Suddenly in late February it began to feel like spring. It’s hard to believe quite how cold it was at the beginning of February when I took my final year Special Subject undergraduate students to Paris and Reims for a weekend of intensive ‘monument crawling’. The Special Subject course is on the Image of Capetian Kingship from Louis the Fat (1108-1137) to Saint Louis (1226-1270). During the course, we discuss the coronations, the death, burial and commemoration of the Capetian kings and queens, and the churches, palaces and castles that provided – that in some cases, they commissioned to provide – the theatres in which they could manifest their kingship. So it has always seemed a good idea to go and have a look at some of buildings and objects involved. Each year, we go first to the Abbey of St Denis, where the kings of France were buried.
Then we take advantage of the fact that the Louvre stays open until 10pm on Friday evenings, and go there to look at the remains of the first great castle of the Louvre built by King Philip II Augustus in the 1190s to impress the Angevin kings of England, then at some of the medieval antiquities, which include the Coronation Sword, and the magnificent rock crystal vase that Eleanor of Aquitaine gave to her husband, King Louis VII, and which he gave to Abbot Suger of St Denis. On the Saturday, we go to Reims for the day (it’s just 45 minutes from Paris by TGV) to visit the Cathedral, where the kings of France were crowned, and the abbey of St Remi, where the sacred oil with which the kings were crowned was kept.
On the Sunday, we usually visit the Sainte Chapelle, the palace chapel built by St Louis, before returning home. The one disappointment of this expedition was that the Sainte Chapelle remained closed due to the icy conditions – so this time we took refuge from the cold in Notre Dame and the Musee du Moyen Age at the Hotel du Cluny.
The ideal time from the point of view of the course is the end of week three of the Spring Term. It’s never really been an ideal time from the point of view of the weather. I do tell everyone that Paris is colder than London in the winter – a continental as opposed to maritime climate – and that Reims, which we visit for a day, out to the east of France, is much colder than Paris. I’m not sure that they really quite believe me until we get there.
This time we were there on the 3rd to the 5thof February. Southern Britain was very cold then too, but in France it was deemed a national emergency. In the morning, the temperature was minus 10; at lunch-time, with the sun at its strongest, the temperature soared to minus three. Every so often, one would turn a corner to find oneself facing an icy wind straight from Siberia, which sliced through one’s jeans as if they were made of muslin rather than denim. A little snow fell in Paris on Friday evening, and it snowed quite heavily on Sunday morning. Paris looked like Pissarro.
I was relieved when we arrived at Gare du Nord to find that the Eurostars were running, though their speed would be slightly reduced to negotiate the snow in Northern France and Britain; trying to organise accommodation, and then subsequent insurance claims, for the students would have been tedious, though they seemed rather relaxed about the possibility of being marooned in Paris for an extra day. The Saturday, the day of the Reims visit, was exquisite. Reims was coated in a good half inch of perfect glistening snow, absolutely preserved in the bitter chill, in spite of the bright sunshine.
Despite the cold, we battled through. The students arrived with some magnificent headgear – though one particularly splendid hat, which would have done justice to a spy who came in from the cold, was nearly left on the Eurostar. One of them said he wished he had worn more solid footwear – he opted for trainers, and said his feet didn’t unfreeze until the following Wednesday. Paris and Reims in the snow were magical, and at Reims, the sun streamed in to the cathedral and St Remi through the magnificent stained glass windows.
It was a shame to miss the Sainte Chapelle, but there are wonderful things to see in the Musee du Moyen Age, including some of the glass from the Sainte Chapelle. And it is always quite nice to have an excuse to go back.
The photos were taken by Kathy Gale.