LATELY — 19 May 2008

When you aim at the king you had better kill him

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.)