Storming of the Bastille

Storming of the Bastille

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict = The Storming of the Bastille
partof = French Revolution

caption = "Prise de la Bastille", by Jean-Pierre-Louis-Laurent Houel
date = 14 July 1789
place = Paris, France
casus =
territory =
result = Bastille captured, rebellion begins
combatant1 = flagicon|France|royal French government
combatant2 = flagicon|France Parisian militia (predecessor of France's National Guard)
commander1 = flagicon|France|royal Bernard-René de LaunayKIA
flagicon|France|royal Prince de Lambesc
commander2 = flagicon|France Camille Desmoulins
strength1 = 114 soldiers, 30 artillery pieces
strength2 = 600 - 1,000 insurgents
casualties1 = 1 (6 or possibly 8 killed after surrender. See discussion page)
casualties2 = 98
notes =

The Storming of the Bastille in Paris occurred on 14 July 1789. While the medieval fortress and prison in Paris known as the Bastille contained only seven prisoners, its fall was the flashpoint of the French Revolution, and it subsequently became an icon of the French Republic. In France, "Le quatorze juillet" (14 July) is a public holiday, formally known as the Fête de la Fédération ("Federation Holiday"). It is usually called Bastille Day in English.

During the reign of Louis XVI, France faced a major financial crisis, triggered by the cost of intervening in the American War of Independence, and exacerbated by an unequal system of taxation. On 5 May 1789, the Estates-General of 1789 convened to deal with this issue, but was held back by archaic protocols and the conservatism of the Second Estate, consisting of the nobility and comprising 2% of France's population at the time. On 17 June 1789, the Third Estate, with its representatives drawn from the middle class, or "bourgeoisie", 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 subsequently renamed itself the National Constituent Assembly on 9 July.

The storming of the Bastille and the subsequent Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was the third event of this opening stage of the revolution. The first had been the revolt of the nobility, refusing to aid King Louis XVI through the payment of taxes. [Gross, David (ed.) "We Won’t Pay!: A Tax Resistance Reader" ISBN 1434898253 pp. 139-153] The second had been the formation of the National Assembly and the Tennis Court Oath.

The middle class had formed the National Guard, sporting "tricolor" rosettes of blue, white and red; soon to become the symbol of the revolution.

Paris, close to insurrection, and, in François Mignet's words, "intoxicated with liberty and enthusiasm," [ Mignet, "History…", Chapter I.] showed wide support for the Assembly. The press published the Assembly's debates; political debate spread beyond the Assembly itself into the public squares and halls of the capital. The Palais-Royal and its grounds became the site of an endless meeting. The crowd, on the authority of the meeting at the Palais-Royal, broke open the prisons of the Abbaye to release some grenadiers of the French guards, reportedly imprisoned for refusing to fire on the people. The Assembly recommended the imprisoned guardsmen to the clemency of the king; they returned to prison, and received pardon. The rank and file of the regiment, previously considered reliable, now leaned toward the popular cause.

Necker's dismissal

On 11 July 1789, with troops at Versailles, Sèvres, the Champ de Mars, and Saint-Denis, 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 ministry. The marshal Victor-François, duc de Broglie, la Galissonnière, the duc de la Vauguyon, the Baron Louis de Breteuil, and the intendant Foulon, took over the posts of Puységur, Armand Marc, comte de Montmorin, La Luzerne, Saint-Priest, and Necker.

News of Necker's dismissal reached Paris in the afternoon of Sunday, 12 July. The Parisians generally presumed that the dismissal marked the start of a coup by conservative elements. Liberal Parisians were further enraged by the fear that a concentration of Royal troops brought to Versailles from frontier garrisons would attempt to shut down the National Constituent Assembly, which was meeting in Versailles. Crowds gathered throughout Paris, including more than ten thousand at the Palais-Royal. Camille Desmoulins, a known freemason from the lodge of the Nine Sisters, according to Mignet, successfully rallied the crowd by "mounting a table, pistol in hand, exclaiming: 'Citizens, there is no time to lose; the dismissal of Necker is the knell of a Saint Bartholomew for patriots! This very night all the Swiss and German battalions will leave the Champ de Mars to massacre us all; one resource is left; to take arms!'" [Mignet, "History…", Chapter I.]

The Swiss and German regiments referred to were among the foreign mercenary troops who made up a significant portion of the pre-revolutionary Royal Army, and were seen as being less likely to be sympathetic to the popular cause than ordinary French soldiers. By early July, approximately half of the 25,000 regular troops concentrated around Paris and Versailles were drawn from these foreign regiments.

