The 14th of July 1789: what really happened on Bastille Day?
First let’s put things in context. In 1789 France had been for decades in the grips of a budget crisis. It was due to the country’s absurd tax structure, and had recently been aggravated by the French support of the American Independence War.
King Louis XVI, in order to implement new taxes, had called a meeting of the Etats-Generaux, the Estates General, on May 5, 1789.
For the King and his entourage in Versailles, the Estates General were simply an ad hoc gathering of elected representatives of the Clergy, Nobility and Third Estate (the commoners) of France, with one specific mission: resolving the budget deficit. It was also an occasion to display the pageantry of the monarchy.
For the rest of the country, it was a call to reform all that was rotten in the kingdom. Within weeks, the representatives of Third Estate, soon joined by members of the nobility and the clergy, styled themselves the “National Assembly” and pledged to give France a written Constitution. In an absolute monarchy where the only rule had been le bon plaisir (“the good pleasure”) of the King, that in itself was a Revolution, and people already called it so before Bastille Day.
Louis XVI was a very undecisive statesman. Should we say that he was too kind a man to be a competent politician? He was torn between the hardliners, led by his wife, Queen Marie-Antoinette, and the reformists, led by one of his younger brothers, the Count de Provence. As a result, Louis XVI wavered between contradictory positions during all of the Revolution. How did the King react to the reunion of the commoners, noblemen and clergy into a single National Assembly? At first he strongly opposed it, then he encouraged it. All of this was happening in Versailles, ten miles from Paris.
What about Paris? Something extremely worrisome had happened there: the King had lost any control of law enforcement in his own capital. The city had been regularly racked by hunger riots, always crushed without mercy by a regiment called the Gardes Francaises, the French Guards (unlike much of the French Army, it was not composed of foreign mercenaries.) Some riots had ended with hundreds of casualties among the insurgents. People often ask why the French Revolution was so violent. The answer is fairly obvious: it occurred within an already violent society.
The Regiment of the French Guards, upon the initiative of Marie-Antoinette, had recently been given a new Colonel, the Duke du Chatelet. To say that the Duke was not popular with his troops would be an understatement. He proceeded to introduce Prussian regulations, in particular floggings for the slightest infractions. The result, predictably, was not German-style discipline, but French-style rebellion.
Before long the French Guards were in open mutiny against their Colonel. And keep in mind that those were the SWAT teams of the time, the men who were supposed to keep unruly Paris quiet. The French Guards were jailed pending court martial proceedings, and immediately became popular heroes. Were they not in trouble for their opposition to their Colonel, hand picked by Marie-Antoinette? The Queen’s degree is unpopularity is difficult to imagine today. Anyone or anything associated with her was considered evil.
Of course Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette knew of the French Guards’ mutiny and were duly worried. The King’s response was to post other regiments, composed of Swiss and German mercenaries, deemed more reliable, in and around Paris. The City was literally under siege, and, in the minds of many Parisians, it would be attacked momentarily.
This is the moment (July 11) the King chose to dismiss and exile Monsieur Necker, the Comptroller General of Finances. Necker was very popular at the time because people saw him as the only man who could resolve the budget crisis. His dismissal was met with astonishment and anger and, on July 12, a crowd went to the Salon de Cire, the Wax Salon, run by Mademoiselle Grosholtz (now famous under her married name of Madame Tussaud) and her uncle to ask for a bust of Necker, which they wanted to parade in triumph through the streets in Paris.
Madame Tussaud, in her remarkable Memoirs, describes the crowd as calm and respectful, but at the entrance of the gardens of the Tuileries, it encountered the Royal Allemand, the Royal German Regiment. Now Parisians were used to dealing with the French Guards, but the same level of brutality from foreign mercenaries was another matter. The encounter took a violent turn, the soldiers charged into the crowd and an old man was killed.
Public opinion is outraged. What made matters worse in the eyes of public opinion was that the Colonel of the Royal German was the Prince de Lambesc, cousin to Marie-Antoinette. Encore the Queen!
Soon the rumor spreads through Paris that the city, at the behest of Marie Antoinette, is going to be attacked by the foreign regiments encamped within and around it, and the population massacred. Everyone is on the streets, listening to improvised orators who exhort the people of Paris to form a militia to defend the city. In the morning of the 14 of July, 30,000 to 50,000 bourgeois, workmen and shopkeepers march on the Invalides, the veterans hospital, which also comprised a weapons depot.
The military governor of the Invalides does not oppose any resistance, and the regiments of Swiss Guards encamped nearby refuse to intervene. Thus the crowd seizes twelve cannons and thousands of rifles without any bloodshed. But very little ammunition is found within the Invalides. Someone remembers that gunpowder and bullets are kept in the fortress of the Bastille, on the other bank of the Seine River.
A delegation of insurgents is sent to the Bastille, with a request to its military governor, the Marquis de Launay, to assist. The Marquis is all politeness, but he refuses to give any ammunition. A second, a third delegation meet with the same response.
The crowd becomes nervous and leaves the Invalides to settle in front of the huge walls, drawbridge and forbidding towers of the Bastille. In the early afternoon, Launay, worried, orders the garrison to shoot into the crowd. This is the point of no return. The insurgents are now furious, and an attack on the Bastille becomes a foregone conclusion.
This is where the French Guards make a decisive appearance. Sixty-one of them have been freed from jail by the insurgents. These are professional soldiers, with much experience in urban warfare. They now position the cannons taken from the Invalides in front of the Bastille. Launay surrenders an hour later, around five in the afternoon, after being promised that his life and those of his soldiers would be spared.
It seems that Launay had anticipated the attack, because most of the prisoners, including the famous Marquis de Sade, had been transferred to other jails in the course of the previous days. Only seven prisoners remained in the Bastille at the time of its storming. However, no military preparations had been made to ward off an attack. Was the governor too confident in the thickness of its walls? All we know for sure is that the garrison comprised barely more than a hundred men, including thirty Swiss Guards and eighty partly disabled veterans.
The situation becomes very confused after the fall of the fortress. More than one hundred insurgents have been killed, scores wounded. The crowd is turning into a howling mob. Launay, once on the street, is massacred along with the garrison. So is soon afterwards Jacques de Flesselles, the Provost of the Merchants. Accused of collusion with the foreign troops, he is shot dead. His head, and that of Launay are cut off and paraded at the end of pikes.
Paris would never again have a Provost of the Merchants. The next day, the first Mayor of the city is chosen, a National Guard is formed, headed by the Marquis de Lafayette, and tricolor flags and cockades make their first appearances in the history of France.
This was not a riot as Paris had known so many times before. The fall of the Bastille signaled the beginning of radical change.