Hidden Paris

La Bastille - medieval symbol of oppression, modern symbol of liberty

Large brown paving stones chart a course through the smaller grey bricks that fan their way around Paris's Place de la Bastille. If you’re waiting for the bus on the western side of the roundabout, you might judge the brown stones to be out of place. But these markings are deliberate, tracing the precise location of the most significant monument in French history: the medieval Bastille fortress.


Standing more than four storeys tall, at the eastern entrance to Paris proper, the fortress was an imposing structure surrounded by its own moat. Meaning “little bastion” in French, it overlooked what is today a bastion of high fashion – the Marais district.

It had eight towers, roughly 24 metres high, and two drawbridges, with an outer entrance opposite the rue des Tournelles. To the north side of the fortress was the Saint-Antoine city gate.

The towers surrounded two courtyards and an armoury. This is significant because it was the armoury that ultimately led to the Bastille's defining role in the French Revolution – when angry hoards stormed its premises in search of gunpowder on 14 July, 1789.

At this time the 14th-century fortress famously functioned as a prison – and had built up a fierce reputation as an institution of royal oppression, which is what made it a target. French historian Oleg Kobtzeff of the American University in Paris says arbitrary arrests, carried out by royal decree, were largely to blame for the prison’s poor name. The practice was known as the lettre de cachet, or the letter with the royal seal.

“It was the only mandate that allowed people to be arrested and locked up without any form of trial or procedure,” says Kobtzeff. “Enemies of the state, people who were inconvenient to public order, or those creating a problem could simply disappear into the cells of the Bastille.”

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The vermin-infested dungeons are reported to have accommodated political activists and religious dissenters, while naughty aristocrats were kept comfortably in the towers.

Notably, on the day the Bastille was stormed, there were only seven detainees locked up within its heavy stone walls. The history books record them as “four counterfeiters, two madmen and a young aristocrat who had displeased his father”.

Why so few prisoners? “When the Bastille was stormed in 1789, it was almost at the end of its career as a prison,” Kobtzeff explains.

“This was because the sealed letter was fading away by the time of the revolution, having been practiced a century earlier under the reign of Louis 13th.” Kobtzeff points out that its use had been made illegal altogether by the June of 1789.

The eight towers of the Bastille

1. Corner Tower
2. Chapel Tower
3. Treasury Tower
4. County Tower
5. Well Tower
6. Liberty Tower
7. Bertaudière Tower
8. Basinière Tower


Nevertheless, the Bastille was a staunch symbol of royal despotism, and once the mob of a thousand arrived at the fortress that fateful day, their immediate purpose of stealing ammunition became secondary to the psychological victory of taking control of the prison.

It didn’t matter that most of the prisoners held at the time were wealthy, and enjoyed all kinds of luxuries denied to ordinary Parisians (some could even bring their servants). The stone mass was a metaphor for absolute power, and stories of the horrors within the prison walls turned the people’s fear into anger.

One eyewitness account of the prison conditions comes from middle-class tax official Constantine de Renneville, incarcerated in the Bastille from 1702 to 1713 on charges of spying for the Dutch government. Renneville wrote of sleeping with rats on damp straw, subsisting on bread and water, and being exposed to extreme cold.

“Under an opening in the wall, I saw human bones. It was like a cemetery, and since I found the cellar in parts without paving, I dug and found a corpse wrapped in rags... The warder said that they had kept the sorry remains in his cell. Two other men and one woman had suffered the same fate.”

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Claims of the appalling conditions at the Bastille were later exaggerated through 19th-century literature. In their book, The Bastille: A History of a Symbol of Despotism and Freedom, Hans-Jurgen Lusebrink and Rolf Reichardt wrote: “Because it was centrally located, beyond the rules of proper justice, and employed in such a spectacular fashion, the Paris Bastille became the embodiment of terrifying absolutist domination and despotism in underground literature at the turn of the 18th century.”

Old prison records, however, tell a different story, says Kobtzeff. “It wasn’t at all as harsh as we imagine from what we read in 19th-century romantic novels like The Three Musketeers, or Hollywood movies, or fiction created post factum.”

Equally as interesting as its demise, though perhaps less well-known, is the story of the Bastille fortress’s demolition – a feat that took two years to accomplish.

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With the rise of the First Republic, the fate of the Bastille was uncertain – with much talk of it being kept as a memorial. But recognising the fortress’s commercial value, entrepreneur Pierre-Francois Palloy was quick to secure a licence for its demolition.

“Palloy was a very clever contractor,” says Kobtzeff. “He got the demolition contract from the provisional government and the municipality of Paris, which were evolving to become a symbol of revolutionary change.”

Palloy began carving out stones, mixing the rubble with plaster to create model souvenirs – and either selling them or giving them as gifts. “He sent one quite substantial model to all of the new prefects of the 75 new departments that appeared in France,” Kobtzeff says, adding that some models can still found on display in French museums.

“Those gifts served as advertisements for the enterprise of Palloy.”

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The destruction of the fortress created mounds of rubble, much of which was used to build the Pont de la Révolution, today renamed the Pont de la Concorde. Construction of the bridge had begun before 1789, but most of the stones hadn’t yet been procured. The demolition of the Bastille offered the chance to finish the bridge and build the first monument of the new republic.

“It was an excellent enterprise in recycling,” says Kobtzeff. From a practical point of view, he adds, the Bastille was useless, as it had a poor reputation in terms of military protection. “There was a saying that the Bastille would always surrender. And indeed, that’s how the story ended.”

Other traces of the Bastille fortress can still be found around Paris. They include undemolished remains found in 1899 during the building of the line 5 Bastille metro station. The structure is on display nearby, in the Square Henri-Galli.

Meanwhile the steel keys to the Bastille have found a home at the Carnavalet Museum, in the Marais, which has free entry.

Then there is the bricked outline of the fortress’s original location, which skirts beneath a modern Haussmann apartment building. On street level is the Café Français, whose cellars once belonged to the medieval fortress.

“There were all kinds of crazy projects conceived to build monuments on the Place de la Bastille – Napoléon wanted a giant bronze elephant,” says Kopsteff of the square that is today a symbol of freedom.

Customers of the Café Francais, drinking coffee on its terrace, might wonder why the looming column that finally became the mark of French liberty is carved with the year 1830, when the famous revolution took place some 40 years earlier.

The explanation is simple, says Kobtzeff: it’s the symbol of a later revolution.

“Nothing was built for a long time due to an extended period of political instability. But the July Column commemorates the three glorious days in 1830 that saw the fall of Charles X.

“It was this movement that, finally, built its monument on the Place de la Bastille.”

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