The weeks leading up to the storming of the Bastille had been rife with rumours of a government attack on the people, and the growing fear and anger culminated in the still-celebrated event that is often seen as the start of the French Revolution.
The dismissal of Jacques Necker, the French Finance Minister, who had been a rare political figure trying to improve the lives of the average working man, inevitably provoked a violent response. In late 18th century France, where approximately 2.5 percent of the population ruled the commoner and paid no tax, any indication of taking away from the little liberty possessed by the French man was highly inflammatory.
Triggered by a perfect combination of revolution-inducing circumstances, including a dire economic situation, an incompetent monarchy and a staggeringly debauched aristocracy, the French Revolution was underpinned by the recent cultural movement ‘The Enlightenment’, where individualism and reason replaced traditional ideas of absolute power and the Divine Right of Kings. That this concept was put fully into practice during the Revolution is shown in the events that occurred at the Bastille.
The fortress of Bastille Saint-Antoine stood in the centre of Paris, and despite holding only seven prisoners on the morning of the 14th of July 1789, was a symbol of the repressive ruling classes and their power.
Starting at Les Invalides (the military church and hospital) an angry mob stole 28,000 rifles but, with no ammunition, they turned their sights on the Bastille. Despite being prepared for an attack on the fortress, the Marquis de Launay, governor of the prison, was caught off-guard not only when three times the number of protestors arrived, but when deserting soldiers from the Gardes Françaises joined the angry mob, providing the crowds with lethal skill.
Despite de Launday’s attempts at negotiations with representatives from the crowd, their excitement and anger could not be contained, and it boiled over into a raging mob. The outer parts of the fortress were breached, including the arsenal, and a bloody battle between the loyalists and the attackers commenced. The battle progressed brutally, and in an attempt to contain the violence, de Launay surrendered. In typical bloody revolutionary fashion, he and other defenders of the fortress were dragged through the streets of Paris, before being stabbed, beheaded and having their heads on pikes paraded through the crowds.
The result was unexpected – rather than commanding the crushing of the uprising peasants, the upper echelons of society began to flee the country, and similar insurgences began taking place all over the country. The storming of the Bastille undoubtedly provided the civil unrest with the momentum to become a revolution, something that was clear even at the time of the events themselves. When the King was informed of the storming of the Bastille, he fearfully asked ‘is it a revolt?’ to which his aide replied ‘no, Sire. It is a revolution’.