Bastille (băstēlˈ) [key] [O.Fr., = fortress], fortress and state prison in Paris, located, until its demolition (started in 1789), near the site of the present Place de la Bastille. It was begun c.1369 by Hugh Aubriot, provost of the merchants [mayor] of Paris under King Charles V. Arbitrary and secret imprisonment by lettre de cachet gave rise to stories of horror, but actually the Bastille was generally used for persons of influence, and its regime for most political prisoners was mild. As a symbol of absolutism the Bastille was hated. It had strategic importance, for its guns commanded one of the gates of Paris. On July 14, 1789, a Parisian crowd stormed the Bastille in the hope of capturing ammunition. The governor was killed; the seven inmates, none of them political prisoners, were freed. The storming of the Bastille marks the beginning of the French Revolution, and July 14—Bastille Day—became the national holiday of republican France.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.