Celebrated each year on July 14th, Bastille Day commemorates the day in 1789 when the Bastille prison was stormed by insurgents, sparking the French Revolution. Bastille Day is for the French what Independence Day is for Americans.
France was a tinderbox in the summer of 1789. The cost of supporting the colonies in the American Revolution had drained the government of money, and heavy taxation of the bourgeoisie had raised the ire of many French people. In response to this, the Third Estate – the group who represented the bourgeoisie in government – reformed itself into the National Constituent Assembly, promising to form a constitutional government. This was naturally opposed by the powerful First and Second Estates – those groups which represented the nobility and clergy, and constituted only 3% of France’s total population. The sheer strength in numbers of the National Assembly, however, forced the First and Second Estates, as well as the king, to capitulate, and its authority was finally recognized.
The National Assembly spent the summer of 1789 rousing support among the populace. Paris, in particular, was feverish with the revolutionary spirit. The French had seen the success of the colonists in America against their monarchical oppressors; the French felt that they, too, could bring down their tyrannical overlords.
On July 11th, Louis XVI made what would prove to be a fatal mistake when he gave into the suggestions of his council and reorganized his cabinet. Among those who were ousted was the finance minister Jacques Necker, who had been particularly sympathetic to the cause of the National Constituent Assembly. This move outraged average Frenchmen and women; they saw it as a decisive step by the royalists toward putting down the growing liberation movement. Their fears were further encouraged by the arrival of royal troops in Paris, where the National Assembly was meeting. Groups of armed Frenchmen began forming, roused to action by various spirited leaders and bourgeois revolutionaries, often bearing busts of Necker as they called the people to arms. Over the next few days, skirmishes and riots broke out, and Paris began to descend into anarchy.
By the 14th, the revolutionaries had gathered some 30,000 weapons, but had very little ammunition or gunpowder. They knew, however, that munitions were being stored in the Bastille prison – that ancient symbol of royal tyranny and oppression.
Constructed during the Hundred Years’ War in the 14th century, the Bastille was already 400 years old by the time of the French Revolution. Dark and imposing, with eight towers and 80-foot walls, it was built entirely of stone blocks, more a fortified castle than a prison. In fact, it had initially been just that – a military stronghold to defend Paris. Not until the reign of Louis XIII in the early 17th century did the Bastille become a state prison.
Though the prison was large, its general inmate population was small – less than 50 prisoners at any one time. In July of 1789, only seven prisoners were being held there – four convicted of forgery, two listed as “lunatics,” and one man imprisoned for writing pornography. What mattered to the revolutionaries, however, was not so much the prisoners inside the Bastille, but the ammunition and gunpowder stored there. Furthermore, as a symbol of old France and the monarchy, the Bastille was an obvious target for rioters enraged at the transgressions of the king.
Sometime around mid-morning on July 14th, about 600 rioters began surrounding the prison, demanding its complete surrender, including its inmates and military stores. Despite its bulk, the Bastille was only guarded by about 120 soldiers. These troops were led by a French commander named Bernard-Rene de Launay. De Launay began negotiations with spokesmen for the rioters, but his attempts to make terms with them were refused.
In the early afternoon, the crowd outside, growing hot and restless with the passing hours, began attacking the closed drawbridge, cutting its chains and storming into the inner courtyard. Many of the rioters were armed, and a 3-hour gun battle ensued, with a number of the attackers being killed. The rioters, however, were reinforced by deserting French soldiers who brought cannons with them. By 5:30 that afternoon, De Launay, realizing there was no hope of holding out, surrendered the fortress to the rioters, and the Bastille fell into the hands of the revolution. Despite surrendering completely, De Launay and several of his officers were beaten, killed, and beheaded, and their heads paraded through the streets of Paris.
Within a matter of months, the Bastille was completely dismantled, Louis XVI was ousted from his opulent palace at Versailles, and the revolution – which would last for a decade – was well underway.
On the 100th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, great celebrations were held in Paris, commemorated in a famous painting by Claude Monet. Within two years, in 1880, the day was selected as the French National Holiday, and it has been celebrated in France ever since, most notably with a massive parade along the Champs Elysees and an evening of fireworks.