Posts filed under 'Beheaded'

1792: Arnaud de La Porte

Add comment August 24th, 2016 Headsman

Ancien regime minister Arnaud de La Porte was guillotined on this date in 1792* by the new order.

Stock of a long line of Versailles courtiers, de La Porte (English Wikipedia entry | French) followed his father into administration with a specialty in naval finances. He knocked around maritime bureaus from the time he was a whelp of 18 in 1755; he was at last named Louis XVI‘s Minister of the Navy on July 12, 1789 — two days before the Bastille fell.

He had both the wisdom to immediately expatriate himself to Spain, and the loyalty to answer his harried sovereign’s summons to return; by December 1790, he was appointed intendant of the Civil List and minister of the king’s household.

This made de La Porte the bagman in the king’s campaign to buttress the Revolution’s moderating forces — writers, thinkers, and artists in the constitutional monarchist camp, as against the Marats — to which end some 200,000 livres dropped from his fingers every month. All was to little avail.

De La Porte’s position made him a close confidante of the royal family. When the latter attempted the ill-starred flight to Varennes, it was de La Porte who was entrusted to present the absconded king’s Dear John note to his jilted subjects in the Constituent Assembly.

With the king’s embarrassing capture, the Capets’ confinement became ever more uncomfortably close, and with them that of a loyal aide who must have passed a few moments contemplating the Iberian charms he had abandoned to share this bitter draught — until the following summer when Danton et. al. finally overthrew the monarchy on August 10, 1792.


A bad day for Arnaud de La Porte: the storming of the Tuileries Palace on August 10, 1792, by Jean Duplessis-Bertaux.

De La Porte was overthrown with them.

While revolutionary Paris is synonymous to posterity with frightful political trials, it was in the aftermath of the August 10 revolution that they began, and then as novelties. (The guillotine at this point was itself just a few months old.)

Endeavoring to cement their triumph, the revolutionaries constituted a tribunal to try the deposed royalist ministers as traitors for their maneuverings. (They also obviously blocked any prosecution of their own number for massacring hundreds of Swiss Guards who fought to defend the king.) These can be accounted among the first overt political trials of the revolution, the harbingers of the coming Terror and ill omen for the judgments the Revolution would levy against king, queen, and royals all. De La Porte in his closing address to the court fervently hoped his nation would not follow that dark road.

Citizens — I die innocent, notwithstanding that appearances are against me. May my blood, which is to be shed for the expiation of a crime of which I am not guilty, restore tranquility to this empire: And may my sentence be the last unjust arret which shall be pronounced by this Tribunal. (via the London Times, Aug. 30, 1792)

With the post-Napoleonic restoration, the man’s son — also named Arnaud — was created a hereditary baron in recognition of his ancestor’s service to the crown.

* The dates for these trials are very sloppily accounted for; as of this writing, the man’s Wikipedia entries both French and English misdate his execution to August 23 (the date his examination began), and one will find sources placing it as late as August 28 whose attribution traces all the way back to the initial publications of the tribunals. To be sure, the trial against de La Porte had an unusual internal clock reflecting the revolution’s ad hoc process: it unfolded over the two days, and after conviction the accused was beheaded the same day, but not immediately — instead, de La Porte was returned from his court to prison for a few hours, where he dined before going to the scaffold in the evening.

By way of substantiation, we find that under an August 25 dateline (printed in the August 29 edition), the London Times correspondent reports from the scene thus:

The new criminal Tribunal, instituted for the trial of persons supposed to be concerned in treasonable correspondence with the late Executive Government, proceed in a very summary manner on the trial of those persons who have been so unfortunate as to fall into the hands of the mob. M. de la Porte, the late Intendant of the Civil List, was yesterday convicted, after a trial of 37 hours. Sentence of death was immediately passed on him, and at night he was conducted to the Place de Carrousel, where he was executed. During the whole of his examination at the bar, as well as at the place of execution, he behaved with great firmness, and declared his innocence to the last …

The principal evidence against M. de la Porte was, that he had employed the public money to libel the new Constitution, by employing different Journalists to write down the Jacobin faction … The proof against him was so slight and contradictory, that it was with great surprise and indignation that the sober part of the citizens heard of his conviction. He certainly fell a victim to the Royal cause and to justice.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Treason

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1672: Not Cornelius van Baerle, tulip-fancier

Add comment August 23rd, 2016 Alexandre Dumas

For this date’s post we welcome back to Executed Today the prolific pen of Alexandre Dumas, here working on the “fictional” side of his familiar historical fiction genre.

