Conciergerie in Paris: Facts & History of a Palace turned Prison

Officially known as the Palais de la Cité, find out about the amazing history of the Conciergerie, from royal palace to courthouse. And meet its most famous prisoner, Marie-Antoinette.
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Paris is a city that lives and breathes history. From the Louvre to Notre Dame to the Sorbonne, it is a city that has managed to preserve its past. That historical allure is no better represented than the medieval royal castle on Ile de la Cité, one of the oldest in Paris.

Officially known as the Palais de la Cité, this historic castle fortress today attracts millions of visitors from around the world. It earned the nickname of the Conciergerie because it is here that a new royal position was created in the 12th century within the palace.

The Concierge was responsible for the administration of the lower and mid-level law courts within the Palace. The palace later took its name from this position.

And with that the concept of the concierge who is responsible for the proper functioning of the premises (usually a hotel or restaurant) was exported around the world.

So let’s find out more about the history of the Conciergerie and other interesting facts about this amazing monument. Allons-y!

1. Gallo-Roman settlement

During the Iron age between 250 and 225 BC, a sub-tribe of the Celtic Gauls, called the Parisii settled on the banks of the Seine. They began to build a type of walled fort called an oppidum in the 2nd century BC. Some historians believe that this was around Ile de la Cité, where the Conciergerie now stands.

In 58 BC, the Romans conquered the region calling it Lutetia and building castle walls on Ile de la Cité, some of the foundations of which are still around today. (The comic books Asterix and Obelix centers around the intrepid Gauls fighting the dastardly Romans.)

A large Roman temple was located a few 100 yards away, where the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris stands today.

2. Construction of a fortress

Following the Romans, came the Franks, including Clovis I who made Paris his capital and lived in that ancient castle till his death in 511AD. Later, his successor Charlemagne would expand the empire east with Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) as his capital, and ignore Paris.

Large kitchens at the Palais de la Cité
Large kitchens at the Palais de la Cité

It would be the Capetian Kings (Hugh Capet and his descendants) who would return to Ile de la Cité as their base in the 10th century, and turn the old fortress into a palace.

The walls were reinforced, gates constructed, and large halls added, as the palace became the seat of administration.

3. Royal residence of Palais de la Cité

By the Middle Ages, the Palace on Ile de la Cité was a large royal residence and government including:

  • Salle de Roi – the meeting room nobles and for the royal council
  • Chambre de Roi – residence of the King
  • Chapel dedicated to Saint Nicholas
  • Chambre des Enquetes – which supervised public administration
  • Grand’Chambre – a high court where Parliament used to sit under the Old Regime.
  • Chambre des Comptes – chamber of the accounting and treasury of the kingdom,
  • Chambre civile – civil case hearings
  • Chambre criminelle – criminal case hearings
  • several new offices to support the management of the finances, administration and judicial system
Salle des Gens d'Armes
  • Salle des Gens d’Armes
  • Today you can still see the following rooms that date back to the Middle Ages, in the Palais de la Cité:

    • Salle des Gens d’Armes – Large hallway for armed guardsmen
    • Salle des Gardes – guardroom that was the antechamber to the Grand’Chambre
    • Large kitchens built by King Jean le Bon, where food supplies could be directly delivered by boats on the Seine river.

    All this new bureaucracy housed within the Palace led to a rapid expansion to contain all these offices.

    It also eventually led to conflict between the royal government and the nobles, who had their own high court in the Parlement de Paris which was also housed within the walls of the Conciergerie.

    4. Grosse Tour

    In the center of the Palace used to a donjon or tower, known as the Grosse Tour. It was 11.7 meters wide at the base, with walls three meters thick. When a new Grosse Tour was built across the Seine at the Palais de la Louvre, it was called the “New Tower”.

    This Grosse tower at the Conciergerie existed until 1776 when it was demolished. Today the Conciergerie has four remaining towers along the Seine, all of which date back to the Middle Ages.

    The façade of the towers is more modern however, having been rehabilitated in the early 19th century.

