SAINT DENIS NORTH OF PARIS … BASILICA … NECROPOLIS OF MONARCHS OF FRANCE … A TOWN …

Just 9.4 km (5.8 miles) north of Paris is the town of Saint Denis or as we here in France say the ‘commune’ of Saint Denis. What we mean is that it is independent of other towns in France as it has its own municipality. You can read further about our communes. I will quickly […]

Saint Denis Basilica (Copyright Marilyn Z Tomlins)

Saint Denis Basilica (Copyright Marilyn Z Tomlins)

Just 9.4 km (5.8 miles) north of Paris is the town of Saint Denis or as we here in France say the ‘commune’ of Saint Denis. What we mean is that it is independent of other towns in France as it has its own municipality. You can read further about our communes.

I will quickly tell you that Saint Denis has a reputation of not being ‘classy’. And I will add that I found the town charming and I spent a very pleasant afternoon there, walking around, looking at everything – and I had a most delicious expresso – small black coffee – in one of its bistros.

Saint Denis Basilica (Copyright Marilyn Z.Tomlins)

Saint Denis Basilica (Copyright Marilyn Z.Tomlins)

The reason for my having gone to Saint Denis was to visit its basilica to see the tombs of France’s kings and queens, which included that of Marie Antoinette and Louis 16, the two, as you will know, having been guillotined in the French Revolution (1789-1799).

Also I wanted to pay my homage to their son who had died in prison at the age of ten, but about him in a moment.

The town of Saint Denis remembering terrorism victims (Copyright Marilyn Z.Tomlins)

The town of Saint Denis remembering terrorism victims (Copyright Marilyn Z.Tomlins)

I took the Métro (underground railway) to Saint Denis. It is Line (Ligne) 13 and one descends at the station St Denis Basilica. The station opens onto a square and to one’s left the basilica’s steeple can be seen. By the way the Métro ride took around half an hour with many people getting on and getting off. The line divides into two directions, so for the basilica you need to board the St Denis Université direction. I recommend you buy a day Mobilis ticket. You will need a 3-zone one which will cost you€9.30.

In the 2nd century Saint Denis was a Gallo-Roman village named Catolacus and the basilica had been erected on and around the tomb of the martyr Saint Denis, the first bishop of Paris.

Allow me to quote from the tourist office’s brochure:

The basilica stands on the site of a Gallo-Roman cemetery with the tomb of Saint Denis, thought to have been the first Bishop of Paris, who was martyred circa 250 AD. The place of pilgrimage was built in the 5th century … etc

The basilica is early Gothic, its present structure dating from the 13th century but due to a revolution and the resulting neglect of religious places, it had to be restored in the 19th century. In 1966 it had become a cathedral.

(Just a short explanation. In the world of Roman Catholicism, a cathedral is the main church in a diocese holding the bishop’s see. A basilica is, and I will again quote the tourist office’s brochure: a church built with marble columns and a wooden ceiling … I did not look up at the ceiling, so will have to go back – I am going back anyway.

The basilica is yet again undergoing renovation it being partly covered under canvas and scaffolding. Inside too there is some renovation underway.

One of Saint Denis Basilica's rose windows. (Marilyn Z.Tomlins)

One of Saint Denis Basilica’s rose windows. (Marilyn Z.Tomlins)

Entering the basilica’s nave is free – it is a place of worship after all – but it will cost you €8.50 to enter the crypt to visit the tombs. For the crypt you exit through a narrow door alongside the souvenir shop which is on the right. (The souvenir shop has some charming religious objects which include certified copies of Greek icons which are selling for just €10 each. You will have to pay in cash as they do not accept checks or credit cards.)

Once you have your ticket for the crypt you will first slip into a small side room to watch a short video of the history of the basilica. If you are into architecture you will also greatly appreciate the wooden model of the town and its basilica.

Wood model of ~Saint Denis and its Basilica (Copyright Marilyn Z Tomlins)

Wood model of ~Saint Denis and its Basilica (Copyright Marilyn Z Tomlins)

All France’s monarchs and their wives from Clovis 1, the Franks’ first Christian (Catholic) King, to Louis 18, who was heir to his brother Louis 16 until the latter’s wife, Marie Antoinette, had given birth to two sons, the elder dying but the younger, Louis-Charles, then having become heir. I won’t go further into this, but Louis 18 had survived the Revolution in that he had fled France with his wife and children. Having later returned to France his adversary was Napoleon, but he ruled during the latter’s exile to Elba and then very briefly again on Napoleon’s exile by the English to Saint Helena. He died in 1824 from obesity. He was 68.

