France Celebrates Bastille Day

French President Emmanuel Macron heads a military parade on Bastille Day in 2018
French President Emmanuel Macron heads a military parade on Bastille Day in 2018

by Ray Setterfield

July 14, 1789 — The fall of the Bastille, an event symbolic of the bitter and horrific French Revolution, took place on this day. The Bastille in Paris was a medieval fortress constructed in the 14th Century at the height of the Hundred Years' War between England and France.

In 1369 the French king Charles V saw that Paris could be vulnerable to English attacks on its eastern side and ordered a huge fortification to replace one that already stood there. Work began in 1370 and took about 10 years.

The result was the Bastille – a stone fortress based around eight circular towers with five foot (1.5 metres)-thick walls which rose to a height of 100 feet (30.5 metres). It was surrounded by a moat more than 80 feet (24 metres) wide,

Although intended as a defensive fortress, the Bastille was used mainly as a state prison by the kings of France, especially Louis XIV. During his 72-year reign (the longest of any monarch in European history) more than 2,300 people were held there, nearly all selected personally by him.

Thus, the Bastille, where prisoners were held without trial, became identified with despotism, the oppression of liberty, royal tyranny and torture. And as discontent over oppressive royal taxes and food shortages caused widespread anger, a mob gathered outside the fortress on the morning of July 14, 1789.

The Governor, Bernard-René Jordan de Launay, at first refused to surrender and hand over arms and gunpowder to the mob. But because of limited water and food supplies he capitulated on condition that nobody in the fortress would be harmed.

He was then seized, later to be beaten, stabbed and shot by the mob. He was decapitated, his head fixed on a pike and paraded through the streets before being thrown into the River Seine. The fortress was subsequently demolished by order of the Revolutionary government.

The fall of the Bastille was soon to be followed by what became known as The Terror – a period when around 16,000 people were executed by guillotine, including the former queen, Marie Antoinette, on October 16, 1793.

Historians generally accept that the fall of the Bastille represented the start of the French Revolution and the abolition of its monarchy. The rise to power of French general Napoléon Bonaparte brought the revolution to an end.

In 1880 Bastille Day was set down as a French national holiday and is celebrated annually on July 14, not just in France but in the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and other countries around the world.

Published: July 9, 2021
Updated: June 17, 2022

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