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From Legends of the Bastille by Frantz Funck-Brentano, with an Introduction by Victorien Sardou, Authorised Translation by George Maidment, London :  Downey & Co. Limited; 1899; pp. 57-84.




JULIUS CÆSAR describes a structure three stories high which his legionaries used rapidly to erect in front of towns they were besieging. Such was the remote origin of the “bastides” or “bastilles,” as these movable fortresses were called in the Middle Ages. Froissart, speaking of a place that was being invested, says that “bastides were stationed on the roads and in the open country” in such a manner that the town could get no food supplies. It was not long before the designation was applied to the fixed towers erected on the ramparts for the defence of the towns, and more particularly to those which were constructed at the entrance gates.

In 1356, the chroniclers mention some important works that had been done on the circumvallations of Paris. These were constructions interrupting the wall at intervals, and so placed as to protect either an entrance gate or the wall itself. The special designations of eschiffles, guérites, or barbacanes were applied to such of these buildings as rose between two gates of the city, 58 while the bastilles or bastides were those which defended the gates. The first stone of the edifice which for more than four centuries was to remain famous under the name of the Bastille was laid on April 22, 1370, by the mayor in person, Hugh Aubriot, the object being to strengthen the defences of the city against the English. To reproach the king, Charles V., with the construction of a cruel prison would be almost as reasonable as to reproach Louis-Philippe with the construction of the fortress of Mont Valérien. We borrow these details from M. Fernand Bournon’s excellent work on the Bastille in the Histoire générale de Paris.

“The Bastille,” writes M. Bournon, “at the time of its capture on July 14, 1789, was still identical, except in some trifling particulars, with the work of the architects of the fourteenth century.” The Place de la Bastille of the present day does not correspond exactly to the site of the fortress. Mentally to restore that site it is necessary to take away the last houses of the Rue Saint-Antoine and the boulevard Henri IV.; the ground they occupy was then covered with the château and its glacis. The round towers, however, must have extended considerably in advance of the line of the houses and have encroached upon the pavement. The plan reproducing the site exactly is to-day marked by lines of white stones, by means of which all Parisians may get some notion of it if they go to the Place de la Bastille.

M. Augé de Lassus, who drew so largely upon the works of M. Bournon and ourselves for his lecture on the 59 Bastille,1 will permit us in our turn to borrow from him the description he gave of the Bastille, so far as its construction is concerned. Prints of the commonest kind which have circulated in thousands, the more recent reconstruction which in 1889 gave Paris so much entertainment, have familiarized us with the aspect of the Bastille, whose eight circular towers, connected by curtains of equal height, give us the impression of a box all of a piece, or, if you prefer it, an enormous sarcophagus. The eight towers all had their names. There were the Corner, the Chapel, and the Well towers, names readily accounted for by their position or by details of their construction. Then came the Bertaudière and Bazinière towers, baptized by the names of two former prisoners. The Treasure tower was so called because it had received on many occasions, notably under Henry IV., the custody of the public money. The excellent poet Mathurin Regnier alludes to this fact in these oft-quoted lines : —

“Now mark these parsons, sons of ill-got gain,
  Whose grasping sires for years have stolen amain,
  Whose family coffers vaster wealth conceal,
  Than fills that royal store-house, the Bastille.”

The seventh tower was known as the County tower, owing its name, as M. Bournon conjectures, to the feudal dignity called the County of Paris. “The hypothesis,” he adds, “derives the greater weight from the fact that the mayors of Paris were called, up to the end of the 60 ancien régime, mayors of the town and viscounty of Paris.” The eighth tower bore a name which, for the tower of a prison, is very remarkable. It was called the Tower of Liberty. This odd appellation had come to it from the circumstance that it had been the part of the Bastille where prisoners were lodged who enjoyed exceptionally favourable treatment, those who had the “liberty” of walking during the day in the courtyards of the château. These persons were said to be “in the liberty of the court”; the officers of the château called them the “prisoners of the liberty” in contradistinction to the prisoners “in durance”; and that one of the eight towers in which they were lodged was thus, quite naturally, called “the Tower of Liberty.”

The towers of the Chapel and the Treasure, which were the oldest, had flanked the original gateway, but this was soon walled up, leaving however in the masonry the outline of its arch, and even the statues of saints and crowned princes that had been the only ornaments of its bare walls. “In accordance with custom,” says M. Augé de Lassus, “the entrance to the Bastille was single and double at the same time; the gate for vehicles, defended by its drawbridges, was flanked by a smaller gate reserved for foot passengers, and this, too, was only accessible when a small drawbridge was lowered.”

