14th of May 1610: assassination of King Henri IV

Henri was known as le bon Roy, the good King. I found memoirs of the Revolution in which he is mentioned, almost 200 years after his death, as “the only king whose memory the people of France have treasured.” When the royal tombs at the Abbey of Saint-Denis were destroyed in 1793, an eyewitness reports that the embalmed body of Henri, perfectly preserved, was displayed in state in the Basilica, and that for days people filed in silence to pay their respects. And this at the height of the Revolution.


Assassination of Henri IV

Why this enduring popularity? Henri had, through his exceptional qualities as a military leader and politician, put an end to the religious wars that had torn France apart for decades. A Protestant, he had converted to Catholicism to unite his subjects. He had shown compassion to many, in particular the poorest, and presided over a time of national recovery and reconciliation.

And yet Henri faced over twenty assassination attempts during his reign, all unsuccessful until the 14th of May 1610. That day Henri is riding in an open carriage in the streets of Paris, but suddenly two carts block the passage. Guards leave the carriage for a moment to make way for the King.  This is the moment a drifter by the name of François Ravaillac seizes to strike. He approaches the carriage and stabs Henri twice, severing the aorta. Then a group of  armed men appear out of nowhere to kill the assassin on the spot, but one of the King’s attendants, the Baron de Courtomer, has enough presence of mind to disperse the men by telling them Henri is safe.

Ravaillac can then be arrested and questioned. The man is clearly unbalanced. He sought to take orders, first with the Feuillants, then with the Jesuits, but had been rejected by both on account of his hallucinations, which he believed to be religious visions. Had Ravaillac been manipulated by court factions, by foreign powers, by Queen Marie de Medici herself,  crowned only the previous day? Had the assassin been forewarned of the path to be followed by the King? Had someone arranged for the carts to stop the cortege and distract the bodyguards?

Lone assassin, or far-ranging conspiracy? The investigation is suspiciously hasty: only 13 days between the crime and the execution of the assassin! Ravaillac’s prior connections and activities are left unexplored, people who have spoken in advance of the King’s untimely death as a sure thing are arrested, but not questioned. Ravaillac himself insists under torture that he has no accomplices, but when he is drawn and quartered on the 27th of May, he exclaims “I was deceived when they persuaded me that my deed would be well received by the people.” Who were the persons who so “persuaded” Ravaillac?

Four hundred years later, the mystery remains. What is certain is that a plaque still marks the spot on Rue de la Ferronnerie, in the Halles district, where the King was killed. And today the windows of bookstores are full of books commemorating Henri.

A king whose memory has been treasured indeed…

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25 Comments to “14th of May 1610: assassination of King Henri IV”

  1. […] in this portrait by Frans Pourbus the Younger. An event that took place one day before the beloved King’s assassination. After Queen Marie’s drawn-out battle for power with her son, Louis XIII, her exile and dire […]

  2. Yes, and did they mention the dispute over the autopsy? Some eyewitnesses mention that the cranium was sawed off, in the traditional manner, which is inconsistent with the head we now have, with its intact cranium… Henri’s death is full of those mysteries.

  3. anne-marie caluwaert says:

    Forgot about this – they also talked about the postmortum report made at the time, talked about the fact that the second knife cut was the one that killed him in a few minutes as it got through the main blood vains near his heart – the first one was merely skin deep. He bleeded infact too death — and the story of his generals who where with him that he lived for several minutes after the attack can be right as he must have been death before they took him out of the coatch. The program also stated that the day he was killed everyone at court was nervous. Henri was prepairing to go to war in the Netherlands and no one was really happy about it or felt uneasy about the possible outcome – his friend had been taken ill and he wanted to visit him but was worried to travel outside the palace so the trip was several time cancelled – then he still order his coatcher to take him to his friend – what no one understood was the fact despite the uneasy nervous feelings everyone had including him he didn’t take his usually guards along. There are no records of why the royal armed escort wasn’t send along with him. I think I have remember most of what was said — I really should have recorded it!

