The final stone is laid on one of the world’s largest cathedrals, six centuries after construction began

Cologne Cathedral

Cologne Cathedral. Completed in 1800, it still has the largest façade of any church in the world

Our archives series continues its trip across the channel this week with a report on the completion of Cologne Cathedral in Germany. Like the Eiffel Tower, which we featured last week, the cathedral became the tallest structure ever built when the final stone was laid in October 1880. Unlike the Parisian edifice, however, it had taken 632 years to complete.

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Initially begun in 1248, the construction of Cologne’s gigantic cathedral went through several fits and starts before halting in the 16th century. Only one of the building’s two spires had been partially finished and a medieval wooden crane that was left on its roof remained in place for the next four centuries.

Original plans for the finished building were rediscovered in the 19th century, and around £800m in today’s money was raised for its completion from private donations and the Prussian state. The project was seen as a way to symbolise the nationhood of Germany, which had finally unified nine years earlier.

The topping out ceremony, attended by Kaiser Wilhelm I and the future Wilhlem II, is described by a visiting reporter from The Builder as an occasion of the “highest solemnity”. 

The presence of Wilhelm I’s wife, the Princess Royal Victoria, the eldest daughter of Britain’s Queen Victoria, and the singing of the German national anthem, which used the same melody as God Save The Queen, is another reminder of the close ties between Germany and Britain at this time, just 34 years before the outbreak of the First World War.

Editorial in The Builder, 23 October 1880

The Completion of Cologne Cathedral.

On Friday, October 15, with Emperor’s weather slightly threatening, and amidst the joyous clang of bells, the flutter of innumerable flags, and the thunder of cannon, the crowning stone of Cologne Cathedral was laid on the southern tower, at a height of 157 mètres. On the summits of the two spires of Cologne Cathedral rest therefore the loftiest stones that human ingenuity and patience have succeeded in raising in the world. 

Sir Christopher Wren, the immortal architect of St. Paul’s, who remembered the quaint old cathedral of the English metropolis, which Hollar has so carefully shown us, saw the first stone laid of the new building, and lived to see his great conception completely carried out. But six hundred years and more have passed away since the first stone of the Cologne Dom was laid with the ceremonial customary on such solemn occasions.

Archives Cologne text

Text from The Builder printed in 1880

Little can Meister Gerhard, who began, and Meister Johann afterwards, the architects who so long ago planned and devised the edifice, the glory of which they must, like all creators, have foreseen, little can they have conceived that it would be for an Emperor William, living at the end of the nineteenth century, to witness and vouch for the completion of their noble conceptions.

Friday’s Te Deum in the cathedral gained its chief brilliancy from the military element which, as may be imagined, with such a company as was gathered together in Cologne, was of no ordinary nature. The Emperor and his queen, his son, the Crown Prince, and his wife, our own beloved Princess Royal, and their children, the grandchildren of our Queen, added for every Englishman present a further point to a ceremony already of the highest solemnity. 

We confess that, apart from the interest connected with the completion of the cathedral, the greatest emotion by which, on the whole, we were moved was caused by the sound of our own national anthem, the air of the German Emperor’s hymn, “Heil dir im Siegerskranz,” as we stood within but a few yards of the cathedral itself, and under the fluttering shadow of the English flag, the peculiar significance and poetry of which can be fully understood and felt only when one is far from home.

For a long time past the Cologne folks have been preparing for the solemn moment of the completion of their cathedral, in reality, for 600 years and more, but, as is well known, the works have remained during the greater part of that long period sadly stationary; it is only within the present century that any activity had been impressed on the progress of the great design.

At the Wallraff Museum in Cologne, a not ill-executed fresco represents the ceremony of the laying, in 1842, by the reigning Emperor’s father, of the first stone of the works which have now completed the cathedral, and there, standing by the late Emperor’s side, is well portrayed the Kaiser William, as Crown Prince, as might be seen near him on Friday last his son, the popular husband of our own Princess Royal. 

