the community of León became a bishopric under the Romans and a full two hundred years before Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. the cathedral in León is the second of three massive sacred sites along the Camino — the cathedrals in Burgos and Santiago de Compostela being the other two. three other structures occupied this site, beginning in the 10th century with a Visigothic-style church over ruins of the Roman baths, with the churches lasting only about a century before replacements were deemed necessary. (church one begun about 924; church two, in 1084; church three, in 1175; church four — the current cathedral — in 1205.)
the first, simple structure, built on lands donated by Ordoño II, was replaced after a century under the direction of the bishop with a more impressive Romanesque building. the second building, which included a palace, library, and hospice for peregrinos and the poor, saw the coronation of Alfonso VII as emperor of Castilla and León in 1135 with all the major monarchs and rulers across Spain in attendance. work on the third church began 40 years later and its designers aimed at creating something to rival other monumental churches on the Camino and effectively demonstrating the immense wealth and political clout of León.
work on the Gothic cathedral that stands today began in 1205 and continued for just under a century, though the south tower wasn’t completed until the 15th century. the plan largely copies that of the cathedral at Reims, but at two-thirds scale, and shares elements with other major French cathedrals such as the ones in Chartres, Paris, and Saint-Denis. financial backing from both the the monarchy of Castilla y León and the papacy meant progress moved smoothly and concluded in near record time. according to my reference book, Alfonso X “contributed handsomely, in part to compensate morally for never having repaid a loan the Pope had given his father Fernando III for his war to conquer Sevilla.” for his generosity, Alfonso (as well as other major contributors to the project) received an indulgence and part of his father’s loans were forgiven.
one of the more remarkable facts about the cathedral is the length gone to restore it in the 19th century. essentially, they removed the roof, reinforced the walls, and put the roof back on — all while more than slightly concerned the building might collapse entirely when the roof went back on. from early on, weaknesses in the foundation and poor structural integrity of the stones used posed major problems for the cathedral. part of the south transept collapsed in the mid-17th century and was rebuilt. discussion about restoration began in 1844 when, in an effort to highlight the importance of the building, the cathedral was named a national monument; it took another four decades before restoration got underway in earnest, however, and lasted two decades. it reopened to worshipers in 1901 and the fortification efforts worked. it was reputedly one of the most complicated and risky restoration projects in 19th century Europe. the project’s primary architect, Juan de Madrazo, posthumously received a gold medal at the National Exhibition of Fine Arts for his work on the project. it’s undergoing another round of restoration now to clean and restore the facade.