Only one of France’s monarchs does not lie in the Saint Denis Basilica and this is Charlemagne, King of the Franks from October 9, 768 to January 28, 814. However, his parents do lie in the basilica, but their tombs are at the moment behind wooden panels in order not to suffer damage from the restoration work going on around those tombs. Charlemagne lies buried in the Aachen Cathedral, Germany.

As you enter the crypt, the tomb of François 1 and his wife Claude of France, is to the left.

(Oh yes, because France has been victim to most atrocious acts of terrorism committed by Islamist radicals, the country is on an ‘attack alert’ so you will be asked to show and open your bags before you an enter the crypt.)

Tomb of Francois 1 and his wife Claude of France (copyright  Marilyn Z. Tomlins)

Tomb of Francois 1 and his wife Claude of France (copyright Marilyn Z. Tomlins)

François 1 who ruled as King from 1515 until his 1547 death at the age of 53, along with his wife and three of their children, lie under an imposing arch which unfortunately make the tomb difficult to photograph if one has only a small camera.
Beside the tomb is an urn holding the King’s heart. The urn is marked with the letter F.

Removing a monarch’s heart was a custom which had begun in the 13th century, the heart having been to Roman Catholic France a symbol of purity, love and immortality. The heart was usually buried with the body but some were buried separately like that of François 1 in what is known as a cardiotaph – a heart tomb.

Heart of Francois 1 in Saint Denis Basilica (copyright Marilyn Z.Tomlins)

Heart of Francois 1 in Saint Denis Basilica (copyright Marilyn Z.Tomlins)

François 1’s successor was Henry 11 and his lies with his wife, Catherine of Medici, also in a most imposing tomb. Both are naked and he bashfully, maybe respectfully, has his hands folded over his private parts. Overlooking the tomb are two sculptures which Catherine had ordered to be sculpted for their funeral possessions: both are dressed and holding their hands in prayer.

Tomb of Henry 2 and his wife Catherine de Medici (Marilyn Z. Tomlins)

Tomb of Henry 2 and his wife Catherine de Medici (Marilyn Z. Tomlins)

Tomb of King Louis 12 and his queen Anne of Brittany (copyright Marilyn Z Tomlins)

Tomb of King Louis 12 and his queen Anne of Brittany (copyright Marilyn Z Tomlins)

By the way King Louis 12 and his wife Anne of Brittany also lies naked as you can see above.

Henry 11’s reign was marked by wars and by his persecution of the Protestants, France’s Huguenots of whom several were my ancestors.

He died when a wound he had suffered in a celebratory jousting event – two men on horseback fighting with a long jousting stick – had caused septicaemia. He was 40 years old.

Sculpture of Henri 2 and his wife Catherine de Medici in Saint Denis Basilica (copyright Marilyn Z.Tomlins)

Sculpture of Henri 2 and his wife Catherine de Medici in Saint Denis Basilica (copyright Marilyn Z.Tomlins)

The tombs which are probably those visitors indeed want to see, are those of the decapitated King Louis 16 and his wife Queen Marie Antoinette.

To your right as you enter the crypt you will see a sculpture of each of them. Both have on their knees in prayer: their knees rest on pillows. The statues were commissioned by Louis 18 in 1830. Do not think that these two sculptures are the tombs of these two headless monarchs. Their remains lie in another sector, down a few steps, under flat slabs of black marble.

Sculpture of Louis 16 and Marie Antoinette in St Denis Basilica (Marilyn Z.Tomlins)

Sculpture of Louis 16 and Marie Antoinette in St Denis Basilica (Marilyn Z.Tomlins)

 Marie Antoinette in St Denis Basilica again (copyright Marilyn Z Tomlins)

Marie Antoinette in St Denis Basilica again (copyright Marilyn Z Tomlins)

Louis was guillotined first on January 21, 1793. He was 38. Marie Antoinette was guillotined on October 16, 1793. She was 37.
Their bodies, as indeed those of all guillotined on what is today Place de la Concorde, were dumped in a mass grave in a small cemetery close to the Madeleine Church and the Chapelle Expiatoire. If you wish to find it, it is bordered by Boulevard Haussmann, and the streets of Rue des Maturins, Pasquier and d’Anjou. The bodies were later exhumed and those of Louis and Marie Antoinette were laid to rest in the Saint Denis Basilica as ordered by Louis 18. This was in 1815. Their heads were buried with their bodies.

