french revolution

The Last Judgement of Kings

Previously on Voices In The Attic, I told the story of the Paris Catacombs, a great underground network of tunnels containing six million corpses, constructed in the late eighteenth century to remedy overcrowding in Paris’ cemeteries. This time, there is another story to be told concerning France in the eighteenth century. 

It is the summer of 1793, the first anniversary of the French Revolution, which overthrew and executed the reigning Bourbon monarch, King Louis XVI. The King has been dead for several months, and the Reign of Terror, led by Maximilien Robespierre, is just two months away. Yes, despite all the people who have gone under the National Razor, the worst is yet to come.

But the Revolution is more than just murder left, right and centre. It’s heinous acts of sacrilege, and destroying things—historically and culturally significant artefacts, buildings, anything and everything representing the Ancien Régime. Does this also include corpses, you ask? Well, yes, of course. This is eighteenth-century France.

So, this brings us to the Basilica of Saint-Denis, nine kilometres outside the city of Paris. It is in this cathedral that all the preceding French monarchs, save for three, are interred. This includes Clovis, first King of the Franks, who died in 511; Henry VI ‘the Great’, who died in 1610; Louis XIV ‘the Sun King’, who died in 1715; and his brother, Philippe Duc D’Orleans, founder of the royal house of Orleans.  In total, there are about thirty-six Kings, including an additional forty-six corpses belonging to former Queens, princesses, dukes and other members of the nobility. They lie beneath grand cadaver tombs, decorated by magnificent effigies of their likeness.

The Effigy of Clovis I.  Image courtesy of    Guilhem Vellut.

The Effigy of Clovis I. Image courtesy of Guilhem Vellut.

So, to the raging revolutionaries, the Basilica of Saint-Denis sounds like an excellent place to go, because they are running out of living nobles to decapitate, and the guillotine just won’t cut it anymore. With Christianity outlawed, the Basilica of Saint-Denis deconsecrated, and the Benedictine monks disbanded, the revolutionaries descend upon the royal crypt like vultures. The Convention calls this act ‘The Last Judgement of Kings’. If it sounds ominous, that’s because it is.

On August 10th, to celebrate the Festival of Reunion, they empty the tombs of the oldest dynasties—the Merovingians, the Carolingians, the Robertian, the Bosonids and the Capetians. Luckily, these bodies have had a good nine hundred years to decompose, so it’s mostly bones and ash left. Not too revolting, especially compared to everything else that has happened recently. They strip the lead lining from the coffins, so it can be recast and used elsewhere, before throwing the bones into a mass grave.

Then, in October, to celebrate the execution of Queen Marie Antoinette, the revolutionaries return to ransack the tombs belonging to the Houses of Valois and Bourbon. These ones, unlike their predecessors, contain the recent corpses, thus they are intact, they have flesh, and they smell.  The Bourbons, the house to which the last King belonged, are by far the most disgusting corpses. Onlookers describe “a malodorous black vapour that sickened workers”. This suggests to the revolutionaries that the corpses are morally tainted, as they were in life.

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Henry VI of House Valois, known to the people as “the Good King”, is, however, remarkably well preserved for a man who died two hundred years ago. He is so well preserved, in fact, that workers call it a miracle. They make a plaster cast of his face and prop his body up for display for a few days, much like a Saint.

Unfortunately, though Henry is well-liked by the workers and onlookers, that does not stop them from clipping his hair, taking his beard and pulling his teeth. One woman actually comes barrelling in, curses Henry’s corpse, then punches Henry in the face, sending the corpse crashing to the ground. So much for resting in peace, right? After that, Henry ends up in the Valois trench, alongside his infamous mother-in-law, Catherine De Medici.

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There is a bit of a mystery about Henry’s head, though, and whether it actually went into the trench with the rest of him. In 1817, an exhumation by the Bourbon Restoration finds the head missing. Another hundred years later, one Joseph Emile Bourdais buys a severed head for three francs, which he insists belongs to Henry. Exactly another hundred years later, the head resurfaces in an attic in Paris, belonging to a man who bought it in 1953. Who doesn't have a mummified head in their attic, right?

