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History of the Conciergerie

Peinture du Palais de justice

To visit the Conciergerie is to immerse oneself in the history and memory of an exceptional place of power, around two key periods in the history of France, the Middle Ages and the Revolution.

The heart of Paris and its History

Located in the heart of Paris, on the banks of the Seine, listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the Conciergerie is one of the oldest remains of the Palais de la Cité, residence and seat of power of the kings of France in the Middle Ages.

Transformed into a prison for the Parliament of Paris towards the end of the 14th century, the Conciergerie remained a major place of detention during the French Revolution with the installation of the Revolutionary Court. Its most famous prisoner was Marie-Antoinette. A commemorative chapel was built during the 19th century Restoration period on the site of her cell and is part of the tour.

Palais de la Cité, la Conciergerie depuis le Pont au Change
Palais de la Cité, la Conciergerie depuis le Pont au Change

© Jean-Christophe Ballot - Centre des monuments nationaux

A place of power

Since the Gallo-Roman period, the Ile de la Cité has been home to a temple on the east side, where the Notre-Dame cathedral now stands, and a fortress on its western side.  Residence of the Roman governors and then of the Frankish kings, the fortress became a palace with the advent of the Capetians, at the end of the 10th century. 

It is in the 13th and 14th centuries that the royal residence experienced its greatest development. Louis IX (1226 - 1270), the future Saint Louis, endowed his growing kingdom with specialized institutions in administrative, financial and judicial matters and launched major embellishment works of the Palace. Under his reign, the Sainte-Chapelle, monumental reliquary and chapel of the palace, the Treasury of the Charters, the Mercier Gallery linking the upper chapel to its dwelling and the Hall on the water dedicated to great receptions were built.

Panneau de médiation salle des Gardes

Administration Conciergerie - Centre des monuments-nationaux

A splendid Palace

Philip IV the Fair (1285 - 1314) continued the work of his grandfather by creating the administrative services essential to his centralized management and launched a major campaign to modernize the Palace in keeping with his ambitious political program. A new palace, larger, more comfortable, more luxurious, worthy of the power of the monarch, was built.

During this period, some of the rare examples of Gothic civil architecture that have survived were built:the Caesar and Silver Towers and the rooms of the Conciergerie, which correspond to the lower rooms of the former royal palace.

The Salle des Gens d'Armes with its keystones nestled at 8.5 meters in the vaults, its capitals with intertwined foliage, and its four large fireplaces all contribute to the impression of profound beauty that emanates from this uniquespace of civil Gothic architecture.

The Salle des Gardes, built between the end of the 13th century and the beginning of the 14th century, serves as an antechamber to the Grand' Chambre where the king held his court. The Grand'Chambre was also built at the time of Philip the Fair to house the Parliament of Paris, the highest court in the kingdom under the Ancien Régime, which was also responsible for registering royal decrees.

The capitals of the central pillars are sculpted and present alternately animal fights and scenes of human characters.

The medieval kitchens were built around 1353, during the reign of John the Good (1350 - 1364), and were mainly intended for the "common" of the King's Hotel - the servants.

Les tours d'Argent et de César

Caroline Rose - Centre des monuments nationaux

The Palace loses its function of royal residence and becomes the prison of the Parliament

In the 14th century, the Palace loses its residential function but the Parliament and the central administrations of the kingdom remain and do not cease developing their hold in the Palace.

A concierge, appointed by the king to ensure justice in the palace, transforms a part of the premises into a prison, a transformation that gives rise to the name "Conciergerie". 

From the 15th century until the Revolution, the Conciergerie was one of the most important prisons in Paris.

Famous prisoners of this period are the Count of Montgomery (1574), Ravaillac (1610), the Marquise de Brinvilliers (1676), the legendary brigand Cartouche (1721), the regicide Damiens (1757) and the Countess de la Motte (1786).

Vue sur le couloir des prisonniers

Philippe Berthé - Centre des monuments-nationaux

Revolution !

In March 1793,the Revolutionary Court is installed in the Grand' Chambre of the Parliament of Paris, renamed Salle de la Liberté.

