The Storming of the Bastille

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For many people the main event of the French Revolution is the storming of the Bastille on July 14th 1789. July 14th is a national holiday in France celebrating the Revolution. Nonetheless, Louis XVI wrote in his diary for that day - "July 14th; nothing." Little did he know that the events that had taken place in Paris (he was at the Palace at Versailles) that would forever be associated with the downfall of the French Monarchy.

The Bastille was a castle with eight towers, looming large over the working class district of St Antoine to the East of Paris. For several months there had been rumours of all kinds of dangers ranging from bands of bandits, evil aristocrats intentionally starving the people, or the king concentrating troops around Paris in preparation for a violent suppression of the people. On July 12th the news that the king had relieved the popular Necker of his position as minister. Street orators began to warn of a forthcoming 'St Bartholemew's' against the 'patriots'.

On July 13th the deputies of the third estate, based at the Town Hall, formed a committee to run the affairs of the state and a civic militia to keep order. The next day the mob took possession of some 3000 rifles and a few cannon then headed for the Bastille to find more arms.

The ancient forteress that dominated all of eastern Paris was being used as a prison under the command of the Marquis de Launay since 1776 was only weakly manned with 30 Swiss Guards and 85 Invalides. De Launay tried to parley with the mob and even agreed to pull back the cannon positioned high on the ramparts. His mistake was to let the crowd get into the outer courtyards.

Nobody can know where the first shot came from. Perhaps from the guards, or even de Launay, who is said to have 'lost his head before it was cut off for him!'.1 The situation immediately descended into chaos. Some of the defenders changed sides and turned the fortress's cannon against the defenders. After four hours of fighting, de Launay capitulated on the promise of his safe conduct. He and some of his officers were taken to the Town Hall and murdered along with Flesselles, the hated Prévôt des Marchands. Their heads were mounted on poles and paraded around. Meanwhile, the handful of prisoners kept in the Bastille were freed; two madmen, a profligate and four forgers.

When the king did finally hear the news of these events, he agreed to dismiss the troops camped near the capital, re-instated Necker and donned the red-white-and-blue cocard; the symbol of the new France.

It was later that this event came to symbolise the Revolution.

This entry is part of the French Revolution University Project.


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