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Bastille is a French word meaning 'castle' or 'stronghold'. Used as a single word ("la Bastille" in French, "the Bastille" in English) it invariably refers to the former Bastille Saint-Antoine - Number 232, Rue Saint-Antoine - in Paris.

The storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789 and its subsequent demolition became the symbol for the beginning of the French Revolution. The event was commemorated one year later by the Fête de la Fédération. The French national holiday, celebrated annually on July 14 is officially the Fête Nationale, and officially commemorates the Fête de la Fédération, but it is commonly known in English as Bastille Day .


Early history

Built around 1370 as part of the defences of Paris, the structure was converted into a prison in the 17th century by Charles VI, housing mainly political prisoners, but also religious prisoners, 'seditious' writers, and young rakes held at the request of their families. It began to acquire a poor reputation when it became the main Bourbon prison for those taken under lettres de cachet.

By the late 18th century the building was made up of eight close-packed towers, around 24 meters (80 feet) high, surrounding two courtyards and the armoury. The prisoners were held within the five- to seven-storey towers, each having an room around 4.6 meters (15 feet) across and containing various articles of furniture. The infamous cachots - the oozing, vermin-infested sub-surface cells were no longer in use. The governor of the prison was given a daily allowance per prisoner, the amount depending on their status - from nineteen livres per diem for scientists and academics down to three for commoners. In terms of standards there were many worse prisoners in France, notably the other Parisien jail, the dreaded Bicêtre . However, in terms of popular literary accounts, the Bastille was a place of horror and oppression - a symbol of autocratic cruelty.


For a more detailed description, see Storming of the Bastille.

The confrontation between the commoners and the ancien régime ultimately led to the people of Paris storming the Bastille on July 14 1789. At this point, the jail was near empty, only seven inmates were housed there and the garrison consisted of just 32 men under the governor Bernard-René de Launay.

A crowd of around a thousand gathered outside around mid-morning, calling for the surrender of the prison, the removal of the guns and the release of the arms and gunpowder. Two deputies were invited into the fortress and slow negotiations began.

In the early afternoon the crowd broke into the undefended outer courtyard and the chains on the drawbridge to the inner courtyard were cut. A spasmodic exchange of gunfire began, in mid-afternoon the crowd were reinforced by gardes françaises and also two cannons. Governor de Launay ordered a cease fire and, despite his surrender demands being refused, he capitulated and the vainqueurs swept in to liberate the fortress at 17:30.

Ninety-eight attackers had died and just one defender. De Launay was seized and dragged towards the Hôtel de Ville, but was stabbed to death by the mob in the street outside the Hôtel.

Historical assessment

Many historians believe that the storming of the Bastille was more important as a rallying point and symbolic act of rebellion than any practical act of defiance. No less important in the history of France, it was not the image typically conjured up of courageous French patriots storming a towering fortress and freeing hundreds of oppressed peasants. This myth-making began on July 17 1789 with the publication of the Révolutions de Paris with a colourful description of the attack and an entirely false description of the many prisoners freed.


The propaganda value of the Bastille was quickly seized upon, notably by the showy entrepreneur Pierre-François Palloy , "Patriote Palloy". The fate of the Bastille was uncertain, but Palloy was quick to establish a claim - organising a force of 500 demolition men around the site on the 15th. Over the next few days many notables visitied the Bastille and it seemed to be turning into a memorial. But Palloy secured a license for demolition from the Permanent Committee at the Hôtel de Ville and quickly took complete control.

Palloy secured a fair budget and his crew grew to around 1,000 men. Palloy had control over all aspects of the work and the workers, even to the extent of having two hanged for murders. He put much effort into continuing the site as a paying attraction and producing a huge range of souvenirs, including much of the rubble. The actual demolition proceeded apace - by November the structure was largely demolished

The area today

The former location of the fort is currently called the Place de la Bastille, and some of the remains (although not at their original location) are still visible nearby.

Last updated: 02-08-2005 07:19:26
Last updated: 02-11-2005 17:47:38