This is The Siècle, Supplemental 8: Bastille Day.
Welcome everyone. I hope you’re all doing well in these trying times. My name is David Montgomery, and I’m the writer and producer of The Siècle, a podcast about France’s overlooked century in between Napoleon and the First World War.
As I upload this episode, it’s July 14, 2020 — also known as Bastille Day, the French national holiday. When it’s not cancelled by a global pandemic, the holiday usually features a massive military parade, crowds waving tricolor flags, and, of course, that famous song, “La Marseillaise.” [music clip]
But this is not a podcast about modern-day France. The Siècle’s narrative begins in 1814, when France is ruled by King Louis XVIII of the House of Bourbon, the younger brother of the guillotined Louis XVI. The First Republic established by the French Revolution has been swept aside by Napoleon, who has in turn been driven into exile. In their place is the monarchy of the Bourbon Restoration, which has the unenviable task of taking a generation of sweeping changes to France and deciding what it can and should get rid of, and what it should or must keep.
In the Bourbon Restoration, things like national symbols from the Revolution belonged in the first bucket — stuff to discard. Under Louis XVIII, Bastille Day was not a holiday. “La Marseillaise” was not France’s anthem. The tricolor was not France’s flag. In fact, all three of these things were illegal.1 In this special Bastille Day episode, we’re going to look at how these modern-day icons of France were treated during the Restoration — and what symbols the Bourbons embraced instead.
Part 1: The holiday
Jean-Pierre Houël, “La prise de la Bastille,” 1789. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Bastille Day commemorates, of course, the destruction of the Bastille fortress and prison by revolutionary crowds on July 14, 1789. The full details of the Bastille’s destruction are far beyond the scope of this podcast. But it’s worth noting that this violent revolutionary event was followed exactly one year later by the Fête de la Fedération, a grand celebration of national revolutionary unity on the Champ de Mars in Paris on July 14, 1790, with key roles by the Marquis de Lafayette, Talleyrand, King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. 2 Of course, the good feelings wouldn’t last, heads started to roll, and regimes came and went.
Right: “Fête de la Fédération le 14 juillet 1790 sur le Champ-de-Mars,” 1790. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
July 14 remained a prominent revolutionary holiday, along with the August 10 commemoration of the abolition of the monarchy, but by 1799 these festivals had “fallen into disrepute” and weren’t drawing many attendees.3 After Napoleon crowned himself emperor in 1804, Bastille Day ceased to be an official holiday; it and other revolutionary holidays were replaced by two celebrations of Napoleon: the anniversary of his coronation on Dec. 2, and August 15, Napoleon’s birthday, which was officially celebrated as the saint day of “Saint Napoleon,” a conveniently rediscovered and probably fabricated ancient martyr originally named Neapolis.4
When the Bourbon Restoration rolled around, the Bourbons in turn had their own additions to France’s civic calendar — replacing the old Napoleonic and Revolutionary holidays, which were not only no longer official holidays, but actively banned. Republicans and Bonapartists still used the old holidays as opportunities to show their resistance to the Bourbons, such as the placard found in one town on August 15, 1823, urging people to “overthrow tyranny”5, or the resident of Dordogne who tried to fly a tricolor flag on Bastille Day, 1816.6
Instead of Bastille Day or the Saint-Napoleon, Louis XVIII’s regime offered up the feast day of Saint Louis, the canonized medieval King Louis IX of France from whom the Bourbons were descended. The Fête de Saint-Louis was on August 25, and would typically be celebrated first by a Catholic mass which all local officials were expected to attend in their formal uniforms. Later in the day, the public would be invited to join the festivities, encouraged through the distribution of wine and food, and sometimes public dances and free theatrical performances.7
These celebrations could be spirited, but were noted for being more subdued than similar festivities under Napoleon or the Revolution. In part this represented the suspicion authorities held about popular demonstrations, even seemingly benign ones like public dances. Under Napoleon local officials bragged about the people at their festival dancing until dawn; under Louis, dances on the Fête de Saint-Louis would end at midnight, or even at nightfall.8
The other major annual ceremonies celebrated under Louis XVIII were commemorations of the Revolutionary beheadings of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Of these, the commemoration of the king’s death on Jan. 21 was the bigger affair; the ceremonies honoring the queen’s death on October 16 were often poorly attended beyond public officials who were required to be there.9 In contrast to the Saint-Louis, which often included free wine and dancing, these were somber affairs, a national day of mourning. Public offices were closed, as were stores, cafés and cabarets. Civil servants attending the mass in honor of the executed monarchs were expected to wear black.10
