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