Duke of Berry and His Assassination in 1820

Charles Ferdinand d’Artois, Duke of Berry, was the youngest son of Charles X and nephew to Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The Duke was said to be a jovial, vain, and somewhat ill-mannered person, and he was considered the black sheep of the family because he constantly attracted trouble. Moreover, while living in exile in England he had a torrid affair with a Protestant English woman named Amy Brown Freeman, whom he had two daughters with and whom he secretly married.

Duke of Berry, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Duke of Berry. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In 1814, he returned to France, abandoning Freeman. It was around this same time that his uncle, Louis XVIII, appointed him commander-in-chief of the army at Paris. Unfortunately, the Duke of Berry was unable to retain the loyalty of his troops, and he retired to Ghent during the Hundred Days War. Soon after he had his English marriage annulled: It was “declared invalid because royal consent had not been given.”[1] Invalidating the marriage to Freeman made her his mistress rather than his wife and this in turn allowed the 38-year-old Duke to marry the 17-year-old Princess Maria-Carolina of Naples, whom he married on 17 June 1816.

On the evening of 13 February 1820, the Duke of Berry and his wife were attending the Paris Opera located in the Théâtre National de la rue de la Loi, a building that accommodated 2,300 spectators and had been built by the actress and theatre manageress Mademoiselle Montansier. Near the end of the ballet, as was customary, the Duke, the Duchess, and the Duke’s small entourage withdrew and went to the Rue de Rameau where the Duke’s carriage was waiting.

Paris Opera, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Paris Opera. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

As the Duke handed his pregnant wife into the carriage, a man suddenly darted past the attendants and struck the Duke in the right side with a sharp instrument. The wound was severe and the instrument (later determined to be a dagger or a poniard) was plunged deep into his right thorax. The Duke of Berry staggered and one of the officers accompanying the royal party pushed the assassin back. The assassin then escaped, and a guard gave chase “crying out, ‘Stop! Stop!'”[2] A waiter at a coffee shop intercepted the assassin and threw him down and he was arrested and taken to the Police Office at the Opera.

The Assassination of the Duke, Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France

Duke of Berry’s assassination. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

As the pursuit of the assassin was underway, the Duke collapsed into the arms of one of those accompanying him. A feeble attempt was made to conceal his injury from his pregnant wife, but it was all in vain. The Duchess of Berry saw it all and “sprang from the voiture to … [assist] her august spouse.”[3] Several people then carried the wounded Duke inside and laid him on a bed that had been hastily prepared.

Several doctors were notified of the stabbing and Dr. Guillaume Dupuytren and Monsieur Dubois arrived shortly. At some point the Duke of Berry pulled the dagger out of his side and Dupuytren ordered exploration of the wound. In addition, he ordered the wound bled. As bleeding did not seem to help, the procedure was repeated a second and even a third time. One doctor made an attempt to suck the blood from the Duke’s wound with his mouth, but the Duke protested that the blood from the wound might be poisonous.

Duke of Berry's doctor Guillaume Dupuytren, Courtesy of Wellcome Images

Guillaume Dupuytren. Courtesy of Wellcome Images.

In the meantime, the Duke’s parents arrived at their son’s side. King Louis XVIII was likewise notified, and he “hastened to see his nephew, and did not quit him for an instant.”[4] For an hour or more Dupuytren and his colleagues had hopes of saving the Duke. Unfortunately, despite their best efforts, no amount of blood letting or exploration of the wound could save him and all hope for his recovery vanished around three o’clock when his appearance became “alarming [and] symptoms of suffocation manifested themselves.”[5]

The Duke’s last moments were spent quietly and were “consecrated to the duties of religion: He requested and received the sacrament; he asked to see his [one-year-old] daughter, and gave her his paternal benediction. He [also] recommended to the King his faithful servants, and supplicated from the clemency of his Majesty the pardon of his assassin.”[6] As death neared, King Louis XVIII commanded the Duke’s wife to leave, and it was reported that the King remained by his nephew’s side until his last sighs, “and with his Royal hand closed [the Duke’s] eyes.”[7]

The Duke of Berry died at six o’clock in the morning on 14 February 1820. Later that same day, the assassin, a 38-year-old man named Louis Pierre Louvel, was brought before Ministers. He was searched and the case that once contained the dagger was discovered on him. When questioned as to whether he had committed the crime, Louvel eagerly confessed and did not “evince the least appearance of regret and exhibit[ed] a tranquility as inaccessible to all emotion as to all remorse.”[8]

Duke of Berry's killer Louis Pierre Louvel

Duke of Berry’s killer Louis Pierre Louvel. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Other discoveries were also made. For instance, Louvel had been employed as a “working saddler in the artillery of the old Imperial Guard, and had joined [Napoleon] Bonaparte in the year 1815, in Elba.”[9] Prior to the stabbing, he had also worked for three months as a saddler at the royal stables in Paris. François-René de Chateaubriand wrote in his Memoirs From Beyond the Grave that Louvel was passionate in his cause partly because when Louvel was asked what induced him to commit the crime, he retorted, “I think the Bourbons are tyrants, and the most cruel enemies of France.”[10]

The following day a viewing of the Duke’s corpse occurred at the Louvre. Thirty thousand spectators were admitted and saw his corpse laid out in the Governor’s apartment “on a state couch; the Priests repeating the prayers for the dead, and the guards of Monsieur ranged around, watching, sword in hand.”[11] Promptly at three the gates were closed and no one else was admitted to view the body.