Armed conflict

A growing crowd, brandishing busts of Necker and of the duc d'Orléans, passed through the streets to the Place Vendôme, where they put a detachment of the Royal-Allemand Cavalerie (a heavy cavalry regiment recruited from German-speaking Alsace) to flight by a shower of stones. At the Place Louis XV, the Royal-Allemand, led by the Prince de Lambesc, shot the bearer of one of the busts; a soldier was also killed. Lambesc and his troopers rode into the crowd and a single civilian, reportedly an elderly man, was killed.

The regiment of Gardes Françaises (French Guards) formed the permanent garrison of Paris and with many local ties was favourably disposed towards the popular cause. This regiment had remained confined to its barracks during the initial stages of the mid-July disturbances. With Paris becoming the scene of a general riot, Lambesc, not trusting the regiment to obey his order, posted sixty dragoons to station themselves before its dépôt in the Chaussée d'Antin. Once again, a measure intended to restrain only served to provoke. The French Guards regiment routed the cavalry, killing two, wounding three, and putting the rest to flight. The officers of the French Guards made ineffectual attempts to rally their men. The rebellious citizenry had now acquired a trained military contingent; as word of this spread, the commanders of the royal forces encamped on the Champ de Mars became doubtful of the dependability of even the foreign regiments. The future "Citizen King", Louis-Phillipe, duc d'Orléans, witnessed these events as a young officer and was of the opinion that the soldiers would have obeyed orders if put to the test. He also commented in retrospect that the officers of the French Guards had neglected their responsibilities in the period before the rising, leaving the regiment too much to the control of its non-commissioned officers. However the uncertain leadership of M. de Besenval led to a virtual abdication of royal authority in central Paris.

The demonstrators gathered in and around the Hôtel de Ville and sounded the tocsin. Distrust between the leading citizens gathered within the building and the masses outside was exacerbated by the failure or inability of the former to provide the latter with arms. Between political insurrection and opportunistic looting, Paris slid into chaos. In Versailles, the Assembly went into continuous session so that it could not, once again, be deprived of its meeting space. [ [ The French Revolution] 2002]

torming the Bastille

The demonstrators had earlier stormed the Hôtel des Invalides to gather arms (29,000 to 32,000 muskets, but without powder or shot), and were mainly seeking to acquire the large quantities of arms and ammunition stored at the Bastille - on the 14th there were over 13,600 kg (30,000 lb) of gunpowder stored there.

At this point, the Bastille was nearly empty of prisoners, housing only seven inmates: four forgers, two "lunatics" and one "deviant" aristocrat, the conte de Solages (the Marquis de Sade had been transferred out ten days earlier). The cost of maintaining a medieval fortress and garrison for so limited a purpose had led to a decision being taken to close it, shortly before the disturbances began. It was, however, a symbol of royal tyranny.

The regular garrison consisted of 82 "invalides" (veteran soldiers no longer suitable for service in the field). It had however been reinforced on 7 July by 32 grenadiers of the Swiss Salis-Samade Regiment from the troops on the Champ de Mars. The walls mounted eighteen eight-pound guns and twelve smaller pieces. The governor was Bernard-René de Launay, son of the previous governor and actually born within the Bastille.

The list of "vainqueurs de la Bastille" has around 600 names, and the total of the crowd was probably less than one thousand. The crowd gathered outside around mid-morning, calling for the surrender of the prison, the removal of the guns and the release of the arms and gunpowder. Two representatives of the crowd outside were invited into the fortress and negotiations began, and another was admitted around noon with definite demands. The negotiations dragged on while the crowd grew and became impatient.

Around 13:30 the crowd surged into the undefended outer courtyard, and the chains on the drawbridge to the inner courtyard were cut - crushing one unfortunate "vainqueur". About this time gunfire began, though which side actually fired first will never be conclusively decided. The crowd seemed to have felt it had been drawn into a trap and the fighting became more violent and intense, while attempts by deputies to organize a cease-fire were ignored by the attackers.

The firing continued, and at 15:00 the attackers were reinforced by mutinous "gardes françaises" and other deserters from among the regular troops, along with two cannons. A substantial force of Royal Army troops encamped on the nearby Champs de Mars did not intervene. With the possibility of a mutual massacre suddenly apparent Governor de Launay ordered a cease fire at 17:00. A letter offering his terms was handed out to the besiegers through a gap in the inner gate. His demands were refused, but de Launay nonetheless capitulated, as he realized that his troops could not hold out much longer; he opened the gates to the inner courtyard, and the "vainqueurs" swept in to liberate the fortress at 17:30.

