What is the Conciergerie?
Conciergerie is a former medieval royal palace and revolutionary prison in Paris that hosted Marie-Antoinette, and is named after the ‘concierge’ (or ‘warden’) who resided here
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Paris was a dangerous place to live during the French Revolution. One oppressive regime had been replaced by another: a Reign of Terror sanctioned under the rule of Maximilien Robespierre claimed the lives of nearly 30,000 people in the space of just eleven months. Nobody was safe from the threat of the guillotine. Many victims of this paranoid revolutionary purge spent their last days in the Conciergerie, part of the lower floor of what was the Palais de la Cité, a medieval palace on the banks of the Seine.
The earliest surviving parts of the Conciergerie are its two impressive gothic halls, the vaulted Salle des Gens d’Armes (or Hall of the Soldiers), used as a communal jail during the Revolution, and the smaller Salle des Gardes (or Hall of the Guards). The latter was an antechamber to the Grand’chambre (or Great Hall) that once stood above it. During the Reign of Terror, the Great Hall became the setting for the Revolutionary Tribunal. Prisoners appearing before this uncompromising court faced two starkly divergent fates: acquittal or death. Roughly half of the Conciergerie’s prisoners were acquitted. The other half, having received their death sentence in the Great Hall, were sent down to the ‘Grooming Room’ to give up their belongings and have their heads shaved. This was swiftly done, as prisoners were often tried and executed on the same day.
Perhaps the most well-known inmate at the Conciergerie was Marie-Antoinette. She must have sensed the acute irony of her situation: the deposed Queen of France incarcerated in a former royal palace. One night in August 1793, she was abruptly woken up at the Temple prison where she had been held with her children and removed to the Conciergerie. It was to be her final stop before she faced the guillotine. She would never see her children again.
That same month, as her death beckoned, there was a conspiracy to free Marie-Antoinette from the Conciergerie. One day, the royalist Chevalier of Rougeville dropped a white carnation in the queen’s cell, inside which he had hidden a note. The note outlined an escape plan, which involved bribing the gendarmes (or the police) who were guarding the queen. The plan was foiled when one man, who had accepted a bribe, changed his mind, and Marie-Antoinette was forced to return to her cell.
After a trial that lasted for 20 hours – an absurd length for a trial determining a person’s survival, but unusually long for the Revolutionary Tribunal; of course the former queen was no ordinary prisoner – Marie-Antoinette was sentenced to death and was executed later that day.
After the restoration of the monarchy, Marie-Antoinette’s cell was turned into a memorial chapel at the request of King Louis XVIII. Today, the Conciergerie forms part of the Palais de Justice, the current seat of the French judicial system.
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