The Desecration at St. Denis

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Podcast Transcript

The French Revolution was one of the most significant events in history. 

It wasn’t just a political revolution where one government replaced another. It was also a social revolution where the revolutionaries attempted to upend the entire foundation of French society.

But it wasn’t just enough to change France. There were also efforts to obliterate France’s past. 

Learn more about the Desecration at St. Denis and the purposeful attempt to destroy French history on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The Desecration at St. Denis was a rather bizarre and creepy moment in the history of the French Revolution. To understand why it happened and its importance, there are a few things we need to know beforehand.

The first concerns the Basilica of St. Denis and its importance in French history….and for the record, I will be using the French pronunciation of St. Denis for the rest of the episode, not the English Saint-Denis. 

St. Denis is a community located in the northern suburbs of Paris, about 9.4 kilometers or 5.8 miles from the city center. It is named after St. Denis, who was believed to be the first bishop of Paris and who was buried at the location which now bears his name. 

The pope supposedly sent St. Denis in the 3rd century to convert the Parisi who lived in what is today Paris, and the Romans executed him. According to legend, he was decapitated and then picked up his head and walked several miles, all while his severed head gave a sermon on repentance until he arrived at his burial site. 

Today, he is considered one of the patron saints of France. 

An abbey was eventually established at the site of the tomb of St. Denis. 

The abbey of St. Denis became an important center of French Christendom. The Frankish King Dagobert I ordered the remains of St. Denis to be reinterred in a new basilica he had ordered built. 

Because of its proximity to Paris and its relation to one of the most important saints in French history, it became associated with the French Monarchy. In fact, ever since the Frankish King Clovis I was buried there in 511, it became the burial site for almost all French kings. Until the 19th century, every French Monarch save for five were buried in St. Denis. 

St. Denis was on par with the Cathedral at Reims, which was used for the coronation of French Monarchs, in importance. 

Just as an aside, in the year 1144, the choir of the church was reconstructed with what were, at the time, very modern architectural techniques. It is considered to be the first example of Gothic architecture. 

So, if you wanted to make a comparison, the Basilica of St. Denis was similar to Westminster Abbey in London or Arlington National Cemetery in Washington DC. 

The second bit of background information you need to know has to do with the nature of the French Revolution. 

The American Revolution and the French Revolution are often linked in history because they occurred close together, and they did have some things in common. 

However, the two revolutions were profoundly different. The Americans simply wanted the British out so they could rule themselves. The French Revolution was about completely reshaping French society and centuries of French civilization.

In one of the most famous episodes of the French Revolution, the decision was made to execute King Louis XVI and his wife, Queen Marie Antoinette. 

The execution of Louis XVI on January 21, 1793, by guillotine, was something that shocked the royal courts of Europe. The execution of Antoinette nine months later only made matters worse. 

You’d think that having overthrown the king, trying him for treason, and then executing him, the job of the revolutionaries would be over. 

It was not. 

Killing the king and establishing a republican government only changed French politics. There was still the job of completely changing French society and social institutions. 

In previous episodes, I touched on the vast social reforms undertaken during the French Revolution. The revolutionary government tried to change the calendar and implement the equivalent of a secular state religion that worshiped reason. 

They attempted to abolish the Catholic Church, change the legal system,  dismantle the aristocracy, institute land reform, and a host of other social changes. 

Many of these changes were good and necessary, but the revolution also came under the influence of extremists, who ushered in what became known as the Reign of Terror. 

This episode is about one such instance where the revolution went beyond abolishing the monarchy and attempted to abolish the very memory of the monarchy from French history. 

Because of its historic association with the French Monarchy, the Abbey of St. Denis was in the crosshairs of the French Revolution, more so than other properties owned by the Catholic Church. 

On September 14, 1792, the monks of the Abbey of St. Denis celebrated their last mass, and on September 15, the abbey was dissolved. The great Gothic Basilica of St. Denis was turned into a grain storage facility, and most of the medieval monastic buildings on the site were destroyed. 