Middle right lies the remains of Marie Antoinette. Louis 16's remains lie beside hers. (Copyright Marilyn Z. Tomlins)

Middle right lies the remains of Marie Antoinette. Louis 16’s remains lie beside hers. (Copyright Marilyn Z. Tomlins)

What to me was the most poignant moment of my visit to the basilica was standing in the chamber beside the one where Louis and Marie Antoinette’s remains rest. This chamber is the official resting place of their little son, who I briefly referred to above. Louis-Charles, Duke of Normandy, and declared King Louis 17 by Royalists after his father’s execution. Born in 1785 he was imprisoned with his parents and older sister in 1792. He was then just seven years old. After both his father and mother were executed, he had remained alone in Paris’s Temple prison tower. Ignored – no one ever speaking to him – food was thrown to him as if he were an animal, and there in the Temple he died on June 8, 1795. He was 10 years old. That was 220 years ago and if I am about this coming June 8, I am going to the basilica to pay my homage to him. Little sympathy do I have for his parents, but this child was not responsible for what they had done.

Heart of son of Louis 16 and Marie Antoinette in St Denis Basilica (copyright Marilyn Z.Tomlins)

Heart of son of Louis 16 and Marie Antoinette in St Denis Basilica (copyright Marilyn Z.Tomlins)

The child had died all alone having been ill for days.

Heart of son of Louis 16 & Marie Antoinette in St DenisBasilica. (copyright Marilyn Z Tomlins)

Heart of son of Louis 16 & Marie Antoinette in St DenisBasilica. (copyright Marilyn Z Tomlins)

The surgeon called to carry out an autopsy on the little body which was covered in bruises and sores from beatings, had found that he had died of lymph node infection and tuberculosis. In order with royal tradition he had removed the child’s heart. The body was thrown into an unmarked mass grave. The heart had gone from royal family to royal family until 1938 when it was returned to France where French royals kept it until 1975 when it was handed over to the Saint Denis Basilica. There were however doubt if it were indeed the heart of the little boy but in 2000 DNA tests showed that it was.

The chamber where  the heart of the son of Louis 16 & Marie Antoinette rests. (Copyright Marilyn Z Tomlins)

The chamber where the heart of the son of Louis 16 & Marie Antoinette rests. (Copyright Marilyn Z Tomlins)

The little boy (Copyright Marilyn Z Tomlins)

The little boy (Copyright Marilyn Z Tomlins)

When you visit St Denis – I know you will now do so – walk around the town. Beside the basilica you will see a most majestic building. It is the Legion of Honour School – La maison d’éducation de la Légion d’Honneur – for girls, the daughters, grand-daughters or great-grand-daughters of Legion of Honour recipients, founded in 1811. These Legion of Honour Schools have been set up by Napoleon.
The building can not be visited – or rather it can but only on France’s ‘Heritage Day’. Beside the building is a beautiful park which is open every day of the week from 8 am to 8 pm in winter and 9 pm in the summer. There is no fee to go in.

The Legion of Honour Park in Saint Denis (Copyright Marilyn Z. Tomlins)

The Legion of Honour Park in Saint Denis (Copyright Marilyn Z. Tomlins)

Legion

Legion of Honour Park Saint Denis (copyright Marilyn Z Tomlins)

What you also ought to go and have a look at in Saint Denis is the Stade de France sports stadium. It is a most impressive building which is just across from the St Denis Stade Métro Station, and along a bank of the Saint Denis Canal. Opened in 1998 it was here that France beat Brazil to win the Football World Cup on July 12, that year of 1998. If you go to Saint Denis on a warm and sunny day, be sure to go for a walk along the canal.

What I found so intriguing about the tombs in the crypt is that for the sculptures on the tombs of the dead monarchs their feet rest on animals. Below you will see what I mean.

Saint Denis Basilica crypt (Copyright Marilyn Z Tomlins)

Saint Denis Basilica crypt (Copyright Marilyn Z Tomlins)

Saint Denis Basilica (copyright Marilyn Z Tomlins)

Saint Denis Basilica (copyright Marilyn Z Tomlins)

 

The Virgin and Little Jesus in St Denis Basilica (copyright Marilyn Z Tomlins)

The Virgin and Little Jesus in St Denis Basilica (copyright Marilyn Z Tomlins)

St Denis Basilica (copyright Marilyn Z Tomlins)

St Denis Basilica (copyright Marilyn Z Tomlins)

Marilyn Z. Tomlins

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