Conciergerie (35)

The Conciergerie is one of the buildings that can be admired on the Ile de la Cité. Here you will find the vestiges of the oldest royal palace in Paris. However, it did not always put up members of the royal family, since it was turned into a prison in the 15th century. The Romans had previously used the site where the Conciergerie stands as a royal residence. But it was the Capetian dynasty who built the palace to show off their power before the feudal lords.

Between the 13th and 14th centuries, Philip the Handsome decided to get involved in construction to enlarge it and make it more luxurious. So he converted it into the royal palace that was the envy of all Europe. The Conciergerie also became an important administrative centre. From this period dates the Salle de Gens d'Armes and the kitchens that John the Good had built. 

The Salle de Gens d’Armes is spectacular in size. It is 27½ metres long and 8½ metres high. Here you can admire the vaulted ceiling and its columns. This is the place where those who served the king ate, and we are not talking about four butlers but somewhere around 2,000 people. During the revolution, the room was divided into compartments to place prisoners.

The Conciergerie was abandoned as a royal palace as from the reign of Charles V of France, at the end of the 14th century. This monarch preferred the palaces of the Louvre and Vincennes. Only the Concierge of the old palace remained. The guard of the old palace remained in the hands of this Concierge, who also had legal and police powers. Under his jurisdiction, the parts beneath the building were turned into a prison. With the passing of time, it would become the most important prison in Paris.

In revolutionary times, the Conciergerie maintained its function as a prison and in 1793 was the main penitentiary centre of revolutionary justice. Whoever ended up in here could take it for granted that they would never be coming out again. No prisoner would ever find it easy to be set free from there. In a display of great conscientiousness, the Revolutionary Court would leave a trail of 2,700 deaths during two years work. Among the regretful illustrious guests of the Conciergerie were Queen Marie Antoinette of Austria, Robespierre, Danton and the 21 Girondin deputies. All of them entered complete, but on leaving, more than one had something missing. To be precise, the part that goes from the neck upwards.

Without disconnecting from its role in legal matters, when the period of Terror had ended, the palace was used to organise the new judicial system. And to do so, what better than to get involved in some building reform work to restore the building. During the 19th century it continued imparting justice, not always to the liking of the presumed criminal. In 1871 it was partially destroyed by several fires. Its restoration took some twenty years. Although in 1862 it was declared a historical monument it was not until 1934 that it was no longer used as a prison.

Walking around the building, the visitor can get an idea of the conditions in which the prisoners lived. The idea of universal justice is a relatively new concept. In the past justice was for whoever could pay for it. Initially, those who could pay had more comfortable cells and could even have a proper diet, but during the period of Terror conditions worsened and room service left much to be desired. No feather beds and pillows. All prisoners, in a display of democracy and without distinguishing their origins, slept on the floor with some straw. Among the rooms reconstructed during the 18th century you can see the cells where Marie Antoinette of Austria was held before she lost her head. Literally rather than talking about her state of mind, that is.

The Conciergerie has tour towers that stand out from the Seine: the Tour de l'Horloge, the Tour Bombec, the Tour d'Argent and the Tour de César. The Horloge, or clock tower, was the project of John II and the first public clock in Paris was installed there. The one you see today is not the original since it was replaced in 1585.

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