As France celebrates one of its biggest national holidays – Bastille Day – here are five intriguing facts you might not have known.
Bastille Day is regarded as a key moment in making France the democratic nation that it is today. Back on 14 July 1789, an angry mob of Frenchmen, tired of the rule of their king, stormed a prison to get weapons and free prisoners. The incident famously marked the start of the French Revolution which infamously led to the deaths of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
Today, Bastille Day is a celebration of France’s independence. The day is celebrated with an incredible military parade in Paris as well as communal meals, dances, parties and fireworks. However, there are a few bizarre facts about this popular day that many may not know about – Air France shares some insight:
While the day famously signifies the start of the French Revolution, the truth of the matter is that the mob who stormed the Bastille looking to free prisoners found just seven prisoners inside. Interestingly, this included four counterfeiters, two mentally ill people, and one man who was sent to prison by his own family for allegedly engaging in “perverse” sexual practices.
While the uprising on the Bastille certainly represented a momentous occasion in France’s political history, the attack on the fortress was not just symbolic. The attack on the Bastille was decided after a group of revolutionaries marched to the Hôtel des Invalides where they looted around 3000 firearms and five cannons. However, the ammunition they stole was useless without gunpowder. As luck would have it, the gunpowder was stored in the Bastille.
Months after the fateful uprising on 14 July 1789, it was decided that the Bastille would be destroyed. Today, only a few stone foundations from the original structure still exist. These can be found on Boulevard Henri IV in Paris. However, another original artefact from the Bastille can be found across the pond. In 1790, a year after the uprising, Marquis de la Fayette sent the Bastille’s original key to George Washington. Today, the key can be seen in the former American president’s house in Mount Vernon.
A month before the uprising, King Louis XVI realised that France was badly in need of financial reforms. Instead of cutting down on his lavish lifestyle, he looked to an assembly of “estates” of the French people—the nobles, the clergy, and the commons—to fix the problem. However, talks didn’t go as smoothly as he had hoped and King Louis ultimately decided to lock the people’s representatives (the commons) out of the room. The people’s representatives then found an empty indoor tennis court which they used to convene and wrote up the “Tennis Court Oath.” This proved to be a turning point in France’s political history and the people’s representative vowed to continue to meet wherever and whenever until France had a written constitution.
France didn’t celebrate their independence formally until 1880 when the French senate decided to look into a national holiday. While 14 July came up as a serious contender for the day, conservatives considered the storming of the Bastille to be too violent and bloody of a day to commemorate. Politicians then suggested 4 August, the day the country’s feudal system was finally abolished as well as 21 September, the anniversary of the first French republic. The senate ultimately decided on 14 July as the day also marked the Fête de la Fédération – which the country celebrated one year later in 1790. Unlike the violent uprising that became Bastille Day, this day represented the changes that France had seen over the past year and the positive impact the revolution had on the country.