Conciergerie – old jail of the Palais de Justice
The Conciergerie is one of the landmarks of the Ile de la Cité.
The Gallic tribe Parisii built their oppidum on the island.
Some 2000 years ago, the Romans conquered the Gauls and transformed the oppidum into a thriving city.
Their Governors Palace later became the official residence of the kings of France.
The kings steadily transformed, enlarged and improved it from the 5th to the 12th century.
King Philip the Fair built the Conciergerie in 1300, in order to house the prison and the law courts and the administrative and financial services of the kingdom.
The French kings left their old palace to the Louvre in the early 15th century.
The Palais has since been solely devoted to the judiciary, hence its name Palais de Justice – Palace of Justice.
The Conciergerie served on and off as prison.
It includes four towers (Tour Bonbec, Tour Cesar, Tour Argent and Tour de l’Horloge), Salle des Gens d’Armes, Salle des Gardes, Salle Haute or Salle des Pas Perdus, Galerie Marchande, Cuisines Saint-Louis, Rue de Paris and Galerie des Prisonniers, Marie-Antoinette’s cell and Chapelle Expiatoire, Cour des Femmes and Préau des Hommes.
The Conciergerie’s four towers are located on the northern side.
The Tour Bonbec, the oldest, was built in 1250 and served as prison.
It was initially crenellated; its pepper-pot roof only dates from the 16th century.
Its name emerged in the 15th century, when it housed the Salle de la Question – torture room.
In Old French bec meant mouth, hence its nickname of Bon Bec as the poor prisoners always ended up confessing what was expected of them!
In 1300 King Philip the Fair demolished the Hôtel des Comtes de Bretagne and its outbuildings in order to built the Conciergerie, but kept the Tour Bonbec.
The purpose of this new building was to house the kingdom’s legal, administrative and financial services.
The Concierge, the provost in charge of the royal palace, was one of the dignitaries of the kingdom.
He exercised the right to justice.
Tour d’Argent and Tour César
The four-storey towers with pepper-pot roofs were built in 1300.
The jail was transferred from the Tour Bonbec to the towers’ ground-floor.
Tour de l’Horloge – Clock Tower
The Tour de l’Horloge was built in 1353.
In 1371 Charles V commissioned the installation of the clock, the first public clock in Paris.
It is decorated with Latin inscriptions, the royal monogram and low reliefs symbolizing Justice on the right side, and Law on the left.
The clock was severely damaged and the original bell melted during the French Revolution.
The clock maker Lepaute restored it in 1849 and the sculptor Toussaint reproduced the sculptures to the identical.
The vaulted Oratoire de la Reine Blanche, one of Charles V’s favourite rooms, is located on the upper floor.
Salle des Gens-d’Armes – Hall of the Men-at-Arms
The Salle des Gens-d’Armes is located on the original level of the Ile de la Cité, which is today below street level.
The Salle Saint-Louis, as it is also known, is the entrance to the Conciergerie.
Built in 1300, it is to this day the largest surviving medieval hall in Europe.
The gigantic hall (69,3m long by 27,4m wide) consists of four vaulted halls that boast an amazing display of columns with carved capitals.
It served as foundations for the Salle Haute – Upper Great Hall and led to the Cuisines Saint-Louis and the Salle des Gardes.
Cuisines Saint-Louis – kitchens
King Jean le Bon commissioned the construction of the Cuisines Saint-Louis in 1353.
These kitchens were located in a two-storey square pavilion.
The kitchens – and the western side of the palace – were destroyed during the fire of 1776.
Their ground floor was rebuilt and partitioned into small cells in 1825 in order to enlarge the prison.
All that is left is the fully restored staircase that connected their upper floor to the Salle des Gens d’Armes.
Salle des Gardes – Guardroom
The Salle des Gardes is located on the lower floor of the Conciergerie.
This 23m long by 12m wide hall is another splendid illustration of Gothic architecture.
It was built in 1300 on the site of the Hôtel des Comtes de Bretagne.
