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Military justice and prisons

Table of Contents

Military justice is absolute and all-encompassing. You better not commit any crime and keep good relationships with your superiors rather than put your hope into their clemency! Although if you're a superior officer and have money, prison will be little different from a nice holiday. You might even be able to develop your literary talents!
— Sergeant
Sergeant small.png

Military justice


The evolution

Justice was a mess in the Ancient Regime, characterised by too many overlapping jurisdictions, lack of clear and uniform codification, distant and costly justice, arbitrary punishment and unnecessary torture. Thankfully, the 1789 revolution occurred.  
The revolution has swept away everything from the table to start again from the beginning, this time using the Enlightenment as guide for the new laws. Or at least that was the theory...
— Sergeant
Sergeant small.png
  In practice, the first years of the revolution were a period of trials and errors, with laws regulating military justice following one after another in rapid succession. The main goal of military justice is to punish military crimes committed by soldiers. It has always been considered that the requirements of order and discipline are far more important than the respect for individual liberty, and that only the complete judicial autonomy of the army can guarantee the authority of the chain of commandment on which the cohesion of the army is based.  
We've seen it several times since the revolution: every time we're too lenient, the army becomes a mess of debauchery and pillaging, almost succeeding in making our victory over the enemies the least of our concerns!
— Sergeant
Sergeant small.png
  In addition, the widespread rebellions throughout France against the revolutionary regime and the new kings' authority forced the government to set up new courts, commissions or councils so as to judge the individuals involved as fast and efficiently as possible, as well as to allow for a far more severe repression of insurrections, rather than have the accused go in front of a civil court with a jury that would have a high probability of being too clement. Since it is the existence itself of the state that was in danger, and through it of all French citizens, the severity of the courts is justified and necessary to be able to face the danger.  
After all, you cannot just leave a rebellion to go on forever, or the first crowd of imbeciles coming along would dictate to the state its conduct. Mass public execution is a very good way to shake people back into sense!
— Sergeant
Sergeant small.png
  Thus, the military justice system is used as the armed wing of political repression.   This all resulted in an extremely powerful military justice system with very few rights left to the accused, in total contravention of the so-lauded principles of the Enlightenments.

Conciergerie by Wikimedia Commons

The Tower of the Temple by Wikimedia Commons


Main laws

Laws of 1790

Martial courts are created, with a double jury (indictment and trial) and a jurisdiction linked to the nature of the offence (civil court for offense against common law, military court against military law).  

Laws of 1791

The civil jurisdiction of the military courts is taken away, and the quality of the person having committed the crime is taken into account (military court only judging soldiers, not civilians).  

Laws of 1792

Military commissions of 5 persons appointed by the état-major are created, thus depriving the accused of a jury.  

Laws of 1793

Military criminal courts, the "military commissions", are created to bring to trial those who took part in revolts and riots at the time of recruitment, stating that by doing so they lost their status as citizen and so should not benefit from the privileges that go with it. Their "trial" exists only to corroborate the facts, not to judge them. This creates a duality between the "rule of law" and "exceptional justice".  

Laws of 1794

In 1794 military justice is organised in 3 tribunals to judge ordinary justice within the military: disciplinary courts, military police courts and military criminal courts. In addition, with the end of the "Terror" political period, the rule of law should be respected in civil tribunals, but military justice offers an alternative to the government. To accelerate judgements, death sentences are immediately executed or within 24 hours and they do not allow appeal, review and cassation.  

Laws of 1795

Military criminal courts which were judged to be too slow are replaced by military councils, with military personnel judging trials rather than civilians as had been the case since the revolution started. The closer general names the members of the council that judge a case. Those need to be: A) 3 officers (including a) a superior or commander, b) a captain, c) a lieutenant or second lieutenant) B) 3 non-commissioned officers (including a sergeant and corporal). Those councils can also now judge all leaders, hirers, and instigators of unauthorised armed gatherings, which is to say all the rebels inside the country.  

