Fall of the Bastille Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the first overt violent act of the French Revolution, a crowd stormed the Bastille, freeing its prisoners and seizing the armaments stored there as well. The Bastille’s fall signaled the emergence of the Parisian crowd as a potent political force—a force that not only was central to the Revolution but also defined French political life for centuries after its conclusion.

Summary of Event

The storming of the Bastille was the climax of the events Paris;French Revolution of July, 1789, a time marked by the determination of Paris crowds to defend the French Revolution against perceived royalist threats to disband the National Assembly (France) National Assembly, which had been meeting since June at Versailles, and restore absolutism. Composed of the original three estates which the king had summoned in May, 1789, to deal with the government’s financial problems, the National Assembly represented the hopes and aspirations of most Frenchmen for extensive political, social, and economic reform. [kw]Fall of the Bastille (July 14, 1789) [kw]Bastille, Fall of the (July 14, 1789) French Revolution (1789-1796);Bastille Bastille (Paris) Revolutionary wars, French [g]France;July 14, 1789: Fall of the Bastille[2830] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;July 14, 1789: Fall of the Bastille[2830] [c]Government and politics;July 14, 1789: Fall of the Bastille[2830] Bailly, Jean-Sylvain Flesselles, Jacques de Launay, Bernard-René de Louis XVI Lafayette, marquis de Necker, Jacques

During the early part of July, Parisians began to fear that King Louis XVI was planning to use mercenary troops to carry out a military coup d’état. The people of Paris became alarmed when they learned that the king was moving Swiss and German mercenary soldiers, whose loyalty was thought to be more dependable than French troops, from the provinces to positions around Versailles and the capital. Ostensibly, Louis XVI claimed that he wanted only to protect the National Assembly against possible disruption and prevent a recurrence of the April Révellion Riots, Révellion Riots (1789) which local authorities had been unable to quell. To most Parisians and members of the National Assembly, however, Louis’s action posed a clear threat to the revolutionary movement in general and the National Assembly in particular.

Louis’s determination to confront the Assembly became clear on July 11 when he suddenly dismissed Jacques Necker, the popular and self-righteous minister of finance who personified reform in the public mind. Necker’s association with reform had been making him progressively more unpopular at court. The news of Necker’s dismissal reached Paris on July 12 and caused crowds of people calling for Necker’s reinstatement to take to the streets.

The Paris uprising lasted from July 12 through July 14. This uprising differed from others that had gone before it because of its clear sense of direction. Mainly, its participants were determined to acquire weapons with which to defend themselves, Rumors that Louis’s Swiss and German mercenaries were massacring civilians flew. The gardes françaises (French guard), a military body that traditionally supplemented the police, confronted the mercenaries and forced them to withdraw.

In the face of mounting disorder, the more conservative, bourgeois elements in the city realized that steps had to be taken to preserve order. Consequently the electoral assemblies of the sixty districts of Paris, which had remained active after fulfilling their appointed task of choosing representative of the Third Estate Third Estate (France) of Paris to the Estates-General, Estates-General (France)[Estates General] took charge of the city and elected a central committee. This body then went to the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall), where it fused with the old city council to form a new government in Paris. As chairman of the central committee, the assemblies chose Jacques de Flesselles, the head of the old municipal council. In one of its first moves, the new committee created a National Guard, which together with the French guard was supposed to combat royal oppression and keep order within the capital.

Nevertheless, crowds continued to roam the streets in search of arms. Some people sought arms to protect themselves from the king’s mercenaries, who, it was feared, would perpetrate a “St. Bartholomew’s Day” massacre of patriots. Others wanted arms simply to protect themselves against the lawless elements unleashed by the uprising. The search for arms met with success on the morning of July 14 when a huge crowd of some eighty thousand people stormed the Invalides armory and took the thirty thousand muskets that had been stored there. Gunpowder, however, was lacking. It had been moved from the Arsenal to the Bastille several days earlier. The Bastille was an old fortress-prison in the center of Paris that had been built in the 1300’s to guard the city’s eastern gates, but which had been used for a prison since the seventeenth century. It had largely fallen into disuse, however, and in 1789 housed only seven prisoners—five criminals and two madmen.

The liberation of prisoners from the Bastille.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

Although the Bastille was all but impregnable if properly defended, the crowd decided to march on it on the afternoon of July 14 to demand gunpowder. The crowd did not march on the Bastille with the intention of releasing the prisoners incarcerated there or even of attacking it. Spokesmen for the crowd and the new committee governing the city simply demanded that the Bastille’s military governor, Bernard-René de Launay, withdraw his cannon from their menacing position along the citadel’s walls and turn over the stores of powder to the people.