What happened at St. Denis was not actually out of the ordinary for most Church-owned property at the time. St. Denis was not the only abbey that was targeted in France. 

However, about nine months later, on August 1, 1793, after the execution of Louis XVI, the revolutionary government, known as the National Convention, passed a decree that said, “The tombs and mausoleums of the former kings, mounted in the Church of Saint-Denis, in temples and in other places, across the entire Republic, will be destroyed on August 10th.”

The formal excuse by the National Convention was to retrieve lead used in the caskets of the monarchs, but in reality, August 10th was the one-year anniversary of the storming of the Tuileries Palace and the end of the French Monarchy. 

The decree was meant to send a message that the French monarchy was over and all vestiges of the monarchy were to be destroyed.

From August 6th to the 8th, they got an early start destroying the funerary monuments of the Merovingian and Carolingian kings. Much of this destruction was done by professional builders who were hired for the job, not by a mob.

However, the real destruction of the royal tombs was put off until October. We know much of what happened from the accounts of Dom Poirir, a former monk who lived on the site.

The first body that was exhumed was Henri IV, also known as Henri the Great. He died in 1610. 

His corpse was taken out of his tomb and was in such good condition that it was actually put on display for two days.  The stab wound from where he was assassinated was still clearly visible.

The body of Henri IV was the exception. As Poirir noted, “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”.

Louis XIII’s body was in an advanced state of decay, but it was noted that his mustache was still jet-black. 

Louis XIV, the man named the sun king who reigned for 72 years, had turned totally black since he had been interred in 1715. 

I don’t want to get into the details of the state of decay of every single monarch who exhumed, but suffice it to say it was very macabre and disturbing for those who witnessed it. 

Each of the tombs was stripped of anything of value that might have been buried with the kings. This includes all gems and gold jewelry. 

The lead that lined their tombs was collected to be used as ammunition for the French army.

In total, 46 kings, 32 queens, their children, and other notable people, 170 in total, had their tombs opened and their bodies exhumed. 

All of them were unceremoniously dumped into two trenches that were dug outside of the church. One trench was for everyone in the Valois Dynasty, and the other was for everyone in the Bourbon Dynasty. 

There was a great crowd that had assembled to witness the burial of the bodies, and it was reported that many people took body parts as souvenirs, including an entire leg of Catherine de’ Medici.

Layers of lime were thrown on the layers of corpses to try to keep the smell down, but that was about it. All the bodies were buried without any respect or dignity. 

The next year, the lead tiles of the roof were removed, which exposed the interior of the building to the elements. 

Despite what happened, the significance of St. Denis was not forgotten. The French Republic had become the French Empire under the leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte, and Napoleon planned for his tomb to be at St. Denis, where all the previous French monarchs had been buried. 

The church was repaired and reconsecrated in 1806, just 13 years after it had been defiled. 

Napoleon ended up dying in exile on the island of St. Helena, so he was never buried there, but other French monarchs were. Louis XVI, who had been executed by the revolutionary government, had his ashes interred there.

In 1813, a massive renovation took place on the church to restore it to its former glory. 

It wasn’t until 1817, however, that all of the remains that had been tossed into a mass grave in 1793 were exhumed. However, after 24 years in the soil, in addition to the decades or centuries of decay before that, it was now impossible to identify any of the remains, which were now just bones. 

All of the bones were placed into an ossuary in the church with the names of all of those whose tombs had been defiled.

Today, the Basilica of St. Denis is also a cathedral that is open to the public to visit. There were a few monuments inside the church that weren’t destroyed, but for the most part, the church lost much of the splendor that it held during its heyday. 

The Desecration at St. Denis was one of the oddest and most disturbing aspects of the French Revolution. Even many supporters of the revolution in France were uneasy with what happened in St. Denis. 

Many countries have removed their monarchs from power, but no other country has taken such extreme measures to destroy the history and the very bodies of the kings and queens that came before them.