1315: Enguerrand de Marigny, on Montfaucon

On this date in 1315, an obscure petty noble who had become the king’s right-hand man was hanged by his rivals a few months after his royal sponsor expired.

Late in the epoch-making reign of King Philip the Fair — under whose rule the papacy was hijacked to Avignon and the Templars were crushedEnguerrand de Marigny was the man loyally keeping the books.

Since Philip was a stubbornly spendthrift fellow, that meant Marigny’s chief pursuit was the creative extraction of new revenues, through fresh taxes and the debasement of coinage. His public esteem suffered commensurately, little aided by the fact that his duties made him fabulously wealthy and the most powerful man in the country, give or take a king.

Said monarch was vigorous in that age-old pastime of the feudal monarchy, centralization of the power scattered among the nobility, further to which end he was happy to promote a competent administrator of scanty lineage and dependable loyalty.

Aggrieved lords, like the grasping Charles de Valois, were ready with their grudges against the unpopular minister when Philip shuffled off in November 1314. When charges of financial impropriety didn’t stick, they cooked up an allegation of sorcery — just then coming into vogue as a trump card in the game of judicial homicide.

Enguerrand hung two years upon the monumentally terrifying Montfaucon Gibbet (the link is to the structure’s French Wikipedia page), but everyone felt just terrible about it later. (the link is French, again) An actual inquiry — they skipped that step when they strung him up — exonerated the luckless minister, allowing his heirs to retrieve his body and a chunk of his fortune from the sympathetic king; Charles was so pursued by guilt that on his deathbed, he sent out a fat dispensation of alms with the request that recipients pray for both Enguerrand de Marigny and himself.

It worked … at least for Marigny’s reputation.

None can tell, after this lapse of time, whether this remorse proceeded from weakness of mind or sincerity of heart, and which of the two personages was really guilty; but, ages afterwards, such is the effect of blind, popular clamor and unrighteous judicial proceedings, that the condemned lives in history as a victim and all but a guileless being. (Source)

It was no hard feelings from Enguerrand’s little brother, Jean. The family influence had landed him a bishopric, and he held the job until his death in 1350, even repelling an English siege of Beauvais during the Hundred Years’ War.

A European Haman?

Enguerrand de Marigny comes in for a passing notice as T.H. White affectionately surveys the Middle Ages in The Once and Future King:

What an amazing time the age of chivalry was! Everybody was essentially himself — was riotously busy fulfilling the vagaries of human nature … [a] coruscating mixture of oddities who reckoned that they possessed the things called souls as well as bodies, and who fulfilled them in the most surprising ways.

[Y]ou might have seen Enguerrand de Marigny, who built the enormous gallows at Mountfalcon, [sic] himself rotting and clanking on the same gallows, because he had been found guilty of Black Magic.*

That Marigny erected the gallows on which he hung is an oft-repeated claim, an instance of a whole subgenre of moralistic folklore in which death-dealing inventors are hoisted on their own petard. These stories are not always dependablecontra rumor, for instance, Dr. Guillotin was not guillotined — and today’s protagonist may not have a firm hold on this small consolation, either.

Here is Victor Hugo’s rendering of the structure’s history in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Montfauçon was, as Sauval says, “the most ancient and the most superb gibbet in the kingdom.” …

Let the reader picture to himself, crowning a limestone hillock, an oblong mass of masonry fifteen feet in height, thirty wide, forty long, with a gate, an external railing and a platform; on this platform sixteen enormous pillars of rough hewn stone, thirty feet in height, arranged in a colonnade round three of the four sides of the mass which support them, bound together at their summits by heavy beams, whence hung chains at intervals; on all these chains, skeletons; in the vicinity, on the plain, a stone cross and two gibbets of secondary importance, which seemed to have sprung up as shoots around the central gallows; above all this, in the sky, a perpetual flock of crows; that was Montfauçon.

At the end of the fifteenth century, the formidable gibbet which dated from 1328, was already very much dilapidated; the beams were wormeaten, the chains rusted, the pillars green with mould; the layers of hewn stone were all cracked at their joints, and grass was growing on that platform which no feet touched. The monument made a horrible profile against the sky; especially at night when there was a little moonlight on those white skulls, or when the breeze of evening brushed the chains and the skeletons, and swayed all these in the darkness. The presence of this gibbet sufficed to render gloomy all the surrounding places.