How big of a deal these days of remembrance were differed from region to region, and often on the initiative of local leaders. Many official government reports on the ceremonies are formulaic, and a few admit the events to be outright unpopular. In other cases local officials would go above and beyond their instructions for a mass and a day of mourning, and break out the pomp. In Marseille in 1818 all the city’s church-bells were rung, and cannons were fired at sunset and sunrise. The northwestern department of La Manche required National Guard officers to organize processions to the church. Some places ordered bars and cafés closed for as long as a whole weekend, while other places didn’t even insist on a full day, letting them open as soon as the mass was over. There were also locally driven instances of communal oath-taking, in which citizens were invited to swear “unswerving fidelity to our legitimate kings” and that “we shall never again allow a usurper to rise amongst us.”11
Interestingly, the tone of these ceremonies remembering the Revolution’s royal victims was carefully chosen to fit Louis XVIII’s policy of “union and forgetting,” his often futile attempt to put the bitter divisions of the last generation in the past. In the services for the king’s guillotined brother, there were explicitly no sermons about the sinful people of France who had killed their king, despite the desire of some Ultra-royalists for a more aggressive renunciation of the Revolutionary “crime.”12 Instead, by Louis XVIII’s specific instructions, the text at the commemoration for his brother was Louis XVI’s last will and testament, and in particular the sections in which the condemned king forgave his enemies.13
As you gather, these were generally not riotous ceremonies. Restrained at best, often somber, and with a heavy religious component, the Restoration’s annual holidays reflected the regime’s priorities and very nature. Still, it’s worth keeping in mind that in addition to these annual holidays, there were exuberant religious festivals like Carnival, and also local celebrations to honor the visit of a member of the royal family, or a royal birth or marriage, which also included speeches, theatrical performances, games and fireworks. Louis XVIII’s coronation in particular saw festivities around Paris, fireworks, mock naval battles in the Seine, and a ball at the Hôtel de Ville. Rather than ending early, these festivities went to dawn.14 The Bourbons did know how to host a good party when they wanted to, even if they didn’t host annual nationwide celebrations.
Another point of distinction for Restoration festivities compared to their Napoleonic and Revolutionary predecessors was a somewhat greater role for women. Whereas Napoleon had emphasized women’s role as brides or mothers of soldiers, the Bourbons highlighted them as as loyal and enthusiastic subjects, who gave speeches, arranged events, proclaimed their loyalty, and were given prizes for their personal virtue. This was all still within the bounds of 19th Century gender norms, but it was a bigger and more public role — perhaps reflecting the fact that the Bourbons saw women as a pillar of support, even though women had no right to vote for the Restoration’s parliaments. Women at the time tended to be more religious than men15, and thus more likely to support the Bourbon dynasty given the religious politics of the time — though of course women, like men, held positions across the political spectrum.16
Scholars like Denise Davidson and Sheryl Kroen have done a lot of work in recent decades to shed light on the festivities of the Bourbon Restoration, which have often been dismissed as “sad and somber.”17 The true picture was much more complicated than that. But it’s fair to say that as a general rule, the Bourbon Restoration had no civic festivals anywhere comparable to modern France’s Bastille Day.
Part 2: The song
France’s national anthem, “La Marseillaise,” is instantly recognizable today, and emotionally powerful. Like most of the other patriotic symbols of modern-day France, it dates to the Revolution, though not the heady year of 1789. Rather, it dates from 1792, when war broke out between France — then a constitutional monarchy under Louis XVI — and the conservative powers of Austria and Prussia. An officer in Louis’s army, Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle, wrote a patriotic march under the title “War Song for the Army of the Rhine.”
By pure chance, the song became popular among National Guardsmen in Marseille, who sung the song as they marched into Paris — thus granting it the name by which history knows it. In 1795, the National Convention voted “La Marseillaise” France’s first national anthem.
Its lyrics are famously bellicose and bloody, a reflection of the war-torn period from which it dates. Here’s the first stanza:
Arise, children of the Fatherland,
The day of glory has arrived!
Against us, tyranny’s
Bloody standard is raised, (repeat)
Do you hear, in the countryside,
The roar of those ferocious soldiers?
They’re coming right into your arms
To cut the throats of your sons, your women!
Since this is an audio medium and not merely an essay, I’ll play a sample of “La Marseillaise” for you now. You can skip ahead 30 seconds if you’d rather not listen.
