York Minster was ravaged by fire and its determination to rebuild has striking parallels with the Notre-Dame aftermath

IT WAS a moment when the world joined Yorkshire in horrified disbelief as flames leapt from the roof of York Minster.
The aftermath of the York Minster blaze in 1984. (PA).The aftermath of the York Minster blaze in 1984. (PA).
The aftermath of the York Minster blaze in 1984. (PA).

Just as a global audience grieved for Notre-Dame, so it mourned the Minster as it burned in the early hours of July 9 1984, the flames visible for miles as they roared hundreds of feet into the air, sending a pall of smoke across the city.

Yorkshire’s most iconic building, symbol of the county, its steadfastness and faith since the 13th century was lit up against the sky by the inferno raging in its South Transept as 150 firefighters battled to save it.

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At daybreak, when they had doused the flames but smoke still wreathed the ruined transept, mingling with steam rising from charred timbers saturated by water, those entering looked up to see clear blue sky where the roof had been.

The blaze in 1984. (Press Agency Yorkshire Ltd).The blaze in 1984. (Press Agency Yorkshire Ltd).
The blaze in 1984. (Press Agency Yorkshire Ltd).

Nowhere in the world will have quite the same understanding of how the people of Paris are feeling than York. Just as Parisians look on Notre-Dame and wonder how it can be restored, so the people of York asked themselves the same questions.

But as it was for York, so it will be for Paris – the great cathedral that is more than a landmark or a place of worship, but the embodiment of a city’s heart and soul, will rise again from the ashes of fire.

It was shortly after 2am when the Minster fire started, undetected in roof spaces as it took hold. Once the alarms sounded, clergy living nearby rushed in to save its treasures as the building began to fill with smoke.

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They were led by the Dean of York, Dr Ronald Jasper, who saw flames sweeping along the transept roof. Police helped as they snatched up crosses, candlesticks and cloths from the high altar before firefighters ordered everyone out because it was becoming so dangerous.

A shocked Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Robert Runcie, inspects the damage following the fire in July, 1984. (YPN).A shocked Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Robert Runcie, inspects the damage following the fire in July, 1984. (YPN).
A shocked Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Robert Runcie, inspects the damage following the fire in July, 1984. (YPN).

Scalding raindrops of molten lead were cascading from the roof, and debris beginning to fall. Firefighters struggled to contain the blaze, even with huge volumes of water pumped from the Ouse. To bring it under control, they used hoses to force the burning roof to fall at about 4am, and once it was down could finally extinguish the flames.

At 5.05am, the fire crews reported that they had the blaze under control, but would spend a further 24 hours damping down.

There had been devastating fires at the Minster in 1753, 1829 and 1840 but this blaze had an enormous international impact. The ruined, blackened South Transept, gaping open to the sky, was on front pages around the world, as Notre Dame would be.

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The 16th century stained glass of the Rose Window had been fragmented into 40,000 pieces by the intense heat, but had, miraculously, stayed in place thanks to its restored leading completed 12 years previously.

Once it was safe to enter the building, the Archbishop of York, Dr John Habgood, was one of the first inside. His words were measured: “We must be grateful it is not worse, but it is certainly terrible.”

A few days later, when the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, visited, his message was one of determination as he stood amongst the wreckage: “It will rise again.”

As with Notre-Dame, the aftermath was characterised by shock. York had a subdued atmosphere as it sank in how close the Minster had come to destruction.

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And as investigators began to sift through the debris to establish the cause of the fire, one startling theory began doing the rounds – divine intervention was responsible.

This came from church traditionalists who had been furious at the consecration of David Jenkins as Bishop of Durham in the Minster three days before the fire. Dr Jenkins was a controversial figure who had denied the Virgin Birth and questioned the Resurrection. Protestors had gathered outside his consecration and twice interrupted the service.

Among those evicted from the service was the Rev John Mowll, from Congleton, in Cheshire, who in the aftermath of the fire said: “I would not rule out the possibility of divine intervention. The God I believe in is a supernatural God and He does intervene in human affairs from time to time.”

North Yorkshire Fire Brigade’s investigation confined itself to more earthly matters. The fire had started during a spell of hot, cloudless weather and a lightning strike was the most likely cause. Badly-placed smoke detectors had allowed flames to take hold and spread before alarms went off.

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A priority was raising £350,000 to install modern fire-protection systems. Then attention turned to restoring the Minster, using the methods and materials of its medieval builders.

Just as Paris finds now, York found itself the focus of immense goodwill and a resolve to do whatever was necessary to restore and rebuild the Minster.

Country estates across Yorkshire donated venerable oak trees to form the mighty trusses that would support the roof, and 62 new bosses were carved with figures and scenes. The Rose Window would be repaired and restored.

It took four years and £2.25m, which included hundreds of private donations ranging from whatever few pounds people could afford to substantial contributions, for the South Transept to be reborn. The Minster was re-dedicated in a service attended by the Queen in November 1988.

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The parallels between the determination to rebuild York Minster and Notre-Dame are striking, and say much about how treasured these iconic cathedrals are, even by those who might never attend a service within their walls.

And how different that spirit can be from the reaction to fires at other historic buildings is equally striking.

Eight years after the Minster fire, in 1992, Windsor Castle was ravaged by fire which tore through St George’s Hall, the State Apartments and the Brunswick Tower, as royal staff carried priceless artworks to safety and the Queen looked on as firefighters tried to contain it.

Restoration costs of £36.5m were the subject of political and public argument over who should pay, with a body of opinion holding that the Queen should foot the bill. To defuse the row, £8-a-head tours of Buckingham Palace were introduced to raise money.

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No such reservations blighted the Minster’s restoration, for like Notre-Dame, it holds a special place in people’s hearts. Dr Kate Giles, from the University of York’s Department of Archaeology, said: “Disasters such as this have a huge impact not only on those who work and worship in a church, but also the wider community for whom the building is a symbol of identity and something far harder to capture, linking people to a deep sense of the past and to a sense of spirituality, whether they are religious or not.

“We saw...how local residents, visitors and the international community shared a sense of anguish at the fate of this internationally-significant Gothic building.”

And York has more to offer Notre-Dame than just the example of how a great cathedral can rise again, added Dr Giles. “But cathedrals have a millennium of expertise behind them, and Notre-Dame will be able to draw on colleagues from across the world, including the University of York’s Art History and Archaeology departments and York Minster’s Glaziers’ Trust and Stoneyard, to assist with its rebuilding and restoration.”