Bastille day takes place annually on 14 July to commemorate the storming of the Bastille prison in Paris on 14 July 1789. The Bastille was a fortress in Paris, known formally as the Bastille Saint-Antoine. It played an important role in the internal conflicts of France and for most of its history was used as a state prison by the kings of France. The Bastille was built to defend the eastern approach to the city of Paris from the English threat in the Hundred Years’ War. Initial work began in 1357, but the main construction occurred from 1370 onwards, creating a strong fortress with eight towers that protected the strategic gateway of the Porte Saint-Antoine on the eastern edge of Paris. The innovative design proved influential in both France and England and was widely copied. The Bastille figured prominently in France’s domestic conflicts, including the fighting between the rival factions of the Burgundians and the Armagnacs in the 15th century, and the Wars of Religion in the 16th. The fortress was declared a state prison in 1417; this role was expanded first under the English occupiers of the 1420s and 1430s, and then under Louis XI in the 1460s. The defences of the Bastille were fortified in response to the English and Imperial threat during the 1550s, with a bastion constructed to the east of the fortress. The Bastille played a key role in the rebellion of the Fronde and the battle of the faubourg Saint-Antoine, which was fought beneath its walls in 1652.
Louis XIV used the Bastille as a prison for upper-class members of French society who had opposed or angered him including, after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, French Protestants. From 1659 onwards, the Bastille functioned primarily as a state penitentiary; by 1789, 5,279 prisoners had passed through its gates. Under Louis XV and XVI, the Bastille was used to detain prisoners from more varied backgrounds, and to support the operations of the Parisian police, especially in enforcing government censorship of the printed media. Although inmates were kept in relatively good conditions, criticism of the Bastille grew during the 18th century, fueled by autobiographies written by former prisoners. Reforms were implemented and prisoner numbers were considerably reduced. In 1789 the royal government’s financial crisis and the formation of the National Assembly gave rise to a swelling of republican sentiments among city-dwellers. On 14 July the Bastille was stormed by a revolutionary crowd, primarily residents of the faubourg Saint-Antoine who sought to commandeer the valuable gunpowder held within the fortress. Seven remaining prisoners were found and released and the Bastille’s governor, Bernard-René de Launay, was killed by the crowd. The Bastille was demolished by order of the Committee of the Hôtel de Ville. Souvenirs of the fortress were transported around France and displayed as icons of the overthrow of despotism. Over the next century, the site and historical legacy of the Bastille featured prominently in French revolutions, political protests and popular fiction, and it remained an important symbol for the French Republican movement.
Almost nothing is left of the Bastille except some remains of its stone foundation that were relocated to the side of Boulevard Henri IV. Historians were critical of the Bastille in the early 19th century, and believe the fortress to have been a relatively well-administered institution, involved in French policing and political control during the 18th century The governor of the Bastille was Bernard-René de Launay, son of the previous governor and actually born within the Bastille. The Bastille had gradually become a symbol of Royal Tyranny and cost of maintaining this garrisoned medieval fortress for so limited a purpose was uneconomic and caused tension.
In 1789 during the reign of Louis XVI France faced a major economic crisis, caused by the cost of intervening in the American Revolution, and exacerbated by a regressive system of taxation On 5 May 1789, the Estates-General of 1789 convened to deal with this issue, but were held back by archaic protocols and the conservatism of the Second Estate, consisting of the nobility and amounting to only 2% of France’s population at the time. On 17 June 1789, the Third Estate, with its representatives drawn from the commoners, reconstituted themselves as the National Assembly, a body whose purpose was the creation of a French constitution. The king initially opposed this development, but was forced to acknowledge the authority of the assembly, which subsequently renamed itself the National Constituent Assembly on 9 July. The commoners formed the National Guard, sporting tricolour cockades (cocardes) of blue, white and red, formed by combining the red and blue cockade of Paris and the white cockade of the king. These cockades, and soon simply their colour scheme, became the symbol of the revolution and, later, of France itself.