Laws of 1796

Permanent war councils are established, rather than the council only being gathered to judge a precise case. Those sitting in a council are a president and six judges, as well as 2 captains with the first one being the reporter of the case and the investigator, and the second one being responsible for observing the forms and executing the law. Those councils can only judge soldiers up to the rank of captain, after that special council need to be established so that they can be judged be individuals with a higher rank.   However, now that the political situation is more stable, they can once again only judge military personnel, individuals attached to the army and its retinue, hirelings, spies, and inhabitants of the enemy country being occupied. The councils are only supposed to be competent about military infractions, but in reality this limitation is not applied.   A permanent review council is created to judge if the form of the case has been correctly respected, composed of 5 members (a presiding general officer, a brigade commander, a battalion commander and two captains).  

Laws of 1801

Special courts are set up, composed of magistrates (a president and 2 judges of the criminal court), 2 civilians, and 3 officers (with at least the rank of captain). Their judgement is without appeal and the rights of the defence are reduced to a minimum. Those courts reduce the jurisdiction of both the civil and military courts.  

Laws of 1803

More special councils (composed of a senior officer, four captains and two lieutenants) are established to judging the refractaires.  

Laws of 1804

Special military commissions are set up, composed of 7 officers including at least one senior officer, all appointed by the commanding general specifically for a case. They judge without possible appeal spies, recruiters, and their accomplices.  

Charter of 1814

All exceptional justice courts are cancelled as "no one can be distracted from their natural judges", that is to say soldiers are before all citizens and so they need to submit to civil courts for common law crimes.   However, there is an exception for provost jurisdiction, with a special chamber in each department composed of a president, 4 judged and a provost which is a superior officer with a rank at least of colonel. The provost is also charged with the investigations. Those chambers judge without appeal all soldiers or civilians accused of: armed rebellion; being part of a seditious assembly; taking command of an armed forced, stronghold, port or city with or without right or just cause; raising or organising or being a member of an armed band; supplying arms, ammunition or food to an armed band; or posting, distributing, or selling writings or making statements against the king or political regime.  

Laws of 1817

Now that the political climate has calmed down, those special chambers are dissolved.  

Laws of 1815 and 1830

War councils are maintained.  

Laws of 1816 and 1822

Deserters and those accused of fraud during recruitment are under the jurisdiction of the permanent war councils, and the commanders of the military divisions decide whether to put them to trial.  

Laws of 1830

The special chambers are re-established because of the new wars and political instability after the new election.  

Laws of 1835

A code of military justice is established so as to clarify all the previous laws, the jurisdictions of the civil and military courts, and the procedures to follow. those having to submit to military justice are defined as all military personnel, officers, non-commissioned officers, corporals, brigadiers, soldiers, musicians, children of the troops, members of the military intendance corps, doctors, pharmacists, veterinarians, administrative officers, paid civil servants or even assimilated persons. National guards are also included among military personnel whereas they were not previously.

Louis XVI at the Temple by Wikimedia Commons

Prison of the Abbey by Wikimedia Commons

The Grand Châtelet by Wikimedia Commons

Castle of Vincennes by Selbymay on Wikimedia Commons


The prisons


The prison regimes

Once someone is accused of a crime under the jurisdiction of military justice, they need to be imprisoned until their trial. They are all imprisoned in special places, as they are considered to be dangerous because they are trained fighters. Two types of imprisonment exist: the "normal" regime for common soldiers, and the "special" regime for superior officers.   This special regime is deemed necessary both because superior officers are considered to be more powerful magically and to have a higher political capital, his making them more dangerous, but also because their rank grants them special privilege and comfort. Members of the nobility and other important persons accused of a crime and who need to be imprisoned (either waiting for their trial or as part of their sentence) also share the same prisons and special regimes. Those prisons are called "maison de force".

It always pays to be a superior officer! Too bad for you all recruits, you'll just have to make do with being piled on top of each other and hope you can survive the epidemics long enough to see your trial!
— Sergeant
Sergeant small.png
  Malesherbes visited prisons at the end of Louis XVI's reign and made a lot of changes to how they are run. He especially allowed the hygienic and philanthropic currents to penetrate inside the prisons, making them become well ventilated, lit, and supplied with water. Prisoners are also given the "bread of the King", stopping those places from being "mouroirs". At the time, this mainly occurred in Paris, but since then this work has been expended throughout France. Those prisons are called "maison d'arrêt" and the prisoners "pailleux". Attempts are being made at redeeming those prisoners by making them work for manufactures, especially in textile.   Another type of prison using labour to redeem prisoners is the "bagne" where prisoners have to do strenuous manual labour such as earthworks, and construction and especially ship building so as to reduce the price of a ship and be able to concurrence the British.

