WHAT’S THE STORY?

ANYONE with any knowledge of France will know that today is Bastille Day, France’s National Day, known to the French as La Fête Nationale or just simply Le 14 Juillet. But how many know about the Bastille?

The celebration is all about commemorating the Storming of the Bastille on this date in 1789, often taken as the starting point of the French Revolution, but it actually derives from the Fête de la Fédération which was first celebrated on 14 July, 1790, at a time when most people in France thought the Revolution had already achieved its aims. The new government, the National Constituent Assembly, was just five days old when it led the Fête celebrations along with King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, and the National Day was thus established and has been celebrated ever since, though Louis and Marie Antoinette only got to see one more before they were deposed and executed.

Loading article content

WHAT LED TO THE STORMING OF THE BASTILLE?

IN short, it was all about new ideas. The philosophical and political ferment in many countries in the latter half of the 18th century had seen events like the American Revolution and War of Independence. Scotland’s thinkers in the Age of Enlightenment were to the fore in defining new philosophies with David Hume, Adam Smith, and Thomas Reid all highly influential, while in France the writings of Montesquieu, Diderot, Voltaire, Rousseau and the oratory of the Comte de Mirabeu – he would become known as the Voice of the People – were changing minds and encouraging ordinary people to think of changing whole political systems.

HOW DID THE FRENCH START THEIR REVOLUTION?

KING Louis XVI came to the throne in 1774 and at first he was a reformer in line with the Enlightenment thinking, but he also made enemies of some nobles who were opposed to any liberalisation of the Ancien Régime, with its Three Estates of clergy, aristocracy and commoners – the latter being everybody not in the first two, which was more than 95 per cent of the population and included lawyers and landowners as part of the Estate.

Though almost everyone in France celebrated the US’s gaining of independence, support for American struggle left King Louis almost bankrupt. He then raised taxes to punitive levels while the economy nosedived, poverty soared, and there were widespread food shortages across France.

With the country in crisis, the Estates General – effectively the French Parliament – was summoned by Louis in May, 1789, principally to solve the King’s own financial problems. It had not met since 1614. But with a febrile revolutionary atmosphere abounding, the Estates General split, and the Third Estate went off to form its own National Assembly at a Tennis Court, hence the Tennis Court Oath in which they vowed to set up a new constitution.

Support came from all over France and soon some members of the First and Second Estate joined the National Assembly.

The King’s military commanders summoned troops to surround Paris, but Louis himself seemed to realise the game was up by the end of June and he agreed major concessions and eventually accepted a constitutional monarchy.

It looked as though the Revolution was going to be peaceful, until 14 July, that is.

WHY WAS THE BASTILLE SO HATED?

IT was the symbol of everything the ordinary Parisian detested. The Bastille Saint-Antoine, to give the building its formal name, was the 400-year-old fortress turned state prison on the east side of the city. At one time or another it housed enemies of the French kings, French Protestants, writers such as Voltaire who opposed the Ancien Régime, and people who were deemed as lunatics by their own families who had to pay for their incarceration.

By the reign of Louis XVI it had earned a dreadful reputation as a hellish prison run by brutal jailers, though in fact the Bastille was well run and relatively comfortable compared to other prisons. Still, it was the most hated place in the whole of Paris, but that was not why it was stormed. In the early days of July, revolutionaries had begun to prepare for the anticipated military suppression of their activities, and on the morning of July 12, violence broke out between the crowds and forces loyal to Louis. The mob spent the next day searching for guns and gunpowder and it was discovered that the Bastille had plenty of both.

On July 14, a crowd of around 1,000 people marched to the Bastille and the prison’s commander, Bernard-René de Launay, tried to negotiate with them. But shots rang out, the crowd rioted and after they were joined by mutinous royal troops with cannon, the wooden doors of the Bastille were opened in surrender and the crowd stormed in.

HOW MANY PRISONERS WERE FREED?

THE Bastille was found to have just seven prisoners, two of whom were mentally ill, four of whom were common forgers and the seventh inmate was the Comte de Solages who had been imprisoned by his family for allegedly committing incest with his sister. Despite his surrender, De Launay was stabbed to death, the local mayor was also butchered, three more officers of his garrison were killed and two ordinary soldiers were lynched. A total of 95 of the stormers, known forever after as les vainquers (conquerors) de la Bastille, were killed, and their portrayal as martyrs helped inspire the Revolution. By November, the Bastille had been completely dismantled though its name adorns the Place de la Bastille to this day.