The Struggle Against Royal Tyranny: Bastille Day and Your Family History

18 July 2023
by Ancestry® Team

Bastille Day, the French national celebration, which takes place on July 14 each year, commemorates one of the most turbulent periods in French history. It’s a thrilling tale: an angry mob stormed a massive medieval fortress used as a political prison, capturing it and signaling the beginning of the end for the tyrannical French monarchy. As with most historical events, the real story is much more complex—and in the case of Bastille Day’s history, more inspiring, too.

Do you have French ancestors? If they were alive in the 1780s, you might have a personal connection to the events surrounding Bastille Day and the French Revolution that followed.

Understanding the History of the Bastille

If you were to time-travel back to Paris between 1400 and 1789, the Bastille would be one of the first things you’d notice. Standing 100 feet tall, this massive stone fortress had eight towers and an enormous moat. It was originally built starting in 1370 as a fortification to protect the city wall against an English attack; King Charles VI enclosed it several decades later, creating a freestanding building.

By the 1600s, the Bastille was no longer a defensive structure—it was a prison. Over time, the monarchy began to use the building to imprison people who had spoken up against the crown. Often, prisoners were detained simply by order of the king, without the option for a trial. Some rich and famous prisoners , including Voltaire, were allowed to spend  their captivity in luxurious private apartments; others were stuck in stone cells. The Man with the Iron Mask was famously imprisoned there for five years, until his death in 1703. 

As conditions in France deteriorated in the 1700s, the Bastille had become a symbol of the despotic monarchy and its arbitrary power as it represented a system of government that ignored ordinary  people in favor of the nobility. The fact that wealthy prisoners received better treatment further emphasized the unfair divisions between the rich and the poor.

The Storming of the Bastille: A Revolutionary Milestone

In 1789, France was in dire straits. The country was severely in debt, due in part to loans it made to the United States during the American Revolution. Taxes were high, especially for those who were already struggling—peasants were required to pay between 33% and 50% of their income in taxes. Meanwhile, members of the nobility were often tax-exempt.

The situation was so bad that in May of 1789, France’s King Louis XVI called a meeting of the Estates General, the representative assembly of the three “estates.” Representatives from the clergy (the First Estate), the nobility (the Second Estate), and the people (the Third Estate) gathered at Versailles to discuss possible reforms.

However, the three estates couldn’t decide on a voting system. The Third Estate wanted majority rule; after all, it had twice the number of representatives as the other two estates.

After arguing for more than a month, the Third Estate had had enough. Along with representatives from the clergy and some of the nobility, they formed the National Assembly on June 17, 1789. Their plan was to create a new constitution, govern France to benefit the people, and limit the king’s powers.

The Fall of the Bastille

American military band marching through Arc de Triomphe in Paris, Wikimedia Commons
American military band marching through Arc de Triomphe in Paris, Wikimedia Commons

Naturally, King Louis XVI resisted this transition. In a show of force and royal might, he began to amass French troops in Paris.

The tensions came to a head on July 14, 1789. Revolutionaries, angry at the military presence, took firearms from the Hôtel des Invalides to protect themselves against a coup. They initially stormed the Bastille in search of ammunition—but when the governor of the prison refused to hand it over, the mob took him captive and released the prisoners.

An important player in the American Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette also played an important role in the French Revolution. After the Bastille fell, the Marquis de Lafayette took command of a local national guard tasked to maintain order throughout France. He was given the Bastille’s main key and shipped it to George Washington in March 1790. The prison key is now on display at Mount Vernon, Washington’s plantation in present-day Virginia’s Fairfax County. 

The fall of the Bastille marks a symbolic moment during  the French Revolution. The fortress had long represented  the monarchy’s absolute authority, and its fall gave hope to France’s ordinary people . After the storming of the Bastille, the revolution picked up steam. Although it took many  violent years, the process changed the course of history in France. The revolutionary motto “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité,” still used today by the French Republic, is a reminder of its founding values.  The effects of the summer of 1789 have extended across the centuries. Take the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which was written by the National Assembly on August 26, 1789. This document was so powerful that it informed both the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights more than 150 years later.