  4. No offense meant or taken, Anne-Marie. Indeed, even for a Renaissance monarch, Henri had a most eventful life, one that could fill volumes. His death remains an open question: lone killer, or domestic or international conspiracy? The timing, the day following Marie’s coronation, was very odd, and it was the way it struck people then. Because of this, no French queen was ever crowned thereafter.
    As for the exhumation, sure, there are diverging accounts, some of which may have been influenced by the usual “Restoration bias.” I doubt that if people had jumped on the coffin and brutally hacked the body apart, we would now have any head to discuss, let alone one in this remarkable state of preservation. I haven’t watched any TV programs about it at the time, and will try to find some online. Read Duval’s account, if you have a chance. To me it reads true, and still truer in light of the recent discovery. If I get a chance, I will translate and post it here.
    Again, feel free to comment further on this post or any other. This has been an enlightening exchange, and one that reminds us that thankfully our knowledge of the past keeps expanding.

  5. anne-marie caluwaert says:

    I think I may have created a mis understanding here – well don’t need to be clever to do that! I didn’t question the fact that he was one of the most loved French kings NOR that this version was incorrect – I just wanted to state that I had heard a different version of how his body was treated during the French Revolution!

    The fact is I had just seen the repeat of an episode of Secrets d’histoire – Henri IV: le roi de coeur of 2009 which was repeated on France 2 on the 14 August 2012. And when I was browsing through your blog I noticed this post so I read it out of interest. And noticed there was a total different version on this fact in this blog and on that program. So I posted my comment – not because I felt yours was the wrong version and thiers the right – I just sort of was curious! The program was about Henri IV life, his marriage, his many love affairs, his wife interest in men, his mother who planned to dispose her own son and even tried to mount an army against him, her escape and finding protection with the Flemish painter Reubens who she used to create a nice image of her despite the fact the rest of the world hated her, the events of the day Henri was killed (it had been a day with many misgivings and Henri felt uneasy), how he was killed, who his killer was and why he may have done it, if there had been a plot against Henri (some still believe it where the Spanish who manipulated the killer to commit the murder?) the way the killer was questioned, punished and the many other murder attempts that went wrong. Also the history of the head popped up – and they stated that Henri was decapitated in fury when a mob invaded the bural place of the French kings. Who started to dismantle the graves and placed the bodies on a display for the common people to see them. That one of the Republic’s soldiers started to ridicul Henri by dancing in front of his body and when the mob started to enjoy his display cut of a piece of Henri’s bearth and placed it on his upper lip making funny faces. Latter all the bodies where tossed outside – dumped in a hole — with the Restoration the then French king order the bodies to be recovered and put back into thier proper resting place. There had been accounts of a man (I’m sorry I didn’t catch his name)jumped onto Henri’s coffin and violently hacked his head off – taking it away as a trofee. And there were not enough facts in the reports of the Restoration dig up to see if the head was really gone. Only that in the 1920s a head was sold for 3 Francs at an art sale in Paris. The man who bought the head latter turned to the press saying he had the head of Henri – that he could proof it. It wasn’t really believed – he tried to sell it to some collectors etc. invane as he couldn’t produce a solid proof it was Henri’s head. So the head ended up in his shop window overlooking Paris — latter it moved to Brittany where the man spend the rest of his live trying to proof it was Henri’s head. He even published a book & magazine with photos trying to put his point forward. When he died all his belongings went to his sister — and there the trail runs cold. No one really knows what she done with it. They pressume she must have sold it consider it too valueble to destroy it — but no one knows for sure. The program did it best trying to find it but failed — so when the program was made in 2009 the head still hadn’t be located. I repeat – I’m just stating what they said in this program and not that I have to proof or enough background information to say its correct or not – I just found it interesting version of events and though it was a good idea to share it with you all as you seem to be interested in this? This series runs since years on France 2 (which is the second French channel) and I love it as it is about history and they are usually very thorough (but correct I can’t always judge as they deal with should a wide scale of subjects in history) next week they will tell the story of Soliman le Magnifique (1494-1566). Now I regret I haven’t recorded it — so I could take note of names — but then I didn’t know if I would find a different version of events the next day! I hope I haven’t offended you as I didn’t questioned any of your expertise – just was curious why there was a difference.

