La Conciergerie, Paris: 10 facts why you should visit

Text: Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen

Often disregarded with its stunning neighbour, La Sainte Chapelle, being visitors’ favourite, La Conciergerie is a marvel of gothic architecture with one of the most beautiful medieval halls of Europe. It is definitely worth a visit, and here are some interesting facts that will spice it up!

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10 “Fun” Facts about La Conciergerie

  1. The Clock Tower houses one of the first public clocks, installed in 1371 by Charles V. Today, it is the oldest public clock in Paris that has been giving the time to Parisian for more than 650 years!
  2. Along the Seine River, the other two central twin towers used to house jails and the treasure of the kingdom. They used to mark the entrance of the palace that was aligned with a bridge across the Seine River. The last circular crenelated tower that is also the oldest used to be where prisoners were tortured.
  3. The Hall of the Soldiers (La Salle des Gens d’Armes), built in 1302, is one of the largest civic medieval gothic halls in the world, with more than 60 pillars and columns supporting the structure on 1,800 m². It is simply a magnificent room with raising and falling vaults, and a remaining spiral stairway.
  4. Up to 2,000 people, guards, cooks and domestics, used to work on the ground level of the building, while the Great Hall and the apartment of the king were right above it, on the first floor.
  5. With so many people to feed, and more importantly the king and the court, cooks had to be efficient! Supplies were delivered directly by boats on the Seine River to allow cooks to prepare profuse menus. The four majestic fireplaces, each used for different types of food (fish, meat, slow cooking meats…) would be burning day and night. Actually, the head cook of Charles V, Guillaume Tirel, known as Taillevent (1310-1395), wrote the first authored recipe book: the Viandier.
  6. In the royal palace, the Conciergerie was the place under the management of the concierge, the governor of the king’s house. He was overlooking many stores, resulting in great wages for that important person in the kingdom.
  7. Being so close to the Seine River, flooding was not uncommon and La Conciergerie was renowned for being a very uncomfortable prison. Humid, swarmed with rats, infested with vermin and foul odours, it offered different conditions based on the social background of prisoners:
    • Commoners slept on damp straw. Several men were sharing cells, often having to take turns to lay down.
    • Bourgeois had enough money to pay for a more comfortable jail.
    • Nobles would have higher standard jails in the towers, often with their own furniture.
  8. The most famous person jailed in La Conciergerie is the Queen Marie Antoinette. The expiatory chapel of Marie Antoinette stands where the fallen queen spent her last 76 days before being taken to today’s Place de la Concorde to be executed by guillotine in 1793.
  9. Following the French Revolution, surrounding monarchies were afraid of it spreading and weakening them. War broke out, while within France a civil war opposed revolutionaries to royalists. To get order back the Dictatorship of Public Safety was established. The judicial arm of the Terror (1793-1794) was the Revolutionary Tribunal that seated in La Conciergerie. Despite a rather expeditious justice, the judicial system got modernized, opening court houses to the public and journalists. Overall, 4,000 were judged and more than 2,500 sentenced to death by guillotine within these walls.
  10. This masterpiece of medieval architecture is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Historical background

In the sixth century, the Frank king Clovis decided to install his capital in Paris, and more specifically on the Ile de la Cité (Island of the City), in its very heart. Back then, the court was mobile, and when in Paris, it would stay on Ile de la Cité. In the tenth century, the king Hugues Capet choses the Palais de la Cité as the residence of the French kings and the seat of royal power. The king Philippe Le Bel (1268-1314) gave its gothic style to the palace, one of the most striking of Europe. However, in the fourteenth century, the king Charles V (1338-1380) felt he needed more protection given the context of the 100 Year War with the English. He decided to turn the fortress of Le Louvre into his royal residence in 1364, and also resided in the robust Castle of Vincennes regularly.

La Conciergerie which was part of the royal palace was then turned into a jail and seat of judicial power, knowing its darkest hours during the French Revolution. Up to 1,200 prisoners were held at the same time withing these walls, waiting for their trial by the Revolutionary Tribunal, which the most often resulted in them being taken to the guillotine.

Today, with the Sainte Chapelle, La Conciergerie is the last witness of the Palais de la Cité of the French kings, and within La Conciergerie, the Hall of the Soldiers is the last remnant of the medieval palace.

Travel tips:

  • La Conciergerie hosts exhibitions, whether historical about Saint Louis, or Marie Antoinette for instance, or of contemporary art.
  • A combo ticket gives you access to both La Conciergerie and the stunning Sainte Chapelle, only 100 meters away, on the same day.
  • The Histopad is a way of travelling through time, and picturing what life was like in the 14th century or under the revolution.
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area (short tutorial)!

For more in Paris, click on these images:

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