Robert Francois Damiens (1714-57) was a French soldier who attempted to assassinate King Louis XV by stabbing him as he entered his carriage at Versailles.

The court found Damiens guilty of lèse-majesté and parricide, and ordered
"that he be taken to the Grève and, on a scaffold erected for the purpose, that his chest, arms, thighs and calves be burnt with pincers; his right hand, holding the knife with which he committed the said parricide, burnt in sulphur; that boiling oil, melted lead and resin and wax mixed with sulphur be poured in his wounds; and after that his body be pulled and dismembered by four horses, and the members and body consumed by fire, and the ashes scattered to winds. The court orders that his property be confiscated to the King's profit; that before the said execution, Damiens be subjected to question ordinaire et extraordinaire, to make him confess the names of his accomplices."

The execution of Robert Damiens is the most sensational and terrible case on record (and, incidentally, the last that took place in France).

After the court had given the death sentence for Robert Damiens, his suffering began. For over two hours was Damien tortured with the boot, but in the face of agony so frightful that it drew forth shrieks of anguish, and time and time again brought him to the point of fainting, he refused to speak. At last, when his limbs were crushed and broken, the surgeons said that he could stand no more. On the scaffold, before the end came, he was to suffer greater torture.

In the process of burning his arm, the executioners stated that "when the blue flame touched Damien's skin, he uttered a frightful shriek and tried to break his bonds. But when the first pang had shot through him, he raised his head and looked at his burning hand without manifesting his feelings otherwise than by grinding his teeth." And so the awful tortures, one after another, were inflicted - the deliberate tearing of his chest and limbs with pincers, the pouring of boiling oil, lead etc. into these wounds - until finally, the four horses were urged by the executioners to drag the limbs from his body. So tough were the sinews, however, that for hours the straining and pulling continued: at last, in desperation, the still living body was quartered with knife.

Casanova tells us that he and his companions "had the courage to watch the dreadful sight for four hours," and says that "I was several times obliged to turn away my face and to stop my ears as I heard his piercing shrieks, half his body being torn from him, but the Lambertini and the aunt did not budge an inch."

Even after his final torture, Robert Damiens' suffering did not end. After he was drawn and quartered (and this went on for some time: due to the stength of Damiens' sinews, six horses were used instead of the usual four; as Card noted, the executioners were eventually forced to "sever the sinews and hack at the joints" (Discipline and Punish 3)) the pieces of his body were burned at the stake. The eyewitness account of M. Bouton, an officer of the watch, recounts the spectacle:

"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... 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 stilll alive." (Damiens le regicide 214; emphasis added.)

Seem a little harsh? Bear in mind that Damiens didn't even kill the King: this was all for the attempt. As Foucault points out in Discipline and Punish, breaking any law was considered to be a direct attack on the King (due to the fact that the rule of law embodied, in a very meaningful way, the physical person of the sovereign). Hence the particularly brutal method of Damiens' execution: not only did he break the laws regarding attempted murder (thereby figuratively "assaulting" the monarch), but he tried to kill the king!!.


  • Foucault, M. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison 1978.
  • Zevaes, A. Damiens le regicide 1937.
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