Dumas’s novel The Black Tulip (La Tulipe Noire) begins with the very real Aug. 20, 1672 lynching of Dutch statesmen Cornelis and Johann de Witt, and from that point unfolds the story of a fictional godson, Cornelius van Baerle — whose green thumb will nurture the titular flower along with a love for the jailer’s daughter Rosa. (To the very great wrath of van Baerle’s neighbor and murderous rival gardener, Isaac Boxtel.)

Dumas has already sown both seeds when he dates his narrative via van Baerle’s will, written when the fictional main character is in danger of succumbing to the same cataclysm that swallowed up his godfather: already smitten with Rosa, he purposes to bequeath her the bulbs, whose rare product will be worth a bounty.

On this day, the 23d of August, 1672, being on the point of rendering, although innocent, my soul to God on the scaffold, I bequeath to Rosa Gryphus the only worldly goods which remain to me of all that I have possessed in this world, the rest having been confiscated; I bequeath, I say, to Rosa Gryphus three bulbs, which I am convinced must produce, in the next May, the Grand Black Tulip for which a prize of a hundred thousand guilders has been offered by the Haarlem Society, requesting that she may be paid the same sum in my stead, as my sole heiress, under the only condition of her marrying a respectable young man of about my age, who loves her, and whom she loves, and of her giving the black tulip, which will constitute a new species, the name of Rosa Barlaensis, that is to say, hers and mine combined.

So may God grant me mercy, and to her health and long life!

Cornelius van Baerle.

And having done this, van Baerle is escorted directly to the scaffold, where we pick up Dumas’s narrative courtesy of Gutenberg.org:


Chapter 12: The Execution

Cornelius had not three hundred paces to walk outside the prison to reach the foot of the scaffold. At the bottom of the staircase, the dog quietly looked at him whilst he was passing; Cornelius even fancied he saw in the eyes of the monster a certain expression as it were of compassion.

The dog perhaps knew the condemned prisoners, and only bit those who left as free men.

The shorter the way from the door of the prison to the foot of the scaffold, the more fully, of course, it was crowded with curious people.

These were the same who, not satisfied with the blood which they had shed three days before, were now craving for a new victim.

And scarcely had Cornelius made his appearance than a fierce groan ran through the whole street, spreading all over the yard, and re-echoing from the streets which led to the scaffold, and which were likewise crowded with spectators.

The scaffold indeed looked like an islet at the confluence of several rivers.

In the midst of these threats, groans, and yells, Cornelius, very likely in order not to hear them, had buried himself in his own thoughts.

And what did he think of in his last melancholy journey?

Neither of his enemies, nor of his judges, nor of his executioners.

He thought of the beautiful tulips which he would see from heaven above, at Ceylon, or Bengal, or elsewhere, when he would be able to look with pity on this earth, where John and Cornelius de Witt had been murdered for having thought too much of politics, and where Cornelius van Baerle was about to be murdered for having thought too much of tulips.

“It is only one stroke of the axe,” said the philosopher to himself, “and my beautiful dream will begin to be realised.”

Only there was still a chance, just as it had happened before to M. de Chalais, to M. de Thou, and other slovenly executed people, that the headsman might inflict more than one stroke, that is to say, more than one martyrdom, on the poor tulip-fancier.

Yet, notwithstanding all this, Van Baerle mounted the scaffold not the less resolutely, proud of having been the friend of that illustrious John, and godson of that noble Cornelius de Witt, whom the ruffians, who were now crowding to witness his own doom, had torn to pieces and burnt three days before.

He knelt down, said his prayers, and observed, not without a feeling of sincere joy, that, laying his head on the block, and keeping his eyes open, he would be able to his last moment to see the grated window of the Buytenhof.

At length the fatal moment arrived, and Cornelius placed his chin on the cold damp block. But at this moment his eyes closed involuntarily, to receive more resolutely the terrible avalanche which was about to fall on his head, and to engulf his life.

A gleam like that of lightning passed across the scaffold: it was the executioner raising his sword.

Van Baerle bade farewell to the great black tulip, certain of awaking in another world full of light and glorious tints.

Three times he felt, with a shudder, the cold current of air from the knife near his neck, but what a surprise! he felt neither pain nor shock.

