Episode 12: The Storming of the Bastille


Episode 12, ‘The Fall of the Bastille’, examines the famous storming of the Bastille, the creation of Paris’ new municipal government by the Electors, and the symbolism of the Bastille both before and after its fall.

The Electors of Paris

As Paris erupted into revolt, the Electors of Paris sought to fill the leadership vacuum which had emerged within the city. The Electors were a 407 member body which had been created for the purpose of electing individuals to represent Paris at the Estates General. Instead of disbanding and allowing the city’s representatives to be the sole voice of the Parisian people, the Electors acted almost as a lobby group, seeking to remind their deputies of the ‘people’s will’. The body propagated a progressive message due to the large number of radicals who comprised its membership. The power vacuum created by Necker’s dismissal gave these progressives an opportunity to further their radical agenda and seize the initiative.

In an effort to maintain public order, the body unilaterally declared itself to be the municipal government of Paris on the 12th of July. Having installed itself as the city government, the body then decreed the creation of a city militia. Soon to be known as “The National Guard”, it was envisioned that if each of the city’s 60 districts would provide 800 men, creating a combined force of 48,000 militiamen. This force could be used to resist both the royalist soldiers entering the city and the marauding lower classes already within it.

Historians still debate just what force the Electors feared more. The King’s troops and the King’s citizens both represented serious risks to the middles classes of Paris as the city experienced looting, violence, and unrestrained revolt. Jean Bailly, the first President of the National Assembly, indicated the Electors were more worried about the mob than the military, “Paris ran the risk of being pillaged, and was only saved from the marauders by the National Guard.”

The Invalides

The royalist Governor of the Invalides began to take precautionary measures against both the mob and its new, self-declared city government on the 13th of July. Having 32,000 muskets in his cellars, he set his men to work to disable them. Only a fraction were disabled, with his troops harboring sympathies for the popular revolt.  On the 14th, the Invalides was successfully raided, and the mob had armed itself with a significant number of muskets. The only problem was, they lacked powder.

The Bastille

In order to acquire the necessary gunpowder, the mob went to the Bastille. The Bastille was originally constructed in the latter half of 14th century and was a distinctive feature of the Parisian skyline. The fortress was comprised of 8 towers of uneven height, the tallest was just more than 70 feet (~20 meters). The walls were 5 to 8 feet thick, skirted by a waterless moat, and manned by roughly 100 men. Aiding the defenders were 18 eight pounder cannons and 12 smaller rampart guns.

Despite these defenses, Charles VI converted the Bastille into a state prison in the early-15th century, and under the Bourbons its primary function remained that of a state prison. General inhabitants included traitors, heretics, writers, and delinquents (including Mirabeau). The extrajudicial nature of the arrests of the Bastille’s prisoners fueled the rumors which surrounded the fortress.

In reality, the prison held just  7 prisoners at the time of its downfall. Far from being a torturous hell hole, many prisoners were allowed to furnish their rooms with personal effects like wardrobes, desks, portraits and even be accompanied by their pet dog or cat. Beds, curtains, and either a stove or chimney were often in the cell too. The fact of the matter was that the Bastille was much nicer than many other prisoners in France in 1789. The truth, however, is what people believe, and thanks to a vast array of prisoner literature and exaggerated and outright fictitious recounts from former guests, the average Parisian believed the Bastille to be a place of immeasurable cruelty.

In addition to prisoners, the Bastille held 250 barrels of gunpowder. For a city convinced a royalist attack was days if not hours away, those barrels were not a luxury. Armed with cannons and full of much-needed powder, the Bastille had to be neutralized and its contents repurposed for the protection of Paris.

Bernard-René Jourdan de Launay

De Launay was the governor of the Bastille at the time of its downfall, and the governor way loyal to the royalist cause. He was, however, not a man you would want leading the last bastion of royal power. Lieutenant Louis Deflue, a member of a small detachment of Swiss Guards stationed in the fortress, described the governor as being “without much knowledge of military affairs, without experience and without much courage”. According to Lieutenant Deflue, Governor De Launay would be regularly spooked by shadows at night when trees swayed in the wind.

“From the day of my arrival, I learnt to know  this man [De Launay]; by the meaningless preparations he made for the  defence of his post, and by his continual anxiety and irresolution, I saw clearly that we should be ill commanded if we were attacked.  He was so overcome with terror that at night he took for enemies the shadows of trees and other surrounding objects. . . .” – Louis Deflue

The Mob Arrives

At 10 in the morning, a crowd of roughly 900 Parisians had gathered outside demanding the prison turn over its gunpowder and withdraw its guns from the ramparts. A delegation of electors promptly arrived from the newly formed city government to help negotiate with the Bastille’s governor. Seeking to avoid conflict, de Launay began to discuss terms with the delegation sent by the Electors.


