The Capital of Paris: A Fascinating History of the Palais-Royal


In the shadow of the world-famous palace and museum of Le Louvre lies another palace often ignored by foreigners. The hasty passers-by, coming out from the metro station Palais-Royal-Musée-du-Louvre, usually give only a few seconds of attention to the columns and courtyard of its southern façade, enclosed by railings.

Today a hidden meeting spot of the Parisian, a place where they lunch, relax and play games – but these walls have seen so much more…

Far from being secluded, this place once was called “the capital of Paris”.

Let me bring you to this glorious past, starting four centuries ago. Through the history of this place, we will encounter some of the most famous events and characters of French history which changed the fate of the country.

The Palais-Cardinal of the Duke of Richelieu

The Duke of Richelieu by Philippe de Champaigne. Image sourced from Wikipedia

Do you remember the bad guy in red in the Three Musketeers ? The Duke of Richelieu, cardinal and Prime Minister of the country buys a private mansion in 1624 and commissions his architect Le Mercier to transform it.

Located only a few meters away from Le Louvre, the royal residence in Paris, this palace is key in Richelieu’s strategy to gain influence on the king Louis XIII.

There Richelieu works on his grand plan for France: the establishment of the absolute monarchy in a united country, at the costs of the persecution of his enemies, rebels and Protestants. Richelieu dies there in 1642 and give his palace to the royal children, the future Louis XIV and Philippe d’Orléans. The palace is renamed Palais-Royal.

The palace underwent many transformations and destructions throughout the centuries but one part of the original palace is still visible: the Galerie des Proues, Gallerie of the prows, located on the eastern part of courtyard occupied today by the Colonnes de Buren. It is a marker that Richelieu had among his attributions the responsibility of the navy.

The troubled years of the Regency

Louis XIV is too young to rule when his father dies in 1643. His mother Anne of Austria becomes the regent and rules with the help of a Prime Minister, the Italian Mazarini. The new minister is as unpopular as Richelieu but less feared: soon he faces a revolt led by some nobles and followed by many Parisians. The apartments of Mazarini in the Palais Royal are sacked, the royal family run away in the countryside.

Eventually victorious, the royal family abandons the Palais-Royal and move to the Louvre, a fortress easier to defend. Louis XIV never forgot this humiliation which would be key in his decision to leave Paris for Versailles in 1682.

The palace of the scandalous Orleans family

The palace falls in the hands of the youngest brother of Louis XIV, Philippe d’Orléans, also called simply “Monsieur”. He is the first of a long line of dukes who never got tired of creating scandals and agitation in the family.

When Louis XIV died, after a reign of 72 years that seem undless to the contemporaries, his nephew, the son of Monsieur also called Philippe d’Orléans, imposes himself as a regent.

Duchesse de Berry, image sourced from Histoire Par L’Image

He forces the court to go back to Paris where he rules from the Palais-Royal while the young Louis XV is abandoned in the nearby Tuileries palace. The libertine life he lives with his friends causes a lot of scandals: he is notably accused of having a incestuous relationship with his daughter, the Duchesse de Berry.

Under his rule, the foundation of a city in Louisiana, called New Orleans, as a tribute to Philippe.

The “capital of Paris”

A descendant of Philippe of Orléans, called Philippe (yes, another one), the third in the family, transforms the palace in 1773.

Philippe of Orléans by Geoffroy. Image sourced from Wikipedia

The idea is to subdivide his palace into several apartments and stores: Philippe needs a lot of money, very quickly, and this seem the best solution. The architect Victor Louis redesigns the palace, almost as it is today.

Philippe is mocked, his palace nicknamed the Palace of the Merchant. Nevertheless, this palace whose access inside is forbidden, soon attracts a very diverse crowd: prostitutes, gamblers, philosophers and political activists. Many brothels and cafés open in the garden.

In the covered galleries surrounding the garden, hundreds of prostitutes wait for their clients at night. It is no wonder that in 1787 a 18 year old student of the Military School, lonely and not very attractive, comes here to lose his virginity. His name? Napoleon Bonaparte. The place is so vibrant and so important in the life of Paris that people soon calls it: the capital of Paris.

An amusing remain of this time is still visible in the southern parterre of the garden. In 1785, Philippe of Orléans gives the order to install a little bronze canon in the garden. It is an invention of Rousseau, an engineer and watchmaker whose shop is situated in the Beaujolais gallery of the palace, on the north.

A magnifying glass was used to ignite it, thanks to the sun rays. The detonation every sunny day at noon, which can be heard from quite far, is used by the Parisians to adjust the time given by their watch until 1911. This canon, which was stolen in 1998, have been replaced by a replica and is still ignited every Wednesday at noon.