In the first of the two courtyards of the Bastille, D’Argenson had placed a monumental clock held up by large sculptured figures representing prisoners in chains. The 61 heavy chains fell in graceful curves around the clock--face, as a kind of ornamentation. D’Argenson and his artists had a ferocious taste.

On the morrow of the defeat at St. Quentin,2 the fear of invasion decided Henri II., under the advice of Coligny, to strengthen the Bastille. It was then, accordingly, that there was constructed, in front of the Saint-Antoine gate, the bastion which was at a later date to be adorned with a garden for the prisoners to walk in.

Around the massive and forbidding prison, in the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, quite a little town sprang up and flourished, as in the Middle Ages happened around lofty and impressive cathedrals. Barbers, cobblers, drink-sellers, poulterers, cheesemongers, and general dealers had their shops there. These new buildings encroached on the Rue Saint-Antoine, and extended as far as the convent of the Visitation, the chapel of which, converted into a Protestant place of worship, still exists.

“In its latter days,” writes M. de Lassus, “the Bastille with its appendages presented an appearance somewhat as follows: — On the Rue Saint-Antoine, a gateway of considerable size, and, with its trophies of arms, making some pretensions to a triumphal arch, gave access to a 62 first court skirted with shops, and open, at least during the day, to all comers. People might pass through it freely, but were not allowed to loiter there. Then appeared a second entrance, a double one for horse and foot traffic, each gate defended by its drawbridge. Admittance through this was more difficult, and the sentry’s instructions more rigorous; this was the outer guard. As soon as this entrance was passed, one came to the court of the governor, who received the more or less voluntary visitor. On the right stretched the quarters of the governor and his staff, contiguous to the armoury. Then there were the moats, originally supplied by the waters of the Seine — at that time people frequently fell in and were drowned, the moats not being protected by any railing — in later times they were for the most part dry. Then rose the lofty towers of the citadel, encircled, nearly a hundred feet up, by their crown of battlements; and then one found the last drawbridge, most often raised, at any rate before the carriage gate, the door for foot passengers alone remaining accessible, under still more rigorous conditions.”

These conditions, so rigorous for contemporaries — the Czar Peter the great himself found them inflexible — are removed for the historian :  thanks to the numerous memoirs left by prisoners, thanks to the documents relating to the administration of the Bastille now in the Arsenal library, and to the correspondence of the lieutenants of police, we shall penetrate into the interior 63 of these well-fenced precincts and follow the life of the prisoners day by day.

In its early days, then, the Bastille was not a prison, though it became such as early as the reign of Charles VI. Yet for two centuries it kept its character as a military citadel. Sometimes the kings gave lodgment there to great personages who were passing through Paris. Louis XI. and Francis I. held brilliant fétes there, of which the chroniclers speak with admiration.

It is Richelieu who must be considered the founder of the Bastille — the Bastille, that is, as a royal prison, the Bastille of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Before him, imprisonment in the old fortress was merely casual; it is to him that we must trace the conception of the state prison as an instrument of government. Here we shall be arrested by the question, what is to be understood by a state prison? The term, vague and open to discussion, is explained by M. Bournon. “By a state prison — taking the Bastille as a particular instance — must be understood a prison for those who have committed a crime or misdemeanour not provided for by the common law; for those who, rightly or wrongly, have appeared dangerous to the safety of the state, whether the nation itself is concerned, or its head, or a body more or less considerable of citizens, a body sometimes no larger than the family of the suspect. If we add to this class of prisoners personages too conspicuous to be punished for a crime at common law on equal terms with the ordinary malefactor, and for whom it would appear inevitable that 64 an exceptional prison should be reserved, we shall have passed in review the different kinds of delinquents who expiated their misdeeds at the Bastille from the time of Richelieu to the Revolution.”3

The administration of the Bastille, which, up to the reign of Louis XIII., was entrusted to great lords, dukes, constables, marshals of France — the Marshal de Bassompierre, the Constable de Luynes, the Marshal de Vitry, the Duke of Luxemburg, to mention only the last of them — was placed by Richelieu in the hands of a real jailer, Leclerc du Tremblay, brother of Père Joseph.

