When visiting the Conciergerie, you are visiting the greatest royal palace in Europe in the Middle Ages, and the most notorious prison in French history. The Conciergerie is located on the Ile de la Cite, a birthplace of Paris, and with the Sainte Chapelle is a part of the Palace of Justice. Read on to find out how once the exemplary residence of the French kings became an infamous prison and a torture chamber.
Turning the Conciergerie from royal palace into a prison
The Conciergerie and the Palace of Justice stand on the grounds previously occupied by the Roman governors’ residence, continuing the established tradition as the seat of power until the end of the 14th century. Philip the Fair had commissioned the present building in the same century, which was abandoned by the following kings in favour of the Louvre. The care of the former royal palace was entrusted to the royal governor, called “the concierge”, thus its present name.
Approximately at the same time, the institution of the Palace of Justice was established, which lead to the establishment of the oldest prison in Paris. Especially notorious, the Conciergerie was referred to as “the antechamber of the guillotine” during the revolutionary Reign of Terror (1793 – 1794). Political prisoners, revolutionary opponents and people who simply weren’t supportive of the revolutionary cause were sentenced at the revolutionary court in short order. Whoever entered the Conciergerie back then was swiftly deprived of any hope of salvation, even before the formal trial.
The Great Hall of the Conciergerie
As you enter the building, you access directly to the grand hall, which is huge in proportion. This four-aisled hall used to be the centre of the political life, where countless receptions, schemes and feasts took place. This Gothic masterpiece was able to admit around thousand invitees under its vaults.
During the revolutionary terror, it was a reception facility for the newly arrived prisoners, where the interrogations were conducted. Simultaneously, the convicts sentenced to death departed from this very hall toward the execution place, providing a hint to the arriving prisoners what’s awaiting them.
The Great Hall is adjoined with the Hall of the Men-at-Arms, which used to be the guard room. Hints of the Conciergerie’s turbulent history can also be seen here.
The Conciergerie as a prison
Once the “reception” was complete, the prisoners were escorted to the cells. Excessively confined, those cells tended to be stuffed with a bunch of inmates, where people couldn’t sit properly, much less lie down and rest. Needless to say that the spread straw was infested with vermin.
However, the guards were vulnerable to bribes, and the wealthier inmates were allowed to enjoy the cell with a bed, even a working space for more “generous” bribe.
Numerous well-known prisoners had their last days spent in these cells. Certainly the most famous are Marie-Antoinette, the wife of Louis XVI (who was guillotined months in advance), Charlotte Corday, who murdered one of the revolutionary champions in the bath, Francois Ravaillac, good king Henri IV’s assassinator, and Maximilien Robespierre, a Jacobin leader, whose beheading ended the Reign of Terror in 1794. Detailed information is provided by the informative boards and publications.
Along the way, you’ll be taken into the chapel where the Girondins, the members of the less radical revolutionary fraction, were captured by the Jacobins in 1793 while awaiting the execution. On the eve of execution, they made a feast in the very chapel.
The reconstructed Marie-Antoinette’s cell (in the photo), which was probably located next to the chapel, displays the former queen’s last residence before beheading. The mannequin representing Marie-Antoinette, in the black veil, is accompanied by the one representing the guard, while observing her activities unnoticed.
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The Women’s courtyard
Women were, in general, treated slightly better in the Conciergerie; the fresh air and a piece of sky were allowed to them in this courtyard. Even men were privy to such a luxury occasionally, but they were to be confined in the fenced area.
Prepare your visit
The Conciergerie operates from 09:30 to 18:00, with last admissions 30 minutes prior to the closing time. The full price ticket is 8.50 EUR (9.10 USD), while the ticket combining the Sainte Chapelle (which is also within the Palace of Justice complex) and the Conciergerie is 13.50 EUR (14.50 USD). Paris Museum Pass holders have free entrance. Two hours are more than enough to explore the Conciergerie properly.
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