The aftermath of Bastille Day: what happened after the 14th of July 1789

I can never walk by the Place de la Bastille without thinking of the mighty fortress that used to stand there. A medieval oddity at what was then the city limit. Yes, I wish the huge walls were still there, towering over me.

I recounted the events of that fateful summer day of 1789 in a prior post. The attackers did not care about freeing the prisoners. Most of these, including the infamous Marquis de Sade, had been transferred a few days earlier to the dungeons of another medieval castle, at Vincennes (that one fortunately still standing, and beautifully restored.) Only remained at the Bastille those too frail or elderly to be moved. The crowd simply was after ammunition to defend Paris against the anticipated attack by the foreign regiments surrounding it.

Yet this day turned the tide of history because of its political impact. King Louis XVI announced from Versailles the withdrawal of the foreign regiments that had been surrounding Paris. The city would never again have a Provost of the Merchants, but a Mayor. The first one was Sylvain Bailly, a very able astronomer and less gifted politician.

Louis XVI himself came to Paris and, on the steps of the Hotel de Ville, accepted the new tricolor cockade from the hands of the Marquis de Lafayette. The white, symbol of Paris, mixed with the blue and red, colors of Paris. Maybe it was not a coincidence that Lafayette came up with the same colors as the American flag.


Interior of the Bastille in 1785

Within days, the now harmless Bastille became a tourist attraction. Parisians flocked to the former prison, turned into an improvised museum of horrors. They saw dungeons, below river level, that were permanently flooded, rusted torture instruments, human bones strewn upon rotting straw. Madame Tussaud, in her Memoirs, recounts her own harrowing visit there. Perhaps she got there ideas she would reuse later with great acumen…

But the demolition of the fortress had been decided. Outside its once formidable walls, little temporary cafés, sheltered under striped tents, sprang up in the summer heat. The old stones were being sold for construction or turned into all sorts of souvenirs.


Demolition of the Bastille, by Hubert Robert

Soon the old fortress was all gone, though its famous figure remained a symbol of the French Revolution, reproduced in countless engravings, popular images, crockery and other everyday artifacts.

The oddest thing was that, in any case, it would never had made it to our times. Its demolition had been discussed for some time before the Revolution, and it is almost certain that it would have been carried out as part of a vast program of modernization of Paris planned under Louis XVI’s supervision.

Yes, the Bastille was doomed, whether due to the well-meant efforts of Louis XVI or the wrath of early revolutionaries. I do not mean to end this post on a sad note, though. Happy Bastille Day to all!

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32 Comments to “The aftermath of Bastille Day: what happened after the 14th of July 1789”

  1. ME says:

    Dear Penny:
    The French Revolution happened AFTER the American Revolution. Looks like they learned a lot from us. It’s true- American Revolution was 1776. French Revolution was 1789. Thanks.

  2. ranjodh says:

    The doctrine of lapse was finished

  3. Genevieve Montgomery says:

    Okay, Catherine, this is the last straw, it is raining elephants. Yesterday I came across an image of an elephant which was planned for Place d’Etoile in the mid-18th century! 1758–Charles Ribart.

  4. Genevieve Montgomery says:

    Goody–I can’t wait for the ostrich and elephant posts! Provence is sounding like a very modern politician. In the middle of the post you referred: I think your suggestion for why the marriage had gone unconsummated is very insightful, and of course very political. The political reality made the court go ’round, but modern people enjoy sensationallist speculation having to do with sexual function, and of course it fits in with the perception of XVI as impotent in all ways.

  5. The pamphlets picked up with MA’s first pregnancy. That was a threat to the Comte de Provence, later Louis XVIII, and he was intent on casting doubts on the parentage of his nephews. Not nice, but that’s politics, I guess. I will need to write a post about this ostrich cartoon too…

  6. Genevieve Montgomery says:

    Hi C,
    I will check it out again.
    I think later on A respected her more when she became a mother. So maybe the pamphleteers picked up where she left off..although Xv’s children
    had no problem referring to Pompadour with obscenities. I do remember a political cartoon with an ostrich; I probably didn’t get it, not knowing the French word for ostrich.

  7. Adelaide was the first, bien sur! Have you seen my post on the topic:

  8. Genevieve Montgomery says:

    Wow, Catherine, your response to my pachyderm (sp?) query is so fascinating, and surprising and ironic! I just tossed out an odd example of an animal; could have chosen a llama for all I knew– but Subconsciously maybe :-) ostrich, for the opportunity to be enlightened with the associations you brought up!!! I also never heard of the Austrian bitch reference, only ‘that Austrian woman’–was Adelaide responsible for this turn of the word, or the pamphleteers?

