Episode 24 The Bastille

Storming of the Bastille
Storming of the Bastille

The Bastille

In today’s episode we talk about an area of Paris that has enormous significance in French history, yet only lives in our memory: La Bastille Saint Antoine. Elyse tells us who build La Bastille, what it was for, and how it became so important in French history. Voltaire was imprisoned in the Bastille, along with a lot of other famous and important people over the years. In this episode, we also talk about Bastille Day, a wonderful celebration all over France and how you can participate if you are in France this week.
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Show Transcript

Fireworks Eiffel Tower
Photo Yann Caradec

On today’s show we are talking about Bastille Day. As you may know, it is on July 14th in France, as a matter of fact, we call it “le quatorze juillet”. We don’t call it Bastille Day at all, we simply call it the 14th of July. Going through school in France, Annie does not remember being taught very much about the Bastille or the French Revolution. She probably snoozed through it! But, one thing she does know, is that you should not go looking for the Bastille fortress today because it is gone, it was destroyed. At this point there is only an outline of the fortress on the ground.


French Republican Guard
Republican Guard, photo Marie-Lan Nguyen

The Bastille Fortress

Bastille Saint Antoine

We are going to be talking about the Bastille Fortress today and describe what happened there. If you wish a French person a happy Bastille Day, they will not know what you’re talking about. Connecting 14 July two the Bastille is still the contentious idea in France to some degree. In general, the word Bastille means of fortification built into ramparts. The full name of the place we call the Bastille is “Bastille Saint Antoine”. This fortress was built in the 1370s by the King Charles V who decided it was time to fortify Paris. Paris looked very different in those days. He wanted to reinforce the Eastern ramparts of the city, which was much smaller than it is today. The Seine River runs east-west and we’re talking about the east side just north of the river. He wants to reinforce these ramparts for two reasons: one, two better defend the city from invaders (there is a major gateway to the city called Porte Saint Antoine right there and that’s why the Bastille also took the name of Saint Antoine). The second reason, is that the build himself a Castle in the area of Vincennes outside of the walls of Paris, because he was not a very popular King and there were uprisings. The Bastille was a great example of classical medieval architecture. It was a rectangle with a tower in each corner. Later it was enlarged and four other towers were added on. The entrance way in and out was the Saint Antoine doorway. So this was a gateway in and out of Paris in the 1300s. The Bastille was also an arsenal. It was never built to be a residence or a prison. The intent was for it to be a fortified military structure. The eighth towers all have names, and the one we are interested in is called Liberty Tower. Maybe the choice of name was sarcasm. Maybe it was called Liberty Tower because that’s where they placed privileged prisoners.


Bastille Exterior
Bastille Exterior

Different Uses for the Bastille

Paris around the year 1300
Paris around the year 1300

So, the Bastille is the landmark structure on the Eastern side of medieval Paris. Unlike other places in Paris, the structure itself did not change very much. What changed is the function of the building. Over the centuries, different kings he decided to use it in different ways. At first, it was an arsenal. Then it became a place where the Kings placed their treasures. It was a safe place with towers that were 24 m high. Later, it became a prison. But, even as a prison, it was used almost exclusively for political prisoners. There were other prisons “cachot” for common criminals. You would not have wanted to be placed in a cachot. Those were dingy holes underground, there was no evacuation or sanitation, many people would just die in those.


Storming of the Bastille by anonymous artist
Storming of the Bastille by an anonymous artist

A Prison where you Could Take your Servants

The Bastille was not like that. From the beginning, the Bastille was designed to hold 45 prisoners, this very large structure was only for 45 prisoners. These were always the upper-class political prisoners. Those prisoners were usually noble persons, they did not necessarily stay in prison for a very long time, and this is a place where they would bring their servants. They went to prison with their books, they were served to regular meals, they were served the same folder as the governor of the Bastille which was an extremely important function. Sometimes these noblemen were doing some plotting, or maybe they said the wrong thing. In the 1700s, Voltaire was thrown in the Bastille because he said or wrote something that did not please, and so he had to spend several months in the Bastille.

