Louis XV was already 42 years into his reign. On January 5th, 1757.. he was visiting Versailles that afternoon to see his daughter Madame Victoire, who was not feeling well. His carriages came to collect him and at six in the evening he went down the stairs and out though the guardroom. It was dark and he was preceded by torch-bearers and accompanied by the Dauphin, gentlemen-in-waiting and equerries. The royal bodyguard was drawn up in two lines, from the door to the waiting coach. Suddenly a man leapt out of the night, pushed between two of the bodyguards and struck the King with a knife.
Louis XV immediately touched his right side and found his hand to be bloody. The assassin – a man Robert-François Damiens – had stabbed the King in his right side right between the fourth and fifth rib. The wound was superficial but quite long; the King fainted from the shock. When the King regained conciousness he was still in shock and under the impression that he was dying. He quickly called for his priest, handed over the kingdom of France to the Dauphin and desperately begged the Queen for forgiveness if she thought that he had caused her any distress.
Robert-François Damiens was quickly taken away by the royal guards since he made no attempt to flee. He was convinced that the murder of the King would bring peace and religious freedom to the kingdom. He had previously worked as an assistant to several members of Parliament who harbored ill feelings against the King and Madame de Pompadour. Damiens was of a weak character and was strongly affected by these ideas. After he had been captured it was vital for the King’s security to find out whether he had any accomplices. Damiens was tortured but revealed no other accomplices. He was sentenced to death and on March 28 1757 he was executed. The execution (for what was considered the worst possible crime) was terrible.
Damiens may be best-known today as the subject of the jarring opening passage of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, in which this medieval torture is described in detail by way of contrasting it with the regimented penal institutions that would sprout up in a few decades’ time. Here’s Foucault’s description of the scene:
On 1 March 1757 Damiens the regicide attempt maker was condemned “to make the amende honorable before the main door of the Church of Paris”, where he was to be “taken and conveyed in a cart, wearing nothing but a shirt, holding a torch of burning wax weighing two pounds”; then, “in the said cart, to the Place de Grève, where, on a scaffold that will be erected there, the flesh will be torn from his breasts, arms, thighs and claves with red-hot pincers, his right hand, holding the knife with which he committed the said parricide, burnt with sulphur, and, on those places where the flesh will be torn away, poured molten lead, boiling oil, burning resin, wax and sulphur melted together and then his body drawn and quartered by four horses and his limbs and body consumed by fire, reduced to ashes and his ashes thrown to the winds” (Pièces originales…, 372-4).
“Finally, he was quartered,” recounts the Gazette d’Amsterdam of 1 April 1757. “This last operation was very long, because the horses used were not accustomed to drawing; consequently, instead of four, six were needed; and when that did not suffice, they were forced, in order to cut off the wretch’s thighs, to sever the sinews and hack at the joints…
“It is said that, though he was always a great swearer, no blasphemy escaped his lips; but the excessive pain made him utter horrible cries, and he often repeated: ‘My God, have pity on me! Jesus, help me!’ The spectators were all edified by the solicitude of the parish priest of St Paul’s who despite his great age did not spare himself in offering consolation to the patient.”
Bouton, an officer of the watch, left us his account: “The sulphur was lit, but the flame was so poor that only the top skin of the hand was burnt, and that only slightly. Then the executioner, his sleeves rolled up, took the steel pincers, which had been especially made for the occasion, and which were about a foot and a half long, and pulled first at the calf of the right leg, then at the thigh, and from there at the two fleshy parts of the right arm; then at the breasts. Though a strong, sturdy fellow, this executioner found it so difficult to tear away the pieces of flesh that he set about the same spot two or three times, twisting the pincers as he did so, and what he took away formed at each part a wound about the size of a six-pound crown piece.
“After these tearings with the pincers, Damiens, who cried out profusely, though without swearing, raised his head and looked at himself; the same executioner dipped an iron spoon in the pot containing the boiling potion, which he poured liberally over each wound. Then the ropes that were to be harnessed to the horses were attached with cords to the patient’s body; the horses were then harnessed and placed alongside the arms and legs, one at each limb.
“Monsieur Le Breton, the clerk of the court, went up to the patient several times and asked him if he had anything to say. He said he had not; at each torment, he cried out, as the damned in hell are supposed to cry out, ‘Pardon, my God! Pardon, my Lord.’ Despite all this pain, he raised his head from time to time and looked at himself boldly. The cords had been tied so tightly by the men who pulled the ends that they caused him indescribable pain. Monsieur le [sic] Breton went up to him again and asked him if he had anything to say; he said no. Several confessors went up to him and spoke to him at length; he willingly kissed the crucifix that was held out to him; he opened his lips and repeated: ‘Pardon, Lord.’
