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A fearsome prison

Paintings by a prisoner in the Vincennes dungeon

The château de Vincennes has long been a terrifying prison. Royal inmates or prisoners of war: take your turn in the cells!

The dungeon becomes a prison

Construction of the château de Vincennes dates back to the reign of Charles V in the 14th century. At the time, it was the heart of the French kingdom, serving as both royal residence and military fortress. At the end of the 15th century, King Louis XI gave it a new dimension: from then on, the keep was also used as a prison! But beware: at that time, it was only a question of prisoners of distinction, "housed" at the King's request.

In the following century, the sovereigns moved to a more comfortable pavilion to the southwest of the castle walls. As a result, the dungeon 's role as a penitentiary continued to be limited to important personalities. In 1574, for example, Henri de Navarre, the future Henri IV, was placed under house arrest for his part in the Malcontents plot with the Duke of Alençon.

The Vincennes keep and Le Vau portico
Vincennes keep and Le Vau portico

© Patrick Cadet / Centre des monuments nationaux

Domus Dolorum, the House of Sorrows

In the 17th century, the keep continued to be used to house prestigious captives. These included the Grand Condé, in 1650, and Nicolas Fouquet, Louis XIV's Superintendent of Finance, in 1661. Common law prisoners were also sent there by direct order of the King, notably during the Poison Affair, in 1679. This series of scandals implicated several aristocrats from the Court, and triggered a veritable witch-hunt throughout Paris.

Depending on their location, the gaols are more or less welcoming. One of the most terrible, on the third floor, is exposed to the cold and wind. In fact, one of the inmates left his mark on the walls, inscribing " Domus Dolorum " the house of sorrows!

Remains of an old cell on the first floor of the Vincennes keep
Remains of a former cell on the second floor of the keep

© Patrick Müller / Centre des Monuments Nationaux

The 18th century and lettres de cachet

How do you get rid of a troublesome person? In the 18th century, the solution was obvious: request a lettre de cachet! Signed by the King, these letters could order imprisonment or exile without trial. At the height of the Enlightenment, writers and philosophers paid the price: Diderot was imprisoned in Vincennes in 1749, and Mirabeau in 1777.

It was during this period that Vincennes prison welcomed one of its most famous tenants: the Marquis de Sade. Locked up at the request of his in-laws, he spent seven years there, including six in one of the ground-floor cells. Built in the shadow of the wall and right on the ground, these cells were particularly damp and freezing. Sade suffered from his captivity, but he also took the opportunity to begin writing his best-known work, Justine ou les Malheurs de la vertu. Legend has it that he hid his manuscripts in the walls. Who knows, maybe they're still there?

Letter of seal signed by Louis XV in 1760, Château de Vincennes
Letter of seal signed by Louis XV in 1760

© CICV / Centre des monuments nationaux

The Château de Vincennes, a state prison

After four centuries in the service of justice, the Château de Vincennes has become a symbol of royal oppression. In 1784, Louis XVI decided to close it in the face of popular anger, but Napoleon reopened it in the early 19th century. His confessor, Monseigneur de Boulogne, was incarcerated in the room adjoining the Salle du Conseil. Look through the peephole in the wooden door: it's decorated with numerous paintings by captives.

Perhaps you've also heard of the Duke of Enghien? Arrested and sent to Vincennes, he was shot without trial in 1804. His tomb has been in the château's Sainte-Chapelle since 1816.

It was at this time that the courtyard was transformed into a promenoir and the dungeon terrace was secured to prevent suicides by convicts. Doors were also built into the ground-floor walls, which had remained sealed until then. These passages are used to facilitate circulation within the prison. These are the ones you'll use today to access the dungeon!

Wall paintings by a prisoner in the Vincennes dungeon
Mural paintings by a prisoner on the second floor of the keep.

© Philippe Berthé / Centre des Monuments Nationaux

The end of the prison castle

1940. The outbreak of the Second World War interrupts the ongoing restoration of the Château de Vincennes. The keep regained its military attributes, becoming the headquarters of the French General Staff. However, following Marshal Pétain's surrender, it was occupied by the German Werchmacht, who locked up mutineers and prisoners of war.

The latter were housed on the fourth floor of the building, which had been designed from the outset to be the heart of the defensive system. All the walls are perforated, allowing the enemy to come in from any direction, but also letting in the freezing air. Detention conditions are therefore extremely difficult!

The dungeon was liberated by Allied troops in August 1944, after having been partly destroyed by German soldiers. Before leaving, they shot dozens of resistance fighters, whose bodies were found in the fort's ditches. On the fourth floor, an American soldier discovers the graffiti left by the captives on a pillar. At the top, he adds his own message: " Sterner, USA 1944 ". The Vincennes dungeon ceased to be a place of confinement once and for all!

Long a symbol of justice, even oppression, the Château de Vincennes is a historic place of detention. 
Did you know that it houses the remains of another famous prison? You can admire the heavy doors of the Temple Tower, where Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette were imprisoned!

Graffiti from the 1940s on the central pillar of the great hall, fourth floor of the keep
1940s graffiti on the central pillar of the great hall, fourth floor of the keep

© Romain Veillon / Centre des monuments nationaux

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