Bastille Day

Bastille Day History

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.

The Bastille

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.

Causes of the French Revolution

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.

Louis XVI and the Tennis Court Oath

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.

The National Assembly

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.

Storming of 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 Bastille Is Dismantled

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.

Bastille Day Today

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.

Bastille Day, in France and its overseas départements and territories, holiday marking the anniversary of the fall on July 14, 1789, of the Bastille, in Paris. Originally built as a medieval fortress, the Bastille eventually came to be used as a state prison. Political prisoners were often held there, as were citizens detained by the authorities for trial. Some prisoners were held on the direct order of the king, from which there was no appeal. Although by the late 18th century it was little used and was scheduled to be demolished, the Bastille had come to symbolize the harsh rule of the Bourbon monarchy. During the unrest of 1789, on July 14 a mob approached the Bastille to demand the arms and ammunition stored there, and, when the forces guarding the structure resisted, the attackers captured the prison and released the seven prisoners held there. The taking of the Bastille signaled the beginning of the French Revolution, and it thus became a symbol of the end of the ancien régime.

Bastille DayFrench jets trailing the national colours over Paris during Bastille Day celebrations, 2017.© Donjonthomas/
storming of the BastilleThe storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, undated coloured

July 14, often called la fête nationale in France, became an official holiday in 1880. From the beginning, speeches, military parades, and fireworks, along with public revelry, were part of the celebration. The slogan “Vive le 14 juillet!” (“Long live the 14th of July!”) has continued to be associated with the day. The holiday came to be celebrated in the former French colonies and is observed in those places maintaining links to France. French Polynesia especially came to be known for its adaptation of the holiday to its own culture, with singing, dancing, and drumming performances and competitions held throughout the month of July. In addition, Francophiles worldwide have taken up the observance of Bastille Day, celebrating with dinners of French cuisine, for example, or with concerts of French music.

Do you like fireworks and stories about brave people fighting for more freedom? Then you will enjoy learning about an important holiday in France, Bastille Day!
Bastille Day: July 14
Marie stood outside with her family excitedly. This was always her favorite part of the July 14th celebrations. Finally, it was dark enough for fireworks. Marie and all the other French people around her look up and cheer when the first firework shoots across the sky. Marie grins up at her dad and says ‘Happy Bastille Day!’

The Original Bastille Day

In 1789, France was getting ready for a revolution; the common people were tired of having a king who controlled everything. Throughout France, there were grumblings about how bad things were. Two big complaints were that the king had made the taxes very high to help pay for his debts, and there was not enough food for everyone. The people wanted a more democratic form of government, and they were ready to fight for it.

The French army was under the control of King Louis XVI, who did not want to give up his power to the people. Everyday people did not have any weapons, only pitchforks and rakes. The common people knew they could not fight the French army this way! So when they heard that there was gunpowder in the Bastille, an old prison in Paris, they decided to attack it.

On July 14, 1789, the common people overcame the guards at the Bastille prison and got the gunpowder. They also happened across some prisoners, so they set them free. Some members of the army even joined the rebels and helped them take the Bastille. The storming of the Bastille prison proved to everyone in France that the people were a serious force that must be listened to.



Bastille Day Traditions

Think back to your most recent Fourth of July celebration. Most likely, it was similar to how the French, like Marie, celebrate Bastille Day. Marie’s family and friends gather together and wear the French flag’s colors of blue, white and red. Marie and her family hang flags everywhere, too.

The Storming of the Bastille (French: Prise de la Bastille) occurred in Paris, France, on the afternoon of July 14, 1789. The fortress-prison held a large cache of ammunition and gunpowder. It contained only seven inmates at the time, but was seen by the revolutionaries as a symbol of the monarchy’s abuse of power; its fall was the flashpoint of the French Revolution.

During the reign of Louis XVI, France faced a major economic crisis, caused in part by the cost of intervening in the American Revolution and exacerbated by a regressive system of taxation.On May 5, 1789, the Estates General of 1789 convened to deal with this issue, but were held back by archaic protocols and the conservatism of the Second Estate representing the nobility who made up less than 2 percent of France’s population.

On June 17, 1789, the Third Estate, with its representatives drawn from the commoners, reconstituted themselves as the National Assembly, a body whose purpose was the creation of a French constitution. The king initially opposed this development, but was forced to acknowledge the authority of the assembly, which renamed itself the National Constituent Assembly on July 9. On July 11, 1789, Louis XVI—acting under the influence of the conservative nobles of his privy council—dismissed and banished his finance minister, Jacques Necker (who had been sympathetic to the Third Estate) and completely reconstructed the finance ministry.

Many Parisians presumed Louis’ actions to be the start of a royal coup by the conservatives and began open rebellion when they heard the news the next day. They were also afraid that Royal soldiers had been summoned to shut down the National Constituent Assembly, which was meeting at Versailles. The Assembly went into nonstop session to prevent eviction from their meeting place once again. Paris was soon consumed with riots and widespread looting.

Bronze relief of a memorial dedicated to Bastille Day.
On July 14, the people of Paris, fearful that they and their representatives would be attacked by the royal army or by foreign regiments of mercenaries in the king’s service, and seeking to gain ammunition and gunpowder for the general populace, stormed the Bastille. The Bastille was a fortress-prison in Paris which had often held people jailed on the basis of lettres de cachet (literally “signet letters”), arbitrary royal indictments that could not be appealed and did not indicate the reason for the imprisonment. Known for holding political prisoners whose writings had displeased the royal government, it was thus a symbol of the absolutism of the monarchy. As it happened, at the time of the attack in July 1789 there were only seven inmates, none of great political significance.

Reinforced by mutinous Gardes Françaises (“French Guards”), whose usual role was to protect public buildings, the mob proved a fair match for the fort’s defenders, and Governor de Launay, the commander of the Bastille, capitulated and opened the gates to avoid a mutual massacre. However, possibly because of a misunderstanding, fighting resumed. According to official documents, about 100 attackers and just one defender died in the initial fighting. In the aftermath, de Launay and three other defenders were killed, as was Jacques de Flesselles, the prévôt des marchands (“provost of the merchants”), the elected head of the city’s guilds, who under the feudal monarchy also had the competences of a present-day mayor.

Shortly after the storming of the Bastille, late in the evening of August 4, after a very stormy session of the Assemblée constituante, feudalism was abolished. On August 26, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen) was proclaimed (Homme with an uppercase h meaning “human”, while homme with a lowercase h means “man”).

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