There’s a rather interesting film called Marie Antoinette, starring Kirsten Dunst and directed by Sofia Coppola. Check it out: it’s a stylised way into the history of the place
La Conciergerie is one of the iconic sights in Paris. Its medieval origin is clear from its architecture, and indeed this was once the royal palace, the Palais de la Cité, named after the island in the middle of the river Seine. In the 14th century it was abandoned by the monarchy and became a seat of administration, parliament and justice until the French Revolution.
Then the parliament was abolished and a revolutionary tribunal was established in its former rooms. Thus, La Conciergerie became a prison, funnelling captives to the Tribunal, where they were sentenced, more often than not, to death by guillotine.
A Special Guest
The prisoners held there were largely from the upper echelons of pre-revolution French society. Indeed, they held one especially privileged captive: Marie-Antoinette. The Queen became desperately unpopular as rumours went around that her lavish spending had bankrupted the country. She too was executed eventually. Her last words were supposedly “Pardon me, sir, I meant not to do it,” talking to Henri Sanson the executioner, whose foot she had accidentally trodden on.
La Conciergerie is open to visitors now and it has lost nothing of its medieval air. The Hall of the Men in Arms is splendid, and the Women’s Yard seems barely to have changed since the days of the revolution. You can even trace the last footsteps those hundreds of prisoners would have taken as they trudged up to the guillotine.
Quite apart from the gruesomeness of the Reign of Terror, the Sainte-Chapelle is an exquisite little Gothic chapel in the Palais de la Cité that was built during the 13th century. King Louis IX commissioned it to house his collection of relics, including Christ’s Crown of Thorns. It’s stained glass was recently restored and is among the most beautiful in the world.
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