By 12:30 pm, that mob outside the Bastille had swelled to a couple of thousand. With no word from the delegation of Electors inside, the crowd began to believe that something was amiss. Instead of negotiating with the Governor, the mob began to believe that the delegation had been taken hostage. The likely unpleasant fate of the delegation was seemingly confirmed when the Bastille’s cannons were withdrawn from the edges of the walls. The mob took this as a sign that the cannons were being loaded.

In reality, the guns were being withdrawn, as per the negotiated agreement between the delegation of Electors and Governor de Launay. Nevertheless, the crowd had grown suspicious of de Launay, and sent in a second delegation to confirm the guns were not be loaded and to demand the surrender the Bastille. De Launay balked. He argued that without orders from the King, such an occupation of the Bastille by the new city militia was unquestionable. The Electors returned to the Hotel De Ville to discuss the situation with their colleagues.

The Storming of the Bastille

While the Electors were formulating a resolution back at the Hotel De Ville, individuals within the mob took matters into their own hands. The Bastille was surrounded by buildings, and one such neighboring building was a little perfume shop. A small group of men climbed onto the shop’s roof and were able to get into the inner courtyard of the prison. From there, they cut the chains of the drawbridge, and let the entire angry, hungry, musket-holding mob inside (killing one assailant in the process who was crushed by the bridge). As the mob rushed into the inner courtyard, they were greeted by yet another gate. Surrounded by thick walls and unable to retreat, there was nowhere to go. The people were fish in a Bastille barrel. Soon shots were exchanged between the defends of the Bastille and the would-be assailants, and the fight for the Bastille had begun.

Over the next couple of hours, the assault on the fortress by the mob was largely ineffectual. The Bastille’s thick walls meant that even though the assailants had some cannon, their cannon balls simply bounced off harmlessly. With cannon fire being heard from the Hotel de Ville, the Electors had tried to send more delegations to broker a peace. These delegations failed to broker a peace, however, partly because of the sheer chaos of the environment, and partly because of the distrust on both sides. At 3:30 pm, the initiative started to swing in favor of the mob. Two veterans of the American Revolutionary War arrived on the scene, and with them, additional units of French Guard’s who had defected in the previous days and hours. Putting themselves in immense danger, Peter Hulin, a non-commissioned officer in the French Guards, and Lieutenant Jacob Elie, of the Queen’s Regiment of Infantry, coordinated the assault. The assailants managed to bring their cannons into the inner courtyard of the Bastille. Seeing the cannons within the courtyard, Governor de Launay resigned himself to defeat. Through a hole in the gate next to the drawbridge, a note was passed to the assailants.

“We have twenty thousand pounds of powder. We shall blow up the garrison and the whole neighbourhood unless you accept our capitulation. From the Bastille at five in the evening. July 14th, 1789, Launay”

Governor De Launay’s bluff was called. The crowd appeared to refuse, yelling ‘no capitulation’ while Hulin prepared to unleash the cannons upon the gate. Foreseeing the inevitable, de Launay surrendered the Bastille.

Three defenders were killed along with three of the governor’s staff as the mob occupied the prison, but the majority of the defending force was spared immediate slaughter. De Launay, now in custody, was lead back to the Hotel De Ville by Lieutenant Elie, who, in a great piece of theatre, had impaled De Launay’s surrender note on the tip of his sword. De Launay, however, wouldn’t make it to the city government. Abused by the mob repeatedly, de Launay snapped and kicked an unemployed cook by the name of Desnot in the testicles. Shouting in rage, Desnot and the crowd turned ravenous, and soon swords and bayonets pierced the Governor’s flesh while pistols were shot at point-blank into his corpse. He was soon decapitated. The fall of the Bastille was complete.

Who actually stormed the Bastille? What kind of people?

The assailants aiding Hulin and Elie were a wide range of individuals. As many as 8,000 individuals participated in the Storming of the Bastille in some way. Officially, the besiegers included 28 cobblers, 41 locksmiths, 10 hairdressers, 11 wine merchants, 9 tailors, 6 gardeners, 7 stonemasons, 9 jewelers, and even a brewery owner. The youngest assailant was a boy of 8, the oldest a man aged 72, and even a laundress helped aid the assault. The assault was truly comprised of people from all parts of the Third Estate, but in particular the workers, artisans, laborers – the sans-culottes.  The coming bourgeois revolution was secured by non-bourgeois Parisians.