“The horses tugged hard, each pulling straight on a limb, each horse held by an executioner. After a quarter of an hour, the same ceremony was repeated and finally, after several attempts, the direction of the horses had to be changed, thus: those at the arms were made to pull towards the head, those at the thighs towards the arms, which broke the arms at the joints. This was repeated several times without success. He raised his head and looked at himself. Two more horses had to be added to those harnessed to the thighs, which made six horses in all. Without success.
“Finally, the executioner, Samson, said to Monsieur Le Breton that there was no way or hope of succeeding, and told him to ask their Lordships if they wished him to have the prisoner cut into pieces. Monsieur Le Breton, who had come down from the town, ordered that renewed efforts be made, and this was done; but the horses gave up and one of those harnessed to the thighs fell to the ground. The confessors returned and spoke to him again. He said to them (I heard him): ‘Kiss me, gentlemen.’ The parish priest of St Paul’s did not dare to, so Monsieur de Marsilly slipped under the rope holding the left arm and kissed him on the forehead. The executioners gathered round and Damiens told them not to swear, to carry out their task and that he did not think ill of them; he begged them to pray to God for him, and asked the parish priest of St Paul’s to pray for him at the first mass.
“After two or three attempts, the executioner Samson and he who had used the pincers each drew out a knife from his pocket and cut the body at the thighs instead of severing the legs at the joints; the four horses gave a tug and carried off the two thighs after them, namely, that of the right side first, the other following; then the same was done to the arms, the shoulders, the arm-pits and the four limbs; the flesh had to be cut almost to the bone, the horses pulling hard carried off the right arm first and the other afterwards.
“When the four limbs had been pulled away, the confessors came to speak to him; but his executioner told them that he was dead, though the truth was that I saw the man move, his lower jaw moving from side to side as if he were talking. One of the executioners even said shortly afterwards that when they had lifted the trunk to throw it on the stake, he was still alive. The four limbs were untied from the ropes and thrown on the stake set up in the enclosure in line with the scaffold, then the trunk and the rest were covered with logs and faggots, and fire was put to the straw mixed with this wood.
“…In accordance with the decree, the whole was reduced to ashes. The last piece to be found in the embers was still burning at half-past ten in the evening. The pieces of flesh and the trunk had taken about four hours to burn. The officers of whom I was one, as also was my son, and a detachment of archers remained in the square until nearly eleven o’clock.
“There were those who made something of the fact that a dog had lain the day before on the grass where the fire had been, had been chased away several times, and had always returned. But it is not difficult to understand that an animal found this place warmer than elsewhere” (quoted in Zevaes, 201-14).
Among the throngs in attendance that day was Casanova who, according to his memoirs, rented out a windowed flat to watch that stomach-churning torture for four hours with some male friends and female companions.
One of the legendary libertine’s friends found this moment, serenaded by the prisoner’s “piercing shrieks”, opportune for an altogether different adventure of the flesh:
The three ladies packing themselves together as tightly as possible took up their positions at the window, leaning forward on their elbows, so as to prevent us seeing from behind. The window had two steps to it, and they stood on the second; and in order to see we had to stand on the same step, for if we had stood on the first we should not have been able to see over their heads. I have my reasons for giving these minutiae, as otherwise the reader would have some difficulty in guessing at the details which I am obliged to pass over in silence.
Tiretta kept the pious aunt curiously engaged during the whole time of the execution, and this, perhaps, was what prevented the virtuous lady from moving or even turning her head round.
Finding himself behind her, he had taken the precaution to lift up her dress to avoid treading on it. That, no doubt, was according to the rule; but soon after, on giving an involuntary glance in their direction, I found that Tiretta had carried his precautions rather far, and, not wishing to interrupt my friend or to make the lady feel awkward, I turned my head and stood in such a way that my sweetheart could see nothing of what was going on; this put the good lady at her ease. For two hours after I heard a continuous rustling, and relishing the joke I kept quiet the whole time. I admired Tiretta’s hearty appetite still more than his courage, but what pleased me most was the touching resignation with which the pious aunt bore it all.
Casanova’s Complete Memoirs are available free online; this episode is recounted in the first chapter of “Paris and Holland”.
Damiens’ punishment was in fact already archaic at the point when it was inflicted. Somewhat unsure of itself, the court sought precedent in the last regicide executed — Francois Ravaillac, who in 1610 was also the most recent person to suffer this horrific penalty. The clumsiness of the Damiens’ execution can surely be attributed to the art being a century and a half out of practice.
It was not the physical harm that had shocked the King – he recovered after eight days – it was the assault itself. Never before had a King of France been the subject of an assassination attempt and certainly not after the King had become almost sacred in the monarchy. The thought that something like that could happen to the centre of France was terrifying not just to the King but to the court as well.
Source Credits: History Today, Executed Today and This Is Versailles