Now, “La Marseillaise” wasn’t the only French revolutionary song, or the only would-be national hymn of France. It was removed as the national anthem under Napoleon, and banned under both the Empire and the Restoration.18 The song wouldn’t become France’s official anthem until near the end of the 19th Century. An 1871 article I found on “French Patriotic Songs” lists “La Marseillaise” as just one of many such songs. The unnamed British author writes in 1871 that, “Most nations of Europe have some one song, whose words are on every tongue and whose sounds are in every ear, ready to break forth in a hearty chorus whenever any occasion of national interest arises.” The author then notes that France is an exception to this rule. In fact, the closest France comes to a national song, they write, isn’t “La Marseillaise” at all. Rather, they identify a song you’ve probably never heard of, but which was ubiquitous in the Restoration: “Vive Henri IV,” or “Long Live Henry IV.”19
This song has an even less likely story as a national anthem than “La Marseillaise.” Its tune dates from the 16th Century. Its words come from a 1770 comic opera called “Henri IV’s Hunting Party.” The words praise Henri IV, the 16th Century Protestant who converted to Catholicism in order to inherit the throne and end France’s Wars of Religion, and who founded the Bourbon dynasty. They praise him not as a warrior, but as a peacemaker and bon vivant. As its first verse goes:
Long live Henry IV
Long live this valiant king
This fourfold devil
Of three talents:
Of drinking, fighting
Nonetheless, Henry IV was a sort of cult figure in the Bourbon Restoration, with explicit comparisons between Henry — who ended the Wars of Religion — and Louis XVIII, who promised to bring peace after the wars of the Revolution and Empire. With its catchy melody, “Vive Henri IV” soon became the Restoration’s unofficial anthem. Even before Louis XVIII reentered Partis in 1814, we’re told of an opera performance in which the orchestra’s performance of “Vive Henri IV” prompted the audience to join in and then give a 30-minute standing ovation. When support for the Bourbons was running high, hearing the music of “Vive Henri IV” in Paris was “inevitable.”20
Sometimes it was even sung with more appropriate lyrics, as in a rewritten version to the same tune called “The Return of the French Princes to Paris”:
All French Princes
Let us sing the refrain,
Today and henceforth
May this happiness hold!
Long live the King! Long live peace
Long live France
And the wise Bourbons
Whose hearts are all good!
Shall come to our [land].
Here’s a 30-second sample of “Vive Henri IV”:
“Vive Henri IV” later became a motif for classical composers wanting to represent French royalism, as in this orchestral arrangement by Tchaikovsky:
Frenchmen of less royalist persuasion could sing “La Marseillaise,” though it was formally banned. Police records from the time are full of reports about people singing it, and other forbidden songs from or about the Revolution or Empire.21 In addition to “La Marseillaise,” republicans had songs like the “Carmagnole” and “Ça Ira,” which were explicitly about lynching aristocrats on lamp-poles. Here’s a brief [X-second] snippet of the “Ça Ira”:
Meanwhile Bonapartists had a whole host of songs praising Napoleon, or his son — the sort of Bonapartist propaganda I talked about in Episode 21. Among them was a version of “La Marseillaise” with rewritten lyrics praising Napoleon.22 Even the right wing had its own versions of the great revolutionary song, such as Catholic missionaries who in 1822 wrote new religious lyrics to the tune of “La Marseillaise.”23
More formally, Bonapartists had the Empire’s semi-official songs as well, such as the “Chant du Départ,” of “Song of Departure.” There was also “Veillons au salut de l’Empire,” or “Let’s ensure the salvation of the empire,” a revolutionary-era song that became adopted as an unofficial anthem of Napoleonic France. (The “empire” in the title is a synonym for “fatherland” that was chosen for the rhyme, not a specific reference to the not-yet-existing French Empire of Napoleon.24) Fans of history podcasts might recognize this melody…
Part 3: The flag
France’s tricolor flag dates from the early days of the French revolution, in 1789, when the the red and blue colors of the city of Paris were joined with the white banner of the House of Bourbon. The new banner was used in various forms, including under duress by King Louis XVI during the time when he was a constitutional monarch. It was used under the French Republic after Louis was deposed and executed, and especially under Napoleon.25
When Louis XVIII was restored to the throne in 1814, though, he dumped the tricolor flag in favor of a plain white banner.26 This represented purity, not our modern-day understanding of surrender. And as I discussed all the way back in Episode 1, this was a controversial decision at the time. While so-called Ultra-royalists were eager to ditch the revolutionary banner for traditional Bourbon white, many people had gotten used to the tricolor — especially soldiers, who resented being told to discard the colors under which they had fought for years.27
