Skip to content

"True" stories of life in the Bastille

Updated Monday 13th July 2015

British publishers were presumably as disappointed as the French authorities when the Bastille fell, as it had been a source of cheap schlocky copy for years...

Another famed Bastille prisoner - Dr Manette, from Dicken's Tale Of Two Cities Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: Phiz Another celebrated prisoner of the Bastille, Dr Manette, from Dickens' A Tale Of Two Cities. It's up to you to decide if you believe De La Tude's hsitory owes anything less to the imagination of the storyteller... To mark Bastille Day, here's a memorial to the 18th Century British love of a blood-curdling tale of terror from the French prison. Publishers had long sold tales of the privations and heroic suffering of those incarcerated to a sometimes credulous public; as a last hurrah, the Morning Post And Advertiser marked the final fall of the Bastille in 1789 by running this story, from a few years before, which they swore to readers was completely true. And why should we disbelieve them?

The Narrative of Henry Masers De La Tude

The person of whose imprisonment the following narrative is a concise and unexaggerated relation, obtained his liberty on the 18th of March, 1784, with a pension of 400 livres, which he owes to the bounty of Baron Breteuil. after having been confined 35 years in the Bastille.

Henry M De La Tude was born in 1725, at Mantagnac in Languedoc. His father was a Lieutenant of the Royal Army, and a Knight of the Order of St Louis.

He was sent to the Bastille the 1st of May, 1749, for an offence to Madame Pompadour, the celebrated mistress of Louis the XV. With the thoughtless warm enthusiasm of a young man, he had, it seems, attached himself to the cause of this woman, in defence of her person and character, against the fanatics of the day, who were her prosecutors. He wished to do her some ostensible good office, and sighed to render himself of consequence in her esteem.

Having heard that she was unhappy, from the apprehension of poison, La Tude waited on Madame Pompadour at Versailles, to acquaint her that he had seen a parcel put into the Post Office, and addressed for her; and at the same time communicating his suspicions relative to the contents of it, and cautioning the Marchioness accordingly.

The parcel arrived of course, la Tude having himself put it in the post; but the powder proved, on chemical experiment, perfectly innocent.

In consequence, the Marchioness saw into the design, and sent poor La Tude to the Bastille as in imposter.

To the young, vigorous, and active mind, the loss of liberty is a thousand time worse than the loss of life. La Tude, with great ingenuity, effected his escape and, unconscious of a crime (unless youthful imprudence should be called so) voluntarily surrendered himself to his Majesty.

Unhappy La Tude! Victim of caprice and cruelty of woman! The unfeeling Marchioness, piqued at his placing more confidence in the king than herself, condemned to 18 months in the same prison, and to its most dreary abode - a dungeon!

The horrors of the place have often been felt, it is barely possible the may have been conceived; but certainly no power of language is equal to the description.

No one ever utters a word to the solitary wretch confined within its walls. The husband, wife, and children are perhaps confined for years within the space of a few feet, without the smallest apprehension of any relative being near them, or knowing the any thing of each other's fate. Cold, damp, solitude, hunger, filth, pain and apprehensions are here the prisoner's only companions, and the only source of his ideas, for even the light is excluded him.

Yet even from the impregnable fortress of barbarity, where no wealth can bribe (for the love of life is still superior to the thrift of gold); where no instrument of any kind is allowed; and where a thousand pounds would not purchase a yard of thread, did La Tude, without money, alone, and unaided, effect his escape a second time.

The hand, to those that know its use, is the instrument of all instruments . The iron hinge of the table was, by whetting on a tiled floor, converted into a knife. With this, bars were removed , and a saw constructed. Wood was concealed from the daily firing, to construct a ladder. His portmanteau contained twelve dozen of shirts, six dozen pair of silk stockings, twelve dozen pair of under stockings, five dozen drawers, six dozen napkins; there were made adequate to a thousand feet of rope, and applied to the same purpose. These preparations cost eighteen months work, day and night; but they so well answered the purpose that La Tude, by means of them, effected his escape to Holland; from whence he was demanded by the King Of France, and given up, reconducted to the Bastille, and more closely confined than ever.