De Launay complied with the first demand. During negotiations on the second demand, however, the besiegers managed to push their way from the outer court into the inner court of the fortress, whereupon de Launay panicked and opened fire on them. The fighting raged from about one to three o’clock in the afternoon, with the people suffering most of the losses. At three o’clock, the French guard brought up cannon. De Launay now reluctantly decided to surrender. Shortly after his capture, he was murdered along with Jacques de Flesselles, whom the people accused of misdirecting them in their search for arms. The mob then turned its wrath upon the Bastille itself and proceeded to destroy it. The Paris insurrection for all practical purposes was now over. Royal troops had been driven from the capital. The National Guard eventually succeeded in disarming those rioters who still roamed the streets.

Significance

The Paris Revolution, highlighted by the storming of the Bastille, had important results of an immediate and long-range nature. On July 15, the king went before the National Assembly to announce the dismissal of his troops and the recall of Necker. The National Assembly then dispatched a delegation to Paris, including its president, Jean-Sylvain Bailly, and the Marquis de Lafayette. The governing committee of the city named Bailly mayor of the Paris Commune, Paris Commune Commune (Paris) which had been officially organized as such on July 15, and appointed Lafayette to be commander of the National Guard. Lafayette soon afterward bestowed upon the National Guard a cockade of red and blue, the colors of Paris, between which he placed a white band, the king’s color. The tricolor thus became the new national flag of France. Louis, in a visit to Paris on July 17, accepted the tricolor, thereby giving formal recognition to his own inability to control the city and to the victory of the people of Paris.

More significant were the long-range effects of the fall of the Bastille. The event resulted in the first emigration of the reactionary nobles, who encouraged their host states to intervene politically against the Revolution. Politically, it completed the transfer of the king’s remaining authority to the National Assembly. Also, some of the larger cities throughout France, such as Lyon, Bordeaux, and Marseilles, imitated the example of Paris by establishing new city governments, appointing citizen’s guards, and capturing local royal fortresses. Socially, the fall of the Bastille encouraged the spread of peasant unrest, Peasant revolts;France the so-called Great Fear, Great Fear (France) thereby paving the way for the formal abolition of feudalism Feudalism;France in an all-night session of the National Assembly on August 4. Thus, the storming of the Bastille, which had been undertaken with the purpose of protecting the political gains made in May and June, contributed to creating a climate conducive to extensive social transformation.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Doyle, William. The Oxford History of the French Revolution. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. An authoritative and comprehensive account of French history between 1774 and 1802, written by a prominent historian. Includes information on the fall of the Bastille and its significance within the context of the French Revolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Godechot, Jacques. Taking of the Bastille, July 14, 1789. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970. A vivid account of the taking of the Bastille.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hibbert, Christopher. The Days of the French Revolution. New York: Quill/William Morrow, 1999. Each chapter of this book covers the significant events that occurred on a single day or other designated time period during the French Revolution. Chapter 2 recounts “The Day of the Vainquers de la Bastille, 14 July 1789.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lefebvre, George. The Coming of the French Revolution. Translated by R. R. Palmer. Bicentennial ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989. First published in 1947, this is a classic introduction to the causes of the revolution written from a sociological perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roche, Daniel. The People of Paris: An Essay in Popular Culture in the Eighteenth Century. 2 vols. Translated by Marie Evans and Gwynne Lewis. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987. A social history of the revolution describing the complexity of the Parisian milieu.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rudé, George. The Crowd in the French Revolution. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1959. A valuable work that refutes the idea that the Paris revolutionaries were nothing more than an unruly mob.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schama, Simon. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989. An epic and exceptionally vivid account of the French Revolution, its antecedents, and its impact, with special emphasis on the central role of violence in the revolution and the revolutionaries’ failure to realize their idealistic goals.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Soboul, Albert. The French Revolution, 1789-1815: Storming of the Bastille to Napoleon. Translated by Alan Forrest and Colin Jones. New York: Random House, 1975. A standard history of the French Revolution written from a leftist perspective.

Louis XVI Calls the Estates-General

Oath of the Tennis Court

France Adopts the Guillotine

Early Wars of the French Revolution

Execution of Louis XVI

Fall of Robespierre

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Eighteenth Century</i>

Jean-Sylvain Bailly; Georges Danton; Louis XVI; Marie-Antoinette; Jacques Necker; Robespierre. French Revolution (1789-1796);Bastille Bastille (Paris) Revolutionary wars, French

Categories: History