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  • Writer's pictureJack Dykstra, PhD

A Brief History of the Place de la Bastille

What is the Place de la Bastille?

The Place de la Bastille is the site of the famous Bastille prison destroyed during the Revolution, which is now home to a monumental column commemorating the revolution of 1830.

Place de la Bastille at night

Place de la Bastille History

Standing by this noisy carousel of cars, it’s hard to appreciate the gravity of the Place de la Bastille. Here, on 14th July 1789, an old fortress was stormed, a revolution began, and politics changed for ever. Today, a passerby looking through the traffic sees the Colonne de Juillet, surmounted with a colossal gilt-bronze figure of the Spirit of Liberty clutching a torch in its right hand. Yet this sculpture actually commemorates the revolution not of 1789 but of July 1830 and the 504 victims of its three days of violence. Their names, and the names of the victims of the Revolution of February 1848, are inscribed down the sides of the 52-metre-high column.

Only a few stones mark the foundations of the once great defence of eastern Paris: a bastion-turret, originally built in the 14th century, with eight formidable towers, impenetrable walls, and dungeons below. The Bastille incarcerated French men and women throughout France’s pre-revolutionary history, but from the reigns of Louis XIII to Louis XVI it gradually became the haunt of specifically political prisoners. Wealthy victims of royal displeasure enjoyed relative comforts: rooms with tapestries and walks in courtyards. The Marquis de Sade, a Parisian nobleman held here in the 1780s, arrived with a full wardrobe and library and used the time to write his infamous The 120 Days of Sodom, before he was taken to a ‘mental asylum’ just ten days ahead of the prison’s storming.

The philosopher Voltaire, born François-Marie Arouet, took up the name Voltaire after being committed to the Bastille for eleven months in 1717. In fact, Voltaire popularised the castle’s fearsome reputation after writing about the mysterious ‘Man in the Iron Mask’. Of course, Voltaire’s case was rather an easy one to make, as many prisoners were arrested without trial and held indefinitely in grim conditions, sometimes for decades. By the end of the 18th century, the Bastille had come to symbolise the tyranny of the king and the oppression of the monarchical state. After years of political strife, poor harvests, and unrest over soldiers in the streets (deployed in a show of governmental menace), a crowd assembled in central Paris in July 1789 demanding change.

Place de la Bastille golden angel close up

On 14th July, the Hôtel des Invalides was swarmed by the uprising multitude who appropriated its 30,000 weapons. The mob of army deserters, artisans and wine merchants turned its attention to the Bastille where the gunpowder was stored. The 19th-century British novelist Charles Dickens dramatized the event in A Tale of Two Cities: ‘Cannon, muskets, fire and smoke... Slight displacements of the raging sea, made by the falling wounded. Flashing weapons, blazing torches, smoking waggon-loads of wet straw, hard work at neighbouring barricades in all directions, shrieks, volleys, execrations, bravery without stint, boom smash and rattle, and the furious sounding of the living sea’.

At 5pm, governor de Launay surrendered, the crowd rushed in and he was dragged out and stabbed to death. Doctor Edward Rigby, an English traveller, reported that he ‘perceived two bloody heads raised on pikes…said to be [the governor and the mayor]. It was a chilling and a horrid sight!’ Over 100 people died in the mêlée, seven prisoners were freed, and the assertion of popular sovereignty reverberated across the country. The next morning, King Louis XVI asked, ‘Is it a revolt?’, and the Duke of La Rouchefoucauld replied, ‘No, Sir... it’s a revolution’. Indeed, the conquest of the castle sparked the fall of the French monarchy, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, and the immortal words: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité (Freedom, Equality, Fraternity). Sadly, for the revolutionaries, they found little evidence of slavery and torture and far fewer prisoners than expected. Nevertheless, the symbol of their subjugation was demolished; rule by the citizenry could be begin.

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