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History of the Bastille in Paris France

The Bastille History

On 16 June 1792, the area occupied by the Bastille was turned into a square celebrating liberty, and a column was to be erected there.  Palloy laid the first stone, but the construction did not commence and a fountain was built in 1793.

As part of several urban improvement projects for Paris, in 1808 Napol?on planned to have a monument in the shape of an elephant built here.

Place de la Bastille

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History of the Bastille in Paris France

It was designed to be 24m in height, and cast from the bronze of cannons taken from the Spanish.  You would have been able to access the top was going to be achieved by a stairway set in one of the legs of the monument, however, only a scale plaster model was ever built.

Victor Hugo immortalised the monument in the novel Les Miserables, but it was demolished in 1846.

In 1833, Louis-Philippe decided to build the July Column as originally planned in 1792 and it was inaugurated in 1840.

Early history of the Bastille

The Bastille was built between 1370 and 1383 as part of the defences of Paris, and Charles VI of France reputedly converted the structure into a prison in the 17th century.  At that time it primarily housed political prisoners, but also religious prisoners and young rakes held at the request of their families.  When it became the main prison for those taken under 'lettres de cachet' that were issued by the King of France, it began to acquire a very poor reputation.

By the late 18th century, the Bastille building was made up of eight towers, which were around 24m high, and surrounded 2 courtyards and the armoury.

The prisoners were held at 5-7 storeys in the towers, each person having a room around 4.6m across and containing various articles of furniture.

The infamous cachots (dungeons), which were oozing, vermin-infested subterranean cells, were no longer in use, due to the disgusting nature of these lower cells.

The governor of the prison was given a daily allowance per prisoner, the amount depending on their status ranging from scientists and academics at the top, going down to the commoners at the bottom level and in terms of standard, even for the commoners, there were many worse prisons in France, including the dreaded Bicetre, which was also in Paris.

Storming of the Bastille

The confrontation from the commoners ultimately led to the people of Paris storming the Bastille on 14 July 1789, after several days of disturbances.  At this point, the jail was nearly empty, with only seven inmates.  There were 4 counterfeiters, 2 madmen, and a young aristocrat who had displeased his father.

A crowd of around 1,000 people gathered outside the Bastille, calling for the surrender of the prison, the removal of the guns and the release of the arms and gunpowder. Two people chosen to represent those gathered were invited into the fortress and slow negotiations began.

In the early afternoon, the crowd broke into the undefended outer courtyard and the chains on the drawbridge to the inner courtyard were cut.  An exchange of gunfire began and in the mid-afternoon mutinous Gardes Francaises of the Royal Army and 2 cannons reinforced the crowd.  De Launay ordered a ceasefire and despite his surrender demands being refused, he capitulated and the victors swept in to liberate the fortress at around 5:30pm.

98 attackers and 1 defender died.  De Launay was seized and dragged towards the H?tel de Ville, but was stabbed to death by the mob in the street and several of De Launay's officers were also killed. The Gardes Fran?aises intervened to protect the Swiss soldiers and the invalids of the garrison and the officer commanding the Swiss detachment later prepared a detailed account of the fall of the fortress which, laid blame on De Launay for his indecisive behaviour.

When the rioters had freed the 7 prisoners, they then beheaded the governor and the guards of the Bastille.

Many historians believe that the storming of the Bastille was more important as a rallying point and symbolic act of rebellion than any practical act of defiance, and it was not the image typically conjured up of courageous French patriots storming a towering fortress and freeing hundreds of oppressed peasants. 

Demolition of the Bastille

The fate of the Bastille was uncertain, but Pierre-Francois Palloy was quick to establish a claim, organising a force of demolition men around the site. Over the next few days many notables visited the Bastille and it seemed to be turning into a memorial, but Pierre-Francois Palloy secured a license for demolition and quickly took complete control.

He put much effort into the site as a paying attraction and producing a huge range of souvenirs, including much of the rubble and by November 1789 the structure was largely demolished.

History of Paris and the Bastille in France

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