We’re on the home straight now in this series on the Île de la Cité with this fourth part about the Palais de Justice. First things first though. The Palais de Justice is really two things. It can refer to the Palais de la Cité complex, which includes the Conciergerie and Sainte-Chapelle. But it can also refer to the overground buildings containing the courtrooms. In this post I’ll focus more on the activities in the overground buildings, but there’s a little bit of a mix.
Justice has been served at the palace ever since Medieval times when the kings of France still lived there. Over the years, successive kings added and developed the palace, and the complex surrounding it – for example, the addition of Sainte-Chapelle by Louis IX. Philip IV (‘le Bel’) reconstructed and added parts to the palace, most notably the ‘chambres’ which each performed a specific function within government. The ‘Chambre des Comptes’, for example, was the Treasury, and had its own quarters in the Palais.
Later on, in 1364, the king at the time, Charles V, moved off the island and took up residence in the no-longer-existing Hotel Saint-Pol, closer to the Bastille fortress. Despite this, the palace still functioned as a treasury and courthouse. The Conciergerie, which lies beneath the palace, also continued in its role as a prison.
Its story gets really interesting just after the start of the French Revolution. In 1792, three years after the storming of the Bastille, the Reign of Terror began with the capture of the Tuileries Palace by a group known as the Sans-Culottes, and the arrest of the king, Louis XVI. In the September of 1792, the Sans-Culottes massacred 1,300 prisoners over the course of four days, and then in 1793, the Revolutionary Tribunal was established. It based itself in the Palais de Justice, and used the Grand Salle (pictured above) for its meetings.
In these meetings, the now infamous, Maximilien Robespierre had the Law of Suspects passed which acted to remove nearly all the rights of prisoners brought before the Tribunal. If convicted, prisoners were not allowed an appeals process, and if sentenced to death, that penalty could be carried out on the same day, usually only hours later.
Many prisoners who were already imprisoned in the Conciergerie were brought up to the courtrooms and tried, and as mentioned in the Conciergerie post, Marie Antoinette was tried and convicted here on 16th October 1793.
As time went on, anyone who opposed Robespierre was brought before the Tribunal, convicted and guillotined. By July 1794, an average of 38 people were tried and executed per day! July 1794 also saw the downfall of Robespierre and the Reign of Terror. His public support was starting to dwindle. The Revolutionary Tribunal was abolished on May 7th 1794, having put 2,780 people to death over 718 days. Just over two months later, on 28th July, Robespierre was arrested just after he tried to shoot himself. He was then tried and executed in the hours following the arrest.
Public opinion of Robespierre has fluctuated over the years. In some ways, he did some good in France. He was very anti-slavery, and played a part in abolishing slavery in France. He also advocated having price controls imposed upon basic foods to support the lower classes. What is quite remarkable though is that he was apparently quite anti-death penalty. Clearly, he changed his mind, and now opinions are pretty negative as historians highlight his attempts at the radical purification of politics, killing those who stood in his way.
Despite it’s slightly blood-stained past, the Palais de Justice is still a functioning court house, and home to many legal offices. The ‘premiere chambre‘ is one of the open courtrooms which is able to be visited when there is no session. Be warned, it is very yellow, but the ceiling is pretty cool!
It won’t take you an entire day, in fact not even an afternoon, to visit this part of the Palais complex. Connie and I just popped our head in really on our way to the Notre Dame, but it’s worth a look!
Next week’s post will be the final part of the Île de la Cité series, and will cover the famous Notre Dame. We went up the towers of the cathedral, and despite the number of stairs, it’s well worth it! But I won’t spoil it now. Until next time!