The Prison of the Bastille
The Prison of the Bastille

The Bastille: The Start of the French Revolution


The Storming of the Bastille, July 14th 1789, was one of the first acts of the French Revolution. It also marked the first violent action of this Revolution, the first of very, very many. Since 1789, Bastille Day has become a French national holiday, celebrated on the same day as the Storming of the Bastille. This holiday is to the French as the Fourth of July is to Americans, a celebration of national independence.

The Bastille was built by King Charles V in 1370. The Bastille was massive, eight round towers, with walls over one hundred feet high. The massive fortress was built to regulate entry into Paris but at the time of its capture it was being used as a prison and storehouse for weapons. Inside the Bastille on July 14th 1789, there were only "seven prisoners, four forders, one noble and two lunatics" (Paglia 1).


I. The Buildup: France immediately before the Storming of the Bastille
II. The Climax: The Storming of the Bastille
III. The Aftermath: Effects of the Storming of the Bastille
IV. The Future: The Importance of the Bastille in Modern France
V. Bibliography

I. The Buildup

While discontent towards the French monarchy had been brewing for many years, the events which led to the storming of the Bastille, began on June 20, 1789 when members of the Third Estate of the newly formed National Assembly took the Tennis Court Oath (Hightower 1). The terms of the oath stated that they would continue to assemble until a constitution was created for the country. This was not just a symbolic gesture of defiance, it was backed by public opinion and signaled the beginning of the open political revolution in France. However, this was also a period of widespread fear and rumors, as nobody knew how forcefully the monarchy would react to this direct challenge of its power. In this climate, violence between the forces of King Louis XVI and the revolutionaries was virtually inevitable. Sure enough, early in the afternoon of July 14th, 1789 thousands of Parisians marched on the Bastille, located in the working class neighborhood of St. Antoine in eastern Paris in response to rumors about an impending attack by the army (The Storming, 1). Not only was the Bastille seen as a symbol of oppression by the monarchy, it was also rumored to contain the ammunition and gunpowder that the revolutionaries needed for a fight with the well trained French troops (The Storming 1) . There was also another building in which the Parisians hoped to gain munitions. The Arsenal, an old building that both manufactured and stored large amounts of black powder, was seized upon and captured on the 13th of July. The rebel's hopes were dashed, however, when the vast majority of the powder had been transfered to the Bastille to safeguard it. "So it was not until late in the morning of the fourteenth that the cry is born, first at the Arsenal and then all over Paris, that becomes the cry of the day: "A la Bastille! A la Bastille!"" (Manceron 505).


II. The Climax

The fortress of the Bastille was constructed to fend off all but the most hardy sieges. There were a series of defenses to pass before the inner keep and the powder magazines and stores. The commander, the Marquis de Launay, posted his men only in the innermost courtyards and keep. The crowd would not be able to enter the magazines, "...the inner courtyards...can be reached only after crossing two drawbridges, which he had drawn up that morning" (Manceron 506).

At half past three, the mob reached the fortress. The garrison of the fortress was relatively unprepared to defend against a mob of this magnitude. Though the Bastille had been repaired and reinforced in previous days in preparation for a possible attack and 32 Swiss soldiers had recently arrived to bolster the French forces inside, they were still unready to defend against the masses of Parisians gathered outside. A rumor began to circulate among the revolutionaries about a cannon being moved so it would be able to fire down the streets of St. Antoine. This infuriated the Parisians who demanded the cannon be redirected and that they be allowed ammunition for their rifles.

The Parisians had gained access to the outer courtyards and passed the first drawbridge by bypassing the main defenses and entering through the governor's house. The large mob had now fulfilled a goal, and now were determined to complete their mission to gain arms from the Bastille.In an attempt to defuse the situation, Marquis de Launay, allowed a delegation of the revolutionaries to enter the inner courtyards of the Bastille to negotiate. However, the mob outside grew restless and stormed into the undefended outer courtyard, seizing powder and ammunition from the armory.


III. The Aftermath

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789), was written about two months after the actual Storming, and adopted by the National Assembly August 26, 1789. This document ushered in a new French republic, protecting peoples' rights. For example, the 7th clause of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen secures people from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment. "7. No person shall be accused, arrested, or imprisoned except in the cases and according to the forms prescribed by law. Any one soliciting, transmitting, executing, or causing to be executed, any arbitrary order, shall be punished. But any citizen summoned or arrested in virtue of the law shall submit without delay, as resistance constitutes an offense." The Storming of the Bastille influenced those who wrote the Declaration. It was a truly pivotal event in the French Revolution.

The implications of the storming were heard all over Europe. It was a sign that the French were determined in their path of Revolution and would not desist. "On the sixteenth the Duke of Dorset, ambassador from Great Britain, writes to his government, "Thus...the greatest Revolution that we knbow anything of has been effected....From this moment we may consider France as a free country, the King a very limited monarch and the nobility as reduced to a level with the rest of the nation"" (Manceron 508).


IV. The Future

A Bastille Day Parade
A Bastille Day Parade

On July 6, 1880, upon Benjamin Raspail’s recommendation, Bastille Day was proclaimed a national holiday. From then on Bastille Day has been a day of celebration of France’s independence. Every commune or locality in France holds its own celebration, starting with a torchlight parade on the evening of the 13th. On Bastille Day the celebration continues, as there is a giant parade of the French military, with jets flying over head, and an assortment of bands. The day ends with a brilliant display of fireworks. It is not only celebrated in France, but around the world. One of the largest Bastille Day celebrations is held in New York.

On previous Bastille Days the French President has pardoned prisoners and given a speech about what he/she wanted to accomplish in the upcoming year. This past Bastille Day, July 14th 2007, however, the French President Nicolas Sarkozy did not follow this custom.

The French take great pride in their Independence Day, the celebrating of which started in 1880. Holdover symbols from the French Revolution continue to be important for the people of France as they move forward into the 20th and 21st centuries. "Except for the period between 1815 and 1830, the tricolour flag has represented France since the Revolution; it marries blue and red, the colours of the city of Paris, with the royal colour of white. Bastille Day, 14 July, was officially proclaimed the national holiday in 1880 and the motto "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" was restored in 1848" (Paglia). The celebrating of what was a violent action has now taken on an air of freedom from oppression, and even though Bastille Day was originally bathed in blood, it is now a symbol of a progression and liberty.


V. Bibliography

"14th of July: the Bastille Day." (2005). <>.

Bernier, Olivier. The World in 1800. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 2000.

"Bastille Day." Embassy of France in the US. 6 Dec. 2007. French Embassy of the US. 6 Dec. 2007 <>.

"July 14th - a National Holiday in France." Hightower Trail Historical Society. 1 Mar. 2006. 5 Dec. 2007 <>.

Manceron, Claude. Blood of the Bastille 1787 - 1789. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.

McNeese, Tim. Political Revolutions of the 18th, 19th, and 20th Centuries. USA: Chelsea House, 2005.

Paglia, Camille. "148 Words on Bastille Day." Esquire 126 (1996). Academic Search Premier. <>.

"The Storming of the Bastille." BBC Online. The BBC. 6 Dec. 2007 <>.

"The Storming of the Bastille." ESSORTMENT. 2002. 5 Dec. 2007 <>.

"Storming of The Bastille." Revolution. ThinkQuest.Org. 6 Dec. 2007 <>.