Notre Dame set on fire by Communards

In 1871 Paris was hit by an insurrection against the government, and the city was under siege for 4 months until May.

It was a violent uprising with both men and women from the working classes involved in the fighting. They would hurl petroleum bombs at their targets and for two months the insurgents had control of the city.


It occurred in the wake of France’s defeat in the Franco-German War and the collapse of Napoleon III’s Second Empire (1852–70).

The revolutionaries, The Communards, hated the ideological dictatorship and royalist sympathies of the Catholic Church (The New Yorker)

A barricade on Place Blanche during Bloody Week, whose defenders included Louise Michel and a unit of 30 women.

In May the rebellion reached a violent conclusion as it was crushed brutally during the so-called “bloody week”.

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One of their final acts of the campaign was to target the Notre Dame Cathedral, and set it ablaze – an act that would risk the lives of hundreds of people in the adjoining hospital.

Below is a full transcription of the report that circulated about the attack and how a full blaze was prevented by a brave doctor.


Notre Dune seems to have had very narrow escape, and the rumours which reached of its having been set on fire were not without foundation.


It was saved by the courage and devotion of the house surgeons of the neighbouring hospital, the Hotel Dieu. About three o’clock on the morning of the 24th of May—about the time when good a many distinguished Frenchmen were emerging from Cremorne, as the appropriate conclusion of happy day spent on the Epson Downs—M. Hanot, the house surgeon on duty in the waiting room, was aroused by a great noise.

PARIS-The-Hotel-Dieu-Hospital-Antique-Print 1859
The Hotel Dieu Hospital 1859

Casks were being rolled through an opening in a neighbouring barricade to the place between the hospital and cathedral, and a lieutenant of the Nationals, with an armed following, was demanding at the gate to be furnished with gimlets, locksmith’s tools and a candle. They were about to set fire to Notre Dame. The director the Hotel Dieu was sent for; it was pointed out by him that there were nine hundred sick and wounded in the hospital, and that the destruction of the one building would necessarily involve that of the other.

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At about eleven in the morning, however, the Cathedral was seen to be on fire, and smoke was issuing from one of the windows. The six house-surgeons were refused the use of the fire-engine, but collecting together crowd of women and children, they made their way to the Cathedral; the smoke was so thick and suffocating that they were on the point of being driven back; but, with the help of a fireman, who gave his aid in spite of the prohibition of the Communists, they reached the source of the mischief and extinguished the flames. A burning brasier was found the choir, and another by the high altar. The chair, benches, &c., had been piled up around the pulpit as high as the great organ, and also round the statues of Christ and the Virgin; paper had been laid at the base of the piles.


The flames were extinguished, some windows were broken to let the smoke out; every part the cathedral was visited, and a guard organised for the purpose of preserving the Cathedral from farther incendiary attempts. It was not interfered with during the day, and at eleven at night this part of the city was in the bands of the troops, and the Hotel Dieu and Notre Dame were safe.

“Bloody Week” Communnard Ruins. Countries across Europe sent fire engines and firemen to help put fires out across Paris.

Hanot, one of the house-surgeons, who tells the story very graphically in the Gazette Medicale de Paris, deserves that his name should remembered in French history.

The Evening Freeman. – Monday 19 June 1871

On 28 May, the regular army captured the last remaining positions of the Commune, which offered little resistance. In the morning the regular army captured La Roquette prison and freed the remaining 170 hostages. (Britannica)


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Legal note; These Commundards had nothing to do it.

1980’s pop duo The Communards. Jimmy Somerville and Richard Coles.

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