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Vive la France and Bastille Day

A guide to the French Revolution

The 14th July 1789 is a date from history that resonates with many Brits. While the events of that day did not directly affect anyone outside France, or even Paris initially, its consequences rippled out across the world. But the 14thJuly was just a small part of a much bigger picture and here we set out some of the context building up to this flashpoint and its place within the wider revolution.   

Commemorating the French Revolution by Eugène Delacroix
Commemorating the French Revolution by Eugène Delacroix

The French Revolution was something of a watershed moment that lasted several years in the late 18thcentury. By the time Napoleon rose to power from the debris of the preceding years, the French people had transformed their political playing field, in the process demolishing ancient institutions like the feudal system and absolute monarchy. 

The root and branch radical reform was driven by bitter resentment of the monarchy, the entitlement of the tiny minority and disastrous economic decisions taken by Louis XVI. He and his wife Marie Antoinette famously ended their time in the spotlight at the guillotine.

Louis XVI by Nicolas-André Monsiau
Louis XVI by Nicolas-André Monsiau

When order was eventually restored and a new era was heralded, France was a very different place. The revolution had been protracted, bloody, often without coherent objectives but it did come to be a pivotal moment in world history. It demonstrated the power wielded by a populace with grievances and proved how this will of the people could shape modern nations at the dawn of industrialisation and the modern world. 

Crisis of the French monarchy
The roots of the French Revolution were many and varied. But there’s no doubt that profligacy of the monarchy in the 17thcentury were major factors. Louis XVI had allowed his country to be embroiled in the American Revolution and France was soon well on the way to being bankrupt.

To compound the national financial problems, there were years of terrible harvests, drought and disease. As a result the price of bread became prohibitive and the masses (accounting for some 98% of the country) could not afford food. With punitive taxes aimed at replenishing the royal exchequer, the peasants rose up and rioted and civil unrest swept the land.

These rebels were known as the Third Estate – the vast majority of the population who wanted greater rights of voting and representation, without the tiny nobility having all the privileges.

The Storming of the Bastille is widely regarded as the most iconic event of the Revolution
The Storming of the Bastille is widely regarded as the most iconic event of the Revolution

The storming of the Bastille

For many historians the 14thJuly 1789 is when the French Revolution began. Rioters stormed the prison fortress in Paris looking for gunpowder and weapons. The revolution proper was literally ignited and beyond the Paris boundaries and the Ile de France the peasants turned on the landlords and tax officials. The infamous cries of ‘Liberté! Égalité! Fraternité’ rang across the land as the uprising took hold and increased in its intensity and violence.

This was known as the Great Fear (la Grande Peur), with a rapid departure of the ruling classes from the countryside, fearing for their lives. Remarkably quickly, on 4thAugust feudalism was abolished, the ‘death certificate of the old order’, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was agreed. This was based on the principles expounded by philosophers like Rousseau and proposed equal opportunity, freedom of speech and government by representation – all ideas very much in the limelight over 200 years later.

The Bastille of Paris before the Revolution
The Bastille of Paris before the Revolution

Things turned nasty when the compromise proved too much to swallow for radicals like Robespierre and Desmoulins. The extremist Jacobins arrested the king in August 1792, created a wave of bloody violence across Paris, abolished the monarchy and established the French Republic. 

Beginning with the king, thousands were executed in the Reign of Terror over a year or so. Many were orchestrated by Robespierre and the fearsome Committee of Public Safety, before he himself was executed on 28thJuly 1794.  

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 26 August 1789
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 26 August 1789

5 places in Paris with a revolutionary connection 

Hôtel des Invalides Originally a military hospital, it was stormed by thousands of revolutionaries on 14thJuly 1789. Plundering the armoury, they then went to storm the Bastille. Today the tomb of Napoleon lies here.

Place de la Bastille On this site stood the original prison, destroyed during the revolution as a symbol of Establishment abuse and corruption. Today the July Column stands proud and the Place de la Bastille will always have a place in the hearts of the left wing and republicans. 

Place de la Concorde The original Place Louis XV became the Place de la Révolution during the uprising, the Place de la Concorde to reflect the spirit of reconciliation. The guillotine was erected here and many, including Marie Antoinette, met their deaths here. Look carefully for a marker in the centre of the square, marking the precise spot where the guillotine stood.

Catacombs The famous eerie catacombs were originally devised to solve the problem of overcrowded cemeteries. Millions of skeletons lie here, including many who were killed during the French Revolution. 

Le Procope Café The oldest café in Paris, founded in 1686, it boasts an authentic interior and artefacts including Napoleon’s hat (presumably one of many) and Marie Antoinette’s last letter to Louis XV. It is thought that her death warrant was signed here.

The rise of Napoleon

Over the following years Napoleon Bonaparte, a young general, came to prominence as something of an enforcer. With financial crisis, widespread discontent and political corruption rife, the military proved to be the power brokers. Napoleon took control in 1799 in a coup d’état and proclaimed himself France’s ‘First Consul’, thus begging the Napoleonic era which saw France regain stability and become the dominant force in Europe. 

Napoleon's farewell to his Imperial Guard by Antoine Alphonse Montfort
Napoleon's farewell to his Imperial Guard by Antoine Alphonse Montfort

Little known facts

The French Revolution was a seismic event with far ranging repercussions across the world. Here are four facts you might not know.

The peak of fashion
Fashion statements were not exactly top priority in 1789 but the armed militia of the revolution took the name sans-culottes in reference to the long trousers they wore – in stark contrast to the more dandyish silk knee-length breeches sported by the nobility. They also adopted short coats, clogs and red caps which over time came to symbolise liberty itself. The street name ‘Rue du Chapeau Rouge’ exists in many a town across France.

 Different times
Between 1793 and 1805 the French adopted a revolutionary calendar. Replacing the Gregorian calendar it retained twelve months but broke them down into three ten-day weeks, each split into ten hours, with 100 minutes per hours and 100 seconds per minute. Similar to the ancient Egyptian calendar, it was a first decimal calendar.

The first zoo
In 1793 all exotic animals were ordered to be moved to the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. This new ‘zoo’ was free for the public to visit as the founder believed people should learn about wild animals in the context of their natural environment.

▼ Madame Guillotine
The guillotine remained the primary form of execution for nearly two hundred years. The death penalty was abolished in 1981 but the last person to be beheaded was Hamida Djandoubi in 1977.