Places of the French Revolution: The Bastille

Many places in France hold memories of the French Revolution and among the places perhaps most associated it is the Bastille. This impregnable building was originally built as a fortress and metamorphosed into a prison. It was located on the left bank of the Seine and served as a lightning rod for French revolutionaries who viewed it as a symbol of Louis XVI’s tyranny and monarchical despotism and who, as a result, stormed it on 14 July 1789.

Bastille and the Porte Saint-Antoine (right) in 1420

Historical reconstruction showing the moat below the walls of Paris (left), the Bastille, and the Porte Saint-Antoine (right) in 1420.

This fortress, originally known as the Bastille Saint-Antoine, was built during the Hundred Years’ War to defend Paris against the English. Construction began in 1357, and, initially, it had two towers. It was during Charles V reign and under the Paris provost, Hugues Aubriot, that primary construction occurred. That construction started in 1370. It was an innovative design with eight towers and protected the strategic gateway of the Porte Saint-Antoine, which was located on Paris’s eastern edge. However, by 1417, the Bastille was no longer considered a fortress as it was declared a state prison. 

When Louis XIV, known as Louis the Great (Louis le Grand) or the Sun King (le Roi-Soleil), came to power in June of 1654, the Bastille was operating primarily as a state penitentiary. Louis XIV began to use the Bastille to hold upper-class members of society who opposed or angered him. Prisoners included Huguenots (French Protestants) after the October 1685 Edict of Fontainebleau revoked the April 1598 Edict of Nantes (an edict that granted the Huguenots the right to practice their religion without persecution from the state).

Louis XIV, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Louis XIV. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In the early to mid-1600s, boulevards and a moat were built around the Bastille. Entrance to the prison was on the right hand side, at the end of the Rue St. Antoine. It also had an advanced Corps de Garde (guardhouse) with a sentinel stationed there day and night. Near the Corps de Garde were drawbridges that led to a great gate and a lesser gate that led to a building known as the court of l’Hotel du Gouvernement. It was separated from the great Court by barriers, including thick plates and iron bars. Additionally, to achieve entrance into the great Court, a person passed two drawbridges, five gates, and three Corps de Garde that had sentinels posted.

A description of the Bastille before it was destroyed appeared in a book on state prisons and was reprinted in the Chester Chronicle in August of 1789:

“This castle is a state prison, consisting of eight very strong towers, surrounded with a fosse about 120 feet wide, and a wall 60 feet high. The entrance is at the end of the street of St. Antaine, by a drawbridge, and great gates into the court of l’Hotel du Gouvernement; and from thence over another drawbridge to the Corps de garde, which is separate by a strong barrier, constructed with beams plated with iron, from the great court. The court is about 120 feet by 80. In it is a fountain; and six of the towers surround, which are united by walls of free-stone ten feet thick up to the top. At the bottom of this court is a Court du Puits. This court is 50 feet by 25, contiguous to it are the other two towers. On the top of the towers is a platform continued in traces, on which the prisoners are sometimes permitted to walk, attended by a guard. On this platform are 13 cannons mounted, which are discharged on days of rejoicing. In the corps de logis in the council-chamber, and the kitchen, offices, & c., – Above these are rooms for prisoners of distinction, and over the council-chamber, the King’s lieutenant resides. In the Court du Puits is a large well for the use of the kitchen.

The dungeons of the tower de la liberte extend under the kitchen, &c. – Near that tower is a small chapel on the ground floor. In the wall of it are five niches or closets, in which prisoners are put one by one to hear mass, where they can neither see nor be seen.

The dungeons at the bottom of the towers exhale the most offensive scents, and are receptacles of toads, rats, and other kind of vermin. In the corner of each is a camp bed, made of planks laid on iron bars that are fixed to the walls, and the prisoners are allowed some straw to lay on the beds. These dens are dark, having no windows, but openings into the ditch; they have double doors, the inner ones plated with iron. There are three of them. They are formed of beams with strong plates of iron, and each is eight feet by six.

The calottes, or chambers at the top of the towers, are somewhat more tolerable. They are formed of eight arcades of free-stone. Here one cannot walk but in the middle of the room. There is hardly sufficient space for a bed from one arcade to another. – The windows being in walls ten feet thick, and having iron grates within and without, admit but little light. In these rooms the heat is excessive in summer and … cold in winter. They have stoves.