Scientists and anthropologists come to two entirely different conclusions: that it is and is not the head of Henry VI. To this day, there is something of a forensic dispute going on concerning this mysterious head. According to witnesses at the 1793 exhumations, Henry’s head is sawn open, and the brain removed, replaced with herbs.

Alexandre Lenoir testifies the following;

“The body of this prince [Henry IV] was so well preserved that the lines of his face were unchanged. He was laid down in the passage of low chapels, wrapped into his shroud, which was also preserved. Everybody could see him until Monday 14th in the morning; he was brought into the choir, at the bottom of the sanctuary’s steps, where he remained until 2 pm, and he was taken to the cemetery of de Valois, then into a large grave dug down on the right, on the North side. This cadaver, considered as a dry mummy, had a sawn skull, and contained, instead of the brain which had been removed, tow, oiled with a liquor made of herbs, which spread a strong smell, no one could stand.”

The mystery head, however, has a brain. Initial DNA testing doesn’t seem to render any definite answers either. For comparison, they use what is allegedly the blood of Henry’s great-great-great grandson, King Louis XVI, collected from the guillotine by a witness to his execution. But the samples don’t match. So the House of Bourbon arrives to help out. Prince Sixtus Henry of Bourbon-Parma and Prince João Maria of Orléans-Braganza add their samples, thus proving that the comparison blood does not belong to Louis XVI.

If you’d like to know more, there’s an academic article in the Journal of Forensic Research, authored by Doctor Riaud Xavier, Historian Delorme Philippe, and Lorin de la Grandmaison Geoffroy from the Department of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, Raymond Poincaré Hospital.

Another body to be uncovered is that of Henri de La Tour d'Auvergne, Vicomte de Turrene, remembered as one of the greatest generals in modern history. By this time, he’s been dead for about a hundred years, but, like the Good King, Turrene emerges intact and without odour, despite having been killed by a direct hit from a cannonball. The revolutionaries decide that Turrene is a worthy of the title of ‘grand homme’, so he manages to avoid most of the posthumous humiliation and desecration his crypt-mates endure.

Alexandre Lenoir, the archaeologist presiding over the exhumations, does detailed drawings of both the monuments and the bodies. The drawings are of corpses belonging to Turrene, Louis XIII, Henry VI and Louis XI, including the effigies of Henry II and Catherine De Medici.

Meanwhile, workers take off with souvenirs including Henry VI’s beard, Hugh Capet’s shoulder blade, Turrene’s finger, and a multitude of teeth and tufts of hair. Then, after the bodies been plundered, they all go into the trench and the workers pour quick lime over them so that they are utterly destroyed. Turrene is the only corpse from Saint-Denis to escape the ‘obliterating trench’. 

When the deed is done, Alexandre Lenoir returns to Paris with his drawings, having saved the scapula of King Hugh Capet, the femur of Charles V, the tibia of Charles VI, the vertebrae of Charles VII, one rib belonging to Philip IV and another belonging to Louis XII, the lower jaw of Catherine de Medici, and the tibia of Cardinal Retz. A few monuments and statues survive the symbolic decapitation too. Everything goes into the new Museum of French Monuments, founded by Lenoir himself.

The Bourbon dynasty returns to the throne again in 1814, under King Louis XVIII, the brother of the executed King. They immediately dig up the trenches, but there they mostly find scattered fragments of the bodies buried thirty years prior. It is a sad fate indeed for these poor cadavers, whose bodies were supposed to be laid to rest in peace, some of them children and babies. But, they are now together in a shared ossuary, marked by the surviving monuments, their names carved in marble, unforgotten, remaining forever in memory. May they finally find peace and dignity, once again.


