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Allons enfants de la patrie !

Allons enfants de la patrie !

09 Jul 2013 BY Tim Wells 1

This month firework displays will light up French skies, the wine will flow, and in every village, town, and city the nation will celebrate its Fête Nationale, July 14th, which is known across the world as Bastille Day, as it commemorates the day in the revolutionary uproar of Paris in 1789 on which the Bastille Saint-Antoine, in the east of the city, was stormed and seized. Like many such glorious remembrances, the events it recalls have been rather ennobled by historical hindsight, and perhaps were not the result of the loftiest of ideals. Often portrayed as the liberation from a hated prison of untold numbers of suffering victims of royal oppression, the Bastille was in fact stormed by a raging mob in search of arms and ammunition, and the only prisoners liberated included four forgers, two lunatics, and a depraved nobleman who had been incarcerated on the request of his family. As luck would have it, a very famous Bastille prisoner indeed, the Marquis de Sade, had been transferred out 10 days previously when he began raving at passers-by from a top window.

The Bastille had by this time become a hated symbol of the despotic Louis XVI. Originally constructed in the late 14th century, the Chastel Saint-Antoine had been intended mainly as a stronghold against the English in the Hundred Years’ War. With its eight glowering 24-metre towers and its 15-foot thick stone walls surrounded by a moat with only one drawbridge, the Bastille would have been an imposing presence, but until the 17th century had been used mainly to house royal treasure, and as an armoury. Under Louis XIII, Cardinal Richelieu had begun incarcerating political and religious dissidents, and their ranks were gradually filled by some of the more extreme rakes during what were quite dissolute times. Any remaining cells would have been filled with common criminals, Protestants, or the insane.

In early 1789 Louis XVI’s kingdom was broke; the cost of his participation in the American War of Independence had capped decades of profligacy. After the failure of the Estates-General (les Etats-Généraux) to agree a solution, the Third Estate (Tiers-Etats) met and declared itself the National Assembly, with the aim of creating a constitution. The King, in the face of popular unrest, had to accept the new assembly, but goaded by some of his more conservative advisors he dismissed his finance minister Necker, who had been sympathetic to the Third Estate. Riots ensued; the crowds feared massive reprisals from the royal troops and their foreign mercenaries. Garrisons were stormed, arms seized, first from the Hôtel des Invalides, then the mob descended on the Bastille.

The governor of the Bastille, Bernard-René de Launay, who had been born within its walls, commanded a meagre guard of 32 regimental soldiers who had been drafted in only the week before, in addition to 80-odd general guards and staff. He attempted to negotiate with the crowd demanding the surrender of the prison and its arms, but just after mid-day the mob surged in and the firing started. The storming multitude gained reinforcements from armed veterans, and as some of the prison guards switched allegiance and turned their guns, the Bastille was lost. Although only one defender had died in the siege, De Launay surrendered, but in the bloodlust of the hour he was dragged through the streets, then butchered and his head cut off and mounted on a pike and paraded through the streets.

In a matter of days, the Bastille became the central symbol for the Revolution: the publication “Révolutions de Paris” on 17 July gave an entirely misleading account of the number of prisoners freed. Pierre-François “Patriote” Palloy was given the commission of destroying the edifice, and by the following November the Bastille had been largely dismantled, its stones sold off, with certificates of “authenticity”: shades of the Berlin Wall, 201 years later! A large number of stones from the Bastille were used in the building of the Pont de la Concorde, and the Paris Exposition of 1889 featured a reconstruction of the Bastille, a combination of museum and amusement park which proved highly popular.


  • Clarisse

    03:21PM 09 Jul 2013 Reply

    Merci pour ces informations!