The Storming of the Bastille occurred in Paris, France, on the afternoon of July 14, 1789.
The medieval armory, fortress, and political prison known as the Bastille represented royal authority in the centre of Paris. The prison contained only seven inmates at the time of its storming but was seen by the revolutionaries as a symbol of the monarchy’s abuse of power; its fall was the flashpoint of the French Revolution.
During the reign of Louis XVI of France and Navarre, France faced a major economic crisis. This crisis was caused in part by the cost of intervening in the American Revolution and exacerbated by a regressive system of taxation. On May 5, 1789, the Estates General of 1789 convened to deal with this issue, but were held back by archaic protocols and the conservatism of the second estate: representing the nobility who made up less than 2% of France’s population.
On June 17, 1789, the third estate, with its representatives drawn from the commoners, reconstituted themselves as the National Assembly, a body whose purpose was the creation of a French constitution. The king initially opposed this development, but was forced to acknowledge the authority of the assembly, which renamed itself the National Constituent Assembly on July 9.
On July 11, 1789, Louis XVI—acting under the influence of the conservative nobles of his privy council—dismissed and banished his finance minister, Jacques Necker (who had been sympathetic to the Third Estate) and completely reconstructed the ministry.
Jacques Necker, finance minister
News of Necker’s dismissal reached Paris on the afternoon of Sunday, July 12. The Parisians generally presumed that the dismissal marked the start of a coup by conservative elements. Liberal Parisians were further enraged by the fear that a concentration of Royal troops—brought in from frontier garrisons to Versailles, Sèvres, the Champ de Mars, and Saint-Denis—would attempt to shut down the National Constituent Assembly, which was meeting in Versailles. Crowds gathered throughout Paris, including more than ten thousand at the Palais-Royal.
During the public demonstrations that started on July 12, the multitude displayed busts of Necker and of Louis Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, then marched from the Palais Royal through the theater district before continuing westward along the boulevards. The Royal commander, Baron de Besenval, fearing the results of a blood bath amongst the poorly armed crowds or defections among his own men, then withdrew the cavalry towards Sèvres.
Meanwhile, unrest was growing among the people of Paris who expressed their hostility against state authorities by attacking customs posts blamed for causing increased food and wine prices. The people of Paris started to plunder any place where food, guns and supplies could be hoarded. That night, rumors spread that supplies were being hoarded at Saint-Lazare, a huge property of the clergy, which functioned as convent, hospital, school and even as a jail.
An angry mob broke in and plundered the property, seizing 52 wagons of wheat, which were taken to the public market. That same day multitudes of people plundered many other places including weapon arsenals. The Royal troops did nothing to stop the spreading of social chaos in Paris during those days.
The regiment of Gardes Françaises (English: French Guards) formed the permanent garrison of Paris and, with many local ties, was favourably disposed towards the popular cause. This regiment had remained confined to its barracks during the initial stages of the mid-July disturbances. With Paris becoming the scene of a general riot, Charles Eugene, Prince of Lambesc (Marshal of the Camp, Proprietor of the Royal Allemand-Dragoons), not trusting the regiment to obey his order, posted sixty dragoons to station themselves before its dépôt in the Chaussée d’Antin.
The future “Citizen King”, Louis-Philippe III, duc d’Orléans, witnessed these events as a young officer and was of the opinion that the soldiers would have obeyed orders if put to the test. He also commented in retrospect that the officers of the French Guards had neglected their responsibilities in the period before the uprising, leaving the regiment too much to the control of its non-commissioned officers.
Louis-Philippe, duc d’Orléans (1793) future King of the French.
On the morning of July 14, 1789, the city of Paris was in a state of alarm. The partisans of the Third Estate in France, now under the control of the Bourgeois Militia of Paris (soon to become Revolutionary France’s National Guard), had earlier stormed the Hôtel des Invalides without meeting significant opposition.
At this point, the Bastille was nearly empty, housing only seven prisoners: four forgers; James F.X. Whyte, a “lunatic” imprisoned at the request of his family; Auguste-Claude Tavernier, who had tried to assassinate Louis XV thirty years before; and one “deviant” aristocrat, the Comte de Solages, imprisoned by his father using a lettre de cachet (while the Marquis de Sade had been transferred out ten days earlier).
