July 14th is Bastille Day in France, and the most famous French national holiday. It celebrates the storming of the Bastille—a military fortress and prison in Paris — on July 14, 1789, in a violent uprising that people generally consider to be the flashpoint which heralded the start of the French Revolution. At the time, the Bastille symbolized everything that was wrong with the way France was governed and what the peasants and ordinary people considered to be the tyranny of the French monarchy, especially King Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette, and the wealthy, uncaring aristocracy.
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 had been used to hold political dissidents and troublemakers, many of whom were locked away without a trial by order of the king or often by means of the infamous lettres de cachet.
During the summer of 1789 the festering unrest that had been growing among the starving and impoverished common people of France, and especially in Paris, started to seriously deteriorate at the start of July. On the 11th and 12th, Parisians began demonstrating against the authorities by attacking customs posts blamed for causing increased food and wine prices. Then they started to riot and plunder anywhere food, guns, and supplies might be hoarded. By the morning of 14 July 1789, the city of Paris was in a state of alarm. By the evening the Bastille had been stormed and overrun. The few prisoners found inside were freed and the unfortunate Governor carried off and beheaded by the mob.
King Louis first learned of the storming only the next morning. “Is it a revolt?” he enquired. The response: “No Sire, it’s not a revolt; it’s a revolution.” And of course, we all know what happened after that to Louis and Marie Antoinette and the aristocracy.
Just a final anecdote… did you know… in 1790 the wrought-iron, one-pound three-ounce key to the Bastille was given to new U.S. President, George Washington. Washington displayed it prominently at government facilities and events in New York and in Philadelphia until shortly before his retirement in 1797. The key remains on display at Washington’s residence in Mount Vernon.
Below is the Place de la Bastille as it is in Paris today. Nothing remains of the former fortress other than the colonnade which commemorates it and some patterns in the paving stones of the surrounding square… all that is left of the key event which heralded the infamous, bloody revolution.