The Storming of The Bastille

By Sue Whiteman

Bastille Day is a national holiday celebrated each year on 14th July and it is the most important major public holiday in France. Many large scale public events are held with big military parades, parties and fireworks. It’s a day of celebrating French culture for some, but for most, it still marks the anniversary of the storming of a grand fortress.  The Bastille, a fortress – prison was infamous for holding political prisoners jailed by the royal government of Louis XV1. It was the symbol of royal authority in Paris and represented the abuse of power by the monarchy’s dictatorial rule and hated by all.

On 14th July 1789, an armed and angry mob of Parisians stormed the Bastille and seized control of the building.  The group hoped to find ammunitions stored there, but instead found the building almost empty only housing seven prisoners including a “lunatic” imprisoned at the request of his family and a gentleman called Auguste-Claude Tavernier, who had tried to assassinate Louis XV1 thirty years before.  The Bastille was defended by injured soldiers who could no longer fight in the field; they were attacked by the mob and killed along with the prison commander.  In the aftermath, the prison-fortress was taken apart bit by bit until almost nothing remained of it.

The French Revolution started in 1789 with the Storming of the Bastille.  This led to a series of events coming together to create a perfect storm, groups of revolutionaries battled each other for power and the people revolted against the arbitrary power of the king.

Before the revolution, France was a monarchy ruled by the king; he had total power over the government and the people. The people were divided into three social classes called “estates”.  The First Estate was the clergy, the Second Estate was the nobles and the Third Estate was the commoners.  Most of France belonged to the Third Estate and they had to pay the majority of the taxes, this angered the common people.  The clergy and nobles who held all the powerful positions in the government and church were largely exempt from paying many of the taxes and there was little chance for people to move from one estate to the other.

France was experiencing a famine at the time. The common people mostly ate bread to survive, they were hungry and starving as the cost of bread continued to rise.

In 1789, the French government was in a major financial crisis.  They had borrowed heavily to help the Americans fight against Great Britain in the Revolutionary War and also in the Seven Years War.  The king had borrowed heavily to maintain his extravagant lifestyle and with such great debt, he had no option but to try and raise taxes.  For many years the people of France had blindly followed the king and accepted their place in life. In the 1700’s, the French culture started to change.  It was an era of “Enlightenment” presenting new ideas such as “equality” and “liberty”.

The French involvement with the American Revolution represented a new type of government where the people ruled rather than a king.  Before the Storming of the Bastille, King Louis XV1 had been losing power within the French Government.  He was a weak king and didn’t realise how bad the situation was for the commoners in France, not only was he in conflict with the commoners, but also with the nobles who couldn’t agree on any changes made.  The king became angry and worried; he no longer trusted his own French troops.  Arrangements were made to bring his Swiss guards from France’s borders to the outskirts of Paris to protect him.

After the Storming of the Bastille, Louis XV1 became a prisoner from October 1789 onward and was sent to the guillotine a few years later (1793).  His wife Marie Antoinette followed the same fate and was beheaded shortly after the king’s execution.

The French Revolution was the end of the monarchy and the revolution ended when a military commander called Napoleon Bonaparte took power in November 1799.  Napoleon Bonaparte was a military genius who had rapidly risen through the ranks during the French Revolution (1789 – 1799).