What is Bastille Day?
By Nigel Pearce
06 Jul

Why is 14th July celebrated by the French, and has been ever since 1880, as the national holiday - la Fête nationale - a 'day off' for everyone? Today, in keeping with tradition developed over many years, it is marked by a huge military parade on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, attended by the President of the Republic, a fly-past by the Patrouille de France (the French equivalent of the Red Arrows), fireworks and numerous playings of the national anthem - La Marseillaise. It is also enthusiastically celebrated in towns and villages all over France. With Coronavirus having such an impact across the world, there are likely to be some changes made to the celebrations but the people of France will celebrate nonetheless.

The Bastille cannot be seen or visited. It was first built in the 14th century as the bastide de Saint-Anthoine-lez-Paris, a fortress-like castle defending the seat of government. In the centuries that followed, it was gradually to lose its military importance and acquire its later status as a symbol of the excesses of the ruling élite, and, though it retained its military garrison, by the 18th century it was being used mostly as a prison and as a safe place for the King to store documents and funds.

By the late 1780s, when France did not have an effective government, Paris itself was the scene of widespread rioting and protest, the monarchy under King Louis XVI having lost credibility and much of the national population's support. This dissatisfaction with what was seen as the constant oppression of the poor by the privileged class came to a head in the events of 1789-91 that collectively became known as the French Revolution.

On 14th July 1789, it was believed among the crowds of rioters, numbering as many as 80,000 at one point, that this prison housed dozens of political prisoners opposed to the Parisian ruling class. They armed themselves with weapons stored at the nearby Hôtel des Invalides (now a military museum), receiving little opposition, as the guards there were unwilling to fire on fellow citizens. The Bastille was besieged, attacked and sacked, the rioters succeeding in overpowering the hundred-strong guard, at the cost of as many lives to themselves, and the prisoners liberated. Sadly, the prison at that time held very few prisoners - seven - and so the value of the victory was symbolic rather than militarily important.

The Storming of the Bastille (la Prise de la Bastille) became the most potent symbol of the times, widely regarded as the key pivotal event of the Revolution, signalling the definitive 'beginning of the end' of the monarchy. The despised building was pillaged and police (and royal) archives unceremoniously removed, before the destruction of the building was begun the following day. The reason for the perceived importance and esteem in which this event was held, and would be henceforth, was that the Revolution effectively changed the course of European history; and the taking of the Bastille was its climax. 

The 14th July was celebrated upon its anniversary the following year, but it was not until an Act of Parliament in 1880 that it officially became la Fête nationale. Curiously, this day is known more to English speakers as Bastille Day, as the French usually refer to it as le quatorze juillet or simply la Fête nationale.

Today, you can see the position of the Bastille's towers marked by paving stones set into the square. A plaque shows where the Bastille stood, and a nearby métro station bears its name.


Suggestions for further research:

1. Subject / study link to History / Citizenship / Social studies

All the information contained in the article was sourced from various articles online, especially, and may be consulted under:

  • Bastille
  • Bastille Day
  • le Quatorze juillet
  • Révolution française
  • Bernard-René Jordan de Launay
  • Place de la Bastille
  • Fête nationale

Discover how the French revolution influenced life conditions for French citizens.

What is the three-word motto of the French Republic?

Find and read the words to La Marseillaise. How do they embody the spirit of the Revolution?

2. Relevant vocabulary - study link to French

le citoyen         la citoyenne                  citizen

hôtel (m.)                                               hotel, but also: large town house, even vast château-sized, imposing building. Modern uses include: hôtel des impôts (tax office), hôtel de ville (town hall) etc.

la prise                                                    the taking, the seizing, etc., from the verb prendre, to take.

la garnison                                              garrison

émeutier, émeutière (m., f.)                    rioter

prendre (irreg) d'assault                         to storm

vaincre (irreg)                                        to overpower (Eng. derivation: vanquish)

le prisonnier                                           prisoner

le défilé                                                  parade

hymne (m.) national                              national anthem


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Nigel Pearce is author of our French for Common Entrance textbook and revision resources. Learn more about Nigel here.

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