Documents throwing any light on the Bastille at the time when the Red Man, as Victor Hugo named 65 Richelieu, was supreme, are however very rare. An advocate, Maton de la Varenne, published in 1786, in his Revolutions of Paris, a letter which ostensibly had been written on December 1, 1642, to Richelieu at that time ill. In it we read :  “I, whom you are causing to rot in the Bastille for having disobeyed your commandment, which would have brought upon my soul condemnation to eternal hell, and would have made me appear in eternity with hands stained with blood ——”. It is impossible to guarantee the authenticity of this document. To us it appears suspicious, the text having been published at a time when many apocryphal documents were produced as coming from the archives of the Bastille. More worthy of arresting our attention is the “return of the prisoners who are in the château of the Bastille,” a document of Richelieu’s time which M. Bournon discovered in the archives of the Foreign Office. This catalogue, containing fifty-three names, is the oldest list of prisoners of the Bastille known up to the present time. Among the prisoners several are suspected or convicted of evil designs against “Monsieur le cardinal,” some are accused of an intention to “complot,” that is, to conspire against the throne, or of being spies. There is an “extravagant” priest, a monk who had “opposed Cluni’s election,” three hermits, three coiners, the Marquis d’Assigny, condemned to death, but whose punishment had been commuted to perpetual imprisonment, a score or so of lords designated as “madmen, vile scoundrels, evil wretches,” or accused 66 of some definite crime, theft or murder; finally, those whose name is followed by the simple note, “Queen-mother,” or “Monsieur,”4 whence we may conclude that the clerk had no exact information about the prisoners of the cardinal. We shall give later the list of the prisoners in the Bastille on the day of its capture, July 14, 1789; and the comparison between the two lists at the two periods, the remotest and the most recent that we could select, will be instructive. We have also, to assist us in forming a judgment of the Bastille in Richelieu’s time, the memoirs of Bassompierre and of Laporte, which transport us into a state prison, elegant, we might almost say luxurious, reserved for prisoners of birth and breeding, where they lived observing all social usages in their mutual relations, paying and returning calls. But the Bastille preserved its military character for many more years, and among the prisoners we find especially a number of officers punished for breaches of discipline. Prisoners of war were confined there, and foreign personages of high rank arrested by way of reprisal, secret agents and spies employed in France by hostile nations; finally, powerful lords who had incurred the king’s displeasure. The court intrigues under Richelieu and Mazarin contributed to the diversion of the Bastille from its original intention :  they began to incarcerate there valets de chambre who had somehow become mixed up in the plots of sovereigns.

Religious persecution was revived by the government 67 of Louis XIV., and ere long a whole world of gazetteers and “novelists,” the journalists of the period, were seen swarming like flies in the sun. Louis XIV. was not precisely a stickler for the liberty of the press, but on the other hand he shrank from cooping up men of letters, Jansenists and Protestants convinced of the truth of their beliefs, pell-mell with the vagabonds and thiefs confined at Bicêtre, Saint-Lazare, and the other prisons of Paris. He threw open to them, too generously no doubt, the portals of his château in the Suburb Saint-Antoine, where they mixed with young men of family undergoing a mild course of the Bastille at the request of their parents, and with quarrelsome nobles whom the marshals of France, anxious to avoid duels, used to send there to forget their animosities. Further, the reign of Louis XIV. was marked by some great trials which produced a strange and appalling impression, and threw around the accused a halo of mystery — trials for magic and sorcery, cases of poisoning and base coining. The accused parties in these cases were confined in the Bastille. And here we encounter a fresh departure from the primitive character of the old fortress; prisoners were sent there whose cases were tried by the regularly constituted judges. Henceforth prisoners who appeared before the court of the arsenal were divided between the Bastille and the fortress of Vincennes.

