The Conciergerie is a former prison which came to notoriety during the French Revolution, when over two and a half thousand counter-revolutionaries passed through its walls on the way to the guillotine. The building is situated on the site of a Merovingian palace and was initially know as ‘Palais de la Cité‘ and between the 10th and 14th centuries it was the seat of the Kings of France. The dramatic gothic ‘Hall of Soldiers’ was built during the early part of the 14th century and is the oldest surviving medieval hall in Europe. The hall is stunning, measuring 70m in length and 30m in width to call it dramatic would be an understatement.
The Conciergerie is only part of the much larger ‘Palais de Cité‘, now know as the ‘Palais de Justice‘. At the end of the 14th century, Charles V left the royal residence and appointed a steward or ‘concierge’ to run the palace and prison.
As one passes through the ‘Hall of Soldiers’ another pillared room appears to the right, this was the Guardroom, the antechamber of the Great Hall where the Revolutionary Tribunal sat in 1793. The Prisoners Gallery leads onto Marie-Antoinette’s Chapel which was built in 1815 on the spot where her cell stood. Passing through from the chapel one comes to ‘The Women’s Courtyard’, this is where prisoners washed their clothes and ate. One corner of the courtyard is known as the ‘Corner of the Twelve’ or ‘of last goodbyes’, this was where condemned prisoners would wait in groups of a dozen to be carted off to the scaffold or guillotine.
An interesting aspect of the exhibition in the prison is the different types of cell displayed. Very wealthy prisoners got their own cells with a bed and perhaps a desk with reading/writing materials. The more middle class prisoner was housed in a cell called a ‘pistole’ which would have contained a simple bed and table. The poorest prisoners slept on hay and were known as the ‘pailleux’ – from the French for hay ‘paille’ – they were confined to the worst of the cells. Dark, damp, and infested with rodents, many died from the plague or other infectious disease in these ‘oubliettes’ (literally ‘forgotten places’).
Though the tribunal only sat for just over two years from 2nd April 1793 to 31st of May 1795 thousands were tried and just over 2,600 sent to their death. In the aftermath of the revolution the prison was still used for high-value prisoners, such as the future Napoleon III. The Conciergerie was decommissioned in 1914, however much of the remaining parts of the ‘Palais de Justice’ are used to this day for the Paris law courts and are not open to the public.
GPS: 48.85601, 2.34549