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On January 5, 1757, as King Louis XV of France and Navarre was getting into his carriage in the courtyard of the Grand Trianon Versailles, a demented man, Robért-François 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.

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.

King Louis XV of France and Navarre

The King’s guards seized Damien, and the King ordered them to hold him but not harm him. The King walked up the steps to his rooms at the Trianon, where he found he was bleeding profusely. He summoned his doctor and then fainted. Louis was saved from greater harm by the thickness of the winter clothing he was wearing.

Before King Louis XV passed out he also 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.

When the news reached Paris, anxious crowds gathered in the streets. Pope Benedict XIV, the Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa, and King George II of Great Britain, with whom France was at war, sent messages hoping for his swift recovery.

Damien was tried before the Parlement of Paris, which had been the most vocal critic of the King. The Parlement demonstrated its loyalty to the King by sentencing Damiens to the most severe possible penalty.

Grand Trianon at the Palace of Versailles

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. He appears to have laid the ultimate blame for this on the King, and so formed a plan to punish him.

Fetched from his prison cell on the morning of March 28, 1757, Damiens allegedly said “La journée sera rude” (“The day will be hard”). He was first subjected to a torture in which his legs were painfully compressed by devices called “boots”.

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.

He was then remanded to the royal executioner Charles Henri Sanson 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.

Once Damiens was dismembered, to the applause of the crowd, his reportedly still-living torso was burnt at the stake. (Some accounts say he died when his last remaining arm was removed.)

Execution of Damiens

Damiens’s final words are uncertain. Some sources attribute to him “O death, why art thou so long in coming?”; others 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. His house was razed, his brothers and sisters were forced to change their names, and his father, wife, and daughter were banished from France.

The King recovered physically very quickly, but the attack had a depressive effect on his spirits. One of his chief courtiers, Duford de Cheverny, wrote afterwards: “it was easy to see that when members of the court congratulated him on his recovery, he replied, ‘yes, the body is going well’, but touched his head and said, ‘but this goes badly, and this is impossible to heal.’

After the assassination attempt, the King invited his heir, the Dauphin, to attend all of the Royal Council meetings, and quietly closed down the chateau at Versailles where he had met with his short-term mistresses.”

Damiens was the last person to be executed in France by dismemberment, the traditional form of death penalty reserved for regicides.