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.

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