The British ambassador on the storming of the Bastille (1789)


On July 16th Lord Dorset, the British ambassador in Paris, filed the following report on the storming of the Bastille and the insurrection in Paris:


“I wrote to Your Grace on the 12th to inform you of the removal of Monsieur Necker from his majesty’s councils. I have now to lay before Your Grace an account of the general revolt of July 14th, with the extraordinary circumstances attending it…

On Sunday evening, July 12th, all the troops left the capital and the populace remained unmolested masters of everything. Much to their credit, however, uncontrolled as they now were, no material mischief was done; their whole attention being confined to the burning of some of the customs barriers that ring Paris.

Very early on Monday morning the St-Lazare monastery was forced, in which, besides a considerable quantity of corn, were found arms and ammunition. Now a general consternation was seen throughout the town: all shops were shut; all public and private works at a standstill and scarcely a person to be seen in the streets excepting the ‘Garde Bourgeoise’, a temporary police for the protection of private property.

In the morning of Tuesday July 14th the Hospital of Invalids [the veterans’ retirement home] was summonsed to surrender and was taken possession of after a very slight resistance. All the cannon, small arms and ammunition found therein were immediately seized upon, and everyone who chose to arm himself was supplied with what was necessary…

In the evening a large detachment with two pieces of cannon went to the Bastille to demand the ammunition that was there, the Garde Bourgeoise not being then sufficiently provided. A flag of truce was sent on before and was answered from within… the governor Marquis de Launey, contrary to all precedent, fired upon the people and killed several.

This proceeding so enraged the populace that they rushed to the very gates with a determination to force their way through if possible. The governor agreed to let in a certain number of them on condition that they should not commit any violence. These terms being acceded to, a detachment of about forty in number advanced and were admitted; but the drawbridge was immediately drawn up again and the whole party instantly massacred.

This breach of honours, aggravated by so glaring an act of inhumanity, excited a spirit of revenge and tumult such as might naturally be expected: the two pieces of cannon were immediately placed against the gate and very soon made a breach which… produced a sudden surrender of that fortress.

Marquis de Launey, the principal gunner, the tailor and two old veterans from the Invalides, who had been noticed as being more active than the rest, were seized and carried to the Hotel de Ville. After a very summary trial before the tribunal there, the inferior objects were put to death and Marquis de Launey had also his head cut off at the Place de Greve, but with circumstances of barbarity too shocking to relate…

Upon searching the Bastille not more than four or five prisoners were found, of whom none had been there any length of time, except an Englishman who calls himself Major White, who had been confined in a dungeon upwards of 30 years; the unhappy man seemed to have nearly lost the use of his intellects and could express himself but very ill; his beard was at least yard long.

Thus, my lord, the greatest Revolution that we know anything of has been effected with, comparatively speaking — if the magnitude of the event is considered — the loss of very few lives. From this moment we may consider France as a free country; the king a very limited monarch, and the nobility as reduced to a level with the rest of the nation.”