French Revolution

Storming of the Bastille and arrest of the Governor M. de Launay, July 14, 1789
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How did the British react to July 1789?

1789 is one of the most significant dates in history – famous for the revolution in France with its cries of ‘Liberté! Egalité! Fraternité!’ that led to the removal of the French upper classes. The French Revolution didn’t just take place in 1789. It actually lasted for another six years, with far more violent and momentous events taking place in the years after 1789. However, here we examine the British reaction to the events in France during this famous year – were the British government extremely worried or did they see it as merely a few minor disturbances?

Looking at primary source material from 1789, including a London newspaper report, together with both official and personal letters sent from Paris, you will be asked to assess and investigate the reaction. The significance of 1789 is now well known, but did anybody at the time even dare to suggest how important it was?

Let’s look at the evidence to find out.


Tasks

1. Look at Source 1. This is an extract from the London Gazette from Saturday 18 July to Tuesday 21 July, 1789.

  • What evidence is there that the population of Paris were worried?
  • What was wrong with the official police force?

2. Look at Source 2. This is an extract from the London Gazette from Saturday 18 July to Tuesday 21 July, 1789.

  • Why were the people outside the Bastille so outraged when the Governor gave the order to fire on them?
  • Some were then allowed in – on what condition?
  • What happened to the 40 who went into the Bastille?
  • What happened to the Governor?

3. Look at Source 3.This is an extract from the London Gazette from Saturday 18 July to Tuesday 21 July, 1789.

  • According to the source, people lined the streets – how does the source describe their behaviour?
  • How pleased were people with the King’s promises? How were people behaving?
  • What evidence in the source suggests further trouble could easily break out?

4. Look at Source 4. This is a letter from a Mr Jenkinson from Paris, dated 15 July 1789.

  • Examine Mr. Jenkinson’s description of the storming of the Bastille – is there any reason to doubt his claims? Give your reasons
  • Why, according to this source, did the King ‘recant all his former words’ and agree to the people’s demands?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of this evidence?

5. Look at Source 5. This is an extract from a confidential report from the British Ambassador.

  • How have the recent events affected newspapers?
  • Why does the ambassador have little to report?

6. Look at Source 6. This is another extract from the report seen in Source 5.

  • What is wrong with the account of the storming of the Bastille?
  • What reasons does the ambassador suggest for the quick and easy take over of the Bastille?
  • What reasons are given to ‘lament’ the death of the Marquis de Launay?
  • What does the small number of prisoners actually inside the Bastille suggest about the reign of King Louis XVI?

7. Look at Source 7. This is a further extract from the report seen in Source 5 and 6.

  • How many members of the royal family have fled?
  • What does the ambassador say is ‘scarcely possible to imagine’?
  • What main reason is suggested for wanting these people to return?

8. Look again at Sources 1-7. Using all the available sources, decide which of these descriptions best fit each source:

  • Serious revolution, leading to real danger for Britain
  • A Paris-based revolt that the King was forced to agree to
  • Minor disturbances, of no real consequence at all

Explain the reasons for your decisions.

9. Using all your previous work, write a detailed paragraph explaining how seriously the British took the events of July 1789.

Use your source evidence effectively and think about the following issues:

  • What had been the reaction to the King’s promises following the storming of the Bastille?
  • How serious and long lasting did the ambassador suggest the problems were?

Background

The French Revolution began in 1789 and lasted until 1794. King Louis XVI needed more money, but had failed to raise more taxes when he had called a meeting of the Estates General. This instead turned into a protest about conditions in France. On July 14 1789 the Paris mob, hungry due to a lack of food from poor harvests, upset at the conditions of their lives and annoyed with their King and Government, stormed the Bastille fortress (a prison). This turned out to be more symbolic than anything else as only four or five prisoners were found.

In October 1789, King Louis and his family were moved from Versailles (the Royal palace) to Paris. He tried to flee in 1791, but was stopped and forced to agree to a new form of government. Replacing the power of the King, a ‘legislative assembly’ governed from October 1791 to September 1792, and was then replaced by the ‘National Convention’. The Republic of France was declared, and soon the King was put on trial. The Revolution became more and more radical and violent. King Louis XVI was executed on January 21 1793. In the six weeks that followed some 1,400 people who were considered potential enemies to the Republic were executed in Paris.

Many historians now regard the French Revolution as a turning point in the history of Europe, but also in North America where many of the same ideas influenced the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution. The famous slogan ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’ called for every person’s right to freedom and equal treatment. Across France and the rest of Europe the consequences of the Revolution were huge. There were many new developments including the fall of the monarchy, changes in society with the rise of the middle class, and the growth of nationalism.


Teachers' notes

This lesson encourages pupils to examine and investigate the British reaction to the outbreak of the French Revolution. Through the use of primary source evidence from a contemporary newspaper, together with both official and private correspondence from the time, pupils are asked to decide how seriously the British government took the events of 1789 in 1789.

This lesson can form part of studies for Scheme of Work Unit 10: France 1789-94 – ‘Why was there a revolution?’ It is useful specifically for part four of the unit that requires pupils to decide: ‘Why was the Bastille attacked and destroyed?’, although it can of course be used for any investigation into the French Revolution. Use of this snapshot covers National Curriculum requirements for History in relation to general requirements (2a), together with breadth of study requirements to examine a European study before 1914 (11).

Sources

Image : La Prise de la Bastille – Jean Pierre Hovell 1789

Sources 1-3 : The London Gazette – ZJ 1/85

Sources 4-6 : Extracts from a confidential report from the British Ambassador, 30th July 1789 FO 27/32


External links

Locating privilege and inequality in pre-Revolutionary France
Take a look at this clip from the BBC Learning Zone.

The French Revolution
Site giving background and information about the French Revolution.

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