Voltaire by Maurice Quentin de La Tour (château_de_Ferney)

The Bastille and the French Revolution

Everybody associates the Bastille with the French revolution, but it’s mostly because it was associated with political prisoners. Very few people were killed in the Bastille, and very few people spend more than a couple of years there. Relatives who threatened royalty were put in the Bastille for short while until they could decide if they should banish them to the other side of the kingdom or send them away somewhere. All of this is true until the beginning of the 1600s.


The Arrest of the Governor of the Bastille
The Arrest of the Governor of the Bastille by Lallemand

Cardinal Richelieu

250 years after the construction of this fortress we come to a man who is very interesting and complex: the Cardinal Richelieu. He was the man who made all the decisions and was the Prime Minister to Louis XIII. Louis XIII is the son of Henry IV, the man who had turned the Bastille into the treasury for a while. When Henry IV is assassinated his son is still a minor. His mother is the Regent and she places her full trust in this man Cardinal Richelieu who is also a nobleman by birth. He is the man who conceives of the idea of absolute monarchy. He institutes the usage of the “lettre de cachet” and with that official letter he could throw anybody he wanted in jail (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lettre_de_cachet). He also introduced the concept of Raison d’Etat which is still used (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_interest) in France and other places in which states that in order to protect the state it is okay to do things that are normally not allowed. Richelieu threw a lot of people into the Bastille.


Cardinal Richelieu painting by Champaigne
Cardinal Richelieu painting by Champaigne

A Tale of Two Cities

If you are interested in this time period, you really need to read A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. It’s a wonderful book that has to do with the French Revolution and the Bastille. The book goes back and forth between Paris and London and a lot of it takes place around the Bastille. He describes in wonderful details the neighborhood of Saint Antoine and all the people who worked there.

A Tale of Two Cities

An Abuse of Power

Starting with Richelieu, the Bastille comes to represent an abuse of power. However, there were never that many prisoners in the Bastille. Most of the people were thrown in prison were sent somewhere worse. By the time we get to the 1770s, there are people who want to close the Bastille down and destroy it. By then, it is over 400 years old, it’s a prison, many people just wanted to get rid of it. If you walk three blocks to the West you’re in the Marais which has all these beautiful mansions from the 16th and 17th century, and nobody wants an ugly old prison in a neighborhood like that. Also, because this was a prison for political prisoners, the prisoners were delivered at night and night at the guards nor the shopkeepers around were supposed to know who was in the prison.


Trois Glorieuses
Gérard Lecture à l’hôtel de ville de la proclamation des députés_(31 juillet 1830) Trois Glorieuses

Marquis de Sade

One of the people who spent the longest in the Bastille and also one of the most famous prisoners was the Marquis de Sade. He escaped the French revolution because he was evacuated out of the Bastille a few months before the revolution.


Marquis de Sade as a prisonner
Imaginary depiction of the Marquis de Sade as a prisoner

Faubourg Saint Antoine

When the French revolution started, there was a lot of activity in the city in the area called Faubourg Saint Antoine. It is a popular area, but the people who live there are not poor. Some buildings have been seized, and when the word spreads that some buildings have been besieged for the revolution, the people in this area decided that it’s time to take over the Bastille. It has truly come to represent the notion of absolute power and abuse. But by the time the people take the Bastille there are only seven people left inside of the building, and two of them are crazy. So basically these are noblemen who were insane.


Year 1420 Medieval Bastille
Bastille Reconstruction Year 1420 Medieval Bastille

The Storming of the Bastille

A mass of hundreds of people with pitchforks, sticks, knives, and a few of them with guns. They know that there is gunpowder in one of the towers, and they want the gunpowder. The people storm the Bastille, it was relatively easy, the seven prisoners are let out, and on the next day, on 15 July, they started to tear the Bastille down. The Bastille was not the center of the hatred of the people, a lot of the people who stormed it simply wanted the stones from the building and the gunpowder. Every last piece of stone from the Bastille was taken and a lot of them were sold as souvenirs of the event very soon after it took place.


