top of page
The Single Gothic Castle of Paris
People around the world clamor to visit the Gothic masterpieces of Paris. They think of names like Notre-Dame and Sainte-Chapelle. But there is one (and only one) civil monument in the city that survives in the Gothic style. We are, of course, talking about the Conciergerie.
This fortress was the backdrop to many important moments in French history, and today it remains a potent reminder of life in the Middle Ages. And since its construction, it has continued to play a pivotal role, seeing some of the most important moments in the French Revolution — making this monument one of the most storied in all of Europe.
Thanks to valiant efforts of restoration and maintenance, you can visit the Conciergerie and see what life was like in an earlier time.
Going to Conciergerie with a guide?
And if you are going to go to the Conciergerie on your next trip to Paris, you should do it with a cerified local and knowledgeable guide! With my team, you can:
Learn the secrets of the Gothic architects as you walk inside the halls they designed.
Hear live explanations about every detail you see — and you can ask as many questions as you’d like!
See how people used to live and eat in Medieval times.
Get to know the best stories from the royal families from a time of castles and knights.
Listen to stories about the thrilling and dangerous French Revolution.
Relive the last moments of Marie Antoinette — you can even visit her jail cell.
Ask your tour guide any questions about Gothic architecture, French history, and Parisian monuments!
Pair your tour
Conciergerie with Sainte-Chapelle guided tour
If you really want to experience the Gothic side of the City of Lights, pair your visit to the Conciergerie with a tour of the mesmerizing and beautiful Sainte Chapelle — located just next door. This is the ultimate exploration of Gothic France.
A guided tour of the Conciergerie is a one-of-a-kind way to see the Middle Ages on your next trip to Paris!
Are you interested in the history of Gothic architecture in Paris? Read more to learn about the Conciergerie, Gothic architecture, how the French Revolution used this castle for its own purposes, and what you can expect when you visit.
History of the Conciergerie
The Conciergerie stands on the Île de la Cité, an island in the middle of the Seine river that cuts through Paris, France.
This island is also home to a number of other Gothic masterpieces — most notably Notre-Dame and Sainte-Chapelle. That’s because it has been associated with power for almost 2000 years.
It was first used to house the fortress of Roman governors. And when the Franks took over after the Empire fell, King Clovis I built his palace there in the 6th century. For generations afterward, many kings continued to add their own projects to this island. They added new palaces, grand cathedrals, and other impressive structures. Situated away from the core of Paris itself, it was easy to defend, and it boasted a long history of prominent residents. Though the Franks moved their capital away from Paris for a handful of centuries, it returned to Paris under the rule of Hugh Capet in the final years of the 10th century.
Where did he build his palace? On the Île de la Cité.
He continued to build on this royal area (which was coming to be called the Palais de la Cité). Capet launched France into a massive construction campaign, an undertaking that eventually kicked off the French Gothic style. This major shift in architecture pointed towards an exciting new form of building that stepped away from the Romanesque and into an era-defining look that we still marvel at today.
What Is Gothic Architecture?
To understand the Conciergerie, we need to understand what makes Gothic architecture so special. For the French Gothic (a style that dominated from the middle of the 12th century to the middle of the 16th), a few key things stand out.
The first and foremost is a push for verticality. That means making this very tall and placing visually interesting features high above. This was especially true in religious buildings, the idea being to raise people’s attention up towards heaven. It also allowed for many more windows, which let in more light.
But to make buildings taller than had ever been dared before, you needed new engineering solutions. The problem was that these solutions couldn’t just serve the practical purpose of supporting tall spires — they needed to look beautiful at the same time.
One of the most important ways architects were able to achieve this height was with flying buttresses. These are features on the outside of buildings that lend support. That allows walls to be thinner and rise much higher, as the buttresses push them in and keep them from collapsing. While on the inside this leads to buildings appearing to defy the laws of gravity, on the outside it adds attractive visual interest.
Rib vault ceilings are also a tell-tale sign of Gothic architecture. These have exposed supports in the ceiling, giving handsome details. Again, this method allowed for ceilings to be higher.
These two iconic features, along with many others, made buildings of the time significantly taller than any before in Europe. And with that height came kaleidoscopic stained glass designs in royal blues, reds, and purples.
Added together, the Gothic style proved to be a lasting shift in the look of buildings as well as the way they were engineered. And while the most famous examples of the French Gothic are religious, the Conciergerie was not.
After the Kings
It was Chales V, ruling in the second half of the 14th century, that took the royal residence to the Louvre Palace — a move that would forever split the French monarchy from the Île de la Cité. Nevertheless, the area continued to be an important site of administrative activity.