This is the grand epoch in the history of the Bastille :  it is now a veritable prison of state. Writers can speak 68 of its “nobleness.” It shows itself to us in colours at once charming and awe-inspiring, brilliant, majestic, now filled with sounds of merriment, now veiled with an appalling silence. From the gloomy regions within the massive walls there come to us the sounds of song and laughter mingled with cries of despair, with sobs and tears. This is the period of the Iron Mask :  the period when the governor receives mysterious letters from the court. “I beg you, sir, to see that, if anyone comes to ask for news of the prisoner whom Desgrez conducted to the Bastille, this morning by order of the king, nothing be said about him, and that, if possible, in accordance with the intention of His Majesty and the accompanying instructions, no one may get to know him or even his name.” “M. de Bernaville (the name of one of the governors of the Bastille), having given orders for the conveyance of an important prisoner to the prison of my château of the Bastille, I send this letter to inform you of my intention that you receive him there and keep him closely guarded until further orders, warning you not to permit him, under any pretext whatever, to hold communication with any person, either by word of mouth or in writing.” The prisoners surrounded with so absolute a silence almost all belonged to the same category, namely, distinguished spies, who seem to have been rather numerous in France at the full tide of Louis XIV.’s wars, and who were hunted down with an eagerness which grew in proportion as fortune frowned on the royal armies. We read in the Journal kept by 69 the king’s lieutenant, Du Junca :  “On Wednesday, December 22, about ten o’clock in the morning, M. de la Coste, provost of the King’s armies, came here, bringing and leaving in our custody a prisoner whom for greater secrecy he caused to enter by our new gate, which allows us to pass into or out of the garden of the Arsenal at all hours — the which prisoner, M. d’Estingen by name, a German, but married in England, was received by the governor by order of the King sent by the hand of the Marquis de Barbezieux, with explicit instructions to keep the prisoner’s presence a secret and to prevent him from holding communication with anyone, in speech or writing :  the which prisoner is a widower, without children, a man of intelligence, and doing a brisk trade in news of what is happening in France, sending his information to Germany, England, and Holland :  a gentlemanly spy.” On February 10, 1710, Pontchartrain wrote to Bernaville, governor of the Bastille :  “I cannot refrain from telling you that you and the Chevalier de la Croix speak a good deal too much and too openly about the foreign prisoners you have. Secrecy and mystery is one of your first duties, as I must ask you to remember. Neither D’Argenson nor any other than those I have apprized you of should see these prisoners. Give explicit warning to the Abbé Renaudot and to de la Croix of the necessity of maintaining an inviolable and impenetrable secrecy.”

It happened also at that period that a prisoner remained in complete ignorance of the reason of his 70 incarceration :  “The prisoner at the Bastille named J. J. du Vacquay,” writes Louvois to the governor, “has complained to the King that he has been kept there for thirteen years without knowing the reason :  be good enough to let me know what minister signed the warrant under which he is detained, so that I may report to His Majesty.”

As the greater part of the papers relating to the arrest were destroyed as soon as the incarceration was effected, it sometimes happened that in certain cases the reasons were not known even in the offices of the ministers. Thus Seignelay writes to the governor, M. de Besmaus :  “The King has commanded me to write and ask you who is a certain prisoner named Dumesnil, how long he has been at the Bastille, and for what reason he was placed there.” “The demoiselle de Mirail, a prisoner at the Bastille, having demanded her liberty of the King, His Majesty has instructed me to write and ask you the reason of her detention; if you know it, be good enough to inform me at your earliest convenience.” Again, we find Louvois writing to the same effect :  ‘I am sending you a letter from M. Coquet, in regard to which the King has commanded me to ask who signed the warrant under which he was sent to the Bastille, and whether you know the reason of his being sent there.” “Sir, I am writing a line merely to ask you to let me now who is Piat de la Fontaine, who had been five years at the Bastille, and whether you do not remember why he was placed there.”


Letters of this kind, are, it is true, very rare; yet if one compares the state of things they disclose with the extraordinary comfort and luxury with which the prisoners were surrounded, they help to characterize the celebrated prison at this epoch of its history, namely, the seventeenth century.

In 1667 the office of lieutenant of police had been created. The first to hold the tile was Gabriel Nicolas de la Reynie, a man of the greatest worth. It is very important to note that under the ancien régime the lieutenant of police had a double function, being at the same time a subordinate of the minister of Paris5 and a member of the Châtelet.6 His duties were thus of a two fold nature, administrative and judicial. Now the Bastille, as a state prison, was more especially an administrative institution; but gradually, owing to the character of the persons brought there as prisoners, it became difficult to avoid turning it also into a judicial institution, and the minister of Paris became accustomed to delegate his subordinate, the lieutenant of police, to conduct the examination of the prisoners at the Bastille. Though La Reynie took practically the whole responsibility 72 of the administration of the Bastille, his visits to the prison itself were nevertheless relatively rare, and on every occasion a permit signed by Louis XIV. or by Colbert was necessary.

