make it sound interesting and fun.

      • Awwwww!! <3 <3 Thank you! That is a tremendous confidence booster for me.

  8. WONDERFUL story! I was totally awed by the architecture in Russia for many of the same reasons. You are right that we don’t have the opportunity to experience the same depth of history in the US. Thank you for sharing!

  9. The cathedral is a work of art with a presence that has allowed it to weather the storms from within and without. Thanks for sharing its story!

    • Yes – you’ve described it perfectly 🙂 I’m so glad you enjoyed it, thanks so much for stopping by.

    • Hi Mam MBHenry
      Good blog post of Criticism History. God is every where. I believe in God. Iam happy.

  10. Absolutely stunning. When we visited Paris we were stunned at the incredible amount of stories told through the architecture itself. Whether it be a segment of stained glass, a mural, or the smallest statue. Just breathtaking.

    • I’m glad you brought up the stained glass – because you’re right those are stories in themselves, as well as the many different statues, carvings, and paintings. Art is everywhere in those old cathedrals! I haven’t been to Paris, I hope they are able to successfully restore Notre Dame Paris after that terrible fire.

      • Oh I do too. My wife and I watched that with tears in her eyes. It’s such an incredible piece of history. Thankful they were able to save at least a large part of it.

      • Oh I cried too – and I haven’t even been there! Can’t imagine what it must be like for those of you who have 🙁

  11. Thanks for this. As a Catholic it pains me to say that this Cathedral has outlasted something else – the faith of most of the community that built her.

    I see a Cathedral like this and every part of it makes me see God. Nothing was too fine to support worship of the God who made Heaven and Earth. Sadly my own parish church (built in the midwest in 1974) provides none of this.

    • Those old cathedrals are inspirational inside, that’s for sure. And the dedication it took to build it, especially in those times, is truly extraordinary. I agree that modern churches, at least for me, don’t really carry that same thing. But I am sure many people out there feel different. I guess it’s one of the neat things about churches, they invoke different things in different people.

    • Thanks very much 🙂 It was a trick with the lighting in there, let me tell you hahaha.

  12. As always, I enjoyed your eloquent and evocative writing, M.B. Having grown up in Germany I took old buildings in general, and churches in particular, for granted. I think my first impressions with nature’s cathedrals in the US, for example the Grand Canyon and other National Parks, caused similarly elated feelings for me as the European equivalent did for you.

    • Oh my yes, the National Parks are all gems, indeed wonderful cathedrals of nature. We just visited Yellowstone in June and that was definitely inspiring! The Grand Canyon is also quite fantastic.

      • We had to take some extreme precautions, but it was worth it to get out in nature for a bit 🙂

  13. This is a beautifully written story that brought tears to my eyes in the end. I love your reference to our bodies being little Cathedrals. Thank you for being a history nerd and sharing with us!

  14. Great post MB , I remember back In 1978 when my sister was studying art at the beaus art and me being a young youth (21) and newly arrive from Australia ,( I feel you folks would have put me in the hay seed category) we were able to go up and stand under one of the big bells and I remember the guide say as he ran a 6″ key around the giant rim (there would have been five of us standing inside the circumference )The n he said If he struck the key hard against the bell we would all loose our hearing !
    Oh and we got to mess around on the same level as that was seen in the movie !
    Cheers mate ,Great post!

    • Those bells must be sooooo loud! And very cool though 🙂 🙂 What a fun story, thanks for sharing it. So glad you enjoyed the post

  15. Very beautifully written story -you’re an awesome writer and I could recall visiting there a decade ago – so nice to see it again through your post and learn more facts

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed the post and that it brought back some fond memories 🙂 Thanks so much for your kind words!

  16. I gasped out loud when I saw that last photo you posted of the exterior of the church. Gorgeous! You mentioned not having a camera or lens to capture it all, but I disagree. Your photos have a way of making a person feel like they were there.

    This I love: “In America, real estate moves in and the history goes out.” So true here in Canada as well.

    Thank you for the encouragement. It has been a tough, crazy time for all and it was wonderful to read your inspiring words.

    • I’m so, so glad you enjoyed the post 🙂 Makes me very happy to hear that. I am also glad that you liked the photos – that final one I had to take on my cell phone, since it has a wide angle lens in it. My big camera does not. I really do need to remedy that with all the travel we do (well… did pre-Covid anyway haha). Thanks so much for reading and for your very kind words. <3

  17. I love old buildings with interesting architecture, especially churches. Just magnificent. Not sure if you’ve visited St. Augustine, FL, if not you would love it. Maybe one of these days I will write about it. 🙂

    • Oh you should! I’d love to read about it and see photos. And I definitely would love to visit, it’s been entirely too long since I’ve gone to Florida.

  18. your history documentation is always so passionate, descriptive and relatable! You manage to capture the essence of your subject and your last few lines say so much.

    Thanks for this peak into some ancient monuments … pray one day you will visit Asia and capture some of their more ancient history. Yet the oldest living culture is right here in my own country … our First Nation people have been proven to have survived 65,000 years!

