Today on July 14, 1789, citizens across the capital openly rebelled against King Louis XVI by storming the Bastille — a medieval fortress in the heart of Paris.
The Fall of the Bastille was a defining moment of the bloody French Revolution. Dating back to the late 1300s, the medieval castle was built to defend Paris during the Hundred Years' War. However, the Bastille slowly lost its strategic significance over the centuries. By the reign of King Louis XVI, it was primarily used as a political prison and armory for the city's garrison. But to the ordinary citizen, the fortress stood as a symbol of the monarchy's abuse of power.
The revolutionary leaders had recently sent demands to the king, asking for more say in the government. As expected, the headstrong and authoritative Louis simply refused. In response, the king began amassing his forces around the city in anticipation of a revolt. The revolutionaries needed firearms and ammunition to defend themselves. They first attacked the Hotel des Invalides and were able to get their hands on muskets. But they didn't have any gunpowder, and the Bastille was rumored to have tons of it.
The citizens initially demanded that the captain of the Bastille, Governor de Launay, surrender the prison and hand over its gunpowder — he refused. Negotiations swiftly deteriorated, and the people were eager for action. On the morning of July 14, 1789, over a thousand local craftsmen and store owners began storming the Bastille. Most of the men were members of a social class known as the Third Estate. Only seven inmates were locked up in the prison at the time — all of which were set free in the aftermath.
The revolutionaries broke through the gates and flooded the central courtyard. The garrison panicked and started firing into the crowd. While over 100 citizens were killed, it only served to enrage the mob further. Then, some of the soldiers defected and joined the side of the crowd. De Launay quickly realized the situation had become hopeless and surrendered within hours. The men were later known as "Les Vainqueurs de la Bastille," meaning "Winners of the Bastille."
But the revolt quickly escalated into a lawless mess. The revolutionaries executed the governor and three of his officers without a trial. De Launay's head was placed on a pike and paraded through the streets of Paris. The fall of the Bastille set off a chain of revolts across the entire country. The citizens slowly dismantled the building over the next five months. A monumental tower now stands on the former site of the Bastille.
More confident than ever, the revolutionaries went about further dismantling Louis' grip over France. The monarchy was formally abolished only three years later, and a republic established in its place. In 1793, the king was executed by guillotine — an event that sent shockwaves across the continent. A young, ambitious general named Napoleon Bonaparte would rise from the ashes of the revolution and seize total control of the government. Today, France continues to celebrate July 14 as a National Day, a holiday known as Bastille Day in English.