There are few more iconic buildings than the Bastille of Paris, France. The storming of the Bastille by enraged commoners on July 14 1789 was the spark that began the long and violent struggle to overthrow the ancient aristocratic regime, and triggered the eventual birth of modern democracy.
A dark history
For all its iconic status today, the Bastille doesn’t exists in a physical sense — it was torn down by the orders of the National Assembly two days after its storming. Today, the July Column, at one corner of the Place de la Bastille, commemorates the site where the prison once stood. Despite its destruction, however, the Bastille lives on, immortalised in countless paintings, plays and other works of literature, where it has become a symbol for the freedom of French people from repression.
The Bastille has, throughout much of its history, been a symbol of royal privilege and oppression. Internment in the Bastille was the king’s business, and many of the prisoners were the victims of the King’s arbitrary judgements or transient whims. It began life as the fortress Bastille Saint-Antoine, built as part of the defensive system of the city. By the 18th century it was simply known as the Bastille, and was appropriated by Louis VIII as a convenient prison for state prisoners. The practice continued through the reign of Louis XVI, until the Revolution put an end to the aristocracy.
Despite popular imagination, the Bastille wasn’t particularly reprehensible, as far as prisons go. Internment here was generally reserved for heretics and political dissidents, though there were, of course, the more common criminals present. They were treated reasonably well under the circumstances. Noble prisoners had their own, fairly spacious cells, which they decorated with their own furniture. They were free to mix, play games and exercise in the open spaces of prison. They had their own servants, had guests and even threw parties – Cardinal de Rohan once had dinner for 20 in his cell. Of course, the commoners lived less graciously than their blue-blooded fellow prisoners, but not remarkably so.
The reason for the popular resentment
The Bastille’s black reputation did not actually stem from the physical conditions of the prisoners, which were rather outstanding by the standards of the barbaric penal system of the time. In fact, the other Parisien jail, the Bicêtre, was far more feared as a centre of detention. The Bastille became the focus of popular resentment because it was a tangible sign of the king’s power over the helpless populace. The 18th century was a time of great unrest among the peasants and the commoner merchants, who resented the aristocrat’s cruel, arbitrary rule. All power rested in the hands of the king, and any threat was ruthlessly removed. Writers who criticized the nobility; political agents who upset the status quo; religious preachers who called for change in the government; all were taken and imprisoned in the Bastille, and the people deeply resented their suppression.
By the time of Louis VIIII, revolutionary popular sentiment was overwhelmingly strong, particularly as the country was then suffering famine and a financial crisis, neither of which were being addressed by the king. The entire nation was a power keg in need of a spark and Paris soon provided it.
The revolutionaries take the Bastille
On 12th July, a series of oppressive moves to control the restive populace, ill-timed political decisions and a rumour that Swiss and German battalions were about to descend on the city to massacre the citizens prompted mobs to take to the streets.
The storming of the Bastille was an almost an incidental action. The mobs were looking for more arms, having already raided a number of depots around the city. The garrison stationed in the Bastille consisted of a small number of Swiss mercenaries armed with large quantities of arms. The rioters decided they would take the Bastille, and on the morning of 14th July, gathered in front of the prison.
The take-over began civilly enough, with the usual exchange of delegates, negotiations, offers and counter-offers. In charge of the Bastille was Governor de Launay, son of the previous supervisor and actually born in the Bastille. He was, from all accounts, determined not to surrender, but as the crowd grew impatient with the negotiations and his own garrison pressed for a quick solution, things quickly got out of hand.
The restless rioters began trying to get into the fortress, and even numerous shots from the defenders couldn’t dissuade them, though they paid with their lives for their stubbornness. It was an unequal battle, with the defenders holding the upper hand until a detachment of soldiers (who would later form the National Guard) joined on the rioter’s side, bringing with them cannons and more arms. It was at this point the defenders began to weaken, as they realized the rioters were beginning to prepare for a full-scale siege. They convinced de Launay to capitulate, despite his intention to blow up the Bastille rather than surrender. At the end of the day, ninety-eight revolutionaries were dead, and only one defender.
The aftermath of the takeover
The attackers succeeded in taking control of the Bastille’s arms and from then on, the power of the aristocracy was increasingly transferred to the hands of the triumphant commoners. Louis VIIII made what concessions he could to the people, but the increasingly revolutionary mood of the time ultimately resulted in the end of aristocratic rule and the beginning of democracy. The revolutionary fever would soon spread, first to the already rebellious American colonies, and from there onwards around the world. It was the beginning of a worldwide shift in the fundamental structure of society, and those who died in the storming were only the first of millions who would later die around the world as the new order came into power.
One of the first casualties of this climatic change was de Launay. After his surrender, he was dragged through the streets in a storm of abuse, and subjected to an increasingly unpleasant discussion of his fate. After one particularly vicious suggestion from a man named Desnot, de Launay cried ‘Enough! Let me die!’ and kicked Desnot in the groin. He was immediately stabbed to death, and his head sawn off and paraded on a spike.
Incidentally, contrary to later romanticization of the episode, the revolutionaries didn’t release hundreds of grateful prisoners. There were only seven people incarcerated at the time: four forgers, two lunatics and a deviant aristocrat. The storming would however prove enormously useful to the revolutionaries for its propoganda value, as it became a symbolic act of rebellion against oppression. This episode would become commemorated as the pivotal moment in the birth of democracy and the modern French nation, and is now celebrated on July 14th as Bastille day, the French national holiday.