The Desecration of the Basilica of Saint Denis: Part One

1 Rue de la Légion d’Honneur, 93200 Saint-Denis

You are probably all too familiar with the depravity which took place during the Reign of Terror. Public executions, bloody massacres, fear and betrayal were all common themes during daily life in the early 1790’s. But the revolutionary madness didn’t stop when King Louis XVI and his wife Queen Marie Antoinette were beheaded along with thousands of others; pissed off revolutionaries kicked the destruction of the ancient régime up a notch by desecrating the royal tombs at the Basilica of Saint Denis.

This place was the last stop for French Royals, who traditionally were laid to rest here since the 10th century, with the first being King Dagobert in 639 all the up to Louis XVIII in 1815. Under the pretext of recuperating lead from their coffins (and any precious objects from the bodies), the Convention National gave their thumbs up to ransack the royal relics and their contents beginning August 10th 1793, which was a symbolic kick to the royal balls as this was the one year anniversary from when the Tuileries Palace was taken and the monarchy officially put aside. The pillage and defilement would continue all the way through January 1794, with the worst of the damage done in October.

Painting by Hubert Robert of the Violation of the Kings’ tombs in 1793

Benediction monk Dom Poirir, who lived at the basilica- and Alexandre Lenoir both wrote accounts of their experiences observing these events, including the state of the bodies when the tombs were open. If you are as morbid as I am, check out the photos below with witness descriptions (carefully translated in scholarly english by moi) for yourself.

The process was described as “Most of the bodies were decaying. A foul-smelling, thick, black vapour was released, which they desperately tried to dispel with vinegar and powder that they had taken the precaution of burning, which did not prevent the workmen from feeling unwell and feverish but without consequences”.

His body was thrown face down in the communal pit, just like his dad Henry.

Altogether, the embalmed bodies of 46 kings and 32 queens (along with their children and even some servants, making 170 in total) would be evicted from their final resting places. After the caskets were taken out from their marble exteriors, they were opened and all valuables within were taken (this included jewelry, golden garments, even shoe buckles) from the bodies representing 700 years of French history.

His body was described as black as ink

They were then delicately laid to rest in more modest accommodations AKA ruthlessly dumped together in two communal pits just outside the basilica (separating the Valois and Bourbon dynasties) with a layer of quick lime thrown on top for good measure.

Apparently Louis XV was the only king not embalmed due to dying from smallpox. Bet the guys who opened his tomb wish they knew that before they lifted the lid…

It wasn’t until 1817 that King Louis XVIII (younger brother of Louis XVI) dutifully dug up all the remains and re-laid them to rest in an ossuary at the basilica, along with what he could gather up of his brother and sister in law Marie Antoinette, who had been tossed in an unmarked grave at the Madeleine Cemetery in Paris after they were beheaded. Today this cemetery is no longer visible, and a memorial known as the Chapelle Expiatoire has taken its place, dedicated to the memory of the royal family.

Funeral monuments of Louis and Marie Antoinette at the Saint Denis Basilica

Fortunately not everything was destroyed during the Royal Desecration Festival of 1793 and you can still visit the basilica today to see some of the funerary monuments as well as the remarkably lifelike effigies that survive today.

Account of the state of Louis XV’s body by Alexandre Lenoir said it was so decayed and putrid that breathing in the air was impossible and they shot off guns in the hopes that the powder and smoke would deflect the rotting odor. His body was quickly disposed of.
The body of Henry IV, Alexandre Lenoir. His tomb and body were left out for anyone to see for several days.

As for Part Two- don’t think the horror ended with the tomb raiders tossing aside their shovels, dusting off their hands, and calling it a day. Stay tuned to discover what royal remains weren’t exactly laid to rest.. Trigger warning: Its gonna get weird..

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