The Palais de Justice is aptly named. It is a former palace where, to this day, justice is meted out.
Sitting on the Île de la Cité, the center of old Paris, the Palais de Justice has its roots in the Roman period, when the governor’s palace was there on the island. Clovis (king of the Francs) also resided there in the old fortified Roman palace. The Carolingians (ie Charlemagne and his successors) moved out of Paris, but Paris again became the center of France when the Capetian kings set up shop on the Île de la Cité, enlarging the old Roman fort/palace. By the fourteenth century, the Palais de la Cité had become one of the grandest in Europe to reflect the growing power and
territorial reach of the French kings. It was here that Louis IX, a saint in his own right, put his most prized holy relics, in the chapel (the Sainte-Chapelle, one of the most fantastic chapels in Europe). In the fourteenth century, the monarchs moved out of the palace, leaving it for lits de justice (a meeting of Parlement, or law courts) and official receptions. From that point until the fall of the monarchy, it was the seat of justice and became the Palais de Justice. The care of the palace was left to the king’s concierge. “Conciergerie” refers to the prison attached to the official duties on aconcierge, which were extensive. Thus, the prison attached to the Palais de Justice became known as the Conciergerie. The Palais de Justice and Conciergerie became a law court and prison stuck together in what used to be a royal palace.
Today, not a lot of the oldest building survives. Approaching it from the Metro stop that is conveniently close, you first see the big black-and-gold gates closing off the Cour du Mai and the Palais de Justice. To the left is Saint-Chapelle, and to the right is the Conciergerie. Remember, these are all interconnected–church, law court, and prison.
The Cour du Mai was, perhaps, the most interesting part of the Saint-Chapelle/Palais de Justice/Conciergerie complex. It isn’t particularly exciting when you just look at it. It’s closed off from the street and there are police there to make sure the Palais de Justice is safe. It sits between the three buildings, which more or less form three sides of the courtyard. However, what interested me was what happened here two hundred twenty-five years ago.
It’s a startling vision: in the early morning, a young(ish) woman is dragged into the courtyard from the prison. She isn’t fully dressed because she didn’t know she was being brought to be punished for her crimes–specifically, crimes of thievery and lese-majeste. The executioners (who carry out all sentences, not just death sentences) tie her up even though she fights. She’s whipped. Though she would later add a bit of melodrama to it, the beating was probably done by the books, just as it should have been. Next, she began to really fight because she saw the hot poker in the small brazier. There was a tussle, but she was stripped bare when her clothes were slashed by the executioners. The hot brand, with a v for voleuse or thief, was brought forward. She twitched at the last moment, and though it was supposed to brand her shoulder, the V was burned into her breast. Then she bit into one of the executioners, fainted, and had to be carried away.
This was, of course, the feisty heroine of our tale, Jeanne de La Motte-Valois, who wouldn’t go down without a fight. Jeanne had been arrested in Bar-Sur-Aube after it came to light that she’d orchestrated the jewel heist of the century, convincing a Cardinal that he was buying a necklace on behalf of the Queen, Marie-Antoinette. As it turns out, the Cardinal was just acting as guarantor for a transaction between the royal jewelers and a thief (namely, Jeanne).
At first, Jeanne was kept in the Bastille, along with her accomplices. Later, they were moved to the Conciergerie prison for the convenience. For the trial, she and the others were brought over to the Palais de Justice, where they were sat upon stools–sellettes–and interrogated. Jeanne continued to claim that she was a friend of the Queen’s, that the Queen truly had authorized the sale of the diamond necklace, and that she (Jeanne) was the victim of the Queen’s plot to discredit the Cardinal. Despite her version of the story, she was convicted and sent back into the Conciergerie to await her sentence. In this place at this time, prisoners weren’t told anything, so Jeanne almost certainly had no idea when her sentence would be carried out or what it would be. Of course, her sentence was: to be flogged and branded then imprisoned for life. For the last bit, Jeanne was later transferred to the Salpêtrière, a women’s prison from which she escaped and fled to England.
Jeanne (and her friends, such as Nicole d’Oliva) was hardly the most famous prisoner to pass through the Conciergerie. In latter years, it was known as the waiting room of the Revolution. It held many, many victims of the Terror. Perhaps ironically, one of those prisoners was the Widow Capet–Marie Antoinette. During the September Massacres, victims in the Conciergerie were put to death in the Cour des Femmes/Women’s Courtyard (if I had realized that when I was standing in that courtyard, I would have been duly creeped out). Victims were eventually sentenced in batches. The condemned were taken away immediately in a tumbrel to be executed in the Place de Greve.
Today, when you visit the Conciergerie, you enter into the Salle de Gendarmes. Above this in bygone days was the Grand’Salle of the King’s Chambers. Today it is an impressive,open medieval hall. This and the adjoining, smaller Salle des Gardes were part of the service areas of the medieval palace. The Salle de Gendarmes was the hall where the many servants attendant on the king would dine. Above the Salle des Gardes (not to be confused with the larger Salle de Gendarmes) was the Grand’Chambre. In the Grand’Chambre, the king entertained lavishly in medieval times. During the Revolution, this was where the Revolutionary Court–the one that sentenced all those people to the guillotine–sat and passed judgment. Fire destroyed these upper chambers in the 19th century, and today they belong to the Palais de Justice.
Aside from seeing these remnants of the medieval palace, by going left at the end of the Salle de Gendarmes, you come to the area that has been reconstructed as the Revolutionary prison. Here there are lists of all those beheaded by the Revolution, including Marie-Antoinette, Louis XVI, Madame Elisabeth, Robespierre, Danton, and Desmoulins. There are also some “cells” to show how a prisoner might have been kept. The conditions were generally very poor. There is a cell set up to simulate the one where Marie-Antoinette was kept. There are mannequins. A black-clad Marie-Antoinette sits at her desk, while at her back her two guards are standing behind a screen and watching her (she was perpetually watched by guards). Just beyond this, you can go out into the women’s courtyard, where the lady prisoners could take some air. Presumably, Jeanne de La Motte came here on many occasions. It was here, as I mentioned, that so many were murdered during the September Massacre, after Jeanne had escaped to England. Today, it’s quite peaceful. There is a fountain in the corner where women could wash their clothes.
With that, the tour of the Conciergerie comes to an end.