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.
#OtD 14 Jul 1789 the people of Paris stormed the Bastille, a notorious prison and a symbol of power and the old order. This marked the first victory in the French Revolution. https://t.co/gq1DJKOFgU pic.twitter.com/yhShZgvyAJ
— Working Class History (@wrkclasshistory) July 14, 2021
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.