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The Bastille (French pronunciation: [bastij]) was a fortress-prison in Paris, known formally as Bastille Saint-Antoine—Number 232, Rue Saint-Antoine—best known today because of the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789, which along with the Tennis Court Oath is considered the beginning of the French Revolution. The event was commemorated one year later by the Fête de la Fédération. The French national holiday, celebrated annually on 14 July is officially the Fête Nationale, and officially commemorates the Fête de la Fédération, but it is commonly known in English as Bastille Day. Bastille is a French word meaning "castle" or "stronghold", or "bastion"; used with a definite article (la Bastille in French, the Bastille in English), it refers to the prison.


Early history of the Bastille

The Bastille was built as the Bastion de Saint-Antoine during the Hundred Years' War. The Bastille originated as the Saint-Antoine gate, but from 1370–1383 this gate was extended to create a fortress to defend the east end of Paris and the Hôtel Saint-Pol royal palace. After the war, it was reused as a state prison, with Louis XIII the first king to send prisoners there.

The Bastille was built as an irregular rectangle with eight towers, 70 metres (220 ft) long, 30 metres (90 ft) wide, with towers and walls 25 metres (80 ft) high, surrounded by a broad moat. Originally there were two courtyards inside and residential buildings against the walls. Pairs of towers on the east and west facades served as gates through which the rue Saint-Antoine passed. In the 15th century, these were blocked up, and a new city gate was created to the north on the present day rue de la Bastille. A bastion on the eastern approaches was built later. A very significant military feature of the building was that the walls and towers were of the same height and width and connected by a broad terrace. This enabled soldiers on the wall head to rapidly move to a threatened sector of the fortress without having to descend inside the towers, as well as allowing placement of artillery. A similar provision can be seen today at Château de Tarascon.


The archives of the Bastille show that the building largely held common criminals (forgers, embezzlers, swindlers, etc.), as well as people imprisoned for religious reasons (Huguenots) and those responsible for printing or writing forbidden pamphlets.[1] People of high rank were sometimes held there too, and so the prison (which could only hold a little over 50 people) was far less sordid a place than most of the Parisian prisons. But the secrecy maintained around the Bastille and its prisoners gave it a sinister reputation.

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