When you aim at the king you had better kill him

19 May 2008

The pun­ish­ment meted out to an un­for­tu­nate Robert François Damiens, who at­tempted to as­sas­si­nate Louis XV on 5 January 1757:

The said Robert-François Damiens has been con­victed of having com­mit­ted a very mean, very terrible, and very dread­ful par­ri­ci­dal crime against the King. The said Damiens is sen­tenced to pay for his crime in front of the main gate of the Church of Paris. He will be taken there in a tipcart naked and will hold a burning wax torch weigh­ing two pounds. There, on his knees, he will say and declare that he had com­mit­ted a very mean, very ter­ri­ble and very dread­ful parricide, and that he had hurt the King… He will repent and ask God, the King and Justice to forgive him. When this will be done, he will be taken in the same tipcart to the Place de Grève and will be put on a scaffold. Then his breasts, arms, thighs and legs will be tortured. While holding the knife with which he com­mit­ted the said Parricide, his right hand will be burnt. On his tor­tured body parts, melted lead, boiling oil, burning pitch, and melted wax and sulphur will be thrown. Then four horses will pull him apart until he is dismembered. His limbs will be thrown on the stake, and his ashes will be spread. All his belongings, furniture, housings, whereever they are, will be con­fis­cated and given to the King. Before the execution, the said Damiens will be asked to tell the names of his accomplices.

Tim Blan­ning notes: “In the event, the actual ex­e­cu­tion was even more ghastly than this sce­nario suggests. The four horses proved unable to tear Damiens apart, not even after re­in­force­ments had been hitched up, so the ex­e­cu­tioner was obliged to employ an axe to sever what parts of the limbs were still attached. The victim re­mained con­scious throughout, re­peat­edly shrieking, ‘My God, have pity on me! Jesus, help me!’, and—according to one observer—was still alive when his torso was thrown on to the pyre.”

(From The Pursuit of Glory: Europe 1648–1815, by Tim Blanning, p. 203.)