Why was Chartres so important?
Even though Chartres, near Paris, France, was only a small town, it had an important treasure: the dress that people said Mary was wearing when she gave birth to the baby Jesus (or maybe when she found out she was pregnant). Thousands of people came on pilgrimage every year to Chartres to see the tunic.
(Click here to see the tunic for yourself.)
The first fire: rebuilding
In 1134 AD, a big fire damaged the front of the old Romanesque cathedral of Chartres. The Christian people of Chartres decided to fix the damage with a new front in the new Gothic style. (This was the same time that people were building the Cathedral at Pisa, in Italy. Eleanor of Aquitaine was Queen of France, and Heloise was an abbess.) People in northern Europe were beginning to be able to afford big buildings like this, maybe because of climate change, and because they had conquered southern France and were collecting a lot of taxes from there.
The second fire: bigger, better rebuilding
The new front was going up quickly, and was nearly done, when in 1194 AD another terrible fire broke out and caught the wooden roof of the old cathedral. Almost all of the old church (and most of the rest of the town of Chartres) burned down. Only the new front, or facade, was still standing when they got the fire put out – and the priests had saved Mary’s precious tunic!
Everyone was sad, but at least the new front was still there! They made new plans for an even bigger and more fashionable church. The people of Chartres built their new church in less than thirty years, very fast for a cathedral.
Rivalry with Notre Dame of Paris
Everyone was really excited about the new building, which would be even cooler than the new church of Notre Dame in Paris (then about thirty years old).
Thousands of people volunteered to pull carts full of stone up the steep hill to the church. They kept the facade from the church that burned down, and one of the towers (the one on the right), but all the rest was new.