The Conciergerie was many things: A Roman governor’s fortress, a palace building for the first French kings, a courthouse, and an infamous prison that once held Marie-Antionette. But one thing has always remained the same: the Conciergerie has always been a center for justice, be it roman or republican, royal or revolutionary.
The Conciergerie is a major building in the palace complex on the Île de la Cité in Paris, France. The history of the building and its site stretch back over two thousand years. Before the city of Paris as we know it was established, the area was first settled by Romans following the conquest of Gaul under Julius Caesar. The Romans were attracted to the island in the Seine as it offered a natural moat and protection from Gallic and Frankish raids, while also exerting control over the trade on the Seine and northern Gaul. The town of Lutetia was thus organized around the site, integrating the native Parisii tribe (From whom we get the name Paris) and becoming the main fortress of the Roman governor.
In 508, as the Roman Empire was collapsing, King Clovis of the Salian Franks successfully conquered northern Gaul from the Romans and established his palace on the Île de la Cité. Clovis is often considered to be the first king to unite what would become France, ruling over a spread of Frankish tribes from Gascony to the southern Netherlands. The Merovingian dynasty he founded would rule old France for over two hundred years, and were then succeeded by the Carolignians.
The Carolignians had moved the capital east, closer to Germany, but when the Capetians succeeded them as rulers of France in the 11th century they returned to Paris, redeveloping the entire island into a palatial complex. From the 11th to the 14th centuries, it was the main palace of the medieval kings of France. During the reigns of Louis IX (Saint Louis) (1214–1270) and Philip IV (Philip the Fair) (1284–1314), the Merovingian palace was enlarged and strengthened. Under the Capetian cadet dynasty of the Valois, the Conciergerie would assume its current form as one-third of the palace complex. The three main buildings are the Sainte-Chapelle, the Conciergerie, and the Cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris.
Louis IX added the Sainte Chapelle and its associated galleries, while Philip IV created the high façade on the banks of the Seine and the great hall. Both are fine examples of French religious and secular architecture of the period, with Gothic stylings and beautiful stained glass windows. The Sainte-Chapelle was built lavishly in the French royal style to house the holy crown of thorns brought back from the Crusades and to serve as the royal chapel. The “Grande Salle” (Great Hall) was one of the largest in Europe, and its lower floor, known as “La Salle des Gens d’Armes” (Soldiers’ Hall), has survived as the largest secular Gothic room in Europe. It was used as a dining room for 2,000 employees who worked in the palace. The adjoining Salle des Gardes was used as an antechamber to the Great Hall directly above it, where the king held his “lit de justice” (Formal sessions of parliament presided over by the King, so as to confirm his royal edicts).
The early Valois kings continued to modify the palace into the 14th century, but Charles V abandoned the palace in 1358, moving across the river to the Louvre Palace (now a famous museum). The island palace, while no longer the home of the king, continued to function as the administrative center of the Kingdom of France. It housed the chancellery and the first parliament in French history, the parliament of Paris, codified in 1302. The kings appointed concierges (advisors) to manage the palace in their stead, which gave the building its eventual name as the Conciergerie.
The Conciergerie was adapted to house the legal institutions of the Kingdom. In 1391, the lower floors were converted into a prison, while the lower and middle courts of Paris were installed in the upper floors. The prisoners were a mixture of common criminals and political prisoners. As in other prisons of the time, the treatment of prisoners depended on their wealth, status and environment. Wealthy or influential prisoners usually had their own cells with a bed, a table, and reading and writing materials, and could receive visitors. Less well-to-do prisoners could afford to pay out-of-pocket for sparsely furnished cells, known as pistoles after the small coins that were used by prisoners. These would have a rough bed and possibly a table. The poorest were imprisoned in dark, damp, parasite-infested cages known as oubliettes (literally, “forgotten places”). As the name suggests, there was little regard for their well being. Plague, waterborne diseases, and infections were common occurrences and deaths were frequent. Under the callous nature of medieval justice, these prisoner deaths were convenient for the courts as it meant the royal prosecutors no longer had to bring them to trial. Instead, the matter of guilt or innocence was handed over to God in the afterlife.
Four towers survive from the medieval Conciergerie: Caesar’s Tower, named after Julius Caesar, the Silver Tower, which held much of the royal treasury, the Bonbec (“good talker”) Tower, which held a torture chamber in which victims were “encouraged” to talk, and the Clock Tower, which when built in 1350 was the first public clock in Paris. The current clock dates from 1535 and still runs.
