Certain facts were beyond doubt. On a cold January winters day in 1757, Louis XV stepped out of his carriage, about to enter his apartments. Robert Francois Damiens, a domestic servant at Versailles, materialised from the shadows, and tried to introduce his dagger to the Royal intestines. The King could be thankful the attack was made in January and not August, when the outcome would have been quite different. Thanks to his thick winter overcoat, and several layers of undergarments, no serious damage was done. Damiens was apprehended on the spot, dagger in hand, guilty without a doubt. But the question on everyone’s mind, was why did he want to kill the King? If he was acting on his own account, what ill will did he bear His Majesty, sufficient to countenance the nature of the punishment for such an act? If on the other hand, he was the instrument of others, who were they?
One name was at the forefront of the general suspicion. An arrogant, charming, scheming, power hungry, aristocratic spendthrift, whose personal debts the King had discharged from the French Treasury, but who then crossed swords with the redoubtable Madame de Pompadour, the King’s Official Mistress. Confident that his status as a Prince of the Blood, first cousin to the King, and de facto Foreign Minister for France, secured him a safe place by the King’s side, he poured scorn on a mere commoner, born with the name of Poisson. This proved one of many serious errors of judgement, and one which would cost him dear. Commoner Madame de Pompadour may have been, but she had a fine intellect, and political antennae better tuned than those of the Prince of Conti. Madame correctly surmised that Conti was taking advantage of the King’s weakness as a monarch, making Louis vulnerable to charges of ineffectiveness and nepotism, and at the same time, putting Louis at odds with his official Minister for Foreign Affairs, whose office and functions Conti had sought to purloin.
The Mistress decided it was time to act. Conti had recommended one of his supporters for a key army appointment. There was never any question in his mind, but that Louis would approve his nominee. Madame however put forward her own appointee, and persuaded Louis to back her. It was the beginning of the end for the Prince of Conti as the King’s confidante in chief. His authority undermined, he could no longer rely on the King’s support.
However for all his faults, Conti was a man of action, and he had no intention of accepting defeat at the hands of a mere mistress. His lands in the south of France were heavily populated by Protestants, and he decided to throw his weight and influence behind an extreme element of the Protestant cause, which, with support from Protestant England, and taking account of Louis’ unpopularity with the French Parliament, he calculated was sufficient to depose the King, allowing Conti to fill the Royal power vacuum. The real question for the Tribunal appointed to investigate the assailants actions, was whether Damiens was the tool of a Conti led Protestant conspiracy.
The make up of the Tribunal was to be Conti’s saving grace. For as a Prince of the Blood, he found himself one of its constituent members, thus providing the means to frustrate the inquiry process, send it off on wild goose chases. and generally steer it away from establishing facts that could lead to his door.
However one threat remained which could still seal his fate. For the three months while the investigation was taking place, Damiens was in the hands of men who had experience in extracting the truth from unfortunate captives who happened to find themselves held by their cruel hands. However try as they might, they could extract nothing from Damiens sufficient to implicate the Prince.
And so the dreadful day finally arrived, the 28 March 1757, a day which would be talked about for decades to come. Tickets had been on sale for some time in advance, and extra seating laid on to meet the expected demand. However as anyone who has had responsibility for organising a live event knows, things do not always go according to plan, however well practiced and experienced the participants. Charles Henri Sanson, was a sixth generation executioner, who by the end of his career, had been responsible for the dispatch of some 3,000 French citizens. Damiens however, turned out to be as strong physically as he was mentally, and the four horses pointed at the four points of the compass, notwithstanding every form of encouragement from the executioner, had insufficient horsepower for the completion their barbaric task. More horses were ordered, and the spectacle continued in total for four hours, before the last remnants of the Damiens torso were burned at the stake. Those who had paid for their tickets, could not have asked for better entertainment. Naturally the most expensive seats had been reserved for the elite of Parisian society, which happened to include the by now infamous Venetian, Giacomo Casanova. Infamous at this time not so much for his sexual exploits, but for the fact that he had just escaped the confines of The Leads, the dreaded prison attached to the Doge Palace, and from which he was the only person ever to have departed alive before the end of his term. Casanova was the invitee of the Duchess de Gramont, and later went on to describe in his memoirs, how his refined senses had been put to the test on many occasions in the 32 years he had spent on earth, but never more so than on this awful day in Paris. He had been forced to look away, and block his ears, as the screams of agony, and relentless butchery, went on and on. The Duchess, by contrast, watched the entire affair without flinching.
The Prince’s desire to have the name of Conti recorded in the annals of the glorious history of France, was achieved inadvertently long after his death, during the course of the Revolution, when an enterprising clerk in the Department of Confiscated Assets, decided to add the name Conti to the famous Burgundy wine estate, La Romanee. The estate had been acquired by the Prince in 1760, supposedly in competition with Madame Pompadour. And as for the erudite and cultured Sanson, his concerns about cruelty to horses were duly addressed by the introduction of the guillotine, which in 1793, he employed to remove the head of Louis XVI, and also that of the elderly Duchesse de Gramont, one of the few still living survivors, of the Grim Affair.