article-imageTomb of Francis I & Claude de France (1549-59) in the Basilica of Saint-Denis

History compacts from something abstract to something very immediate when you are looking at a slab of stone that reads “Marie Antoinette of Austria, Queen of France and Navarre, 1755-1793.” The dark marble is obviously more recent than her death, and around her are identical markers for other Bourbons whose bodies may or may not be the ones in scraps beneath.

Hers was just one of the many French monarch tombs I recently saw in the Basilica of Saint-Denis just north of Paris, where for centuries most all of the French kings and queens were interred going back to Clovis.

article-imageBasilica of Saint-Denis

I’ve long been interested in memorial art, but living in New York our cemetery and church history only goes back so far. However, at Saint-Denis you can see the transformation of memorials over hundreds of years, going back to queens and kings in full dress with their hands delicately folded in prayer as if at any moment they will sit up and be ready in their royal garb for the resurrection. Often little dogs sit at their feet, some with hunted prey loyally clenched in their teeth.

Yet as art and sculpture evolved, so did the tombs, and the most magnificent from around the 16th century show the monarchs in prayer on the top of a massive marble canopy, but below they rest naked and obviously dead, with heads thrown back and mouths slightly agape. 

article-imageStatue of Saint-Denis

While all of that is fascinating enough for a morning of wandering, the whole history of the basilica is tumultuous and connects directly to the political history of the country. Saint-Denis is after all the patron saint of France, and it seems appropriate that a martyr who was decapitated in Paris and said to have carried his head all the way to where the basilica was built over his grave now is the name shrouding so many royal remains that were desecrated, and a few also decapitated, in the French Revolution. 

article-imageTomb of Saint-Denis

Once all that stood at the site of the basilica was a modest shrine to Saint-Denis at his tomb, but what rose above it was one of the first examples of gothic architecture, started in 1136 and not completed until the 13th century. The ostentatious tombs were a symbol of royal opulence to the French people during the Revolution, and during that period of restless change, all of the tombs at Saint-Denis were opened and the bodies were dumped together in two common graves.

article-imagePraying to the window altar

The monuments themselves, amazingly, were mostly saved by archaeologist Alexandre Lenoir, a champion of preserving art and architecture from destruction during the Revolution, who claimed them for the Museum of French Monuments, now a part of the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine in Paris.

article-imageA queen in repose

The basilica was eventually reopened in 1806 under the direction of Napoleon Bonaparte, and the tombs, too, returned later in the century. The bones all jumbled together in the pits, however, weren’t disinterred until 1817. In 1815, what little was left, mainly a few bones and a grey mess of matter embedded with a woman’s garter, of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, whose headless bodies had decomposed under quicklime in a grave at Madeleine in Paris, was moved to Saint-Denis by the Bourbons who had briefly regained control of France.

article-imageMarker for the royal ossuary

While the guillotined king and queen are now buried individually, all the bones from the mass graves were moved into one ossuary, where marble plaques dense with names are the marker for the crowded tomb.

article-imageTomb for Louis XVII 

article-imageHeart of Louis XVII

The most curious of the royal tombs is definitely that of Louis XVII, the dauphin whose death during the Revolution still has some shades of mystery. It’s believed that he died in the Temple Prison in 1795, and that his heart was secretly sliced out by a surgeon the day after his death. It was passed around like a holy relic, with the alcohol it was preserved in evaporating over time to leave just a mummified heart.

The withered organ arrived a the basilica in 1975, and was finally proven to be that of the lost prince, who for a brief time was the uncrowned King Louis XVII, when a DNA test using a lock of his mother Marie Antoinette’s hair tested positively against the small heart. It’s stored now in a crystal container beneath a sculpture of the curly-haired boy. 

The heart of the dauphin may have been the most visceral of the memorials for the French monarchs, but each was fascinating in its own way. Below are some more photos from my visit to the royal basilica and its crypt. While the Basilica of Saint-Denis may be a little off the beaten Paris route, it’s totally worth the trip up to see the country’s history with an incredible immediacy.


Tomb of Louis XII and Anne of Brittany

Memorial to Louis XVI, guillotined in 1793


Statue of Marie Antoinette, also guillotined in 1793


Strange creatures on the floor

A trio of queens

Tomb of Francis I & Claude de France

A small lion guarding some royal feet

Cenotaph for Henri IV

Angels on the Vault of the Princes

Caskets in the Vault of the Princes

This memorial once supported a heart at its top

The death details at the memorial’s base


Some royal regalia is kept in the basilica, including the coronation robes of Louis XVIII (see him sporting them here)

Dogs resting at the royal feet


An effigy grave

Some older style graves, but with beautiful details of veins on the hands

Wearing armor for eternity


One of the most important things to us here at the Atlas is to always keep traveling and discovering. Notes from the Field are first person reports from the most inspiring trips taken by the Atlas Obscura Team. Read more Notes From the Field here>