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FRENCH HISTORY

French history myths: The Bastille was stormed to free hundreds of political prisoners

The storming of the Bastille has become the iconic moment that symbolises the French revolution - but how did the event actually play out?

French history myths: The Bastille was stormed to free hundreds of political prisoners
Place de la Bastille, photo taken in March 2020 (Photo by BERTRAND GUAY / AFP)

Myth: The storming of the Bastille was done to free the hundreds of political prisoners held captive there

This myth is as old as the French revolution itself and the subject of numerous pieces of art.

The story goes that huge Parisian crowds came together at the Bastille prison on July 14th in 1789,  well armed and prepared to fight their way past the guards and military to free the hundreds of prisoners wrongfully convicted by the crown.

It’s true that the Bastille was stormed by a crowd, but at the time it was only housing seven prisoners, and none of them were known to have been rebelled against the crown in any notable way. According to records, the seven prisoners in the Bastille at the time were four counterfeiters, two ‘madmen’ and a nobleman accused of sexual perversion.

It is true that during previous centuries the giant prison was used to lock up those accused by the monarchy of sedition.

In the 17th century, King Louis XIV imprisoned over 2,320 people in the Bastille prison over the course of his reign, many of whom were protestants. 

The prison had also been known for incarcerating seditious writers, and eventually it built up a very reputation amongst the French public in the 18th century. By the mid-1700s, the prison was less frequently used, and during the reign of Louis XVI, only 306 people were imprisoned in the building. 

However, the structure still represented a symbol of the monarchy in the middle of the capital city, and once it was stormed, it helped demonstrate to the King – and the rest of the world – the seriousness of the revolutionaries’ demands.

Another reason the storming of the Bastille was a key victory for revolutionaries was what was being stored there: gunpowder. The Parisians succeeded in seizing both gunpowder they needed for their weapons, as well as the cannons housed there.

Ultimately, storming the Bastille marked a symbolic victory and, by many historians’ accounts, a clear start to the Revolution – which is why France’s Fête nationale is celebrated on July 14th.

In the years following, several authors, such as Alexandre Dumas and Charles Dickens, immortalised the Bastille prison as a place of torture for political dissidents and every day people alike. 

Now, the Place de la Bastille stands on most the former location of the famed prison. 

This article is part of our August series on popular myths and misconceptions about French history.

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FRENCH HISTORY

French history myths: France only sent one Statue of Liberty to the US

You might already know that New York's Lady Liberty was a gift from France, but did you know she is far from the only Liberty figure, and not even the only one to have travelled from France to the United States?

French history myths: France only sent one Statue of Liberty to the US

Myth: The French have only sent the Americans one Statue of Liberty

It is likely common knowledge that the United States’ iconic 93-metre-tall Lady Liberty is actually French in origin, gifted to the USA to mark 100 years since American independence.

But you might not realise that the New York City monument is not the only one the French have gifted to the United States.

In 2021, another – this time smaller – Statue of Liberty travelled to New York from France.

This replica was also meant to be a symbol of French-American friendship. Having previously been on display in Paris with the National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts, the statue travelled across the Atlantic to the United States in June of 2021. It eventually made its way from New York to Washington DC, where it went on display at the French ambassador’s residence for Bastille Day. It will remain there until 2031.

The conservatory told CNN that sending the statue to the United States was meant to “send a very simple message: Our friendship with the United States is very important, particularly at this moment. We have to conserve and defend our friendship.”

The original statue stands as the third tallest in the world, but she is not the only Lady Liberty in the world. The second-most famous Statue of Liberty was actually gifted to the French by Americans, specifically those living in Paris. Only a fourth of the height of the original, the Statue stands on the Île de Cygnes in the Seine river in Paris, facing westward toward the New York statue.

Several other replicas – at least 100 of them – exist across the world. There are several of them in France alone, and if you want to find them you can plan your Lady Liberty road trip by clicking HERE.

READ MORE: Where to find France’s 12 Statues of Liberty

The original Statue of Liberty also represents more than just the shared friendship between the United States and France.

French historian Édouard de Laboulaye came up with the idea for the statue and made the proposal for it in 1865. While the statue was intended to be a gift to strengthen the relationship between the two countries, Laboulaye was also an anti-slavery activist and avid supporter of the Union during the Civil War. He hoped that the statue would represent liberty and symbolise the freedom of thought repressed under Napoleon III’s regime. 

Eventually, it was sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi who brought the statue to life (reputedly modelled her face on his mother) helped by a famous engineer known for another and tall structure – Gustave Eiffel.

The statue was intended to mark 100 years since the American declaration of independence in 1776, but initially only the torch-bearing arm was displayed, the full statute was not finally completed for another 10 years and was dedicated in 1886.

This article is part of our August series on myths and misconceptions from French history.

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