The Bastille was a fortress in Paris, built in the 14th century and used as a state prison by the kings of France since the 15th century. The Bastille became the symbol of royal oppression and injustice, and as such, it was stormed on 14 July 1789 by an angry crowd, thus becoming the spark that lit the flame of the French Revolution.
The Bastille was built as means to protect the eastern Parisian gateway of the Porte Saint-Antoine. In 1417 the fortress was declared a state prison, and by 1789 a total of 5,279 prisoners had come through the fortress. Contrary to popular opinion, however, the conditions in which the prisoners were kept were relatively benign.
The Bastille was built in response to the English threat to the city of Paris during the Hundred Years War. Initial work began in 1357, although the main body of construction occurred from 1370 onwards, creating a strong fortress with eight towers that protected the strategic gateway of the Porte Saint-Antoine on the eastern edge of Paris. The innovative design proved influential in both France and England and was widely copied. The Bastille figured prominently in France’s domestic conflicts, including the fighting between the rival factions of the Burgundians and the Armagnacs in the 15th century, and the Wars of Religion in the 16th. As early as 1417, the fortress was declared a state prison. The defences of the Bastille were strengthened in response to the English and Imperial threat during the 1550s, with a bastion being constructed to the east of the fortress. In the 17th century it played a key role in the rebellion of the Fronde and the battle of the Saint-Antoine suburb.
Louis XIV used the Bastille primarily as a prison for upper-class members of French society who had opposed or angered him. From 1659 onwards, the Bastille’s primary role was as a state penitentiary. Under Louis XV and XVI, the Bastille’s focus shifted and it was used to detain prisoners from an increasingly wide range of backgrounds, and to support the operations of the Parisian police, especially in enforcing government censorship of the printed media. Although inmates were kept in decent conditions, criticism of the Bastille grew during the 18th century, fuelled by autobiographies written by former prisoners. The reform of the prison began and prisoner numbers diminished considerably.
In 1789 political tensions in France resulted with a great explosion in the form of the storming of the Bastille. On 14 July incensed crowd attacked the prison, attempting to take hold of the gunpowder that was stored there. The remaining seven prisoners were set free and the governor of the prison was killed.
At de Launay’s request, an additional force of 32 Swiss soldiers had been assigned to the Bastille on 7 July, adding to the existing 82 members of the regular force. The governor of the prison, De Launay, had taken various precautions, raising the drawbridge in the Comté tower and destroying the stone abutment that linked the Bastille to its bastion to prevent anyone from gaining access from that side of the fortress. The shops in the entranceway to the Bastille had been closed and the gates locked. The Bastille, already hugely unpopular with the Revolutionary crowds, was now the only remaining royalist stronghold in central Paris, in addition to which he was protecting a recently arrived stock of 250 barrels of valuable gunpowder. To make matters worse, the Bastille had only a small supply of food and no source of water, so withstanding a long siege would be impossible.
On the morning of 14 July around 900 people formed outside the Bastille. They were primarily working-class members of the nearby Saint-Antoine suburb, but also some mutinous soldiers and local traders appeared as well. The crowd had gathered in an attempt to commandeer the gunpowder stocks known to be held in the Bastille, and at 10:00 am de Launay let in two of their leaders to negotiate with him. Just after midday, another negotiator was let in to discuss the situation, but no compromise could be reached: the Revolutionary representatives now wanted both the guns and the gunpowder in the Bastille to be handed over, but de Launay refused to do so unless he received authorisation from his leadership in Versailles.
Just as negotiations were about to recommence at around 13:30, chaos broke out as the impatient crowd stormed the outer courtyard leading towards the Bastille. Confused firing broke out in the confined space and chaotic fighting began in earnest. At around 15:30 more mutinous royal forces arrived to reinforce the crowd. They brought trained infantry officers and several cannons. After discovering that their weapons were too light to damage the main walls of the fortress, the Revolutionary crowd now began to fire their cannons at the wooden gate of the Bastille. By now around 83 of the crowd had been killed and another 15 mortally wounded; only one of the Invalides had been killed in return.
