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History of Bastille Day in France

French flag flying at the Arc de Triomphe Paris on Bastille day

Bastille Day is one of the most important days in the calendar of France celebrating the history of the French Revolution

When is Bastille Day in France?

July 14 – Bastille Day is a national public holiday and a day of celebration in France that has been officially held since 1878 and made a lawful holiday since 1880.

What is Bastille Day?

It is held to commemorate the storming of the Bastille in Paris on July 14 1789 – the start of a course of events which led to destruction of the monarchy in France and the establishment of a new constitution and democracy.

The famous event which was to start a change to the course of history took place in a time of great difficulty for the country of France. Vast sums of money had been consumed in the name of war, pledged by successive Kings to support battle against its enemies but with little return.  The people paid tax after tax to fill up the royal coffers and life for the common man was fraught with difficulty, lack of money, lack of food (additionally there had been bad harvests which led to flour shortages) lack of much comfort on a daily basis.  Against this backdrop of misery the royal family continued their gilded existence, seemingly oblivious to the suffering of the ordinary people.  Indeed on the fateful day of the storming of the Bastille the diary of the King, Louis XVI stated simply “nothing” – referring to his day’s hunting.

No one can really pinpoint what actually started the day’s proceedings – there had been unhappiness that the King had sacked his popular finance minister; there had been rumours that a new parliamentary body which was seen to be on the side of the ordinary man would be stopped. Popular myth reports that when the Queen, Marie Antoinette was told of bread shortages in Paris she stated “then let them eat cake” but there is absolutely no proof that this occurred. What is known is that on the 14th July, 1789, a crowd gathered, guns were procured and the baying and growing mob marched to the Bastille to obtain powder for the guns. The Bastille was at the time of its attack a medieval fortress which served as a prison and a warehouse for munitions and powder.

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 which had been called to support the guards and hold the Bastille arrived but against all odds decided to side with the crowd and the Bastille was surrendered after a fight and the building was destroyed. This was to start a chain of proceedings that would lead to the execution of the majority of the aristocracy of France including the royal family and 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”.

Bastille Day as it is now known is celebrated all over France and its territories – cities, towns and villages have firework displays at the culmination of the day’s festivities which include official dinners, military parades in Paris and the night before a dance in the square where the Bastille once stood.

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