Monday, 29 June 2020

The Dead of the Madeleine

This week the newspapers are full of stories about the discovery of "the remains of 500 guillotine victims" found stashed behind false walls in the Chapelle expiatoire.  It was formerly thought that in 1815, when the bodies of the King and Queen were transferred to Saint-Denis, the remains from the Madeleine Cemetery had been removed to a communal grave in Cimetière des Errancis  and subsequently consigned to the Catacombs.  But in 2018 small medical cameras lowered into the cavities behind the walls of the chapel glimpsed human bones and leather-covered wooden chests containing further bone fragments.  Investigations have been delayed by the demonstrations of the Gilets jaunes, but now a formal request has been made to the Direction régionale des affaires culturelles (DRAC) for an archaeological survey to be carried out.  This is scheduled to take place in 2021.

The discovery

The Sherlock Holmes of the case is the dynamic and personable Aymeric Peniguet de Stoutz,  director of the chapel since 2012 and an upcoming star of the French cultural establishment. Since taking over, he has managed to greatly enhance the profile of the chapel as an attraction.   His photo appears in all the current articles - a plumb, boyish figure currently sporting his lockdown curls. (You have to search hard, but this indeed the same man who launched Pink TV in 2004, and played "Monsieur" in the 2008 TV docudrama Versailles, le rêve d'un roi ....)

The detective work involved firstly the documentary evidence. There are bones in the catacombs from the "the former cemetery of the Madeleine" but these were deposited only in 1844 and probably come from the old medieval cemetery, which used in the 18th century only for occasional high-status burials. (See the entry in Tombes et Sepultures)

 There are no records for any transfers to Errancis. At the time of the construction of the chapelle expiatoire in 1815, Louis XVIII requested that none of the earth, which was"saturated with victims", was to be displaced for building work.  In 1818 the architect, Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine, noted that "the number of bones found on the site is prodigious".  There is even mention of creating four crypts ("caveaux"). Nothing is indicated in the architectural drawings, but on the ground there are walls between the columns in the lower chapel that have no load-bearing function. These can also be seen in plans from 1853 drawn up when heaters were installed in the building.

The lower chapel of the Chapelle expiatoire / Flickr / Guilhem Vellut

In the spring of 2018 Aymeric Peniguet  had sufficient evidence to ask the president of the CMN Philippe Bélaval, for permission to excavate behind the walls. The irrepressible Philippe Charlier (who else!) now stepped in; he proposed to pass a camera through the joint between two building blocks.  In July 2018 initial glimpses revealed bones from a human foot foot, then the tip of a fibula.  In true 19th-century style Peniguet was reduced to tears of emotion.

Philippe Charlier's report of 10 September 2018 confirmed that the walls of the lower chapel contains four wooden ossuaries, probably covered in leather. The current proposal is to use one of the heating vents to investigate further without causing damage. The planned date for completion of the work is August 2021.

The dead of the Madeleine

Will we will at long last find the "victims of the guillotine"?

We should be careful not to suppose that the ossuaries contain the remains of discrete individuals  since, like the Sainte-Marguerite cemetery, the Madeleine had seen a prodigious number of burials. This was the great cemetery of the Revolution, but it should be noted that it had already long been in use when the first carts began ferrying in the bloody harvest of the guillotine in 1792.

Lenotre, in an influential account, stated that the land acquired by the Commune in 1792 for the cemetery had until then been a vegetable garden serving the Benedicines of la Ville-l’Évêque.  When the cemetery was closed in 1794, it was "only a quarter full" and the fears of contagion were largely psychological in origin.  This view has since been corrected by the researches of the historian of  Paris, Jacques Hillairet (1886-1984).

According to Hillairet, the third cemetery associated with the Madeleine church, on which the Chapelle expiatoire is built,  was in fact opened as early as 1721.  The chapel and its precinct encompasses the entire area of the original cemetery,  a confined space 45 metres by 19 metres. Hillairet estimated that the cemetery received bodies at the rate of 160 per year.  In addition it contained the the remains exhumed from the former "grand cemetière", in use since 1690, which was sold off in 1720 to become the marché Aguesseau. Thus there were already several thousand individuals buried in the cemetery by the start of the Revolution.

The cemetery's proximity to the centre of Paris and its discreet surrounding wall (2.65 metres in height) clearly made it the ideal location to receive the bodies of those guillotined on the place de la Révolution.  It is not easy to find exact numbers:  the modern estimate seems to be "about 500". Notable burials included those of Charlotte Corday, Philippe Égalité and the Girondin deputies executed in October 1793.  The cemetery is also known to have contained the mortal remains of the Swiss Guard killed on 10th August 1792, and many of the victims of the fatal stampede which took place at the fireworks for the royal marriage on 30th May 1770.  In the early 19th century plans were published which gave locations for the burial of Louis XVI and the various mass graves,  though these almost certainly give an over neat impression.