And the Conciergerie still played an important role as a place for the courts and, eventually, prison cells. In fact, this use of the building would prove to be one of its most important over the course of the following centuries.
The Palais de la Cité and the Conciergerie
This palace was a sprawling complex of buildings that continued under construction (in some form or another) into the 20th century. That might sound strange — a royal site that was continually built and rebuilt for over a thousand years. But as new situations arose, kings had different uses they needed out of the land.
Even when kings left Paris altogether, they still made use of the island in the middle of the city.
Their projects were not only governmental in nature. They often also sought to add prestige to the crown through religion.
For instance, in 1163, Notre-Dame began construction. This proved to be an important building for Roman Catholicism, as well as a shining example of what the French Gothic style could do. Today, it is probably the single most recognizable cathedral in the entire world.
A little less than 100 years later, King Louis built the astounding Sainte-Chapelle right off of his palace. This further cemented the island as the epicenter of the French Gothic.
But the Palais de la Cité was in great need of plenty of secular buildings, too. After all, this was supposed to be the beating heart of the government.
That’s why the judicial complex of the Conciergerie was constructed in the early 14th century on the island.
Why the Name Conciergerie ?
The building got its name thanks to Philip II. He was planning to leave France with a group of soldiers to fight in the Crusades, and so he temporarily handed over his local authority to the Curia Regis (Latin for royal council) and relocated the royal archives to this building. He gave the overlooker of the palace the title of Concierge — and thus the building itself was named the Conciergerie.
The Prison of the Conciergerie
The conditions of imprisonment at the Conciergerie varied widely. Among the elite, a stay might not be so bad. After all, you would have reading material, visitors, and a bed — as long as you had the money to rent them. It might not be as nice as the luxurious hôtels you were used to, but one could manage for a short sentence.
Poorer people, however, were not so lucky.
Below the aristocratic level of accommodation, you might have a small bed and maybe a table. These weren’t so expensive. But things could get a lot worse for the poor.
There were other cells. Darker cells. Places of unbelievable inhumanity. These were called oubliette — a word meaning forgotten place. But for the people imprisoned there, they were unable to forget just how dreadful it was. These cells enjoyed little to no light, and they dripped with odd water that gathered in puddles on the earthen floor. Rats scurried everywhere, carrying fleas that brought plague and every other imaginable illness.
It was a terrible place to be locked up, and many did not survive the cruel conditions.
Leading to the French Revolution
The 15th through to the 18th centuries saw more or less constant adjustments to the building and its surroundings, as well as major rebuilding efforts. Floods, fires, and similar catastrophes required repairs that allowed for major changes to take place.
While styles had certainly changed since its construction, the Conciergerie luckily retained its famous look, and all the while it served as a center for lawmaking and law enforcement.
It is that high profile and central role that would prove to be critical during the French Revolution.
The Conciergerie in the French Revolution
There are few places in Paris that are as important to the story of the French Revolution as the Conciergerie. It is here that the Parliament of Paris first resisted the King. It is here that the Constituent Assembly first took over legislative power.
During those years, the prisons swelled with enemies of the Revolution. These prisoners were later killed in the September Massacres, a crime that included the mass murder of 1300 people.
It was also here that the Revolution found its most famous prisoner: Queen Marie-Antoinette.
She was brought in on August 3, 1792, first residing at Temple Prison. But when her husband King Louis XVI was executed, she was moved to the Conciergerie. While in years past, a woman of such stature would have been given the finest accommodations the prison could muster, the revolutionaries had a different approach to royalty. They gave her a simple bed and room with a window.
But this proved untenable. Though she was under constant supervision, several rescue missions came to light, and she was brought into a different cell that could be even more heavily guarded. It is there that she stayed just over six weeks.
When you visit the Conciergerie today, you can see this cell. While the grand palace at Versaille or the tremendous collection at the Louvre tell us so much about French history, you can also come to this quiet, modest space and feel the story of a country and its people coursing through you. In fact, you can almost hear Marie whispering her final prayers on October 16, 1793, just before she was carted away to the guillotine set up in the Place de la Revolution.
The Conciergerie also saw the trials of Danton and other revolutionary leaders as the Reign of Terror began to set its sights on its own. This reached its tragic and, perhaps, most ironic height when none other than Robespierre was arrested by moderate revolutionaries who were afraid to let the Revolution go any further.
With an air of poetry, they jailed Robespierre in the same cell as Marie Antoinette.
