Shocking Facts About the French Revolution


July 14, 1789, today celebrated in France as Bastille Day, is generally regarded as the beginning of the international convulsions known as the French Revolution. It actually began much earlier than that, in the salons and slums of Paris. The Estates General became the National Assembly the preceding June, weakening the powers of the First and Second Estates, the nobility and the Catholic Church. More power came into the hands of the Third Estate, the lower classes and the peasantry. All occurred because of unfair taxation, with the Third Estate bearing the bulk of oppressive taxes. The nobility and the churches paid little to no taxes at all. France resembled a smoldering fire, ready to burst into flame with little provocation.

The final piece of tinder which led to the conflagration came in the form of starvation. Failed harvests in successive years meant little bread, and what there was cost an average month’s wages for a single loaf. Mobs demonstrated in Paris for relief; the King and his ministers demonstrated incompetence in dealing with them. Finally, on July 14, 1789, mobs in Paris’s Saint Antoine district stormed what they viewed as the most visible symbol of oppressive government, the fortress prison known as the Bastille. The assault led to 10 years of national tragedy and triumph. Before it ended the King and Queen of France were dead, executed by their people. Monarchs across Europe viewed the violence as a threat to their own reigns, and coalitions formed to restore the House of Bourbon as rulers of France.

The revolution became a symbol of bloody violence, with the guillotine ending the lives of thousands. It ushered in the age of Napoleon and 25 years of global warfare. The French Revolution remains one of the most seminal events of modern European history. Here are 10 shocking facts about the French Revolution.

10. Lacking explosives, the citizens of Paris tore down the Bastille by hand

Originally built as a fortress to protect the east side of Paris from invaders, the Bastille Saint-Antoine towered over the district for four centuries. Built largely of stone, surrounded by a draw-bridged moat, and warrened inside with passageways and apartments, it gradually became a prison. The Kings of France used the fortress to imprison political enemies, husbands of mistresses, debtors, and others of whom’s company they had tired. By 1789 it had a relatively small garrison, though the Paris police used it for their own purposes. Its reputation as a dank dungeon, with prisoners perpetually in chains and often tortured, is inaccurate. Most prisoners enjoyed relatively comfortable conditions. Gradually its use as a prison decreased. When the Parisian mobs stormed the prison and killed its garrison commander only seven prisoners were held in the fortress.

In the weeks following the seizure of the Bastille, pro-revolutionary propaganda demonized the prison, and by extension the regimes which had operated it. The propaganda is the source of the Bastille’s reputation today, including the famous story of the Man in the Iron Mask. The pamphleteers and orators decried the fortress as the scene of cruel tortures, sexual depredations upon innocent young girls, including by Catholic bishops, and other like tales of horror. Saint-Antoine’s mobs took heed.

The Comte de Mirabeau, an early revolutionary leader, decided to destroy the prison, and experts were assigned to demolish the facility. The bulk of the demolition fell to the mobs, which destroyed nearly all of the ancient fortress using picks, hammers, iron bars, and their bare hands. By the time demolition experts arrived with explosives to bring down the battlements, they were all but gone. Relics of the Bastille became popular souvenirs in France. One relic, the large iron key to the gates, was obtained by the Marquis de Lafayette. He presented it as a souvenir to George Washington. Today the key is displayed at Washington’s estate at Mount Vernon in Virginia.

9. The first zoo was created in Paris as a means of housing the exotic animals of the aristocracy

Beginning in 1626 physicians to the Royal Court developed an herb garden for both medicinal purposes and for the chefs de cuisine serving the King. By the late 17th century, it had expanded to other forms of plants and flowers, and the public gained admittance to what became known as the Jardin des Plantes. During the late 17th and throughout the 18th century the King and Queen kept exotic animals on the grounds at the Palace of Versailles, as well as his other residences.

The nobility and clergy emulated the king, and estates across France featured exotic animals and birds in the gardens of the rich. During the Revolution many nobles fled for their lives, exiled wherever they found sanctuary. Even the King and Queen attempted to flee, which led to their execution by guillotine. Thousands of nobles and the wealthy shared their fate. As the revolutionaries took over the estates of the rich, they found exotic animals from all over the world on their hands. The National Assembly decided their fate in 1793.

The assembly ordained the animals be brought to Paris, either alive or as stuffed specimens, for display at the Jardin des Plantes. They also expanded the former herb garden to accommodate the animals displayed and the public, which could enjoy the “menagerie” at their leisure. Thus, the pets of much of the aristocracy survived the revolution which killed so many of their owners. The Menagerie du Jardin des Plantes was the first zoological garden in France, though not the first in Europe, and remains in operation today.

