[1789] - Storming of the Bastille

The storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789 was one of a series of events that marked the first stage of the French Revolution. On 5 May the Estates General, the legislative body representing the three social classes (or estates), convened for the first time since 1614. Its attempts to deal with the economic crisis and regressive system of taxation were, however, hampered by the political conservatism of the aristocratic Second Estate. Its failure to act led to the Third Estate, largely drawn from the French middle classes, reconstituting itself on 17 June as the National Assembly, whose primary aim was to draft a new constitution. Although the king was opposed to these developments, he was soon forced to acknowledge the authority of the assembly. Nonetheless, on 11 July he dismissed and banished his popular finance minister, Jacques Necker, an act that was widely seen as the beginning of a coup d’état by conservative factions.

On the morning of 14 July Paris was in a state of high alarm as the citizenry sought to arm itself. Demonstrators stormed the Hôtel des Invalides before around 1,000 people congregated outside the Bastille, a fortified state prison which had become a resonant symbol of the despotism of the Bourbon monarchy. High maintenance costs had, however, led to the decision to decommission the Bastille: on 14 July it housed only seven inmates, although a body of eighty-two permanent veteran soldiers stationed there had been strengthened by an additional thirty-two grenadiers of the Swiss Regiment who had moved there on 7 July.

As the demonstrators gathered, they demanded the surrender of the prison, and the release of the arms and ammunition stored there. Three representatives were then invited inside by the governor, Bernard René de Launay, to begin negotiations which lasted for several hours. Angered by the delays, the crowd surged into the unguarded outer courtyard and gunfire commenced. The battle continued throughout the afternoon until the governor ordered a ceasefire at around 5 p.m. and capitulated shortly afterwards. He was then taken to the Hôtel de Ville where he was stabbed to death: his head was fixed on a pike and carried through the streets. In total ninety-nine people died in the fighting.

The next day the king and his military commanders backed down. The royal troops concentrated around Paris were dispersed, Necker was recalled, and, on 27 July, he accepted a tricolour cockade, a symbol of the revolutionary movement. As a result of the success of the popular cause in Paris, insurrection spread throughout France.

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