Robert-François Damiens

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Robert-François Damiens
Born(1715-01-09)9 January 1715
Died28 March 1757(1757-03-28) (aged 42)
Cause of deathPublic execution by dismemberment
Other namesRobert-François Damier
OccupationDomestic servant
Known forAttempted 1757 regicide of Louis XV
SpouseElizabeth Molerienne

Robert-François Damiens (French pronunciation: ​[ʁɔbɛʁ fʁɑ̃swa damjɛ̃]; surname also recorded as Damier; 9 January 1715 – 28 March 1757) was a French domestic servant whose attempted assassination of King Louis XV in 1757[1] culminated in his public execution.[2] He was the last person to be executed in France by dismemberment, the traditional form of death penalty reserved for regicides.

Early life[edit]

Damiens was born on 9 January 1715 in La Thieuloye, a village near Arras in northern France.[3] 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. He was dismissed from this, as well as from other employments, for misconduct, earning him the moniker Robert le Diable ("Robert the Devil").[1]

Damiens's motivation has always been debated, with some historians considering him to have been mentally unstable. From his answers under interrogation, Damiens seems to have been put into a state of agitation by the uproar that followed the refusal of the French Catholic clergy to grant the holy sacraments to members of the Jansenist sect.[1] He appears to have laid the ultimate blame for this on the king, and so formed a plan to punish him.[4]

Assassination attempt[edit]

King Louis XV
Damiens before his judges

On 5 January 1757 at 4:00 pm, 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.[1] Louis XV's thick winter clothes were protective, so the knife penetrated less than one centimetre (12 inch) into his chest.[5][6] Nevertheless, Louis was bleeding and called for a confessor to be brought to him, as he feared he might die. When the Queen ran to Louis's side, he asked forgiveness for his numerous affairs.[7]

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.[8] 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.[1]

Torture and execution[edit]

Execution of Damiens
Idealized mid-19th century depiction of Damiens’s execution by French illustrator Théophile Fragonard; in reality Damiens would have been supine on an execution platform, mostly unclothed, and hideously wounded from torture.

Fetched from his prison cell on the morning of 28 March 1757, Damiens allegedly said "La journée sera rude" ("The day will be hard").[9] He was first subjected to a torture in which his legs were painfully compressed by devices called "boots".[10][11] He was then tortured 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.[1] He was then remanded to the royal executioner Charles Henri Sanson (who would ironically later go on to execute King Louis XVI) who, after emasculating Damiens, harnessed horses to his arms and legs to be dismembered. But Damiens's limbs did not separate easily: the officiants ordered Sanson to cut Damiens's tendons, and once that was done the horses were able to perform the dismemberment.[10][11][12] Once Damiens was dismembered, to the applause of the crowd, his reportedly still-living torso was burnt at the stake.[13] (Some accounts say he died when his last remaining arm was removed.)[10][11]

Damiens’s final words are uncertain. Some sources[14] attribute to him "O death, why art thou so long in coming?"; others[15] claim Damiens' last words consisted mainly of various effusions for mercy from God.


After his death, the remains of Damiens's corpse were reduced to ashes and scattered in the wind.[16] His house was razed, his brothers and sisters were forced to change their names, and his father, wife, and daughter were banished from France.[1]

France had not experienced an attempted regicide since the killing of Henry IV in 1610.[17] Damiens's infamy endured. Forty years after his death, the memory of Arras's 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.[18] For others, Damiens's execution became a cause célèbre exemplifying the barbarism of the Ancien Régime.[19]


Casanova (pictured) was one of the most notable eyewitnesses of Damiens’s execution

The execution was witnessed by 18th-century adventurer Giacomo Casanova, who included an account in his memoirs:[20]

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

Philosophical and political responses[edit]

The critic Ian Haywood has argued that Edmund Burke alludes to Damiens's torture in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1775), when he writes "When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are delightful" (emphasis added), punning on "press" to refer to Damiens's ordeal.[19] Philosopher Cesare Beccaria explicitly cited Damiens's fate when he condemned torture and the death penalty in his treatise On Crimes and Punishments (1764).[2] Thomas Paine in Rights of Man (1791) mentions Damiens's 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.[21] Damiens's execution is also described and discussed at length by Michel Foucault in his treatise Discipline and Punish, in examination of the shift in views on punishment which took place in Western culture in the following century. He cited Alexandre Zévaès' work, Damiens le regicide.[22]

Literary legacy[edit]

Voltaire included a thinly-veiled account of Damiens's execution in his novella Candide (1759).[19] The execution is referenced by Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities, Book the Second (1859), Chapter XV:

"One old man says at the fountain, that his right hand, armed with the knife, will be burnt off before his face; that, into wounds which will be made in his arms, his breast, and his legs, there will be poured boiling oil, melted lead, hot resin, wax, and sulphur; finally, that he will be torn limb from limb by four strong horses. That old man says, all this was actually done to a prisoner who made an attempt on the life of the late King, Louis Fifteen. But how do I know if he lies? I am not a scholar."

