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French Revolution
French Revolution

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2.3 Fall of the Bastille, 14 July 1789

In a similar mood of aggrieved self-righteousness and revolutionary exultation came the fall of the Bastille, the medieval fortress and prison of Paris, on 14 July 1789. A catastrophic harvest in 1788 had provoked food riots in Paris and elsewhere. Louis XVI, alarmed both by this unrest and by the unexpected belligerence of the Third Estate, called troops into Paris to maintain order. It was feared that he also aimed to suppress the National Assembly, which rallied its supporters. The Parisian electors, those qualified to choose the city's representatives to the Estates-General, raised a militia of 48,000 men, the National Guard, to protect the Assembly. Its commander was the liberal-minded Marquis de Lafayette (1757–1834), who had fought as a volunteer with the American revolutionaries. The National Guard was short of arms. On 14 July, having ransacked the Invalides for muskets and cannons, it marched on the Bastille in search of gunpowder. When the governor, de Launay, appeared to offer resistance, it stormed the prison. De Launay and the chief city magistrate were lynched, their heads stuck on pikes and paraded about.

The event seemed to its supporters literally epoch-making. In fact, the Bastille in 1789 only contained eight prisoners (including lunatics and, until the week before its fall, the Marquis de Sade), but it had once briefly housed as state prisoners such leading figures of the Enlightenment as Voltaire and Diderot. Its fall was felt to symbolize the unstoppable might of the Revolution sweeping away the tyranny, oppression and injustice of the past. An English eyewitness reported that the news ‘produced an impression on the crowd really indescribable … such an instantaneous and unanimous emotion of extreme gladness as I should suppose was never before experienced by human beings’ (quoted in Hampson, 1975, p. 72). The British ambassador agreed: ‘The greatest revolution that we know anything of has been effected with … the loss of very few lives. From this moment we may consider France as a free country; the King a limited [that is, constitutional] monarch and the nobility as reduced to a level with the rest of the nation’ (quoted in Townson, 1990, p. 34). To Charles James Fox, leader of the English party in opposition, the fall of the Bastille was ‘the most glorious event, and the happiest for mankind, that has ever taken place since human affairs have been recorded’ (quoted in Rudé, 1966, p. 181).

In France, the anniversary of the taking of the Bastille became an annual festival. Its significance as marking the passing of the Old Regime was commonly celebrated (as in the American War of Independence) by planting ‘trees of liberty’ as symbols of national regeneration. The king was constrained to accept the flag of the Revolution devised by Lafayette, the tricolour (red, white and blue), and to wear its colours on his cockade.

Click to view Gustav III of Sweden's letter on the fall of the Bastille. [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

Exercise 2

Now read the second document (letter from Gustav III, absolute ruler of Sweden, August 1789. Gustav had just learned of the event from his ambassador in Paris. Briefly state what the letter tells us (i) about the storming of the Bastille and (ii) about Gustav's reaction to it as compared with that of the British ambassador just quoted.


Factually, Gustav's letter provides an accurate account of the event. From his language, however, it is clear that, as he admits, he is a hostile commentator, deeply shocked at the breakdown of public order represented by the storming of the Bastille, the mob lynching of the governor, fraternization between the royal guards (‘the French and Swiss guards’) and ‘the people’, and the claims of the National Assembly (‘the Estates’). He notes the role of popular violence and bloodshed, dismissed by the British ambassador as ‘the loss of very few lives’.

Gustav is alarmed at the humiliation which all this represents for Louis XVI – a surrender of power by absolute monarchy. The French monarchy is on the way to becoming a constitutional monarchy, with ministers responsible to the Assembly. The British ambassador approves of the event as marking the advent of ‘a free country’. Gustav abominates it, and laments Louis’ appearance before the Assembly on 15 July not to give orders but ‘to request assistance’ and ‘almost to apologise’. The letter confirms that the fall of the Bastille was seen by critics as well as enthusiasts as a significant (Gustav says ‘terrible’) blow to the Old Regime. Gustav fears for the king's throne.