14 Juillet : Thoughts on the Fall of the Bastille from BEMS Member Gerald Levy

By Gerald Levy

On Saturday 14 July 2007 the French will celebrate the 218th anniversary of the Fall of the Bastille, and, as has become usual, the celebrations will be led by a conservative President. This may not be as surprising as it may seem, for it may be that one of those who played a major part in permitting, if not in causing, the Fall of the Bastille, was the King himself, Louis XVI.

Reading of the events in Paris between 11 and 14 July 1789 one is left with a sense of puzzlement: why didn’t the Army do anything? In particular:

Why did it allow 30,000 muskets to be taken from an Invalides protected by cannons and surrounded by soldiers?
Why did it permit cannon to reach the Bastille and to be placed in position opposite its gates?

At a recent meeting of the Early Modern Society Professor Munro Price suggested that the reason might have been a breakdown in confidence by the authorities going right to the top.

I have not so much a theory as an hypothesis, and one which may be actually be implied in what Professor Price has suggested.

a] The hypothesis is simply that Louis had given Broglie secret and unequivocal orders that the troops were not in any circumstances to fire on the people.

b] Only the King, Broglie and Besneval would have known the secret orders, and none of them would have wanted to brag about them afterwards. So there is no documentary evidence for the hypothesis. But, again, it ties in so well with the point that Professor Price emphasized about Louis not wanting to spill the blood of the people.

c] In my view only secret and categorical royal orders could explain the otherwise mysterious inaction by the Army on July 14 in permitting Paris to pillage the Invalides and take 30,000 muskets, and in failing to send any relief to the Bastille. I cannot believe that a complete breakdown in confidence is a sufficient explanation. At the Invalides the cannons were loaded, the fuses lit, masses of solders lay nearby. The instinct of any general – and, in particular, one expressly charged to defend the Invalides – would have been to open fire. To lose 30,000 muskets – muskets which might be turned against the Army – without a fight would have been unthinkable.

d] Unthinkable partly as a matter of duty, partly as a matter of military logic and instinct, and partly for this reason: suppose such secret orders had not been given; suppose, as might have happened, the Bastille had not been taken, and suppose Paris had calmed down after a few days. Absent such secret and royal orders, Besneval would have been court-martialled – and given Broglie’s express orders, and in any event, there would have been no defence.

Gerald Levy
5 July 2007