La Reynie was succeeded by D’Argenson. Under him the powers of the lieutenant of police were very largely extended, and the Bastille was comprised within his jurisdiction. Henceforth the lieutenant of police will enter the state prison whenever it seems good to him, as lord and master, accompanied by his subordinates at the Châtelet, clerks and inspectors of police; the prisoners will be in direct and constant communication with him, and he will make an inspection of all the chambers at least once a year. We find that at every change in the lieutenancy of police, it sufficed for the minister of Paris to send the name of the new officer to the governor. Dating from this period, the prison in the Suburb Saint-Antoine remained under the authority of a magistrate.

The Regency was a transition period between the reigns of Louis XIV. and Louis XV., and there was a corresponding transition period in the history of the Bastille. The incarcerations were less numerous and less rigorous, but the rule of the prison lost something of that aristocratic air which had characterized it. The most important episode in the history of the Bastille during the Regency was the incarceration of those who were accused of complicity in the Cellamare conspiracy. Among these was Mdlle. De Launay, later to be known 73 as Madame de Staal. She has left some charming pages about her imprisonment, in which we find, related with a fluent and subtle pen, the little romance which we proceed to outline.

Mdlle. De Launay was secretary to the Duchess of Maine. She had had some part in drawing up the scheme of the Cellamare conspiracy, which, if it had succeeded, would have placed the king of Spain on the throne of France. On December 10, 1718, the Regent sent her, with several of her accomplices, to the Bastille, less with the idea of punishing her for machinations against the state than to obtain from her the details of the conspiracy. At that period of her life she was of but moderate fortune and rank, and it would not have been strange if she had been treated with rigour. She found at the Bastille, on the contrary, unexpected comfort and consideration. In her Memoirs, she writes that her sojourn at the Bastille was the pleasantest time of her life. Her maid, Rondel, was permitted to live with her. She was installed in a veritable suite of rooms. She complained of the mice there, and a cat was given her, to drive out the mice and provide some amusement. By and by there were kittens, and the sportive tricks of the numerous little family cheered her wonderfully, she said. Mdlle. De Launay was regularly invited to dine with the governor; she spent her days in writing and card-playing. The king’s lieutenant, Maisonrouge, a man well on in years, who held, after the governor, the first place in the administration of the château, conceived a profound 74 and pathetic passion for the fair prisoner. He declared that nothing would give him greater happiness than to make her his wife. His apartments happened to be near those of Mdlle. De Launay. Unhappily for the king’s lieutenant, there was in the neighbourhood a third suite, occupied by a young and brilliant nobleman, the Chevalier de Ménil, who also was implicated in the Cellamare affair. The fair prisoner was not acquainted with him. Maisonrouge impresses us as a man of great dignity, and rare nobility of character. He spoke to the two young prisoners about each other, hoping, by bringing them into communication, to provide them with fresh distractions, more particularly the lady, whom he loved. The Chevalier de Ménil and Mdlle. De Launay could not see each other; they had never met. They began by exchanging epistles in verse. Like everything that came from her pen, the verses of Mdlle. De Launay were full of animation and charm. The good Maisonrouge played post between them, happy to see his little friend’s delight in the diversion she owed to him. It was not long before the verses carried from one room to the other by Maisonrouge began to speak of love, and this love — surprising as it may seem, but not difficult to understand in the sequestered life of the Bastille — ere long became real in the consciousness of the young people, who saw each other in imagination under the most charming colours. Maisonrouge was soon induced to contrive an interview between them. It is a delightful moment. The two captives had never seen each other, 75 yet loved each other passionately :  what will their mutual impressions be? Mdlle. De Launay’s impression, when she saw the gay chevalier, was of unmixed enthusiasm; the chevalier’s, maybe, was more subdued; but if it is true, as someone has said, that to nuns the gardener represents mankind, to a prisoner every young woman must be an exquisite creature. The interviews continued under the benevolent eye of Maisonrouge, who watched the development of Mdlle. De Launay’s love for Ménil — the love of a girl whom he himself loved intensely, but whose happiness he preferred to his own. There are delightful details which may be found delightfully described in Mdlle. De Launay’s Memoirs. It is M. Bournon’s opinion that, according to the testimony of Mdlle. De Launay herself, this idyll of the Bastille had “the dénouement that might have been foretold.” We have caught no hint of the sort in the Memoirs of Madame de Staal, but then, M. Bournon is no doubt the better psychologist. At any rate, the governor of the Bastille got wind of the diversions of the lovers. He put his foot down. Ménil was transferred to a distant tower, Mdlle. De Launay shed tears, and incredible as it seems, Maisonrouge, while redoubling his efforts to please her, sympathized with her lot to the point of arranging fresh and more difficult interviews with the sparkish chevalier. Mdlle. De Launay left the prison in the spring of 1720, after having sent to the Regent a detailed statement of the facts of the conspiracy, which hitherto she had refused to furnish. Once at liberty, she vainly implored 76 the Chevalier de Ménil to fulfil his pledges and make her his wife. Maisonrouge died in the following year, of disappointment, says the gay coquette, at his failure to get from her, during her imprisonment, the promise of marriage which now she would have been glad enough to fulfil.

