All  
The Chapelle Expiatoire, a chapel in the 8th arrondissement of Paris, where supposed Reign of Terror victims were found in a wall.      Source: Guilhem Vellut from Paris, France / CC BY 2.0

Reign of Terror Victims Found Hidden in the Walls of a Paris Church

Print

Evidence of Reign of Terror victims found hidden in the walls of a Paris church is changing the narrative of one of the bloodiest episodes in modern European history. It is now believed that many of those guillotined during the French Revolution were buried in Chapelle Expiatorie, a chapel, and not in the catacombs of Paris as was thought. This discovery could change the traditional narrative related to this bloody period in French history.

Boxes of Remains Detected in Chapel Walls

Chapelle Expiatoire is a chapel and a national monument in the heart of Paris. It dates from the 19 th century AD and was built by King Louis XVIII , who was restored to the throne after the fall of Napoleon. Aymeric Peniguet de Stoutz, the chapel’s administrator, ‘turned historical detective after he noticed curious anomalies in the walls between the columns of the lower chapel’ according to The Guardian . Aymeric contacted the relevant authorities, who had an archaeologist, Philippe Charlier, investigate the walls in a non-invasive way. He did this by carefully inserting a tiny camera through the stones of the walls.

This allowed Charlier and his team to see the cause of the curious anomalies. The archaeologists found four large boxes or chests in the walls, and they contained bones. Aymeric is quoted by The Smithsonian as saying, “I cried when the forensic pathologist assured me he had seen human phalange [feet and hand] bones in the photographs.” It was immediately clear that this was a major historical find.

The chapel wall contained four wooden ossuaries - specially built chests designed to hold human remains. According to The Guardian , the archaeologist who found the remains reported that “There is earth mixed with fragments of bones”, which suggests that they were once buried. Immediately it was assumed that the remains were from victims who had died during the Reign of Terror.

Nine emigres being executed by guillotine in 1793 during the Reign of Terror. (Public domain)

Nine emigres being executed by guillotine in 1793 during the Reign of Terror. ( Public domain )

Reign of Terror After the French Revolution

The Reign of Terror was a wave of violence in France that involved mass killings and executions that began soon after the French Revolution had taken hold. The Reign of Terror entered its most bloody period under the leadership of the fanatical revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre . Many of the victims were aristocrats, who were often guillotined on spurious treason charges. The most famous victims of the revolutionaries were Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette .

The Chapelle Expiatoire, where the wall-entombed human remains were found, is located close to the Place de la Revolution, where countless individuals were beheaded by guillotine. This public space is now known as the Place de la Concorde . The chapel was built on the grounds of the Madeleine Cemetery which was the burial place of many of those who had been publicly executed, including King Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette. By 1794, so many had been buried in the cemetery that there was no more room and it was closed. Ironically, Robespierre is buried in this cemetery, along with so many of his victims, after he was beheaded, following his fall from power.

The execution of Robespierre and his supporters (July 1794) who guillotined the most people during the Reign of Terror after the French Revolution. (Public domain)

The execution of Robespierre and his supporters (July 1794) who guillotined the most people during the Reign of Terror after the French Revolution. ( Public domain )

Paris Catacombs and The Reign of Terror Victims

After the restoration of the French monarchy in 1814, the remains of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were moved to the Saint-Denis Basilica. Chapelle Expiatoire was built by Louis XVIII to commemorate the memory of his dead brother. The Guardian reports that the king ordered that “no earth saturated with victims [of the revolution] be moved from the place for the building of the work.”

However, this was not the case. Instead, the remains of some 500 guillotine victims were moved to another burial ground and then to the catacombs, a subterranean ossuary under the streets of Paris. Most of those believed to have been transferred were members of the aristocracy such as Madame du Barry. Some were opponents of Robespierre including the radical writer and early feminist Olympe de Gouges.

The Paris catacombs where Reign of Terror victims were supposedly interred. (Joe deSousa / CC0)

The Paris catacombs where Reign of Terror victims were supposedly interred. (Joe deSousa / CC0)

Casualties of the French Revolution and Their Final Resting Place

The discovery of chests full of bones in the wall of Chapelle Expiatoire contradicts the story of how the remains of French Revolution victims were dealt with. It appears that many of the guillotine victims were interred in the chapel and “not in the Paris catacombs as formerly assumed, archaeologists say” as reported in The Telegraph. Why the remains located in the wall were not transferred to the catacombs is something of a mystery and challenges the accepted version of history. Aymeric is quoted by The Smithsonian as saying that “Until now, the chapel was thought to be solely a monument in memory of the royal family. But we’ve just discovered that it is also a necropolis of the revolution.”

It is reported that excavations at the site will begin in early 2021, which will provide more insights into the remains. The investigation of the chapel wall was set to begin in 2020 but was delayed by the ‘Yellow Vest’ protests that rocked the French capital for several months.

Top image: The Chapelle Expiatoire, a chapel in the 8th arrondissement of Paris, where supposed Reign of Terror victims were found in a wall.      Source: Guilhem Vellut from Paris, France / CC BY 2.0

By Ed Whelan

Next article