The canon of the Palais-Royal. Sourced from Wikipedia

Soon the plots of Philippe against his cousin Louis XVI fosters the Revolution of 1789.

The nest of the Revolution

The duke of Orléans belongs to these few high-nobles who declares to be open to the political and social changes. His palace and his gardens remains open to the moderate revolutionaries like Mirabeau or the general Lafayette but also the most radical, the Jacobins, political club of Robespierre and the crowd of agitators called the sans-culottes.

Painting of Maximilien Robespierre by an anonymous artist, image sourced from Slate FR

The palace is situated only a few meters away from the National Assembly, which was in what is today the Tuileries garden. Soon, Philippe prefers to change his name into a more politically correct one, Philippe Egalité, that is Philippe Equality.

The garden witnesses two important events in 1789. The 12th of July an eloquent speech made by the lawyer Camille Desmoulins on a table of the Café de Foy in the garden raises the enthusiasm of the crowd.

Desmoulins asks the Parisians to take some weapons to defend themselves against a possible attack from the royal troops approaching Paris. As a consequence, 2 days later the 14th an overexcited crowd storms the fortress and prison of La Bastille: a crucial moment in the collapse of the old political system. This is the date which was chosen to become the national day.

Desmoulins in the Palais-Royal by Pierre-Gabriel Berthault. Sourced from Wikipedia

In October of the same year, it is from the Palais-Royal that a crowd mainly composed of women starts a march towards the royal castle of Versailles. After riots and negotiations, the royal family agrees to be escorted in the Tuileries palace. The king is now in the middle of Paris, at the mercy of any riot from the sans-culottes.

The Palais-Royal during the Terror

The Revolution takes a more radical turn after 1792 and the replacement of the Monarchy by the Republic. The king Louis XVI has been arrested and he is accused of high treason. He is not judged by political judges but by the deputies of the new elected assembly, the Convention.

Philippe d’Orleans, as a deputy of the Convention votes, to the surprise and the contempt of many observers, asks for the death of his cousin Louis. Robespierre, yet leader of the radicals and main responsible of the death sentence, tells him with disdain “you were the only one who could have voted differently”.

Things are turning bad for Philippe. A high-noble, Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau, revolutionary like him and who had voted for the death of Louis XVI, is assassinated in the gardens of the Palais-Royal by a former bodyguard of the king.

These revolutionary nobles faces the hatred of their families who consider them as traitors to their social class and in the same time they are suspected by the radicals. Who knows if Philippe would not like to become a new king?

The suspicions leads Philippe to the guillotine in November 1793. The cart, coming from the prison of the Conciergerie to the guillotine, where is now the Place de la Concorde, makes a stop in front of the palace: Philippe has a last opportunity to look at what he lost, partly due to his political games.

Execution of Marie Antoinette by Guillotine, image sourced from Wikimedia Commons

The many evolutions of the Palais-Royal

The Palais-Royal is classified as a “national good” by the Revolution, a property of the State. Napoleon choses this palace to house one of his assembly: the Tribunat.

At the fall of Napoleon, Paris is invaded and temporarily occupied by the forces of the coalition called the Allies: Russian, Austrian, Prussian, British. The first question asked to the Parisians by some officers as they enter Paris is “Where is the Palais Royal?” They have heard about the most famous of these restaurants and gambling houses.

The Prussian general Blücher, who had delivered the final blow to the French army in the decisive battle of Waterloo, spends his nights in the gambling house calls the “113”: when he left Paris, he had lost 6 million and all his houses. Rumors have it that the war indemnities imposed on France were quickly refunded by the expenses of the allies in the Palais-Royal…

After the fall of Napoleon and the return of the kings, the Palais-Royal is given back to the family of Orleans. In the next twenty years, the galleries of the Palais-Royal are still an important place in the life of the Parisians.

In 1830, the Palais Royal still has 266 stores including 18 gambling houses, 29 cafés and 15 restaurants. It is no longer the headquarter of the left-wing revolutionaries but rather the one of the nostalgic of the Empire of Napoleon.

These galleries, situated in a building and protecting the passers-by from the rain, inspired the creation of the covered passages in 1830. These covered passages, neighbours of the Palais-Royal like the Galerie Vivienne and the Galerie Véro-Dodat, are a unique testimony of the decorative art of the nineteenth century and the Parisian elegance.

The decline of the Palais-Royal

The Palais-Royal becomes one last time a place of power in 1830-1831. A revolution leads to the fall of the king Charles X, the youngest brother of Louis XVI who had tried to restore the political system anterior to the Revolution of 1789.