He saw no change in the colour of the sky, or of the world around him.

Then suddenly Van Baerle felt gentle hands raising him, and soon stood on his feet again, although trembling a little.

He looked around him. There was some one by his side, reading a large parchment, sealed with a huge seal of red wax.

And the same sun, yellow and pale, as it behooves a Dutch sun to be, was shining in the skies; and the same grated window looked down upon him from the Buytenhof; and the same rabble, no longer yelling, but completely thunderstruck, were staring at him from the streets below.

Van Baerle began to be sensible to what was going on around him.

His Highness, William, Prince of Orange, very likely afraid that Van Baerle’s blood would turn the scale of judgment against him, had compassionately taken into consideration his good character, and the apparent proofs of his innocence.

His Highness, accordingly, had granted him his life.

Cornelius at first hoped that the pardon would be complete, and that he would be restored to his full liberty and to his flower borders at Dort.

But Cornelius was mistaken. To use an expression of Madame de Sevigne, who wrote about the same time, “there was a postscript to the letter;” and the most important part of the letter was contained in the postscript.

In this postscript, William of Orange, Stadtholder of Holland, condemned Cornelius van Baerle to imprisonment for life. He was not sufficiently guilty to suffer death, but he was too much so to be set at liberty.

Cornelius heard this clause, but, the first feeling of vexation and disappointment over, he said to himself —

“Never mind, all this is not lost yet; there is some good in this perpetual imprisonment; Rosa will be there, and also my three bulbs of the black tulip are there.”

But Cornelius forgot that the Seven Provinces had seven prisons, one for each, and that the board of the prisoner is anywhere else less expensive than at the Hague, which is a capital.

His Highness, who, as it seems, did not possess the means to feed Van Baerle at the Hague, sent him to undergo his perpetual imprisonment at the fortress of Loewestein, very near Dort, but, alas! also very far from it; for Loewestein, as the geographers tell us, is situated at the point of the islet which is formed by the confluence of the Waal and the Meuse, opposite Gorcum.


Aerial view of present-day Loewestein Castle. (cc) image from Hans Elbers

Van Baerle was sufficiently versed in the history of his country to know that the celebrated Grotius was confined in that castle after the death of Barneveldt; and that the States, in their generosity to the illustrious publicist, jurist, historian, poet, and divine, had granted to him for his daily maintenance the sum of twenty-four stivers.

“I,” said Van Baerle to himself, “I am worth much less than Grotius. They will hardly give me twelve stivers, and I shall live miserably; but never mind, at all events I shall live.”

Then suddenly a terrible thought struck him.

“Ah!” he exclaimed, “how damp and misty that part of the country is, and the soil so bad for the tulips! And then Rosa will not be at Loewestein!”

Chapter 13: What was going on all this Time in the Mind of one of the Spectators

Whilst Cornelius was engaged with his own thoughts, a coach had driven up to the scaffold. This vehicle was for the prisoner. He was invited to enter it, and he obeyed.

His last look was towards the Buytenhof. He hoped to see at the window the face of Rosa, brightening up again.

But the coach was drawn by good horses, who soon carried Van Baerle away from among the shouts which the rabble roared in honour of the most magnanimous Stadtholder, mixing with it a spice of abuse against the brothers De Witt and the godson of Cornelius, who had just now been saved from death.

This reprieve suggested to the worthy spectators remarks such as the following:—

“It’s very fortunate that we used such speed in having justice done to that great villain John, and to that little rogue Cornelius, otherwise his Highness might have snatched them from us, just as he has done this fellow.”

Among all the spectators whom Van Baerle’s execution had attracted to the Buytenhof, and whom the sudden turn of affairs had disagreeably surprised, undoubtedly the one most disappointed was a certain respectably dressed burgher, who from early morning had made such a good use of his feet and elbows that he at last was separated from the scaffold only by the file of soldiers which surrounded it.

Many had shown themselves eager to see the perfidious blood of the guilty Cornelius flow, but not one had shown such a keen anxiety as the individual just alluded to.

The most furious had come to the Buytenhof at daybreak, to secure a better place; but he, outdoing even them, had passed the night at the threshold of the prison, from whence, as we have already said, he had advanced to the very foremost rank, unguibus et rostro — that is to say, coaxing some, and kicking the others.

