“Obviously I wouldn’t have done it, but dude, how the f*ck was I supposed to know what drawing and quartering meant?” – a panicked Robert-Francois Damiens replying to his friend Pierre, after being asked why he had tried to kill the king at the risk of so cruel a punishment.
Regicide had always been a very serious crime, and Louis XV a very petty king. And so, in the age in which our unfortunate subject lived, it had been affirmed that the penalty for killing or even attempting to kill the king would be more than a simple hanging. The French parliament had decided that anyone who threatened the king’s life would be killed by “drawing and quartering.” Though parliament did not invent the method, it revived it in a manner of sorts, as no one had committed regicide in nearly 150 years and therefore such a punishment was neither commonly practiced nor widely known throughout France. Several historians attribute the longevity of this punishment to the greater lack of knowledge, positing that the people of France would have almost assuredly opposed the disemboweling and dismemberment of their fellow countrymen.
To “draw”, then, was to drag the victim to a central location, perhaps where he would be hanged, while “quartering” entailed either cutting the body into four sections or simply tearing off each of the four limbs, often by tying them to horses which then pulled in opposing directions. It was an utterly vile, loathsome practice for which there is no excuse. And while this position is upheld by modern law, French royalty at the time found it a rather practical solution to the problem of political opposition.
As it happened, poor Robert-Francois, like many of his compatriots, knew not the full extent of the penalty when, on a clear, cold night, he approached Louis XV with a penknife and inflicted upon him a wound so slight that the local newspaper would refer to it as l’aggression au couteau affectueuse, or “the affectionate stabbing” of the king. Robert-Francois would later explain that he “didn’t dislike the king,” but rather that he simply “didn’t like him,” and that the attack was really more of a light-hearted impulse than a premeditated act of treason, and that there was certainly no need for anyone to torture or kill anyone. Of course, in the eyes of the French judges, this reasoning was merely an excuse to avoid being drawn and quartered—which indeed it certainly was. But this was not the end of his desperate plea:
“Guys, I just want to say again how sorry I am. And that I didn’t….okay, I mean, I guess I assumed ‘draw’ was some sort of publicly displayed sketch of me, you know, something humiliating, like perhaps a drawing of me as a little Parisian schoolgirl. And naturally ‘quartering’ would have referred to quartering me in the stockade or prison—housing or storing me there, as in the common military use of the word.”
Given that the king was more or less unscathed, and that drawing and quartering had not been in common practice for some time, and that regardless of context it was a pretty horrible thing, several of the French judges were inclined to agree with Robert-Francois, but were soon informed by the king that any lenience on the part of the court would be interpreted as conspiratorial treason, leaving the judges themselves subject to a mean drawing and quartering. Needless to say, no one wanted that, and so Robert-Francois was killed in gruesome fashion.
Years later, Louis XV would die of small pox, his empire and his reputation in ruins. And while preserved in body, his legacy would forever be drawn and quartered by the memory of that time when he had someone drawn and quartered.