The mass of masonry which served as foundation to the odious edifice was hollow. A huge cellar had been constructed there, closed by an old iron grating, which was out of order, into which were cast not only the human remains, which were taken from the chains of Montfauçon, but also the bodies of all the unfortunates executed on the other permanent gibbets of Paris. To that deep charnel-house, where so many human remains and so many crimes have rotted in company, many great ones of this world, many innocent people, have contributed their bones, from Enguerrand de Marigni, the first victim, and a just man, to Admiral de Coligni, who was its last, and who was also a just man.

Hugo — who, let us admit, is not to be depended upon for history — has elevated Marigny to the very first victim of the Montfaucon gallows, but the reader will also notice that the same passage dates the edifice’s construction thirteen years after Marigny’s own execution.

Helpless Historiography

Montfaucon the execution site had a rich history. There seem to have been at least two separate gallows sites (the link is French) on the hill, and its vintage as an execution space dates back to the 13th century. (more French)

About this point, this blog runs against the limits of its writer’s access to primary documentation and werewithal to pursue it. Sources seem mightily confused on the embryonic era of Montfaucon; at least two other ministers — Pierre de La Brosse, a confidante of the previous king, and Pierre Remy, another royal treasurer hanged a generation after Marigny — also have their own claim to have been hanged on the structure they erected.

It may be that this was actually true of Remy, a less dramatically captivating figure with an official portfolio similar to Marigny’s, and the two simply became conflated in legend. Something certainly seems to have been built during his time, and it may have been the stone replacement for the original gallows.

The suggestion of someone who researched it more thoroughly than I have (another French page, but worth the visit if only for the pictorial schematics) is that the landmark structure may have predated all these men.** Brosse and Marigny, in this conception, may simply have worked various repairs upon it that became magnified in the retelling, while the gallows Remy set up might have been those on the secondary location, erected as a stopgap during a more thorough reconstruction of the permanent site, and/or reserved for more vulgar elements than ministers of the crown.

* Readers may appreciate an annotation of other references White makes in his fantasy classic.

** We find repeated claims that the alleged “sorceror” Marigny engaged for his capital crime was hanged below him, which would support that notion; I have been unable to identify the provenance of this detail, however.

1818: Alexander Arbuthnot and Richard Ambrister

On this date in 1818, on the authority of a military tribunal of doubtful legality, a general who would become a president hanged two British citizens for aiding America’s Indian enemies.

You don’t get to be the $20 bill guy without knocking a few heads.

The First Seminole War saw the ambitious General Andrew Jackson appropriate for himself authority considerably beyond that authorized by Washington to escalate border conflicts around Spanish Florida into an outright invasion.

Though both Spanish and British interests had a foothold on the peninsula, neither was ever formally drawn into war; the conflict pitted Jackson’s armies against Seminole Indians who were also known to take in escaped slaves from over the border. Regardless the immediate casus belli, the war’s eventual effect was to force the Spanish to cede Florida, fitting it unmistakably into America’s evolving pattern of imperial conquests. But Europeans proved not to be exempt from Jackson’s fury.

The elderly Scottish trader Alexander Arbuthnot and the young British ex-marine Robert Ambrister were swept up as Jackson pillaged through Florida. Both had friendly relations with the natives, and somewhere amid personal pique, deliberate provocation, and squelching their knowledge of white Americans’ provocations against the Seminoles lay sufficient reason to string them up.

Due process

Jackson, who would win the White House himself on a populist platform in a decade’s time, has had many advocates in history; few of them would deny the man’s authoritarian streak.

A decidedly unsympathetic — arguably corrective — study of Jackson’s conduct in the Southeast during this period unravels Jackson’s reasoning as to how British citizens in Spanish territory were capitally liable in the eyes of a third country that neither state was at war with:

As soon as [Jackson] reached St. Marks, he set into motion the wheels of his personal justice system to punish Alexander Arbuthnot and Robert Ambrister for crimes against the United States.