And when the executioner had conducted the prisoner to the scaffold, the burgher, who had mounted on the stone of the pump the better to see and be seen, made to the executioner a sign which meant —

“It’s a bargain, isn’t it?”

The executioner answered by another sign, which was meant to say —

“Be quiet, it’s all right.”

This burgher was no other than Mynheer Isaac Boxtel, who since the arrest of Cornelius had come to the Hague to try if he could not get hold of the three bulbs of the black tulip.

Boxtel had at first tried to gain over Gryphus to his interest, but the jailer had not only the snarling fierceness, but likewise the fidelity, of a dog. He had therefore bristled up at Boxtel’s hatred, whom he had suspected to be a warm friend of the prisoner, making trifling inquiries to contrive with the more certainty some means of escape for him.

Thus to the very first proposals which Boxtel made to Gryphus to filch the bulbs which Cornelius van Baerle must be supposed to conceal, if not in his breast, at least in some corner of his cell, the surly jailer had only answered by kicking Mynheer Isaac out, and setting the dog at him.

The piece which the mastiff had torn from his hose did not discourage Boxtel. He came back to the charge, but this time Gryphus was in bed, feverish, and with a broken arm. He therefore was not able to admit the petitioner, who then addressed himself to Rosa, offering to buy her a head-dress of pure gold if she would get the bulbs for him. On this, the generous girl, although not yet knowing the value of the object of the robbery, which was to be so well remunerated, had directed the tempter to the executioner, as the heir of the prisoner.

In the meanwhile the sentence had been pronounced. Thus Isaac had no more time to bribe any one. He therefore clung to the idea which Rosa had suggested: he went to the executioner.

Isaac had not the least doubt that Cornelius would die with the bulbs on his heart.

But there were two things which Boxtel did not calculate upon:—

Rosa, that is to say, love;

William of Orange, that is to say, clemency.

But for Rosa and William, the calculations of the envious neighbour would have been correct.

But for William, Cornelius would have died.

But for Rosa, Cornelius would have died with his bulbs on his heart.

Mynheer Boxtel went to the headsman, to whom he gave himself out as a great friend of the condemned man; and from whom he bought all the clothes of the dead man that was to be, for one hundred guilders; rather an exorbitant sum, as he engaged to leave all the trinkets of gold and silver to the executioner.

But what was the sum of a hundred guilders to a man who was all but sure to buy with it the prize of the Haarlem Society?

It was money lent at a thousand per cent, which, as nobody will deny, was a very handsome investment.

The headsman, on the other hand, had scarcely anything to do to earn his hundred guilders. He needed only, as soon as the execution was over, to allow Mynheer Boxtel to ascend the scaffold with his servants, to remove the inanimate remains of his friend.

The thing was, moreover, quite customary among the “faithful brethren,” when one of their masters died a public death in the yard of the Buytenhof.

A fanatic like Cornelius might very easily have found another fanatic who would give a hundred guilders for his remains.

The executioner also readily acquiesced in the proposal, making only one condition — that of being paid in advance.

Boxtel, like the people who enter a show at a fair, might be disappointed, and refuse to pay on going out.

Boxtel paid in advance, and waited.

After this, the reader may imagine how excited Boxtel was; with what anxiety he watched the guards, the Recorder, and the executioner; and with what intense interest he surveyed the movements of Van Baerle. How would he place himself on the block? how would he fall? and would he not, in falling, crush those inestimable bulbs? had not he at least taken care to enclose them in a golden box — as gold is the hardest of all metals?

Every trifling delay irritated him. Why did that stupid executioner thus lose time in brandishing his sword over the head of Cornelius, instead of cutting that head off?

But when he saw the Recorder take the hand of the condemned, and raise him, whilst drawing forth the parchment from his pocket — when he heard the pardon of the Stadtholder publicly read out — then Boxtel was no more like a human being; the rage and malice of the tiger, of the hyena, and of the serpent glistened in his eyes, and vented itself in his yell and his movements. Had he been able to get at Van Baerle, he would have pounced upon him and strangled him.

And so, then, Cornelius was to live, and was to go with him to Loewestein, and thither to his prison he would take with him his bulbs; and perhaps he would even find a garden where the black tulip would flower for him.

Boxtel, quite overcome by his frenzy, fell from the stone upon some Orangemen, who, like him, were sorely vexed at the turn which affairs had taken. They, mistaking the frantic cries of Mynheer Isaac for demonstrations of joy, began to belabour him with kicks and cuffs, such as could not have been administered in better style by any prize-fighter on the other side of the Channel.

