The Conquerors of the Bastille before the Hotel de Ville in 1789. Painting by Hippolyte Delaroche, 1839. (Credit: Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images)
  • Print
  • Cite

Introduction

Bastille Day is a holiday celebrating the storming of the Bastille—a military fortress and prison—on July 14, 1789, in a violent uprising that helped usher in the French Revolution. Besides holding gunpowder and other supplies valuable to revolutionaries, the Bastille also symbolized the callous tyranny of the French monarchy, especially King Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette.

Built in the 1300s during the Hundred Years’ War against the English, the Bastille was designed to protect the eastern entrance to the city of Paris. The formidable stone building’s massive defenses included 100-foot-high walls and a wide moat, plus more than 80 regular soldiers and 30 Swiss mercenaries standing guard.

As a prison, it held political dissidents (such as the writer and philosopher Voltaire), many of whom were locked away without a trial by order of the king. By 1789, however, it was scheduled for demolition, to be replaced by a public square. Moreover, it was down to just seven prisoners: four accused of forgery, two considered “lunatics” and one kept in custody at the request of his own family.

The infamous Marquis de Sade—from whom the term “sadist” is derived—had likewise been incarcerated there. But he was removed earlier that summer after falsely shouting out the window that the prisoners inside were being massacred.

Despite inheriting tremendous debts from his predecessor, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette continued to spend extravagantly, such as by helping the American colonies win their independence from the British. By the late 1780s, France’s government stood on the brink of economic disaster.

To make matters worse, widespread crop failures in 1788 brought about a nationwide famine. Bread prices rose so high that, at their peak, the average worker spent about 88 percent of his wages on just that one staple.

Unemployment was likewise a problem, which the populace blamed in part on newly reduced customs duties between France and Britain. Following a harsh winter, violent food riots began breaking out across France at bakeries, granaries and other food storage facilities.

In an attempt to resolve the crisis, Louis XVI summoned the long-dormant Estates-General, a national assembly divided by social class into three orders: clergy (First Estate), nobility (Second Estate) and commoners (Third Estate).

Though it represented about 98 percent of the population, the Third Estate could still be outvoted by its two counterparts. As a result of this inequality, its deputies immediately started clamoring for a greater voice. After making no initial headway, they then declared themselves to be a new body called the National Assembly.

Finding the doors to their meeting hall locked on June 20, 1789, they gathered in a nearby indoor tennis court, where, in defiance of the king, they took an oath—famous thereafter as the Tennis Court Oath—never to separate until establishing a new written constitution.

When many nobles and clergymen crossed over to join the National Assembly, Louis XVI grudgingly gave it his consent. But he also moved several army regiments into Paris and its surroundings, leading to fears that he would break up the assembly by force.

Then, on July 11, the king dismissed the popular and reform-minded Jacques Necker, his only non-noble minister. Protesting crowds poured into Paris’ streets the following day, harassing royalist soldiers so much that they withdrew from the city. Crowds also burned down most of Paris’ hated customs posts, which imposed taxes on goods, and began a frantic search for arms and food.

Unrest continued on the morning of July 14, when an unruly mob seized roughly 32,000 muskets and some cannons from the Hôtel des Invalides (a military hospital) prior to turning its sights on the large quantity of gunpowder stored in the Bastille.

Bernard-René de Launay, the governor of the Bastille, watched in dread as a large and growing mob of angry revolutionists surrounded the fortress on July 14. Upon receiving a demand to surrender, he invited revolutionary delegates inside to negotiate.

Lacking any direct orders from Louis XVI, he purportedly received them warmly and promised not to open fire. Yet as the talks dragged on, the people outside grew restless—some may have thought their delegates had been imprisoned.

Eventually, a group of men climbed over an outer wall and lowered a drawbridge to the Bastille’s courtyard, allowing the crowd to swarm inside. When men began attempting to lower a second drawbridge, de Launay broke his pledge and ordered his soldiers to shoot. Nearly 100 attackers died in the onslaught and dozens of others were wounded, whereas the royalists lost only one soldier.

The tide turned later that afternoon, however, when a detachment of mutinous French Guards showed up. Permanently stationed in Paris, the French Guards were known to be sympathetic to the revolutionaries. When they began blasting away with cannons at the Bastille, de Launay, who lacked adequate provisions for a long-term siege, waved the white flag of surrender.

Taken prisoner, he was marched to city hall, where the bloodthirsty crowd separated him from his escort and murdered him before cutting off his head, displaying it on a pike and parading it around the city. A few other royalist soldiers were also butchered, foreshadowing the terrifying bloodshed that would play a large role during and after the French Revolution.

In the aftermath of the storming of the Bastille, the prison fortress was systematically dismantled until almost nothing remained of it. A de facto prisoner from October 1789 onward, Louis XVI was sent to the guillotine a few years later—Marie Antoinette’s beheading followed shortly thereafter.

Much like the Fourth of July in America, Bastille Day—known in France as la Fête nationale or le 14 juillet (14 July)—is a public holiday in France, celebrated by nationwide festivities including fireworks, parades and parties.

Attendees will see France’s tricolor flag, hear the French motto Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité (“liberty, equality and fraternity”) and break into singing La Marseillaise—all popular symbols of France that had their origins in the heady days of the French Revolution.

In one of the world’s oldest annual military parades, French troops have marched each year since Bastille Day of 1880 along the Champs-Elysées in Paris before French government officials and world leaders.