8. The French Revolution temporarily ended slavery in French colonies

France held an overseas empire at the time of the Revolution, with colonies and trading posts in the Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia, and in the Caribbean. In the latter, large plantations grew coffee and sugar, the most important crop to the French economy. Enslaved Africans and indigenous peoples of the islands worked the plantations, governed by Royal edicts known as the Code Noir. In 1794, in response to continuing rebellions by slaves in the islands, the Constituent Assembly in Paris abolished slavery. The abolition was enforced in only three of the French colonies, Saint Domingue, Guadeloupe, and Guyana.

The other French colonies where slavery existed largely ignored the government in Paris, and the practice of slavery continued in French India, Senegal, Martinique, and other colonies.. In 1802, Saint Domingue declared itself independent of France, as the nation of Haiti. The declaration came in part as a response to the restoration of slavery in the French Empire under then First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte. Following the restoration of the Bourbons at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, slavery remained an institution throughout the French colonial holdings until it was again abolished in 1848.

7. The Revolution triggered 25 years of nearly continuous warfare around the world

France’s continental rivals and the British Empire took a dim view of a republic emerging as a force in Europe. Republicanism directly threatened the crowned heads of Europe and their dynasties. The French Queen, Marie Antoinette, was the sister of the Emperor of Austria, and appealed to the Austrians for aid against the revolutionaries. The relationship served as one rationale for the Queen’s execution on the guillotine. In 1792, Austria declared war on Revolutionary France, later joined by Prussia, Great Britain, Spain, and several smaller monarchies in the German states.

The War of the First Coalition (1792-1797) led to French victory, the establishment of the French Republic, and the beginnings of the French Empire, eventually known as the Napoleonic Empire. The War of the Second Coalition (1797-1802) gave France another victory, expanded its territory, and hardened British determination to destroy Napoleon. Following a brief period of peace, war again broke out in the War of the Third Coalition in 1803. From that point until the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Europe remained almost continuously at war, and the conflict spread to all corners of the globe.

Great Britain provided funding to allies to continue the fight against Napoleon throughout the wars. Each of the eventual seven coalitions against the French were diplomatically and financially supported by the British, and its fleets enforced trade restrictions against the French. War extended to the Caribbean Sea, North America (the War of 1812), India, China, Southeast Asia, and in colonial Africa. After the collapse of the empire and the exile of Napoleon, the period of warfare beginning with the French Revolutionary wars was known as the Great War in Europe. It retained that designation until the eruption of another Great War in 1914.

6. A severe hailstorm helped trigger the Revolution in 1789

French harvests in 1787 and 1788 were poor, and imports of grain to feed the people of France were subjected to heavy taxation. The French Royal treasury had depleted itself supporting the Americans in their revolution, as well as other ill-advised adventures undertaken by Louis XVI’s ministers. Taxes on imports were needed to restore the treasury. By 1788 the price of a loaf of bread in Paris exceeded the wages of most workers. The same situation presented itself in other cities, and black markets in grain developed in several of France’s ports.

In 1788, the early growing season appeared promising in France’s heartlands, and it seemed the years of poor harvests would end. Late that spring severe weather appeared across France, devastating the crops in the fields, as well as the vineyards and orchard. Hailstorms of biblical proportions flattened the crops in July, as they had in preceding years. By late July it was evident that the 1788 harvests would be another failure.

Accordingly, the price of existing grain stocks rose dramatically, and bread became unaffordable. Bread riots in cities across France emboldened the mobs, and the harsh response of the French government emboldened them still further. As it became abundantly clear that the wealthy suffered from no shortages, and were protected by the government, the ministries of the King became the enemy of the people. In July, 1789, the mobs attacked the government itself when it stormed the Bastille.

5. The Revolution led to the creation of a new calendar, including a 10-day week

In pre-revolutionary France, the Catholic Church held such power it rivalled that of the King. Bishops held government posts, owned vast estates, and exerted clerical authority over secular matters. The Church was corrupt, wealthy, paid no taxes, and acted in concert with the aristocrats. Many bishops had wives and mistresses, and church officials often imprisoned enemies and rivals. One of the early acts of the Revolutionary government curbed the power of the Church. Yet making an enemy of the Church in Catholic France presented difficulties.

In part to separate French daily life from the ecclesiastical calendar, the Revolutionary government created a new calendar of its own. The calendar also served as part of the movement to move all of French life into the decimal system. The French implemented the new calendar in 1793. It featured a 10 day week, with 10 hour days, hours of 100 minutes, each minute of 100 seconds. Its twelve months contained three weeks, and were named for seasonal events. For example Vendemaire, the first month of autumn, was derived from the French vendange, or vintage, to correspond with grape harvests. The government tacked five national holidays on the end of the year (six in leap years), to make it comply with the solar year.

The French Republican Calendar began with Year One. The government adopted it, though the French people largely did not. For one thing, it immediately rendered every time piece in France obsolete. French churches continued to ring their bells in accordance with the old method of keeping time, at least in smaller communities. The Republican Calendar remained the official method of measuring time in France for just 13 years before Napoleon abolished it in 1805.

