All About the Bastille

The storming of the Bastille took place on 14 July 1789.
The storming of the Bastille took place on 14 July 1789.

The Bastille was originally built by Charles V, as a fortified gate to the Paris city walls in the mid-14th Century. It was originally intended to aid the defence of Paris from English attack, as hostilities between the nations were at a heightened peak. However, by the 17th Century, the gate had been transformed into a full-blown military fortified armoury and prison, used by the French monarchy and nobility to detain political troublemakers and convicts.

Holding on average 40 enemies of state at any one time, the prison became synonymous for the state’s authority and fascism, with people interned by a simple lettre de cachet (a direct arrest warrant that could not be challenged), which was signed by the King. Further, under the reign of Louis XIV, the Bastille became a place of judicial detention, where the lieutenant de police could hold prisoners. It also became a storage facility for any prohibited books and pamphlets (usually political or religious) deemed undesirable by the state.

The structure of the Bastille focused around eight, 30m (98ft)-high towers, linked by massively reinforced stone walls. The walls, which were 3m (10ft) thick at the base, were surrounded by a 24m (79ft)-wide moat, which itself was surrounded by a series of other smaller fortified walls and structures. The positioning and circular shaping of the towers not only vastly increased the defensive resistance of the Bastille but also gave the soldiers mounted on top great 360-degree vision, capable of viewing the interior courtyards and surrounding territory easily. The linked nature of the towers also allowed soldiers to move from tower to tower, without having to descend to ground level first.

The interior of the Bastille consisted of two main courtyards, offices, apartments for lower-status officers, a council chamber for interrogation, multiple armament stores, dungeons, cells, dwellings for turnkeys, a kitchen and a small chapel. Cells varied in type dramatically, ranging from dark dungeon rooms filled with rats and water through to spacious apartments with stoves, chairs and beds, up to cramped and supremely cold tower rooms, where moving freely was incredibly difficult. The type of room that a prisoner was interned in depended on their social class (nobility were allowed the better rooms and even outside guests), amount of money and seriousness of crime committed.

Execution was handled in three main ways within the Bastille: hanging by the gallows, beheading by the axe, or burning at the stake. Nobles were the only class of person who had a say in how they died, given the chance to opt for beheading, which was seen as the proper way for them to be executed by the aristocracy. Interestingly, due to the vast public interest and attendance at beheadings, they were never scheduled on the same day as a theatre premier.

In general, the Bastille delivered a far greater level of comfort than most other prisons in use at the time. However, due to its housing of many political activists and enemies of the state, it became a symbol of the monarchy’s decadent and fascist regime. This came to a head on 14 July 1789, when revolutionaries approached the Bastille in order to ask its governor, Bernard Rene Jourdan, to release the large amounts of arms contained within to aid their cause. Jourdan was evasive; angered by his seemingly pro-monarchy actions, the revolutionaries subsequently stormed and captured the Bastille.

Image credit: Rama