Background Image

Palais de la Cité

Palais de la Cité

The Palais de la Cité, located on the Île de la Cité in the Seine River in the center of Paris, was the residence of the Kings of France from the sixth century until the 14th century. From the 14th century until the French Revolution, it was the headquarters of the French treasury, judicial system and the Parlement of Paris, an assembly of nobles. During the Revolution it served as a courthouse and prison, where Marie Antoinette and other prisoners were held and tried by the Revolutionary Tribunal. The palace was built and rebuilt over the course of six centuries; the site is now largely occupied by the buildings of the 19th century Palais de Justice, but a few important vestiges remain; the medieval lower hall of the Conciergerie, four towers along the Seine, and, mostly important, Sainte-Chapelle, the former chapel of the Palace, masterpiece of Gothic architecture. Both parts of the Conciergerie and Saint-Chapelle are classified as national historical monuments and can be visited, though most of the Palais de Justice is closed to the public.

Vestiges of the Medieval Palace
The towers
The four towers along the Seine date back to the Middle Ages, while the facade is more modern, dating to the early 19th century. The tower on the far right, the Tour Bonbec, is the oldest, built between 1226 and 1270 during the reign of Louis IX, or Saint Louis. It is distinguished by the crenolation at the top of the tower. It originally was a story shorter than the other towers, but was raised to match their height in the renovation of the 19th century. The tower served as the primary torture chamber during the Middle Ages; it was said that prisoners tortured would sing like birds, with a "bon bec', or beak open wide.

The two towers in the center, the Tour de César and the Tour d'Argent were built in the 14th century. Each has four levels. Starting in the 15th century, the top levels held the offices of the clerks of the court, both criminal and civil. The lower floors contained jail cells.

The tallest tower, the Tour de l'Horloge, was constructed by Jean le Bon in 1350, and modified several times over the centuries. The first public clock in Paris, made by Henri d'Vic, was added by Charles V in 1370. The sculptural decoration around the clock, featuring allegorical figures of The Law and Justice, was added in 1585 century by Henry III. They were smashed during the Revolution but later restored. At the top of the tower was a bell, which was rung to announce important events in the life of the royal family, and was also rung to signal the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre. The original bell was removed and melted down during the Revolution.

The facades were constructed in the 19th century in the neogothic and neoclassic style, during the restoration and rebuilding of the Palace. The facade to the east, or left, is by Antoine-Marie Peyre, and that to the west, or right, by Joseph Louis Duc and Étienne Theodore Dommey.

The Medieval halls
The two halls in the lower part of the Conciergerie, the Salle des Gardes and the Salle des Gens d'armes (Hall of the Men at Arms), along with the kitchens, are the only surviving rooms of the original Capetian palace. When they were built, the two halls were at street level, but over the centuries, as the island was built up to prevent floods, they were below the street. The Salles des Gardes was built at the end of the 13th and beginning of the 14th century, as the ground floor of the Grand'Chambre, where the King conducted judicial hearings, and where, during the Revolution, the Revolutionary Tribunal met. It was connected with the hall above by a stairway in the southwest part of the hall, and by a second stairway in a tower which was demolished in the 19th century. It is one of the finest examples of medieval architecture in Paris. The hall is 22.8 meters long, 11.8 meters wide, and 6.9 meters high. The massive columns have decorative sculpture of combat of animals and narrative scenes. Two stairways on the north side of the hall lead up to the towers of Argent and Cesar where prison cells were located. During the Revolution, the apartment of the chief prosecutor of the Terror, Fouquier-Tinville, was on the upper floor, and his office was in the Tower of Cesar. The Salle des Gardes was filled with prison cells until the mid-19th century, when the hall was restored to its original appearance.

The Salle des Gens d'armes was the ground floor below the magnificent Grand'Salle, where the Kings of France held banquets to welcome royal guests, and to celebrate special events, such as the visit of German Emperor Charles IV in 1378, hosted by Charles V shortly before he moved out of the Palace, and the marriage of Francis I with Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. The hall itself, with a high double-vaulted wooden roof, burned several times, most recently in fires started by the Paris Commune in May 1871. It was replaced by a new grand hall, the Salle des Pas Perdu , of the Palace of Justice. During the Middle Ages the lower floor was used largely as a restaurant and holding area for the large staff of the Royal household; it could serve as many as two thousand persons. A large stairway, now walled off, connected the lower floor with the Grand'Salle. The Salle is 63.3 meters long, 27.4 meters wide, and 8.5 meters high. Beginning in the 15th century the hall was divided into smaller rooms and prison cells.

The hall underwent many changes and restorations over the centuries. After a fire destroyed most of the upper hall in 1618, the architect Salomon de Brosse built a new hall, but made the error of not placing the new columns over the original columns in the lower level. This led in the 19th century to the collapse of part of the roof of the lower hall, which was rebuilt with additional columns. In the 19th century windows were also added on the north side looking out at the courtyard. The circular stairway in the northeast corner of the Salle, built in the medieval style, was constructed in the 19th century during the reign of Napoleon III, who had briefly been held a prisoner himself in the building.

Sainte Chapelle was constructed by King Lous IX, later known as Saint Louis, between 1241 and 1248 to keep the holy relics of the Crucifixion of Christ obtained by Louis, including what was believed to be the Crown of Thorns. The lower level of the chapel served as the parish church for the residents of the Palace. The upper level was used only by the King and royal family. The stained glass windows of the upper chapel, about half of them original, are one of the most important monuments of Medieval art in Paris. The chapel was turned into a storage depot for court documents from the Palace of Justice after the Revolution, but was carefully restored during the 19th century.
The 18th century prison

The prison quarter of the Palace visible today dates to the late 18th century. After a fire in 1776, Lous XVI had a section of Conciergerie prison rebuilt; During the French Revolution it served as the principal prison for political prisoners, including Marie Antoinette, before their trials and execution r. The prison was extensively rebuilt in the 19th century, and many famous rooms, such as the original cell of Marie Antoinette, disappeared. However, part of the prison was restored for the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution in 1989, and can be seen by visitors.

The Rue de Paris was a section of the Salle des gardes which was separated by a grill from the rest of the hall during the 15th century. During the Revolution it was used as a common cell for prisoners when the all the other cells were full. It took its name from "Monsieur Paris", the nickname for the executioner.

The Chapel of the Girondins is one chamber that has changed little since the Revolution. It was constructed after the 1776 fire on the site of medieval oratory of the Palace. In 1793 and 1794, when the prison was overcrowded, it was converted to prison cells. It took its name from the Girondins, a Revolutionary faction of deputies who opposed the more Montagnards of Robespierre. The Deputies were arrested, and held a last "banquet" in the chapel the night before their execution.

The Cour des Femmes was the courtyard where women prisoners, including Marie-Antoinette, were allowed to walk, to wash their clothing in the fountain, or to eat at an outdoor table. The courtyard is little changed from the time of the Revolution.

The cell where Marie-Antoinette passed two and half months before her trial and execution was turned into an expiatory chapel by King Louis XVIII after the restoration of the monarchy. The chapel occupies both the space of her original cell and the infirmary of the prison, where Robespierre was held after his suicide attempt and before his trial and execution. Though not in the same location, the cell faithfully copies the arrangement and details of the original cell, including the 24-hour surveillance of the Queen by a soldier.

Palais de la Cité | eTips Inc.