The bagne would almost be enough to make you regret getting guillotined! Though don't worry, ordinary soldiers are more likely to get the lash than to get a prison sentence! If you're in good relationships with your colleagues, they'll even make an effort not to kill you with it...
— Sergeant
Sergeant small.png

Examples of prisons

The prisons themselves are all mostly castles belonging to the state. Examples of prisons are:  
  • The Castle of the Bastille in Paris, the most famous prison but it was destroyed following the revolution as it was too symbolic of the arbitrary nature of justice under the Ancient Regime.
  • The Conciergerie in Paris. The Palais de la Cité was a previous royal residence in Paris, and its ground floor has been transformed into a prison. The Parlement de Paris is located on the upper floor. Prisoners who have to go in front of the court are transferred to the Conciergerie beforehand. After their trial, if they have been condemned to death, they are brought to cells kept apart from the other prisoners until they are guillotined. For this reason, the prison is called the Antechamber of Death. Around 350 prisoners can be kept there, provided they are crammed enough.
  • The Temple (where Louis XVI and his family were imprisoned in Paris. Napoléon had it destroyed, as it was becoming a place of pilgrimage for loyalists.
  • The Abbaye (Paris). It is only used for the common prison regime. It is well known for the Massacres of September that took place there. Around 150 to 200 prisoners can be kept there.
  • The Grand Châtelet. This is where the serious criminals are kept and tortured. A court of justice used to be there, and it is still where the Prevost of Paris is located, and also where the morgue of Paris is. Because of those reasons, this prison is highly warded and guarded. It can hold more than 350 prisoners.
  • The castle of Vincennes (near Paris). The new Bastille. Only 14 prisoners can be kept there under the special prison regime.
  • The castle of Pierre-Encize (Lyon),
  • The castle of Saumur (Château de la Loire).
  • The castle of If (on an island offshore of Marseille). The dangerous currents separating it from the mainland make it an unescapable prison.
  • The castle of Angers
I've been to Vincennes—purely for work reasons, of course!—and it's certainly a much better quartering than what we all have to contend with on campaign!
— Sergeant
Sergeant small.png

Castle of Saumur by Wikimedia Commons

Castle of If by Remi Mathis on Wikimedia Commons

Castle of Angers by Wikimedia Commons


The special regime

The wards of those castles have been doubled and adapted so as to have a normal ward to protect against intruder, but also to have one internal ward to act against the inhabitants of the castles. They prevent them from leaving the perimeters of the castles, but they can also be used to draw their energy so as to prevent them from using magic, or even if the drawn is too important as a form of mild torture. All wards are controlled by a highly visible piece of jewellery worn by the commander of the castle who serves as the representative of the king.   Further wards are placed on all individual "cells", serving as another form of control. However, those smaller wards can normally be controlled by keys which are kept by the soldiers guarding the castle rather than just the commander.   Prisoners are called by the number of their cells (e.g. Monsieur le six). The cells themselves are rather spacious apartment in which the prisoners are kept comfortable, with access to good food, a fireplace, a minimum of hygiene and entertainment, all ensured by the generous pensions paid by their families. They can have access to musical instruments, books, writing tools (writers and political prisoners love to use their sentence for writing novels or political pamphlets).
So long as the king and the government stay indulgent and the money keeps coming, of course...
— Sergeant
Sergeant small.png

Cover image: The Tower of the Temple by Wikimedia Commons


Author's Notes


  • Christian Carlier, 2009. Histoire des prisons et de l’administration pénitentiaire française de l’Ancien Régime à nos jours. Criminocorpus, Varia.
  • Boris Battais, 2015. La justice militaire en temps de paix : L’activité judiciaire du conseil de guerre de Tours (1875-1913). Histoire. Université d’Angers.
  • À l'Époque : la forteresse méconnue de Lyon, le château Pierre Scize by Vlad Colovray.

  • Please Login in order to comment!
    Jul 27, 2021 11:41 by Bart Weergang

    All the pretty castles! :O

    Jul 27, 2021 15:07 by Amélie I. S. Debruyne

    Even more pretty from the inside, why don't you come visit them :p

    Jul 27, 2021 15:38 by Bart Weergang

    If I'm allowed to walk out, you can show me around ;)

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