Paris, close to insurrection and, in François Mignet’s words, “intoxicated with liberty and enthusiasm”, showed wide support for the Assembly. The press published the Assembly’s debates; political debate spread beyond the Assembly itself into the public squares and halls of the capital. The Palais-Royal and its grounds became the site of an ongoing meeting The crowd, on the authority of the meeting at the Palais-Royal, broke open the prisons of the Abbaye to release some grenadiers of the French guards, reportedly imprisoned for refusing to fire on the people. The Assembly recommended the imprisoned guardsmen to the clemency of the king; they returned to prison, and received pardon. The rank and file of the regiment, previously considered reliable, now leaned toward the popular cause.
On 11 July 1789, with troops at Versailles, Sèvres, the Champ de Mars, and Saint-Denis, Louis XVI, acting under the influence of the conservative nobles of his privy council, dismissed and banished his finance minister, Jacques Necker, who had been sympathetic to the Third Estate, and completely reconstructed the ministry. The marshals Victor-François, duc de Broglie, la Galissonnière, the duc de la Vauguyon, the Baron Louis de Breteuil, and the intendant Foulon, took over the posts of Puységur, Armand Marc, comte de Montmorin, La Luzerne, Saint-Priest, and Necker.
News of Necker’s dismissal reached Paris in the afternoon of Sunday, 12 July. The Parisians generally presumed that the dismissal marked the start of a coup by conservative elements. Liberal Parisians were further enraged by the fear that a concentration of Royal troops, brought to Versailles from frontier garrisons, would attempt to shut down the National Constituent Assembly, which was meeting in Versailles. Crowds gathered throughout Paris, including more than ten thousand at the Palais-Royal. Camille Desmoulins successfully rallied the crowd by “mounting a table, pistol in hand, exclaiming: ‘Citizens, there is no time to lose; the dismissal of Necker is the knell of a Saint Bartholomew for patriots! This very night all the Swiss and German battalions will leave the Champ de Mars to massacre us all; one resource is left; to take arms!’
The Swiss and German regiments referred to were among the foreign mercenary troops who made up a significant portion of the pre-revolutionary Royal Army, and were seen as being less likely to be sympathetic to the popular cause than ordinary French soldiers. By early July, approximately half of the 25,000 regular troops in Paris and Versailles were drawn from these foreign regiments. The French regiments included in the concentration appear to have been selected either because of the proximity of their garrisons to Paris or because their colonels were supporters of the reactionary “court party” opposed to reform.
During the public demonstrations that started on 12 July, the multitude displayed busts of Necker and of Louis Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, then marched from the Palais Royal through the theater district before continuing westward along the boulevards. The crowd clashed with the Royal German Cavalry Regiment (“Royal-Allemand”) between the Place Vendôme and the Tuileries Palace. From atop the Champs-Élysées, the Prince de Lambesc unleashed a cavalry charge that dispersed the remaining protesters at Place Louis XV—now Place de la Concord. The Royal commander, Baron de Besenval, thenwithdrew the cavalry towards Sèvres. Meanwhile, unrest was growing among the people of Paris who expressed their hostility against state authorities by attacking customs posts blamed for causing increased food and wine prices. The people of Paris started to plunder any place where food, guns and supplies could be hoarded. That night, rumors spread that supplies were being hoarded at Saint-Lazare, a huge property of the clergy, which functioned as convent, hospital, school and even as a jail. An angry mob broke in and plundered the property, seizing 52 wagons of wheat, which were taken to the public market. That same day multitudes of people plundered many other places including weapon arsenals. The Royal troops did not intervene during this social chaos in Paris
The regiment of Gardes Françaises (French Guards) formed the permanent garrison of Paris and, with many local ties, was favourably disposed towards the popular cause. This regiment had remained confined to its barracks during the initial stages of the mid-July disturbances. With Paris becoming the scene of a general riot, Charles Eugene, Prince of Lambesc (Marshal of the Camp, Proprietor of the Royal Allemand-Dragoons), not trusting the regiment to obey his order, posted sixty dragoons to station themselves before its dépôt in the Chaussée d’Antin. The officers of the French Guards made ineffectual attempts to rally their men. The rebellious citizenry had now acquired a trained military contingent. As word of this spread, the commanders of the royal forces encamped on the Champ de Mars became doubtful of the dependability of even the foreign regiments. The future “Citizen King”, Louis-Philippe, duc d’Orléans, witnessed these events as a young officer and was of the opinion that the soldiers would have obeyed orders if put to the test. He also commented in retrospect that the officers of the French Guards had neglected their responsibilities in the period before the uprising, leaving the regiment too much to the control of its non-commissioned officersHowever, the uncertain leadership of Besenval led to a virtual abdication of royal authority in central Paris. A “bourgeois militia” arose through the sixty voting districts of Paris to take control over the insurrection.
