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The Bastille and the French Revolution

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The Bastille in Paris

Image source: Wikimedia

The Bastille and the French Revolution

When the Bastille was built in Paris from 1370 it was not intended to be a prison. It was built as a fortress to defend Paris from attacks by the English during the Hundred Years War. With little use after the English threat subsided the Bastille quickly became a convenient place where the kings of France could lock up their enemies both political and otherwise. All the French kings had to do was to sign a warrant called a lettre de cachet which ordered the imprisonment of anybody without a trial. It was the excessive use of this that gave the Bastille a reputation as a cruel and unjust place. It was hated by the French people and therefore became the first target of the French Revolution.

Imprisonment in the Bastille was typically ordered for an indefinite period of time and there was considerable secrecy over who had been detained and why. The most famous prisoner ever held there was the the mysterious Man in the Iron Mask who finally died there in 1703. His skeleton was found in his cell during the revolution in 1789 still wearing the mask.

When the Bastille governor surrendered the prison to the rioting mob they found only 7 prisoners inside it. However, the Parisians took great joy at making such a great and famous fortress surrender to them. The old prison was completely destroyed. Almost nothing is left of the Bastille now except some remains of its stone foundation that were relocated to the side of the Boulevard Henri IV.

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