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Today we celebrate, though not without a small note of reservation, the Storming of the Bastille in Paris on this day in 1789. Commemorated with a public holiday in France, Bastille Day has come to mark the beginning of The French Revolution. Of course, France has had a number of significant revolutions – notably the July Revolution of 1830 and the revolution in 1848 that gave rise to the Second Republic – but it is the one that began in 1789 and lasted a full decade that has earned the definite article. It is The French Revolution.
The Bastille (or Bastion de Saint-Antoine) was originally a fortress built in the 1370s – during the Hundred Years’ War – to protect eastern Paris. By the 17th century the expansion of the city meant the Bastille was no longer on the outskirts where it could serve as an effective fortification against attackers, and Louis XIII re-purposed it as a prison. For the next hundred and fifty years the Bastille provided French royalty with a secure facility into which political prisoners and social agitators could be thrown with little or no regard for legal due process. As such, in the eyes of many it soon came to represent the oppression of the monarchy and although it only contained seven prisoners on July 14th 1789, the Storming of the Bastille was a hugely symbolic act, demonstrating the rejection of arbitrary royal privilege by the people of Paris.