"Letter from a Gentleman in Paris to His Friend in London" (1757)

The news of Robert–François Damiens’s attack on the King and his subsequent trial spread rapidly and generated great interest across France and all of Europe. This pamphlet, published in London, describes for English readers the goings–on in Paris, especially the public outpouring of sympathy for the King and the general hostility toward Damiens. Damiens, even for this English observer, was horrible for having dared to touch, let alone try to kill the King—God’s anointed representative in France and the guarantor of public order and domestic peace.


Of all sorts of madness this appears to be the worst: for, whereas the generality of madmen reason right from wrong principles; these people are for the most part wrong both in their fundamentals and in their deductions from them, representing murder, gun-powder-plots, &c. as innocent under the masque of religion and pious zeal. Hence the enterprize of the fryar, who murdered Henry the third of France; hence Ravaillac stabbed Henry the fourth, and hence another assassin has made an execrable attempt upon Lewis [Louis] the XVth.

The name of this enthusiastical assassin is Robert Francis Damien, born in St. Catherine's suburb in the city of Arras; he is 42 years of age, and about five feet seven inches high. He had lived in the service of several families, but was turned off by all of them with the character of a loose profligate. His occupation of late has been to sell balls to take spots out of cloaths; and yet from this mean and contemptible station in life hath this lunatic dared to walk forth, and attempt to deprive a whole nation of their sovereign's life.

He was a very superstitious enthusiastical sort of a man, and therefore a very proper tool or cat's-paw for the Romish priests to work upon. What horrid crimes are committed under the sanction of religion! The artful popish clergy had worked him up to such a pitch of enthusiasm; that, faint-like, he was proud to die in so glorious a cause, imagining his meritorious sufferings would certainly procure him a residence in heaven.

The king was supported by the counte de Brionne and the matter of the horse, who were leading him to his coach, a page of the bed-chamber walked before him with lights; the dauphin was behind him along with the duke d'Ayen, captain of the guards in waiting, and several exempts and equerries followed. A footman, named Selim, near whom the assassin stood, seeing the king approach, said to the villain, why don't you take off your hat, don't you see the king? While he was saying this, the monster struck the king with a knife, which had two blades of different sizes; with one of these blades he wounded the king between the fourth and fifth rib, but the stroke glanced to the right side, and most fortunately did not reach the bowels. The king, who at first had scarce felt any thing, then turning to the footman who had just bid the fellow take off his hat, said, looking at the assassin, that man has given me a terrible blow; and clapping his hand to the place where he had been struck, and feeling it warm, he drew back his hand all bloody, and said, I am wounded, seize him, but do not hurt him.

Whatever may be the sallies of this monarch's private life, he certainly has publick virtue, and therefore his mind must soon have rested in a conviction that he did not deserve an assault upon his life.

Certainly there appears somewhat providential in the escape the king had from this treasonable design. It happened, that on that day, besides his usual cloathing, he put on a sur-tout of thick velvet, which no doubt greatly obstructed the blow, and hundred the wound from proving mortal.

The execrable assassin, after striking this horrid blow, never stirred from the place, and the duke d'Ayen having asked which was the man, the fellow answered with the countenance of a Ravaillac. "Tis I." He was seized and led to the guardroom, which stands at the gate from whence he had just come out. There he was stripped to his shirt, and there were found about him the knife, a New Testament, some images, and between thirty and thirty-five Louis d'Ors.

The trial of the villain was agreed to be committed to the parliament; and the people in general began to rid themselves of their anxiety, when it was reported abroad, that the stab was no more than a common wound, and that his majesty wanted but a few days to recover his strength, which was somewhat reduced by being bled so plentifully after the wound was given.

Damien appears very resolute; his feet have been scorched, and the calf of his leg pinched with red hot tongs. He shrieked indeed, but confessed nothing. He was afterwards carried to prison, and chained in a dungeon, and guards set over him.

He was asked if he had any accomplices, and answered he had, but was sure they had escaped before this time, but that great care ought to be taken of the dauphin, otherwise the like accident might, perhaps, befall him soon. When he was urged to discover more, he answered, he would speak when it was time; that he was very sensible he deserved death, and begged it might be hastened.

The wife and daughter of Damien were sent to the Bastille, in hopes that some discoveries would be made. Nothing however of consequence has come to light from them; though they freely told all they knew of the abominable life and conversation of this monster.

It is reported that there was great commotions in Paris; that several religious houses were shut up, to prevent cabals among the clergy, and that the archbishop of Paris was publickly accused of being at the bottom of this atrocious design; but these givings out have since totally vanished for want of any kind of confirmation.

His majesty was not ill for any considerable length of time: it appears that on the 14th of the same month the wound, which he had received on the 5th, was quite healed, and his health restored, insomuch that he assumed the reins of government, which had been entrusted to the dauphin; whose conduct, during his short administration, gave such satisfaction to the king, that he ordered he should for the future attend at all the councils of state.

But before he parted from Versailles, he begged to speak with the king and the dauphin, in hopes that notwithstanding the heinousness of his crime he might still obtain mercy from his majesty's known good nature and lenity. He was much surprized when they put him into a vehicle in order to convey him to the Conciergerie. He said he had many things to reveal, but was told he must discover them to his judges.

Source: "Letter from a Gentleman in Paris to His Friend in London," in A Particular and Authentic Narration of the Life, Examination, Torture, and Execution of Robert Francis Damien [sic], trans. Thomas Jones (London, 1757).