Assassination of Henri IV by Ravaillac (May 14, 1610)

Assassination of Henri IV by Ravaillac (May 14, 1610)

On May 14, 1610, a man frustrated and convinced of the saving impact of his gesture, climbed the rear wheel of the coach in which the king was then seated. Henry IV and stabs him twice. How can a man become a parricide - kill the king who is the father of his subjects - and thereby seriously undermine the inviolability of the royal person? In what and why Ravaillac Did he consider it legitimate to assassinate Henri IV? This act, exceptional if any, necessarily earned him an exemplary punishment: kicked, tortured, tortured, yet François Ravaillac never claimed, as we would have liked to hear, to have acted on behalf of others. The debate remains.

Ravaillac and the legitimacy of the tyrant's murder

Born around 1578 (he said he was thirty-two at the time of his trial) in Angoulême, François Ravaillac had an undoubtedly difficult childhood: after his father had lost his job - this man who used to flirt somewhat with the alcohol - the Ravaillac family fell into poverty but did not cease to be deeply religious. The last hope was found in belief. So much so that François Ravaillac wanted to join the Feuillant order. But in vain. In addition, the avanie had been reinforced by the clear refusal of the Jesuits who considered that the candidate was far too fanatic to be present in their midst. And in fact, this fervent Catholic, who was certainly not crazy, was nonetheless a singular individual, sincerely believing Catholicism threatened. The wars of religion, which only ended with the Edict of Nantes (April 1598) were still evident in everyone's minds, and the king's many abjurations were just as much in those of his detractors. Basically, wasn't Henry IV going to take advantage of the first opportunity to establish a religious unity centered no longer on Catholicism but Protestantism? This was Ravaillac's ultimate fear.

Moreover, could one consider this Henri of Navarre as a legitimate king? Was he not a 22nd cousin of the late Henri III? If necessary, he became tyrant by origin or usurpation, having illegitimately seized power. However, certain scholars had clearly shown, like the English bishop John of Salisbury in the 12th century, that it was perfectly possible to kill the tyrant of usurpation. We distinguished, in addition to the original tyrant, the so-called "exercise" tyrant, who legally crowned, would later become a tyrant and could therefore possibly be killed (opinions differed on this point). In "The Assassination of Henri IV", the historian Roland Mousnier has thus clearly shown that the "good king Henri" could be considered as a tyrant of practice. Moreover, Ravaillac had convinced himself that the king was ready to take up arms against the Holy See. This is why he resolved to go to Paris to try to speak to him in order to ask him to protect Catholicism in the kingdom of France. But he was, twice in 1609, repulsed by the king's guards who hardly let him approach the sovereign. So the die was cast, Ravaillac resolved to assassinate the king. Was this not a saving gesture for a threatened Catholicism?

The assassination of Henri IV and the torture of Ravaillac

On the 13th, Marie de Medici - who had waited so long for him - had been crowned Queen of France, almost ten years after having married Henry IV. The next day the king was gripped by fear, a feeling he had experienced on numerous occasions. It must be said that just as numerous were the assassination attempts of which he was the object (Pierre Barrière, Jean Chastel, Julien Guédon and Pierre Ouin to name only the most famous to have tried in vain).

So the king, on this morning of the 14th, was hardly reassured to go to the Arsenal, to the Duke of Sully's, who was said to be sick. The day before, he also expressed his concern. Vitry (1), captain of the bodyguards, offered to escort the coach, which Henri IV refused, replying: "No, I don't want you or your guards, I don't want anyone around me" (cited in Roland Mousnier, "The assassination of Henri IV"). Around 4:10 p.m., the coach then moves and, when it arrives at rue de la Ferronnerie (the old Parisian rue des Charrons which owes its name to the ironworkers), it is blocked by a hay cart which obstructs the passage. The few guards who protect the coach cross, to get ahead, the cemetery of the Innocents, and therefore leave the king without any protection. A red-haired man, whose identity can be guessed, draped in a green coat, then takes the opportunity to rush forward, put his foot on the rear wheel, and strike the king twice with a knife. The latter is hit, although he claims to be only injured.

