In the popular image, on 14 July 1789, the people of Paris stormed the huge fortress jail of the wicked Ancien Régime, called the Bastille, and released hordes of innocent political prisoners... who then went on to set in action the celebrated French Revolution.
The reality was somewhat different. When the rioters finally reached the interior of the decrepit prison, they found seven bewildered inmates who were no doubt thrilled to be offered this unexpected opportunity of stepping into planetary history.
Just for the record, I take this opportunity of pointing out that one of the first prisoners to escape from a Parisian jail during that tumultuous week was an Englishman, Clotworthy Skeffington [1743-1805], 2nd Earl of Massereene, head of the Irish branch of our ancestral family. Some twenty years earlier, during a voyage to the European continent, the eccentric lord had been swindled in a crazy project that was supposed to import salt from the Barbary coast into France and Switzerland. Unable to pay his debts, Skeffington was imprisoned for some eighteen years in several nasty Parisian jails, including the notorious Conciergerie and the Grand Châtelet. By the summer of 1789, Skeffington had spent seven years in a jail known as the Grande-Force (since it used to be the Parisian mansion of a nobleman named Force), located just a stone's throw from the Bastille.
On Monday, 13 July 1789 (the eve of Bastille Day), Clotworthy Skeffington and two dozen fellow inmates escaped from this prison, apparently without any assistance whatsoever from the throngs of Parisian rioters who were taking control of the city.
In 1972, Ulster archivist Dr A Malcomson described "the extraordinary career" of Clotworthy Skeffington in a biography published by the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland. Although I don't belong to the same branch of the family as the Earl of Massereene [my early ancestors remained in England], I was sufficiently intrigued by the case of this eccentric aristocrat to research his history in the French national archives and the police museum in Paris, where I obtained a lot of interesting information that had not been available to Malcomson.
I take this opportunity of quoting a couple of documents on the interesting anecdote of Skeffington's escape from jail on the eve of Bastille Day, which does not seem to appear in French history books.
The book Englishmen of the French Revolution by John Alger [London, 1889] quotes a dispatch from the Duke of Dorset [British ambassador to France] sent from Paris on 16 July 1789, three days after Skeffington's liberation:
His Lordship, with twenty-four others in the Hôtel de la Force, forced their way out of prison last Monday morning without the loss of a single life. His Lordship, who has always expressed a great sense of gratitude for the small services I have occasionally rendered him since I first came to Paris in my present character, came directly to my hotel with six or seven of his companions, the rest having gone their different ways. I, however, soon prevailed upon Lord Massereene and the others to go to the Temple, which is a privileged place, and where he may therefore be able to treat with his creditors to some advantage. His Lordship told me that it was his intention to go thither, but that he thought it right to pay me the first visit.
A detailed account of the happenings of 13 July 1789 is supplied in the autobiography of François Richard-Lenoir, a famous Frenchman whose name is now attached to a boulevard at the Place de la Bastille. At the age of 24, Richard-Lenoir was a fellow inmate of Skeffington at the Grande-Force. Later on, Richard-Lenoir became immensely rich as a cotton merchant. Decorated personally by Napoléon Bonaparte, he has often been described as the richest individual of the entire 19th century. In his Mémoires [published in Paris in 1837], Richard-Lenoir speaks of Skeffington as follows:
We had for companion in misfortune an English lord, Massereene, eighteen years a prisoner. He had married in prison the sister of another prisoner, who had since recovered his liberty. Every morning his wife and brother-in-law arrived as soon as the gates were opened, and did not leave till evening. There was something touching in the felicity of this strange household. Through them we knew of everything that was going on in Paris, and could follow, step by step, the Revolution which was beginning. Lord Massereene especially, who had no hope except in a general overturn, was quite absorbed by it, and almost electrified us for liberty, which, indeed, for us poor prisoners, was only natural. We were not ignorant of what had happened at Réveillon's [evening meal] when, on 13 July 1789, just as we were about to assemble after the opening of the doors in a kind of garden or gravelled court, Lord Massereene suggested to us the forcing of our way out. Whether he was beforehand certain of the impassiveness of the jailers and soldiers, or whether he counted much on our daring, he assured us that nothing was easier, and that a resolute will was sufficient for success. We promptly decided. Arms had to be procured. Lord Massereene pointed out the staircase railings, the bars of which could serve as pikes. We immediately set to work; the railings yielded to our efforts, and all of us were soon armed. The commandant, however, was speedily informed of the revolt; but fear was then gradually gaining on officials, and instead of taking strong measures, he contented himself with ordering us to carry the outbreak no further, otherwise he warned us he should be obliged to use force against us. "So much the better," we exclaimed on all sides. "Kill us, and then you will have to pay our creditors." This reply frightening him, we took advantage of his perplexity to attack the first gate, and passed through without much trouble. There were still three others to force. All the turnkeys had joined the soldiers, but several officers and privates seemed to fight with reluctance. One of them on ordering fire had tears in his eyes. However, we seized on the three gates, part of the outer wall was demolished, and we at last issued, victors, from La Force.
There's a funny ending to this story. After being led by Lord Massereene to the British embassy in the Rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré, where the escapees were served refreshments, Richard-Lenoir says that he decided to make a return trip to the prison to pick up his belongings. Once he got back to the Grande-Force, the prison guards informed him that a Parisian mob had seen the gaps in the outer walls [made, as explained above, by Massereene and his fleeing companions], and members of this mob had simply strolled into the prison and stolen everything they could lay their hands on, including the clothes and other belongings of poor Richard-Lenoir!
Personally, even if Skeffington weren't a vague ancestor, I would still consider this delightful description of his escape from a Parisian prison on the eve of Bastille Day as a more authentic and human tale than the official story about the storming of the great fortress.
PS Genealogical information on the Massereene lineage can be found in chapter 4 of my monograph entitled Skeffington — Patronymic research [access].