Every July 14, many French people dust off their tricolor flag and take to the streets to celebrate what they consider to be the most important day of the year.
In the morning a pompous military parade is organized on the famous avenue des Champs Elysées and later, at sunset, the Eiffel Tower offers a fireworks display synchronized with a mixture of classical music and hits from the moment that Parisians watch with bottles of champagne from all corners of the city.
However the July 14th has its origin in a slightly less festive event: the unexpected and violent taking of a medieval fortress known as the Bastille more than two centuries ago, in 1789.
It was a watershed moment in world history, which marked the beginning of the French Revolution and with it the beginning of the end of one of the most powerful monarchies of the time.
It also generated changes in European societies and throughout the world, serving as inspiration for many other revolutionary initiatives, such as the wave of independence that would begin a couple of decades later in Latin America.
In this article we will tell you five things that you may not know about this event.
1. The big trigger
August 25, 1788 Jacques Necker was appointed finance minister to King Louis XVI, but his removal almost a year later caused discontent and encouraged Parisians to take up arms.
At the beginning of 1789, France was going through a great financial crisis caused by the country’s enormous debt and the incessant spending of the monarchy in conflicts with England.
To confront it, the king convened an extraordinary general assembly in Versailles in May with representatives of the three strata of French society at the time: the clergy, the nobility and the common people or third state.
The income of the third estate, the less privileged class, had been diminished after a tax hike aimed at helping to alleviate the debt.
In that assembly, Necker was in favor of the idea of giving the third state a representation according to its demographic importance, opposing the three orders having an equal voice.
This proposal was not liked by the nobility or the clergy, minority but very powerful, and considered it a betrayal.
That is why King Louis XVI decided to fire him on July 11.
The news of his departure lit the streets of Paris. The people saw him as the only councilor who thought of them and feared the consequences of losing a “patriotic minister.”
The revolutionary journalist Camille Desmoulins invited the Parisians to protest in front of the Royal Palace the next day, but they were forcefully dispersed.
And this irritated the French even more. In the days that followed, the capital experienced violent looting, until on July 14 the revolutionaries decided to take up arms and went to the Bastille fortress.
Little did they know that a great revolution would begin that day.
2. It only housed 7 prisoners
Since the fourteenth century, the Bastille had been one of the kings’ favorite prisons, although in the years before their assault it was already in decline.
So much so that the monarchy had considered closing it and that July 14 the medieval fortress only housed seven prisoners.
Four were criminals minors who were there while the complaints filed against them for forgery of bills of exchange were being processed.
Their names were Jean La Corrège, Jean Béchade, Bernard Laroche, also known as Beausablon, and Jean-Antoine Pujade. Shortly after being released by the revolutionaries, the authorities would catch them and send them to another prison.
Also among the inmates was Hubert, Count of Solages, who had been imprisoned at the request of his family for “heinous crimes” and a “monstrous act”.
He and his sister Pauline were said to have committed incest and that his family periodically paid a sum of money to ensure that he was not released.
The last two Bastille prisoners were James Francis Xavier Whyte, Earl of Malleville, and Auguste-Claude Tavernier, who had also been locked up at the request of their respective families, who alleged that they were insane.
3. Voltaire was a prisoner in the Bastille
And not once, but twice.
At just 23 years old, the French writer and philosopher François-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire, was sent to the Bastille in 1717 by order of the monarchy.
Had written satirical verses about an alleged love affair between Duke Philip II of Orleans and one of his daughters, and he was sentenced to 11 months in prison.
Marked by his time in prison, upon his release he adopted the pseudonym Voltaire and devoted himself to writing poetry and other types of texts.
But in 1726 he returned to the compound for two weeks after having a small altercation with the gentleman Guy-Auguste de Rohan-Chabot, known for his arrogance.
The powerful family of Rohan-Chabot obtained an order from the king and sent Voltaire to jail in retaliation.
After such humiliation, the now famous writer was forced into exile in England for two years.
4. It housed the Guillotine of Paris
Immediately after its taking, a certain Pierre-François Palloy, a master mason and building contractor, took the initiative to organize and supervise the destruction of the Bastille.
Thus he emerged as one of the most prominent figures of the beginning of the French Revolution and that same night, with the help of some 400 workers, the demolition works began.
A couple of months later, the secretary of the National Constituent Assembly, Joseph Ignace Guillotin, proposed a reform bill to make offenses of a certain nature “punishable by the same kind of penalties.”
And he proposed the use of a mechanical device for death sentences.
Thus was born the French guillotine in which Queen Marie Antoinette and the king would die years later.
Throughout the French Revolution, the artifact was installed in several Parisian squares, such as the Place de la Revolution in 1793 and 1794 (today Place de la Concorde), where the French royal family was beheaded, and the Place de la Bastille in June 1794, where there was no trace left of the old medieval construction.
5. The taking is not only what is commemorated
July 14 is a doubly symbolic date.
The French also remember the Feast of the Federation, a commemorative celebration that took place exactly one year after the storming of the Bastille and that transcended as a symbol of the unity of the French nation.
Under heavy rain, nearly 400,000 citizens gathered at the Champ-de-Mars, west of Paris, on July 14, 1790. They attended mass and acclaimed the king, celebrating the revolution at the same time.
Louis XVI could not decide between going into exile, as some nobles had already done, or staying at the Palais-Royal, which had become a kind of prison for him and his family.
He knew that at any moment the scene of October 1789 could be repeated, when several citizens broke into the castle of Versailles, on the outskirts of Paris, thus demonstrating their discontent with the monarchy.
But he was confident that the common people’s perception of his family was changing.
“I, King of France, swear to the nation to use all the power delegated to me by the constitutional law of the State, to maintain the Constitution and enforce its laws,” said Louis XVI after the mass.
For his part, General La Fayette, who was in command of the National Guard and would become a key figure in the French Revolution, swore to those present that he would remain faithful to the nation, the law and the king.
But the seemingly conciliatory crowd that the monarch thought he had seen on Champ-de-Mars did not match reality at all.
As night fell, while on his way to his residence in Saint-Cloud, west of Paris, the king ran into a much less satisfied audience, who insulted him and tried to attack him.
Once inside the immense castle walls, he wondered for the umpteenth time if the sensible thing to do was flee. But it did not.
It was not until July 6, 1880 that July 14 became the French National Holiday, after the approval of the so-called “Raspail law”.
Actually the text does not specify which of the two events is commemorated. Its only article reads: “The Republic adopts July 14 as an annual national holiday.”
Shortly before its approval, in a speech delivered in the upper house of the French Parliament, Senator Henri Martin said:
“Do not forget that after the day of July 14, 1789, we had the day of July 14, 1790 in Paris. To that day you can not blame him that blood was shed.”