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The Storming of the Bastille

Sasha Blakeley, Amy Troolin
  • Author
    Sasha Blakeley

    Sasha Blakeley has a Bachelor's in English Literature from McGill University and a TEFL certification. She has been teaching English in Canada and Taiwan for seven years.

  • Instructor
    Amy Troolin

    Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

Learn about the storming of the Bastille, a Bastille definition, and the Great Fear. See why the Bastille was stormed and its significance in France today. Updated: 07/23/2021

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The Bastille and Its Symbolism

What was the Bastille? The Bastille was a large fortress-like prison that was primarily used to house political prisoners in France in the years leading up to the French Revolution. It was located in Paris, but it is no longer standing. Construction on the medieval fortress began in 1370 because it was thought that Paris needed a better structure to defend itself from outside attacks. The structure was completed in 1382. Under King Louis XIII, the fortress was converted into a prison for upper-class members of society. By 1789, Parisians were thoroughly disillusioned by the harsh class system in France. The Bastille was regarded as a symbol of the absolute monarchy, its corruption, and its tyrannical reign over the French people. This was partly due to its imposing physical appearance and partly because prisoners in the Bastille were usually there for political reasons, including opposing the government, nobility, or monarchy.

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  • 0:02 The Bastille and its Symbolism
  • 1:09 France in Crisis
  • 2:14 That Fateful Day
  • 4:50 The Great Fear
  • 6:04 Lesson Summary
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France in Crisis

In 1789, France was a highly stratified society. The poor had long been dealing with food shortages, while the wealthy monarchs and nobles lived in lavish palaces. King Louis XVI had amassed huge debts that he was trying to repay through heightened taxes. Another element that made Parisians angry was the dismissal of Jacques Necker, who was a popular minister who many people felt represented their interests.

France's parliament, the Estates-General, convened for the first time in many years to try and manage the country's problems. This parliament consisted of three groups: the nobility, the clergy, and the common people, who were known as the Third Estate. The Estates-General struggled to reach a conclusion, so members of the Third Estate created the National Assembly. This was a revolutionary form of government that existed in June and July of 1789.

A portrait of King Louis XVI of France

The storming of the Bastille was associated with decisions made by the king

Armed Conflict

To deal with increasing unrest among the people, King Louis XVI stationed troops in Paris. Rather than calming tensions, this action made people more uneasy and more prepared to rebel. While the King's legal recognition of the National Assembly was taken as a victory for the people, the dismissal of Necker and all of the other challenging factors created an environment ripe for violence. Protests, riots, and mobs started to break out around Paris, many of which were met with violent suppression by the king's forces. To answer the question, ''why was the Bastille stormed?'', one need only look at the environment in which people were living to understand their frustrations with such a massive symbol of oppression in their city.

The Storming of the Bastille

What was the storming of the Bastille? A simple storming of the Bastille summary is that the prison was attacked and overtaken by protestors at the start of the French Revolution. In July of 1789, the man in charge of the Bastille was Bernard-René Jordan de Launay. Concerned by the increasing violence in Paris, he sought to fortify the prison. He asked for, and received, reinforcements and 250 barrels of gunpowder. Even with this help, he worried that he would not have enough forces to defend against a violent group of protestors. Angry members of the public saw this reinforcement of the prison as an indication that the prison would make a good target.

The Riot Begins

When was the storming of the Bastille? On the morning of July 14th, 1789, a large group of protestors carrying guns, knives, and a variety of handmade weapons gathered outside of the Bastille. Launay tried to the dispel tension and negotiate with the protestors. In so doing, he made several mistakes. First, he told the protestors that if they remained peaceful, he and his men would hold their fire. This only served to anger the crowd further. Next, he tried to broker peace by showing the protestors that his cannons were not loaded. All this did was embolden the protestors and make them feel more confident that their attack was likely to succeed. Members of the crowd surged over the prison's outer wall and opened the drawbridge, allowing the others to enter and start storming the prison.

Launay's Surrender

As the riot was beginning, a group of defectors from the French Army arrived to join the crowd. They brought cannons with them, quickly making it clear that Launay would not be able to maintain his position. Launay considered his options: he did not have the men or resources to hold the prison, which only had seven prisoners at the time in any case. He chose to surrender, hoping that the crowd would be merciful toward him. The crowd seized Launay and his men, quickly overwhelmed the Bastille, freed the prisoners, and went out into the streets of Paris. Chaos reigned and Launay realized his mistake too late. He was executed by the people, along with his men. The storming of the Bastille marked the beginning of a massive political change: the French Revolution had begun.

An artistic depiction of the storming of the Bastille

The Great Fear, French Revolution, and Bastille are all connected

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Frequently Asked Questions

What did the great fear and the reign of terror have in common?

The Great Fear and the Reign of Terror were both chaotic times in the French Revolution. They were both characterized by panic and paranoia, though the reasons for these feelings were different in each case.

Why is the storming of the Bastille an important day for France?

The storming of the Bastille is still celebrated in France for several reasons. It is a commemoration of an important day in French history, a celebration of the values of the Revolution, and a day for France to be patriotic.

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