July Revolution
Révolution de 1830 Combat devant l’hôtel de ville 07/28/1830

The Marquis de La Fayette

The Marquis de La Fayette was a very interesting man who had come to visit America during its war of independence, during the American Revolution. He had become a fervent admirer of what had happened in the United States, and he was responsible for convincing some noblemen to participate in the French revolution and make a democracy. He was one of the people responsible for making the French flag red white and blue in honor of the American flag. He took a piece of sculpted fault Keystone from the Bastille and sent it as a present to George Washington. In Mount Vernon today. Unfortunately for the brilliant Marquis de La Fayette, these deeds did not prevent him from losing his head during the Terror. He was truly a man who believed in democracy. [Correction: Elyse misspoke, La Fayette had to flee France as a result of his political views during the French Revolution, but he died at age 76 of bladder disease.]


Marquis de La Fayette
Marquis de La Fayette

After the Storming

By now what is left of the Bastille is pieces of the foundation. There is only one spot in a small pocket park just south of the place de la Bastille, right along the banks of the Seine River, where they have taken the stones from one of the corner towers that were retrieved and dug up when they were working on one of the Metro lines in the 1890s (as you know the Metro in Paris is the oldest in the world) and the move them away because it was on the root of Metro line number one, and you can see them in this mini park. It took less than a week for the whole Bastille to be dismantled and carted away stone by stone.


1st Spahis standard guard
1st Spahis, photo Marie-Lan Nguyen

July 14, 1789

The day of the storming of the Bastille is the day were symbolically the revolution began even though it had started earlier. Exactly one year later, on July 14, 1790 the Federation, or Republic is officially declared. And the revolution goes along without descending into the terror for another couple of years. Then in 1793 we have the beginning of the beheadings and the guillotine. The King is beheaded and people who were too moderate in their views of the revolution are also beheaded. Nobody was ever beheaded in the Bastille. There were a few beheadings that took place on the spot that had been the Bastille, but by then it was gone. When the Bastille once stood is turned into a very large square with intersecting streets and it’s called la Place de la Bastille.


Place de la Bastille today
Place de la Bastille today

Bal Populaire de la Bastille

Very soon after it was torn down the area becomes a gathering place, a place where people come to celebrate victories in the revolution. One of the traditions that began on July 14 of 1790 is the dance of the Bastille, and it exists to this day (Grand Bal de la Bastille, often on the evening of July 13th), not only in Paris but all over the country. Check locally for events wherever you are in France on the 13th and 14 July.


Bal populaire du 14 juillet 1912 (Paris)
Bal populaire du 14 juillet 1912 (Paris)

Complex Events after the French Revolution

14 July was not declared a national holiday until 1880. The history of France was extremely complicated between 1790 and 1870. First you have the revolution, then you have Napoleon taking over, then you have the restoration of the King, then you have Napoleon coming back, then there’s another restoration of a king, then there’s a Republic, and it goes on and on like that until 1870. This was unfortunate for the people of Paris who suffered a lot.


Ecole Saint Cyr, photo Adrien Marquette
Ecole Saint Cyr, photo Adrien Marquette

The Bastille Was Always a Symbol

after 1789 the Bastille is gone, but there is still has the walls, part of the gate of Saint Antoine is still there. The whole idea of a “arrondissement” (it means a district) is also an idea from the revolution and was implemented by Napoleon. At the Place de la Bastille which is circular, you have a joining together of three of the districts of Paris: the 4th, the 11th, and the 12th. If you had a birds eye view over the Place de la Bastille you would see 11 major roads entering into this large circular plaza. The Place de la Concorde has 12 major roads intersecting around that plaza.