Blows were, however, nothing to him. He wanted to run after the coach which was carrying away Cornelius with his bulbs. But in his hurry he overlooked a paving-stone in his way, stumbled, lost his centre of gravity, rolled over to a distance of some yards, and only rose again, bruised and begrimed, after the whole rabble of the Hague, with their muddy feet, had passed over him.

One would think that this was enough for one day, but Mynheer Boxtel did not seem to think so, as, in addition to having his clothes torn, his back bruised, and his hands scratched, he inflicted upon himself the further punishment of tearing out his hair by handfuls, as an offering to that goddess of envy who, as mythology teaches us, wears a head-dress of serpents.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Fictional,Guest Writers,Last Minute Reprieve,Netherlands,Not Executed,Other Voices,Pardons and Clemencies,Public Executions,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1415: Thomas Grey, Southampton Plotter

Add comment August 2nd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1415, about to set sail from Southampton for the invasion of France that would define his reign, King Henry V favored the Bargate with the beheading of Sir Thomas Grey.

Henry V at this moment was just two years on the throne, the son of a usurper who had deposed and murdered Richard II. That he was now off to venture his life in the field, leaving no wife or child, could have placed his line with but a small mischance in the way of extinction.

The Southampton Plotters had a mind to be that small mischance.

Their idea was to topple King Henry in favor of Edmund Mortimer, the Earl of March — who had been Richard II’s heir presumptive at the time Richard was deposed, and whose claim to the throne should have preceded that of Henry’s own family were such matters decided by lawyers alone.

Henry’s coup d’etat and the aspirations thereafter descending respectively from Henry IV and from Richard II were the dynastic font of the Wars of the Roses. Those wars occurred well after the events of today’s post but the opposing factions were already now beginning to wend their ways towards Bosworth Field.

Mortimer was a seven-year-old when Richard was dethroned. He grew up in confinement, albeit honorably treated. Despite his family’s understandably rocky relationship with the new regime, Mortimer himself didn’t cross Henry V, and Henry guardedly admitted him first to his liberty and then to the privileges his rank entailed.

Although Mortimer was rapped over the knuckles for a disapproved marriage, he had never yet ventured any apparent act of treason. By appearances, the Southamptom Plot might have been the moment he went all the way to the brink and then chickened out, for it was Mortimer himself who (without admitting any involvement) personally finked out the plan to King Henry on August 1, 1415. All three of its principal authors spent that very night in the dungeons: Henry, Baron Scrope, a longtime friend and confidante of the king; Richard, Earl of Cambridge, a somewhat impoverished peer of the realm; and our man, the knight Sir Thomas Grey.

Henry gratefully agreed to the pretense that this plot had been a terrible surprise to Mortimer and pre-emptively pardoned him of any taint arising from it.

Gray, the only commoner in the bunch, went on trial the very next day, which was a Friday — and his sentence was executed before suppertime.

The two lords were able to insist on a trial by their peers, which bought them only the weekend: an ample quorum of lords was conveniently on hand preparing to embark for France with the king. They too were condemned that Monday, and like Grey they proceeded straight from court to the block.*

Duly satisfied, Henry sailed for France on the 11th.

And that was that … for the time being.

In gratitude for keeping his own head, Edmund Mortimer kept that head down for the few years remaining him before he died, childless. Cambridge’s young son Richard would eventually inherit not only his father’s claims but also those of his uncle, the Duke of York (slain at Agincourt) and those of Mortimer too, Voltroning his various heritages into a mighty estate. This Richard, Duke of York would bear Mortimer’s rival regal claim into posterity and eventually captain the Yorkist (of course) side at the outset of the Wars of the Roses. His sons were the Yorkist kings Edward IV and Richard III.**

In Shakespeare’s Henry V, a rather brief interlude in Act 2, Scene 2 introduces and disposes of the Southampton conspirators before Hal weighs anchor for Normandy where he will come of age by executing his buddy and then butchering the French on St. Crispin’s Day. (Shakespeare unfairly positions the Southampton plotters as traitors bought by French gold and entirely omits the role of Mortimer, who is not a character in the play at all.)