But Louis stuck to his guns, flying the white banner and criminalizing the tricolor. Local officials were ordered to round up and destroy any tricolor flags, cockades or other similar emblems. Officials who merely removed them from public display were lectured, like one prefect who received a letter from the minister of police scolding him that “tricolor flags which have been removed from public edifices are being conserved in some city halls.”28 More enthusiastic officials didn’t merely destroy the items but held public ceremonies for the public to witness and cheer their destruction. One small-town mayor informed the town council that he had discovered an old tricolor flag, and preemptively shredded it. But he worried this wasn’t enough, and proposed to burn the remnants. “By a spontaneous movement,” the town council demanded that this be done immediately, incinerating the flag in the city hall courtyard.29
Even ordinary people were encouraged to turn in their flags to be destroyed,30 though judging by the police records of all the people criminally charged for having tricolors over the subsequent years, few did. In Paris, the policemen charged with cracking down on tricolors found them so “ubiquitous” that they “grew demoralized.” And for every tricolor flag or rosette that was seized, ten more seemed to appear in its place, often manufactured and distributed clandestinely. A woman in Normandy stumbled across a grey paper bag filled with some 900 tricolor rosettes; the bathroom of a man arrested for plotting a coup contained not just ammunition but two tricolor flags and 617 tricolor rosettes, of which 17 were in silver, intended for military officers.31
A host of people flaunted these tricolors as ways to show their opposition to the Bourbon regime, whether pinned to their hat, or flown from a church tower. Songs written about the tricolor became popular, such as a work called “The Old Flag” by the Bonapartist songwriter Pierre-Jean de Béranger.32 You can visit thesiecle.com/supplemental8 to hear a rendition of this tune.
People even got caught up in the purge by accident, such as a man in Rouen who was reported for swimming in blue bathing trunks, red belt, and white bathing cap, or the man in Lyon who sparked a panic by flying a green, white and pink kite that looked blue, white and red from a distance.33
Of the three symbols I focused on this episode — the tricolor flag, “La Marseillaise” and Bastille Day — the tricolor was by far the most popular during the Bourbon Restoration, and it will be the first to be re-recognized as a symbol of France. Indeed, so strong was the affection for the tricolor flag that, as historian Guillaume de Bertier de Sauvigny notes, with hindsight “we may be somewhat puzzled by the fact that the men in responsible positions in those days had not tried at all costs to work out a compromise which would have deprived the enemies of the monarchy of a powerful sentimental lever.” But of course people at the time did not have the benefit of hindsight.34
Thank you so much for listening. If this was your first time checking out The Siècle, and you’d like to hear more, I recommend you start with Episode 1. You can subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and anywhere else you get podcasts. There are links to all these networks at thesiecle.com/subscribe. That’s t-h-e-s-i-e-c-l-e dot com.
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In the meantime, I hope you all have a happy Bastille Day, stay safe, and get ready to dive into conspiracies and plots in the upcoming Episode 23: Charbonnerie.
The man who would later become King Louis XVIII was in Paris at the time, having not yet fled, but apparently took no part in the event, according to his biographer Philip Mansel. Philip Mansel, personal communication. ↩
Denise Z. Davidson, France After Revolution: Urban Life, Gender and the New Social Order (Cambridge, Mass., and London, England: Harvard University Press, 2007), 24. ↩
Sudhir Hazareesingh, The Saint-Napoleon: Celebrations of Sovereignty in Nineteenth-Century France (Cambridge, Mass., and London, England: Harvard University Press, 2004), 3-4. ↩
Sheryl Kroen, Politics and Theater: The Crisis of Legitimacy in Restoration France, 1815-1830 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 50. ↩
During his more liberal rule during the Hundred Days, one of Napoleon’s gestures of liberalism was un-banning “La Marseillaise.” Andrew Roberts, Napoleon: A Life (New York: Viking Penguin, 2014), 689. ↩
Philip Mansel, Paris Between Empires: Monarchy and Revolution, 1814-1852 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001), 14, 16. David Skuy, Assassination, Politics and Miracles: France and the Royalist Reaction of 1820 (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003), 252-3n22. ↩
The tricolor was officially adopted as the national flag in 1794, but many other banners continued to be used in various circumstances, including military units using flags with very different designs. I wasn’t able to fully untangle the mess, but it appears the use of the tricolor became standardized even for army use by 1812 ↩
The story of the ancien régime’s flag is more complicated. Before the revolution the Kings of France often used a flag with a field of lilies on a white background. The pure white flag was used in some purposes, including as a naval ensign, but it seems it was only in the Restoration that the plain white flag became entrenched as the emblem of the Bourbons. ↩