Sunday 14 July 2013

The Storming of the Bastille

The Bastille. The very name is legendary, though the medieval fortress that once glowered over the streets of Paris is long gone, this all-too solid symbol of monarchical rule dismantled brick by brick by the very citizens who had once lived beneath the long shadow of its walls.

Painting of the Bastille
The Bastille in 1715

On 14th July 1789, the streets of the city burned with fear and rumour, fuelled by hunger, poverty and anger. Already at breaking point, the simmering fury of the populace finally exploded with the dismissal by Louis XVI of the hugely popular Finance Minister, Jaques Necker. Fearing that this was the first move in a strategy that would result in the dismantling of the National Assembly, the people took to the streets, resentment and anger overflowing as a mob swarmed throughout Paris.

The first port of call for the citizens was the Hôtel des Invalides, where they gathered thousands of muskets, continuing on to the Bastille in search of gunpowder. By noon, several members of the crowd were deep in negotiations with the fort's commanders as the mob outside waited, growing more fractious with every moment. Finally, just after one o'clock that afternoon the crowd surged into the courtyard, forcibly opening the drawbridge that would afford them access to the heavily defended fort. Hopelessly outnumbered, the troops on guard duty fired on the mob and vicious fighting began that lasted into the late afternoon. Although further troops were garrisoned on the Champs de Mars they remained at their encampment and it was left to Governor de Launay to order a ceasefire and open the fort's final gates, recognising that the soldiers stood no chance of controlling the crowd. Only seven prisoners languished within the Bastille Saint Antoine's walls that day and now their moment of release had come.

The Siege of the Bastille by Claude Cholat
The Siege of the Bastille by Claude Cholat

Ninety eight citizens and one soldier died in the fighting and the governor was dragged from the fort, beaten and stabbed. His head was carried aloft through the city streets while the crowd turned on officers of the Bastille, lynching or executing them in turn. Forcing their way into the Hôtel de Ville, they seized the prévôt ès marchands, Jacques de Flesselles, killing him that same night.

Before the next day dawned the fortress that had towered over Paris for centuries was in the hands of the citizens and work to demolish it began. Expecting swift and crushing reprisal, the people of Paris took to the streets building barricades and standing ready to defend their city. In fact, no attack came; instead, the King reinstated Necker, royal troops in Paris were ordered to withdraw and a new governmental structure was installed under the leadership of crowd favourite, Jean-Sylvain Bailly.

Word of the success of the Parisian mob began to spread across the country and further civil unrest followed in its wake; the balance of power had finally shifted and the stage was set for revolution.


Debra Brown said...

Such a great blog! Congrats on your first anniversary. Just had to read your #1 post.

Catherine Curzon said...

It seems you can't beat a bit of Bastille!