Today, July 14th, is a national holiday in France, when citizens of the republic celebrate Bastille Day.
It commemorates the day in 1789 – 227 years ago – when Parisian revolutionaries and mutinous troops stormed the Bastille, a despised fortress-prison which had come to symbolise the power and tyranny of the Bourbon monarchs.
Unrest had been brewing for some time, but it was the storming of the Bastille which more than any other event signalled the beginning of the French Revolution. Over the next turbulent decade the monarchy was overthrown and tens of thousands of privileged aristocrats and monarchists, including King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette, were executed, most meeting their fate on "Madame Guillotine".
The Bastille had been built in 1370 as a 'bastide' (fortification) to protect the walled city of Paris from attack by the English. Over the centuries that followed it was extended and reinforced, its name corrupted to Bastille. As well as an armoury and military base, it was increasingly used as a state prison, mostly for upper-class felons and political troublemakers, in fact anyone considered an enemy of the king.
Most were imprisoned without trial on the direct orders of the king or his inner circle, and many who went in would never come out alive. A hundred feet tall and surrounded by a moat that was 80 feet wide, it was an imposing structure.
By the summer of 1789 widespread unrest in France's major cities was quickly turning to revolution, fuelled by food shortages and a seething resentment towards the ruling aristocratic classes. In June a new 'National Assembly' representing the common people was declared and called for the drafting of a constitution. Initially King Louis seemed to recognise the Assembly, but then surrounded Paris with troops and dismissed Jacques Necker, a popular pro-reform Minister.
It led to rioting in the streets, the mobs urged on by leading revolutionaries. A company of Swiss mercenaries was moved to the Bastille to reinforce its token garrison and 250 barrels of gunpowder were moved there from the Paris Arsenal, which was considered vulnerable to attack. Sure enough, on July 13th revolutionary mobs stormed the Arsenal and seized thousands of muskets.
At dawn on July 14th a huge crowd armed with muskets, swords and all manner of makeshift weapons surrounded the Bastille. Its commander, Bernard-René Jordan de Launay, received a delegation of revolutionary leaders but refused their request to surrender the fortress and his munitions. When a second delegation made the same request Launay again refused, but promised his men would not fire on the crowd. To convince the revolutionaries he showed them that his cannon were not loaded.
He had hoped to calm the situation, but news of the unloaded cannon had the opposite effect, prompting a group of men to clamber over an outer wall and lower a drawbridge, allowing 300 revolutionaries to rush in and occupy a courtyard just outside the main fortress. As the crowd attempted to lower a second drawbridge, the Bastille's defenders opened fire, killing or wounding around a hundred rioters.
The decisive moment came mid-afternoon when a company of French army deserters arrived to reinforce the rioters, bringing five cannon with them and getting them into the courtyard. Seeing this, Launay and his men raised a white flag of surrender, giving up the Bastille, its gunpowder and cannon and its seven prisoners. Efforts were made to take Launay away to be formally arrested by a revolutionary council, but he was seized by the mob and murdered.
The fall of the Bastille was the pebble that sent out ripples of revolution across France with unstoppable momentum. Four-fifths of the French army joined the revolutionaries, forcing the monarchists to concede and accept a constitutional government. In 1792 the monarchy was abolished and the following year King Louis and Marie-Antoinette were sent to the guillotine.
As for the Bastille, it was torn down on the orders of the revolutionary government, the last symbolic stone presented to the National Assembly in 1790.