The Beginning of the End of the Ancien Régime - The Storming of the Bastille

14 July 1789, the citizens of Paris storm the Bastille, a prison, armoury and symbol of the Ancien Régime, traditionally marking the beginning of the French Revolution

“When despotism has established itself for ages in a country, as in France, it is not in the person of the king only that it resides. It has the appearance of being so in show, and in nominal authority; but it is not so in practice and in fact. It has its standard everywhere. Every office and department has its despotism, founded upon custom and usage. Every place has its Bastille, and every Bastille its despot. The original hereditary despotism resident in the person of the king, divides and sub-divides itself into a thousand shapes and forms, till at last the whole of it is acted by deputation. This was the case in France; and against this species of despotism, proceeding on through an endless labyrinth of office till the source of it is scarcely perceptible, there is no mode of redress. It strengthens itself by assuming the appearance of duty, and tyrannises under the pretence of obeying.” (Thomas Payne “The Rights of Man“)  

Prise de la Bastille by Jean-Pierre Houël

It was the Marquis de Sade, of all the people, who might have provided the masses with the straw that broke the camel’s back. An inmate of the infamous state prison of the French kings since 1784, the illustrious scion of the oldest, Frank-descended nobility of France was seen meandering along the battlements of the old fortress, crying to the restless natives of Paris: "They are killing the prisoners here!" The relative freedom de Sade enjoyed in prison speaks volumes about what conditions had been like during the last decades of the rule of House Bourbon. Inmates were allowed to bring their own objects of daily use, luxuries, books and whatnot, meals and medical care were better by far than those the rioters in the street had and the Bastille’s governor received at least 3 livres per day to guarantee the upkeep of a prisoner, twice the daily wage of a common labourer. And de Sade himself was the last one imprisoned there under the infamous royal lettre de cachet, more or less a blank cheque for confinement without a formal charge or trial. Nevertheless, the Bastille had long since become a symbol for the abuse of the absolutistic power of the king, the last royal stronghold in already insurgent Paris and, en passant, a magazine with 14 pieces of light artillery, extremely useful in barricade and house-to-house fighting and tons of powder and shot. And on July 14th, the powder magazine of the House of Bourbon finally exploded.

De Sade, incarcerated as usual

Finally spurred on by a rousing speech of Camille Desmoulins who told the people to wear chestnut leaves as cockades, the model for the tricoloured badges on the bonnet rouges of the Jacobins, and a mob of about 1,000 people stormed the Bastille. The commander of the place, Marquis Bernard-René Jordan de Launay, managed to put up a resemblance of a defence after he refused to surrender the fortress and especially the weapons to the revolutionaries, his few Swiss guardsmen and 80 invalids were overwhelmed and the inmates of the Bastille were set free, four forgers and two lunatics (not counting the Marquis de Sade). De Launay laid down his sword and was dragged, actually under safe conduct, to the Hôtel de Ville, a butcher cut off his head en route, the provost of the merchants of Paris, Jacques de Flesselles, tried to save him and was decapitated as well for his pains. Their heads were impaled on pikes and carried in triumph through the streets, the first aristo victims of the French Revolution. A year later, July 14th was already a national holiday and Citoyen Louis Capet, actually still King Louis XVI of France, was compelled to take an oath on the new constitution.

Camille Desmoulins’ cockades

Two days after the Storming, the demolition of the late 14th century complex, the symbol of the Ancien Régime, was ordered and the commissioned prime contractor, Pierre-François Palloy, came up with the bright idea to carve its stones into souvenirs, little models of the fortress, that were sold into every corner of revolutionary France. Patriote Palloy wrote a few songs on top of it, painted pictures and showed the public around the cellars of the former prison, appetisingly propped with skeletons and torture instruments. Unsurprisingly, Patriote Palloy became quite rich while the demolition was finished in October 1790. Today, last remnants can be seen on the platform of the Métro station at the Place de la Bastille, while the act of the storming of the place became its own myth and a synonym for the act that starts a revolution.
A contemporary model sold by Palloy, made of the stone of the Bastille

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