“The place where a certain catastrophe occurs becomes a dreadful,
inescapable witness of it; and the absence of that silent character
would leave the greatest historical scenes incomplete”
~ Victor Hugo in “The essential Victor Hugo”
By all accounts Henri of Navarre – King Henri IV of France – was a good king. Revered by his subjects for his compassion, and his astute handling of the religious wars that had plagued the country.
“Paris is worth a mass!” declared the Huguenot monarch, and proceeded to put his money where his mouth was by converting to Catholicism. Religious tolerance became the hall mark of his regime. His architectural achievements were many, including the Pont Nuef and the Place des Vosges as well as the expansion of the Louvre palace. Little surprise then that the statue of le bon roi Henri on Pont Neuf, melted down along with other royal effigies in the frenzy of the revolution, was the first to be re-installed (after the restoration in 1818), and the song Vive Henri IV (“Long Live Henry IV”) became an unofficial anthem of France at the time..
Despite his enduring popularity however, he faced three unsuccessful assassination attempts. His luck ran out at the fourth. Enroute to a meeting at the Arsenal with his chief minister Duc de Sully, on 14 May – 1610, fate in the guise of two small carts blocked the path of his entourage on the narrow rue de la Ferronnerie. With his guards preoccupied with clearing the medieval traffic jam, a protestant fanatic named Francis Ravaillac ran upto the open carriage and stabbed his catholic target to death.
Before an investigation could prove whether the regicide was an act of passion, or motivated by palace intrigue or political conspiracy, Ravaillac had been drawn and quartered in the Place de Grève (now the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville). He had insisted, under interrogation that he worked alone without the aid of accomplices. But the hasty execution and his dying words “I was deceived when they persuaded me that my deed would be well received by the people” fueled conspiracy theories that included Henri’s second wife Marie de’ Medici, coronated just the day before, and her close friend the scheming duc d’Épernon who had been in contact with the ‘unbalanced’ assassin at some point. His presence in the carriage and the fact that he did not attempt to ward off the blow added weight to the rumours. None were ever proved despite the massive public outcry.
Marking the spot on rue de la Ferronnerie, beneath the pounding of countless oblivious feet, lies a modest metal plaque with his crest and the words: Henry IV and XIV MAI. Further along is a Histoire de Paris board describng the events of that fateful day and another plaque on the wall*.
Few spare this embedded marker of the catastrophic event, that many believe changed the course of French or even world history, a passing glance.
*I am not sure why there are two signs claiming to be the place where the regicide took place My guess is that the one on the floor is older and marks the exact spot.