The Conciergerie After the Revolution
Though France had fewer trials and prisoners when the Revolution ended, the building proved useful still. And with the Bourbon Restoration, the rise of Napoleon III, the July Revolution, the Revolution of 1848, and the Paris Commune, there was plenty of upheaval to keep things interesting on the Île de la Cité.
But over the 19th century, the perspective on the building changed. Restoration efforts led by A.M. Peyrle enshrined the building as a memorial and monument. And new civic buildings on the Île de la Cité and around Paris gradually took over the roles that the Conciergerie once played.
In 1934, the prison of the Conciergerie finally closed, and over the 20th century, the building gradually became a place of interest for our guests.
The Conciergerie Building
History aside, the Conciergerie remains a beautiful building. The sophistication of its architecture is simply breathtaking, allowing for quiet moments of awe that seem oddly transcendent for a building meant to house the prosaic activities of government.
The exterior has tremendous rhythm and verve, with the white stone capped off with its trademark dark blue roof. Everything comes together with the clock tower, a yellow and blue masterpiece of 14th century design. Inside, it continues to astound. The rib vault ceilings, spiral stairways, and masonry are elevated features that show how the Middle Ages were anything but “dark.”
Hall of the Men-at-Arms
Built in the early 14th century, the Hall of the Men-at-Arms is enormous, with ceilings almost 9 meters high, and it is the largest secular Gothic hall in all of Europe. Visiting it always sends people’s jaws to the floor. The columns that reach up to the vaulted ceilings are dramatic. This is architectural history in all its majesty!
Hall of the Guards
This feature was built under the authority of Philip IV, the same king who authorized the Hall of the Men-at-Arms. This area was first used for the Royal Guard, then later as an antechamber for the Parliament that met in the room above it. And after this, it was turned into a dungeon, a tradition that the French Revolution made particular use of.
Because it is a building of such historical importance, the Conciergerie is now home to many memorials.
One of the most popular is the Hall of Names. This is an exhibit that displays the names of each person that the Revolutionary Tribunal sentenced to execution. With over four thousand, it is a stark reminder of this bloody chapter in history.
There is also a memorial to Marie Antoinette, designed by A.M. Peyrle and completed at the same time as his renovations to the Conciergerie.
Alongside these are numerous exhibits that show artifacts from the long history of the building. The exhibits also present examples of prison cells and the tools of the prison guards.
These are great features for any visit to the Conciergerie, helping to highlight the history contained in this building with informative displays that visitors always enjoy.
The Sleeping Chapter by Théo Mercier
Beginning October 14, 2022 and running to January 8, 2023, this exhibition featured sculptures made out of sand populating the Hall of the Men-at-Arms.
Théo Mercier’s installation is the third of a triptych of such works that all fall under his OUTREMONDE project. This ambitious artistic journey concluded at the Conciergerie with fascinating sculptures that take us into the collective world of dreams.
Because these works are crafted out of sand, they match the pale stone work all around. In that way, they seem to have come together from the building itself, like they are ghosts that refer to some memory held in the ancient Conciergerie.
Being made out of sand, they are also impossibly fragile. These works cannot be relocated without destroying them. Just like our own dreams, they appear so real and permanent yet can disappear in an instant.
The overall effect of walking through the space with these sculptures was a blessing. It brought new life into the Conciergerie, with Mercier filling the hall with physical embodiments of dream images from the city itself. It felt like time collapsed, with contemporary artists living alongside Gothic stone masons, if only for a few months.
How did Mercier do it?
The pieces were sculpted on site, using sand and water to form the shapes and hold them. Sometimes the artist allowed them to drift off, with parts of the sculptures spilling out. But with others, their borders were carefully maintained, looking almost like they were chiseled out of rock.
The fragility of these pieces provides an interesting counterbalance to the longevity of the Conciergerie itself. Visitors held at their feet these transient works whose medium was chosen so that they wouldn’t last. Yet all around were columns and floors and vaulted ceilings that have lasted for centuries and will continue to last for centuries more.
Bringing in art exhibits to the Conciergerie might at first seem an odd idea, but when you experience it, it all makes sense. It breathes such vitality into the space, allowing you to see it as a living work and not simply a fossil from some former time.
On your visit to Paris and the Conciergerie, who knows what exhibit they will have on offer?
Do you want to visit this Gothic castle with a knowledgeable local guide?
There is no monument quite like the Conciergerie, so if you want to start planning your guided tour, send me an email and I will help you with the booking. I can bring the rich and long history of this architectural marvel to life.
My knowledge and expertise mean that you can get the most out of your tour, learning all about the fascinating characters that walked these halls and the moments in history that threatened to shake the building to its foundation!
From Our Blog
bottom of page