Trumpets sound. Enter KING HENRY V, SCROOP, CAMBRIDGE, GREY, and Attendants

KING HENRY V

Now sits the wind fair, and we will aboard.
My Lord of Cambridge, and my kind Lord of Masham,
And you, my gentle knight, give me your thoughts:
Think you not that the powers we bear with us
Will cut their passage through the force of France,
Doing the execution and the act
For which we have in head assembled them?

SCROOP

No doubt, my liege, if each man do his best.

KING HENRY V

I doubt not that; since we are well persuaded
We carry not a heart with us from hence
That grows not in a fair consent with ours,
Nor leave not one behind that doth not wish
Success and conquest to attend on us.

CAMBRIDGE

Never was monarch better fear’d and loved
Than is your majesty: there’s not, I think, a subject
That sits in heart-grief and uneasiness
Under the sweet shade of your government.

GREY

True: those that were your father’s enemies
Have steep’d their galls in honey and do serve you
With hearts create of duty and of zeal.

KING HENRY V

We therefore have great cause of thankfulness;
And shall forget the office of our hand,
Sooner than quittance of desert and merit
According to the weight and worthiness.

SCROOP

So service shall with steeled sinews toil,
And labour shall refresh itself with hope,
To do your grace incessant services.

KING HENRY V

We judge no less. Uncle of Exeter,
Enlarge the man committed yesterday,
That rail’d against our person: we consider
it was excess of wine that set him on;
And on his more advice we pardon him.

SCROOP

That’s mercy, but too much security:
Let him be punish’d, sovereign, lest example
Breed, by his sufferance, more of such a kind.

KING HENRY V

O, let us yet be merciful.

CAMBRIDGE

So may your highness, and yet punish too.

GREY

Sir,
You show great mercy, if you give him life,
After the taste of much correction.

KING HENRY V

Alas, your too much love and care of me
Are heavy orisons ‘gainst this poor wretch!
If little faults, proceeding on distemper,
Shall not be wink’d at, how shall we stretch our eye
When capital crimes, chew’d, swallow’d and digested,
Appear before us? We’ll yet enlarge that man,
Though Cambridge, Scroop and Grey, in their dear care
And tender preservation of our person,
Would have him punished. And now to our French causes:
Who are the late commissioners?

CAMBRIDGE

I one, my lord:
Your highness bade me ask for it to-day.

SCROOP

So did you me, my liege.

GREY

And I, my royal sovereign.

KING HENRY V

Then, Richard Earl of Cambridge, there is yours;
There yours, Lord Scroop of Masham; and, sir knight,
Grey of Northumberland, this same is yours:
Read them; and know, I know your worthiness.
My Lord of Westmoreland, and uncle Exeter,
We will aboard to night. Why, how now, gentlemen!
What see you in those papers that you lose
So much complexion? Look ye, how they change!
Their cheeks are paper. Why, what read you there
That hath so cowarded and chased your blood
Out of appearance?

CAMBRIDGE

I do confess my fault;
And do submit me to your highness’ mercy.

GREY, SCROOP

To which we all appeal.

KING HENRY V

The mercy that was quick in us but late,
By your own counsel is suppress’d and kill’d:
You must not dare, for shame, to talk of mercy;
For your own reasons turn into your bosoms,
As dogs upon their masters, worrying you.
See you, my princes, and my noble peers,
These English monsters! My Lord of Cambridge here,
You know how apt our love was to accord
To furnish him with all appertinents
Belonging to his honour; and this man
Hath, for a few light crowns, lightly conspired,
And sworn unto the practises of France,
To kill us here in Hampton: to the which
This knight, no less for bounty bound to us
Than Cambridge is, hath likewise sworn. But, O,
What shall I say to thee, Lord Scroop? thou cruel,
Ingrateful, savage and inhuman creature!
Thou that didst bear the key of all my counsels,
That knew’st the very bottom of my soul,
That almost mightst have coin’d me into gold,
Wouldst thou have practised on me for thy use,
May it be possible, that foreign hire
Could out of thee extract one spark of evil
That might annoy my finger? ’tis so strange,
That, though the truth of it stands off as gross
As black and white, my eye will scarcely see it.
Treason and murder ever kept together,
As two yoke-devils sworn to either’s purpose,
Working so grossly in a natural cause,
That admiration did not whoop at them:
But thou, ‘gainst all proportion, didst bring in
Wonder to wait on treason and on murder:
And whatsoever cunning fiend it was
That wrought upon thee so preposterously
Hath got the voice in hell for excellence:
All other devils that suggest by treasons
Do botch and bungle up damnation
With patches, colours, and with forms being fetch’d
From glistering semblances of piety;
But he that temper’d thee bade thee stand up,
Gave thee no instance why thou shouldst do treason,
Unless to dub thee with the name of traitor.
If that same demon that hath gull’d thee thus
Should with his lion gait walk the whole world,
He might return to vasty Tartar back,
And tell the legions ‘I can never win
A soul so easy as that Englishman’s.’
O, how hast thou with jealousy infected
The sweetness of affiance! Show men dutiful?
Why, so didst thou: seem they grave and learned?
Why, so didst thou: come they of noble family?
Why, so didst thou: seem they religious?
Why, so didst thou: or are they spare in diet,
Free from gross passion or of mirth or anger,
Constant in spirit, not swerving with the blood,
Garnish’d and deck’d in modest complement,
Not working with the eye without the ear,
And but in purged judgment trusting neither?
Such and so finely bolted didst thou seem:
And thus thy fall hath left a kind of blot,
To mark the full-fraught man and best indued
With some suspicion. I will weep for thee;
For this revolt of thine, methinks, is like
Another fall of man. Their faults are open:
Arrest them to the answer of the law;
And God acquit them of their practises!

