The fall of Bastille

  • Period: 1461 to 1483

    A Royal Prison

    By the reign of Louis XI (1461-1483), the Bastille had become a royal prison. It continued this function until the French Revolution, though by the late 1700s there were rarely more than 20 or 30 prisoners. The majority of those detained in the Bastille were not common criminals but political prisoners or men held at the king’s pleasure.
  • tumultuous six months

    The fall of the Bastille followed a tumultuous six months. At Versailles, representatives of the Third Estate had defied the king to demand a constitution and form a national assembly. France looked to be transitioning toward a constitutional monarchy, however, many doubted that the royal government would yield its power so easily.
  • Symbol of tyranny

    On the eve of revolution, the Bastille held very few prisoners, largely because the use of lettres de cachet had declined through the 1780s. There were two notable exceptions: Louis XVI‘s use of lettres de cachet against two magistrates of the Paris parlement (August 1787) and the Duke of Orleans (November 1787), both of which triggered a wave of outrage. The parlement itself issued a strongly worded remonstrance, criticising the king’s use of arbitrary power.
  • Third estate

    Several notable philosophes and revolutionary figures spent time in the Bastille, including Voltaire (twice), Denis Diderot, Jacques Brissot, the playwright Pierre Beaumarchais, the pornographer Marquis de Sade and military commander Charles Dumouriez. Indeed in many circles, a stint in the Bastille was useful for establishing one’s credentials as a writer or an intellectual. The Enlightenment economist André Morellet was detained there for slandering a princess.
  • Royal miscalculations

    Louis XVI then made the first of two fateful decisions. Sometime around July 4th, the king, probably on the advice of conservative ministers, ordered the assembly of royal troops at several critical locations: at Versailles, at Sèvres, at the Champ de Mars in south-west Paris and at Saint-Denis in the city’s north. Even those slow to suspicion could not miss the significance of this order. It appeared the king was planning to impose martial law to regain his power.
  • Parisians take up arms

    The people of Paris also spent July 12th and 13th gathering arms, in order to defend the city from an anticipated Royalist assault. Gun shops, small armouries and private collections were looted. On the morning of July 14th, a crowd of several thousand people marched on the Hôtel des Invalides in western Paris. Though used chiefly as a military infirmary, the Invalides had a large store of rifles and several small artillery pieces in its basement.
  • The events of July 14th

    Between late morning and mid-afternoon, the governor received deputations from the crowd. They pleaded with him to withdraw the fortress’s 18 cannons, pointed threateningly at the suburbs below, and to surrender the Bastille’s gunpowder to the people. De Launay agreed to the first but not the second. At around 1.30 pm, a small group gained access to the Bastille courtyard through a half-raised drawbridge. Fearing a full-scale attack