The Destruction of the Royal Tombs in Saint Denis

Royal necropolis of France

The Abbey of Saint Denis, which is located about 17 kilometres north of Paris, is the last resting place of most of the French kings and queens. Saint Denis was the first bishop of Lutetia (Paris). According to the legend he was beheaded by the Romans on the hill now known as Montmartre, after which he picked up his head and walked away. He was buried at the spot where he fell and abbey was built to mark the place. From the 6th century on, French kings chose the abbey as their place of burial.

In 1122 the famous Suger was named abbot of Saint Denis by king Louis VI the Fat. In 1136 he ordered the building of a new abbey church, which was finished in 1147. Around 1260 King Louis IX, who is known as Saint Louis, put monuments on the graves of his predecessors. These monuments can still be seen in the church today.

We are indeed fortunate that the abbey is still here today, because events during the French Revolution could well have led to its total destruction. In 1793, the French guillotined their king and queen, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. A royal funeral in St. Denis was out of the question: they were buried in the same cemetery as the other victims of the guillotine. To hasten the decomposing of their bodies, they were buried in open coffins. In the same year the French desacrated the Royal Tombs at St. Denis. They opened the tombs and took out the bodies, which were dumped in two large pits nearby. Some people took souvenirs, like a shoulderblade of Hugues Capet (d. 996), founder of the Capet dynasty, or the beard of king Henri IV (d. 1610). The archaeologist Alexandre Lenoir saved many of the monuments from destruction, by claiming them for his Museum of French Monuments. In the following years the abbey decayed, because in revolutionary France Christianity had been replaced by the Religion of Reason.

Emperor Napoleon I reopened the church in 1806, after some urgent repairs. He was as much an enemy of the Bourbon kings as the revolutionaries were, so the royal remains were left in their mass-graves. In 1813 the architect Debret started working on the church. His work was a disaster and as a result one of the church's two spires had to be demolished in 1846. Today, the church has still only got one spire.

After Napoleon's first exile, to the island of Elba, the Bourbons briefly returned to power. They ordered a search for the corpses of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, which were found on 21 January 1815 and brought to St. Denis. They were buried in the crypt. On the exact spot of their original graves, the Chapelle Expiatore was built (1816-1821). It is situated on the Boulevard Haussmann in Paris.

After Napoleon's final defeat at Waterloo (1815) the Bourbons had the opportunity to search for the remains of their ancestors. The mass-graves were opened in 1817, but it had of course become impossible to distinguish any individuals in the mass of bones. Therefore, the remains were put in a small room in St. Denis' crypt, behind two marble plates with all their names on them. The coffin of the Crown Prince, duke Charles Ferdinand of Berry, who was stabbed to death by a lone fanatic as he left the Opera on 13 February 1820, can be seen in another room in the crypt. King Louis XVIII, who died on 16 September 1824, was buried in the centre of the crypt, close to the graves of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

The architect Viollet-le-Duc, famous for his work on Notre Dame in Paris, worked on St. Denis from 1858 till his death in 1879. The monuments that were taken to the Museum of French Monuments were returned and the church (which became a cathedral in 1966) now also has a collection of monuments from Parisian churches which were demolished during the French Revolution. The corpse of king Louis VII (d. 1180), who had been buried elsewhere and had escaped the attention of the revolutionaries, was brought to St. Denis and buried in the crypt.

Guide Michelin, Paris et sa banlieue, Paris, 1976

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