Everyone who’s even a little bit familiar with French history knows that Marie Antoinette and her husband, King Louis XVI, were made about a foot shorter on top during the French Revolution. (And yes, that’s my lame attempt at describing their decapitations.)
And you’re probably wrongly familiar with Marie’s alleged statement “Let them eat cake!” when told the poor didn’t have bread to eat. (Historians believe the quote was wrongly attributed to her to help fuel hated of the French monarchy. History also shows that while Marie Antoinette led an outrageously lavish lifestyle, she was sensitive to the poor and donated generously to charitable causes.)
But do you know what happened to her while she awaited her fate following the execution of her husband? Most of that time was spent under arrest awaiting her own trial, and her prison was the Conciergerie, a sprawling, medieval fortress-like facility on the western tip of the Ile de la Cite.
And did you know that you can pay a visit to the Conciergerie—and tour the very rooms where Marie Antoinette spent her final days, mostly in prayer and solitary contemplation.
First, a bit of history.
The facility was originally constructed as a royal palace, the Palais de la Cite, and served as the main residence for the French royal family and the seat of power for the monarchy from the 10th to 14th centuries. It was developed and expanded several times during those 400 years, including the addition of the Sainte Chapelle church (constructed to hold the alleged Crown of Thorns and other religious relics) and the Palais de Justice, both separate structures today.
The Conciergerie began to take its familiar shape under the reign of King Phillipe IV, who ordered the creation of the turreted façade along the northern shore of the Seine River that today is the most recognized (and photographed) portion of the Conciergerie. King Philippe also created a massive arched hall inside the facility that once served as a huge dining hall and royal reception area, and today hosts temporary art exhibits and other cultural displays.
Like many of the buildings in Paris, the Conciergerie changed dramatically due to the whims of the sovereign. In 1358, the royal family decided they’d be happier living at the nearby Louvre Palace, at which point the massive Conciergerie complex shifted to use as an administrative hub for the monarchy, hosting the French parliament and the chancellery, among other offices. With the king now located elsewhere, a concierge was named to look after the facility, and hence the name Conciergerie was born.
More in keeping with our focus of the site being associated with Marie Antoinette, a part of the former palace was eventually turned into a prison in the year 1391.
Because Marie Antoinette was both influential and wealthy, she received the best possible treatment at the prison, including having a private cell with a bed, desk, books, paper and pens for writing, and many other basic comforts. A recreation of her cell, complete with mannequins representing the former queen and one of the men constantly guarding her, shows how Marie Antoinette spent her final days.
During the 19th century, her actual cell was converted into a chapel dedicated to her memory. The chapel is notable for the unusual wallpaper, a dark blue backdrop covered in white raindrops that are said to represent the former queen’s tears.
Visitors to the Conciergerie also can tour quarters of less fortunate prisoners, including those of middle-class status who were jailed in pistoles, rooms equipped with only a rudimentary bed and table, and the dark and dank cells where the poorest prisoners, the pailleux (named after the French word for hay, pile, which was strewn on the stone floors as “beds”), were jailed. These nasty cells were dubbed oubliettes’, which translates to “forgotten places.” Lovely.
More than 2,700 political prisoners were jailed in the Conciergerie before being executed during the revolution’s Reign of Terror, and countless others were temporarily imprisoned there. While Marie Antoinette, the former queen, is obviously the best known and highest ranking of these prisoners, other important figures also were jailed at facility before their executions, including Robespierre, ironically one of the architects of the 10-month Reign of Terror; poet Andre Chenier, Charlotte Corday, a French journalist who plotted the assassination of Revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat; Madame Elisabeth, the youngest sibling of King Louis XVI; Madame du Barry, the former mistress of King Louis XV; and 21 members of the Girondins political faction who were wrongly accused of supporting the monarchy when in actually the group was only opposed to the rapidity of political and cultural changes occurring during the Reign of Terror.
Other rooms of interest to scholars of the French Revolution include the site where the hair of those about to be executed was shorn off (long hair covering the neck was not easily sliced by the guillotine’s blade), and the Salle de la Toilette, where prisoners condemned to death were forced to abandon their personal belongings. There’s also a small courtyard where hundreds of prisoners during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror were allowed a final hour to say goodbye to their families before being carted away to have their heads cut off.
Much of the exterior of the Conciergerie remains unchanged since the days when Marie Antoinette was a temporary resident, and indeed even since medieval times when the facility served as a royal palace. Among the palace’s surviving structures are the Caesar tower, named in honor of the Roman emperors; the Silver Tower, site of the royal treasury; and the Bonbec Tower that (gulp!) was the site of a gruesome torture chamber. The clock on the building’s exterior dates from 1535; a public clock has been on the site since the late 1300s.
Today, much of the former Palais de la Cite complex is still used for Paris’s law courts, including the entire Palais du Justice building, but also a considerable portion of the Conciergerie. In 1914, the remainder of the facility was declared a national historical landmark and portions were opened to the public.
The Conciergerie is open to visitors from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, except for Christmas Day, New Year’s Day and Armistice Day, May 1. Admission is 9 euros for adults, 7 euros for students and free for those under age 18 visiting with families or school groups. A combination ticket allowing access to both the Conciergerie and the nearby Saint Chapelle church is available for 15 euros for adults and 12.50 euros for students.
2 Boulevard du Palais