    Towers of the Conciergerie

    5. Tour Bonbec

    The oldest is the Tour Bonbec on the far right. It was built between 1226 and 1270 during the reign of Saint King Louis IX.

    The tower does not have a pleasant history, having been the Conciergerie’s primary torture chamber during the Middle Ages. It was said that prisoners tortured would sing like birds, with a “bon bec“, or beak open wide.

    It originally was a story shorter than the other towers, but was raised to match their height during a renovation in the 19th century.

    6. Tour de César and the Tour d’Argent

    The two towers in the centre of the Conciergerie that you see are the Tour de César and the Tour d’Argent which were built in the 14th century.

    Each has four levels. The top levels held the offices of the clerks of the court, both criminal and civil. The lower floors contained jail cells.

    7. Tour de l’Horloge

    The tallest tower is the Tour de l’Horloge which was constructed by King Jean le Bon in 1350. The tower is at the intersection of Boulevard du Palais and Quai de l’Horloge and contains the first public clock in Paris, made by Henri d’Vic, which was added in 1370.

    Tour de l'Horloge

    The sculptural decoration around the clock features the figures of Law and Justice which were added in 1585 by King Henry III. They were destroyed during the French Revolution but later restored.

    Originally, at the top of the tower was a bell, which was rung to announce important events in the life of the royal family, like Big Ben in London, England. However, the bell was removed and melted down during the Revolution.

    8. Sainte Chapelle

    At one end of the Palais de la Cité, you will find the Sainte Chapelle which was constructed in the 13th century by King Louis IX, later known as Saint Louis.

    crown of thorns
    Crown of thorns kept at Saint Chapelle and then Notre Dame de Paris (credit: Wikipedia)

    Saint Louis had earned a sainthood for bringing back the Crown of Thorns and other holy relics from the Crucifixion of Christ to France from Constantinople (today known as Turkey).

    Saint Chapelle was built in order to hold the holy relics. The lower level of the chapel served as the parish church, while the upper level was used only by the King and royal family.

    Sainte Chapelle

    Today when you walk into the chapel, you will notice the magnificent stained glass windows of the upper chapel. About half of them are original, while others have been restored over the ages.

    It is considered one of the most important monuments of Medieval art in Paris. You can read more about Sainte Chapelle here.

    9. Law Courts

    While the Palais de la Cité had housed law courts throughout much of the Middle ages, it was after the Revolution of 1789 that it took on a new importance, becoming its main function.

    Prison guard room
    Prison guard room

    On July 14, 1789, the fortress prison at Bastille Saint-Antoine was stormed by the revolutionaries and the country would never be the same again.

    Needing a new prison, the Parliament offices in the Conciergerie were moved to the Salle du Manège (“Riding Hall”) in the Tuileries Palace, before eventually moving to the Assemblée Nationale.

    The Conciergerie and Palais de la Cité was placed under the authority of the Mayor of Paris, as a tribunal and prison.

    10. Judgement at the Revolutionary Tribunal

    The most famous prisoner at Palais de la Cité was of course Queen Marie-Antoinette. After the execution of the former King Louis XVI, the revolutionaries debated what to do with the former Queen.

    To get rid of her, they decided to try her at Revolutionary Tribunal on accusations of high treason (to her native Austria), promiscuity and incestuous relations with her young son Louis-Charles.

    The Revolutionary Tribunal was set up in the Palais de la Cité in 1793, and Marie-Antoinette brought before it.

    Chair belonging to Marie Antoinette at the Conciergerie
    Chair belonging to Marie Antoinette at the Conciergerie

    Her 7-year-old son was separated from his mother and forced to testify that Marie-Antoinette had molested him, which she declared was a great affront to her as a woman and a mother.

    After a two-day show trial, she was found guilty on all charges and condemned to death.

    11. Marie-Antoinette’s prison cell

    Marie-Antoinette had previously been imprisoned in the Tower of Temple with her daughter nearby.

    After the revolutionary tribunal, however, she was moved to the Conciergerie, the tiny prison cells being a far cry from the palaces the Queen was used to.

