A good portion of the French-speaking world celebrates Bastille Day today, but how many know that by the time angry French citizens stormed the fortress prison in 1789 it had already been in existence for approximately 400 years?
The Bastille may have gained everlasting fame during the French Revolution but was built as the Bastion de Saint-Antoine during the Hundred Years’ War.
The Bastille originated as the Saint-Antoine gate, but from 1370–1383, during the Hundred Years’ War, the gate was extended to create a fortress to defend the east end of Paris and the Hôtel Saint-Pol royal palace.
After the war, which lasted from 1337 to 1453, it was turned into a state prison, with Louis XIII the first king to send prisoners there.
The Bastille could only hold a little more than four dozen prisoners, most of whom were common criminals such as forgers, embezzlers and swindlers, as well as people imprisoned for religious reasons such as Huguenots and those responsible for printing or writing forbidden pamphlets.
People of high rank were sometimes held there too, and so the Bastille was a far less sordid place than many other Parisian prisons. But the secrecy maintained around the Bastille and its prisoners gave it a sinister reputation.
Before the disturbances that grew into the French Revolution began, the decision had already been made to close the Bastille, as the cost of maintaining the medieval fortress and garrison for so limited a purpose outweighed its use.
There were but seven prisoners in the Bastille at the time it was liberated: four forgers, two “lunatics” and one “deviant” aristocrat, the comte de Solages. The Marquis de Sade had been transferred out 10 days earlier, according to Wikipedia.
Curiously, the Bastille was largely demolished by the end of 1789, with many of its stones being carted away as souvenirs.
(Above: Prise de la Bastille, artist unknown)