  6. Mark says:

    Hello again Catherine.

    I agree with your intution and forgot to mention it myself although it was what I was trying to get at with the article I posted. The fact the head exists would attest to his popularity – this certainly did not happen with Catherine De Medici’s remains, for example. The article I posted does confirm your original article on Henri’s popularity – as do the many portraits and statues etc dedicated to him.

    Reliquaries are common in the catholic tradition and the preservation of Henri’s head is no surprise in that context. As part of my short trip I saw two reliquaries which are now thought to be grisly in the extreme. In the British Museum, there is an exhibition of Shakespeare’s World (Staging Shakespeare’s World). They have a reliquary on show of the eyeball of Father Edward Oldcorne, a catholic English priest executed for his mere links to some of those who where involved in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 (despite the fact that he knew nothing of it). It has been preserved in a catholic college in the Lancashire for 200+ years, and was privately kept before this. Ooldcorne became a catholic martyr. A few days later, at St Denis, they also have the reliqury containing Louis XVIII’s heart.I also saw this, and it was kept even as France finally extinguished its monarchy in 1848.

    This is nothing new to those who have studied religious history etc, but I thought I’d share these two incidencies as they support the idea of keeping in awe the memory of, via remains of the body, of a revered individual.

  7. Here’s the link to Duval’s Souvenirs de la Terreur:

  8. Anne-Marie and Mark, thanks for your comments. Mark, you are quite right, the article predates the discovery of the head of Good King Henri. But this doesn’t IMO put into question what I wrote, though it certainly calls for an update. Anne-Marie, my source is the memoirs of Georges Duval, an attorney’s clerk during the Revolution, who was an eyewitness to the exhumations. Duval wrote in the 1830s, and cannot be suspected of revolutionary sympathies, at least at that late time.

    What he says is that the corpse of Henri IV was discovered in an amazing state of preservation, and that even the deep lethal wound on the chest of the monarch was clearly visible. The workmen in charge of the exhumations were awed and moved by this, and they spontaneously laid the body in state in the basilica. People started to file before the corpse to pay their respects. Of course, Duval tells us, as soon as the authorities were alerted to this, they were appalled, as obviously the goal of the exhumations was not to reinforce the popularity of the first Bourbon king. They had the body removed from the basilica and thrown unceremoniously into the common pit where the rest of the royal remains had been discarded.

    I was not trying to say that the exhumations were conducted in an appropriate fashion, or that they are in any way excusable. I was simply pointed out the manner in which Henri’s body was initially treated. The workmen didn’t pay any attention to the other royal remains.

    I think the discovery of the head, far from calling into question Duval’s account, comforts it. First, the excellent state of preservation is evident from the find. And I will go still further, although what I am going to say is based purely on personal intuition. The fact that the body was decapitated may have been another mark of the enduring popularity of the King. It may be that someone sneaked into the pit, unwilling to see Henri’s remains commingled with the rest, and removed the head to keep it as a relic. Not very surprising in a Catholic county, where various body parts of saints were (and still are) preserved and displayed to the faithful.

    Yes, French television covered at length the find of Henri’s head, and the news was greeted with the amazement it deserved. Based on forensics, there can be no reasonable doubt that it is indeed Henri’s. This in turn reignited interest in the man who may have been France’s greatest monarch.

    Duval’s memoirs are available free of charge on Gallica, the site of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France. Most interesting read on the revolutionary period.