Paris Fire Brigade, photo Marie-Lan Nguyen
Paris Fire Brigade, photo Marie-Lan Nguyen

The July Revolution (“Trois Glorieuses”)

Right in the center of the Place de la Bastille is a huge column which was directed by the last French King Louis-Philippe in the 1850s (he was a Republican King, the King of the people of France) in common ration of an strange event that happened in 1830, so it had nothing to do with the French revolution per se. In 1830, for three days, also in July, on the 27th, 28th, and 29th of July there was a popular uprising in Paris because the King had been put back on the throne who was Charles VIII who was a descendent of a cousin of the King Louis XVI and he was extremely unpopular. You had appointed a whole group of people who were very strict monarchists. The people who had accepted to have a King again basically wanted a figurehead king like in England and when they saw who was being appointed to the government there was a revolt. The novel Les Misérables takes place in 1830 and if you don’t want to read the book, go see the movie. In the movie there is the scene of the people barricading a street of Paris and it wasn’t during the actual French revolution that later in 1830. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/July_Revolution) There were 800 people killed in that revolt but it did accomplish what it set out to do which is that the King Charles VIII was forced to abdicate and King Louis-Philippe was put in his place who was much more popular.


Eugène Delacroix La liberté guidant le peuple, Trois Glorieuses.
Eugène Delacroix La liberté guidant le peuple, Trois Glorieuses.

So the column that you see on Place de la Bastille which was placed there in 1840 is in honor of the July Revolution and not the French revolution. The column signifies the idea of freedom against the monarchy. Something that was supposed to be placed on the Place de la Bastille, again we go back to Napoleon who was amazing in his megalomania, he had come back from his campaigns in Egypt and some other place, and he wanted to erect a monument in the shape of an elephant with a cage on top like for a maharaja because he wanted to evoke his conquests to the East. Thankfully this project never happened.


Place de la Bastille Year 1800 Elephant Project
Place de la Bastille Year 1800 Elephant Project

The Place de la Bastille Today

Place de la Bastille is a bustling area. It is the conjunction of three Paris districts “arrondissements”, one is Le Marais (will podcast about it soon). You can walk to the Place de la Bastille from City Hall, you just walk along the Seine River through the Marais on Rue de Saint Antoine. You also have the 11th and 12th District which are very popular and have become very chic. The 11th is filled with art galleries, it’s the popular place for the 22 to 40 crowd. Lots of cool bars, book stores, restaurants, lots of small wonderful hotels. And also, since a 1989, on the Place de la Bastille is the opera house. It is new and modern and apparently has perfect acoustics, very ugly on the outside (thinks Elyse), is where our present formed. The old opera house called Opéra Garnier is now used almost exclusively for ballet. If you want to go to the opera, you go to the opera on Place de la Bastille.

Opéra Bastille, photo LPLT
Opéra Bastille, photo LPLT

If you walk around the Plaza which means crossing over a lot of busy boulevards, you will notice that right across from the opera house is a canal. This canal is Canal Saint Martin, and it’s a small canal, about 3 km long, that connects the Seine River to the basin of la Vilette (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bassin_de_la_Villette). This canal was originally built in the middle of the 1800s to bring water into the city of Paris, and also as a place to move coal, wood and heavy things. It was built on the part where the arsenal of the Bastille used to be. Apparently, if you take the Metro one line which goes from Vincennes on the east all the way to la Défense on the west, at the Bastille stop, there is a plaque underground that indicates where they found the foundation stones of the Bastille. Elyse thinks it’s on the north side (direction Vincennes) but she’s not sure.


