Bastille Day is a holiday celebrating the storming of the Bastille – a military fortress and prison – on July 14, 1789, in a violent uprising that helped usher in the French Revolution. Besides holding gunpowder and other supplies valuable to revolutionaries, the Bastille also symbolized the callous tyranny of the French monarchy, especially King Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette.
Built in the 1300s during the Hundred Years’ War against the English, the Bastille was designed to protect the eastern entrance to the city of Paris. The formidable stone building’s massive defences included 100-foot-high walls and a wide moat, plus more than 80 regular soldiers and 30 Swiss mercenaries standing guard.
As a prison, it held political dissidents (such as the writer and philosopher Voltaire), many of whom were locked away without a trial by order of the king. By 1789, however, it was scheduled for demolition, to be replaced by a public square. Moreover, it was down to just seven prisoners: four accused of forgery, two considered “lunatics” and one kept in custody at the request of his own family.
Storming of the Bastille
Bernard-René de Launay, the governor of the Bastille, watched in dread as a large and growing mob of angry revolutionists surrounded the fortress on July 14. Upon receiving a demand to surrender, he invited revolutionary delegates inside to negotiate.
Lacking any direct orders from Louis XVI, he purportedly received them warmly and promised not to open fire. Yet as the talks dragged on, the people outside grew restless – some may have thought their delegates had been imprisoned.
Eventually, a group of men climbed over an outer wall and lowered a drawbridge to the Bastille’s courtyard, allowing the crowd to swarm inside. When men began attempting to lower a second drawbridge, de Launay broke his pledge and ordered his soldiers to shoot. Nearly 100 attackers died in the onslaught and dozens of others were wounded, whereas the royalists lost only one soldier.
Bastille Day – known in France as la Fête Nationale or le 14 juillet (14 July) – is a public holiday in France, celebrated by nationwide festivities including fireworks, parades and parties.
Attendees will see France’s tricolor flag, hear the French motto Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité (liberty, equality and fraternity) and break into singing La Marseillaise – all popular symbols of France that had their origins in the heady days of the French Revolution.