While he could have taken advantage of the nascent imbroglio, the regicide remained there, motionless and holding the knife in his hand. Some were already coming forward with the idea of ​​subjecting him to the same fate as Jacques Clément, murderer of Henri III in August 1589, who had been pierced by the king's guards. A man named Saint Michael thus thought of killing him on the spot but the Duke of Epernon stopped him, arguing that he "there goes your head" (2). The king meanwhile, seriously affected, passed from life to death a few moments after being touched.

Very quickly, Ravaillac was subjected to the Question (legal torture that was inflicted on the victim to obtain information). Above all, we wanted to know if Ravaillac had not been pushed to kill for others. Tireless leitmotif whether to talk about the murderer or assassins. A question that has certainly caused a lot of ink to flow. Until recently, Jean-Christian Petitfils put forward the hypothesis according to which Albert de Habsbourg, the Catholic Archduke of the Spanish Netherlands, might have pushed Ravaillac to commit his gesture. He explains it by the fact that the Archduke could legitimately fear an entry into the war against Henri IV, who wished, for a matter of the heart, to remove Charlotte de Montmorency, with whom he had fallen in love, in Brussels as well as liberate the duchies of Cleves and Juliers (the famous affair).

Still, however, the parricide claimed to have acted alone. No information could therefore come to clarify the problem. It remains to condemn the murderer. Ravaillac knew very well what he was incurring. Regicide was the ultimate crime. Wasn't the person of the king theoretically inviolable? The penalty must therefore be singular in the atrocity. On May 27, 1610, Ravaillac was thus taken to Place de Grève, where, after being tortured and having suffered the torture of pitch during which boiling pitch was poured into his wounds, he was quartered and his body burned. The regicides were now warned of the penalty incurred.

From the adoration of the dead: the "good king Henry"

No ruler, even monarch, escapes criticism during the period in which he exercises his power. Yet there are kings who have been decked out in a image of Epinal showing their greatness and benevolence. Henri IV is one of them. The day after his death, France is afraid. Doesn't peace risk being buried with the monarch? The religious unrest, which we know ended a handful of years ago, will they not wake up? Although some can be heard clamoring "The king is dead, long live the king !", France (or at least the cities which hear the news (3)), are in complete disarray and in full effervescence. Despite this fear of seeing a new monarch ascend the throne - what do we know about this Louis XIII? Will he be a sovereign benefactor? - the golden legend of the reign of Henri IV does not really date from the XVIIth century, during which shone the glory of Louis XIV, even if one could hear praise here and there, like a "History Henri le Grand "of Hardouin de Beaumont de Péréfixe, a time tutor of the future Louis XIV and soon Archbishop of Paris, who saw in Henri IV a great monarch.

It is therefore above all thanks to the Enlightenment that the legend was brought to life in the 18th century, notably thanks to Voltaire and his Henriade. Said king became a reference, a father concerned about the fate of his people (chicken in the pot), lover of women and a good father. It is not by chance that Louis XVIII, in August 1818, had the statue of Henri IV inaugurated on the Pont-Neuf (built at the time of the regency at the request of Marie de Médicis but destroyed in August 1792). A way for him to show himself in the lineage of the founder of the Bourbon dynasty and thereby legitimize his power. Nowadays, the king still enjoys great popularity and we often see him, more or less rightly, the greatest king of France (4). Proof of this is: all the publications that will come out this year on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of his death and the telefilm of this Thursday, March 11, narrating his life, on France 3. Decidedly, Ravaillac has contributed a lot to the golden legend which has was associated in retrospect with the reign of Henry IV.


(1): It is sometimes also written that it was the Count of Plessis-Praslin who died in 1626.

(2): This remark from the Duke of Epernon was entirely judicious because it was necessary to know the reasons for the assassination.

(3): The news arrived in La Rochelle on the 17th and in Pau on the 19th.

(4): The reader will usefully refer, to judge for himself, to the biography of Henri IV written by Jean-Pierre Babelon.

Non-exhaustive bibliography:

- By Roland Mousnier, The Assassination of Henri IV. Gallimard, 2008.

- The assassination of Henri IV: Mysteries of a crime by Jean-Christian Petitfils. Perrin Editions 2009.


Video: Conte de Lutèce au Carmen sur Henri IV