But the Republic seems an idea too radical for many, after the massacres committed between 1792 and 1794. The old general Lafayette manages to impose on the throne Louis-Philippe d’Orléans, son of Philippe d’Orléans/Egalité, who promises to be more liberal than his cousin Charles.

Louis-Philippe settles a few months in the palace of his family before he choses to cross the new rue de Rivoli to install his residence in Le Louvre.

Louis-Philippe turns out to be the main responsible for the decline of the Palais-Royal: his law to forbid gambling in 1836 removed one of the main activities and his conservative policies push the Parisians to another revolution in 1848 where the palace is sacked.

The palais becomes once again the property of the state.

Some participants of the revolution of 1871, the Commune de Paris, decide to burn it, as they also burn the Tuileries palace as a symbol of the monarchy. Less associated with the monarchy than this latter palace, the Palais-Royal was rebuilt by the new Third Republic.

The Palais Royal stays almost abandoned for a century. The brothels and restaurants are replaced by little fancy shops and arts galleries and the crowd is no longer in the garden.

Public offices and ministries occupy the old palace of the dukes. In the south façade, the Conseil d’Etat. This administration created by Napoleon, the highest in the hierarchy of the administration, is made to advise the government on the projects of laws.

In the east, the Ministry of Culture, created by De Gaulle in 1969 to support French art and monuments. In the west, the Constitutional Council also created the same year to supervise the elections and check the conformity of the laws to the Constitution.

The rebirth and redecoration of the Palais Royal

In the 1980s, France is governed by a socialist President called Mitterrand who appoints Jack Lang Minister of Culture. The two men are not afraid to install contemporary art pieces in the middle of the old monuments.

For instance, they commission the architect Pei to build the Pyramid of the Louvre. The windows of Jack Lang’s office open on the central courtyard, the Cour d’Honneur. This beautiful trace of classical architecture has been transformed into a parking lot for the adjacent institutions.

Jack Lang, with the support of President Mitterrand, forbid the cars and launches an architectural contest won by Daniel Buren to use the liberated space. The project sparks considerable controversies and a fierce legal battle before his final installation in 1986.

Even though the official name is Les Deux Plateaux, even though the vast majority of the Parisians would call it Les Colonnes de Buren.

The courtyard of the Palais-Royal by Kostas Limitsios. Sourced from Flickr

Daniel Buren proposes a series of striped columns, black and white, regularly organized in a grid but with very different heights. In some part of the courtyard, the underground occupied by an artificial river is made visible from the onlookers.

A popular game consists in landing coins on top of one of these pillars. The sober and elegant architecture makes it a popular spot for photo shootings whether for the fashion industry or honeymoon albums. Kids love to mount on the little columns whereas the highest columns are the stage for feats of strength and agility.

The adjacent courtyard, the Cour d’Orléans, welcome since 1985 another art piece: the Spherades, fountains and sculptures of Pol Bury. 10 steel balls of various sizes are located on a plate and drenched in water.

Le Palais Royal today: a very popular spot for the Parisians.

The Colonnes de Buren brought the Parisians back in the Palais Royal. Populated during the day it is not overcrowded despite the proximity of Louvre and its 10 millions of visitors. The majority of the tourists ignore its presence and the possibility to enter in the monument: it remains a hidden gem for foreigners.

The vast majority of the population sited on the benches under the shadow of the lindens or in the green chairs around the fountains are Parisians and often locals of the nearby arrondissements (the districts of Paris).

At lunch you can see them settling for picnic, coming from the public offices in the Palais Royal or the start-ups of the second arrondissement. In the sand alleys, you can observe players of a boules games called the Pétanque, very close from the Bocce, or players of the Finnish game called the Mölkky.

The cafés and restaurants did not disappear from the Palais-Royal. On the north side of the palace, the more than 200 years old Le Grand Véfour, a gastronomic restaurant with a magnificent decoration, has a long tradition of welcoming the intellectual elite. For more affordable options, you find a table opening on the garden in the restaurant Villalys and in the Restaurant du Palais-Royal.

The gardens of the Palais-Royal by LPLT. Sourced from Wikipedia

I hope I managed to share my passion for this place. I can only encourage you to come to discover it, not only once, but several times, at different moments of the day.

It would also be very interesting to discover the Palais Royal in its geographical context by following a tour of the area: the palace is the one of the highlights of the hidden gems tour of Discover Walks. Even better, you can ask for a private tour. Ask for Mathieu as a guide and I will have the pleasure to show you this place !

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