The royal tombs of Saint-Denis are sacked

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La violation des caveaux des rois dans la basilique de Saint-Denis (oil painting by Hubert Robert in the Musée Carnavalet )
Illustration of the church of St Denis in France, in which all royal epitaphs, graves and corpses were destroyed by the Ordre des National Convent. (contemporary etching)

The looting of the royal tombs of Saint-Denis in the years 1793–94 marked an episode at the height of the reign of terror (la Terreur) during the French Revolution .

Saint-Denis as the burial place of French kings

The central nave of Saint-Denis

From the end of the 10th century until the French Revolution, the abbey church ( cathedral since 1966 ) of Saint-Denis, a few kilometers northeast of Paris, was the burial place of almost all French kings. After Dagobert I , who was closely associated with Saint-Denis , the first king to be buried here was Hugo Capet († 996). Almost all French kings followed in an almost uninterrupted row. The only exceptions were the three kings Philip I († 1108, buried in the monastery of Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire ), Louis VII († 1180, buried in the monastery of Barbeau ) and Louis XI. († 1483, buried in Notre-Dame de Cléry ). The last king to be buried in Saint-Denis before the revolution was Louis XV. († 1774). In addition to the kings themselves, many of their family members were buried in Saint-Denis, as were some chosen subjects such as the famous military leader Bertrand du Guesclin († 1380).

The decision to open the graves

Ludwig XII tomb († 1515) and his wife Anne († 1514)

After the Tuileries Tower , the storming of the French royal palace by the revolutionary masses on August 10, 1792, the course of the revolution had radicalized. The subsequent election to the National Convention resulted in a shift to the left, and the radical Montagnards under Maximilien de Robespierre took the political initiative. The First Coalition War against Austria and Prussia caused a serious shortage of metals such as lead and copper that were important for the war effort. In order to address this deficiency, the provisional government ordered the melting down of all monuments dating from the time of the Ancien Régime . In a further resolution in 1793 the "destruction of the insignia of feudalism" was ordered. At the meeting of the National Convention on July 31, 1793, at the suggestion of Bertrand Barère , it was decided to open and destroy all royal tombs and to use the metals obtained mainly from the lead coffins for the purposes of the Revolutionary War. In the decree of August 1, 1793, the Convention decreed:

"The tombeaux et mausolées des ci-devant rois, élevés dans l'église de Saint-Denis, dans les temples et autres lieux, dans toute l'étendue de la république, seront détruits le 10 août prochain"

"The tombs and mausoleums of the former kings erected in the church of Saint-Denis, in temples and in other places throughout the territory of the republic are to be destroyed next August 10th."

- National Convention : second decree of 14th Thermidor I (August 1, 1793)

The Benedictine Father Germain Poirier , formerly archivist of the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés and later of the Abbey of Saint-Denis, was commissioned to draw up a report on the implementation of this decree. He is considered the most important eyewitness to the events and prepared numerous reports for the Commission des Monuments as well as a report on the exhumation of the corps royaux à Saint-Denis in 1793 , the original of which was lost in the fire in the library of Saint-Germain des Prés in 1794 . Between August 6 and 10, most of the statues and funerary monuments in Saint-Denis were dismantled. Some of them were transferred to the Musée des monuments français in Paris at the instigation of the Commission des Beaux Arts , the rest was destroyed. Then the actual exhumation of the dead began. A commissaire aux orfèvreries (commissioner for goldsmith's work) and a commissaire aux plombs (commissioner for lead) were present at the grave openings , who had the task of securing the appropriate metals. The dead were in different states, some of them decomposed, some of them almost completely turned to dust. Some of the artificially preserved corpses were preserved and some were in such good condition that they were displayed to passers-by in front of the church, for example the body of King Henry IV of Navarre († 1610), preserved using the Parés method . The body of King Louis XIV († 1715) was also very well preserved. The graves of some people could not be found, for example that of Cardinal de Retz († 1679) or that of Alfons von Brienne († 1270). In some cases, a macabre devotional trade with the remains developed, and many of those involved in the action took "souvenirs" or relics from the graves.

In total, the remains of 170 people, including 46 kings, 32 queens, 63 princes of royal blood, ten royal officials and two dozen abbots of Saint-Denis, were removed from their graves. The remains were then thrown into two pits dug outside the church, sprinkled with slaked lime and buried there.


In August 1793

The following graves were opened in August:

In October 1793

The following grave openings were made in October:

15th October

October, 16th

October 17th

October 18

October 19th

the 20th of October

October 21

October 22nd

October 24th

October 25

In January 1794

January 18, 1794

Development after 1794

After the fall of Maximilien de Robespierre and the end of the reign of terror on 9th Thermidor (July 27, 1794), the grave robberies finally came to an end.

During the Bourbon restoration after 1815, the bones and mortal remains buried in the two pits outside Saint-Denis were recovered and, since they could no longer be assigned to individual individuals, were buried in a common ossuary in the church's crypt. The mortal remains of Louis XVI. and Queen Marie-Antoinette , who had not previously been buried in St. Denis, were transferred from the Cimetière de la Madeleine to Saint-Denis in a solemn ceremony on January 21, 1815 and buried in individual graves in the restored burial place of the Bourbons in the crypt.


The destruction during the reign of terror is to be seen above all against the background of the radicalized political situation and the military oppression of the young republic by external powers (Austria, Prussia). From today's perspective, they are classified as cultural barbarism and vandalism. Along with many other cultural treasures, first-rate cultural assets, especially from the French Middle Ages, fell victim to looting.

Literary reception

The French writer Jean Raspail described the opening of the royal tombs in detail in his novel Sire (1991) about a young Bourbon prince who was ordained King of France at the end of the 20th century.

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Décrets du 1er août 1793., accessed on August 15, 2020 (French).
  2. Recueil général des lois, décrets, ordonnances, etc: depuis le mois de juin 1789 jusqu'au mois d'août 1830 . tape 4 . Paris 1839, p. 350 (French, digitized from Google ).
  3. ^ François-Xavier Feller: Dictionnaire historique, ou histoire abrégée de hommes qui se sont fait un nom par leur génie, leurs talens, leurs vertus, leurs ereurs or leurs crimes, depuis le commencement du monde jusqu'a nos jours. 1833, Retrieved June 23, 1833 (Google Books).
  4. ^ Joseph-François Michaud, Jean-Joseph-François Poujoulat: Nouvelle collection des mémoires pour servir à l'histoire de France , 1838, pp. 315-317
  5. Félix Faure , Dictionnaire historique des rues et monuments de Paris , 2003, p. 265