In most of medieval France, the major constituent parts of French society were the “Three Estates”: the Clergy, the Nobility and the Commons.
France was in a state of economic crisis in the late 18th century. The Nobility refused to accede to the tax demands of King Louis XVI. The Commoners reconstituted themselves into a “National Assembly” in June 1789, demanding an audience with the King for the purpose of drawing up a Constitution.
The National Assembly converged on the Estates General on June 20, only to find the door locked. What followed was either hysterical or duplicitous, because the King and his family were still mourning the death of the Dauphin; the heir apparent. It was customary at that time to hold political matters, until the King came out of mourning.
Be that as it may, the entire National Assembly, all 577 members, converged on an indoor tennis court. All but one put their names to a solemn oath, the famous “The Tennis Court Oath”, swearing “not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the kingdom is established”.
The oath itself was a revolutionary act, asserting that political authority came from the people and their representatives, not from the monarchy. The National Assembly had declared themselves to be supreme in the exercise of state power, making it increasingly difficult for the monarchy to operate based on “Divine Right of Kings”.
Riots followed as the left and reformist factions moved from anarchy to a coherent movement against the monarchy and the French right.
Built in 1309, the fortress and medieval prison of the Bastille had long been a focal point of the insurrection, representing royal authority in the center of the city. Donatien Alphonse François, better known as the Marquis de Sade, was one of the few remaining prisoners in the Bastille by this time. He was transferred to an insane asylum after attempting to incite a crowd outside his window, yelling: “They are massacring the prisoners; you must come and free them.”
Paris was “intoxicated with liberty and enthusiasm,” when French revolutionaries converged on the Bastille on the morning of July 14, 1789. The fortress was guarded by 82 “invalides”, veteran soldiers no longer fit for service in the field, and 32 Swiss grenadiers under the command of Governor Bernard-René de Launay, the son of the previous governor, actually born in the Bastille.
The attackers – vainqueurs de la Bastille – numbered 954. Negotiations dragged on until the crowd lost patience, crowding into the outer courtyard and cutting the chain that held the drawbridge. Firing broke out as the bridge slammed down, crushing one unlucky vainqueur, while a nearby force of Royal Army troops did nothing to intervene. 98 attackers and one defender died in the fighting. The mob murdered another 7, after their surrender.
The successful insurrection at Paris raced across all of France, as the “Great Fear” spread across the countryside. The absolute monarchy which had ruled for centuries was over within three years, when Louis himself lost his head to the guillotine in 1793. 16,594 went to the guillotine under “the Reign of Terror”, led by the “Committee of Safety” under the direction of Parisian lawyer Maximilian Robespierre. Among them was Queen Marie Antoinette, who never did say “let them eat cake”. Her last words were pardon me, sir, I meant not to do it, on stepping on her executioner’s toes.
As many as 40,000 were summarily executed or died in prison awaiting trials before the hysteria died down. Robespierre himself lost his head in 1794.
The Napoleonic Wars which followed resulted in a Corsican artillery corporal-turned Emperor, fighting (and winning), more battles than Hannibal, Caesar, Alexander the great, and Frederick the Great, combined.
The saddest part of the whole sad story, may be the son of Louis and Antoinette, Louis-Charles, Duke of Normandy. He was King Louis XVII in name only, thrown into a stone prison cell at the age of 8. He would die there, at the age of 10. Miserable, sick and alone. It all seems pointless. The Bourbon Dynasty was back in power, within twenty years.