Ninety-eight attackers and one defender had died in the actual fighting. De Launay was seized and dragged towards the Hôtel de Ville in a storm of abuse. Outside the Hôtel a discussion as to his fate began. The badly beaten de Launay shouted "Enough! Let me die!" and kicked a pastry cook named Desnot in the groin. De Launay was then stabbed repeatedly and fell, and his head was sawed off and fixed on a pike to be carried through the streets. The three officers of the permanent Bastille garrison were also killed by the crowd; surviving police reports detail their wounds and clothing. Two of the "invalides" of the garrison were lynched, but all but two of the Swiss regulars of the Salis-Samade Regiment were protected by the French Guards and eventually released to return to their regiment. Their officer, Lieutenant Louis de Flue, wrote a detailed report on the defense of the Bastille which was incorporated in the logbook of the Salis-Samade and has survived. It is (perhaps unfairly) critical of the dead Marquis de Launay, whom de Flue accuses of weak and indecisive leadership. The blame for the fall of the Bastille would rather appear to lie with the inertia of the commanders of the substantial force of Royal Army troops encamped on the Champs de Mars, who made no effort to intervene when the nearby Hôtel des Invalides or the Bastille were attacked.

Returning to the Hôtel de Ville, the mob accused the "prévôt ès marchands" (roughly, mayor) Jacques de Flesselles of treachery, and he was assassinated en route to an ostensible trial at the Palais-Royal.


The citizenry of Paris, expecting a counterattack, entrenched the streets, built barricades of paving stones, and armed themselves as well as they could, especially with improvised pikes. Meanwhile, at Versailles, the Assembly remained ignorant of most of the Paris events, but eminently aware that Marshal de Broglie stood on the brink of unleashing a pro-Royalist coup to force the Assembly to adopt the order of 23 June [ [ The Séance royale of 23 June, 1789 ] ] and then to dissolve. The viscomte de Noailles apparently first brought reasonably accurate news of the Paris events to Versailles. M. Ganilh and Bancal-des-Issarts, dispatched to the Hôtel de Ville, confirmed his report.

By the morning of 15 July the outcome appeared clear to the king as well, and he and his military commanders backed down. The Royal troops concentrated around Paris were dispersed to their frontier garrisons. The Marquis de la Fayette took up command of the National Guard at Paris; Jean-Sylvain Bailly — leader of the Third Estate and instigator of the Tennis Court Oath — became the city's mayor under a new governmental structure known as the "Commune de Paris". The king announced that he would recall Necker and return from Versailles to Paris; on 27 July, in Paris, he accepted a tricolor cockade from Bailly and entered the Hôtel de Ville, as cries of "Long live the King" were changed to "Long live the Nation".

Nonetheless, after this violence, nobles — little assured by the apparent and, as it was to prove, temporary reconciliation of king and people — started to flee the country as "émigrés". Early émigrés included the comte d'Artois (the future Charles X of France) and his two sons, the prince de Condé, the prince de Conti, the Polignac family, and (slightly later) Charles Alexandre de Calonne, the former finance minister. They settled at Turin, where Calonne, as agent for the count d'Artois and the prince de Condé, began plotting civil war within the kingdom and agitating for a European coalition against France.

Necker returned from Basel to Paris in triumph (which proved short-lived). He discovered upon his arrival that the mob had cruelly murdered Foulon and Foulon's nephew, Berthier, and that the baron de Besenval (commander under Broglie) was held prisoner. Wishing to avoid further bloodshed, he overplayed his hand by demanding and obtaining a general amnesty, voted by the assembly of electors of Paris. In demanding amnesty rather than merely a just tribunal, Necker misjudged the weight of the political forces. He overestimated the power of the "ad hoc" assembly, which almost immediately revoked the amnesty to save their own role, and perhaps their own skins, instituting a trial court at the Châtelet. Mignet counts this as the moment when the Revolution left Necker behind.

The successful insurrection at Paris spread throughout France. In accord with principles of popular sovereignty and with complete disregard for claims of royal authority, the people created a parallel structure of municipalities for civic government and militia for civic protection. In rural areas, many went beyond this: some burned title-deeds and no small number of châteaux, as the "Great Fear" spread across the countryside during the weeks July 20 to August 5, with attacks on wealthy landlords impelled by the belief that the aristocracy was trying to put down the revolution.


Historical fiction accounts of the storming of the Bastille can be found in the novels "A Tale of Two Cities", by Charles Dickens, and "Ange Pitou", by Alexandre Dumas. The event also comprises an important part in the Rose of Versailles franchise of Riyoko Ikeda.



Further reading

* "Relatation de la prise de la Bastille le 14 juillet par un de ses défenseurs"
* "1789 L'annee cruciale", E. Braesch (Paris, 1948)
* "A Tale of Two Cities", Charles Dickens.

External links

* [ Thomas Jefferson's letter to John Jay recounting the storming of the Bastille]

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