Historiography of the Bastille’s Symbolism

“The fall of the Bastille was the symbol of the fall of Bourbon absolutism, the sign of the rise of a nation”. –  Historian Shailer Mathews

As Historian Mathews put it so well, the fall of the Bastille was a symbol for the fall of Bourbon absolutism. On that, pretty much everyone agrees. What there is division of opinion on, however, is whether or not the Bastille symbolized Bourbon absolutism before or only after its fall. There is stark disagreement about whether or not the Bastille was already symbolically significant at the time of its fall, or if it only became a symbol for the old regime after revolutionary propaganda inflated its downfall as one which liberated France and gave birth to the new order.

Historian Simon Schama argues forcibly that the Bastille wasn’t a symbol of tyranny or despotism at the time of its capitulation. The neglected prison, which was scheduled for demolition, only became such a prominent symbol for tyranny after its demise.

“The Bastille, then, was much more important in its “afterlife” than it ever had been as a working institution of state. It gave a shape and an image to all the vices against which the Revolution defined itself. Transfigured from a nearly empty, thinly manned anachronism into the seat of Beast Despotism, it incorporated all those rejoicing at its capture as members of the new community of the Nation. Participants, witnesses, celebrants, they were all friends of humanity, bringers of light into the citadel of darkness.” – Historian Simon Schama

For Schama and those who agree with him, the prison, holding only 7 prisoners at the time, was not a notable symbol of royal absolutism until after it was taken by the Parisians on July 14.

Historian Justin McCarthy, writing 100 years after the Bastille fall, forcibly dismissed the case that the Bastille held anything but huge symbolic significance at the time of its fall:

“Men have not been wanting, we have  seen, who try to minimize its importance, to diminish  its historic dignity. They urge that the Bastille, at the  time of its fall, was a place of no importance. They say that it had ceased to be the terror-house of political  prisoners. They maintain that it was not, in any military sense, taken at all. They protest that the whole episode was an absurd blunder which attached to the  Bastille an importance that it had long outdated, and which gave its captors a burlesque air of pseudo-heroism. They even assert that it was a crime, the herald  of a long catalogue of crimes. There is little or nothing to be said for such arguments. It was not the captors of the Bastille who were responsible for the blunders and the bloodshed of the Revolution. It was  the condition of things which made the capture of the Bastille so momentous. The very fact that at the time people of all parties thought its fall so momentous is enough to prove the case. Even if the Bastille itself  had ceased to terrify, it still represented the old, terrific idea. It was a very strong argument in stone in favor of the feudal system, and all that the feudal system meant. It had long been the dread and the curse of Paris, the merciless answer to all freedom of thought,  of word, of deed. If the first wave of the rising tide of democracy beat against it and overwhelmed it, it was not for nothing. Its mighty keep, its eight portentous towers, were the solid, visible presentment of all that was worse in the Old Order of things. It was a symbol, and symbols are the most potent influences in  the struggles of political forces. But it was not merely a symbol. It still held prisoners ; it was still ready to hold prisoners ; its guns were a standing menace to Paris. If we were to imagine a London mob of to-day besieging the Tower of London, the event would certainly have little historic dignity or importance. Long  generations have gone by since the Tower of London represented any despotic system, or had any political significance or symbolism whatever. But every man who attacked that Bastille upon that midsummer day, one hundred years ago, looked upon the Bastille as the petrifaction of the Old Order and the old despotism. The youngest could remember how it had been used for  the basest political purposes, how it had been employed to stifle freedom. It was hated, it was justly hated ; it was natural and significant that the first popular stroke should be levelled against it ; its fall is an event of moment in the history of man, a day of thanksgiving in the history of civilization.” – Historian Justin McCarthy

Historian Shailer Mathews agrees with McCarthy completely. To prove the point, Mathews focuses not on how the French reacted to the news of the Bastille’s demise, but how other Europeans reacted to it.

“The fall of the Bastille was something more than the  fall of a disused but hated prison. If one will go to the  Museum Carnavalet in Paris he will see a host of mementos which testify to something more than a passing delirium. There are locks from the Bastille, doors from the  Bastille, models of the Bastille made from its own masonry; Bastille fans, handkerchiefs, porcelains, pictures* And if one will read the memoirs of the time, he will find  all Europe celebrating the event. Englishmen orating, Russians hugging one another, Germans weeping for joy. The explanation of all this enthusiasm lies in this: the fall of the Bastille was the symbol of the fall of Bourbon absolutism, the sign of the rise of a nation. For this  reason is it that the 14th of July has been added to the list of national holidays.” – Historian Shailer Mathews

Grey History