The high cost of maintaining a garrisoned medieval fortress, for what was seen as having a limited purpose, had led to a decision being made shortly before the disturbances began to replace it with an open public space. Amid the tensions of July 1789, the building remained as a symbol of royal tyranny.
The crowd gathered outside around mid-morning, calling for the surrender of the prison, the removal of the cannon and the release of the arms and gunpowder. Two representatives of the crowd outside were invited into the fortress and negotiations began, and another was admitted around noon with definite demands.
The negotiations dragged on while the crowd grew and became impatient. Around 1:30 pm, the crowd surged into the undefended outer courtyard. A small party climbed onto the roof of a building next to the gate to the inner courtyard and broke the chains on the drawbridge, crushing one vainqueur as it fell.
Soldiers of the garrison called to the people to withdraw, but in the noise and confusion these shouts were misinterpreted as encouragement to enter. Gunfire began, apparently spontaneously, turning the crowd into a mob. The crowd seems to have felt that they had been intentionally drawn into a trap and the fighting became more violent and intense, while attempts by deputies to organise a cease-fire were ignored by the attackers.
The firing continued, and after 3:00 pm, the attackers were reinforced by mutinous gardes françaises, along with two cannons. A substantial force of Royal Army troops encamped on the Champ de Mars did not intervene. With the possibility of mutual carnage suddenly apparent, Governor de Launay ordered a cease-fire at 5:00 pm.
A letter offering his terms was handed out to the besiegers through a gap in the inner gate. His demands were refused, but Launay nonetheless capitulated, as he realised that with limited food stocks and no water supply his troops could not hold out much longer. He accordingly opened the gates to the inner courtyard, and the vainqueurs swept in to liberate the fortress at 5:30 pm.
Ninety-eight attackers and one defender had died in the actual fighting, a disparity accounted for by the protection provided to the garrison by the fortress walls. Luanay was seized and dragged towards the Hôtel de Ville in a storm of abuse. Outside the Hôtel, a discussion as to his fate began. The badly beaten Launay shouted “Enough! Let me die!” and kicked a pastry cook named Dulait in the groin. Launay was then stabbed repeatedly and died.
An English traveller, Doctor Edward Rigby, reported what he saw, “[We] perceived two bloody heads raised on pikes, which were said to be the heads of the Marquis de Launay, Governor of the Bastille, and of Monsieur Flesselles, Prévôt des Marchands. It was a chilling and a horrid sight! … Shocked and disgusted at this scene, [we] retired immediately from the streets.”
The three officers of the permanent Bastille garrison were also killed by the crowd; surviving police reports detail their wounds and clothing.
Returning to the Hôtel de Ville, the mob accused the prévôt dès marchands (roughly, mayor) Jacques de Flesselles of treachery, and he was assassinated on the way to an ostensible trial at the Palais-Royal.
Louis XVI, King of France and Navarre
King Louis XVI first learned of the storming only the next morning through the Duke of La Rochefoucauld. “Is it a revolt?” asked Louis XVI. The duke replied: “No sire, it’s not a revolt; it’s a revolution.”
At Versailles, the Assembly remained ignorant of most of the Paris events, but eminently aware that the Marshal de Broglie stood on the brink of unleashing a pro-Royalist coup to force the Assembly to adopt the order of June 23, and then to dissolve. Noailles apparently was first to bring reasonably accurate news of the Paris events to Versailles. M. Ganilh and Bancal-des-Issarts, dispatched to the Hôtel de Ville, confirmed his report.
By the morning of 15 July, the outcome appeared clear to the king as well, and he and his military commanders backed down. The twenty three regiments of Royal troops concentrated around Paris dispersed to their frontier garrisons.
Nonetheless, after this violence, nobles – little assured by the apparent and, as it was to prove, temporary reconciliation of king and people – started to flee the country as émigrés. Among the first to leave were the comte d’Artois (the future Charles X of France) and his two sons, the prince de Condé, the prince de Conti, the Polignac family, and (slightly later) Charles Alexandre de Calonne, the former finance minister. They settled at Turin, where Calonne, as agent for the count d’Artois and the prince de Condé, began plotting civil war within the kingdom and agitating for a European coalition against France.