  9. Why did Napoleon want an elephant there? Excellent question, and one I can’t answer.
    The ostrich is easy: it was out of the question because of its association with Marie-Antoinette due to the similarity between autruche (ostrich) and Autriche (Austria) in French. Her enemies called her at first l’Autrichienne (the Austrian Woman), then l’Autruchienne (the ostrich/bitch).

  10. Genevieve Montgomery says:

    PS I’d read about the Spanish cannons, but still, an elephant? Why not an ostrich? Did Napoleon have a thing for elephants?

  11. Genevieve Montgomery says:

    I’ll take a bronze elephant and ‘you’ can have a 1989 Opera. BTW Does the Opera stand where the elephant once stood.

  12. Yes, there is indeed an elephant at Elephant & Castle.
    The Bastille elephant, in its final version, was supposed to be made of the bronze of cannons seized from the enemy. Presumably we would still have it if that had been the case. Sigh…

  13. Genevieve Montgomery says:

    Is there an elephant statue at Elephant and Castle? I would not put it past the English…
    As for Napoleon, there had to be a practical purpose rooted in military affairs; is it symbolic of a victory or a country? I do not know very much about the Empire, or Napoleonic wars.

  14. Well, Genevieve, you have Elephant and Castle in London… :)

  15. Genevieve Montgomery says:

    Hi Catherine,
    Yes, I did know who and why, I was just pondering–what was it about Napoleon that he would come up with such a fantastical whimsical specimen to install on such a Place? We know that Napoleon was, outsized, yet still, it is quite humourous. It is hard to imagine such a statement made in NYC’s Columbus Circle, or Union Square, unless it came from Barnum and Bailey.

  16. Who? Napoleon’s idea.
    Why let it rot? It was just a plaster model, never meant to last for decades, as it did.
    Do I miss it? I would prefer the medieval building, but the elephant would be fun. More fun than the column or the new Opera.

  17. Genevieve Montgomery says:

    Catherine, I am glad you like the elephant! I was googling it last night after commenting, and the more I read about it, and the more images I came across the more fascinated I became! Who would stick an elephant in a square, and let it rot there?

  18. There are very few artifacts at Carnavalet I don’t find fascinating. The mementos of the Bastille are among the most evocative.

  19. What a great idea for a new post, Genevieve! A history of the Place de la Bastille, complete with the elephant… Stay tuned.

  20. Genevieve Montgomery says:

    I rather like the model of the Bastille in the Musee Carnavalet. It inspires my imagination to see the replica and try to picture how the Bastille appeared to its’ contemporaries.

  21. Genevieve Montgomery says:

    Wouldn’t it have been fun to see the old elephant? Have you ever written a post on the elephant? Wasn’t it a work of Napoleon? And then it apparently decayed in public view for too long?

  22. The column in the middle of the Place doesn’t do much for me either…

  23. My pleasure, it is a great post!

  24. Genevieve says:

    Those big medieval walls would have been easier on my eyes than, ( from my eyes’ view ) is the eyesore of the new opera.

  25. Matterhorn says:

    Oh, dear Madame Delors, thank you so much for linking to my post! That means alot coming from you, I’m very touched.

  26. Dear all, here is the link to Matterhorn’s post about the death of the Duc d’Orleans:

  27. Matterhorn, beautiful post you wrote about the death of the young prince!
    What would Marie-Antoinette do? She wasn’t in a celebratory mood after Bastille Day (and right she was.)
    Mistress of the Blog: the touristy thing only lasted one summer…
    Brian, welcome to Versailles and more! Any historical novelist worth her salt will thoroughly research her subject.
    Penny, the American red, white and blue came first. :)

  28. Penny says:

    thank you for this post, that red, white and blue cockade does make me wonder if that is the real reason the US flag is red white and blue. We learned so much from France. Unfortunately, I think the way the rage of the common people came out scared some of the founding fathers such as Hamilton.

  29. Brian Pape says:

    Good afternoon.
    Just surfing on Robespierre and naturally made my way to this blog.
    Very interesting reading on Marie Antoinette.
    Bettre still, I may search out and read the books of Catherine Delors.
    Ordinarily, writers do very little research on their topics, this is not so here. My favourite writer is Nicholas Monsarrat. Well known for his writing.
    Cheers and lets have another book.

  30. Thanks for posting this. I’d hadn’t realized it had become a tourist destination of sorts. It’s strange how that happens. I put a link on my blog to the post too.

  31. […] How to impress your friends Author Catherine Delors explained how the Bastille became somewhat of a tourist attraction after […]

  32. Matterhorn says:

    It seems rather a strange coincidence (given the revolutionary background of the Orléans family) that Louis-Philippe’s eldest son and heir would later die, in that awful carriage accident, just the day before this anniversary.

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