In medieval France, the constituent parts of French society comprised the “Three Estates”: the Clergy, the Nobility and the Commons.
In the late 18th century, all France was in a state of economic chaos. The Nobility refused 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 vow, “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 through their representatives, and not from the monarchy. The National Assembly had declared themselves 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 and a man literally 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 holding 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 mob who stormed the Bastille to free the prisoners found only seven: four counterfeiters, two mentally ill and a man sent by his own family for acts of perversion now, lost to history.
Fun fact: Little remains of the Bastille, only a few stones on the Boulevard Henri IV, in Paris. Back in 1790, the Marquis de Lafayette sent the key to the Bastille “across the pond” to his close personal friend, George Washington. Today that key may be found at the home of the first American President – Mount Vernon.
A year later many considered to the Revolution, to be over. All France it seemed gathered on July 14, 1790 to celebrate, the Fête de la Fédération. A new Republic was born. The Marquis de Lafayette led the President of the National Assemblies and all the deputies in an oath of fealty to a constitution, as yet unwritten:
We swear to be forever faithful to the Nation, to the Law and to the King, to uphold with all our might the Constitution as decided by the National Assembly and accepted by the King, and to remain united with all French people by the indissoluble bonds of brotherhood.Oath of Loyalty to a Constitution, never meant to be. July 14, 1790
“Citizen King” Louis XVI proclaimed his own loyalty to the would-be liberal constitutional monarchy. Queen Marie Antoinette then rose and presented the 5-year-old Dauphin, the future King of France Louis XVII saying “This is my son, who, like me, joins in the same sentiments.”
It was a bright and shining future, never meant to be.
The successful insurrection at Paris had infected all of France as a “Great Fear” spread across the countryside. The absolute monarchy which had ruled for centuries was over, in three years. Louis himself lost his head to the guillotine, in 1793. 16,594 went to the guillotine during a period of national self-immolation known as the “Reign of Terror”, led by the “Committee of Safety” under the direction of Parisian lawyer Maximilian Robespierre.
Among the slain was Queen Marie Antoinette who never did say “let them eat cake”. The woman’s last words on accidentally stepping on her executioner’s toes were pardon me, sir, I meant not to do it.
As many as 40,000 were summarily executed or died in prison awaiting trial, 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 this whole sorry story may be that of the son of Louis and Antoinette. He was Louis-Charles, the pre-adolescent Duke of Normandy. The boy was King Louis XVII in name only, thrown into a stone prison at the age of 8. He would die in that cell two years later, miserable, sick, tormented and alone. It all seems so pointless. The Bourbon Dynasty was back in power, within two decades.