At that point the “cowardly assassin … was escorted by two Gendarmes, and placed near the body of his august victim, the sight of which [according to newspapers] excited in him no emotion.”[12] Louvel, who was described as sloven, sly, and surly, stood next to the corpse and a second interrogation was conducted. He answered similarly as he had the day before and when asked what possible motive had made him commit such a horrible crime, he said it would “serve as a lesson to the great men of my country.”[13] When asked why he chose the Duke of Berry as his victim, he stated it was “because he is the youngest Prince of the Royal Family, and seemed to be destined to perpetuate that race hostile to France.”[14] Thus, interrogators concluded that there was no doubt that Louvel’s motives were related to hate and dislike of the Bourbons.

Interrogation of Louvel - Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France

After the Duke of Berry’s assassination Louvel is interrogated. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

As the prisoner was escorted back to the Conciergerie, the Duke’s corpse was cut open. It was then carried by four of the late Duke’s valets into an adjoining apartment where several doctors examined it. “From their observations, it appeared that the murderous weapon had penetrated six inches between the 5th and 6th ribs, and had pierced the membranous muscles of the heart.”[15] The physicians drew up and signed a detailed attestation of these facts before they embalmed the Duke’s body.

On the 17th, the Duke of Berry’s body laid in state in a chapel dressed in black. That same day French newspapers noted that the blow which ended the Duke’s life “struck terror [in] … the heart of the French government. The infamous assassin, Louvel, [was] considered by the royalists and the ministerial party as the wretched but destructive instrument of a numerous and desperate faction.”[16] This induced Frenchmen to recommend to the ministers three new laws — renew censorship of journals, enable any three ministers to imprison suspected individuals, and alter the laws for elections.

A trial was held a few months later, on 5 June, to determine Louvel’s fate. Twenty-four witnesses were successively called and examined, and all twenty-four witnesses pointed their fingers at Louvel as the assassin. His counsel did their best to defend him using the following points:

  • Competency of the court of peers to try Louvel
  • Belief that Louvel suffered from some mental affliction called monomania
  • The King’s clemency

Louvel was no help to his defense team. He freely confessed that he committed the murder and also declared that he acted alone, something he reiterated numerous times. To make matters worse, when he was asked if he had anything to say in his behalf, he “read an outrageous tirade against the royal family … [and was] taken back to prison.”[17] In the end, a short deliberation resulted in a decree of death with his execution scheduled for June 7th at the Place de Grève. 

Franklin J. Didier, an American physicist and writer, was residing in France at the time. He later published information related to Louvel’s execution and wrote:

“[A]t least two hundred thousand persons covered the place de l’Hôtel de Ville, the quays and bridges, to witness the assassin in his progress from the Conciergerie to the guillotine. The windows of the houses along the quays through which the cart was to pass, were let at an exorbitant price, and it [was] asserted by the Journal de Paris, that a couple of Englishmen paid four hundred francs for a window facing the Place de Grève!”[18]

When the cart entered the square, Louvel looked haggard. Yet, despite his pale, haggard countenance, he supposedly displayed a bold determined demeanor. Louvel was accompanied by a priest who attempted to keep Louvel’s focus on God and the afterlife. It was deathly quiet as Louvel mounted the steps to the guillotine. Didier reported that the silence was broken only when “a sort of buzz of horror resounded from the multitude, as the axe separated his head from his body.”[19] It happened at six o’clock, on June 7th, “in the midst of an immense crowd..”[20] 

Louis Pierre Louvel Heading to the Place de Greve, Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France

Louis Pierre Louvel heading to the Place de Grève for his execution. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.


  • [1] Skuy, David, Assassination, Politics, and Miracles, 2003, p. 5.
  • [2] “Assassination of the Duke of Berri,” in Norfolk Chronicle, 26 February 1820, p. 4.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4]
  • [5] “Assassination of the Duke of Berri,” p. 4.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] The Gentleman’s Magazine, 1820, p. 265.
  • [9] The European Magazine and Review, Containing Portraits and Views, 1820, p. 176.
  • [10] The Gentleman’s Magazine, p. 265.
  • [11] “Assassination of the Duke de Berri,” in Cumberland Pacquet, and Ware’s Whitehaven Advertiser, 29 February 1820, p. 4.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] “Particulars of the Assassination of the Duke de Berri,” in Stamford Mercury, 25 February 1820, p. 4.
  • [14] The Gentleman’s Magazine, 1820, p. 265.
  • [15] The New Annual Register, Or, General Repository of History, Politics, and Literature for the Year, p. 1821, p. 28
  • [16] -, in Cambridge Chronicle and Journal, 25 February 1820, p. 1. 
  • [17] “Trial and Execution of Louvel,” in Newcastle Courant, 17 June 1820, p. 2.
  • [18] Didler, Franklin James, Letters from Paris and Other Cities of France, Holland & c., 1821, p. 360.
  • [19] Ibid.
  • [20] The New Annual Register, Or, General Repository of History, Politics, and Literature for the Year, 1821, p. 66.

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