The Île de la Cité is a small island located in the centre of Paris. Due to it’s location, it has been the site of royal residences and administrative centres for millennia. Today, many of the buildings are still used for civic functions, including the Prefecture, the Palace of Justice, and the Hotel Dieu. But there’s a lot to explore on the island as well, including some of the oldest and best preserved medieval architecture in the city. This past weekend, I decided to see some of that architecture up close when I paid a visit to the Conciergerie.
The Conciergerie is what remains today of the Palais de la Cité. This palace was a royal residence that was first built in the 6th century by Clovis, the first French king. Successive kings proceeded to build up the palace over the following centuries, and added connecting buildings such as Sainte-Chapelle. In the late 14th century, Charles V moved across the river to the Louvre, and the palace was turned over to a concierge for safekeeping. Hence today’s name of Conciergerie. It was at this time that the building was gradually transformed into a prison. And not just any prison. One of the most infamous and feared prisons in Paris.
Between 1793 and 1794, Paris was in the grip of what was later called the Reign of Terror. Over 4,000 people were imprisoned in the Conciergerie as suspects against the newly formed republic. The Revolutionary Tribunal was set up in the Palace of Justice next door where these suspects would be called to stand trial. Over 2,600 people were ultimately executed, with thousands more dying while awaiting trial. Wealthy prisoners could purchase some comforts, but by all accounts the Conciergerie was a miserable place. Prisoners were forced into cramped quarters, cells were infested with vermin, and disease ran rampant. Former prisoners later wrote of the fear that permeated the atmosphere, as no one knew when they would be called in front of the Tribunal. When they finally were, death sentences were often carried out immediately.
The Conciergerie hosted numerous famous figures during the Reign of Terror. Danton, Robespierre, Charlotte Corday, and Madame du Berry all spent time there. As did King Louis XVI’s sister, Madame Elisabeth. However, the most famous prisoner of the Terror spent 76 days in the Conciergerie in 1793. I’m talking, of course, about Marie Antoinette. After King Louis XVI was executed on January 21st, 1793, his former queen could only await her fate. On July 3rd, Marie Antoinette was separated from her son, and on August 1st, she was transferred to the Conciergerie. She would never see her children again.
Marie Antoinette spent the entirely of her imprisonment under guard. She was watched 24/7, and had absolutely no privacy. On October 14th, she was brought before the Revolutionary Tribunal, and on October 16th, a verdict was announced. The former queen had been found guilty on charges of high treason and conspiracy against the security of the state. Her hands were bound behind her, a leash was attached, and she was led out of the Conciergerie to be executed by guillotine that same day.
Today, there is an expiatory chapel where Marie Antoinette’s cell once stood, as the actual cell no longer exists. But do not let this dissuade you from visiting this extraordinary building. Extraordinary, and fascinatingly contradictory. The Conciergerie is home to both incredible beauty and immense sadness. You will stare in awe at the stunning architecture of the Hall of Arms, but then sombrely reflect on the momentous suffering that was endured within its walls. It is a building steeped in history, both good and bad, and it is an incredible place to visit. Especially if you want to know more about what Paris endured during the French Revolution.
Laura Moore is a professional storyteller who loves history and the many stories that make Paris one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Join one of her signature tours to learn the story of a city.