It seems as though under the Regency everything at the Bastille turned on love — a reflection of the epoch itself. The young Duke de Richelieu was locked up there because he did not love his wife. The brilliant nobleman was kept under lock and key for several weeks, “in solitude and gloom,” he says, when suddenly the door of his room flew open and Madame de Richelieu appeared, a wonder of grace, brightness and charm :  “The fair angel,” writes the duke, “who flew from heaven to earth to set Peter free was not so radiant.”

We have seen how the Bastille had been transformed from a military citadel into a prison of state. We shall now witness, under the government of the Duke of Orleans, another transformation, betokened by an event which is of little apparent importance. The Duke de Richelieu was imprisoned in the Bastille a second time as the result of a duel :  a judge of the Parlement went there to question him and the Parlement tried his case. The Parlement7 at the Bastille, in the prison of the king! From that moment the fortress continued year by year to grow more like our modern 77 prisons. “Under the Cardinal de Fleury,” writes La Harpe, “this famous château was inhabited by hardly any but Jansenist writers :  it then became the enforced residence of champions of philosophy and authors of clandestine satires, and acted as a foil to their obscurity and shame.” It became increasingly the practice to confine there accused persons whose cases were regularly tried at the Châtelet or even before the Parlement. By the second half of the eighteenth century accused persons had come to be incarcerated in the Bastille by direct order of the Châtelet, which would have seemed incredible to a contemporary of Louis XIV. The summoning officer would post himself before the towers, and there, while the prisoner pressed his head close against the bars of the window, the officer would shout the terms of the writ at him across the moat. The advocates defending the accused obtained permission to go and consult their clients, and they were the only persons who were permitted to interview the prisoners in private. On the appointed day the prisoner was transferred to the law courts quietly and by night to avoid the curiosity of the crowd.

Under Louis XVI. the judges of the Parlement visited the Bastille as they visited the other prisons; at length the minister Breteuil sent instruction to the officials informing them that no more lettres de cachet would be issued without stating the duration of the penalty to which the guilty person was condemned and the grounds for his punishment. The Bastille was now merely a 78 prison like the others, except that the prisoners were better treated there.

In 1713 Voysin, the Secretary of State, wrote to D’Argenson :  “Beaumanielle is not sufficiently deserving of consideration to warrant his removal from the Châtelet to the Bastille.” La Harpe has well described the transformation which from this time came over the great state prison by saying that, from the beginning of the century, none of the prisoners who had been placed there “had merited the honour.” His remark receives corroboration from Linguet :  “It is not, in these latter days especially, for criminals of state that the Bastille is reserved :  it has become in some sort the antichamber of the conciergerie.”

If the glories of the Bastille, paled as it grew older, on the other hand torture, which, it is true, had never been applied except by order of the courts, had completely disappeared. From the beginning of the eighteenth century, the cells and chains were merely a temporary punishment reserved for insubordinate prisoners :  from the accession of Louis XVI. they had fallen into disuse. Breteuil forbade any person whatever to be placed in the cells, which were the rooms on the lowest floor of each tower, a sort of damp and gloomy vaults. On September 11, 1775, Malesherbes writes :  “No prisoner should be refused material for reading and writing. The abuse it is pretended that they may make of it cannot be dangerous, confined so closely as they are. Nor should any refusal be made to the desire of such as may wish to 79 devote themselves to other occupations, provided they do not require you to leave in their hands tools of which they might avail themselves to effect their escape. If any of them should wish to write to his family and his friends, he must be permitted to receive replies, and to send replies to their letters after having read them. In all this you must be guided by your prudence and your humanity.” The reading of the gazettes, formerly rigidly forbidden, was now authorised.

