On the banks of the Seine stands a distinctive long building of rounded turrets and short spires. The white stone building is elegant, even beautiful. This beauty is deceptive however. The long building by the river is one of history’s most infamous prisons hidden behind a pretty facade. Forever linked with the French Revolution the Conciergerie has a much longer story.
The Conciergerie started life as a palace of kings. This central area of Paris was from early times the seat of power for rulers of North-West Europe. Though an earlier palace sat on the site much of this first building was greatly enlarged by the early Medieval French kings including the building’s facade and the famous Sainte-Chapelle church. Relatively little of the Medieval palace remains however. When the kings moved out around the fourteenth century the parliament moved in and the palace became a centre of administration and law courts.
To serve the courts part of the building was converted into a prison, a function it would retain for several centuries. The practice of justice often depends on wealth and so it was in the Conciergerie prison. Wealthy prisoners could have a room of their own and stay in some comfort without too much hardship. On the other hand poor prisoners were kept in unhygienic and dangerous small cells with only hay to sleep on.
The Conciergerie’s most famous batch of prisoners came during the French Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century. Several years after its beginning the Revolution was in danger. Armies gathered across the borders and a number of people were actively against the Revolution inside France. In an atmosphere of increasing danger and paranoia the Revolutionary leadership instigated the Terror. Those believed to be a danger to the Revolution were rounded up with many dying under the guillotine.
Hundreds were held in the Conciergerie before their quick trial or execution. The small cells of this elegant building became the holding area for those on the way to their deaths. Amongst the prisoners two names stand out. Marie-Antoinette and Robespierre both spent their final days in the Conciergerie. Later the restored French monarchy would attempt to make a shrine out of the cell of Marie-Antoinette as the building became a symbol of monarchist mourning. Robespierre initially directed much of the Terror. The prisons and executions were necessary to defend the Revolution against reaction he argued. The Terror was ended by the downfall of Robespierre who was himself held at the Conciergerie before falling beneath the guillotine.
Long after the end of the Revolution the Conciergerie continued to be used as a prison, though none of the later inmates are remembered as those of the Revolution are. It was not until 1914 that the building stopped serving as a prison. This former palace of kings is still the home of a major law court.
Due to the building’s link to the Terror of the 1790’s the Conciergerie often serves as a symbol of what can go wrong in an attempt to change the world. The lesson however is often misunderstood. The Conciergerie and the Terror are used to say that a revolution will always end in devouring its own children. Rather the message of this building which has been a palace, prison, waiting area for the guillotine and law courts, is that if people aim merely to change who gets to be the tyrant instead of destroying tyranny they will indeed end up becoming the thing they hated.