Notre Dame tragedy stirs memories of 1984 York Minster fire

The dramatic images of a burning Notre Dame Cathedral have brought back memories of the devastating blaze which severely damaged York Minster 35 years ago.

On July 9 1984, the people of York saw what were described at the time as biblical images of flames engulfing the roof of the massive structure, which remains the largest Gothic church in the UK and the largest cathedral of its type north of the Alps.

Disasters and Accidents – York Minster Fire – 1984
Disasters and Accidents – York Minster Fire – 1984

Hundreds of firefighters battled through the night to save the building whose history and symbolism were similarly seen as part of the fabric of the north of England.

But, unlike in Paris, the fire crews who rushed to the city centre from across North Yorkshire managed to control the flames within a few hours and the majority of the Minster was saved.

The cost was still huge. But the efforts made to restore the devastating damaged section may give some hope to those assessing the future of the Paris landmark.


The fire destroyed the roof of the Minster’s South Transept, which was rebuilt using the traditional materials of medieval builders as part of a £2.25 million restoration project.

The best known victim of the blaze, and of the Minster’s subsequent restoration, was the famous Rose Window, the stained glass masterpiece which looks over the centre of York.

The window stayed in place, despite the fire raging around it, but its 73 panels, containing 7,000 pieces of stained glass had shattered into about 40,000 pieces.

As work began rebuilding the roof, craftsmen started to reconstruct the window, which was begun as a structure in the mid 13th century but had the stained glass put in in the 15th century to honour the Tudors.

Special adhesives were developed just for this project so the traditional properties of the glass could be maintained when the restored pieces were sandwiched between new, clear mini-panes.

Since the drama of 1984, the Minster has seen a range of spectacular restoration schemes unrelated to the fire, including a £20 million project centred on the rebuilding of the 600-year-old Great East Window – the largest single expanse of medieval stained glass in the UK, has ended at York Minster.

Royalty – Queen Elizabeth II – York Minster
Royalty – Queen Elizabeth II – York Minster

Restoration of the Minster is an ongoing project and the Minster has maintained a team of specialist crafts people, based at the building.

York Minster’s blaze was attributed to a lightning strike, prompting a range of apocalyptic theories relating to God’s possible involvement, especially linked to the consecration of the controversial figure David Jenkins as Bishop of Durham in the Minster days earlier.

Lord Mayor of York Keith Orrell has said he will be writing to the Mayor of Paris on behalf of the City of York.

Historians have also noted the similarities between the two fires.

#NotreDame: Emergency podcast with one of the world's leading Gothic cathedral experts, @JonathanFoyle ‼️

Perfect counterpoint to the empty chatter of rolling news.


— Dan Snow (@thehistoryguy) April 16, 2019

TV history presenter Dan Snow said on Twitter: “It’s overwhelming but remember that York Minster and Hampton Court burned in the 80s, Windsor Castle in the 90s and Cutty Sark in the 00s. Dresden’s Frauenkirche, the Catherine Palace … What we build, we can rebuild. Their essence endures.”

Prayers for Notre Dame were said at the Compline service at York Minster on Monday night and will continue throughout Tuesday.