The Storming of the Bastille

Storming the Bastille

On 14th July 1789, the fortress of the Bastille in Paris was stormed. The fortress itself held prisoners who had been imprisoned with royal indictments that could not be appealed and thus the Bastille had become the symbol of absolute monarchy to citizens who thought the monarchy needed to be brought down a couple of notches. I haven’t read a huge amount on the French Revolution, which saw the downfall of Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette, but that is something I am planning on changing – a bunch of books have been downloaded onto my kindle to read at some point – and I had been reminded that today is the famous Bastille Day because it is my grandfather’s birthday…which funnily enough is on said Bastille day. I’m rambling now.

So why did the populace of Paris storm the Bastille? And this will very likely end up in bullet points again as there is just so much stuff that happened with this event.

  • On the 11th July, Louis XIV dismissed his finance minister Jaques Necker. Necker was very sympathetic to the Third Estate (i.e. the ‘revolutionaries’ who wanted rid of the monarchy). The news of Necker’s dismissal was recieved with an uproar in Paris, and it was assumed that the dismissal was the start of a coup on the part of the monarchy – and indeed the King and Queen thought that the dismissal would be the end of things. It wasn’t.
  • On the 12th, the people of Paris began to roam the streets in demonstration for the dismissed minister, and a journalist encouraged the crowds at the Palais-Royale to arm themselves. 
  • On the same day a crowd attacked the Tullieres but were charged by a military regiment. Several people were injured and panic spread. The people of Paris were scared that they would be faced by a massive royal army so began to riot, looking for arms.
  • The people were still roaming the streets on the morning of the 14th. They stormed the Hotel des Invalides and looted firearms. Troops under the command of Besvenal were waiting for them, but ended up joining the rioting Parisians. These troops got their hands on over 40,000 guns from the cellars of the Hotel but were still without gunpowder and shot. And guess where that stuff was…?
  • Yep, the Bastille.
  • When the mob reached the fortress they found that it had been reinforced by the Marquis de Launay (the governor of the Bastille).
  • After several hours of violent acts and besieging the fortress, the mob broke into the Bastille. They took significant losses, but they freed the seven prisoners who were locked up inside, got their hands on all the gunpowder and bullets and took the governor Prisoner who they decided to take to the Hotel de Ville.
  • Except on the way to the Hotel de Ville, Launay was brutally assassinated and his head cut off with a knife. Several of Launay’s soldiers also suffered the same fate and the day ended in a carnival of severed heads mounted on spikes. Nasty.
  • The King and Queen remained relatively ignorant of these matters for quite a long time and even when the news was broken to Louis of the fall of the Bastille it didn’t seem to bother him too much. He didn’t know that the army had joined the other side, and thought that said army would restore order as they always had before. 
  • After the gravity of the situation finally dawned on Louis, he addressed the Assembly, stating that he definitely had not ordered a show of force and he had even ordered the troops out of Paris. His speech was greeted by the Parisians very well and for a short time he regained some popularity. He was greeted with shouts of “Long Live the King” an “Long Live the Nation”. 
  • Louis even agreed to recall Necker after a long meeting with his council. They also decided it would be best for the King and Queen to stay in Paris despite the Queen wanting to leave. Louis even admitted he had missed his chance to leave, and that he should have left on 14th July.
  • On 17th July Louis went to Paris, and his wife despaired that he would not return. But return he did. And he had agreed to support the revolutionaries. He was even wearing the symbol of the revolutionaries, the tricolour cockade…
Jaques Necker by Duplessis

The fall of the Bastille was a very important event in the French Revolution. And of course we know how the revolution ended, with the death of many prominent aristocrats and royalist supporters and of course the death of both the King and Queen.

Yet every year, the French celebrate Bastille Day on 14th July. And it has been celebrated every year since 1790 when Louis XIV swore his allegiance to the new constitution. The first celebration was seen as the end of the revolution, and a happy end too. It has been celebrated every year since as a mark of the start of a new era, and in 1880 a law was passed making it an official public holiday every year.

I have to say that, even in my little reading on the revolution, it must have been terrifying. I am a royalist through and through and reading of how Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were treated during this period always makes my stomach turn and makes me tear up a little. As I said at the beginning of this post, I haven’t read a lot about the period and it’s something I need to read more about, however it is a very very interesting period in history.

Also as a random piece of useless knowledge: when I was younger and doing a piece of homework on family history, my grandad told me a story of how our ancestors had fled France during the revolution as they were pro-royalist aristocrats who feared becoming victims of the guillotine. I have no idea if it’s true, but it was a pretty cool story. One day I’ll do some research and find out if it’s true or not.

Further reading

Fraser, A, 2002, Marie Antoinette: The Journey, Phoenix: London
Lever, E, 2000, Marie Antoinette: The Last Queen of France, Piatkus: London

Also swing by and read Madame Guillotine’s fantastic blog, and check out her posts on the French Revolution. In fact read all of it, because it is ace.

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