    Marie Antoinette in prison
    Marie Antoinette in Prison – by Alexandre Kucharski (1741-1819), Musée CarnavaletParis Musées Collection

    Around 10 months after her husband, on 16 October 1793, Marie Antoinette was beheaded what is now Place de la Concorde in Paris, with the crowds jeering.

    Her last words are recorded as, “Pardonnez-moi, monsieur. Je ne l’ai pas fait exprès” or “Pardon me, sir, I did not do it on purpose”, after accidentally stepping on her executioner’s shoe.

    After the queen’s head fell, it was shown to the crowd, who responded by crying: “Vive la République!

    12. Maximilien de Robespierre imprisoned

    If Marie-Antoinette was its most famous prisoner, the 2nd most famous would be her nemesis, Maximilien de Robespierre.

    Robespierre was a lawyer who became one of most influential figures of the French Revolution. He was one of the leaders in charges against the King and Queen, passionately believing in a cause of the République.

    Bust of Maximilien de Robespierre at Palais de la Cité
    Bust of Maximilien de Robespierre at Palais de la Cité

    As part of the National Convention (which was more or less the Head of state at the time), he campaigned for universal manhood suffrage and the abolition of slavery. 

    However, he was so zealous in his actions to achieve his goals, (i.e. by sending people to their deaths), that he himself was arrested and imprisoned in the Conciergerie. He was guillotined just hours after his arrival, about 8 months after Marie-Antoinette in July 1794.

    13. Reign of terror

    Once the revolution was in full force, a period of great instability occurred. It was known as la Terreur, or the Reign of Terror.

    With warring sides and the balance of power constantly shifting, France was in a civil war with several revolutionary factions all claiming power.

    Massacres were common, such as the September massacre in 1792, when around 1500 prisoners were died over 4 days, many at the hands by lynch mobs.

    There are no exact figures, but estimates show that around 25,000 people were guillotined or massacred during the Reign of Terror, including several members of the Royal court.

    Rue de Paris corridor at the Conciergerie
    Rue de Paris corridor at the Conciergerie

    So many judgements and executions were taking place at the Conciergerie that the corridor to the prison cells earned the nickname the “Rue de Paris”. This was derived from the “Monsieur de Paris”, which was the nickname given to the executioner of the Revolutionary Tribunal who came to see the prisoners.

    When the Revolutionary Tribunal was finally abolished on May 7, 1795, it had a record of having put to death 2,780 people in a mere 718 days.

    14. Royal Restoration

    Following the Revolution, the Palace became the headquarters of the judicial system of France, but also continued as a prison under Napoleon Bonaparte.

    After the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, the Bourbon dynasty was restored, with Louis XVIII (the brother of Louis XVI) as King. The Palais de la Cité would however continue in its role as the headquarters of the law court system of France.

    15. Memorial Chapel

    Louis XVIII had a small chapel erected on the very spot of the queen’s cell to honor his deceased sister-in-law. You can see her initials on the alter and in a nearby glass-stained window.

    Memorial Chapel to Marie-Antoinette in her former prison cell
    Memorial Chapel to Marie-Antoinette in her former prison cell

    The chapel occupies both the space of her original cell and the nearby infirmary of the prison, where Robespierre was held before his trial and execution.

    16. Palais de Justice

    Today, parts of the museum at the Conciergerie and Saint-Chapelle are classified as national historical monuments and can be visited.

    The portion that contains the Palais de Justice however is still a working courthouse and is therefore closed to the public. It no longer holds prisoners, however.

    Frequently asked Questions

    Is the Conciergerie worth a visit?

    The inside of the Conciergerie is mostly empty, with a few prison cells having furniture inside to demonstrate conditions. There is a lot to read and experience, however this is unlikely to please small children. If you enjoy history, you will enjoy a visit to the Conciergerie.

    When is the best time to go?

    The area around Marie-Antoinette’s cell is quite narrow, so it can get quite crowded quickly. I would recommend going in the morning to visit, so that you can take it all at your leisure.

    Where to get tickets?

    You can get combined Conciergerie and Sainte-Chapelle skip-the-line tickets here.

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    If you enjoyed that article, you may enjoy reading more about the history of Paris. A bientôt!

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