On this date in 1610, the fanatical Catholic who assassinated Henri IV of France was ripped apart on the Place de Greve.
The road to this man’s calvary begins long before his infamous crime, even long before the birth of his illustrious victim.
After decades of voluptuously indecisive Catholic-versus-Hugeunot slaughter, matters had finally been settled by the man upon whom French absolutism would erect its (ill-fated) edifice.
Henri IV, the first Bourbon monarch and a Huguenot, had unified the country by the sword, capped by his memorably politic conversion to Catholicism in 1593 to win over the holdout capital of Paris — the occasion of his understated declaration that “Paris is worth a mass”.
Let us tarry here to appreciate “the good king Henri” in a kaleidoscope of flattering artwork to the tune of Vive Henri IV, the monarchy’s unofficial anthem after its subject’s passing:
Did you catch that last image?
Henri’s fine gesture of sectarian triangulation and the reign of relative calm it inaugurated were naturally resented by godly partisans of both camps who either considered his conversion a betrayal or considered the king a closet Protestant.
Readers unconstrained by time may enjoy this Tolstoyan trek into the regicide’s mind and milieu, but it will suffice us to say that the modern shotgun-wielding postal clerk who just seemed like a quiet, harmless type to all his coworkers might like the cut of Ravaillac’s jib. A bit of a loner, a bit of a professional washout, with a penchant for religious visions and a passel of ill-arranged grievances … by this point in the movie, that’s about what you expect the police profiler to be reciting.*
It is only right that such a contemporary-sounding lone nut story ought to have a vigorous conspiratorial counternarrative.
There has always been a strong suspicion that behind Ravaillac’s hand was the work of the scheming Catholic Duc d’Epernon, perhaps even with the complicity of Henri’s wife Marie de’ Medici, who had conveniently been crowned as queen the day before the murder** and promptly teamed up with Epernon to cement an alliance with a traditional French rival, the ultra-Catholic Habsburgs.
Balzac, for one, had no doubt about it:
all of [her] actions were prejudicial to France … Marie de’ Medici wasted the wealth amassed by Henri IV.; she never purged herself of the charge of having known of the king’s assassination; her ‘intimate’ was d’Epernon, who did not ward off Ravaillac’s blow, and who was proved to have known the murderer personally for a long time. … [T]he victory Richelieu at last won over her (on the Day of the Dupes) was due solely to the discovery the cardinal made, and imparted to Louis XIII, of secret documents relating to the death of Henri IV.
The historical jury is out on that question, presumably for good.
If Ravaillac was a conspirator, he proved to be a damned good one, denying under repeated torture that he had any accomplices. On this date, the tortures reached their crescendo and conclusion — to the horrible delight of the Parisian mob, as reported by Alistair Horne (via The Corner):
On 27 May, still protesting that he had acted as a free agent on a divinely inspired mission, Ravaillac was put to death. Before being drawn and quartered, the lot of the regicide, on the Place de Grève scaffold he was scalded with burning sulphur, molten lead and boiling oil and resin, his flesh then torn by pincers. Then his arms and legs were attached to horses which pulled in opposite directions. One of the horses “foundered,” so a zealous chevalier offered his mount; “the animal was full of vigour and pulled away a thigh.” After an hour and a half of this horrendous cruelty, Ravaillac died, as the mob tried to prevent him receiving last rites. When he finally expired,
“…the entire populace, no matter what their rank, hurled themselves on the body with their swords, knives, sticks or anything else to hand and began beating, hacking and tearing at it. They snatched the limbs from the executioner, savagely chopping them up and dragging the pieces through the streets.”
Children made a bonfire and flung remains of Ravaillac’s body on it. According to one witness, Nicholas Pasquier, one woman actually ate some of the flesh. The executioner, supposed to have the body of the regicide reduced to ashes to complete the ritual demanded by the law, could find nothing but his shirt.
* No need, though, as Francois wasn’t hard to catch: he stepped up to Henri’s carriage when it was caught in a traffic jam on May 14, 1610, and stabbed the king to death plain as can be. He was lucky (sort of) to avoid a lynching.
** Rubens later painted a gaudy celebration of this event.