A visit to the Conciergerie, Paris.

3 August 2012

Photo: my own.

The Conciergerie is a familiar, brooding site alongside the Seine in Paris. Its fat turrets give it the quaintly charming appearance of a fairytale palace, which is ironic considering its past as the most feared prison during the French Revolutionary Terror. It was known as the ‘antechamber of the guillotine’ as prisoners from all social classes and political leanings were transfered here when they were due to stand trial thanks to the fact that the infamous Revolutionary Tribunal met in the adjoining Palais du Justice. Of course, in the later period of the Terror, trials became the merest formality so a transfer to the Conciergerie meant almost certain death.

Photo: my own.

However, the Conciergerie was not always a prison and in fact started life as a royal palace, the seat of the early Kings of France between the 10th and 14th centuries, during which time the amazing Great Hall, with its beautiful arches was one of the biggest in all Europe and was the scene of opulent royal feasts, meetings and balls.

Photo: my own.

The entrance to the Conciergerie has changed since I first visited in 1989 and now you reach it via a small ticket office and then steps that lead you down directly into the huge great hall, where once Kings and Queens and their courtiers would have feasted, been amused, flirted and intrigued late into the night.

Photo: my own.

Photo: my own.

The Great Hall is an impressive chamber and one of the finest examples of Medieval architecture that you could ever hope to see – it’s beauty relying on a stark simplicity that is a contrast to the exquisite jewel like qualities of the neighbouring Sainte Chapelle.

Photo: my own.

Photo: my own.

When you visit now, you walk through the Great Hall and the Guardsroom, which was inhabited by about a hundred male prisoners during the Terror, the very lowest of the low who were forced to sleep on a straw covered, stinking, vermin riddled floor.

Photo: my own.

Photo: my own.

Beyond this lies a corridor lined with cells and a cluster of nasty little rooms where the jailors would interrogate new prisoners and those departing for the guillotine would have their hair cut off before their final journey. At times their paths would have crossed and we can imagine the pitying looks that the new arrivals would have cast across at the departing prisoners, knowing full well that they were about to be taken up to inhabit cells recently vacated by the people now dead.

Photo: my own.

Following in the footsteps of unfortunate prisoners during the Terror, you go up the narrow stone stairs to a whitewashed corridor on the first floor, pausing for a moment to go into a small room to your left, which is lined with the names of everyone guillotined in Paris during the Revolution. Here the names of Antoine de Saint-Just, Princesse Joseph de Monaco and Émilie de Saint-Amaranthe sit side by side alongside those of thousands of others including Rosalie de Lubomirska, the Duc and Duchesse de Lauzun, Camille and Lucile Desmoulins, Robespierre, Danton, Hérault de Séchelles, Madame Roland, Charlotte Corday, Madame Élisabeth, André de Chénier…

Photo: my own.

Around 2,600 people went to their deaths from the Conciergerie between 1793 and 1795. The grim white walls, the uneven stone floor and the cramped little cell where the executioner’s assistants sheared their hair, these were their last experience of being indoors before they were bundled into carts in the Court du Mai and taken to the guillotine.

Photo: my own.

Photo: my own.

The whitewashed corridor is lined with a few examples of how cells would have looked at the time – small, meanly decorated and cramped. Around 1,200 people, both men and women were imprisoned in the Conciergerie at any one time, crammed into every available space and even sleeping in the corridors, where the jailors prowled with their famously ferocious dogs.

Photo: my own.

Despite this, the atmosphere in the prison was not always bleak. The unfortunate prisoners knew that the Conciergerie was the last stop before they went to their deaths and so a lot of them did their best to make the most of the situation – either by calmly sorting out their personal affairs or by having short lived romances with fellow prisoners.

Photo: my own.

Conditions may have been harsh in the Conciergerie, but it was known that the jailors were open to bribes and so prisoners were able to meet up after the cells had been locked for the night.

Photo: my own.

The Conciergerie chapel is as simple and stark as the rest of the building and must have been a melancholy room indeed during the Terror. It was here, in October 1793 that the Girondins were imprisoned together and spent their final night before their execution feasting overlooked by the grilled balconies, where in times gone by female prisoners could hear Mass.

Photo: my own.

Marie Antoinette is said to have been kept in a cell adjoining the chapel, but this was turned into a shrine to the Queen and her family in the early nineteenth century with paintings commemorating the final days of the unfortunate Queen, an altar and memorial slabs dedicated to Louis XVI and Madame Élisabeth, who also passed through the doors of the Conciergerie in May 1794.

Photo: my own.

Photo: my own.

You come out of the chapel and step out into sunshine and fresh air, which must have been a relief after the fetid, overcrowded conditions of the prison during the Terror. The little courtyard is known as the Ladies Yard, as the female prisoners were kept in cells that overlooked it and mostly spared the revolting conditions that assailed the men.

Photo: my own.

Photo: my own.

In the mornings, the women’s cells were unlocked and they were free to spend their long, empty days as they pleased. The yard, the only outdoor space was a focal point for the unfortunate prisoners and they would gather here on a daily basis to take some exercise, converse and look up at the sky.

Photo: my own.

Photo: my own.

Male prisoners were also allowed to take the air but were confined to the small space behind the fence that you can see in the corner of this picture. The bars are not very wide but there is enough space to put your arm through if you wanted to hold hands, embrace or exchange love notes. You could even kiss if you wanted, the icy chill of the cold metal harsh against your cheeks.

Photo: my own.

Photo: my own.

Photo: my own.

The women must have stood just as I did, gazing up between the overhanging buildings at the sky overhead, wondering if they would ever be free to enjoy it properly again.

Photo: my own.

On the first of August 1793, Marie Antoinette was transfered from the Temple to the Conciergerie, where she was given the number Prisoner 280. She changed cell more than once thanks to abortive escape attempts and finally ended up in a cell beside the chapel, with windows that overlooked the yard although they were barred and she was forbidden to communicate with the other prisoners.

The Queen spent her days sequestered in her room, unable to go outside but no doubt able to hear the laughter and chatter of the women who passed beneath her windows. They must have gazed across at them too, wondering what the woman that they may once have known at Versailles looked like now and thinking how cruel it was that she was not even allowed to go outside.

Photo: my own.

A focal point of the women’s days was this fountain that stands in the yard. Here they could wash their meagre clothes and themselves, gossip about the other prisoners and exchange news about the outside world.

Photo: my own.

I love that the reconstruction of how the Queen’s cell hasn’t changed since my first visit in 1989. The cell isn’t actually one inhabited by Marie Antoinette, but it is suitably gloomy and sombre inside and does give a good idea of how conditions must have been for her in the final months of her life. There is a stark contrast between her former life at Versailles and the horrible little cell in the Conciergerie, where just like at Versailles, the poor Queen had no privacy.

Photo: my own.

As she sat in her cell, listening to the sounds of the other prisoners and the shouts of the jailors she must have reflected on the fact that not since childhood had she ever been truly free.

Photo: my own.

The carts that took prisoners to the guillotine left from this courtyard in front of the Palais du Justice. In films about the Revolution, such scenes are usually depicted against a backdrop of squalid Medieval buildings but in fact the prisoners said goodbye to the Conciergerie in splendid, even beautiful surroundings, no doubt gazing up at the tall windows and admiring the gracious symmetry of the buildings.

Photo: my own.

Photo: my own.

Further reading:

Last Letters: Prisons and Prisoners of the French Revolution 1793-1794

The Terror: Civil War in the French Revolution

The Terror: The Shadow of the Guillotine – France 1793-1794

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