"Listen once again then, Jacques!" said the man with the restless hand and the craving air. "The name of that prisoner was Damiens, and it was all done in open day, in the open streets of this city of Paris; and nothing was more noticed in the vast concourse that saw it done, than the crowd of ladies of quality and fashion, who were full eager attention to the last – to the last, Jacques, prolonged until nightfall, when he had lost two legs and an arm, and still breathed!"[23]

An allusion to Damiens's 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 (1889).[citation needed] Baroness Orczy refers to the incident in Mam'zelle Guillotine (1940), part of the Scarlet Pimpernel series, which features the fictionalised character of his daughter Gabrielle Damiens. There is also a description of the death of Damiens in Peter Weiss's play Marat/Sade (1963).[24]

In the historical manga Innocent, Robert Damiens is a supporting character in the early part of the story. He forms a friendship with Charles Henri Sanson when Sanson offers his son medical treatment. Notably, Damiens is portrayed as a desperate man trying to provide for his family, with his attack on the King stated to be due to despair and a desire to see if the King was really different. Charles is ultimately forced to execute him.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Damiens, Robert François" . Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 7 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 788.
  2. ^ a b Reill, Peter Hanns; Wilson, Ellen Judy (2004). Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment. New York: Facts on File. p. 138. ISBN 0-8160-5335-9. Retrieved 7 February 2011.
  3. ^ "Robert François Damiens". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 2011. Retrieved 8 February 2011.
  4. ^ 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 8 February 2011.
  5. ^ On page 223 of Voltaire's Histoire du parlement de Paris, 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.
  6. ^ From Voltaire, Histoire, 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.)
  7. ^ Sandbrook, Dominic. "5 January 1757: Louis XV cheats an assassin's blade". BBC History Magazine. BBC. Retrieved 6 October 2020.
  8. ^ "Robert-François Damiens | French regicide". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 5 January 2021.
  9. ^ Bommelaer, Claire (22 November 2010). "In the hell of the dungeons of the Bastille". Le Figaro Online (in French). Le Figaro. Retrieved 8 February 2011. 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 ...)
  10. ^ a b c A Primer on Crime and Delinquency Theory, Robert M. Bohm, Brenda Vogel, page 15, Retrieved 20 November 2015
  11. ^ a b c Brown, Stephen E.; Esbensen, Finn-Aage; Geis, Gilbert (3 July 2015). Criminology: Explaining Crime and Its Context. p. 157. ISBN 9781317311980. Retrieved 20 November 2015.
  12. ^ Burkhead, Michael Dow (6 August 2009). A Life for a Life: The American Debate Over the Death Penalty. pp. 41–2. ISBN 9780786433681. Retrieved 20 November 2015.
  13. ^ Foucault, Michel (1979). Discipline and Punish. New York: Vintage Books. ISBN 0-394-72767-3.
  14. ^ Frederic Rowland (1900). The Last Words (Real and Traditional) of Distinguished Men and Women. Troy, New York: C. A. Brewster & Co.
  15. ^ The Terrific Register; or, Record of crimes, judgments, providences, and calamities... (1825). London: Sherwood, Jones, and co.. Contained 100 wood engravings pictures, made by John Byfield (1788–1841) and Mary Byfield (1795–1871).
  16. ^ 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 8 February 2011. ... fes membres et corps consumé en feu, réduits en cendre, et fes cendre jettée au vent ...
  17. ^ Doyle (2000), p.64.
  18. ^ Scurr, Ruth (2006). Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution. London: Vintage Books. pp. 132–133. ISBN 978-0-09-945898-2.
  19. ^ a b c Haywood, Ian (2006). Bloody Romanticism: Spectacular Violence and the Politics of Representation, 1776–1832. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 6. ISBN 9781403942821.
  20. ^ Casanova, Giacomo (1787). The Complete Memoires (PDF). Project Gutenberg.
  21. ^ Thomas Paine,The Rights of Man, (1791).
  22. ^ Foucault, Michel (1979). Discipline and Punish. New York: Vintage Books. pp. 5ff. ISBN 0-394-72767-3.
  23. ^ Dickens, Charles (2010). A Tale of Two Cities. Penguin. pp. 168. ISBN 978-0142196588.
  24. ^ Weiss, Peter (1965). The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade [a play]. New York: H. Wolff. p. 24. LCCN 65-15915. Retrieved 14 October 2021 – via Internet Archive.

External links[edit]