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Natascha Wood

Say her name three times and she will appear.

Twitter: @oldvvitch

Empire of the Dead

I will preface this story with a short disclaimer, for those of you with weak stomachs, about the grizzly and grim details contained within. For my story today is about the Catacombs beneath Paris, and how they came to be.

We begin in the mid-eighteenth century, at which time Paris is the second largest city in Europe. Louis XV, described by historian Jerome Blum as “a perpetual adolescent called to do a man's job”, rules from his great-grandfather’s 300 billion dollar palace, Versailles, twelve miles away from the cramped quarters of the city and the seething ranks of poor Parisians. His reign is marked by extravagant spending, incompetent management, and a widening rift between the monarchy and the common people, especially those living in Paris.

Cimetière des Innocents  (1550) engraving by   F. Hoffbauer, courtesy of  Getty images .

Cimetière des Innocents (1550) engraving by F. Hoffbauer, courtesy of Getty images.

Thus, the State ignores the needs of its people until problems become severe, and let me tell you, the problems that necessitate the Catacombs are severe. At some point, Paris runs out of space for its half a million living residents and the six million deceased, specifically in Cimetière des Innocents.

Now, Cimetière des Innocents opened in the twelfth century as a small burial site consisting of individual burials. But as time and several plague outbreaks pass, the cemetery gets bigger, and individual burials turn into mass graves twenty feet deep, each containing about fifteen hundred corpses. Most of the burial pits are barely covered too, so it’s not uncommon to see dead bodies sticking out of the mud.


What is it like for the people unlucky enough to live nearby? Well, it’s enough to make even the most mild-mannered peasant want to guillotine the King. The stench of decomposing flesh is overwhelming, the water is poisoned, and the air is so impure that even candles won’t light. And people are actually falling into burial pits.

And you thought your commute to work was bad.

Photo courtesy of Nathanael Burton via  flickr.

Photo courtesy of Nathanael Burton via flickr.

Finally, after a particularly bad rain storm, a burial pit bursts through the wall of a private home, filling some poor family’s living room with corpses in various stages of decomposition. That is when the State intervenes.

King Louis XIV issues an edict in 1780 to finally halt burials at Cimetière des Innocents, and all other cemeteries within Paris. Sounds like common sense, but it's not for these people.  Fortunately, Paris has a disused limestone quarry waiting in the wings. So the work begins!

The task of moving the six million corpses happens only at night, in carts covered by black shrouds, accompanied by chanting priests and a lot of incense. They then have to be taken down to the tunnels, which are about five stories underground, and stacked in rooms called ossuaries. Additionally, the city must maintain fires to purify the air, and resourceful citizens collect the large deposits of adipocere left behind, otherwise known as ‘corpse wax’, to make candles. (When life gives you corpses, make corpse candles).

Photo taken in 1861 by  Felix Nadar .

Photo taken in 1861 by Felix Nadar.

Twelve years later, the cemeteries are empty, Cimetière Des Innocents is raised to the ground for the health and sanity of all, and spoiler: the King is dead, he lost his head. After the revolution, bodies go straight into the catacombs—including that of revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre, who shoots himself in the face and then gets guillotined by his former comrades during the “Reign of Terror”. It’s a really bad day for Max.

The catacombs remain in use for another twenty years—by which time the decapitating has slowed down—until Louis-Étienne François Héricart de Thury renovates the catacombs and transforms them into the work of macabre beauty they are today.

The whole complex finishes up at about two hundred and two kilometres of tunnels and ossuaries, only two of which are open to the public. Above the entrance reads the infamous inscription; “Arrête! C'est ici l'empire de la mort.” It’s a warning that should be heeded by all who enter.

That brings our story to an end, for now. However, should you choose to visit, always be respectful, and don’t get lost.


Have you been to the Catacombs? Share your experiences below, or tweet at us.


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Natascha Wood

Say her name three times and she will appear.

Twitter: @oldvvitch

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