“Most of the time you did not stay for a very long in the Conciergerie: you arrived there before being brought before the Revolutionary tribunal and then left immediately after sentencing. The prisoners were very different: as the category of “suspect” was very broad, political opponents lived alongside criminals or counterfeit money makers. The atmosphere was particularly unusual and tense.”
We were rushed through a massive arched hall. Our footsteps echoed in the empty space, the sound bouncing back from the walls and columns. One of the employees ushered us quickly towards the main part of the prison, advising to go to see the Marie-Antoinette cell first. We had 30 minutes before they were closing it down for the day. Still – plenty of time to face the reality and feel the unique atmosphere of the prison. In panic we went through all the rooms twice, not really sure about the size of the prison and wanting to see it all.
The Conciergerie housed about 500 prisoners during the French Revolution. Each of them had to finance their own imprisonment and the poorest were held together in a cell without any furniture. Some dungeons were more feared than others and earned interesting nicknames: Paillerie, Gaillotte and even Morgue. The money could buy you a bigger cell, visit from your family or friends, privilege of receiving and sending the letters or even your own portrait, if you wish to have one. Now, this might seem a bizarre idea, but then, that was the only way to remember someone after they left.
In the morning, after the cells were opened, women and men had an opportunity to go to two separate courtyards. The clicking of the keys, grinding of the locks and barking dogs dominated the corridors. But the prisoners socialized with each other as well, the conversations about different matters was taking place and the spirit of courage was developing, especially during the rainy days, when the prisoners could not go out and were looming in the corridors.
Marie-Antoinette was originally imprisoned in the Temple in Paris from 13 August 1792 to 1 August 1793, after which she was taken to the Conciergerie. She was executed by guillotine on the Place de la Révolution on 16 October 1793, spending around 2.5 months in the Conciergerie.
Apparently a very popular believe of Marie-Antoinette saying that the poor should eat cake if they cannot afford bread, was wrongly contributed to her. She did have a lavish life-style, but a sensitive soul as well and contributed money to many charitable causes.
The prison itself was originally constructed as a Royal Palace, set on the banks of river Seine. From X up to XIV century it was the main residence for the French Royal Family and expanded enormously during that time. The Sainte Chapelle church and the Palais de Justice, were added.
Under the reign of King Phillipe IV, who ordered the creation of the turreted façade along the northern shore of the Seine River, the Conciergerie started to look like today. 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. In 1358 the Royal Family moved to Louver and the Condiergerie hosted the French parliament and the chancellery, among other offices.
Marie-Antoinette was treated differently than an average prisoner, as she was still influential and had money. She had a private cell with bed, desk, books, paper and pens. You are able to see a reconstruction of her cell, as the place where it was originally has been converted into the chapel, dedicated to her memory.
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. 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.