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Everything you want to know about Bastille Day!

What is Bastille Day all about? Well first I have to tell you that in France this most important national holiday which is held on 14th July, is not called Bastille Day at all. It’s called, rather unimaginatively – quatorze Juillet, 14th July in English. Or it’s called Fete Nationale – National fete or National Holiday. Everything you want to know about Bastille Day…!

You can also listen to a longer version of this article in our Bastille Day podcast

What are the origins of Bastille Day?

This famous event, which was to start a change to the course of history, took place at a time of great difficulty for France. Enormous sums of  money had been spent on wars (nothing new there). And of course, it was the ordinary people who paid for these wars and got little or nothing back in return. Tax after tax – always increasing so that the royal coffers could be filled.

Meanwhile, life for the common man was difficult, lack of money and a rising cost of living, lack of food because there has been bad harvests, which led to flour shortages, lack of much comfort on a daily basis. People were miserable. But the royal family, King Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette, and the rich nobles and church leaders who ruled, continued to live their indulged and gilded existence. It seemed that they were oblivious to the suffering of the ordinary people.

I read that on the day that the Bastille was stormed in Paris, Louis XVI who liked to keep a diary, wrote for that day “nothing”. He was referring to his day’s hunting, the most important thing to him. Not a word about what went on in Paris. So yes, I think the rich and the powerful must have been oblivious.

How did it start?

Queen Marie-Antoinette
Queen Marie-Antoinette

No one can really pinpoint what actually made everything kick off on the 14th July 1789. The King had recently sacked his finance minister who was quite popular as he had suggested that the royal family try to budget to save money, and there were rumours that a new parliamentary body which was believed to be more on the side of the ordinary man would be stopped.

Everyone knows about the popular myth that when the Queen was told of bread shortages in Paris she stated “then let them eat cake.” But there is absolutely no proof that she said this at all. And in fact, it was claimed that an earlier queen said this too.

What is known is that on that day, a crowd gathered. Some had guns. And the angry mob which got bigger and bigger, marched to the Bastille to obtain powder for the guns. The Bastille was then a medieval fortress which served as a prison and a warehouse for munitions and gun powder, and also for bread grain.

The storming of the Bastille

Negotiations between the governor of the Bastille and the spokesmen of the mob quickly escalated into an angry shouting match and the Bastille guards opened fire killing hundreds of people. A rescue team was called to support the guards and hold the Bastille but they unexpectedly decided to side with the crowd. The Bastille was surrendered after a fight and the building was destroyed. This day started a chain of action that would lead to the execution of the majority of the aristocracy of France including the royal family and there would be years of turmoil and horror from which would emerge a new rule.

When the King was informed of the happenings at the Bastille he asked “is this a revolt?” and he was told “No Majesty, this is a revolution”.

So 14th July, Bastille Day, as we know it now, essentially celebrates the French Revolution and we’re going to explain more about why, how and what. But before we do that we need to talk about what caused the French Revolution and it was a number of things but one of the major issues was to do with bread.

The Bread of Revolution

Bread stall brimming with loaves at a market in France
Bread, the food of the French revolution Photo: The Good Life France

The French love their bread! 98% of the French are said to eat bread every day! But in the old days, bread was seriously important, it was a main food for the poor who spent up to half their daily wage on bread alone. Grain and bread riots were really common, people protested against the price, or lack of grain, or how the bread was made. Sometimes these riots spilled out across entire regions.

Just 14 years before there had been 300 riots in just 3 weeks over a lack of bread. In fact, the riots that resulted in the fall of the Bastille on 14th July 1789 and helped start the French Revolution began not just as a search for arms but for grain too. The bad harvest saw price rises go so high that people were spending up to 90% on bread. They didn’t have enough left for coat for their fires, for medicine, clothes, meat or anything

Parisian peasants – rightly – suspected that merchants and bakers had hoarding grain in anticipation of higher prices. They took to the streets to protest. They even thought the King was hoarding grain and that the nobility were deliberately trying to starve the masses.