  9. Mark says:

    I am aware that some of the Revolutionary Soldiers treated many of the Royal Corpses that they exhumed in St Denis with disdain and to put it mildly, a lack of respect. There were complaints pertaining to sacrilege at the time. At St Denis, most of the bones were buried in a simple mass grave, which was dug on the north side of the church.The treatment of Henri IV was no different in 1793. However, remember that this was a certain stage of the revolution, when anger at royalty was rife – it was a time when the personal characteristics of certain kings or queens was ignored and much of the anger was directed towards the institution of monarchy. Some of the revolutiionary actions were later regretted, by certain groups.

    However, this doesn’t detract from the popularity of the King in French circles. He was known as a ‘builder of Paris’, extending the Louvre, building the iconic Pont Neuf and the place de Vosges amongst other projects in the city. His economic reforms, as I said, are still a marker of his social conscience at a time when Absolutism was a key component of Early Modern and Renaissance Kingship.

    This article was originally aired in December 2010 (there are other related ones online) when the head was discovered and its identity was revealed. It covers much of what was said here, but also explores his popularity as a monarch too.


  10. anne-marie caluwaert says:

    Where did you find this? When the royal tombs at the Abbey of Saint-Denis were destroyed in 1793, an eyewitness reports that the embalmed body of Henri, perfectly preserved, was displayed in state in the Basilica, and that for days people filed in silence to pay their respects. And this at the height of the Revolution.

    I have got a total different version of this – he wasn’t treated with respect at all. One of the Revolution soldiers even cut off his beard – and latter his head was cut off and appearantly ‘sold’ in the 1920s. There was an interesting program about his killing on France 2 yesterday where they showed picturs of his cut off head and tiny piece of hair of his beard. I suppose the French TV won’t sort of tell this version if it wasn’t true or based on false facts?

    Hope you don’t think I’m putting down your work here – it’s really very very very good and well researched – it’s just that I saw this interesting program on TV of reporters searching for his cut off head and just wanted to post this —

  11. Mark says:

    Dear Catherine

    I’ve just returned from Paris, and I was struck how much Henri IV is celebrated via the mediums of art and architecture (numerous paintings, statue on Pont Neuf etc). He was certainly popular and was as you say “le bon Roy”. I think much of this is to do with his social reforms at a time when the French peasantry had been simply ignored by his predecessors in the Religious Wars and struggles with the Spanish in the Low Countries, running back to the late 1550s.

    He was after all a King who wanted all families to ‘have a chicken in the pot on every Sunday’, and the reforms did help the lower orders during times of dearth in other parts of Europe, for instance the British Isles. I suppose it is ironic as it did come from a King, who prior to the ‘Paris is worth a Mass’ commnets and the abjuration of his protestant faith in St Denis, had laid seige to the largely Catholic Parisians reportedly forcing them to eat grass in some cirumstance, leading to mass starvation.

    I managed to find the modest plaque on the pavement of the Rue de la Ferronnerie. It served a contrast with the imposing bronze statue on the Pont Neuf, the original of which was melted down in the 1790s.

    This is the first time I have visited this blog, and I will look out for your further works.

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  13. Matterhorn says:

    Here is a post, surprisingly related to Henri IV:


    Happy New Year to all!

  14. Catherine Delors says:

    Thanks, Julianne! Actually I believe it is assassins who have a thing for coaches, cars, etc. A ruler is far more vulnerable on a street than at home in the familiar surroundings of his or her palace…

  15. I think you have a thing for coaches and assassins….

  16. Interesting post, Catherine! Thanks for taking a momentary excursion into the sixteenth century. I’ll post a link on my blog.

  17. Catherine Delors says:

    Well, Sylwia, my offer of a guest post from you at Versailles and more still holds… As for Izabela Czartoryska, from reading Lauzun’s memoirs, she must have been the great love of his life. Not the only one, mind you…

  18. Catherine Delors says:

    Yes, Henrietta Maria had been named after her father. I didn’t know of the Jean Plaidy book about her. And Penny, indeed Henri is reputed to have said “Paris vaut bien une messe” “Paris is worth a mass”. This is the kind of saying that is a bit too neat not to be apocryphal. The conspiracy theory here has some merit, all the more that there was no investigation to speak of…

  19. Penny says:

    Wonderful post, thanks Catherine,

    Was Henri the king who converted because Paris was worth a mass?
    I had not realized there was a conspiracy theory and this one has
    more to it than the JFK assassination over here in the US

  20. Elisa says:

    I know the plaque you describe. My hotel was within the vicinity!
    The late English historical fiction novelist Eleanor Hibbert, writing under her Jean Plaidy pseudonym, includes Henri IV’s assassination in her novel about Henrietta Maria, “Myself My Enemy” now reissued as “Loyal in Love” which is part of her “Queens of England” series.