In September 1793  the "law of the suspects" is adopted. The arrest of all enemies of the Republic, known or suspected, was ordered.

The prisoners who were detained in the prisons of Paris, as well as in some provincial prisons, and who had to appear before the court, were gradually transferred to the Conciergerie.

With its sinister reputation, the Conciergerie is often perceived as the new "living hell", as the Bastille was called before its demolition: an antechamber leading inevitably to death.

In reality, more than a third of the defendants escaped the death penalty between 1793 and 1795, except during the Great Terror (April to July 1794). The suspects, transferred from other prisons, were only incarcerated for a few days, awaiting their appearance before the Revolutionary Tribunal.

Among them were the Girondins (deputies of the Convention who were indicted by the Montagnards), Antoine Lavoisier (father of modern chemistry), André Chénier (a poet), and Danton, who was himself at the origin of the Revolutionary Court.

Many women were also judged for their ideas , such as Olympes de Gouges (author of the declaration of the rights of women and citizens), Charlotte Corday (Marat's murderer) and Manon Roland (a politician who became the muse of the Girondins).

Finally, Robespierre spent his last hours in prison and was executed the next day without trial.

At the worst moment of the repression, in the spring of 1794, up to six hundred men and women were crammed into dirty and overcrowded cells.

Entrée parcours révolutionnaire
Entrée du parcours révolutionnaire

Benjamin Gavaudo - Centre des monuments-nationaux

Marie-Antoinette in the Conciergerie

During the night of the 1st and 2nd August 1793, Marie Antoinette, who had been incarcerated for ten months in the Temple prison, was transferred to the Conciergerie. As soon as she arrived, Marie Antoinette was taken directly to the cell reserved for her. The former queen, held "incommunicado", was totally isolated from the other prisoners. 

The trial of Marie Antoinette opened on the morning of October 14. In addition to the accusations of treason and squandering of national funds, Marie-Antoinette was accused of incest with her son, the young "Louis XVII". Indignant, Marie-Antoinette "appealed to all mothers" and to their compassion. On October 16, at four o'clock in the morning, after 20 hours of uninterrupted debates, the verdict of death falls, followed by the execution at 12:15 am on the Place de la Révolution (now the Place de la Concorde).

Le jugement de Marie-Antoinette d'Autriche au tribunal révolutionnaire
Le jugement de Marie-Antoinette d'Autriche au tribunal révolutionnaire

Benjamin Gavaudo - Centre des monuments-nationaux

From prison to historical monument

After the Revolution, the Conciergerie remains a prison, although it is reorganized for security reasons several times, but also to slightly improve the conditions of incarceration. Famous prisoners and those considered particularly dangerous threats to public order followed one another there: from the Chouan leader Cadoudal in 1804 to the anarchist Ravachol in 1892, including Marshal Ney, condemned for his support of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815, and even the latter's nephew, Louis Napoleon, future Napoleon III.

When Louis XVIII (1815 - 1824), younger brother of Louis XVI, came to power, the Conciergerie became one of the main places of royalist memory. At the request of the sovereign, an expiatory chapel was erected on the site of the former cell of Marie-Antoinette in 1816. 

From 1812 onwards, the palace underwent several restorations under the responsibility of the architect Antoine Marie Peyre, who was appointed as the project manager. 

The Salle des Gens d'Armes was the first to be restored to its original state. The Salle des Gardes, cleared of its dungeons, followed. Then, from 1820 to 1828, a neo-Gothic façade was built between the Clock Tower and the Bonbec Tower. From 1847 to 1871, a facade was erected on the Boulevard du Palais while the Clock Tower was restored.

The fire during the Paris Commune in 1871 devastated a large part of the recently completed law courts, the Gothic parts of the Conciergerie were preserved but needed to be restored: a new campaign took place in 1876. 
Despite all these interventions, the integrity of the overall plan of the medieval rooms was preserved. Similarly, the aesthetic value and symbolic importance of the Palais de la Cité have been preserved. 

The Conciergerie was classified as a historical monument in 1862. A part of the monument was open to visitors in 1914. The prison activity was definitively suspended in 1934.

Visiteurs à l'entrée de la Conciergerie

Didier Plowy

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