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Historical Overview of Beauvais Cathedral

The old cathedral is devastated by a fire!

It is a common occurrence for many Gothic cathedrals; their history begins with the destruction of the old church, often due to a fire. In Beauvais, it was in 1225 that the old cathedral-church, now called the ‘Basse-Œuvre,’ was destroyed. Instead of rebuilding, Bishop Milon de Nanteuil chose to construct a new edifice in the style of the time: Gothic art, also known as French or Gothic art. The goal was to make it the largest and most daring cathedral in all of Christendom!

Start of the works

The construction work, which began on the northwest side, continued on the southwest side around 1230. The building slowly rises on foundations firmly set on hard rock, located more than 10 meters deep. Chalk extracted from the quarries of Beauvais and Saint-Martin-le-Nœud is used for construction.

plan 1230
partie constuite en 1230

It takes 46 years to complete the construction of the choir.

By around 1240, the base of the choir, everything below the clerestory, is completed. The work continues from north to south and from west to east. The construction likely rises a bit higher than originally planned.

plan 1240
choeur 1930

By around 1260, the choir is constructed

Consecrated, it is ready for religious services. Its vault reaches almost 47 meters, 4 meters higher than in Amiens. It’s the tallest stone Gothic vault in the world. Like the heavenly city in the Apocalypse, its height equals its width: 144 royal feet.

choeur 1284

A first catastrophe

After about fifteen years, a catastrophe occurred. On a Friday in November 1284, flying buttresses twisted and broke, leading to the collapse of the choir’s vault.

The cathedral, towering high, extended beyond the nearby plateau and was susceptible to strong winds. It was likely a storm that triggered this disaster. The apse, reinforced by its arched structure, didn’t suffer much. The wooden framework also remained in place, forming a bridge between the apse and the wider west side, which had suffered less damage.

la voûte effondrée 1284
The collapsed vault in 1284 – credit to Stephen Murray & Myles Zhang

The reconstruction

The reconstruction was not completed until around 1340. The choir was heavily modified during this process. As a precaution, new intermediate pillars, which were narrower, were added to divide the bays. This increased the number of bays from 3 to 6 for the right side of the choir.

chœur avant effondrementchœur après effondrement
faites glisser le curseur pour voir les modifications

The apse, which already had narrow bays, was not modified. The repairs were lengthy and likely concluded around 1347.

plan apres effondrement
This plan clearly shows the addition of pillars in the choir.

Then came the dark period of the Black Death, followed by the Hundred Years’ War, during which the armies of Charles the Bold besieged the city in 1472. The city was valiantly defended by Jeanne Hachette.

Aspect de la cathédrale en 1500
Aspect de la cathédrale en 1500 – auteur : credit Stephen Murray & Myles Zhang

150 years later, work resumed.

150 years after the reconstruction of the choir, it was finally possible to consider adding a transept to the cathedral. With peace restored, it was decided to complete the structure with a transept. Begun in May 1500, this masterpiece of the Flamboyant period would require 50 long years to be built. Martin Chambiges, the director of the works (assisted by Jean Vast), showed great talent and ingenuity in the face of the colossal proportions already imposed by the choir. The vaults would be as high as those of the choir, even reaching 48.5 meters! However, since the choir was still at risk, they had to settle for building the transept and the nave with a focus on solidity.

The work thus began on the south side under the direction of Martin Chambiges. After his death in 1532, the work continued on the north side with his successors and simultaneously on both sides.

plan 1500
choeur 1500

An oversized spire.

Instead of extending the cathedral with a nave, which would have stabilized the building, they decided to build a lantern tower at the crossing of the transept (learn more). Completed in 1569, this tower, topped with a spire, reached 150 meters. It collapsed 4 years later while they were hastily starting the construction of the nave to stabilize the entire structure.

Aspect de la cathédrale en 1573
Appearance of the cathedral in 1573 – credit Stephen Murray & Myles Zhang
artistic view of the interior of the lantern tower.

artistic view of the interior of the lantern tower.

The cathedral will remain unfinished

It is said that the lack of funds necessary to restore the transept was one reason for leaving the nave incomplete, with only one bay constructed. However, what played an even more significant role was the declining enthusiasm for cathedral construction.

The French Revolution did not spare the cathedral. In October 1793, the sans-culottes looted and vandalized the cathedral, including decapitating the heads of statues. Fortunately, some valuable elements were safely stored in time. At that point, the Cathedral of St. Pierre was transformed into a “Temple of Reason.”

In the 19th century, plans for completing the nave did not come to fruition. Ultimately, this turned out to be a fortunate circumstance, as it allowed the preservation of part of the 10th-century cathedral.

In 1878, the cathedral received a remarkable addition—a breathtaking astronomical clock.

The 20th century

World War II did not spare the cathedral. In 1940, the city of Beauvais was nearly completely destroyed, but the cathedral suffered less damage compared to the rest of the town. Many ancient stained glass windows were safely stored in time. However, the grand organ, which was located at the south entrance of the ambulatory, became unusable. It was completely rebuilt with a new gallery on the west wall and inaugurated in 1979.

Grandes Orgues de la cathédrale de Beauvais

After a period of instability, the cathedral regained its balance. In the 1960s, iron rods, considered unsightly and unnecessary, were removed. Some 20 years later, cracks appeared in the transept, prompting the decision to provide additional support. The iron rods were reinstated. By 2014, the structure appeared stabilized, and sensors were installed to verify this before considering the removal of the supports. This intervention was planned for 2023, following the restoration of the transept’s roof. You can refer to the Ministry of Culture’s website for more information on the work program.

étaiements du transept