The Basilica of Saint Denis and the Kings and Queens of France

My post on the burial places of the kings and queens of England has been the most popular post I have ever written. This is despite the fact that, although I visited all the sites, I was not allowed to take photos in either St Georges Chapel in Windsor or Westminster Abbey where the majority of them are buried. With this in mind and from a desire to write about something that has absolutely nothing to do with COVID, I thought I’d have a look at the Basilica of Saint Denis- the burial place of most of the Kings of France. Now unfortunately I don’t have all my research material with me at the moment, so rather than an examination of each monarch, I’m going to look at the church itself and highlight some of the more interesting monuments. Saint Denis gets overlooked for the more popular Notre Dame by most people visiting Paris, but for my money it is the more interesting church, even before Notre Dame burnt down. It is pretty spectacular; inside and out:

I wanted to start by looking at what makes the church a basilica rather than just a church. The title of basilica is granted by the Vatican, but it can also be the style of the church. In the case of Saint Denis it is old enough that the designation of basilica dates back to 5th century, when it was given the label because it had a floor plan that was the same as a Roman civic building, that is three naves that were used for administration of justice. Although the church was significantly rebuilt by Abbot Suger in the 12th century the designation remained. Typically of a basilica Saint Denis is built on the bones of a saint, was a key site for pilgrimage and became the centre of a town. Saint Denis might now be in Paris, but it definitely wasn’t when it was built and the town of Saint Denis sprang up around it. In 1966 the church was given cathedral status as the seat of the diocese of Saint Denis.

So, regardless of whether you call it a church, a basilica or a cathedral, Saint Denis is very old. The first church on the site built in the 5th century would have been part of a wider abbey and is thought to have been built on a Roman church yard, where the bones of Saint Denis were buried. It was extensively rebuilt under the Norman rule and in the 12th century Abbot Suger remodelled it to the gothic masterpiece you see today. However, not all of it is original. While it was added to over the centuries, especially under Louis IX in the 13th century, over the years in began to fall into disrepair. By the French Revolution, it became a symbol of the power of kings, and was thus badly damaged. The lead from the roof was melted down and some of the royal tombs were destroyed. The remains of the kings and queens were removed and mixed with lime and thrown in a mass grave, but many of the monuments on the royal tombs were preserved for the new national museum. The church was then used as a warehouse. French writer François-René de Chateaubriand in his work Génie du Christianisme, described this ruin: “Saint-Denis is deserted. Birds fly in and out, grass grows on its smashed altars and all one can hear is the dripping of water through its open roof”. Restoration began under Napoleon who thought about being buried there and restoring a line of emperors, and then when the monarchy was restored, for a short period of time anyway, restoration continued. The royal tombs were resorted to the church in the 19th century, in what was at least close to their original positions. Over the 19th century Saint Denis became a trialing ground for conservation and restoration, a process that has in some ways continued to the present day. The most recent restoration was the facade which took place between 2012 and 2015. Although not all that you see is original, this is a building that is at the heart of the history of France and its patchwork reflects the chequered history of its country. You can see what it would have looked like as an abbey in the photo below.

That is a bit of a background to the church itself. I would now like to turn to some of the kings and queens who were buried there. This post is not going to go into immense detail about every monarch interred in Saint Denis, but I will have a look at some of them. To begin though, how did Saint Denis become the burial place for the Kings and Queens of France? It wasn’t until the 10th century that it became the key site for royal burial. Up until this point Saint Denis was competing with several other cemeteries. Royal burials were popular because they attracted visitors and in some cases pilgrims, which brought in revenue for the religious institutions where the member of the royal family was buried. They were also more likely to receive largess for other members of the family. When the Capetians ascended the throne at the end of the 10th century, they made Saint Denis their royal necropolis, and from then on most kings and queens were buried there until the 19th century- though there were of course exceptions.

There’s simply too many royal burials at Saint Denis to examine each of them. During the period of time it was used as the royal necropolis 42 kings, 32 queens, 63 princes and princesses and 10 men of the kingdom were interred there. Today there are just over 70 effigies and monumental tombs in Saint Denis. One day I might revisit this, and look at the burial places of the all the Kings and Queens of France. But at the moment I’m going to explore a few.

I want to begin with the end. Louis XVIII was the last king to be interred in Saint Denis. Starting at the end might seem like an odd way to tell this story, but in many ways he exemplifies Saint Denis as a royal necropolis as he worked to restore it as a symbol of the monarchy. Louis XVIII was Louis XVI’s younger brother and once Louis XVI was executed, he declared himself regent to his nephew and then when his nephew died he declared himself Louis XVIII in 1795. Now as this was in the middle of the French Revolution-the declaration was somewhat of a moot point. Louis wandered around Europe for a bit, but he did eventually manage to become King of France (actually residing in the country) in 1814 and was the last monarch to be interred in Saint Denis. You can see his grave in the image below.

I want to continue with the king and queen who are, arguably, the best known of the French monarchy, and are inextricably linked to Louis XVIII. Louis XVI and Marie Antionette. There are two monuments to them in the church. You can see both in the photos below.