Bastille Day: France’s National Holiday

Exactly one year after the storming of the Bastille, France celebrated the Fête de la Fédération,  which translates to “Festival of the Federation.” More than 100,000 people gathered in Paris on July 14, 1790, to celebrate the newfound national unity. Citizens watched the National Guard parade through the Champ de Mars—the green space near the modern-day Eiffel Tower. More importantly, they witnessed King Louis XVI take an oath to uphold the National Assembly’s new system of government.

As the French Revolution raged on, the country ceased its national July 14 celebrations. King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, were executed in 1793; they were two of many French deaths by guillotine that year. The revolution ended in 1799, when Napoléon Bonaparte seized power in the Coup of 18 Brumaire. However, it wasn’t the only revolution in French history; the country was rocked by additional uprisings in 1830 and 1848.

Ninety-one years after the storming of the Bastille, in July of 1880,the French Assembly adopted a law making July 14 a national holiday that commemorated the fall of the Bastille and the Fête de la Fédération, thereby celebrating both the end of the monarchy and the unity of the nation.

Bastille Day in France

Prise de la Bastille, Wikimedia Commons
Prise de la Bastille, Wikimedia Commons

Today, Bastille Day is a major holiday in France. If you visit Paris on July 14, you’ll see hints of the city’s revolutionary past—namely, an enormous military parade and a sprawling outdoor party on the site where the Bastille once stood.

A celebration of freedom and the power of the people, Bastille Day is also an opportunity for French citizens to come together as a unified nation. It is typically celebrated with a mixture of military parades, dancing, and fireworks. 

Traditions and Celebrations: Embracing French Heritage

Looking at it from the outside, Bastille Day celebrations look a lot like Independence Day in the United States. In fact, it’s often called the “Independence Day of France.” Cities across the country display  patriotic blue, white, and red decorations and flags.  . People enjoy the warm summer weather with picnics, and, after dark, fireworks light up the sky.
If you happen to be in Paris on July 14, don’t miss three gatherings: the military parade and airplane flyover on the Champs Élysées, the outdoor party at the Place de la Bastille, and the picnic and fireworks on the Champ de Mars.

Across France, local fire stations embrace a key Bastille Day tradition: Firemen’s Balls, or Les Bals des Pompiers. Members of the fire brigade host parties with food, live music, and dancing. The entry fee benefits the firehouse or a charity, and celebrations can go on all night.

France isn’t the only place to celebrate Bastille Day. Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which was founded by French fur trader Jacques Vieau in 1795, hosts the biggest Bastille Day event in the United States. Former and current French territories Puducherry (formerly Pondicherry), India, and Tahiti, French Polynesia, hold celebrations with a unique local twist. You can also find major events in Prague, Czechia, and Dublin, Ireland.

As in France, international Bastille Day events almost always include food, music, and fireworks. Some locations focus on French food or music, often with the support of local cultural organizations.

Discovering Your French Heritage: Unearthing Connections

No matter where you’re located, Bastille Day is an opportunity for reflection. Though the day officially commemorates the storming of the Bastille and the Fête de la Fédération, its significance runs much deeper. For people of French descent—both in France and around the world—it’s a celebration of freedom from tyranny and a reminder that when regular people work together, they can accomplish remarkable things.

If you have French lineage, Bastille Day history can be a fascinating research topic. Did your relatives participate in the storming of the Bastille? Were they involved in the first National Assembly? If you can find a birth, marriage, or death record in France around 1789, there’s a good chance your family members were directly affected by the French Revolution.

As you look for connections between your ancestors and France’s revolutionary period, Ancestry® can help. Sign up for a free trial of Ancestry today to trace your family tree through the centuries.