Posted in essay, history

History: The Bastille & Bastille Day

On July 15, France celebrated its national holiday. This day is commonly called Bastille Day outside France as it is the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, a 18th century prison in 1789. In honor of that, today I’m going to look at the Bastille, its history and why the French celebrate storming it. And if I’m listening to the band Bastille as I write, who’s going to tell?

Let’s set the scene. Medieval Paris was much smaller than it is today, even as it was still one of the most populous cities in Europe. It was based around the Seine River, and both sides of the river were walled for protection against invasion of France’s enemies. The walls had been built, torn down, and rebuilt several times over the years, but the first wall of importance to this story was the walls built by Phillip Augustus (or King Philippe II) in 1190-1215. The wall was built on both sides of the river encapsulating the city. The roads leading into Paris were greeted by towers and gates that over time went from draw bridges to fixed ones as the city grew and the country’s defensive power grew.

A century later, the city had grown. The old walls were demolished to include the new city blocks on the northern shore. There was also the issue of a possibility of English invasion. The Kingdom had been at war with England for two decades at this point, and King John II was even a prisoner in the Tower of London. Etienne Marcel, the provost of the merchants, took advantage of his King’s absence to put forth his own plans to improve the cities defenses and started rebuilding the wall in 1357. This included two fortresses to protect the eastern gates, including the Bastille. The problem was, however, he got on the bad side of the prince Regent, the future King Charles V (not to be confused with the Holy Roman Emperor who was his great etc nephew). Marcel’s story might be a tale for another day, involving murder, taxes, and treason. He was eventually assassinated, ironically by the guards on duty at the Bastille.

Charles was not against the plan entirely, and in 1370 had the walls worked on again, and finished building the fortification we know as the Bastille. The term bastille is referring to a type of urban fortification that the Bastille was built to be. It was never really named, just referred as the Bastille till that became its name as well as its technical definition. It was built to fortify and defend the Pore Saint-Antoine and if we want to be formal, we can call it the Bastille Saint-Antoine. It was one of two bastilles began by Marcel, the other at the Porte Saint-Denis. That bastille was left small and eventually was demolished and replaced by a triumphal arch by Louis XIV and remains today.

But back to the one we are here to talk about. The Bastille at Saint-Antione concerned Charles V and he instructed Hugh Aubriot, another provost, to build a larger bastille on the site. Construction begain in 1370 and lasted over a decade. Charles V did not live long enough to see the fortress finished, but his son King Charles VI did.

The building at eight towers, built at the same height as the walls so that a walkway could be created on the roof. There were four drawbridges over the moat built from the Seine, allowing travel through it by the Rue de Saint-Antoine. It was guarded by a team of a captain, a knight, eight squires and ten crossbowmen. The design was considered innovative, especially as how it allowed more room for the transportation of men and munitions throughout the building.

The Bastille did not stay out of the forefront of French politics. Throughout the next couple of centuries as France lived through several civil wars and skirmishes the Bastille acted as stronghold for one side or the other. When not being used as a stronghold, it also became a Medieval hotel for visiting dignitaries.

In the 1420s, it was captured and run by the English under the regency of Henry V. They began to use it as a prison while they had control for 16 years. Under the rule of Louis XI, (who we will meet again when we talk about Mary of Burgundy) it became a prison once more. It was mostly  a prison for noble prisoners, with short terms. An interesting story from this era is the case of Antoine de Chabannes. He served four kings of France but was not always on their best side. He angered Louis XI and was first sentenced to death but then the King decided to imprison him in the Bastille. Chabannes managed to escape after a few years and joined a rebellion against the King and negotiated his way back into all his properties that the King had taken away and in a prominent position in Louis XI court.

The Bastille still held functions as a royal castle, being accommodations for visiting dignitaries, and hosting functions of the Kings. Over time, parts of the lands around the fortress were made into shops and garden walks for the neighborhoods around it to use. The area around the Bastille was also developed over the years into a military center, with several armories located in the general area.

During the late 16th century, adjustments were made to the Bastille to close the gates other then the southern entrance and give it stronger defenses. A bastion was built in the waterway to allow for more firepower, but eventually it was turned into gardens for the prisoners by 18th century where much of the modern sense of the Bastille came into being.

Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister of Louis XIII, was the one who started the slow transformation to the form the Bastille had when it was invaded. He began to use it primarily as a state prison, reducing its use as a function hall and hotel. He also started a formalizing of the staff, increasing their numbers and keeping detailed records. The captain position was no longer an honorary position, but one of effort. The role was renamed Governor, sometimes referred to still as the Captain or Captain-Governor.

Over the years, due to continuing political strife in France, the control of the Bastille switched hands back and forth, with the rebellions taking control of it till the Royal government and its supporters took it back.

Then the reign of Louis XIV came. Louis XIV is probably the most recognizable of the French Kings other then his great-great grandson Louis XVI He reigned for 72 years, the longest reign in Europe. It was during his reign that the Bastille began to resemble the building popular culture has made memorable.

