Located on the island near the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, La Conciergerie was the first royal palace in the French capital and the seat of power for several centuries. In 1391 it was converted for use as a prison and gained its international infamy during the times of the French Revolution.
The palace is a part of the larger complex known as the Palais de Justice and it is located on the west of the Île de la Cité – one of the two remaining natural islands in the Seine in the centre of Paris and the area where the medieval city was founded.
La Conciergerie was the first royal palace in the French capital and for several centuries it served as the seat of French kings. With time it was extended and heavily fortified but in 1391 the building was transformed into prison. During the French revolution it gained its international infamy and became known as ‘antechamber to the guillotine’.
The west part of the island was the site of a Merovingian palace, and from the 10th to the 14th centuries it was the seat of the medieval Kings of France. Under Louis IX (1226–1270) and Philip IV (1284–1314) the Merovingian palace was extended and more heavily fortified. Louis IX added the remarkable Sainte-Chapelle, and associated galleries, while Philippe IV created the towered facade on the river side and a large hall. Both are excellent examples of French religious and secular architecture of the period and Sainte-Chapelle is considered to be among the highest achievements of the Rayonnant period of Gothic architecture. The ‘Grand Salle’ (Great Hall) was one of the largest in Europe, and its lower part, known as ‘La salle des gens d’armes’ is 64 m long, 27.5 m wide and 8.5 m high. It was used as a dining-room for the 2,000 staff who worked in the palace as well as for royal banquets and judicial proceedings. The early Valois kings continued to improve the palace in the 14th century, but Charles V abandoned it in 1358, moving across the river to the Louvre. The palace continued to serve an administrative function, and still included the chancellery and French Parliament.
In 1391 the building was converted for use as a prison. Its prisoners were a mixture of common criminals and political prisoners. Their treatment was very dependent on their wealth, status and connections: while the richer ones could afford for their own cells with a bed, desk and materials for reading and writing, the poorest ones were confined to dark, damp, vermin-infested cells called oubliettes (literally ‘forgotten places’) and were left to die in conditions that were ideal for infectious diseases and plagues, which were common in the unsanitary conditions of the prison.
During the most bloody stage of the French revolution, known as’ Reign of Terror’ the prison housed the Revolutionary Tribunal as well as up to 1,200 male and female prisoners at a time. The Tribunal sat in the Great Hall and sent nearly 2,600 prisoners to the guillotine. Among the most famous prisoners and victims of the prison were among others Marie Antoinette, the poet André Chénier, Charlotte Corday, Madame Élisabeth, Madame du Barry.
After the restoration of the Bourbons in the 19th century, the Conciergerie continued to be used as a prison for high-value prisoners — most notably the future Napoleon III. Marie Antoinette’s cell was converted into a chapel dedicated to her memory.
As it was written in the previous chapter the building with its interior and the whole design is an excellent example of French religious and secular architecture of the period. Sainte-Chapelle is also considered to be among the highest achievements of the Rayonnant period of Gothic architecture.
The Conciergerie was decommissioned in 1914 and opened to the public as a national historical monument. It is today a popular tourist attraction, although only a relatively small part of the building is open to public access — much of it is still used by the Paris law courts.
The Conciergerie and Palais de Justice were rebuilt in the mid-19th century, and totally changed their external appearance. While the buildings looks like a brooding medieval fortress, this appearance actually only dates from about 1858. An interesting fact is also that the great hall used to be the largest one in Europe.
From the gorgeous chapel I sink into the emptiness and sadness of the famous prison from the French Revolution, bringing tales of terror, death and guillotines – the least beautiful side of history.