Later the government that was formed after the Revolution definitely learned their lesson. One of their goals was to make sure everyone had quality bread every day. In 1793, the Convention (the post-Revolution government) created a new law which stated:

“Richness and poverty must both disappear from the government of equality. It will no longer make a bread of wheat for the rich and a bread of bran for the poor.  All bakers will be held, under the penalty of imprisonment, to make only one type of bread: The Bread of Equality.”

The march on Versailles

The Palace of Versailles
The Palace of Versailles

For the rest of that year the revolution simmered and on 5 and 6 of October, a mob marched on the palace of Versailles. It started in the market places of Paris where the women were complaining about the lack of bread again and the prices. They just had enough of a King who wasn’t doing anything to make things better for them so it’s known as the March of the Women. About 7000 people, men and women by then, marched and it was this that delivered the death blow for the French Monarchy.

It was a rainy day and it takes about 6 hours to walk from Paris to Versailles. The crowd were exhausted when they got there, and drenched. It was a complicated time. Speeches were made. Meetings were held and promises made but it didn’t seem to calm the crowd. The next morning a mob broke into the palace and went for Marie-Antoinette. They threatened to tear out her heard, cut off her head and fricassee her liver.

She ran and hid managing to escape from them but the crowd insisted the royal family go to Paris. And off they went. They were sent to the a Tuileries Palace which became their gilded prison. Though they had an element of freedom – they could not leave. That day Versailles was boarded up to keep looters out. Essentially it was the end of the monarchy though they lasted a while longer.

A few days after that, a certain Doctor Guillotin proposed his fun new scientific device.

Terror of the Revolution

Over the course of the French Revolution which didn’t end for another 10 years in all, tens of thousands of people were guillotined to death. Some of the leaders who directed France during the revolutionary years, like Maximilien Robespierre, a bourgeois lawyer, triggered the bloodiest chapter of the French Revolution, known as the Reign of Terror from 1793-1794.

Robespierre was not a nice man. He was very odd. He replaced Catholicism with a so-called religion called the “Cult of the Supreme Being” – and made himself head of it. It’s estimated more than 40,000 people died during the Reign of Terror, either executed or murdered. The guillotine worked overtime. And it was fast. It had lots of nicknames like Madame la Guillotine, the Widow, the Patriotic Shortener, the National Razor, the Regretful Climb, and the Silence Mill. Louis XVI was beheaded on 28th January 1793 after a trial in which his own cousin voted for his death (family huh?!). The execution took place in what is now Place de la Concorde.

The end of royal rule

It’s said that people dipped their handkerchiefs in his blood and sold locks of his hair as souvenirs. One handkerchief was found more than 200 years later, hidden in a dried squash.

Nine months later Marie-Antoinette followed. Her last words were “Pardonnez-moi, monsieur. Je ne l’ai pas fait expres” in English “Pardon monsieur, I did not do it on purpose” when she accidentally trod on the executioner’s foot. Fun fact for you: he was the same man who had excuted her husband.

Marie Antoinette’s remains were taken to a graveyard behind the Church of Madeleine about half a mile north. The gravediggers were taking a lunch break. That gave Marie Grosholtz — later known as Madame Tussaud — enough time to make a wax imprint of Marie-Antoinette’s face before she was placed in an unmarked grave. Madame Tussaud made many wax models during the Revolution, including the King and Robespierre. She had been art teacher to the King’s sister and later moved to London where she set up a museum with all her waxworks. You can see the Marie-Antoinette mask there to this day.

It could have been so different – Louis and Marie Antoinette nearly escaped…

Queen Marie-Antoinette almost escaped to America

Effigies of King Louis XIVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette, Basilica St Denis, Paris
Effigies of King Louis XIVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette, Basilica St Denis, Paris

American royalists offered to try to help the royal family escape, on a ship to America. The Captain of a ship was found – a Captain Clough, and he wrote to his wife in Maine telling her to get the house ready for the Queen. Apparently she told all her friends and everyone bought new dresses ready for their big moment.