Almost all of the other rooms (of the towers) are octagons, about 20 feet diameter, and from 14 to 15 high. They are very cold and damp. Each is furnished with a bed of green serge, &c. All the chambers are numbered. The prisoners are called by the name of their tower joined to the number of their room.”[1]

The Bastille. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Over the years, the Bastille acquired names for each of its eight towers. Traveling from the north-east side of the external gate around the towers they were:

  • La Chapelle (the chapel), which housed the prison’s chapel, thereby receiving its name.
  • The tower Trésor (treasure) contained the royal treasurer during the reign of Henry IV.
  • Exactly how the tower Comte acquired its name is unclear. However, some people believe it refers to the County of Paris.
  • Bazinière tower was named for Bertrand de La Bazinière, a royal treasurer who was imprisoned at the Bastille in 1663.
  • Bertaudière tower was named for the medieval mason who died there while building it in the 14th century.
  • The tower Liberté (freedom) acquired its name one of two ways: either because of a protest outside the castle in 1380 where Parisians shouted the phrase or because it was used to house certain prisoners that were allowed to walk around and had more freedom than most typical prisoners.
  • The Puits (well) tower contained the castle well.
  • Coin (corner) tower formed the corner of Rue Saint-Antoine.

Louis XV came to power in 1722, and Louis XVI, who began to reign in 1774, detained prisoners of varied backgrounds at the Bastille. However, during the time of Louis XVI’s reign, the Bastille came to represent more than just a prison. Surrounding it were two areas — one filled with French aristocrats and the other housing the common working class known as the sans-culottes. The Bastille served to separate these two groups. Nobles and aristocrats lived in the fashionable Le Marais quarter frequented by tourists and the wealthy. On the opposite side was the faubourg Saint-Antoine, a working class district that was densely populated and filled with the workshops of the sans-culottes.

Bastille: Louis XV, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Louis XV. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Beginning with Louis XV, and, even more so during Louis XVI’s reign, the socially undesirable began to be imprisoned at the Bastille. The overall number of prisoners also began to decline considerably, with annually only about 20 or 30 people being incarcerated during Louis XVI’s reign. However, people continued to view the Bastille as a symbol of the King’s tyranny because he could, at will, imprison anyone for any reason. One opinion of the Bastille expressed by Brossais du Perray in 1774 was how many other people felt:

“The general turn of conversation is now of exiles, proscriptions, and prisons; and of these last the Bastille is without doubt the most dreadful. The office of spy and informer is so frequently and so ingeniously executed, as to excite a dread in the breast of every citizen, that he may possibly one day become an inhabitant of this abode of horror and despair.”[2]

Adding to the unfavorable view were crop failures, hunger, and unemployment during Louis XVI’s reign, which when added to revolutionary sentiments resulted in a storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789. Unfortunately, revolutionaries must have been extremely surprised to discover a mere seven prisoners: four convicted of forgery, one charged with a number of sexual crimes by his family, and two men who were mentally ill, with one being elderly, white-haired, and white bearded, who many claimed to be the Comtes de Lorges and whom Madame Tussaud claimed to have met and taken a likeness of his face.

Bastille: Louis XVI, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Louis XVI. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

After the storming of the Bastille, revolutionaries were unsure whether to destroy it or not. However, one of the early leaders of the revolution, Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau, settled the question. He began the destruction of the battlements. This destruction was followed up by a bourgeois entrepreneur, Pierre-François Palloy, who took charge. “Meanwhile all Paris flocked to visit the Bastille while the fortress was demolished stone by stone by the people of Paris.”[3]

Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, marquis de Mirabeau, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

By November of 1789, Palloy and his team reduced the Bastille to nothing more than a pile of stones. Palloy also had an entrepreneurial spirit. He created a flourishing industry selling memorabilia related to the Bastille, including replicas of the Bastille, such as “medals, dice-boxes, paperweights, snuff-boxes, ink-pots, and the like.”[4] Such memorabilia was so popular, even Madame Tussaud’s mentor, Philippe Mathé Curtius, obtained a piece of it and eventually displayed it at his Salon de Cire.

In 1793, in place of the Bastille, a large fountain was constructed that featured Isis, and the site became known as the Place de la Bastille. Napoleon was unhappy with the symbolism of the Bastille and had an idea to construct a grand elephant, the Fountain of the Elephant. But it resulted in nothing more than a large plaster version that deteriorated and was eventually destroyed. Finally, in 1833, the King of the French, Louis-Philippe, son of Louis Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, and his wife, Louise Marie Adélaïde de Bourbon, built the July Column to commemorate the Revolution of 1830. It is that column that now stands where the Bastille once stood.


  • [1] “The Following Description…,” in Chester Chronicle, 17 August 1789, p. 4.
  • [2] Historical Remarks and Anecdotes on the Castle of the Bastille, 1789, p. v.
  • [3] Leslie, Anita and Pauline Chapman, Madame Tussaud, 1978, p. 49.
  • [4] Kates, Gary, The French Revolution: Recent Debates and New Controversies, 2006, p. 88.

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