Reims played a very important role in French history, as it was the place where the kings of France were crowned. The most famous and cherished of these events was the coronation of Charles VII in the company of Joan of Arc. Thus, the Cathedral of Reims (damaged by the Germans during the First World War but restored since) played the same role in France as Westminster Abbey did in England. It was there that was kept the Holy Ampulla (Sainte Ampoule) containing the Saint Chrême (chrism), which was said to have been brought by a white dove (the Holy Spirit) at the baptism of Clovis in 496, and was used for the anointing, the most important part of the coronation of French kings.
At the 1999 census, there were 187,206 inhabitants (Rémoises (feminine) and Rémois) in the city of Reims proper (the commune), while there were 291,735 inhabitants in the whole metropolitan area (aire urbaine).
Before the Roman conquest Reims, as Durocortōrum, was capital of the Remi, from whose name that of the town was subsequently derived. The Rémi made voluntary submission to the Romans, and by their fidelity throughout the various Gallic insurrections secured the special favour of their conquerors.
Christianity was established in the town by the middle of the 3rd century, at which period the bishopric was founded. The consul Jovinus, an influential supporter of the new faith, repulsed the barbarians who invaded Champagne in 336; but the Vandals captured the town in 406 and slew St Nicasius, and Attila the Hun afterwards put it to fire and sword.
Clovis, after his victory at Soissons (496), was baptized by Rémi, the bishop of Reims, in a ceremony with the oil of the sacred phial which was believed to have been brought from heaven by a dove for the baptism of Clovis and was preserved in the Abbey of Saint-Remi. For centuries the events at the crowning of Clovis I became a symbol used by the monarchy to claim the divine right to rule.
Meetings of Pope Stephen II with Pepin the Short, and of Pope Leo III with Charlemagne, took place at Reims; and here Louis the Debonnaire was crowned by Pope Stephen IV. Louis IV gave the town and countship of Reims to the archbishop Artaldus in 940. Louis VII gave the title of duke and peer to William of Champagne, archbishop from 1176 to 1202, and the archbishops of Reims took precedence of the other ecclesiastical peers of the realm.
In the 10th century Reims had become a centre of intellectual culture, Archbishop Adalberon, seconded by the monk Gerbert (afterwards Pope Silvester II), having founded schools where the "liberal arts" were taught. Adalberon was also one of the prime authors of the revolution which put the Capetian dynasty in the place of the Carolingians.
The most important prerogative of the archbishops was the consecration of the kings of France - a privilege which was exercised, except in a few cases, from the time of Philippe II, Auguste to that of Charles X. Louis VII granted the town a communal charter in 1139. The Treaty of Troyes (1420) ceded it to the English, who had made a futile attempt to take it by siege in 1360; but they were expelled on the approach of Joan of Arc, who in 1429 caused Charles VII to be consecrated in the cathedral. A revolt at Reims, caused by the salt tax in 1461, was cruelly repressed by Louis XI. The town sided with the Catholic League (1585), but submitted to Henri IV after the battle of Ivry (1590).
In the foreign invasions of 1814 it was captured and recaptured; in 1870–1871, during the Franco-Prussian War, it was made by the Germans the seat of a governor-general and impoverished by heavy requisitions.
In World War I, the city was greatly damaged. The cathedral was severely damaged by German bombardment and a subsequent fire in 1914. The ruined cathedral became one of the central images of anti-German propaganda produced in France during the war, citing it, along with the ruins of the Cloth Hall at Ypres and the University Library in Louvain, as evidence that German aggression targeted the cultural landmarks of European civilization. After the war, the cathedral was rebuilt from the ruins in the course of the next 40 years. The Palace of Tau, St Jacques Church and the Abbey of St Remi also were protected and restored. The collection of preserved buildings and Roman ruins remains monumentally impressive.
During World War II, the town endured some additional damage. It was in Reims, at 2:41 on the morning of May 7, 1945, General Eisenhower and the Allies received the unconditional surrender of the Wehrmacht. The surrender was signed at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) by German Chief-of-Staff General Alfred Jodl, as the representative for Karl Dönitz.
Place Drouet d'Erlon in the city centre is packed with lively restaurants and bars, and several attractive statues and fountains. During the summer it is filled with people sitting outside the many cafés enjoying the summer sun, and in December it has a lively and charming Christmas market.
In its vicinity a curious mosaic, measuring 36 ft. by 26, with thirty-five medallions representing animals and gladiators, was discovered in 1860. To these remains must be added a Gallo Roman sarcophagus, said to be that of the consul Jovinus (see below) and preserved in the archaeological museum in the cloister of the abbey of Saint-Remi.
Reims is well known for its cathedral, Notre-Dame de Reims, where the kings of France used to be crowned. The cathedral, was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1991, along with the former Abbey of Saint-Remi and the Palace of Tau.
Saint Rémi Basilica, an easy one-mile walk from the Cathedral of Notre Dame of Reims, is named for the 5th century Saint Rémi who has been the patron saint of the inhabitants of Reims for more than 15 centuries. The basilica is almost equal in size to the cathedral. Adjacent to the basilica is an important abbey, formerly known as the Royal Abbey of St Rémi. The abbey sought to trace its heritage back to St Rémi, while the present abbey building dates back to the 17th and 18th centuries.
The St Rémi Basilica dates from the 11th, 12th, 13th and 15th centuries. Most of the church was constructed by the 11th century, with additions made in later centuries. The nave and transepts, Romanesque in style, date mainly from the earliest, the façade of the south transept from the latest of those periods, the choir and apse chapels from the 12th and 13th centuries. More additions were made in the 17th and 19th centuries. The building was greatly damaged in World War I, and was rebuilt from the ruins in the following 40 years through the meticulous restoration work of architect Henri Deneux. It is still the seat of an active Catholic parish holding regular worship services and welcoming pilgrims. It has been classified as an historical monument since 1841 and is one of the pinnacles of the history of art and of the history of France.
The abbey building is now open to the public as the Saint-Rémi Museum. The abbey was closed in the wake of the French Revolution, as all French monasteries were ordered dissolved in February 1790. The museum exhibits at St Rémi include tapestries from the 16th century given by Robert de Lenoncourt, marble capitals from the 4th century AD, furniture, jewellery, pottery, weapons and glasswork from the 6th to 8th century, medieval sculpture, the façade of the 13th century Musicians' House, remnants from an earlier abbey building, and also exhibits of Gallo-Roman arts and crafts and a room of pottery, jewellery, and weapons from Gallic civilization, as well as an exhibit of items from the Palaeolithic to the Neolithic period.
Buried in the monastery are the archbishops of Reims, and several kings and princes.
The Church of St Jacques was built from the 13th to the 16th centuries. A few blocks from the cathedral, it is now surrounded by a vibrant neighborhood of shopping and restaurants. What remains of the Abbey of St. Denis is now a Fine Arts Museum. The old College of the Jesuits is also now a museum. St Maurice (partly rebuilt in 1867), St André, and St Thomas (erected from 1847 to 1853, under the patronage of Cardinal Gousset, now buried within its walls), are of some interest.
The football club Stade Reims is based in the town, and is currently playing in Ligue 2, the second tier of French football. Stade Reims was the outstanding team of France in the 1950s and early 1960s and reached the final of the European Cup of Champions twice in that era.