Conciergerie courthouse and prison (Paris)

Paris travel Guide Book, the main sights of Paris included in the sightseeing tour.
The Royal castle, the prison, the museum and the Palace of Justice.

Castle, prison and conciergerie palace in Paris

The Castle, prison and conciergerie palace in Paris

The Conciergerie is a building in Paris, France, located in the west of the Ile de la Cite, a former prison, but now used mainly for courts. It was part of the former royal palace of the Palais de la Cité, which consisted of the Conciergerie, the Palais de Justice and the Sainte-Chapelle. Hundreds of prisoners during the French Revolution were taken from the Conciergerie to be executed by guillotine at several locations throughout Paris.

Middle Ages. The western part of the island was originally the site of a Merovingian palace and was originally known as the Palais de la Cité. From the 10th 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.
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. The Sainte-Chapelle was built in the French royal style to house the crown of thorns brought from the Crusades and 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 to 64m long, 27.5m wide and 8.5 m high. It was used as a dining room for 2,000 employees who worked in the palace. It was heated by four large fireplaces and lit by many windows that were now blocked. It was also used for royal banquets and court sessions. 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” (parliament sitting in the king’s presence).
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. The palace continued to perform an administrative function, it still housed the chancellery and the French parliament. In the absence of the king, he appointed a concierge to command the palace, which gave the palace its eventual name. In 1391, part of the building was converted into a prison and got its name from the ruling office. His 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. Less well-to-do prisoners could afford to pay for simply furnished cells, known as pistoles, which would have a rough bed and possibly a table. The poorest will be imprisoned in dark, damp, parasite-infested cages known as ubliettas (literally, “forgotten places”). As the name suggests, they were left to live or die in conditions that were ideal for the plague and other infectious diseases that were common in the prison’s unsanitary conditions.
Three towers survive from the medieval Conciergerie: Caesar’s Tower, named after Roman emperors; the Silver Tower, so named for its intended use as a repository for royal treasures; and the Bonbec (“good beak”) Tower, named after the torture chamber it contained, in which the victims were encouraged to “sing”. The building was expanded during the reigns of later kings: the first public clock in France was installed around 1370. The current clock dates from 1535.

The Conciergerie and the Reign of Terror.
The ten-month reign of terror (September 1793 – July 1794) had a profound effect on France. Over 40,000 people died from execution and imprisonment, and France would no longer be a republic for almost half a century.
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. The revolutionary tribunal was set up in the Palace of Justice. Two fates for those who appeared before the tribunal – 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 Conciergerie prison became the main penitentiary of a network of prisons throughout Paris and the last residence of more than 2,700 people who were summarily executed by 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 revolutionary period continued the prison tradition of interning prisoners on the basis of wealth, so that 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, making the bed free for a new prisoner, who then paid the same. One memoirist called the Conciergerie “the most profitable furnished apartment in Paris”. Cells were only provided to famous prisoners. Most of the inhabitants were placed in a single room bordering the local hospital, making illness inevitable. The cramped cages were infested with rats, and the stench of urine permeated every room.
All prisoners, except those locked in dungeons, were allowed to walk around the gallery of prisoners from 8 am to one hour before sunset. Roll call was always an agonizing process because many of the jailers were illiterate and it could take hours for them to confirm that all the prisoners had been found. The chief warden, who sat at the door, determined whether visitors would enter the prison. His decision depended more on his mood than on any established procedures. He was also responsible for settling disputes between jailers and their charges.
Trials and executions proceeded quickly and unpredictably; anyone can stand trial and be executed before the next morning. The convicts are led through the toilet room, where their personal belongings are confiscated. Then they were loaded onto carts in the May Court and taken to the guillotines all over Paris. Among the prisoners held at the Conciergerie were Marie Antoinette, the poet André Chénier, Charlotte Corday, Madame Elisabeth, Madame du Barry, and 21 Girondins who were purged at the beginning of the terror. Later, Georges Danton awaited his execution here, and during the Thermidorian reaction, Robespierre himself was briefly interned before his execution.

After the revolution and now.
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 a chapel dedicated to her memory. 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, this exterior actually dates from around 1858. The description of 1825 gives the following impression of the building before rebuilding:
The buildings that make up this prison still retain the gruesome character of feudal times. The preo is a kind of platform or courtyard, one hundred and eighty feet long and sixty wide, around which is a gallery leading to the cells and connected by stairs to the upper floors. It was partly built in the thirteenth century, and partly rebuilt in modern times, and is ten or twelve feet below the level of the adjoining streets; it serves as a walk for the prisoners. The dungeons, which have not been used for the last thirty years, are twenty-three feet long and eleven and a half high.
The Conciergerie was decommissioned in 1914 and opened to the public as a National Historic Landmark. 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 in the Parisian courts. The French Ministry of Culture has listed it as a historical monument since 1862.