Jackson appointed a military court of twelve voting officers, Edmund Pendleton Gaines presiding, to hear charges that Arbuthnot and Ambrister had aided and abetted the enemy of the United States in the Seminole War. Of the panel, five were Volunteer officers whom Jackson had personally recruited for the campaign. Even though partially stacking the board and conducting the proceeding as a court-martial in the Florida wilderness obviated the need for precise legal punctilio, Old Hickory ruminated over just how to go about the business. His original idea of charging his two prisoners with piracy had appeal because it allowed him to take action against these subjects of a neutral power for aiding one nation against another nation. Yet the similarities of such a circumstance to that of the Marquis de Lafayette’s Revolutionary War service nagged at Jackson as an embarrassing comparison. By the time he convened the court-martial, Jackson had hit upon the solution. “The laws of war did not apply to conflicts with savages,” he solemnly intoned, and thus was he able to dispense with not only the laws of war, but virtually all laws altogether. The court would charge Arbuthnot and Ambrister with assisting and encouraging the Seminoles. In Jackson’s legal universe, these were capital offenses.

The specific charges accused Arbuthnot of inciting the Creeks to make war on the United States, of spying for the Seminoles, and of inciting the Seminoles to kidnap, torture, and kill William Hambly and Edmund Doyle. Charges against Ambrister stated that he had aided and abetted Seminoles and had led Seminoles against the United States.

Arbuthnot requested counsel, and the court obliged him by appointing one, but he apparently managed most of his own defense. Some describe his efforts as eloquent, but both he and Ambrister must have realized that their part in this show was already scripted to its conclusion. Ambrister, in fact, finally abandoned all pretense of due process simply to throw himself on the mercy of the court.

(The original minutes of the trial are available from Google books here.)

Jackson’s justification of himself, essentially placing the condemned men outside the law by stripping them of their whiteness, will not much flatter his latter-day partisans:

These individuals were tried under my orders by a special court of select officers, legally convicted as exciters of this savage and negro war, legally condemned, and most justly punished for their iniquities … I hope the execution of these two unprincipled villains will prove an awful example to the world … that certain, though slow retribution awaits those unchristian wretches who, by false promises, delude and excite an Indian tribe to all the horrid deeds of savage war.

… although a further point takes a tack the modern reader may find more familiar:

The moment the American army retires from Florida the war hatchet will be again raised, and the same scenes of indiscriminate massacre, with which our frontier settlers have been visited, will be repeated, so long as the Indians within the territory of Spain are exposed to the delusion of false prophets and poison of foreign intrigue; so long as they can receive ammunition, munitions of war, from pretended traders and Spanish commandants, it will be impossible to restrain their outrages. … The savages, therefore, must be made dependent on us, and cannot be kept at peace without being persuaded of the certainty of chastisement being inflicted on the commission of the first offence.

Even at the end of his life, this day’s hanging was still flung against Jackson: “By the Eternal! You old Hags! If I get hold of you, I’ll hang you all up under the 7th section as I did Arbuthnot and Ambrister!” (click to see the entire cartoon)

(The letter is as read by a friendly congressman here.)

Jackson’s own popularity essentially carried the day against a measure of Congressional censure, but the affair caused him ongoing political annoyance; for Jackson’s enemies, it would forever impugn the man’s motives and behavior. (See the cartoon, which dates to the incipience of a later generation’s own imperial war.) The success that sufficed to exonerate him to his peers might seem rather less compelling to posterity.

Nevertheless, there are defenders of America’s “War on Terrorism” military tribunals prepared to number this farcical procedure among their precedents.*

* A 2004 Congressional Research Service report (pdf) on military tribunals also touches the Arbuthnot and Ambrister affair and hints, in its neutral way, at the Napoleonic direction Jackson’s legal reasoning would mark out:

Experts in military law have differed on the legitimacy of Jackson’s action. William Winthrop, writing toward the end of the nineteenth century, noted that if any officer ordered an execution in the manner of Jackson he “would now be indictable for murder.” To William Birkhimer, in his 1904 treatise, Jackson had asked the special court only for its opinion, both as to guilt and punishment, and the delivery of that opinion could not divest Jackson of the authority he possessed from the beginning: to proceed summarily against Arbuthnot and Ambrister and order their execution. Birkhimer’s analysis would allow generals to execute civilians without trial or to dispense with the fact-finding and judgment that results from trial proceedings.

It bears remembering that this incident was in fact only three years removed from Bonaparte’s last hurrah, and some few of Jackson’s countrymen saw such a figure in Old Hickory.