    Imagine that history, the climate changes, etc that they have lived thru and orally recorded their history. Now our top academics have researched their ‘stories’ and proven these land formation changes took place when and how they said! Their caves and sacred places adorned, their spiritual connection to country profound … there is a lot more for you to write MB and I hope you publish this piece in a few other places 🙂

    • I would LOVE to visit your country someday, and not just for the history, which sounds absolutely incredible! 🙂 65,000 years my goodness, that’s amazing. I can’t even fathom being around something that old! I haven’t made it to any parts of Asia yet but I hope to remedy that someday when we can all travel again. Same with Africa, I’ve always wanted to visit parts of there too.

      In the meantime, I’m always glad when you enjoy the posts and what I have to say. It means very much to me!

      • I honestly think yours are the only posts of that length that I read but I always know I will learn new facts and enjoy the ride as you are a gifted writer!

      • 🙂 🙂 <3 <3 Well that just makes my day. Thank you.

  19. Amazing! This church building is a visual history of the French, first of all, and of our civilization. Each generation contributed to it’s building and the preservation of their own history.

    Your account is clear, concise, and immensely readable.

  20. I love how music echoes through a church. However small or big, they is beauty in how the sounds of faith energise the atmosphere

    • Oh goodness, yes. You are right. We visited another church in Rouen that had the organ playing and there was truly nothing like it!

  21. An excellent overview of the history along with your terrific photos. The intricacy of the stone work is beautiful. Great post, MB.

    • Isn’t it?! Sometimes I can’t believe what they accomplished with that so long ago, without the marvels of modern technology, it’s a little mind blowing. So glad you enjoyed the post, thanks so much for reading it!

  22. I had time to read through this again. As ever, your writing is informative and witty and wonderful. Even looking at the pictures and reading the history, I don’t think I can fully grasp what it must feel like to be inside, especially when “old” to Americans is 1900. Women got the vote 100 years ago! But it feels like a blink in the scheme of things. As I read through this, I pictured my husband coming to our town 20 years ago with his pastor, and the two of them designing and building a church, and all of the people that it has ministered to in just those 20 years, with nothing ornate, no amazing windows to appreciate or sense of the grandiose. And I suppose that was the point. They didn’t even add a steeple because the point was to have a different church for a new generation, not the staid and stoic and somber of the past. But there is absolutely something to be said for these churches built over time, detail upon detail, its very builders dying before its completion, if ever. I know most churches today allow jeans and shorts and bra straps and flip-flops, but I always feel like I want to look my best for worship, and it just makes me feel better to show up in a dress and heels, a better version than my weekday self. Let’s give our best today, and not just phone it in. I think these churches are saying the same thing; let’s declare the glory of the Lord here, let’s overwhelm you with beauty and majesty, for even all of these amazing intricacies are nothing compared to heaven.

    • You are right in that even if a church doesn’t look like a grand cathedral, and doesn’t have centuries of history around it, it can still feel grand inside with the love and work that people put into it – and as humans have to adapt to changing times, I’m sure church buildings will adapt to the needs of up and coming generations. And although I definitely don’t get the same historically swept away feeling inside newer churches, I can still be taken away by the heart of them <3 🙂 So glad you enjoyed the post, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on it

  23. What an interesting journey! That was fabulous cathedral and a great story to go with it. We visited Cologne and Strasbourg Cathedrals last summer. You are right they are awesome to see and walk in!

    • When we can travel again (sigh… whenever that is!), I’d love to go back to Europe, so many amazing old buildings to wonder around in. So glad you enjoyed the post and it could bring back some happy memories.

  24. There’s more than Rouen that interested me in this post. When I was in grade school, my parents took me to visit the Little Brown Church in Nashua! I think I remember you making a comment somewhere about silos — or corn, or something vaguely midwestern and agricultural. I was born and raised in Newton, Iowa — do you have roots in the midwest, too?

    As for the history in Europe, I experience the same shock when I first arrived, and discovered things I’d only read about still existed. My first experience was in London, exploring the Roman ruins, and putting my hand on walls that had been there since the Roman Empire. In Germany, I arrived at an inn in Dornhan on the very weekend they were celebrating the inn’s anniverary. Naively, I asked which anniversary it was. I thought it might have made 500 years. Not at all. It had been built 1,100 years earlier.

    I think there’s something about all empty spaces that’s fascinating: I’ve been trying to write about it for a couple of years. A school building empty of students during the summer; a hospital at 3 a.m.; the empty apartment of someone who’s died — they all share something with those wonderful cathedrals. It’s a sense of presence — all of those who were there, and now seem gone, actually still are there. It’s a mystery.

    • Why yes I do have roots in the Midwest – right there in Iowa actually! 🙂 I grew up in a little town outside of Cedar Rapids/Hiawatha area. My parents took me to that church when I was little and I never forgot it – always thought it was the cutest little place! 🙂 And I totally agree about the presence that you mention in empty spaces – definitely something I love exploring 🙂 Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your wonderful thoughts.

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