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French Revolution 1789

Transport & the problem of feeding Paris
Storming the Bastille
Revolutionary Wars 1792-1794
Napoleon and the North

The French revolution in 1789 was a defining moment in French society. This page describes some of the events of the Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars and the First Empire - setting what happened in Nord Pas-de-Calais in context.

Paris quayside below Notre-Dame bridge. Barges unloading food and firewood for Paris in mid-18th century.

Transport & the problem of feeding Paris
In the 1780s, Paris was the third biggest city in Europe. London and Constantinople were bigger, but both were ports, and could import food by sea. Paris had the river Seine, a winding river, that could take river barges but not ships. Low river levels at harvest time did not help.

Between the French capital and Nord-PasdeCalais, the country's most fertile agricultural area, lay 200km of poor roads. Carting doubled the cost of bulk goods like grain every 55km. Canals could have carried food much more cheaply, and could have opened up a market for heavy coal to replace firewood as fuel.
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Storming the Bastille prison, 14th July 1789. At a time of record bread prices, hungry mobs roamed Paris seeking weapons.

Saint Bertin's Abbey, in Saint-Omer, was smashed during the Revolution

Food crisis
Lacking good transport links, Paris was becoming difficult to feed. So many people there - and in the rest of France - lived so close to the bread line, that any problem with crops, the harvest, or of food distribution, could tip them into a disaster situation.

A labouring family of four ate 1.2 tons of grain a year - 80% of that came from the Paris basin. In the 1780s a series of poor harvests in the area led to soaring bread prices, provoking food riots. Coastal cities could import supplies, but in Paris, a worker's daily bread took 97% of his income. The worst time was July, just before the next harvest.

Storming the Bastille
In July 1789, with bread prices at record levels, hungry mobs attacked the gates of Paris where customs collected taxes on incoming grain convoys. They raided every possible source of arms, ending up with capturing the Bastille prison.
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Revolutionary zealots destroy church property
As revolutionary fever spread around France, Church property became a major focus of the mobs' anger. In the North, as elsewhere, the Church was a major landowner and landlord. Bishops and the clergy lived like aristocrats. They used their power and influence to support the established authorities and protect their own wealth and position. The mobs destroyed many churches, cathedrals and monasteries. Many artistic and historic treasures were looted, burnt or smashed - a heritage built up from the Middle ages lost for ever.
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Revolutionary Wars 1792-1794

Defending the new French republic from invasion: the Battle of Hondschoote in 1793.
The Northern border areas were invaded by foreign armies sent by other monarchs worried that popular revolution could spread throughout Europe. France was not the only country where poor masses were exploited by an extravagent wealthy elite.

British King George III sent an army to Holland in 1793, commanded by his son, the Duke of York. With Austrian armies from the neighboring Netherlands, they besieged French border forts in the Lille area, capturing Valenciennes. The foreign threat provoked a patriotic enthusiasm to defend France by spreading the revolution. Many volunteers joined the Revolutionary armies.

When the British/Austrian/Hanoverian troops marched to try and capture the port of Dunkerque (to secure their supply lines from Britain), they were defeated at the battle of Hondschoote in September. British troops were gradually withdrawn, e.g. to fight in the rich sugar plantation colonies in the West Indies. In the spring of 1794, the Revolutionary Armies inflicted further defeats on the Austrians along the French borders, e.g. at Roubaix, and went on to capture the Austrian Netherlands - what is now Belgium - which remained French until 1814.

Re-enactment of Napoleonic wars in Boulogne

The Terror and the guillotine
Having secured their borders, the revolutionaries still faced many difficulties in trying to govern the country without the King and the apparatus of royal rule. Amid genuine fears from foreign attacks and from aristocrats and their sympathisers who wished to bring back the King, there were many excesses - known as the "Terror".

Committees of Public Safety sought out supposed traitors, spies and aristocrats-in-hiding. People like Robespierre in Arras wielded enormous power through spell-binding speeches that directed mob anger against supposed enemies of the revolution.
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Napoleon and the North
In 1799 the North welcomed Napoleon's seizing power. The largely rural ill-educated northern people were weary of the Terror and anxious for peace. Very soon, the local gentry were back in charge of the important posts in local administration.

While planning his invasion of Britain, Napoleon spent some time in Boulogne.

From 1810 the Continental Blockade gave Nord - Pas-de-Calais an opportunity to develop new industries, by freezing out British competion. The cotton industry flourished, new coal mines were opened, and the cultivation of sugar-beet replaced cane-sugar which could no longer be imported across the Atlantic.

But continuing conscription, shortages and the miseries of endless wars made Napoleon's rule less and less poipular in the North. With his defeat in 1815, the region suffered an army of occupation for 3 years. In 1830 the neighbouring Netherlands provinces revolted against rule by the Dutch and became a separate country, Belgium.
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Places to visit:
Column of the Grand Army, Boulogne
Robespierre's house - infamous leader of the French Revolution and the "Terror"

Related background information
Early canals

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