Robert-François Damiens (French: [damjɛ̃]; 9 January 1715 – 28 March 1757) was a French domestic servant whose attempted assassination of King Louis XV of France in 1757 culminated in his notorious and controversial public execution. He was the last person to be executed in France by drawing and quartering, the traditional and gruesome form of death penalty reserved for regicides.
Damiens was born on 9 January 1715 in La Thieuloye, a village near Arras in northern France. He enlisted in the army at an early age. After his discharge, he became a domestic servant at the college of the Jesuits in Paris, and was dismissed from this as well as from other employments for misconduct, earning him the epithet of Robert le Diable (Robert the Devil).
Damiens' motivation has always been questionable: historians often describe him as mentally unstable. From his answers under interrogation, Damiens seems to have been excited by the schismatic uproar that followed the refusal of the French Catholic clergy to grant holy sacraments to the Jansenists, a sect which was considered heretical. He appears to have planned a punishment for the king, upon whom he placed ultimate blame.
On 5 January 1757, as the King was entering his carriage at the Palace of Versailles, Damiens rushed past the King's bodyguards and stabbed him with a penknife, inflicting only a slight wound. He made no attempt to escape, and was apprehended at once. Louis XV's thick winter clothes were protective, and the knife penetrated less than half an inch into his chest. The writer Voltaire described the wound as "fortunately scarcely more significant than a pinprick".
Damiens was arrested on the spot and taken away to be tortured to force him to divulge the identity of any accomplices or those who had sent him. This effort was unsuccessful. He was tried and condemned as a regicide by the Parlement of Paris, and sentenced to be drawn and quartered by horses at the Place de Grève.
Torture and execution
Fetched from his prison cell on the morning of 28 March 1757, Damiens allegedly said "La journée sera rude" ("The day will be hard"). He was tortured first with red-hot pincers; the hand with which he had held the knife during the attempted assassination was burned using sulphur; molten wax, molten lead, and boiling oil were poured into his wounds. He was then remanded to the royal executioner, Charles Henri Sanson, who harnessed horses to his arms and legs to be dismembered. But Damiens' limbs did not separate easily: the officiants ordered Sanson to cut Damiens' joints with an axe. Once Damiens was dismembered, to the applause of the crowd, his reportedly still-living torso was burnt at the stake.
After his death, the remains of Damiens' corpse were reduced to ashes and scattered in the wind. His house was razed, his brothers and sisters were forced to change their names, and his father, wife, and daughter were banished from France.
France had not experienced an attempted regicide since the killing of Henry IV in 1610. Damiens' infamy endured. Forty years after his death, the memory of Arras' most notorious citizen was used against another Arras native, Maximilien Robespierre. The polarizing figure of the French Revolution was described frequently by his enemies as the nephew of Damiens. Though untrue, the libel held considerable credibility among royalists and foreign sympathizers.
We had the courage to watch the dreadful sight for four hours ... Damiens was a fanatic, who, with the idea of doing a good work and obtaining a heavenly reward, had tried to assassinate Louis XV; and though the attempt was a failure, and he only gave the king a slight wound, he was torn to pieces as if his crime had been consummated. ... I was several times obliged to turn away my face and to stop my ears as I heard his piercing shrieks, half of his body having been torn from him, but the Lambertini and Mme XXX did not budge an inch. Was it because their hearts were hardened? They told me, and I pretended to believe them, that their horror at the wretch's wickedness prevented them feeling that compassion which his unheard-of torments should have excited.—Book 2, Volume 5, Chapter 3
The philosopher Cesare Beccaria explicitly cited Damiens' fate when he condemned torture and the death penalty in his classic treatise On Crimes and Punishments (1764). Damiens's execution is also described and discussed at length in the introduction to Michel Foucault's study of systems of punishment, Discipline and Punish.
Thomas Paine in Rights of Man mentions Damiens' execution as an example of the cruelty of despotic governments; Paine argues that these methods were the reason why the masses dealt with their prisoners in such a cruel manner when the French Revolution occurred. An allusion to Damiens' attack and execution, and Casanova's account of it, are used by Mark Twain to suggest the cruelty and injustice of aristocratic power in chapter XVIII of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.
Science fiction writer James Morrow draws on the incident for the trial of God in his novel Blameless in Abaddon. There is also a description of the death of Damiens in Peter Weiss' play Marat/Sade. The incident figures prominently in Hanns Heinz Ewers' frame story "The Execution of Damiens".
Baroness Orczy refers to the incident in Mam'zelle Guillotine (part of the Scarlet Pimpernel series), which features the fictionalised character of his daughter Gabrielle Damiens. The execution is referenced by Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities, Book the Second, Chapter XV.
- Reill, Peter Hanns; Wilson, Ellen Judy (2004). Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment. New York: Facts on File. p. 138. ISBN 0-8160-5335-9. Retrieved 2011-02-07.
- Encyclopædia Britannica (2011). "Robert François Damiens". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 2011-02-08.
- Doyle, William (2000). Jansenism: Catholic resistance to authority from the Reformation to the French Revolution. New York: St. Martin's Press. p. 65. ISBN 0-312-22676-4. Retrieved 2011-02-08.
- Voltaire, Histoire du parlement de Paris (Amsterdam, Netherlands: 1769) , vol. 2, pages 223 and 225.
On page 223, Voltaire states that the knife " … pénétra de quatre lignes dans les chairs au dessous de la cinquieme côte; … " ( … penetrated four lines into the flesh below the fifth rib; … ) According to Wikipedia, a ligne was 2.2558 mm, so four lignes would be about 1 cm.
From page 225: "L'une de ces lames était un canif long de quatre pouces avec laquel il avait frappé le Roi à travers un manteau fort épais & tous ses habits, de façon que la blessure heureusement n'était guères plus considérable qu'un coup d'épingle." (One of these blades was a knife four inches long with which he struck the King through a very thick overcoat & all his clothes, in a way that the wound was fortunately scarcely more significant than a pinprick.)
- BBC History, January 2015 p.6
- Bommelaer, Claire (2010-11-22). "In the hell of the dungeons of the Bastille". Le Figaro Online (in French). Le Figaro. Retrieved 2011-02-08.
Le cas de Damiens, qui frappa Louis XV d'un coup de couteau en 1757, est longuement exposé. «La journée sera rude», avait-il commenté après la sentence (chaires tenaillées puis arrosées de plomb fondu et d'huile bouillante, main brûlée et coupée…)
- Foucault, Michel (1979). Discipline and Punish. New York: Vintage Books. ISBN 0-394-72767-3.
- Le Breton, Alexandre-André (1757). Pièces originales et procedures du proces fait à Robert-François Damiens (in French). Paris: Pierre-Guillame Simon. p. 397. Retrieved 2011-02-08.
...fes membres et corps consumé en feu, réduits en cendre, et fes cendre jettée au vent...
- Doyle (2000), p.64.
- Scurr, Ruth (2006). Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution. London: Vintage Books. pp. 132–133. ISBN 978-0-09-945898-2.
- (English) Giacomo Casanova (1787). The Complete Memoires. Project Gutenberg.
- Foucault, Michel (1979). Discipline and Punish. New York: Vintage Books. pp. 5ff. ISBN 0-394-72767-3.
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- Boeglin, Edouard (1999-01-06). "On a voulu tuer le Bien-Aimé" (in French). Journal L'Alsace / Le Pays. Retrieved 2008-10-06.