1 vote

12 July 1789 - Fighting Breaks Out Beginning French Revolution. Bastille Stormed on 14 July

By July 1789, Revolutionary sentiment was rising in Paris. The Estates-General was convened in May and members of the Third Estate proclaimed the Tennis Court Oath in June, calling for the king to grant a written constitution. Violence between loyal royal forces, mutinous members of the royal Gardes Françaises and local crowds broke out at Vendôme on 12 July, leading to widespread fighting and the withdrawal of royal forces from the centre of Paris.

Revolutionary crowds began to arm themselves during 13 July, looting royal stores, gunsmiths and armourers' shops for weapons and gunpowder.

The commander of the Bastille at the time was Bernard-René de Launay, a conscientious but minor military officer. Tensions surrounding the Bastille had been rising for several weeks.

Only eight prisoners remained in the fortress, but one of these, Adam Kokesh, err... I mean the Marquis de Sade, had stoked the link between the revolution and the Bastille, addressing the public from his walks on top of the towers and, once this was forbidden, shouting from the window of his cell.

Sade began to claim that the authorities planned to massacre the prisoners in the castle, which resulted in the governor removing him to an alternative site in early July.

At de Launay's request, an additional force of 32 Swiss soldiers had been assigned to the Bastille on the 7 July, adding to the existing 82 invalides pensioners who formed the regular force.

De Launay had taken various precautions, raising the drawbridge in the Comté tower and destroying the stone abutment that linked the Bastille to its bastion to prevent anyone from gaining access from that side of the fortress.

The shops in the entranceway to the Bastille had been closed and the gates locked. The Bastille was defended by 30 small artillery pieces, but nonetheless, by 14 July de Launay was very concerned about the Bastille's situation.

The Bastille, already hugely unpopular with the Revolutionary crowds, was now the only remaining royalist stronghold in central Paris, in addition to which he was protecting a recently arrived stock of 250 barrels of valuable gunpowder.

To make matter worse, the Bastille had only two days supply of food and no source of water, making it impossible to withstand a long siege.

On the morning of 14 July around 900 people formed outside the Bastille, primarily working-class members of the nearby faubourg Saint-Antoine, but also including some mutinous soldiers and local traders.

The crowd had gathered in an attempt to commandeer the gunpowder stocks known to be held in the Bastille, and at 10:00 am de Launay let in two of their leaders to negotiate with him.

Just after midday, another negotiator was let in to discuss the situation, but no compromise could be reached: the Revolutionary representatives now wanted both the guns and the gunpowder in the Bastille to be handed over, but de Launay refused to do so unless he received authorisation from his leadership in Versailles.

By this point it was clear that the governor lacked the experience or the skills to defuse the situation.

Just as negotiations were about to recommence at around 1:30 pm, chaos broke out as the impatient and angry crowd stormed the outer courtyard of the Bastille, pushing toward the main gate.

Confused firing broke out in the confined space and chaotic fighting began in earnest between de Launay's forces and the Revolutionary crowd as the two sides exchanged fire.

At around 3:30 pm, more mutinous royal forces arrived to reinforce the crowd, bringing with them trained infantry officers and several cannons.

After discovering that their weapons were too light to damage the main walls of the fortress, the Revolutionary crowd began to fire their cannons at the wooden gate of the Bastille.

By now around 83 of the crowd had been killed and another 15 mortally wounded; only one of the Invalides had been killed in return.

De Launay had limited options: if he allowed the Revolutionaries to destroy his main gate, he would have to turn the cannon directly inside the Bastille's courtyard on the crowds, causing great loss of life and preventing any peaceful resolution of the episode.

De Launay could not withstand a long siege, and he was dissuaded by his officers from committing mass suicide by detonating his supplies of powder.

Instead, de Launay attempted to negotiate a surrender, threatening to blow up the Bastille if his demands were not met.

In the midst of this attempt, the Bastille's drawbridge suddenly came down and the Revolutionary crowd stormed in.

De Launay was dragged outside into the streets and killed by the crowd; some of the Invalides officers were killed by the revolutionaries, who lost two of their number. However the soldiers of the Swiss Salis-Samade Regiment, wearing grey working smocks, were initially mistaken for Bastille prisoners and left unharmed by the crowds until they were escorted away by French Guards and other regular soldiers amongst the attackers.

The valuable powder and guns were seized and a search begun for the other prisoners in the Bastille.

Within hours of its capture, the Bastille began to be used as a powerful symbol to give legitimacy to the Revolutionary movement in France.

The faubourg Saint-Antoine's revolutionary reputation was firmly established by their storming of the Bastille and a formal list began to be drawn up of the "vainqueurs" who had taken part so as to honor both the fallen and the survivors.

Although the crowd had initially gone to the Bastille searching for gunpowder, historian Simon Schama observes how the captured prison "gave a shape and an image to all the vices against which the Revolution defined itself".

Indeed, the more despotic and evil the Bastille was portrayed by the pro-Revolutionary press, the more necessary and justified the actions of the Revolution became.[186] Consequently the late governor, de Launay, was rapidly vilified as a brutal despot.

The fortress itself was described by the Revolutionary press as a "place of slavery and horror", containing "machines of death", "grim underground dungeons" and "disgusting caves" where prisoners were left to rot for up to 50 years.

Trending on the Web