episode 2

Damiens: A case of parricide

France, 1757

published the 12th January, 2016


Parricide or regicide ?

The word regicide was not commonly used at the time, though it is the term we would use these days. Regicide made its first appearance in around 1540, while parricide came from Latin as early as 1200. It was used to refer to what was in those days the most serious of crimes: making an attempt on the lift of a parent or other older relative, or ruler, and thereby threatening the social order. The crime was removed from the French statute book in 1832.

Damiens and Ravaillac

The harsh fate suffered by Damiens is shocking given that he only slightly injured the king. But that was the punishment for parricides, which in those days were the worst of all criminals. François Ravaillac, who assassinated King Henri IV, underwent the same fate a century and a half earlier. His surname was even banned in France and anyone called Ravaillac had to change their name on pain of death.

Amiens gets a new name

The story goes that the mayor of Amiens, to the north of Paris, suggested a change of name for the city as the one it had was too close to the parricide’s name.

Tears of a torturer, tears of a king

At least two people were deeply upset by the torture of Damiens: the executioner and the king. The executioner was troubled by the long, complicated torture session he had to inflict on the prisoner. The king shut himself in his bedchamber to weep and pray when he was given an account of the execution, which he had not attended.

The seeds of revolution

Damiens’s execution caused a wave of revulsion among the crowd that thronged to witness it. They came to see a man being put to death; what they actually saw was the long-drawn-out and incompetent torture and eventual death of a wretched prisoner in the hands of clumsy executioners. The 1757 execution is held to be one of the seeds from which the Revolution was to grow thirty years later.



  1. Wikipedia (article about Robert-François Damiens)


  1. Michel Foucault, Surveiller et punir, Paris, Gallimard, 1975, 359 p.
  2. H. Sanson, Sept générations d’exécuteurs : mémoires des Sanson. T. 2, Ed. Dupray de la Mahérie, 1862,450 p.