The grave of Marie-Antoinette by Viktor Ritter von Schubert-Soldern (1881). 
Reposted from  Boudoir Marie-Antoinette.
The evidence suggests that the ground had indeed become full to capacity.  Despite the liberal use of quicklime, there were bitter complaints about the noxious smell and risk of disease. In the hot summer of 1793 the Section du Roule protested that the "odeur cadavérique et putrifiante" was unbearable to the neighbours and a danger to the town. (Hastier, p.100) The section du Mont-Blanc reported to the Commune that the rue Ville-l’Evêque, where the carts travelled from the place de la Révolution ran constantly red with blood. Finally on 25th March 1794 the cemetery was closed, officially because its proximity to the centre of Paris invited unwanted attention, but also for fear of "morbid contamination".

We should be mindful too of Fontaine's remarks on the "prodigious number" of bones.   If it were in any way possible piece them together meaningfully, this would surely have been done at the time. Philippe Charlier emphasises that he does not expect to find entire skeletons - rather the chests contain bone fragments mixed with earth.  In all events, there will be no DNA testing; the remains will be left undisturbed as Louis XVIII instructed, in "union et oublie".

Lancelot Théodore Turpin de Crissé, A Mass in the Chapelle expiatoire, 1835. (Musée Carnavalet)


Eric Le Mitouard, "On a retrouvé les ossements des guillotinés de la Concorde à Paris!", Le Parisien, 27.06.2020.

"Possible French Revolution bones found in memorial chapel wall", The History Blog, 28.06.2020.

"La chapelle expiatoire du square Louis XVI, à Paris", Forum de Marie-Antoinette.

The walled-up remains were not a secret; they have just been forgotten. An article of 1900 states quite openly that the bones excavated during the construction of the Chapelle were shut up in the crypt. ["On renferma dans la crypte les ossements mis à jour pendant les fouilles"]
Eugène Le Senne, "L'ancien cimetière de la Madeleine", Bulletin de la Société historique et archéologique du VIIIe arrondissement de Paris, July 1900, vol.2(3): p.119-131; p.128.

On the cemetery:

Cimetières de France et d'ailleurs
 Tombes et Sepultures
Both these websites follow the authority of Jacques Hillairet, Les 200 cimetières du vieux Paris (1958).

The passages from Lenotre can be found here:


Le  Cimetière de la Madeleine: 
In 1721 the parish of the Madeleine planned to enlarge its church using 170 toises of adjoining land, owned since 1720 by Moïse-Augustin de Fontanieu, contrôleur général des Meubles de la Couronne.  A certain sieur Descazaux bought the land on their behalf and exchanged it for that of the parish cemetery, le grand cimetière de la Madeleine in the rue de Suresnes.  The transaction took place on 7th August 1721.  To replace the grand cimetière, the curé of the Madeleine proposed 900 toises bordering the rue d'Anjou, near the Grand-Egout, which belonged to his establishment, with reserve on the rent.  This plot was finally judged to be too large, and only a band of 210 toises was used, that is a rectangle of 45 metres by 19 metres, for which the parish payed rent to the curé.  This cemetery, isolated in the marshes, was enclosed by a wall of nearly 2.65 metres in height; henceforth it received about 160 bodies per year, not counting those which were exhumed from the rue de Suresnes at the expense of Joseph-Antoine d'Aguesseau.

Among those buried:
- The countesse de Choiseul-Beaupré, lady-in-waiting to Marie-Adelaide of France; died 1753.
- Louise de Villette, countesse de Prie.
- The 133 people crushed or suffocated in the rue Royale and place Louis XV duriing the fireworks of 30 May 1770 which marked the marriage of the dauphin Louis and the Archduchess Marie-Antoinette.
- Later, in the south and west of the cemetery, a large number of the Swiss Guard massacred at the Tuileries on 10th August 1792, then individuals guillotined during the Revolution between 26th August 1792 and 24th March 1794: 
Besides Louis XVI: these included:
Charlotte Corday (13th July 1793); Queen Marie-Antoinette (15th October); the Girondin deputies, Brissot, Vergniaud, Gensonné, Brulart de Sillery, Duclos, Fonfrède and Lasource (31st October);  Olympe de Gouges (2nd November); Philippe Égalité (7th November); then General Biron, Madame Roland, General Houchard, the deputies Manuel and Rabaud-Saint-Étienne.  These were the last to be interred there.

Thus it was this cemetery that received the remains of Louis  XVI.  The  cart carrying them took the rue de la Bonne-Morue (now rue de Boissy-d'Anglas) then the rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré and the rue d'Anjou.  The decapitated body of the king,  in grey culotte, and white embroidered vest, was placed in an open coffin with the head between the legs.  It was lowered into a ditch  about 3.3 metres deep, about  3 metters from the wall bordering the rue d'Anjou.  It was placed on top of a bed of quicklime and covered with another layer of quicklime and with earth.  The first and second vicaires of the Madeleine, the abbés Sylvain Renard and Damoreau, were present and recited prayers.

Addition: The number of bodies buried here was so great that numerous complaints were drawn up concerning the horrible odour that it emitted. Thus on 26th February 1794, it was closed, and replaced by that of the Errancis.
Translated from Jacques Hillairet,  Dictionnaire historique des rues de Paris (1963)

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