Rue Montorgueil by Claude Monet
Rue Montorgueil by Claude Monet

It was on July 14 that the convention, the revolutionary document, adopted the the Marseillaise as the official anthem of France. A couple more random things: the Paris gay pride parade begins on place de la Bastille. It started in the 1980s, and it always starts there. It’s a very big, very popular event. Every Sunday afternoon, starting at 2:30 PM, and this has been going on for about 20 years, there is a huge gathering of people on roller skates or rollerblades, and the streets are closed off along the Seine River starting at the Place de la Bastille and you can ride for 20 km on your skates going West. There are some of the most famous brasserie restaurants in Paris near the place de la Bastille and is called BoFinger (http://www.bofingerparis.com/en/). And if you’ve ever read any of the Inspector Maigret Mystery stories (George Simenon is the author and he lived in Switzerland), the com L missaire Maigret (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jules_Maigret) lived on Boulevard Richard Lenoir right off of the place de la Bastille.


Bastille Day 2007 Photo Marie-Lan Nguyen
EMIA Bastille Day 2007 Photo Marie-Lan Nguyen

If you Are in France on July 14

if you come to France around July 14 there are many events that you can attend. There will be fireworks everywhere so long as you’re in a major city. If you’re in a small village, nothing much is going to happen, but if you go to the big cities there will be fireworks, concerts, parades, all sorts of things. The Bastille Plaza is an easy place to walk to from anywhere in the center of Paris, but otherwise you have three metros that go there, and too many buses to mention, you have lines 1, 5, and 8 on the Metro and it’s really easy to get to.


Colonne de Juillet where the Bastille once stood
Colonne de Juillet where the Bastille once stood

Military Parade on the Champs Elysées

Every year there is a military parade on the Champs Elysées. In the beginning they wanted to have the military parade started at the Bastille, but it got changed to the Champs Elysées.


French Republican Guard cavalry fanfare
French Republican Guard cavalry fanfare

One Last Thing from Elyse

When the national holiday on 14 July was proposed in 1890 there were many deputies and the French Parliament who were opposed to it because they said it was associated with the Terror in the guillotine, so there was a negotiation and they said no it’s not because of 14 July of 1789, rather it’s because of 14 July of 1790 when the Republic was declared. And to go back to the beginning, it is true that traced on the ground, on the pavement, is the outline of the fortress of the Bastille. You have to be careful because they’re crazy drivers going by there all the time.


Where the Bastille Fortress once stood is marked by these paving stones
Where the Bastille Fortress once stood is marked by these paving stones

Don’t go Wishing Anybody a Happy 14th

On July 14 you don’t wish French people anything. They just take the day off from work. People my parent’s generations age (in their 80s and 90s) watch the parade on TV. Annie has relatives who serve in French army and it’s a great honor to participate in the parades. There are foreign powers invited to participate as well, it’s a very big military show. The biggest honor you can have in France is to be invited to the garden party at the Elysée Palace, which is akin to being invited to the Easter egg hunt party at the White House. French people do watch the military parade, but for the most part it’s a day to relax away from work, go to a concert, maybe fireworks, may be a popular ball.

Champs Elysées, vue de la Concorde à l'Etoile
Champs Elysées, vue de la Concorde à l’Etoile

7 thoughts on “Episode 24 The Bastille”

  1. We lived for seven months on Blvd Richard Lenoir, three “blocks” from the Place and never knew about the blocks outlining the Bastille. We will go back.
    A great blog.
    Thank you

  2. Hi Annie and Elyse

    Your podcasts are great! Found you through the interview you did with Amatuer Traveller. Been devouring them one by one in prep for my first trip to France.

    Just a quick correction. Although the Jacobins most probably wanted his head, Laffayette managed to escape and had a long and interesting career post revolution and even post Napolean.

    He died of pneumonia and old age in the 1830 when The Terror was long over.

    Cheers and keep up the good work!

    1. I was wondering about that! It was the first time I heard that he lost his head in the Terror.

    2. Welcome to Join Us in France Consigliere and thank you for the correction. Best wishes on your preparations for your trip to France, you’ll definitely be a better informed tourist!

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