We all love a good drama. The fact that Game of Thrones has thrust multiple daggers into hours of our lives over the past few years is testament to that. All that blood, guts and underhandedness; we’re far too civilised for shenanigans like that in this day and age. Plus France no longer has a royal family, so we can’t expect such Joffrey-ism dominating the headlines. Hollande may have gone all Charles II on us with his actress/mistress moment, but the Republic never seems to generate quite the ‘off-with-their-heads’ gruesome fascination that the long departed monarchy managed.
Rewind a few centuries though when crowns were still the headgear of the moment, and there was enough drama happening this side of the channel to make GOT look like a Catherine Cooksoon novel. The royals ran riot, and even in death there was still scandal enough to make sure that history’s passage could do little to fade their memories. Even Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI were relatively recently small-fry in a huge regal pond full of centuries of gore. To delve into the deliciously dirty laundry of France’s monarchy long dissolved, there’s only one place to head (if you still have yours) – the Basilica of Saint Denis, nestled with little ceremony just outside the peripherique directly north of Paris, near to the national stadium.
Widely believed to be the first Gothic church ever built (well, a bit of it anyway – these old buildings have been remastered a great deal over the years), and named after the first bishop of Paris, the unique USP of this cathedral (if those boasts don’t impress you), is that it is the burial place of most of the kings of France from Clovis (d. 511) to Louis XVIII (d. 1824).
So you’re probably imagining a neat little cemetery or collection of lovingly constructed vaults ceremonially added to over the years each time royal heads rolled, and well, you’d be wrong. Twin sibling incest kind of wrong. That would have been a fitting tribute to the reigning powers of yore, and was the original idea, but those pesky revolutionaries at the end of the 19th century had other plans and opened up the tombs, dumped all of the bodies in a mass grave and dissolved them with lime. If that isn’t a way to make an anti-monarchist statement, then I don’t know what is.
The impressive effigies remained and attempts have been made over the centuries to restore the proper erm, remaining remains to their rightful spots, as well as moving other monarchs from different cemeteries to this ‘official’ resting place, but many of the regal bones and fragments unable to be identified were buried in the crypt behind a plaque bearing the names of the interred. So if it’s ancient royalty you want, you can count on the fingers of one hand those kings of France that don’t lie here.
You’d be as foolish as Louis XVI too, the day he thought he wouldn’t be recognised stopping for a pub lunch whilst trying to escape (you’re on the coins mate), if you didn’t head here this Sunday, Paris’ free museum day. Entry to the Basilica and its awesomely concentrated history will be free for the last time until November, along with other famous spots you can’t move in come summer; the Pantheon, Saint-Chapelle, Notre Dame’s towers, the Conciergerie, the Arc de Triomphe, and chateaux Vincennes and Versailles. That Game of Thrones marathon can wait.
Check out the list of free museums here.