Columns with capitals sculpted with animals and human representations support the single vaulted room .
The Salle des Gardes served as prison for men during the Revolution.
Salle des-Pas-Perdus or Salle Haute
A spiral staircase once connected the Salle des Gardes to the Salle Haute (Upper Great Hall).
It was destroyed by a fire in 1618 and was rebuilt in 1622.
It has become the current Salle des Pas-Perdus, the waiting room of the Law Courts.
The Salle Haute communicated with King St-Louis’ private apartments, the current First Civil Court.
The Galerie Marchande or Mercerie du Palais overlooked the main courtyard – Cour du Mai.
It connected the Salle Haute to the Sainte-Chapelle.
The countless shops and stalls that bordered it turned it into one of the liveliest areas of the palace.
Its western facade was restored after the fire of 1776.
Rue de Paris and Galerie des Prisonniers
The Conciergerie served as a prison during the French Revolution.
The Rue de Paris still connects the Guardroom to the Conciergerie’s entrance – guichets.
It was named after the executioner, commonly known as Monsieur de Paris, as tradition dictated that his name should not be used.
It leads to the eerie Galerie des Prisonniers.
This narrow corridor is lined with a series of small cells.
The wealthiest prisoners could afford a bed and a table, the others slept on straw thrown on the ground.
However, all left the Conciergerie via the guichets and climbed on ox-drawn carts that waited for them in the Cour du Mai and took them to the sordid guillotine.
These wickets are disused but still exist and remained the official access to the prison until 1825.
Chapelle des Girondins
The Galerie des Prisonniers is also linked to the prison’s chapel, on the upper floor.
This chapel was renamed Chapelle des Girondins after the Revolution.
On October 29, 1793, the Revolutionary Court sentenced to death the 21 moderate members of the Girondins parliamentary group.
The Girondins spent their last night – October 29 to 30 – gathered in the chapel, where they shared a fraternal last meal.
They also kept watch over the body of one of them.
The deputy Dufriche-Valazé indeed committed suicide to avoid the guillotine.
Queen Marie-Antoinette’s Cell – Expiatory Chapel
Marie-Antoinette spent the 76 last days of her life in a tiny cell, which no longer exists in its original state.
The cell had two sections separated by a simple screen.
The queen lived on one side, in a tiny room furnished with a basic table and a bed.
Two guards were placed on the other side of the screen.
This double-section cell was converted in 1863.
A wall was built in order to replace the screen.
A replica of her cell was created in the original guardroom, and her tiny cell was transformed into an expiatory chapel.
The walls and ceilings of the chapel were covered with false marble.
Three paintings, representing the queen at different times of her incarceration, were placed on the walls.
The marble cenotaph, placed in the centre, is inscribed with a dedication of Louis XVIII and an extract of Marie-Antoinette’s will.
Two thick walls were pierced in order to create the vestibule in order to link the Chapelle Expiatoire to the Chapelle des Girondins.
This vestibule contains two steles dedicated to the memory of Louis XVI and his sister Madame Elizabeth.
Marie-Antoinette was initially jailed in the Temple on August 10, 1792.
The queen was sent to the Conciergerie a few months later.
She was judged and sentenced to death on October 15, 1793.
She was executed on October 16 on Place de la Révolution – Place de la Concorde.
What is left of the medieval royal palace?
The Salle des Gens d’Armes, Salle des Gardes, ground-floor of the Cuisines St-Louis, the Sainte-Chapelle and the four towers are all that remains of the medieval palace.
However, evoking the Conciergerie still sends chills down most French people’s spine!
The building is indeed still associated with all the abuse, suffering, fear and despair of the many men and women who spent the last terrifying hours of their lives between its dark and dump walls.
Fortunately, the prison of the Conciergerie was decommissioned in 1914.
It was listed Historical Monument and is open to the public.
Directions: 1st District – Boulevard du Palais
Metro: Cité on Line 4
Coordinates: Lat 48.855813 – Long 2.346091