The antechamber to the guillotine - Paris, France
On the 22nd September 1792 - at 09.18 and 30 seconds - a new French republic was declared, together with a new calendar, as revolutionary vicissitude swept through France. Caroline Moorhead, biographer of diarist Lucie de la Tour du Pin, quotes politician Fabre d’Eglantin: “We can no longer count the years which kings oppressed us as a time in which we lived”. It was a climatic moment and a brief period of hope after the revolution had slashed through the excesses that had been enjoyed by the elite, close to bankrupting the country, but before the descent into the The Reign of Terror. It seems a pertinent day to visit La Conciergerie, the magnificent palace turned prison on Paris’ Ile de Cite, whose walls witnessed many of the grim events that followed.
La Conciergerie is part of the august Palais de Justice complex (which also accommodates the highest courts of France) set on the same bridged island, in the centre of the Seine, as Notre-Dame. The building, in existence since the sixth century, was turned into a royal palace by, 14th century monarch, Philippe IV the Fair (christened, I assume, for his sense of justice rather than his persistent use of Sun-In) and remained as a central seat of power until the second half of the century, when King Charles V was forced to flee the capital after ongoing skulduggery by the Provost of Merchants culminated in the murder of several of his close advisors. The palace and attached prison was left to be run by a steward or concierge – whose job gave the building its name.
Entering the building from the boulevard du Palais and squeezing through the turnstile into the booming Hall of the Men-at-Arms, with its multiple arches and ceiling domes, spits you right back to the time of Philippe the Fair. When the Hall gives way to the Guard Room (the antechamber to the Great Hall), the more deathly notorious history of La Conciergerie reveals itself. This was where close to three thousand people were imprisoned, tried and sentenced to the guillotine during The Reign of Terror as the egalitarian aims of the Revolution descended into a witch hunt for counter revolutionaries. For convicted prisoners it was a two mile tumbrel ride to la Place de la Revolution and the guillotine.
La Conciergerie held many high profile prisoners and the arrival of the most infamous, in August 1793, is described by Caroline Moorhead “Marie-Antoinette, ‘veuve de Louis Capet, ci-devant roi des Francais’, gaunt and white haired, had been moved to the Conciergerie, the ‘ante-chamber of the revolutionary tribunal’ from which few emerged alive.”
She became prisoner 280, accused of having conspired against France, and was held in the former council chamber. Her biographer, Antonia Fraser, describes how the jailer’s wife and daughter “tried to soften the grim appearance of the cell, brick floored and quite damp, with its table and prison chairs; a warder had merely added from the prison store a canvas bed, two mattresses, a bolster, a light coverlet and a bucket.” A reconstruction of her cell, complete with waxworks, is on the ground floor of La Conciergerie and serves to underline the lack of privacy for the former queen - two gendarme were a continual presence on the outskirts of her room. Marie-Antoinette’s final days - before she was tried on the 14th October 1793 and, two days later, found guilty and guillotined – continue to cause speculation. It is thought that priests were smuggled in to perform confession and communion and that she was the subject of romantically named rescue plots including the Carnation Plot and the Wigmakers Conspiracy.
But it’s the sheer number of people that were held in what was Paris’ toughest prison, not the plight of one woman, that made La Conciergerie so gruesome. Caroline Moorhead: “For the first time in the history of France, the prisons contained not petty thieves and murderers but counts, seamstresses, lawyers, tanners, maids, priests, wig-makers, marquises, schoolteachers...” These ordinary people were held, several hundred at a time, in squalid, communal cells along what was named the Rue de Paris (after the executioner dubbed Monsieur Paris). Those that could paid for slightly more private accommodation with a bed; those that couldn’t suffered. In August 1793, the prison must have been humid, disease ridden with a powerful stench.
The grisly routine of La Conciergerie, during The Reign of Terror, is captured in the reconstructed rooms on the lower floor - the clerk’s office where new prisoners signed in, the concierge’s office with its massive keys, the grooming room where hair was cut and belongings removed before execution and the oppressively small communal cells. The women’s courtyard still has the fountain where female prisoners relentlessly washed their clothes in an effort to maintain some of the dignity of their former lives. Upstairs, next to several rooms holding a museum stocked with paraphernalia of the Revolution, is a cold room displaying the names of the 2780 people killed during the Reign of Terror. Returning to the lower level, there are chapels dedicated to Marie Antoinette, on the spot where her cell had been, and, at the place that they had their last meal, to twenty one Girondins - a political party whose views and actions remained too moderate for the pace of The Terror.
Back out in the Parisian sunshine a stroll - towards the tourists clucking around the base of Notre Dame or over the bridge to the heaving bookshelves of Shakespeare and Company or to a long lunch with mountains of cake in, former bookshop, La Fourmi Ailee - will make you bounce with life but it’s impossible not to question whether our capacity to inflict, or turn our back on, spiralling horror remains. The French Republican calendar was abolished, by Napoleon, from 1st January 1806, but the lessons of that period may still wait to be learnt.
- La Fourmi Ailee (8 rue du Fouarre)
- The easiest way to get to central Paris from London is by Eurostar.
- Visit localbookshops.co.uk to buy Caroline Moorhead's Dancing to the Precipice or Antonia Fraser's Marie Antoinette from your nearest independent bookshop.
Fran Harris (photo courtesy of Milvus)