Places of the French Revolution: Hôtel de Ville

Administration for the city of Paris has been located in the same spot — the Hôtel de Ville, formerly called the Place de Grève — since July of 1357. At that time, Paris’s provost of merchants (essentially mayor), Étienne Marcel, bought the maison aux piliers (House of Pillars) in the name of the city. This was also the spot that merged with the Place de Grève (“Square of the Strand”) and the spot where public executions were conducted since its inception.

Statue of Étienne Marcel by Antonin Idrac Next to the Hôtel de Ville, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Statue of Étienne Marcel by Antonin Idrac next to the Hôtel de Ville. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Although almost always in need of repairs, the House of Pillars served Paris’s needs until the 1530s. At that time, Paris had become the largest and grandest city in Europe, and because of its grand reputation, King Francis I decided in 1533 to build a city hall he thought worthy of Paris. To accomplish his vision, Francis I appointed two architects, Italian Dominique de Cortone and Frenchman Pierre Chambiges, to bring it to fruition.

De Cortone and Chambiges drew up plans for a new structure and tore down the House of Pillars. In its place they attempted to erect what was to be called the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall). It was a tall, spacious, and refined building built in Renaissance style. Yet, despite everyone’s grand plans, by the time of Charles IX’s reign — 1560 to 1572 — Hôtel de Ville was still incomplete and problems were plaguing the Place de Grève that affected the construction and completion of the Hôtel de Ville.

Hôtel de Ville in 1583, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Hôtel de Ville in 1583. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Place de Grève had become “little better than a huge sewer.”[1] Besides the stench, the access to the Hôtel de Ville was blocked. Therefore, to prevent further problems, rubbish and filth were removed and the square was cleaned and paved. To allow the continuation of executions, orders were also given forbidding people from using the square as a dumping ground and from “otherwise encumber[ing] the open space before the Hotel de Ville.”[2]

The Hôtel de Ville took almost a hundred years to complete. It was not finished until Louis XIII’s reign in 1628. However, despite the lengthy time taken to complete the Hôtel de Ville, it seemed  “from its inception [to be] destined … [as] the core and centre of revolutionary enterprises.”[3] For instance, during Charles VI’s minority in 1382 when his uncles ruled, Parisians become so unhappy, they rebelled and armed themselves “with … leaden mallets from which the rebels got the name of maillotins [and from which the Maillotins Revolt took its name].”[4]

Hundred of years later, on 14 July 1789, the Hôtel de Ville again became the site for unrest and rebellion. French revolutionaries had successful stormed the city prison, the infamous Bastille, and had taken its governor, Bernard René Jourdan, marquis de Launay, captive. Launay was then taken by revolutionaries to the Hôtel de Ville were a furious mob assaulted him, beat him, and lynched him after stabbing him repeatedly with their bayonets and shooting him once. Then they severed Launay’s head and placed it on a pike.

Bernard René Jourdan, marquis de Launay (left) and Jacques de Flesselles (right), Public Domain

Bernard René Jourdan, marquis de Launay (left) and Jacques de Flesselles (right). Public domain.

Revolutionaries then focused their fury on the last provost of merchants. His name was Jacques de Flesselles, and suspicions had swirled about him being against the revolution and possessing royal sympathies. This was because the citizen’s militia had demanded weapons and he provided only three muskets and his other suggestions for obtaining arms proved misleading. Additionally, a letter, supposedly sent by Flesselles had been found in Launay’s pocket. The letter stated:

“I will amuse the Parisians with cockades and promises. Keep your station till the evening — you shall then have a reinforcement.”[5]

When Flesselles was called to the Hotel de Ville, he was shot by an unknown assassin as he attempted to justify his actions. Mortally wounded, he fell dead on the Hotel de Ville’s steps. Moments later his head was on a pike like Launay’s, and revolutionaries were parading both severed heads about Paris.

Severed Heads of Launay and Flesselles, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Severed heads of Launay and Flesselles. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

One of the next notable events at the Hôtel de Ville occurred several years later in July of 1794. At that time National Convention members were concerned for their own safety and conspired against those in charge of the Reign of Terror (a period of violence that resulted in tens of thousands of people being executed as enemies of the revolution). Among those considered responsible for the Reign of Terror and believed to be dangerous to certain National Convention members was Maximilien Robespierre and his close supporters. During the coup d’état, known as the Thermidorian Reaction, Robespierre and some of his supporters — his brother Augustin Robespierre, Philippe-François-Joseph Le Bas, Saint-Just, François Hanriot, Georges Auguste Couthon, and others — sought safety at the Hôtel de Ville. The Convention considered them outlaws, and when the Convention’s troops came to the Hôtel de Ville to arrest them, some of the men decided to kill themselves rather than be captured.

Attack on the Hôtel de Ville by National Convention Troops, Public Domain

Attack on the Hôtel de Ville by National Convention troops. Public domain.

Their attempts at suicide were somewhat dismal. Only Le Bas and another radical actually achieved success. As for some of the others, Robespierre brother threw himself out a window and suffered broken legs; Couthon was found paralyzed at the bottom of a staircase; and Robespierre managed to shatter his lower jaw (although some people say he did not attempt suicide but was instead shot by Charles-André Merda during his arrest). None of the injured men suffered long. The following day, on the 28th of July, Robespierre and his closest associates taken to the guillotine at the Place de la Révolution, the same place where Marie Antoinette was also executed. It was reported:

“An immense crowd assembled to see the prisoners carried to the guillotine. … As they went along, throngs crowded about the cart to see the fallen tyrant, and the gendarmes point him out, with their swords. He was pursued by the howling mob, who had formerly yelled as fiercely at his victims, and now charged him with the blood of them. Troops of women who had danced at the deaths of those that he had sent to the scaffold, now danced the Carmagnole round the cart as it paused before the house of Duplaix, where he had lived. A woman, breaking from the crowd, rushed close to him, exclaiming, ‘Murderer of all my kindred, your agony fills me with transport! Descend to hell, pursued by the curses of every mother in France!'”[6]

Shooting of Robespierre by Charles-André Merda, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Shooting of Robespierre by Charles-André Merda. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Since the French Revolution, other historic events have occurred at the site. For example, “when preparations for the coronation of the Emperor were being made, the Hôtel de Ville was magnificently fitted out … [and] Napoleon and Josephine were received in the transformed building.”[7] Another important incident was the proclamation delivered by the French Third Republic in 1870 after the Second French Empire collapsed. There was also Charles de Gaulle’s speech on 25 August 1944, after the liberation of Paris during World War II. Lastly, the Hôtel de Ville was in the news in the twenty-first century: During nighttime festivities in 2002, Paris’s socialist and gay mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, was stabbed in the building by a Muslim immigrant while mingling with the public. He has since recovered.

Hôtel de Ville in 1819. Courtesy of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.


  • [1] Lansdale, Marla Hornor, Paris; Its Sites, Monuments and History, 1899, p. 266.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 203.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] “French Revolution,” in Liverpool Mercury, October 1, 1813, p. 3.3
  • [6] John Cassell’s Illustrated History of England, 1865, p. 126.
  • [7] Lansdale, Marla Hornor, p. 461.

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