By 14 July 1789, the city of Paris was in a state of alarm. The partisans of the Third Estate in France, now under the control of the Bourgeois Militia of Paris ( Revolutionary France’s National Guard), had earlier stormed the Hôtel des Invalides intending to gather the weapons held there (29,000 to 32,000 muskets, but without powder or shot). The commandant at the Invalides had taken the precaution of transferring 250 barrels of gunpowder to the Bastille for safer storage. At this point, the Bastille was nearly empty, housing only seven prisoners: four forgers, two “lunatics” and one “deviant” aristocrat, the Comte de Solages (the Marquis de Sade had been transferred a few days previously
A crowd gathered outside around mid-morning, calling for the surrender of the prison, the removal of the cannon and the release of the arms and gunpowder. Two representatives of the crowd outside were invited into the fortress and negotiations began, and another was admitted around noon with definite demands. The negotiations dragged on while the crowd grew and became impatient. Around 1:30, the crowd surged into the undefended outer courtyard. A small party climbed onto the roof of a building next to the gate to the inner courtyard and broke the chains on the drawbridge, crushing one vainqueur as it fell. Soldiers of the garrison called to the people to withdraw but in the noise and confusion these shouts were misinterpreted as encouragement to enter. Gunfire began, apparently spontaneously, turning the crowd into a mob. The crowd seems to have felt that they had been intentionally drawn into a trap and the fighting became more violent and intense, while attempts by deputies to organise a cease-fire were ignored by the attackers.
The firing continued, and after 3 pm the attackers were reinforced by mutinous gardes françaises, along with two cannons. A substantial force of Royal Army troops encamped on the Champs de Mars did not intervene. Governor de Launay ordered a cease-fire at 5 pm. A letter offering his terms was handed out to the besiegers through a gap in the inner gate. His demands were refused, but de Launay nonetheless capitulated, as he realised that with limited food stocks and no water supply his troops could not hold out much longer. He accordingly opened the gates to the inner courtyard, and the vainqueurs swept in to liberate the fortress at 5:30. Ninety-eight attackers and one defender had died in the actual fighting, a disparity accounted for by the protection provided to the garrison by the fortress walls. De Launay was seized and dragged towards the Hôtel de Ville in a storm of abuse. Outside the Hôtel, a discussion as to his fate began. The badly beaten de Launay shouted “Enough! Let me die!” and kicked a pastry cook named Dulait in the groin. De Launay was then stabbed repeatedly and died. The Marquis de Launay, Governor of the Bastille, and of Monsieur Flesselles, Prévôt des Marchands were then beheaded en route to the Palais-Royal. Three officers of the permanent Bastille garrison were killed by the crowd and two of the invalides of the garrison were also lynched, all but two of the Swiss regulars of the Salis-Samade Regiment were protected by the French Guards and eventually released to return to their regiment. Their officer, Lieutenant Louis de Flue, wrote a detailed report on the defense of the Bastille, which was incorporated in the logbook of the Salis-Samade.