It must further be remarked that the number of prisoners confined in the Bastille was not so large as might be thought. During the whole reign of Louis XVI. the Bastille received no more than two hundred and forty prisoners, an average of sixteen a year; while it had room for forty-two in separate apartments.

Under Louis XIV., at the period when the government was most liberal in dispensing its lettres de cachet, an average of only thirty prisoners a year entered the château, and their captivity was for the most part of short duration. Dumouriez informs us in his Memoirs that during his detention he had never more than eighteen fellow prisoners, and that more than once he had only six. M. Alfred Bégis has drawn up a list of the prisoners detained in the Bastille from 1781 to 1789. In May, 1788, it contained twenty-seven prisoners, the highest figure reached during these eight years; in September, 1782, it contained ten; in April, 1783, seven; in June of the same year, seven; in December, 1788, 80 nine; in February, 1789, nine; at the time of its capture, July 14, 1789, there were seven.

True, not only men were locked up in the Bastille, but also books when they appeared dangerous. The royal warrant under which they were incarcerated was even drawn up on the model of the lettres de cachet. M. Bournon has published a specimen of these. The books were shut up in a closet between the towers of the Treasure and the County, over an old passage communicating with the bastion. In 1733 the lieutenant of police instructed the governor of the Bastille to receive at the Château “all the apparatus of a clandestine printing-press which had been seized in a chamber of the Saint-Victor abbey :  the which you will be good enough to have placed in the store room of the Bastille.” When the books ceased to appear dangerous, they were set at liberty. In this way the Encyclopædia8 was liberated after a detention of some years.

We have just seen that during the reign of Louis XVI. the Bastille did not receive more than sixteen prisoners a year, on an average. Several of these were only detained for a few days. From 1783 to 1789 the Bastille remained almost empty, and would have been absolutely empty if it had not been decided to place there prisoners who should properly have been 81 elsewhere. As early as February, 1784, the fortress of Vincennes, which served as a fort of overflow pipe to the Bastille, had been shut for lack of prisoners. The system of lettres de cachet was slipping away into the past. On the other hand, the Bastille was a source of great expense to the King. The governor alone received 60,000 livres annually. When you add the salaries and board of the officers of the garrison, the turnkeys, the physicians, the surgeon, the apothecary, the chaplains; when you add the food — this alone in 1774 came to 67,00 livres — and the clothing of the prisoners, and the upkeep of the buildings, the total will appear outrageous, for the figures given above must be tripled to represent the value of the present day. So Necker, seeing that the Bastille was of no further utility, thought of suppressing it “for economy’s sake,”9 and he was not the only one in high places to speak of this suppression. The Carnavalet10 museum possesses a scheme drawn up in 1784 by Corbet, the superintending architect to the city of Paris, whence the project has an official character :  it is a scheme for a “Place Louis XVI.” to be opened up on the site of the old fortress. We learn from Millin 82 that other artists “were occupied with a scheme for erecting a monument on the site of the Bastille.” One of these schemes deserves special mention. Seven of the eight towers were to be destroyed, the eighth to remain standing, but in a significant state of dilapidation :  on the site of the demolished towers a monument was to be erected to the glory of Louis XVI. This monument was to consist of a pedestal formed by piling up chains and bolts taken from the state prison, above which would rise a statue of the king, one hand extended towards the ruined towers with the gesture of a deliverer. It is to be regretted, if not for the beauty, at least, for the picturesqueness of Paris, that this scheme was never put into execution. Davy de Chavigné, king’s counsellor and auditor to the treasury, was allowed to present to the Royal Academy of Architecture, at its sitting on June 8, 1789, “a plan for a monument on the site of the Bastille, to be decreed by the States General to Louis XVI. as the restorer of the public liberty.” On this subject the famous sculptor Houdon wrote to Chavigné :  “I am very anxious for the plan to be adopted. The idea of erecting a monument to liberty on the very spot where slavery has reigned up to the present, appears to me particularly well conceived, and well calculated to inspire genius. I shall think myself only too fortunate to be among the artists who will celebrate the epoch of the regeneration of France.”

We have seen prints, long anterior to 1789 — one of them the frontispiece of the edition of Linguet’s Memoirs 83 that appeared in 1783 — representing Louis XVI. extending his hand towards the lofty towers, which workmen are in the act of demolishing.

