How the Crown of Thorns Ended Up at Notre Dame Cathedral

The Crown came to Paris from Constantinople through the efforts of King St. Louis IX.

Maître du Cardinal de Bourbon, “Louis IX Brings the Crown of Thorns,” 1480s
Maître du Cardinal de Bourbon, “Louis IX Brings the Crown of Thorns,” 1480s (photo: Public Domain)

During the recent tragic fire in Notre Dame Cathedral one of the relics rescued was the Crown of Thorns. It one of the most revered of Christian relics having been worn by Our Lord during His passion.

There is a fascinating story of how the Crown of Thorns came to be in Notre Dame.

Saint Louis, King of France, decided to end usury in his kingdom. He forced the money lenders to pay back all the gold extorted by unjust means and returned to their rightful owners. After returning the gold to those he could find he had quite a bit remaining. The pope at the time urged him to give it to Emperor Baldwin of Constantinople. Since there was some strife between Constantinople and Rome this seemed like a good idea. Baldwin was known as Baldwin the Broke, who was constantly in desperate need of money. Baldwin had something King Louis wanted, and that was the Crown of Thorns. Baldwin, thankful for the gold, decided to send the Crown of Thorns to King Louis.

There was a snag, however, as the Venetians had it in their possession. After much negotiation and the handing over of a large sum of money, the Crown made its way to France.

Hearing news of its arrival in France, in August 1239, King Louis fasted for many days in preparation to receive the holy relic. Near the town of Sens, about 50 miles from Paris, King Louis, barefoot and bareheaded, met the precious bundle. It was enclosed in a wooden chest which, on the king’s command, was opened. A silver coffer lay inside bearing the seals of the Emperor of Constantinople and the Doge of Venice. After breaking the seals a case of pure gold containing the holy relic was lifted out. King St. Louis was overcome with emotion. After some moments of silent prayer, the royal seals were put in place.

The king and his brother carried the relic on a litter. They walked barefoot to the town of Sens where they were greeted by joyous throngs of people, bells tolling, and draperies hanging from windows. The trip to Paris was accompanied by immense crowds of people lining the route. After eight days the Crown of Thorns reached a jubilant Paris. Crowds flocked to venerate the holy relic. A great pulpit had been erected outside the city walls so everyone could see it. Then, accompanied by white robed priests, perfumed censers and singing of hymns, the Crown of Thorns made its way to Notre Dame Cathedral. It must have been quite a spectacle to witness.

King St. Louis built a special chapel to house the holy relic worn by Our Lord. It was called La Sainte Chapelle.

Louis generously sent thorns of the Holy Crown to different churches. Otherwise it is the same as it was when it first arrived almost 800 years ago.

During the French Revolution it was put in the Paris National Library. In 1806 the Crown of Thorns was returned to Notre Dame Cathedral.

I can’t help but think it is more than a coincidence that the Crown of Thorns has become once more a topic of conversation — all because of a ferocious fire during the holiest week of the Christian year.