Neither of the effigies are contemporary. The black graves are where the remains of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI were reinterred by Louis XVIII. The other statue was completed in c.1830 at the behest of Louis XVIII. It shows Louis XVI and Marie Antionette in prayer- most likely as a way of rehabilitating the monarchy and tracing Louis XVIII back to them- legitimising his claim to the throne. As people and monarchs in their own rights hundreds of books have been written, movies have been made and the story of French Revolution told and told again. I’m not intending to retell their stories in this post (it would make it incredibly long for one thing). I will say one thing. Marie Antionette does receive a fair amount of flack in popular culture for being a Queen so completely divorced from the fate of her people that when they ran out of bread she famously said “let them eat cake.” Like most famous sayings, it didn’t happen. There is absolutely no evidence that she ever said it. It wasn’t attributed to her until 50 years after her death; and was applied tongue in cheek more generally for out of touch monarchs. I will leave my discussion of Marie Antionette and Louis XVI there, except to say that Louis was executed first on the 21st of January 1793 and Marie Antionette on the 16th of October 1793. They probably weren’t the worst monarchs France had ever had, but their idea of monarchy could not stand up against the changing times.

So I started at the end, now I’m going to go back to the start Saint Denis and Dagobert.

In the crypt of Saint Denis are remains of the structures that would have been below the site of the church- this is roughly where the tomb of Saint Denis would have been. Saint Denis was possibly the first Bishop of Paris, he was martyred in c.285 CE and is the patron saint of France. You can see the archaeological tombs in the photo below.

The other beginning at Saint Denis is Dagobert- the first French King to be interred in the church. You can see the monument to him in the photo below

It’s not contemporary and was constructed in the 13th century, but it depicts the king’s soul making its way through the afterlife. Due to his transgressions towards the church, he appropriated quite a lot of church property, he is first sent to hell but in the top panel you can see Saint Denis, Saint Martin and Saint Maurice seizing his soul from the hands of the demons and taking it off to paradise. His recumbent effigy is facing where the relics of Saint Denis would have been, showing Saint Denis as the protector of the monarchy. Dagobert himself, was an interesting figure. He was buried in Saint Denis in 639 CE and actually technically wasn’t a King of France, mainly because France as we know it today didn’t exist. The Kingdom of the Franks was a loosely held together group of smaller territories most of which are included in what we would now consider to be France. Dagobert inherited a partly held together kingdom from his father Chlotar II, Chlotar had pulled together Burgundy and Austrasia (Austrasia covered what we would now see as north eastern France, Belgium and parts of Western and Central Germany). Dagobert managed to hold this together and called himself King of the Franks from 629 until his death in 639, he pre dates Charlemagne who was the first king to hold the majority of what is now France. For our purposes the most interesting thing Dagobert did was be the first king to decide to be buried at Saint Denis. The church was already sacred, because it held the relics of Saint Denis, but Dagobert’s decision put the church on the path to becoming the necropolis of the French monarchy and Saint Denis on the path to being the protector of the royal family.

So those are our book ends. The first and the last kings to be interred in Saint Denis. I thought I would include a king somewhere in the middle- who was also responsible for much of the 13th century work on Saint Denis that you see today. Louis IX is someone I’ve written about before- in passing mainly in relation of Angers, but I want to discuss him briefly here. His effigy has not survived in Saint Denis, though the effigies of two of his children who died in infancy have, and they’re very rare examples of metal tombs. You can see them in the photo below.

Louis IX actually died in Tunis on crusade in 1270 and the flesh was boiled from his bones so they could be sent back to be interred in Saint Denis (this was not an unusual occurrence) his relics didn’t arrive back in Paris until 1271. Louis IX didn’t only refashion Saint Denis, he also collected holy relics including (apparently) a piece of the crown of thorns and a piece of the true cross and his personal chapel Sainte-Chappelle in Paris is a true jewel-box of medieval architecture (you can see it in the photo below)

Louis IX came to the throne at the age of 11, and his mother Blanche of Castille ruled as regent for his minority, she was the grand daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine. He married Margaret of Provence, whose sister Eleanor of Provence was married to Henry III of England so there was a close relationship between the two royal families. Louis was a pious, but strong king and France held an important place on the European stage during his reign. He led two crusades, somewhat successfully, and expanded the inquisition, so as far as the church was concerned he was an excellent king, he was supported by the people of France as well and they canonised him unofficially after his death in 1270. He was officially canonised by Pope Boniface in 1297 in the reign of his grandson Philip IV, partly in attempt to appease Philip in the ongoing conflict between the papacy and the French king. Philip IV was interred in Saint Denis, and his son Charles IV had his effigy constructed in c. 1327. You can see it on the far left in the photo below.

So that brings me to the end of my discussion of Saint Denis and some of the kings interred within. One day I might come back and write a post more specifically about the Kings and Queens of France, but for now I hope this post has given you some insight into a magnificent church and its funeral monuments. I’m going to conclude with some final photos of some of the monuments I haven’t discussed but will hopefully one day return to.

References:

Site visit 2012

Saint Denis Basilica Cathedral booklet

France in the Middle Ages 987-1460 by Georges Duby

http://www.saint-denis-basilique.fr/en/Explore/History-of-the-monument

https://uk.tourisme93.com/basilica/recumbent-statues.html

https://uk.tourisme93.com/basilica/tomb-of-dagobert.html

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Denis

https://www.britannica.com/topic/Merovingian-dynasty

https://www.britannica.com/place/France/The-failure-of-reunification-613-714#ref237300

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Dagobert-I

https://www.britannica.com/place/Austrasia

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Louis-IX

https://uk.tourisme93.com/basilica/philippe-iv-le-bel.html

https://study.com/academy/lesson/basilica-of-st-denis-architecture-history.html

http://www.gcatholic.org/churches/data/basFR.htm

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Louis-XVIII

https://www.britannica.com/story/did-marie-antoinette-really-say-let-them-eat-cake

The photos are all mine