La Conciergerie, from royal palace to revolutionary prison
I first thought of the view of the Conciergerie as a background for my website and posted it with this idea. It fits my first novel, since the heroine of Mistress of the Revolution is jailed there, and the second one, since Roch Miquel, my protagonist in For the King works at the Préfecture de Police, then located at the back of the building (towards the center of picture, to the right of the single round tower).
It is an iconic view of Paris, and it conveys the urban feeling I am seeking. It had changed very little between the Revolution and the time of the painting (1858) and amazingly enough, since then. Only the ramshackle Préfecture has been demolished to make way for a more stately building. Look at this modern view:
The medieval origin of the building is obvious from the architecture of the towers. Indeed in the Middle Ages, this was the royal palace, the Palais de la Cité, after the island of the same name in the middle of the Seine River. It was home to King Louis IX, later Saint-Louis, who had the jewel-like Sainte-Chapelle built within its grounds.
It was also the seat of his grandson King Philippe IV le Bel, who put an end to the worldly (but not literary) existence of the Friar Templars. We owe Philippe the magnificent Salle des Gens d’Armes (Hall of the Men in Arms), one of the most impressive examples of lay Gothic architecture still in existence (left.)
But in the course of the 14th century, French Kings abandoned the Palace of the Cité, which, though no longer a royal residence, retained administrative functions, such as the Treasury. It became the seat of the Parliament of Paris, the highest court of justice in and around Paris until the Revolution.
The Parliament was abolished in short order, and the Revolutionary Tribunal settled in its former courtrooms. Thus it was convenient to transfer prisoners whose trial before the Tribunal was imminent to La Conciergerie beneath.
Men and women were housed separately, and those who could afford it were offered individual cells with modest furniture and the option of ordering catered meals. The rest of the prisoners made do with the dismal prison fare and the pailleux (collective cells with straw on the floor). In particular the Hall of the Men in Arms became a huge cage holding over a hundred male prisoners.
Women were housed around a yard with a fountain (visible on this picture to the right, behind the gates) where they could do a bit of toilette and wash any spare clothes. The women’s cells were left open during the day, allowing them the use of the yard, and communication through a gated corridor with the men’s quarters. All people could do was hold hands through the bars, but, as I note in Mistress, romances were brisk in this grim setting.
Marie-Antoinette herself spent the last months of her life at La Conciergerie. She was isolated from the other inmates, but the most amazing thing is that an escape attempt almost succeeded, and she was caught only after she had already left the prison, and was walking out of the courthouse. Security procedures were then severely tightened and she was kept to a cell with a high window opening onto the floor of the Women’s Yard, under constant surveillance.
Likewise all the revolutionary leaders who ended on the guillotine transited through La Conciergerie: Danton, Desmoulins, Hébert, Chaumette, Robespierre, Couthon, Saint-Just, Coffinhal and other Jacobins.
Today La Conciergerie is open to the public. The Hall of the Men in Arms has lost nothing of its medieval splendor, the Women’s Yard has barely changed since the French Revolution, and one can still follow the steps of the prisoners on their way to the guillotine. We don’t know which cells precisely housed Marie-Antoinette, but a memorial chapel was built during the Restoration.
The rest of the former royal palace is now the Palais de Justice, the main courthouse of Paris, housing the Superior Court, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court. One can (I should say must) also visit, through a different entrance, Louis IX’s Sainte-Chapelle. A place where history comes to life…