Part 2 of my Île de la Cité ventures took me to the Conciergerie, has been at times a prison, a royal residence, and is now a museum and functioning courts. This, along with Sainte Chapelle, are the last remnants of the oldest royal palace in France, which is pretty awesome. Before starting this properly, this one will be more of a history lesson than photographical exhibition, so you have been warned!
Way back in the 6th century, the first king of France, Clovis, established his royal residence on the Île de la Cité, creating the beginnings of the Palais de la Cité complex. In 1200, Philip II made the complex the official seat of royal power. Later, Louis IX (or Saint Louis) majorly renovated and enhanced the palace, beginning works on Sainte Chapelle.
The lower parts of the Conciergerie are now all that remain of the oldest medieval parts, and the first parts you come to.
The Salle des Gens d’Armes was constructed in 1302 and is a classic example of Gothic civil architecture. The vaulting is incredible and creates quite a sense of drama to go with the location’s rich history. Back in the 14th century, it was heated using the 4 huge fireplaces which run along the sides of the room. I’ve included Connie here for a bit of scale:
If we skip forward a few hundred years, we get to Revolutionary France. From 1789-1799, the Revolution was in full swing, and the symbols and seats of royal authority were taken over. The Conciergerie was no exception and, from 1793, was used as a prison, with the courts above housing the main institution for exceptional justice: the Revolutionary Tribunal.
Unlike today, the prisoners who were incarcerated here were allowed to ‘trade-up’ their accommodations for a price. The poorest were given straw to sleep on in cells with other detainees, whilst those with a bit of money could stay in relative comfort – i.e. an uncomfortable bed, maybe fewer rats. Unfortunately the cells that exist today are not of the time, but reproductions to illustrate the conditions.
One of the most famous prisoners was Marie Antoinette, the ‘let them eat cake’ Queen of France, and wife to Louis XVI. On a sidenote: there is no evidence of Marie Antoinette ever saying this, and some say the entire anecdote is made up! Either way, Marie Antoinette was definitely detained here in the 76 days before her execution. It is said that she had to change her cell following a failed attempt to free her. Despite the endeavours at liberation, she was still executed by guillotine on 16th October 1793 following a two-day trial.
Today when you visit the Conciergerie, you can visit the Chapel of Marie-Antoinette, located on the site of her actual cell. It was converted by her brother-in-law, Louis XVIII in 1815 during the Restoration and features a stained glass window bearing the initials MA.
Moving through the chapel, you head outside to the ‘women’s courtyard’ where the female prisoners were allowed to take daytime walks, surrounded by two floors of cells. It still keeps its oppressive prison vibes, even though I’m 99% certain all that surround it now are offices.
I’ll leave the history lecture here for today. As I mentioned at the start this is part two of five pieces on the Île de la Cité, the first being the Marché aux Fleurs. Next time, I’ll be talking about Sainte Chapelle, so keep a look out for that! If you want to find out more about the Conciergerie, their website can be found here.