Among the archives of the Bastille are preserved two reports drawn up in 1788 by the king’s lieutenant, Puget, the most important personage in the fortress after the governor. He proposes the suppression of the state prison, the demolition of the old château, and the sale of the ground for the benefit of the crown. It may be said of these schemes, as of the plan of the architect Corbet, that they would not have been propounded if they had not been approved in high places.

Further, in the year 1784, an ardent supporter of the old state of things cried :  “Oh! If our young monarch ever committed a fault so great, if he so far belied the most ancient usages of this government, if it were possible that one day he could be tempted to destroy you (the author is apostrophizing the Bastille) “to raise on your ruins a monument to the liberator-king. . . .” The demolition of the Bastille was decided on; and it would have been accomplished as a government undertaking but for the outbreak of the Revolution.

From January 1 to July 14, 1789, that is to say for more than six months, only one solitary prisoner entered the Bastille; and what a prisoner! — Réveillon, the paper manufacturer of the Suburb Saint-Antoine, who was shut up on May 1 at his own request, in order to escape the fury of the mob. The same year, the 84 lieutenant of police, de Crosne, made an inspection of the Bastille, accompanied by a judge of the Parlement; their object was to arrange officially about the destruction of the state prison.

Thus, on the eve of the Revolution, the Bastille no longer existed, though its towers were still standing.

The victors of the 14th of July set free seven prisoners :  four forgers whose arrest had been ordered by the Châtelet, whose case had been regularly tried, and whose proper place was an ordinary prison; two madmen who ought to have been at Charenton; and the Comte de Solages, a young noblemen who had been guilty of a monstrous crime over which it was desired to throw a veil out of regard for his family; he was maintained on a pension paid by his father. The conquerors of the Bastille destroyed an old fortified castle :  the state prison no longer existed. They “broke in an open door.” That was said of them even in 1789.


1  Delivered to the French Association for the Advancement of Science in 1893.

2  The battle fought on August 10, 1557, in which Egmont with a combined force of Spaniards, Flemish, and English (sent by Queen Mary) routed Constable Montmorency and the finest chivalry of France. It was in commemoration of this victory that Philip II. built the palace of the Escurial, shaped like a gridiron because the battle was fought on St. Lawrence’s day. — T.

3  The following unpublished letter from Pontchartrain to Bernaville, intimating his probable nomination as governor of the Bastille, shows exactly what Louis XIV.’s government demanded of the head of the great state prison : —

“Versailles, September 28, 1707.

“I have received your letter of yesterday. I can only repeat what I have already written :  to pay constant attention to what goes on in the Bastille; to neglect none of the duties of a good governor; to maintain order and discipline among the soldiers of the garrison, seeing that they keep watch with all the necessary exactitude, and that their wages are regularly paid; to take care that the prisoners are well fed and treated with kindness, preventing them, however, from having any communication with people outside and from writing letters; finally, to be yourself especially prompt in informing me of anything particular that may happen at the Bastille. You will understand that in following such a line of action you cannot but please the king, and perhaps induce him to grant you the post of governor; on my part, you may count on my neglecting no means of representing your services to His Majesty in the proper light.

“I am, &c.,


4  The appellation of the eldest brother of the reigning king. — T.

5  Under the ancien régime, there being no Minister of the Interior (Home Secretary), each of the ministers (the War Minister, Minister for Foreign Affairs, &c.) had a part of France under his charge. The Minister of Paris was usually what we should call the Lord Chamberlain. — T.

6  The court which up to the time of the Revolution was the seat of justice, presided over by the Provost of Paris. It held its sittings in the castle known as the Châtelet. — T.

7  A judicial, not a legislative body. It was constantly in antagonism to the king. — T.

8  The famous Encyclopædia edited by D’Alembert and Diderot. It occupied twenty years of the life of the latter, and went through many vicissitudes; its free criticism of existing institutions provoking the enmity of the government. Voltaire was one of its largest contributors. — T.

9  This raised Linguet’s indignation. “The consideration of this enormous expense has given to some ministers, among others to M. Necker, a notion of reform; if this should come to anything, it would be very disgraceful to spring from no other cause. ‘Suppress the Bastille out of economy!’ said on this subject, a few days ago, one of the youngest and most eloquent orators of England.”

10  The Hôtel Carnavalet, museum in Paris, where a large number of documents and books are preserved relating to the history of the city. — T.

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