The Conciergerie shares its history with the Palais de la Cité up until the second half of the XIVth century. When Charles V decided to move out of the Palais in favor of the Hôtel Saint-Pol, he maintained his administration there (Parlement, Chancery, Auditor's Chamber), and appointed a "concierge". Here begins the history of the Conciergerie Prison, which gets its name from the apartments of the concierge, a figure of high standing, virtually a housekeeper for the king, with many powers and privileges. After the fall of the monarchy, the Revolutionary Tribunal, created by the Convention in 1793, took possession of the Conciergerie. The formidable Fouquier-Tinville filled the role of District Attorney. Within two years, more than 2,700 people sentenced to death lived out their last moments at the Conciergerie: many were anonymous, a few were aristocrats, scientists, scholars... among the most famous are Queen Marie-Antoinette, the poet André Chénier, the 21 Girondist deputies found guilty of conspiracy against the Republic and Robespierre, leader of the Reign of Terror. The XIXth century would also see a succession of prisoners, including Chouan General Cadoudal, Marshal Ney, Prince Napoleon and anarchists Orsini and Ravachol. In 1914, the Conciergerie, declared a historical monument, ceased to be a prison. It has since been open to the public.
A Prime Example of Medieval Civil Architecture
The construction of the Conciergerie was undertaken by Philip IV, the Fair, grandson of Saint Louis, who had the palace on the Île de la Cité remodeled and extended. The Guard Room, the Hall of the Men-at-Arms and the Rue de Paris, which are among the most impressive examples of Medieval civil architecture have survived from this era. Three round towers that punctuate the facade of the Conciergerie are also still standing: the Caesar Tower, named in remembrance of the Romans in Gaulle; the Silver Tower, an allusion to the royal treasury that is believed to have been kept there; the Bonbec Tower, which owes its name to the fact that it contained the room where the "questioning" of prisoners was done (by torture), which rarely failed to produce confessions. Around 1350, King John The Good undertook new work and had the kitchens constructed and, at the North-East corner of the palace, ordered the erection of a rectangular lookout tower, called the Clock Tower, because the country's first public clock was installed on it. In 1585, this clock was replaced by one created by Germain Pilon. This masterpiece with a multicolored face and framed with allegories of the Law and Justice is still in place. Fires and time have greatly changed the appearance of the Conciergerie. In the XIXth century, some buildings were sacrificed, others saved and docks were created around the Île de la Cité, thus changing the access to it. We can only imagine the Great Hall on the first floor (currently the lobby): a vast hall, supported by a line of pillars that divided it into two naves covered with paneled arches. Walls and pillars were decorated with statues representing the kings of France. In this place of office stood a marble table where the king would be seated during audiences and Beds of Justice.
The Guard Room was erected around 1310 by Philip IV, the Fair, and was used as a vestibule to the ground floor of the great hall where the king held his Bed of Justice and where the Revolutionary Tribunal presided from April 2, 1793, to May 31, 1795. Three pillars divide the space into two naves with four bays vaulted with ogives. The capitals of the central pillar are decorated with bas reliefs, one of which is believed to represent Héloïse and Abélard. The size of the Hall of the Men-at-Arms is exceptional: 64 meters long and 27.5 meters wide and 85 meters at the keystone (the highest point). It was built by Enguerrand de Marigny between 1302 and 1313 and used as a dining hall for the huge palace staff, around 2,000 people, employed in the service to the king. Four huge fire places heated the Hall of the Men-at-Arms, which in those days was well lit by a large number of windows. On the South wall, there remains a large section of the black marble table which used to be located in the Great Upper Hall. Used for royal banquets, it was the seat of various tribunals. Constructed at the beginning of the reign of John The Good, the square kitchen pavilion was intended for the servants of the royal palace. Only the lower level remains, vaulted with ogives and containing four corner fireplaces of regal size. Each fireplace was assigned one or more specific purposes (broths, poultry, meats, etc.), and each had its own cooks. The four West bays of the Hall of the Men-at-Arms, named Rue de Pontis, were isolated from the rest of the room by screens and by a wall. During the Revolution, they were sadly given the name of the executioner, "Monsieur de Paris". The four bays housed the "pailleux", prisoners without resources who could not afford to pay for better accommodation.
The Revolutionary Prison
The prisoners' hallway was the principal axis of the prison, in which prisoners could come and go as they pleased. The office of the clerk of the court is the reproduction of the room where the names of the prisoners were recorded in the registry upon their arrival.
A virtual governor, the concierge, a function created in the XIVth century, was in charge of the security and supplies for the prison. The condemned would pass through the salle de la toilette, where they were stripped of their personal belongings before they were taken to the May Courtyard to wait for the cart that would take them to the site of the execution of their sentence. The little royal chapel, called the Girondist chapel, already existed in the Middle Ages and was restored and remodeled in 1776. It is generally believed that this is where the 21 Girondist deputies waited for their death on the night of the 29th and 30th of October, 1793. The Marie-Antoinette Chapel was built, according to the wishes of Louis XVIII, on the very site of the queen's cell, which was then divided by a wall: the West half was connected to the chapel by a room where Robespierre is believed to have spent the last hours of his life. Surrounded by cells offering varying degrees of comfort according to the financial resources of the prisoners stands the Women's Courtyard, which still contains the fountain where the women washed their clothing, one of the stone tables on which they ate and the "corner of the twelve", where the men could converse with them through the gates. Marie-Antoinette's cell was reconstructed half on the site of the actual cell that the queen occupied and half on the adjacent West bay. A privacy screen separated her from the guards who watched over her. On the first floor, in the first room on the left, the list of the prisoners held at the Conciergerie who were decapitated is displayed. The "prisoners' quarters" reproduces the various cells as they were during the Revolution: the cells for the "pailleux", for the "pistoliers" and finally the cell for prominent figures. In the adjacent rooms, documents, engravings and signed texts relate five and a half centuries of prison life at the Conciergerie.