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Visiting Saint-Denis, France, with its Basilica tower which still dominates the city: burial place for French royalty

Updated on January 10, 2013
Flag of France
Flag of France | Source
Saint-Denis Canal at Saint-Denis, with the Basilica in the background
Saint-Denis Canal at Saint-Denis, with the Basilica in the background | Source
Royal Saint-Denis Basilica, Seine-Saint-Denis, France
Royal Saint-Denis Basilica, Seine-Saint-Denis, France | Source
King Louis XVI, 1754-1793
King Louis XVI, 1754-1793 | Source
Queen Marie-Antoinette, 1755-1793, by Elizabeth Vigée Le Brun
Queen Marie-Antoinette, 1755-1793, by Elizabeth Vigée Le Brun | Source
Map location of Seine-Saint-Denis department, France
Map location of Seine-Saint-Denis department, France | Source

As royal as France can get

In Saint-Denis, France, the tower of this Medieval building, which has the status of a basilica (French: Eglise basilique de Saint-Denis ), still dominates the surrounding city, as it has done for hundreds of years. In fact, the building was formerly even more dominant to the eye, because an enormous spire formerly rose above it; indeed, the Basilica had two towers. However, the spire was removed in 1847 But the remaining tower continues to puncture the skyline of the city, as it has done for centuries.

There was a church building on this site as early as the year 475. The style of the building is Gothic (indeed, it is reckoned to be the first Gothic cathedral), with Romanesque elements. A notable feature is a fine, rose window. Much of the building's present form was achieved in the 12th century, under the direction of Abbot Suger (c. 1081-1151)

Many of France's kings and queens are buried at the Basilica; this practice began in the 10th century. These monarchs include the ill-fated King Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette (about whom anecdotes abound)(1). Some readers might ask: isn't the Cathedral at Reims supposed to be the great Medieval church building associated with French monarchs? To this question a strongly affirmative is deserved, but traditionally French kings were crowned at Reims Cathedral,

Interestingly, the site of the building had already been a burial ground since late Roman time, many centuries before the French kings started being interred here.

Whereas the Saint-Denis Basilica was the customary burial place for France's monarchs.

The designation of this ancient building has varied over its history. Sometimes known as Saint-Denis Abbey (French: Abbaye de Saint-Denis ) and at other times the Royal Cathedral of Saint-Denis (French: Cathédrale royale de Saint-Denis ), it has also long been known as the Basilica of Saint-Denis (Basilique de Saint-Denis ).

Saint-Denis Basilica is located in the city of Saint-Denis, in France's Seine-Saint-Denis department.


(1) Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette are sometimes thought of as France's last king and queen. While it is true that they were executed by French republican revolutionaries and that republicanism eventually became France's longstanding system of government, yet it needs to be remembered that the French monarchy was restored in 1814 and again in 1815; and two Imperial régimes were also established in the course of the 19th century. Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette were actually first buried at the Madeleine church in Paris following their execution in 1793, but later re-interred at Saint-Denis during the exile of Napoleon I.

January 3, 2013

Also worth seeing

In Saint-Denis itself, the City Hall (French: Hôtel de ville ) has a striking, ornate frontage.

Paris (distance: 11 kilometres) with its bewildering wealth of visitor attractions, is within easy reach of Saint-Denis. Among these are the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Arc de Triomphe , the National Assembly (French: Assemblée nationale ) at the Bourbon Palace (French: Palais Bourbon); place de la Concorde ; the Madeleine church; the Opéra ; and many others.

Garges-les-Gonesse (distance: 5.8 kilometres) the remains of a former château include an ornate gateway.

Senlis (distance: 42 kilometres): its Medieval cathedral has an impressive spire.


How to get there: United Airlines flies from New York Newark to Paris (Aéroport Paris-Charles de Gaulle ), from where car rental is available; distance from Roissy-Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris to Saint-Denis : 18 kilometres. Paris itself is at a distance of 11 kilometres from Saint-Denis , which is linked with Paris by line 13 of the Métro . Some facilities may be withdrawn without notice. You are advised to check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

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