Thursday, 15 October 2015

Medals of the "Conquerors of the Bastille"

The "Vainqueurs de la Bastille", and their medals and memorabilia, provide an interesting chapter in  the development of  Revolutionary iconography.

The Vainqueurs de la Bastille

The spontaneous glorification of the “Conquerors” of the Bastille began almost immediately after the attack on the Bastille and along lines dictated by classical precedent and current military practice.  Medals featured heavily. On the evening of the 14 July itself the commander of the Parisian National Guard, the Marquis de la Salle,  received a delegation of “Conquerors” at the Hôtel de Ville and distributed military medals to them. The cross of Saint-Louis,  snatched from the Governor de Launay shortly before his death was presented to one of their number who was triumphally paraded through the streets of Paris.  In the days which followed memorial masses, mixing religion and military pomp, took place in the church of St-Etienne du Mont in the old market district. On 17th July the district Petits-Augustin voted to mint a medal honouring the “Vainqueurs de la Bastille".  On 5th August the military committee of the Paris Commune proposed that a gold medal should be awarded to the French Guards who had participated in the attack.

Jean Dusaulx
The task of adjudicating claims to have taken part in the attack rapidly became a formidable one.  In August 1789 a committee of the Paris Commune  - composed of Jean Dusaulx, Oudart, Bourdin de la Crosnière, Thuriot de la Rosière, La Grey, and D'Osmond -  met in the Église des Quatre-Vingts close to the Bastille to begin compiling a list of participants.  In February 1790 they addressed a petition to the National Assembly requesting a medal.  On 6th March 1790 the Vainqueurs de la Bastille officially elected a committee of eight members to continue investigation of  applications for Vainqueur status and to represent their common interest.  Between 22 March and 16 June 1790 an official roll of 954 claimants was drawn up.

On 15 October 1789 an armed company of “Volonteers of the Bastille” was formed under the command of one of the veterans of the attack,Pierre-Augustin Hulin, the director of the Queen's laundry at La Briche near Saint-Denis and a former officer in the French Guard. (He had been responsible for the deployment of the cannon against the walls of the Bastille).   The company was given its salary by the Commune and housed in its own barracks.  On 8th June 1790 the mayor, Bailly, wrote to Lafayette asking him to propose to the National Assembly that the Volunteers be given a place of privilege at the upcoming  Fête de la Fédération.

On 19 June 1790, the National Assembly, on the proposal of the deputy Camus, finally acted to bestow a number of privileges and honours on the 863 (later 954) officially recognised Vainqueurs in consideration of the "heroic intrepidity" with which they had "risked their lives to liberate their fatherland and shake off the yoke of slavery". According to the Assembly's decree, those fit to bear arms would each receive a uniform and complete set of weapons, including a gun and sword engraved with the individual’s name, the national coat-of-arms and a coping symbolising the Bastille. A "couronne murale" emblem would be supplied which could be worn either on the sleeve or  the lapel of the coat.  Every victor would also receive a document made out by the Assembly bestowing the honorary title of “Vainqueur de la Bastille”.   It was confirmed that the Volunteers would occupy place of honour among the National Guard in the forecoming celebrations .A monetary award was also promised, the amount of which would be specified later.

In practice the decree proved fraught with difficulty, for resentment against the Vainqueurs ran high.   The radical press protested against the "frivolous honours" which, by an unfortunate coincidence,  had been awarded on the very same day (19th June) as the Assembly had  abolished hereditary aristocracy; according to Marat, the Revolution symbolised by the fall of the Bastille was the work not of a few individuals but of the mass of “le petit peuple”.  On 25th June after a  tumultuous debate, the Vainqueurs  finally agreed to renounce their privileges – a delegation solemnly appeared before the Assembly to lay their ribbons on the “altar of the fatherland”.  On 28 December 1790 the Commune explicitly prohibited their further meetings, though they were able to reconstitute themselves as the Société fraternelle des amis des droits de l'homme, ennemis du Despotisme and became part of the Jacobin Club.  They also survived as enough of an entity to take part in the procession accompanying Voltaire's remains to the Panthéon in July 1791.  The company of Volunteers was not officially dissolved until 8th August 1791 when it was absorbed into the National Guard and later, in the summer of 1792, into the 35 Gendarmerie division, which saw action in the Vendée.