It was during his reign and that of his grandson Louis XV that some of the more famous prisoners of the Bastille had their tenure. Voltaire, a well-known French philosopher and writer, spent some time in the Bastille after he had suggested that Louis’ brother Phillipe D’Orelans (regent for Louis XV) had improper relations. Which seems on par with Voltaire, I’m pretty sure there was no form of authority he didn’t feel like attacking/insulting. Another famous member of the Bastille’s incarcerated was the Marquis de Sade for his libertine writings involving sex and BDSM.

There is however one prisoner that seems to have taken the imagination of many a writer. The Man in the Iron Mask was a real prisoner of the Bastille, where he died in 1732. He was a prisoner for 34 years in various prisons, kept by the same jailer and traveling with him when he was assigned to new prisons. No one knew his name or his crime. The myth was more powerful than the truth of the man himself.

Voltaire, although he was not there at the same time, wrote about what he had heard about the prisoner. It was as much truth as fiction. Alexander Damas made a fictional version of the prisoner, calling him Phillipe, the twin brother of Louis XIV. Considering that Louis XIV already had a brother named Philippe (The Duke of Orleans that I mentioned would be Louis XV’s regent) this seems a bit of a stretch. But it caught the imagination of centuries of people, with books, films, plays and tv shows all showing their own version. The 1998 film The Man in the Iron Mask takes a happier story from the Damas original and my favorite rendition of this tale. Despite the mostly fictional portrayals of the person in question, there is actual historical documentation on the prisoner.

Here’s an opening clip from the 1998 film:

Louis XIV used the Bastille quite frequently, with at least 43 prisoners a year. He took down the walls outside the city to allow for expansion and added grand walkways for the Bastille to look down onto.

In 1789, the prison looked similar to that of Louis XIV era, but it was much emptier. Only seven prisoners lived at the prison, and several were on their way to being sent to prisons for the mentally ill. Paris was tense, on the brink of revolution. The Bastille had been on the verge of being turn down for years, as the cost of keeping it was too high in the government’s eye.

At the time, Louis XVI, the grandson of Louis XV, who was in turn the grandson of Louis XIV, was King of France. He was perhaps the most republican of the Kings of the era and worked towards having a better life for the general population of the country. However, the nobles were not quite so happy with this, and this Louis didn’t have the sense of Command that his great-great Grandfather had. The country, thanks to his grandfather, was in debt.

Louis called for the Estates General to meet and discuss measures to fix this issue, but that only made tensions worse. The First Estate (King Louis) and the Third Estate arrived as planned, but the second estate – the nobles – forced traditional classist ceremonies that infuriated the Third Estate –the common citizens of France. They decided to create their own assembly in June 1789, something Louis wasn’t too keen on but had to accept. The National Assembly was the first break-down of Traditional France.

Over the next month things got worse as Louis followed the advice of his counsel and started to dismiss those more favorable to the general population. He brought troops into the city to guard key monarchist buildings and caused concern that it might arrest the assembly. Tensions rose with each day.

On July 14, this brought the rebellion to the Bastille, which stood as a symbol of the Monarchy and its absolutism. It was also where a supply of weapons and ammunition were stored. As I mentioned before only seven inmates remained. The Marquis de Sade, one of its more famous inmates, had been transferred just days before. Republicans sought the guns and ammunition and when the Governor wouldn’t give into their demand, they stormed the gate and took over the prison. The skirmish that resulted from this ended with the death of 106 people. The Governor of the Bastille, Bernard-Rene Launay (who was born in the Bastille ironically) was “executed” by the rebellion.

Some historians see the storming of the Bastille as the start of the French Revolution, while others debate that’s it’s the founding of the National Assembly. Either way the Bastille never returned to royal ownership. The National Assembly then had to decide on what to do with it. They could keep it as a symbol of the revolution or demolish it. The choice was made to demolish it. Bits and pieces were taken, not unlike the Berlin Wall, as tokens of the event. George Washington was even gifted the key to the Bastille by Lafayette. Other bits were used in building other construction. One tower remains on display in a different area of Paris.

On the grounds of the Bastille’s former location an outline of the building remains. They built the Place de la Bastille on the grounds as early as 1792. In 1833 a monument to the second French Revolution known as the July Tower. It now a center of culture, transportation, and community.

A year after the storming of Bastille is often considered the first day of the Republic, and that is what the 14th of July is celebrating. The fact that it is on the same date has English-speaking countries calling it Bastille Day. The image of the Bastille remains large in history as well as pop culture.


Crime Reads Excerpt: The Man in the Iron Mask: The True Story of Europe’s Most Famous Prisoner by Josephine Wilkinson

Fabric of Paris: The Walls of Paris

Britannica: The Bastille

French Diplomatic Website

Elysee (In French)

and the obligatory Wiki:

The Bastille


A thirty-something Graphic Designer and writer who likes to blog about books, movies and History.

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