Reims played a prominent ceremonial role in French monarchical history as the traditional site of the crowning of the kings of France. 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 has in the United Kingdom. It housed the Holy Ampulla (Sainte Ampoule) containing the Saint Chrême (chrism), allegedly brought by a white dove (the Holy Spirit) at the baptism of Clovis in 496. It was used for the anointing, the most important part of the coronation of French kings.
Some sources regard Reims as the de facto capital of the province of Champagne because it is the most populous city in the region. The 2008 census recorded 188,078 inhabitants (Rémoises (feminine) and Rémois (masculine)) in the city of Reims proper (the commune), and 291,735 inhabitants in the metropolitan area (aire urbaine).
Christianity had become established in the city by 260, at which period Saint Sixtus of Reims founded the bishopric of Reims. The consul Jovinus, an influential supporter of the new faith, repelled the Alamanni who invaded Champagne in 336; but the Vandals captured the city in 406 and slew Bishop Nicasius; and in 451 Attila the Hun put Reims to fire and sword.
In 496 – ten years after Clovis, King of the Salian Franks, won his victory at Soissons (486) — Remigius, the bishop of Reims, baptized him using the oil of the sacred phial – purportedly brought from heaven by a dove for the baptism of Clovis and subsequently 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 (752–757) with Pepin the Short, and of Pope Leo III (795–816) with Charlemagne (died 814), took place at Reims; and here Pope Stephen IV crowned Louis the Debonnaire in 816. Louis IV gave the city and countship of Reims to the archbishop Artaldus in 940. Louis VII (reigned 1137–1180) gave the title of duke and peer to William of Champagne, archbishop from 1176 to 1202, and the archbishops of Reims took precedence over the other ecclesiastical peers of the realm.
By the 10th century Reims had become a centre of intellectual culture. Archbishop Adalberon (in office 969 to 988), seconded by the monk Gerbert (afterwards (from 999 to 1003) Pope Silvester II), founded schools which taught the classical "liberal arts". (Adalberon also played a leading role in the dynastic revolution which elevated the Capetian dynasty in the place of the Carolingians.)
The archbishops held the important prerogative of the consecration of the kings of France – a privilege which they exercised (except in a few cases) from the time of Philippe II Augustus (anointed 1179, reigned 1180–1223) to that of Charles X (anointed 1825). Louis VII granted the city 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 French patriots expelled them on the approach of Joan of Arc, who in 1429 had Charles VII consecrated in the cathedral. Louis XI cruelly suppressed a revolt at Reims, caused in 1461 by the salt tax. During the French Wars of Religion the city sided with the Catholic League (1585), but submitted to Henri IV after the battle of Ivry (1590).
In the invasions of the War of the Sixth Coalition in 1814, anti-Napoleonic allied armies captured and re-captured Reims; in 1870–1871, during the Franco-Prussian War, the victorious Germans made it the seat of a governor-general and impoverished it with heavy requisitions.
In August 1909 Reims hosted the first international aviation meet, the Grande Semaine d'Aviation de la Champagne. Major aviation personages such as Glenn Curtiss, Louis Blériot and Louis Paulhan participated.
Hostilities in World War I greatly damaged the city. German bombardment and a subsequent fire in 1914 did severe damage to the cathedral. The ruined cathedral became one of the central images of anti-German propaganda produced in France during the war, which presented it, along with the ruins of the Cloth Hall at Ypres and the University Library in Louvain, as evidence that German aggression targeted cultural landmarks of European civilization.
From the end of World War I to the an international effort to restore the cathedral from the ruins has continued. 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 city suffered additional damage. But in Reims, at 2:41 on the morning of 7 May 1945, General Eisenhower and the Allies received the unconditional surrender of the German Wehrmacht. General Alfred Jodl, German Chief-of-Staff, signed the surrender at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) as the representative for German President Karl Dönitz.