Despite the decision of 25 June 1790, most of the Vainqueurs de la Bastille continued proudly to use the title; in the second half of 1790 almost all of them petitioned as individuals for the promised decorations and duly received an assortment of certificates, medals,  swordbelts and rifle-slings engraved with their names.

In 1804 a small group met once more in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine to demand (unsuccessfully) admission to the Légion d'honneur.  They fared better under the July Monarchy: on 28 November 1831, following  a petition brought forward by Lafayette in the Chamber of Deputies, a vote was taken to award five hundred francs, together with a new set of medals, to the 401 surviving Vainqueurs;  93 of the most needy were also awarded a small pension.


Hans-Jürgen Lüsebrink and Rolf Reichardt, The Bastille: a history of a symbol of despotism and freedom (Duke University Press, 1997), pp.

Décorations des Vanqueurs de la Bastille france-phaleristique website (by Marc Champenois)
Includes the definitive list of 954 "Conquerors" submitted on 16th June 1790.

List of surviving Vainqueurs in 1832

Diplomas and medals

Honorary diploma presented in 1790 ("Brevet de Vainqueur de la Bastille").  Copperplate engraving

Gold medal of the Gardes Françaises

The medal, proposed by the Commune on 5th August 1789, was authorised by a decree of the National Assembly on 1st September 1789 and sent to each soldier together with a certificate.  There were 64 recipients from the Third Batallion of French Guards plus forty or so from other companies of Guards or other regiments. It was suppressed by a decree of the National Convention on 18th November 1793.
Description: Lozenge, 32 mm by 21 mm. Gold. Front face:  Inscribed La liberté reconquise le 14 juilliet 1789 ("Liberty reconquered on 14th July 1789")  The image shows a ring with two broken chains and,at the base, an open padlock, more chains and two cannonballs.
Reverse:  A sword passed through a laurel crown.  Inscribed  Ignorant ne datos ne quisquam serviat enses  "Men do not know that the purpose of the sword is to save all from slavery" - an epigram from Lucian suggested by Lafayette, or possible Vauvilliers, president of the Communal Assembly.

Lafayette sports the medal  of the Gardes Françaises

The goldsmith is identified as Jean-Nicholas Francastel, who also produced the famous Franco-American Medal of Cincinnatus.

Medal of the vainqueurs

The wording of the decree of 19 June 1790 did not provide for a medal for the "vanqueurs", but only an embroidered "crown" to be sewn either to the sleeve or lapel of their uniform.  However, this idea seems to have been abandoned in favour of a bronze medallion, worn with a ribbon . The decoration was abolished  by a decree of 20 août 1793  which replaced it with the medal commemorating the Revolution of 10 August.   The original "crowns" of 1790 are bronze or gilded bronze, depicting five towers of the Bastille with three holes in the lower part.  Some examples are stamped on the reverse "Récompense nationale décernée a Monsieur ....Vainqueur de la Bastille 1790" (National award given to Monsieur...Conqueror of the Bastille 1790")

The 1831 crowns were bronze (ungilded) and solid in design.  There are also facsimile crowns produced in 1889 which are similar in appearance to those of 1831.

From: Sale of 17 November 2011 Armes anciennes - souvenirs historiques , Drouot, Paris.

See also:
Catalogue of the collection André Souyris-Rolland, Drouot, 15 November 2012.

Crown belonging to Hulin

This  Bastille "couronne murale", part of Paul Rousseau collection, sold in 2012, is of particular interest in that it belonged to Hulin, commander of the Volunteers of the Bastille.   Hulin was to rise to high military rank under Napoleon.

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