On the death of Madame Pompadour, La Tude was informed of it, by a writing placed up at a window in the street, in consequence of some papers he had thrown from the Bastille Tower into the street.

Upon this occasion, most of the Bastille prisoners were liberated. The French Minister, Mos. Sartine, however refused liberty to La Tude, but on the sacrifice of his honour, which he disdained; and refusing peremptorily to inform the Minister how he obtained his information, he was still doomed, by the remorseless revenge to that monster of inhumanity, to remain immured in misery, confined ten feet under ground, clad in tatters, with a beard a foot and a half lon, no bed but straw, no provision but bread and water, overrun with vermin.

Such, alas! was the situation of La Tude, and such the conduct of the Minister of France! A more elevated mind would have honoured him, for his perseverance in principle under such trials.

His ultimate liberation is not the least wonderful part of the story. A woman, named LeGros, going out of her house into the street, in June 1781, saw lying in a corner a packet of papers that had the appearance of having been tumbled into the dirt. She took it up, and returning home, read the contents. It proved A Memorial, stating part of the Misfortunes of La Tude, Prisoner in a dungeon ten feet under ground, on an allowance of bread and water for 34 years.

This amiable woman was incessant in her application to the great, till the unfortunate man above stated procured his enlargement.

A fellow-suffered of La Tudes, who wanted his fortitude, went raving mad, and died lo.

To what reflection does this Narrative give birth! Thank God, the Bastille is no more!

- Morning Post and Daily Advertiser, July 28, 1789

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

Britain's Great War: Download your free 'The First World War Experienced' booklet Creative commons image Icon The Open University under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license article icon

History & The Arts 

Britain's Great War: Download your free 'The First World War Experienced' booklet

From casualties to commemoration, explore the realities of war with this free booklet.

Article
History battles – How we remember the past Creative commons image Icon By Lin Kristensen from New Jersey, USA (Timeless Books) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons under Creative-Commons license article icon

History & The Arts 

History battles – How we remember the past

How we teach history could be changing. Back to the bad old days, or could the 'voices from below' make themselves heard?

Article
The forgotten camp article icon

History & The Arts 

The forgotten camp

As we commemorate the memory of the victims of the Holocaust, we find out more about Sajmište, a little known Nazi concentration camp in Belgrade

Article
VE day half a world away: How New Zealand celebrated victory in Europe Creative commons image Icon Pikerslanefarm under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

History & The Arts 

VE day half a world away: How New Zealand celebrated victory in Europe

After years of war, New Zealanders reacted to the fall of Berlin by cutting loose - but not too loose. As the official history explains, it wasn't quite the same when Japan surrendered.

Article
The picture in the attic - and what it reveals Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: photos.com article icon

History & The Arts 

The picture in the attic - and what it reveals

Don't take a painting at face value - there might be a bigger story held in that frame...

Article
Medieval history: Ancestral life audio discussion Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC audio icon

History & The Arts 

Medieval history: Ancestral life audio discussion

Robert Bartlett and Rachel Gibbons discuss the surprising ways in which our ancestors' lives were not that different from ours - and the ways in which they were

Audio
30 mins
What Is History?: Being A Historian Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team article icon

History & The Arts 

What Is History?: Being A Historian

How does a person set about being a historian?

Article
The truth behind Poldark: Stories of The Great Copper Slump Creative commons image Icon Tony Atkin under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

History & The Arts 

The truth behind Poldark: Stories of The Great Copper Slump

If you're enjoying the BBC revival of Poldark, you might wonder how realistic the depciction of Cornish copper mining after the American War Of Independence is. A dip into newspapers from the time tells the grim tale...

Article
War Memorials Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Russell Higgs under CC-BY-NC-SA licence article icon

History & The Arts 

War Memorials

Learn the secrets of the past, revealed by clues on the high streets of today

Article