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A Tale of Two Cities: History of Prisons

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Throughout A Tale of Two Cities and the French Revolution, there were four extremely important prisons that housed many important people and played a key role in the Revolution. These prisons were the La Force, the Bastille, the La Conciergerie, and the Tower of London. All of those prisons held prisoners that were somehow connected to the French Revolution and all of the prisons were mentioned sometime in A Tale of Two Cities.

The La Force was the prison where Charles Darnay was held at for one year and three months until he was granted a trial at the La Conciergerie. The La Force prison was first known as Hôtel de la Force, which was privately owned by Henri-Jacques Nompar de Caumont or the Duke of la Force. Around 1378 the hotel was divided into two parts: Hôtel de Brienne and Hôtel la Force and was shuffled through many owners until the war ministry bought the hotels in 1754. In 1780, the war ministry changed Hôtel la Force into La Grande Force, turning it into a prison for debtors and civil offense criminals, and also destroyed Hôtel de Brienne at the same time. In place of Hôtel de Brienne, La Petite Force was built, which was an all-female prison mostly for prostitutes, but would later hold all women prisoners.

La Grande Force and La Petite Force were combined to form La Force, but still keeping the men and women separated in the different divisions of the prison. In A Tale of Two Cities, the book never talks about La Force having multiple buildings because Charles is kept only in solitary confinement in one of the worst cells. Charles Darnay describes the prison as “a gloomy prison, dark and filthy, and with a horrible smell of foul sleep in it…” and having a “dreary prison courtyard,…” which is an exaggeration most books made of prisons back in Dickens’s time. The truth is the conditions in the cells and prison weren’t as bad as A Tale of Two Cities might have explained them as. The conditions in the prison were better from the others as they had big, well-ventilated cells with a single bed and multiple courtyards where the prisoners could enjoy big trees and other greenery. Charles Darnay’s experiences might have been different than other prisoners in La Force because Charles was kept in solitary confinement, which had different conditions than the rest of the prison. La Force had different places to help the prisoners like a sick ward, a bathing room, a bar, and a room to talk with lawyers, plus most prisoners had the choice to work if they chose to.

La Force prison had a big connection to the French Revolution as it was one of the prisons where the counter-revolutionaries were held and the prison was attacked during the September Massacres. La Force became more involved with the French Revolution in August of 1792 when counter-revolutionaries started being arrested and put into prisons, some of which were put into La Force. On September 2, 1792, the September Massacres started and violent mobs would attack La Force and end up killing 160 prisoners at their revolutionary tribunal. In A Tale of Two Cities, there were also violent mobs that would show up to court trials, like the revolutionary tribunal, and would yell to have the prisoner violently executed, especially when Charles Darnay walked into his trial at La Conciergerie. After the French Revolution and mob attacks were done, the prison went through major changes like La Petite Force getting evacuated in 1801-1804 because of sewer problems and La Force only holding male criminals after 1830. Since there were only male criminals left they were split into two groups: old, dangerous criminals and young, innocent criminals. Eventually, when the construction of the Mazas Prison happened in 1845, La Force was destroyed and all that is left of the prison is part of a wall with a history of the prison on a sign.

Just like La Force, the Bastille prison was an important prison in the French Revolution. The Bastille was built during the fourteenth century in Paris, France, to protect Paris from England, but was soon used as a prison under Charles VI’s rule. The prison was a staggering 73 feet tall, surrounded by 8 circular towers, and had 5 foot thick walls that made it impossible to hear any prisoner in the next cell. In A Tale of Two Cities, the book paints a picture of how thick the walls actually were: “Hemmed in here by the massive thickness of walls and arches, the storm within the fortress and without was only audible to them in a dull, subdued way, as if the noise out of which they had come had almost destroyed their sense of hearing”. Although it started being used as a prison in 1346-1378, the Bastille became an infamous prison during 1789-1792 under Louis XVI’s rule because of its role in holding many aristocrats and non-revolutionaries. From 1789 to 1792, many prisoners were nobles against the court, non-believers in Catholic or people who went against the religion, and writers who had corrupted the people.

The Bastille had adequate conditions in the middle layers of the prison, but underneath, in the dungeon cells, the conditions were disgusting and damp, which caused many illnesses. Luckily, during Louis XVI’s rule, no more prisoners were kept in the dungeon areas and were only kept in the middle layers. The middle layers of the prison had cells that were sixteen feet wide with furniture, a window, and some of their own possessions, which included dogs or cats. A Tale of Two Cities portrays the Bastille as a dirty, horrible place to be kept, but in reality, it was not as bad as most would think. This quote from A Tale of Two Cities by shows how bad the prison was in the story, which is immensely different than what the facts say: “Through gloomy vaults where the light of day had never shone, past hideous doors of dark dens and cages, down cavernous flights of steps, and again up steep rugged ascents of stone and brick, more likely dry waterfalls than staircases,…”. Along with the conditions being adequate, the prisoners could still drink, smoke, and play cards with themselves or with a cellmate if they had one.

The storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, was an empowering event for the common citizens of France, as this event started the French Revolution. The huge mob of peasants wanted guns and gunpowder, but there was nowhere to get them other than the Bastille because the royalty moved all of the supplies into the prison to keep them safe. This backfired on the royalty because the mob eventually got inside after threatening the guards with a cannon and took over the prison, saving seven prisoners from inside and retrieving the weapons. The mob had a loss of 98 people, but took the governor, de Launay, as a prize marching him in the streets, then beheading him and putting his head on a pike. In A Tale of Two Cities, it also has a chapter where they storm the Bastille and find the seven prisoners, but instead of taking just one governor for a sacrifice, they take seven guards to kill as a sacrifice. France still celebrates Bastille Day because it was such an important achievement for the commoners of France against the absolute power of the monarchy.

La Conciergerie was another big prison in A Tale of Two Cities because it was where all the court trials were held after the prisoners came from the Bastille or La Force. La Conciergerie was the prison that Charles was sent to for his trial where he would be able to be released, executed, or sent back to prison until he died. The La Conciergerie prison was first known in 1200 as the Palais de la Cité, a royal palace of King Charles V until he moved to the Louvre in the late fourteenth century and the palace was converted into a prison. In 1792, the Revolutionary Tribunal was added into the prison because the revolutionaries needed a place to have court trials but still needed to have the prison part of La Conciergerie to hold people before their trial.

During the revolutionary trials, La Conciergerie held many prisoners from wealthy to poor but kept them in different types of cells and areas of the prison. The wealthy, aristocrat prisoners got the best cells by paying for the cell, food, and other necessities, while the poor, peasant prisoners got dirty, dark, underground cells where many died before making it to their trial. This situation is why in A Tale of Two Cities Charles Darnay had a better cell, but when he later got released he had almost no money left because he spent it on the cell and food to keep alive. The cell where the prisoners went right before they were beheaded was the worst cell because thousands could be crammed into a dark, damp room, where many died even before they made it to the guillotine. In A Tale of Two Cities, prisoners are forgotten about because they died in the cell before the guillotine: “There were twenty-three names, but only twenty were responded to; for one of the prisoners so summoned had died in jail and been forgotten,…”.

The Revolutionary Tribunal had 2,700 executions from 1792 to 1794, which was a lot of executions and not a lot of releases. The most important beheading was the execution on October 16, 1973, of Marie Antoinette, who was the queen at the time and prisoner at the La Conciergerie. The beheading of the queen was also in A Tale of Two Cities when Manette goes to the prison to save Charles and sees that the king was executed, while the queen waited months in jail until her execution. After the French Revolution, La Conciergerie was still used as a prison for important or dangerous criminals until 1914 when the prison, with many renovations, was converted to a national historic monument that people can view.

The Tower of London is the prison where Charles stays during his first trial when he got accused of treason and being a spy for France. The Tower of London was a fortress-like building built by William the Conqueror in 1066 after he conquered London. The fortress didn’t last for long as it was converted into a prison and started holding many prisoners from noblemen to normal citizens who disobeyed or offended the king. There were so many high-class prisoners that even three queens and two kings were kept in the Tower of London at some point in time. The only way to get into the prison was a watergate called Traitor’s Gate, which was built over the River Thames since the prison was built on the north bank of River Thames in central London.

The conditions at the Tower of London were extremely good, more prominent prisoners lived comfortably in their cells, and some could even have servants or go outside of the prison for a little time. The only bad cell in the prison was a cell called Little Ease, which was a four feet square cell and no prisoner could sit, stand, or lay down in the cell since it was so small. During the tower’s time as a prison, it had countless executions, most of which were prisoners of the higher class until the last execution happened in 1749. The most important execution was the execution of the prison’s most famous prisoner, Anne Boleyn, who was charged with adultery and treason by her own husband, King Henry VIII. Anne thought she would be pardoned, out of the mercy of her husband, being that no other queen had ever been executed; however, all he did was find a good swordsman who made the execution fast and clean.

The Tower of London has been used for many things like a fortress, a prison, an armory, a place where they made England’s money, and even now a place where they keep the crown jewels. At one time a king had his own personal zoo inside the tower with a lion, elephant, and polar bear, who got its fish from River Thames. The Tower of London is a mysterious place since it changes its appearance and functions so often, which is best explained by Dr. Manette from A Tale of Two Cities, “Lucie and I have been there; but only casually. We have seen enough of it, to know that it teems with interest; little more”. The people in the tower are so superstitious and mysterious that they keep six to eight ravens with clipped wings in the courtyard, because if the ravens leave both the Tower of London and the monarchy will fall, or so they believe.

For the most part, the four prisons: La Force, Bastille, La Conciergerie, and Tower of London played a big role in the French Revolution and plot of A Tale of Two Cities. Many of the characters from the book have been to one or multiple of these prisons, especially Charles since he’s been to all of the prisons except the Bastille. These four prisons are a key part of A Tale of Two Cities and the French Revolution because of the important people they held and the important role they had in the advancement of the Revolution.  

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A Tale Of Two Cities: History Of Prisons. (2022, April 29). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 16, 2022, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/a-tale-of-two-cities-history-of-prisons/
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