Places of the French Revolution: The Temple

The Temple originally built in the twelfth century in Le Marais was a fortress built by the Knights Templar and owes its name to them. It was replaced with a grander and larger fortress in the thirteenth century in what is currently the third arrondissement, an administrative division within France. This medieval fortress, called enclos du Temple, originally had a number of buildings that included a small tower called Tour our de César (Caesar’s Tower) and a massive turreted keep, known as Grosse Tour (great tower), which combined is usually referred to as the Temple.

The Temple, Courtesy of Wikipedia

The Temple circa 1795. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Despite the Temple being considered a massive structure, at least once it was unable to accommodate those who came calling. This occurred in 1254, when Henry III of England passed through France while returning from Guyenne. He and his entourage wanted to stay at the Temple, “but with so imposing a suite … [the] great enclosure could not accommodate them all.”[1] However, it did host at least one of Henry III’s constant successions of feasts and revels: One of its great halls was used to host a feast, which was considered one of the King’s most magnificent and successful events during his visit.

Effigy of Henry III, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Effigy of Henry III. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Over the years, the Temple enclosure underwent a complete metamorphosis in both habit and appearance. Some of the towers and walls of were left standing, but since the time of Henry IV of France, when it began to fall into ruins, instead of being repaired, parts were pulled down and the Palace of the Grand Prior and a number of other buildings built in its place. The fortress also lost its warlike tradition and became a peaceful retreat where neither the crown or the Paris municipality could interfere. This meant that within the enclosure not only was there no interference from the Crown or the municipality but also complete freedom and no taxes.

The Temple

The Temple between 1789-1815. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Because of the freedom and lack of taxes three classes of people lived within the Temple enclosure. There was the wealthy, “seeking either to economize or to enjoy its free manner of  life; second, debtors to whom it offered a safe asylum; and, third, all manner of tradespeople and artisans who went there to escape from the tyrannies of the trade corporations and the heavy taxes imposed in the city.”[2] Additionally, a thriving trade called the bijoux du Temple (jewelry of the Temple) sprang up. There was also a number of quacks with false claims who could not be arrested for selling drugs, panaceas, or deleterious mixtures within the Temple enclosure.

The Temple, Public Domain

The Temple. Public domain.

During the time of the Templars, the great tower had been used as a treasury, but by the time of the French Revolution, it was a prison, along with the adjacent smaller tower. At the time, the tower was 150 feet in height, with an interior of from 30 to 35 feet either way. It also had small windows and walls nine feet thick, which made the chambers within it extraordinarily gloomy. There were also four floors, accessed by a staircase that wound up one of the four turrets at angles. It was into this gloomy, smaller tower the royal family was placed on 13 August 1792. One description written about the accommodations there stated:

“The body of this building was four stories high, but the rooms on each floor were small, filthy, and inconvenient. The king’s sister and daughter had no other bed-room than a small, dark ante-chamber, and this ante-chamber was the only way to one of the turrets, where servants, municipals, and common soldiers cooked their dinners and did other offices. The queen and the dauphin had rather a better room; but behind the king’s sleeping-room there was another kitchen. In one of the turrets there was a library containing from twelve to fifteen hundred volumes.”[3]

While imprisoned there, the Hampshire Chronicle reported:

“Louis XVITh and his family are still in the same deplorable state of close confinement in the temple. The commissaries of the commons went to announce to him the decree of the national convention, abolishing royalty in France. This insulting intelligence had already been re-echoed in every part of the temple.

Marie Antoinette continues extremely indisposed. In consequence of her vexations and troubles, she has had a severe bilious attack, which has turned since her confinement to a dropsical complaint. Her legs are considerably swelled, and there is every symptom of speedy dissolution.”[4]

Louis XVI was removed from the Temple on 21 January 1793 and guillotined the same day. His wife, Marie Antoinette, was removed on 1 August 1793, sent to the Conciergerie, and guillotined on 16 October 1793. The the following people were also imprisoned at the Temple and removed as indicated:

  • Madame Élisabeth was removed on 9 May 1794 and guillotined a day later.
  • Louis XVII remained imprisoned until his death from tuberculosis on 8 June 1795.
  • Princess Marie-Thérèse (Madame Royale) was incarcerated three years and four months before being sent into exile.
  • Princesse de Lamballe was removed 19 August 1792 and died on 3 September 1792.
  • Madame de Tourzel was removed on 19 August 1792, taken to La Force prison, and eventually smuggled out of jail.
 Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, Public Domain

Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Public domain.

Sometime after the royal family was executed and during the time of Napoleon Bonaparte, royalists began conducting pilgrimages to the Temple. This grated on Napoleon, and, so, in 1808, he ordered Joseph Fouché to ensure its demolition. It took two years to demolish it and even then, remnants of the building remained. Near the remnants, a wooden structure was erected as a permanent market called the carreau du temple (covered market). In 1860, the remaining remnants were demolished under Napoleon III, and, in 1863, the wooden structure of carreau du temple was replaced by a cast iron, brick, and glass structure. In addition, a garden called square du Temple was established in 1857 and occupies the site of the medieval fortress built by the Knights Templar. 


Napoleon Bonaparte. Courtesy of Wikipedia.


  • [1] Lansdale, Marla Hornor, Paris; Its Sites, Monuments and History, 1898, p. 179.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 322.
  • [3] MacFarlane, Charles, The French Revolution, Volume 3, 1845, p. 38.
  • [4] Tuesday’s Post, in Hampshire Chronicle, 8 October 1792, p. 1. 

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