Chartres, Part One


(You really don’t have to read this post, but if you do, you’ll know why we just had to visit Chartres while we were in France. I think it’s a fascinating lead-up and I hope you will, too.)

It all started with Charles Laughton. Does anybody remember Charles Laughton, the great character actor? His career in movies wasn’t all that long. Late in his career, during the 1950s, health issues slowed him down. But he still needed money, so his manager Paul Gregory hit on an ingenious plan that would allow him to use his magnificent voice and acting talent without taxing him the way a movie or play would. Gregory booked him on the college lecture circuit, marketing him as “Charles Laughton, Storyteller”.

For a few years, Laughton traveled to college towns regaling audiences with scenes from Shakespeare and GB Shaw, passages from Kerouac and the Bible, all interspersed with anecdotes and stories from his own life.

From this came a two-record album from Capitol Records. I found the album in a record store cutout bin somewhere in the 1960s. When I first listened to it, I just couldn’t put it down. And one of the stories, the Chartres Cathedral Story, left me transfixed. (Click here to listen to Laughton telling the Chartres Cathedral story. Note: I strongly urge you to listen before going further)

If you didn’t listen to Laughton (pity!) here’s a brief summary. If you did, skip the next paragraph.

Etienne Houvet
Etienne Houvet

In a nutshell, Laughton – early in his career – was performing in Paris and came out to Chartres to see the Cathedral. He meets the Sexton and unofficial guide, a man named Etienne Houvet, who ‘teaches’ him the cathedral. He showed him each of the 130 or so windows and explains their stories. He made him return at different times of the day to experience the differences in the light through the legendary stained glass windows. Laughton came away amazed and moved, so much so that twenty years later, when he was back in Paris (and now famous), he went out to Chartres again for a reunion with Houvet, who again ‘taught’ him Chartres. Houvet would die a few years after that, and it wasn’t until later when Laughton visited the cathedral with the French artist Alfred Manessier that the two men came to realize an important connection in their lives. The way Laughton tells this story will give you goose bumps! I know it did that for me.

Now, we flash forward to sometime in the 1970s or 1980s when my brother and sister-in-law went on a series of trips to France, a place they both love. On one of these trips they went to Chartres and were moved by the place. Several times, my brother Rick urged me to go to France and to see Chartres. It was a piece of advice that I never forgot, advice I’m very grateful for today.

So with Laughton’s story and brother Rick telling me I had to see Chartres, I knew I had to do this sometime in my life. And while we wanted to visit and live in France for many reasons, this was a very personal reason for me.

IMG_0732Etienne Houvet, Charles Laughton’s Chartres Guide, died in 1949; and after a gap of seven years, a young man named Malcolm Miller came to Chartres and at some point he too began to ‘teach’ the cathedral to anyone who would listen. Fifty-eight years later, he’s still there teaching thousands of people! Miller tells his listeners that he continues to learn more and more about this great building and the hold it has had on people for over eight hundred years. Here’s just a short clip of a much younger Malcolm Miller in action (Click Here). Here he is today, now past 80 (Click Here).

Miller has written at least three books about Chartres and also translated and edited Houvet’s own earlier book about Chartres (which I bought earlier this year).

So that’s why we had to go to Chartres! A full report coming in the next post! Lots of pictures, too!

In the meantime, view this amazing light show on the front facade of the Chartres Cathedral that was done sometime this year. (CLICK HERE!)


One thought on “Chartres, Part One

  1. Loved the Charles Laughton story and the Malcolm Miller clips! I’m in awe of the artistic vision and technological expertise that produced the spectacular Chartres light show.


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