De Launay attempted to negotiate a surrender, threatening to blow up the Bastille if his demands were not met. In the midst of this attempt, the Bastille’s drawbridge suddenly came down and the Revolutionary crowd stormed in. De Launay was dragged outside into the streets and killed by the crowd; some of the Invalides officers were killed by the revolutionaries, who lost two of their number. However the soldiers of the Swiss Salis-Samade Regiment, wearing grey working smocks, were initially mistaken for Bastille prisoners and left unharmed by the attackers. The powder and guns were seized and a search begun for the other prisoners in the Bastille.
Within hours of its capture, the Bastille began to be used as a powerful symbol to give legitimacy to the Revolutionary movement in France. The faubourg Saint-Antoine’s revolutionary reputation was firmly established by their storming of the Bastille and a formal list began to be drawn up of the ‘vainqueurs’ who had taken part in the events in order to celebrate both the fallen and the survivors.
In the following days the fortress was searched for evidence of torture. The former prison warders escorted visitors around the Bastille in the weeks after its capture, giving colourful accounts of the events in the castle. Stories and pictures about the rescue of the fictional Count de Lorges – supposedly a mistreated prisoner of the Bastille incarcerated by Louis XV – and the similarly imaginary discovery of the skeleton of the ‘Man in the Iron Mask’ in the dungeons were widely circulated as fact across Paris.
Despite their victory, however, the revolutionaries had only discovered seven prisoners in the Bastille, rather less than had been anticipated. Of these, only one – de Whyte de Malleville, an elderly and white-bearded man – resembled the public image of a Bastille prisoner: despite being mentally ill, he was paraded through the streets, where he waved happily to the crowds. Of the remaining six rescued prisoners, four were convicted forgers and quickly vanished into central Paris, followed by the Count de Solages who had originally been imprisoned on the request of his family for sexual misdemeanours; the final prisoner, Tavernier, also proved to be mentally ill and, along with Whyte, was in due course reincarcerated in the Charenton asylum.
At first the Revolutionary movement was uncertain whether to destroy the prison, to reoccupy it as a fortress with members of the volunteer guard militia, or to preserve it intact as a permanent Revolutionary monument. The Revolutionary leader Mirabeau eventually settled the matter by symbolically starting the destruction of the battlements himself, after which a panel of five experts were appointed by the Permanent Committee of the Hôtel de Ville to manage the demolition of the castle. One of these experts was Pierre-François Palloy, a bourgeois entrepreneur who claimed vanqueuer status for his role during the taking of the Bastille, and he rapidly assumed control over the entire process. Palloy’s team worked quickly and by November most of the fortress had been destroyed.
The ruins of the Bastille rapidly became iconic across France. Palloy had an altar set up on the site in February 1790, formed out of iron chains and restraints from the prison. Old bones, probably those of 15th-century soldiers, were discovered during the clearance work in April and, presented as the skeletons of former prisoners, were exhumed and ceremonially reburied in Saint-Paul’s cemetery. A memorabilia industry surrounding the fall of the Bastille was already flourishing and as the work on the demolition project finally dried up, Palloy started producing and selling memorabilia of the Bastille. Palloy also sent models of the Bastille, carved from the fortress’s stones, as gifts to the French provinces at his own expense to spread the Revolutionary message.
As symbols go, the Bastille was indeed very powerful. It embodied royal despotism, oppression, injustice and tyrannical government. Accordingly, its storming and subsequent demolition exemplified the fight for freedom, the quest for justice, equality and national unity. Hence the storming had been celebrated annually since 1790.
Its destruction being thorough, little remains of the Bastille. The foundations of the Liberté Tower were uncovered in 1899 and moved to the corner of the Boulevard Henri IV and the Quai de Celestins. The Pont de la Concorde contains stones reused from the Bastille. The outline of the fortress is marked by stones in the street.