The storming of the Bastille

The Storming of the Bastille, in Paris, was the flashpoint of the French Revolution and signified the fall of the monarchy and royal authority.

A crowd of about 1,000 armed civilians gathered in front of the Bastille around mid-morning on the 14th and demanded the surrender of the prison. Negotiations began but, a few hours later, the angry crowd attacked the undefended outer courtyard and cut the drawbridge chains.

The governor Bernard-René de Launay eventually realized that his troops would not hold out much longer. De Launay called for a cease fire and offered terms to the attackers. The terms were refused but the governor acquiesced anyways and opened the gates to the inner courtyard. De Launay was then stabbed multiple times and had his head fixed to a pike to be carried through the city's streets.

The people expected a counterattack but it never came. The successful insurrection in Paris sparked the revolution and led, in the coming weeks to attacks on wealthy landlords in the countryside. The French Revolution had begun.

The storming of the Bastille and the subsequent Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was the third event of this opening stage of the revolution. The first had been the revolt of the nobility, refusing to aid King Louis XVI through the payment of taxes. The second had been the formation of the National Assembly and the Tennis Court Oath.

The middle class had formed the National Guard, sporting tricolor cockades (rosettes) of blue, white and red, formed by combining the red-and-blue cockade of the Paris commune and the white cockade of the king. These cockades, and soon simply their color scheme, became the symbol of the revolution and, later, of France itself.

Paris, close to insurrection, and, in François Mignet's words, "intoxicated with liberty and enthusiasm," showed wide support for the Assembly. The press published the Assembly's debates; political debate spread beyond the Assembly itself into the public squares and halls of the capital. The Palais-Royal and its grounds became the site of an endless meeting. The crowd, on the authority of the meeting at the Palais-Royal, broke open the prisons of the Abbaye to release some grenadiers of the French guards, reportedly imprisoned for refusing to fire on the people. The Assembly recommended the imprisoned guardsmen to the clemency of the king; they returned to prison, and received pardon. The rank and file of the regiment, previously considered reliable, now leaned toward the popular cause.

The storming of the Bastille was brought about by a combination of circumstances that weakened popular respect for the authority of the Ancien Regime. The events that lead to the storming of the Bastille arguably began across the Atlantic Ocean as the Ancien Regime had spent a fortune in backing the American Revolution. After the loss of the American colonies, Britain made peace with the new United States of America and her European allies, mainly France.

France had almost bankrupted itself in the bid to defeat Britain. The British state arguably showed strong powers of recovery, in complete contrast to the Ancien Regime across the channel. The storming of the Bastille would probably not have happened at all if the French government had remained solvent. It could for example have prevented or at least reduced the food shortages that directly lead to the storming of the Bastille.

Food Shortages

The storming of the Bastille was brought about due to the severe food shortages affecting France in the spring and summer of 1789. Three, or four bad harvests in a row, which meant that many people especially the poor in urban areas found it very difficult to feed them adequately, had blighted France.

The situation for the Ancien Regime was worsened by the royal family’s inability to cut back on its excessively extravagant spending whilst the state itself approached bankruptcy and the poorest members of French society were faced with the prospect of starvation. King Louis XVI despite being well meaning was not able to prevent the slide towards the French Revolution.