At the heart of Paris, this iconic monument is a remnant of a large Palace that was once the residence of the French kings from the 10th to the 14th century. This palace used to cover a major share of the Ile de la Cité. Today, a large part of this former palace has been replaced by the Palais de Justice (“Justice Palace” literally translated to English, it is the largest tribunal of the Parisian city). The Conciergerie, on the Quai de l’Horloge, and the Sainte-Chapelle in the north-east of the island, represent the main remnants of the original palace; which was deserted by the French Kings in the late 14th century, after a decision of Charles the 5th and his successors, who chose to settle in the Palais du Louvres and the Château de Vincennes instead. The Conciergerie was then turned in a center of the French medieval judicial system and a prison.
This prison was, during the French Revolution, known as the “anteroom of the guillotine”, since only few prisoners got out of it alive. The queen Marie Antoinette was imprisoned there in 1793 before being executed.
In 1789, the year of the French Revolution, the Cité Palace hosted the main institutions of the French monarchy such as the Chamber of Accounts, the Chamber of Money, the Chamber of Assistance Funds, and above all, the Paris Parliament. Even after the parliament was replaced by six tribunals in november 1789, the Cité Palace remained at the heart of the French judiciary power: The Tribunal de Cassation was established there in 1791, along with other crucial administrative bodies in the field of State Finance, Police and Taxes.
The Cité Palace and the Conciergerie had a central role in the Terreur (literally “Terror” in English), the period that followed the French Revolution, between 1792 and 1794, which was characterized by State violence and numerous “guillotine” executions. During the Terreur, the Revolutionary Tribunal was established in the Cité Palace in 1793. From 1793 to 1794, 2700 individuals including Marie-Antoinette and Robespierre were tried there, many of which were guillotined.
As soon as the prisoner had been tried in front of the tribunal and condemned to death, he/she was separated from the other inmates and locked up in a special cell in a more remote part of the building. Some of these cells have been reconstructed in the museum of the Conciergerie, so that visitors today can imagine what the life of a prisoner was like during the French Revolution. Another very interesting aspect of the museum is that many original cells are still on display, and if you pay enough attention, you will be able to spot writings on the walls, carved by prisoners of 1789 on death row. The historical value of these inscriptions is simply amazing.
This building also embodies the main political conflicts and contradictions that marked French history. In fact, during the “Restauration” in the beginning of the 19th century, a period in which the Bourbons came back to power with Louis the 18th, a chapel was built in the honor of Marie-Antoinette’s “martyrdom” to atone for the sins of the revolutionaries, inside the Conciergerie. It is a quite amusing to see inside a building that was a judicial center of the secular French Revolution, a chapel in the memory of a queen that was executed during the Terreur. This building itself bears the long and complicated heritage of French History.
As you visit the Conciergerie, do not forget to take the time to admire the Grand-Salle du Palais de la Cité. This very large hall at the entrance of the Conciergerie is the largest vestige of a gothic civil room in Europe, with impressive dimensions (64 meters long, with a width of 27.5 meters and a height of 8.5 meters). It was renovated and built by Philippe the 4th. This is where the king used to host receptions and very large dinners. If you are careful enough while looking at the pillars of this impressive hall, you should be able to spot a very interesting historical detail. There is, on a pillar near the back of the room, a mark indicating “Inondation 28 Janvier 1910”. It this is the level at which the waters of the Seine rose up to in the historically unique flood of 1910.
Another interesting detail of the Conciergerie is the clock of the Palais de la Cité. It is outside of the Conciergerie on the façade of the building. This clock is embedded in an annex tower that was built under the supervision of Jean the 2nd between 1350 and 1353. This tower played an important role in the defense of the Palace in the late Middle Ages, it was used by soldiers to watch the arrival of enemy troops. In 1370, the first public clock of Paris, elaborated by Henri de Vic, was placed on this tower. The two allegoric figures representing Law and Justice were burned during the French Revolution and restored in both 1852 and 1909; both of these dates appear below the dial. The Latin inscriptions on the first plaque mean: “The one who has already given him two crowns will give him a third one” – it might sound a bit obscure, but it was actually a reference to Henri the 3rd that was at the same time king of France and Poland (and was obviously believed to be able to become more at the time!). The inscriptions on the second plaque mean: “this machine that divides 12 equal shares to the hours teaches man to protect justice and defend laws”.
The Conciergerie and the Ile de la Cité in general show how messy French History can look like. It is a typical example of the kind of monuments you can find in Paris; it was built in the early Middle Ages on top of Roman foundations, then used by the monarchs before being left to justice administrations. It was also a center of the French Revolutionary activity, and was also claimed back by the monarchs of the French restoration. This historical roller coaster is part of what makes Paris unique.