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
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.
Diplomas and medals
Honorary diploma presented in 1790 ("Brevet de Vainqueur de la Bastille"). Copperplate engraving
- Three examples in the Bibl. Nationale, Collection Vinck, include an unassigned example .http://catalogue.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/cb402526647
- Example in the Archives Nationales: Histoire par image: Diplôme de Vainqueur de la Bastille (Diploma of ) http://www.histoire-image.org/pleincadre/index.php?i=276
- Hôtel des Ventes de Toulon, Sale of 24th March 2012 Collection Paul Rousseau. Pierre Gervais Terray, né à Paris en 1753. https://www.liveauctioneers.com/item/11109187_brevet-des-vainqueurs-de-la-bastille-sur-vlin-en
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")
From: Sale of 17 November 2011 Armes anciennes - souvenirs historiques , Drouot, Paris.
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.