Storming the Prison: Bastille

The storming of the Bastille is the beginning of the French Revolution. No longer are the angry peasants defying local lords, but are now striking at the symbolic heart of the monarchy. The Bastille, a hated emblem of control and domination, becomes the war cry for hundreds of thousands of scorned and maltreated people.

Taken from the French word ‘bastide’, meaning fortress, the Bastille is constructed to defend the eastern wall of Paris from hostile forces in 1382. With walls over eighty feet high and well-stocked and supplied arsenal, the Bastille quickly gathers the reputation as a secure military strongpoint.

Under Cardinal Richelieu, acting under King Louis XIII, prisoners are arrested by a secret warrant called a lettres-de-cachet. Not allowed a trail tells what their offence is, or what their punishment is to be. These enemies of the King are quickly taken away and imprisoned in one of the many high towers of the Bastille.

Famous prisoners include Voltaire and Marquis de Sade, well-known French writers.

When prisoners are released from the walls of the Bastille, they are allowed to go only if they agree never to tell what they had seen or what had happened inside the feared prison. This lack of knowledge about the Bastille helps to create a mystique of horror and terror that the King could use to coerce the people.

In 1789, when people break through the walls and storm the Bastille they find only seven prisoners inside: four forgers, two lunatics, and a young noble. However, it was not to free the prisoners inside that the battle is fought. Instead, it is to bring down the single most important symbol of the King’s power.

The Governor of the Bastille, De Launay, has his head cut off and paraded around the streets of Paris on a pike.

Since 1880, July 14th, Bastille Day has been celebrated to commemorate the storming of the Bastille and the end of the French monarchy.


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