The escape plan is known as the Flight to Varennes and the royal family bundled into a coach on 20th June 1791, and left Paris but they didn’t get very far. The king was a bit of a ditherer and delayed things. Plus he apparently made them late as he wanted to drink wine and eat cheese which kind of sums up the whole problem of the royal family in France really.

Their coach broke down and unlucky for them, someone recognised the King from his likeness on a coin. And it really was the nail in the coffin, so to speak, for their future. The escape plan failed and the ship left laden with royal belongings – furniture and fabrics and paintings and suchlike. Mrs Clough papered her house with the royal paper and filled it with furniture and it became known as the Marie Antoinette house.

Why do English speakers call it Bastille Day?

And now back to that very first question – why do we call it Bastille Day?

14th July isn’t just about the storming of the Bastille which kickstarted the French Revolution in 1789. For the French it’s also about what happened the year after – again on 14 July, when a one-off national holiday was declared known as the Fete de la Fédération. A mass gathered in Paris to attend a military parade led by the Marquis de Lafyette – the one who sailed to America to help in the American Revolution, and the King and Queen swore an oath of loyalty to the nation.

When it was agreed almost 100 years later to have an annual public holiday to commemorate the French Revolution in some way, various dates and reasons were highlighted. For instance someone suggested 28th January would be good as that was the day that Louis XVI was beheaded in 1793. But in the end, they went for July 14 – the date of two major events. However, it was never clear which was the exact one that was being celebrated!

Clearly English speakers decided which one of the dates excited them more, the bloodthirsty one!

La Marseilllaise – a song of revolution

One song in particular celebrates the French Revolution: La Marseillaise. It’s called that as it was sung in Paris by revolutionaries from Marseille. It became the anthem of the revolution, the words then were different and insulted the King and Queen. It was adopted as the French National Anthem in 1795.

Ironically it’s said that Marie-Antoinette also liked this tune and used to play it on her harpsichord.

What happens on Bastille Day in France?

The 14th July celebrations and festivities actually start the night before on  the 13th of July. For some, this is the best bit because all over France there are Bals de pompiers, firemen’s balls. They’re hosted at fire stations and anyone can go along and join in the dancing and party. But why, you might well be asking me, are do firemen hold balls? It’s a long-standing tradition in France that officially began in 1937 when a group of people followed firefighters back from a fête nationale parade! At our local fire station it’s very much a family affair, but I hear that at some there are firemen prancing about a la Chippendale style! It’s all about fund raising though, so all in a good cause.

The next day is the big day, one of the most important days of the year. It’s time for French people to go a little bit wild and have fun. Almost all French towns will have some sort of celebrations, from parades to fetes and concerts and dinner. Fireworks are also a big part of the celebration. Paris of course has a major display but many other smaller towns and cities will have big displays too, often paired with music.National holidays are taken on the day on which they fall – if that’s a Sunday, tough, you don’t get Monday off as a bank holiday – and that includes 14th July.

Bastille Day, or I should say Le 14 juillet, before my French friends and family behead me… is a real family event in France. Everybody goes out. The Fete Nationale in France is when people who don’t dance, dance. It’s when people who usually go to bed early, don’t. It’s when those people who always say that they don’t like to party, do.

So now you know everything you need to know, and more, about Bastille Day.

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Janine Marsh is Author of My Good Life in France: In Pursuit of the Rural Dream,  My Four Seasons in France: A Year of the Good Life and Toujours la France: Living the Dream in Rural France all available as ebook, print & audio, on Amazon everywhere & all good bookshops online. Her new book How to be French – a celebration of the French lifestyle, is out in October 2023 – a look at the French way of life.

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