The day after a Parisian mob stormed King Louis’ Bastille fortress, he asked the Duke of La Rochenfoucauld whether a revolt had happened in the city. The duke gravely replied “No, sire, it is not a revolt, it is a revolution.”
This sacrilegious act of tearing down the king’s symbol of divinely ordained power is considered the start of the French Revolution and the series of events that would irrevocably transform the future of Europe.
Economic woes spark political unrest
France’s heavy involvement in the American War of Independence, coupled with decades’ worth of tax evasion and corruption from the church and the elite, meant that by the late 1780s the country was facing an economic crisis.
This was felt most keenly in cities that were growing in tandem with the Industrial Revolution, and starving Parisians in particular had been restless for months. France’s medieval system of government only exacerbated tensions.
Louis XVI, who was a relatively weak king, had no legislative or executive bodies to help him deal with the situation; the only feeble attempt at creating one – a legislative and consultative body that was supposed to represent the three different classes, or “estates”, of French subjects – had not met since 1614.
By the summer of 1789, Louis’ kingdom was in a pitiful state and he called the members of this body, which was known as the Estates General, to Paris. Their conservatism, however, meant that little could be done.
The First Estate was composed of the clergy, who had no interest in removing their ancient right to avoid taxation, while the Second Estate was comprised of the nobility, who likewise had vested interests in resisting reform.
The Third Estate, however, represented everyone else – the more than 90 per cent of the population who bore the brunt of taxation, despite their poverty.
The Third Estate creates the National Assembly
After weeks of fruitless debate through May and June, the outraged members of the Third Estate separated themselves from the Estates General, declaring themselves to be the National Constituent Assembly of France.
Unsurprisingly, this development was well-received by the impoverished people on the streets of Paris, who subsequently formed a National Guard to defend their new assembly. This Guard adopted the revolutionary tricolour cockade as part of its uniform.
As with many anti-monarchical revolutions, such as the English Civil War, Parisians’ anger was initially levelled at the men around the monarch rather than Louis himself, who many still believed to be descended from God.
As popular support for the new National Assembly and its defenders grew in the first days of July, many of Louis’ soldiers joined the National Guard and refused to fire on unruly protesters.
The nobility and clergymen, meanwhile, were furious about the popularity and power of what they saw as the upstart Third Estate. They convinced the king to dismiss and banish Jacques Necker, his highly competent minister of finance who had always been an outspoken supporter of the Third Estate and taxation reform.
Up until this point Louis had been largely undecided about whether to ignore or attack the Assembly, but the conservative move of sacking Necker enraged the Parisians, who rightly guessed that it was the beginning of an attempted coup by the First and Second Estates.
As a result, instead of helping to defuse the situation, Necker’s dismissal brought it to boiling point.
The situation escalates
Supporters of the Assembly, who were now paranoid and fearful about what moves Louis would make against them, drew attention to the large numbers of troops being brought from the countryside to Versailles where the Assembly’s meetings took place.
Over half of these men were ruthless foreign mercenaries, who could be relied upon to fire on French civilians far better than sympathetic French subjects.
On 12 July 1789, the protests finally became violent when a huge crowd marched through the city displaying busts of Necker. The crowd was dispersed by a charge of Royal German cavalrymen, but the cavalry commander kept his men from directly cutting down protesters, fearing a bloodbath.
The protest then descended into a general orgy of plunder and mob justice against supposed royalist supporters throughout the city, with most of the royal troops either doing nothing to stop the protesters or throwing down their muskets and joining in.
What the protesters needed next was weaponry; the revolt had reached a point of no return and, knowing that armed force might be the only thing that could save them, the mob ransacked the Hôtel des Invalides in search of guns and powder.
They met little resistance, but found that most of the gunpowder had been moved and stored in the old medieval fortress of the Bastille, which had long stood as a symbol of royal might in the heart of the capital.
Though it was technically a prison, by 1789 the Bastille was barely used and housed just seven inmates – though its symbolic value and imposing appearance still underlined its importance.
Its permanent garrison was made up of 82 invalides, or men who had grown too old for front-line combat, but they had recently been reinforced by 32 crack Swiss grenadiers. With the Bastille also protected by 30 cannon, its taking would not be easy for an untrained and poorly armed mob.
The storming of the Bastille
Two days later, on 14 July, unhappy French men and women gathered around the fortress and demanded the surrender of the arms, gunpowder, garrison and cannon. This demand was refused but two representatives of the protesters were invited inside, where they disappeared in negotiations for several hours.
Outside the Bastille, the day slipped from morning into hot afternoon, and the crowd was growing angry and impatient.
A small group of protesters climbed onto the roof of a nearby building and managed to break the chains of the castle drawbridge, accidentally crushing one of their number in the process. The rest of the crowd then began cautiously entering the fortress but, on hearing gunfire, believed they were being attacked and grew enraged.
Facing a frenzied crowd, the Bastille’s guards opened fire on the protesters. In the ensuing battle, 98 protesters were killed for only one defender, a disparity that shows how easily the revolution could have been ended if Louis had only kept the support of his soldiers.
A substantial force of Royal Army troops encamped close to the Bastille did not intervene and, eventually, the mob’s sheer numbers carried it into the heart of the fort. The Bastille’s garrison commander, Governor de Launay, knew he had no provisions to resist a siege and so had little choice but to surrender.
Despite his surrender, Governor de Launay and his three permanent officers were dragged out by the crowd and butchered. After stabbing the commander to death, the protesters displayed his head on a pike.
Louis tries to appease his people
After hearing of the Bastille’s storming, the king began to appreciate the severity of his predicament for the first time.
Necker was recalled, while the troops (whose lack of trustworthiness had now been demonstrated) were moved back to the countryside, and Jean-Sylvain Bailly, the former leader of the Third Estate, was made mayor as part of a new political system known as the “Paris Commune.”
These were revolutionary times indeed. Outwardly at least, Louis appeared to get into the spirit of things and even adopted the Revolutionary cockade in front of cheering crowds.
In the countryside, however, trouble was brewing as the peasants heard about the revolution and began to attack their noble overlords – who began to flee as soon as they heard about the Bastille’s storming.
They rightly feared that the uneasy peace between king and people would not last, now that the power of the latter had truly been shown.