  21. Sylwia says:

    Oh, and your politician was a descendant from a natural son of our king! The king, even though a latecomer, didn’t waste his time once he began. His first lover was Catherine the Great. But Michel comes from an affair with Cassandra Luci. http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Poniatowski

    I’d say that the entire “Familia” as they’re called here, i.e. the Czartoryskis, Poniatowskis and a branch of Potockis, were brilliant in many ways. Poniatowski is very controvercial, because he was our last king and his politics proved unsuccessful or even harmful. However, I’d say that he was a very good king on a very bad throne. In another country he’d do wonders. They did wonders in Poland too, in fact, only it was a century too late. But while they lost the country they saved the nation. It’s unlikely we’d speak Polish today were it not for their huge reforms in the 18th century. And the women in that family are some of our best too, including Izabela Czartoryska, the one who had an affair with Lauzun. Among others she created the first public museum in Poland. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Czartoryski_Museum

    Izabela was married to her uncle, so one can’t blame her for looking for fun elsewhere. The Czartoryskis created a significant intellectual and political centre in their property at Puławy. They might have had affairs, but they were good friends and collaborators in all their political endeavours. Perhaps the saddest outcome of the partitions is that all our best people ended up in France, and they weren’t here when Poland needed them again in the 20th century.

    BTW Madame Geoffrin compared Stanisław August Poniatowski to Henri IV.

  22. Catherine Delors says:

    “What if” indeed. Henri IV was as brilliant a politician as his grandon, Louis XIV, but far more popular. With a few kings of this caliber, it is doubtful the Revolution would have happened, or if it had, the King would have led it, as Louis XVI, another very popular leader, could have done.
    Speaking of the Poniatowskis, another member of that family, Michel, was a prominent French politician in the 1970s… Indeed everything fits, doesn’t it?

  23. Sylwia says:

    As I began reading this post I thought you meant Henri III. But it appears that you guys are serial king killers!

    Joking aside, it’d be indeed interesting to see a “what if” history of France. Perhaps the king would reform her long before the Revolution, and the country would be strong enough to help us in the late 18th century? Ahh…

    BTW As I look at Fragonard’s Kiss on the cover of your book it reminds me that the painting belonged to the collection of Poland’s last king, Stanisław August Poniatowski, whose cousin in law used to have an affair with Lauzun, so everything fits.

  24. Catherine Delors says:

    Yes indeed, Louis XV was shocked when he learned of Damien’s execution by ecartelement. Since no one really remembered in the 18th century how it was “done” it was even worse than before. Sanson, the bourreau, had to research Ravaillac’s execution.
    And when it comes to Henri’s death, it is tempting to indulge in alternate history. Think of the tortured relationship, and long strife between Marie de Medicis and her son Louis XIII. I don’t believe she had any part in it herself, but I wouldn’t put such a heinous crime past some of the members of her entourage, namely the Concinis. The coincidence with her coronation is striking.

  25. Richard says:

    In a time when the words “Cruel and Unusual” did not exist, it seems that this assassin was treated as harshly as possible. Barrière another assassin received the rack and dismemberment. Châtel a third suffered as Ravaillac, even his priest was executed as well by burning.

    Since St Bartholomew’s day assissination seemed to follow Henri IV.

    I believe the next attempt of assissination in 1757, perpetrated by Damiens, upon the body of Louis XV, brought about an execution so horrible it shocked the King.

    Pity. I think the world would be far different had Henri lived.

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