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This Week In History / Weekly Highlights

The Storming of the Bastille. July 14, 1789.

The Storming of the Bastille took place in Paris on July 14, 1789. Although the medieval fortress only guarded seven prisoners, its fall into the hands of the Parisian revolutionaries symbolized the end of the Ancien Régime, and was a flashpoint of the French Revolution. The surrender of the prison as a symbol of the monarchy´s power and despotism, sent shockwaves not only across France, but also throughout the rest of Europe, echoing as far as Russia.

The importance of the Storming of the Bastille was not all that relevant, and its symbolic value overblown as the main representation of the fall of the monarchy´s absolutist power. Over time, the story took on legendary proportions over what really took place. It wasn´t an act as strategically or politically important as presented by romantic historiography.

The Bastille had been since its inception a fort, and a prison for many victims of royal  arbitrariness. Those who were pointed out by the king could be imprisoned by a simple lettre de cachetThe medieval fortress had been part of the city walls built by Charles V, but had been partly demolished in the 17th century, as their military use became unjustified at the time.

According to the Cahiers de doléances (letters of grievance) of Paris the Bastille’s demolition had been demanded on several occasions. The finance minister Necker had urged its destruction since 1784 because of the high maintenance costs. By 1788, the Bastille’s closure was imminent, which is why it had such a small number of inmates at the time. When the storming took place in July 1789, the only inmates where four counterfeiters, a nobleman condemned for incest, a man imprisoned by his family as a “lunatic”,  and August Tavernier, who had attempted the assassination  of Louis XV. One other inmate, the famous libertine, the Marquis de Sade, had been transferred out only ten days before.

The Revolutionary image of notorious dungeons into which those victims of the monarch´s impulses rotted away in misery, nevertheless, did not wholly correspond with reality, although it did reflect a reputation that had existed during the previous century, when Cardinal Richelieu started using it as State prison.

The dismissal of Necker was thought to have triggered the Storming of Bastille, and the subsequent  late and inadequate measures taken by Louis XV gave the revolutionaries an edge that eventually led to the first events of the French Revolution.

At 8 am, on July 15, 1789, the king was awakened by the Duke of Rochefoucauld-Liancourt in the Palace of Versailles, informing Louis of the Storming of the Bastille.

“But… is it a rebellion?” asked the monarch.

“No, Sir… it´s not a rebellion. It´s a revolution” answered the duke.

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