The Conciergie presided over centuries of royal justice, often cruel and merciless. Thus, when the French Revolution of 1789 struck down the monarchy of Louis XVI, the building found itself at the center of the new revolution.
The first Paris Commune of 1792 seized control of the city’s court system, transferring it elsewhere, but retained the prison. Most of the original prisoners had been released, in their stead the nobles, royalists, and former guards of Paris were jailed. Fears of a royalist attack on Paris in September 1792 caused revolutionary militants to massacre the prisoners in their cells. At least 1,300 prisoners, including some priests and those deemed sympathetic to the monarchy, were executed.
But above the prison cells, the upper floors of the Conciergerie, once the meeting place of the King’s judges, became the halls of the new Revolutionary Tribunal. On September 17, 1793, the National Assembly passed the Law on Suspects. This law declared that anyone who was considered a counter-revolutionary or an enemy of the Republic was guilty of high treason and thus sentenced to death. It was the duty of the Tribunal to find these counter-revolutionaries among the public, try them publicly, and execute them. For the accused, they faced one of two fates: acquittal, or death without the possibility of appeal. Antoine Quentin Fouquier-Tinville, a radical, was appointed prosecutor. The Tribunal sat in the Great Hall between April 2, 1793 and May 31, 1795, and sent about 2,600 prisoners to the guillotine. The Grand Chamber of the Palace was renamed the Hall of Liberty.
The Conciergerie became the main prison of a network of revolutionary prisons throughout Paris, and the last residence of at least 2,600 people who were summarily executed by the guillotine. The damp dungeons contrasted sharply with the beautiful architecture of the palace above. The quality of life of prisoners was determined mainly by their personal wealth and the whims of the jailers. The tradition of allowing prisoners to purchase better accommodations continued. Wealthier prisoners could rent a bed for 27 livres 12 sous for the first month and 22 livres 10 sous for subsequent months. Even when the price was reduced to 15 livres, the prison governors made a fortune: as the Terror escalated, a prisoner could pay for a bed and be executed a few days later, freeing up the bed for a new prisoner, who then paid the same. One memoirist of the Terror called the Conciergerie “the most profitable apartments in Paris.” The most famous occupants of the Concierge were Marie-Antionette, the former Queen of France, and Maximillian Robspeirre, radical revolutionary lawyer and architect of the Terror. Both would end up in the same prison cell at different points, and both would face the guillotine.
Trials and executions proceeded quickly and unpredictably; anyone could stand trial and be executed before the next morning. The sentenced convicts were led through the toilet room, where their personal belongings were confiscated. Then they were loaded onto carts in the May Court and taken to the guillotines all over Paris. Some of the prisoners held at the Conciergerie and executed were the poet André Chénier, Charlotte Corday, Madame Elisabeth, Madame du Barry, and the 21 Girondins who were purged at the beginning of the Terror. The deaths of the Girondins in effect gave the radicals a free hand to conduct the Terror. Later, Georges Danton awaited his execution here, and during the Thermidorian reaction, Robespierre himself was briefly interned before his execution at the hands of the system he designed.
After the Bourbon restoration in the 19th century, the Conciergerie continued to be used as a prison for important prisoners, most notably the future Napoleon III. Marie Antoinette’s cell was converted into an elaborate chapel dedicated to her memory in mourning. The Conciergerie and the Palais de Justice underwent a major refurbishment in the mid-19th century, which drastically changed their appearance. Although the building looks like a brooding medieval fortress, the Gothic revivalist exterior facade between the towers actually dates from around 1858.
The Conciergerie’s prison was decommissioned in 1934. Portions of the building were opened to the public as a National Historic Landmark in 1914. It is now a popular tourist attraction, although only a relatively small part of the building is open to the public; much of it is still in use as part of the Parisian courts. The French Ministry of Culture has listed it as a historical monument since 1862.
Opening hours, ticket prices and information for tourists.
Tickets to tour the Conciergerie are 11.50 euros per person, however children and young adults 25 years old or younger can visit for free. The ticket includes access to HistoPad, an augmented reality app produced by the French Center for National Monuments, that allows you to digitally explore hidden facets of the building’s thousand-year history. The building is open to the public from 9:30 AM to 6 PM. Each ticket has a time slot for entry, allowing a 30 minute window to start your tour. For example, a 10 AM ticket would allow entry between 10 and 10:30 AM. The Conciergerie is free during European Heritage Days (the 3rd weekend of September) and the 1st Sunday of the month (from January 1 to March 31 and from November 1 to December 31). A security check is required at the entrance.
Palace Conciergerie Paris private guided tours as request. .