Following the seven years’ war which ended in 1763, and subsequent participation in the American Revolutionary war beginning 1775, France was left in an extremely precarious financial position. Consistently poor harvests for several years prior had added to the economic burden the country felt. By the beginning of 1789, she was bordering on bankruptcy. The King, alarmed to hear that the lower classes were growing disillusioned and speaking of revolt, was advised By Comptroller-General Jacques Necker to increase taxes, and to remove the exemption from taxes on the nobility. This reaction was obviously met with strong reaction by the nobility who were already in the throes of losing the feudal systems of land-owning from days of old.
The King, ill advised by his council and worried about angering the nobles, made the decision to remove Necker, who was something of a reformer, and whose ideas were proving unpopular with the nobility in particular. His replacement, Charles Alexandre de Calonne after initial increased spending, realised that the financial situation was in fact dire and also proposed a new tax, also from which the nobles and clergy would not be exempt.
The Assembly of notables, called by de Calonne refused to make a decision on the reforms and so It was decided to reconvene the Estates-General for the first time in 175 years. The Estates-General was, in simple terms, a combination of representatives from the Three Estates – the Clergy, the Nobility and the commons. Elections were held without restriction to vote in delegates for each of the estates.
In an effort to stall the Estates-General, the King claimed that their meeting hall was unavailable, due to some interior work taking place, in preparation for a speech he was due to give within a few days. As there was no other large meeting hall available, and the weather prevented outdoor convention, it was proposed to hold their meeting in an indoor tennis court. The commons gave word that they were taking responsibility for a new assembly, one for the people whereby they would manage their own affairs on behalf of the population, in direct opposition to the monarchy, and that the clergy and nobles were welcome to attend. And the Tennis Court Oath of 20th June 1789 was sworn whereby the new ‘National Assembly’ as they called themselves swore to continue without convening until they had given France a new constitution.
They rapidly gained support, their meeting was attended by increasing numbers of the clergy and noble representatives and word spread amongst the population. Military support followed. By the 27th June, it was understood that the Royal Court had capitulated. Necker had offered support, and on the 11th July, following his misleading public representation of the monarchical accounts, was relieved of his position as financial advisor to the king, which the Assembly took to be aimed directly at them. The time for revolution had arrived.
But let’s pause and rewind for a moment. Revolution had in fact already begun. And not quite in the way history books would have us believe. On 28th April, Jean-Baptiste Revellion, a businessman who had started out small and built up a successful paper factory in Paris and was famous for staging the first hot-air balloon race which took place in the grounds of his factory, (Revellion designed and made the decorative paper skin covering the first Montgolfier Balloon) was quoted as saying that in response to the lowering of the price of bread, in an effort to ease the financial pressure to the working classes, that he planned on cutting the wages for his workers.
As a result, an angry mob arrived at his factory, where his living accommodation was also sited and after a cathartic period of several minutes, spent smashing the place up, burned it to the ground. Revellion managed to wake his family and escape by climbing over a wall, just before the crowd arrived. Troops were called to restore order, and fired into the crowd, killing around 30 of the angry mob. This didn’t really help matters.
The sad thing was, Revellion was misquoted, in a manner later echoing that famous misquote of Marie- Antoinette, who when informed the peasants were starving and had no bread, stated “then let them eat cake”….except she didn’t. Revellion had actually declared that the price of bread should be lowered to enable poorly paid workers to afford it. But he made the decision not to hang around and debate the point. So in summary the French could be celebrating National “we misunderstood a businessman’s words and as a result burned down his factory, but we’re really sorry, honest” day as ‘le Revellion’ is Christmas Eve.
But it would have taken a lot of people to carry that banner, so let’s move forward a bit to Saint-Lazare, July 13th when a large crowd, upon hearing of a large hoard of grain (not a respected situation) stormed the buildings where it was being stored, and successfully took over 50 wagons-full away. So the French could have celebrated instead National “we stole grain meant for the poor, from a bunch of Nuns at a convent” day. Perhaps not.
So the Bastille storming was likely the better plan to celebrate the rising of the French people as the beginning of their fight towards their eventual Republic. In truth, certain sources have it said that the Rebels in actual fact gained their weapons from the city Garrison on the morning of the 14th July. Allegedly the soldiers stationed within didn’t offer much by way of resistance, apparently support for the cause was gaining. Unfortunately the garrison was out of ammo and powder for the muskets. So the mob moved on to the Bastille. The famous prison. One of the few remaining symbols of the old regime.
They arrived late morning, and the governor, Bernard-Rene Jordan de Launay invited the leaders for a spot of Lunch, following which they left empty-handed. A second group met with similar response. By now the natives were getting restless. They demanded ammunition for their weapons and managed to break into the outer grounds of the compound from where the Governor made the regretful decision to have the crowd fired upon from above on the ramparts. Having no ammunition, all they could do in retaliation was shout a bit and wave their empty guns malevolently as around a hundred or so of their number were killed.
Until that is, support arrived in the form of a large band of bored troops armed with a couple of cannon. Which they fired back, until they blew the gates off. The revolutionaries swarmed into the Prison, the Governor surrendered, one of the crowd got a bit squashed when the drawbridge chains were cut and he was under it…. De Launay was dragged off by the crowd towards the traditional point of execution, the town hall steps and whilst suffering a bit of a beating on the way, obviously realising his number was up, gave one of his captors a kick in the happy place, following which he was shot and then stabbed to death. When reaching the Town Hall, the rebels carved off his head with a kitchen knife and paraded it through the streets jubilantly on a spike. The prisoners of the Bastille, all seven of them, remained prisoners. They were after all, criminals…. And nobody wanted criminals on the streets of Paris.
Today much is made of Bastille Day as the beginning of the Revolution. An important part of French History, where the monarchy was dissolved and France became a Republic. Marches by students dressed in military uniform, escorted by tanks and heavily armed helicopters. No governors heads on spikes though.
I hope you have enjoyed a little humour in this post. Credit to Stephen Clarke, for helping show a slightly different version of events.