During those thirty-eight years various ceremonies have marked the progress of the works till at length the last stone was on the 15th inst. lowered into its final resting-place on the summit, as we have before remarked, of the southern tower. There, as we gazed up, under an architecturally-designed canopy of scaffolding tastefully covered with fir branches, the coping-stone was seen poised, ready at the proper signal to be let slowly down into its destined resting-place.

To solemnise this final act, so long awaited, Cologne was en fête, the streets be-garlanded with a traditional beauty that reminded one for all the world of the pictures of the Early Italian Renaissance masters, Crivelli, Mantegna, or Squarcione, and their decorative school; while the flags and heraldic devices which so plentifully adorned the passage of the Emperor showed that the traditions of Hans Burgkmair and the familiar triumphant procession he designed with his brother artists for the Emperor Maximilian are far from dead in the fatherland of Albert Dürer. The flags and heraldic devices, indeed, added a great beauty to the scene, for whatever may be said of the danger of the picturesque element in architecture, the heralds in their best days did not disdain the aid and even the control of the painter and the architect.

On Thursday, the day, by the way, erroneously announced by two of our leading journals as the day of the great ceremony, Cologne was feverishly preparing for the morrow’s momentous occasion, but all was ready to receive at nine o’clock next morning the Emperor and the other distinguished guests, a mere enumeration of whose names would read very much like the interesting pages of the now sadly diminished Almanach de Gotha.

After a rapid and what is called brilliant drive through the town, service in the Protestant church, and a simple Te Deum in the cathedral, the actual ceremony commenced in the great piazza in front of the cathedral, where the remarkable company was assembled. The

address read and duly signed by the Emperor was, in the midst of a cantata specially com- posed for the occasion, hoisted to the summit of the southern spire, eagerly watched in its slow ascent by innumerable opera-glasses, and then laid under the last stone. 

The speeches that followed were lengthy, from the Emperor and President of the Cathedral Completion Fund Society; indeed, to those out of ear-shot, the delay at this point seemed long. But nothing, in these hasty days, more reconciled the impatient and the thoughtful to the tedium of this portion of the ceremony than the recollection of the six hundred years and more that it had taken to raise the stone to its present position and the events that had occurred in Germany during that time.

Carefully guided by the workmen, who could be spied with difficulty by the opera-glass at their immense height, the massive stone could be seen, at the proper moment, slowly descending; and when at length it was finally settled down, and the pulley and its tackle removed, the Imperial standard was hoisted, as had been announced, unfortunately, the breeze was too feeble to shake out its folds, the bells commenced their merry clang, the cannon roared, and Cologne Cathedral was completed. 

It was, as may be imagined, an anxious moment for the many thousands gathered in the Dom-platz, at every available window, and in many a narrow street throughout the town, when the stone which had so long been watched by thousands of upturned eyes began to quiver; but the moment of excitement was a short one, and soon the crowd dispersed. The Emperor and the other guests returned to the railway station in the royal carriages (none of which would have been a credit to Long Acre, though they had been sent from Berlin), and the whole party were invited to the palace at Brühl.

In Cologne itself the rejoicings were continued longer, Saturday being marked by an historical procession such as the Germans know so well how to get up. But the chief ceremony was over, and many hundreds who had travelled far to be present on the occasion of the completion of the cathedral hurried home, the picture of the still scaffold-hidden spires and the crowded streets of the resting-place of the relics of the three famous kings never to be effaced from their minds.

More from the archives:

>> Nelson’s Column runs out of money, 1843-44

>> The clearance of London’s worst slum, 1843-46

>> The construction of the Palace of Westminster, 1847

>> Benjamin Disraeli’s proposal to hang architects, 1847

>> The Crystal Palace’s leaking roof, 1851

>> Setbacks on the world’s first underground railway, 1860

>> The opening of Clifton Suspension Bridge, 1864

>> Alternative designs for Manchester Town Hall, 1868

>> The construction of the Forth Bridge, 1873-90

>> The demolition of Northumberland House, 1874

>> Dodging falling bricks at the Natural History Museum construction site, 1876

>> The Tay Bridge disaster, 1879

>> Britain’s dim view of the Eiffel Tower, 1886-89

>> First proposals for the Glasgow Subway, 1887