4. The September Massacres of 1792 led to the execution of more than 1,200 people

In August 1792, an insurrection in Paris established a new Commune to control the city, and imprisoned Louis XVI and his family in the Tuileries Palace. They stripped the King of his constitutional authority established by an earlier government, and established armed troops loyal to the Commune in each of the city’s 48 governed districts. They also established a central committee, the Tribunal, to consider the cases of those accused of opposing the Republic, or supporting the King. At the same time, an army of mostly Prussian troops led by the Duke of Brunswick approached Paris from the east.

Jean-Paul Marat organized the Committee of Surveillance of the Commune, to which reported subcommittees from each Parisian district. He encouraged those subcommittees to purge their districts of non-supporters of the Revolution. The approach of the Prussians led to most armed troops being dispatched to fight them, and the Commune controlled most of the armed people in the city, including a substantial number of armed assassins. All priests who had not complied with the law making them subservient to the Republic, rather than the Vatican, were ordered to leave the city. Those who did not were imprisoned, along with political prisoners and common criminals.

From September 1 through September 6, the armed thugs hired by the Commune prowled the prisons and jails of Paris, summarily killing prisoners they encountered. An estimated 1,600 prisoners were murdered during the purge, likely ordered by Marat. He also ordered outlying towns and cities to rally to the defense of Paris, after executing similar purges within their jurisdictions. Following the massacres Marat claimed they had been a spontaneous uprising of the people of Paris. Although bloody and widespread, the September Massacres paled in comparison to the excesses of the Reign of Terror which followed.

3. The fasces served as a symbol of the Revolutionaries

There are several symbols connected via history to the French Revolution, beginning with the guillotine. Supporters of the Revolution pinned a red, white, and blue cockade to their clothing or caps. A brimless, cone-shaped cap, usually of felt and known as a Liberty cap, were worn by both men and women. Women so adorned and knitting while watching the tumbrils carrying the condemned to their execution is another. The Marseillaise (officially titled by its composer as the Song of War for the Army of the Rhine), became the national anthem of the French Republic in 1795.

Another symbol adopted by the revolutionaries from the beginning was the fasces. Originating in Ancient Rome, the fasces comprised a bundle of birch rods surrounding an axe. The French revolutionaries adapted the fasces by placing a Liberty cap on top of the bundle, and in many cases added the word, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. The National Emblem of France continues to display the fasces today, though unadorned by the Liberty Cap (often called a Phrygian Cap). The fasces, which became a symbol of Italian fascism in the 20th century, was but one of many Roman symbols adopted by the French Revolutionaries and later Napoleon.

2. Only seven prisoners occupied the Bastille when it was stormed

Numerous stories and articles describing the storming of the Bastille list the infamous Marquis de Sade as being one of the prisoners at the time. On July 2, 1789, the Marquis called to the mob gathered outside the Bastille, informing them the guards were killing the prisoners. Two days later he was taken from his apartments in the Bastille to the Insane Asylum at Charenton, outside Paris. He was transferred in retaliation for inciting the mob. He had been in the Bastille five years, but missed the storming of the fortress by ten days. He spent the rest of his life in and out of various prisons and asylums, interspersed with brief periods of freedom.

There were seven prisoners in the Bastille at the time the mob captured the fortress, one of whom, the Comte de Solages, had been imprisoned for deviancy at the request of his father. Another had been in the prison since 1759, having allegedly plotted to assassinate Louis XV. Four criminals convicted of forgery were the only prisoners in the Bastille to have been convicted of crimes. An Englishman, James Whyte, occupied another cell in the prison, little about him or his reason for being there is known for certain.

1. Public executions were popular attractions, with programs sold listing the day’s victims

The Reign of Terror, the period most often associated with the French Revolution in entertainment, took place from September, 1793, through July, 1794. On September 17 the National Convention, the ruling body of the government since 1792, enacted the Law of Suspects. The law required all citizens to denounce anyone suspected of being opposed to the acts of the Convention, or otherwise demonstrating they were enemies of the state. In October the Convention suspended the Constitution. The Committee of Public Safety became the supreme instrument of the government. It determined the fate of the accused. Most were executed.

Executions of accused enemies of the state were daily events in Paris, as well as several other cities. Demand for space where the executions took place became a means for cash-strapped governments to raise money. Tickets for the best seats were sold, as were those for viewing from public and private buildings. Before and during the executions vendors worked the crowds, selling food and drink, souvenirs, and programs which listed those being executed that day, as well as their place in line and the crime for which they were being sent to their deaths.

Besides beheadings, executions were carried out by hanging, firing squad, and drownings. More than 4,000 people were drowned in the Loire River at Nantes alone. By June, 1794, those denounced in the provinces were ordered sent to Paris for trial and execution. That month crowds in Paris watched up to two dozen beheadings a day. Overall, more than 100,000 people were executed during the Terror, most publicly. The Terror officially ended with the execution of Robespierre, its main protagonist, in July, 1795. Even then, revenge killings continued across France for many months to come.

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