Historical reconstruction showing the moat below the walls of Paris (left), the Bastille and the Porte Saint-Antoine (right) in 1420
We all know about the storming of the Bastille on 14th July, 1789, resulting in the continued annual celebration of the occasion throughout France. But the Bastille was a medieval fortress, and we, the English, had a hand in its history. In fact, we were the reason it was built in the first place.
During the Hundred Years’ War, there was a perceived threat to Paris, especially from the east, where it was vulnerable to English attack. After France was defeated at the Battle of Poitiers, and King John II was captured and imprisoned in England, it was decided by the Provost of Parish, Étienne Marcel, that the Paris defences had to be considerably strengthened.
Among these new defences were two fortified gates, each flanked by high stone towers. These gateways were of a type known as a “bastille”. But the capital’s defences were still deemed unsatisfactory, and it was decided that a much larger fortification should be built to protect the city’s eastern flank at the Porte Saint-Antoine. “Work began in 1370 with another pair of towers being built behind the first bastille, followed by two towers to the north, and finally two towers to the south. The fortress was probably not finished by the time Charles V died in 1380, and was completed by his son, Charles VI. The resulting structure became known simply as the Bastille, with the eight irregularly built towers and linking curtain walls.” The whole was encircled by ditches that were syphoned from the Seine.
View of the porte Saint-Antoine and the Bastille (detail from Turgot’s 1739 map of Paris)
The 15th century saw more danger from the English, culminating in the capture of Paris by Henry V of England in 1420, and the garrisoning of the Bastille. This was the state of affairs for sixteen years. The Bastille had already been used as a prison by the French, and the English continued to use it this way.
Paris was eventually retaken by Charles VII in 1436, but was then seized by the Burgundians in 1464. Which leads to the obvious conclusion that for all its power and strength, it was less a defender of Paris than a stronghold for its enemies!
Its eventual downfall came during the French Revolution, and it is for this that the great fortress is really known now. Of course, the sneaky English might say the French burned the place down before it was lost again to the Rostbifs across La Manche! No, no, my French friends, I’m only joking…. Happy Bastille Day!
The Storming of the Bastille – de Launay 1740-1789
I would highly recommend this documentary by Janina Ramirez, whose book on the subject will soon be available
. She showed how Julian, who was female by the way, was born during the fourteenth century. She may well have had a husband and children but lost both to the Black Death before becoming an anchoress at St. Julian’s, Norwich.
Ramirez spoke about Julian’s magnum opus: Revelations of Divine Love, the first known book in English by a female author, quite revolutionary in tone and probably composed during the reign of Richard II and prominence of John of Gaunt. On the deaths of these two men, the religious atmosphere changed dramatically. Under the Lancastrians, Lollards were regularly burned and already being dead, as Wycliffe could testify, did not ensure safety. Julian would have been in great danger if her manuscript had been read more widely at this time.
She died early in Henry V’s reign of natural causes and was probably in her seventies at the time but the story does not end here. Her manuscript was taken to France to avoid the Reformation only for the French Revolution to strike. The nuns caring for the document saw some of their French sisters mount a tumbril and return in two pieces for their burial. The manuscript re-emerged during the last century, to be viewed as a feminist tract.
Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, cannot be called unlucky. The story of his revolt against Richard III, ending in Salisbury at the start of November 1483 is so well known that even Shakespeare has the right end of this particular stick. However, his family suffered fates that they didn’t always deserve so obviously:
1) His son Edward, the 3rd Duke, was beheaded in May 1521 having expressed the view that he was a claimant to the throne, Henry VIII being almost childless at the time. Despite Shakespeare’s portrayal, evidence that he was engaged in a plot of any kind is very thin on the ground.
2) His granddaughter, Margaret Bulmer *, was burned in May 1537. Together with her late husband, Sir John, she had been involved in the Pilgrimage of Grace and a later revolt.
3) His great-grandson, Thomas, was beheaded in May 1557 as the ringleader of the Scarborough Rebellion.
After Thomas’ time, the Stafford surname became somewhat safer. His nephew Sir William rebelled against Elizabeth I but was merely imprisoned. The Stafford barony was restored in 1548 and it eventually passed to one of the last remaining members of the family, Mary. As a ward of the Howard family, taking a ninety year enforced holiday from their Norfolk duchy, she was married to William Howard, descended from Edward Stafford’s daughter, who was created Viscount Stafford. On the third last day of 1680, as one of five Catholic peers arrested over the “Popish Plot”, the aged Viscount met his death at Tower Hill although none of the other four were actually convicted. Mary Stafford was created a Countess five years later, which didn’t quite compensate her adequately.
The final example came just over a century later – the victim didn’t bear the Stafford surname even by marriage and he wasn’t executed in England. William Jerningham was posthumously agreed to have been a Baron Stafford and Frances, nee Dillon, his Baroness. General Arthur Dillon, her brother, was an English-born Irish officer in the French army and was beheaded in April 1794 as an alleged counter-revolutionary.
* Stephanie Mann on Lady Bulmer: