July 14 is la fête nationale (lah fet nah-sea-ohn-al) in France, often referred to by Anglophones as Bastille Day, for it was on this date in 1789 that the Bastille (bastea) prison was overthrown. But this is actually just a coincidence and is not the event that the holiday actually commemorates.
In 1789, the fortress was more a symbol of oppression than the real thing. The Bastille was built in the late 14th century as part of a defensive wall that encircled the city, but it proved to be pretty feeble. Anytime it was attacked during one of the innumerable uprisings in the history of France, it fell. It wasn’t until Cardinal Richelieu in the 18th century that the fortress was beefed up. The Bastille became the favorite place to throw political prisoners who were kept for as long as the king or Cardinal felt like it. It was sort of a “Hotel California” where the prisoners tended to be mostly members of the nobility or wealthy bourgeois who lived in large rooms that they were allowed to furnish as comfortably as they liked and be attended by their servants. They could move freely around the vast spaces of the Bastille, but they could never leave. The residents of the no check-out hotel numbered less than 50. To be sure, there were some cells that were far less salubrious for the rebellious prisoners, but these were abolished by Louis XVI, along with the lettres de cachet that allowed prisoners to be picked up at any time without even a pretext and kept indefinitely.
The arrival of a new prisoner was announced with the ringing of a bell. Shops around the prison would close, and the guards would cover their faces so as not to see the new arrival. Often prisoners arrived at night and assumed false names, the better to protect their identity. Legends sprang up around the identity of some of the prisoners, such as The Man in the Iron Mask. Louis XVI was no fan of the prison because it was a money pit. The Bastille was administered by a governor who ran the prison like his personal fiefdom.
On July 14, 1789, rioters in search of gunpowder for the guns they’d seized from les Invalides approached the Bastille. When the governor wouldn’t hand over the powder, they cut off his head. The revolutionaries freed a total of 7 prisoners: four forgers, a count who was embroiled in a family saga who paid for him to live in reasonable comfort, and two insane men who were transferred to an asylum.
When the symbol of the monarchy was torn down, an enterprising chap carved a miniature Bastille in some of the building stones and sold them as souvenirs. The majority of the stones were used to build the Concorde bridge that crosses the Seine. The marquis de La Fayette sent one of the keys to George Washington, which he kept in his front hall at Mount Vernon. Today, the outline of the old prison can be seen in white bricks in the Place de la Bastille.As alluded to at the outset, July 14 is NOT meant to commemorate the fall of the Bastille, but rather la Fête de la Fédération which took place exactly one year later on July 14, 1790 on the Champ-de-Mars, when Louis XVI swore an oath to the nation and the law, effectively converting France into a constitutional monarchy. This perhaps became an inconvenient fact when the king’s head was subsequently severed from his shoulders. Celebrating the fall of a fortress that was never much use at resisting attack and liberating 7 men who weren’t exactly symbols of oppression became the de facto reason for fireworks and a blow-out concert on that same Champ-de-Mars.
- Bastille Day: world celebrations (telegraph.co.uk)
- Geography quiz: Bastille Day refers to what landmark? (seattletimes.com)
- A visit to Paris’s “Sinister Way” (noworriesparis.com)
- Storming the Bastille (noworriesparis.com)