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.

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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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