EXETER

I arrest thee of high treason, by the name of
Richard Earl of Cambridge.
I arrest thee of high treason, by the name of
Henry Lord Scroop of Masham.
I arrest thee of high treason, by the name of
Thomas Grey, knight, of Northumberland.

SCROOP

Our purposes God justly hath discover’d;
And I repent my fault more than my death;
Which I beseech your highness to forgive,
Although my body pay the price of it.

CAMBRIDGE

For me, the gold of France did not seduce;
Although I did admit it as a motive
The sooner to effect what I intended:
But God be thanked for prevention;
Which I in sufferance heartily will rejoice,
Beseeching God and you to pardon me.

GREY

Never did faithful subject more rejoice
At the discovery of most dangerous treason
Than I do at this hour joy o’er myself.
Prevented from a damned enterprise:
My fault, but not my body, pardon, sovereign.

KING HENRY V

God quit you in his mercy! Hear your sentence.
You have conspired against our royal person,
Join’d with an enemy proclaim’d and from his coffers
Received the golden earnest of our death;
Wherein you would have sold your king to slaughter,
His princes and his peers to servitude,
His subjects to oppression and contempt
And his whole kingdom into desolation.
Touching our person seek we no revenge;
But we our kingdom’s safety must so tender,
Whose ruin you have sought, that to her laws
We do deliver you. Get you therefore hence,
Poor miserable wretches, to your death:
The taste whereof, God of his mercy give
You patience to endure, and true repentance
Of all your dear offences! Bear them hence.

Exeunt CAMBRIDGE, SCROOP and GREY, guarded

Now, lords, for France; the enterprise whereof
Shall be to you, as us, like glorious.
We doubt not of a fair and lucky war,
Since God so graciously hath brought to light
This dangerous treason lurking in our way
To hinder our beginnings. We doubt not now
But every rub is smoothed on our way.
Then forth, dear countrymen: let us deliver
Our puissance into the hand of God,
Putting it straight in expedition.
Cheerly to sea; the signs of war advance:
No king of England, if not king of France.

Exeunt

* The History of England podcast deals with this in episode 144 (skip to 26:48).

** And, their irritating and rebellious brother George, whom Edward had drowned in a butt of malmsey.

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1943: Marie-Louise Giraud, Vichy abortionist

Add comment July 30th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1943, the French executioner Jules-Henri Desfourneaux guillotined Marie-Louise Giraud as an abortionist.

Born in defeat, the Vichy regime had a program of renewing an enervated nation by restoring its values — families and proper sexual mores foremost among them. Marshal Petain famously diagnosed the reasons for France’s quick collapse under German guns: “Too few children, too few arms, too few allies.”

Interest in the fertility rate was not a Vichy innovation; worries about depopulation had become acute following the bloodbath of the First World War, and birth rates in the interwar years fell conspicuously too low for regenerating the cannon fodder. France’s scolds saw her as decadent, and eventually as deserving prey to the neighboring power that had regenerated both hearth and national purpose through fascism.

Petain placed a similar regeneration at the center of his broken nation’s agenda, and designed policy around cultivating traditional families with fecund and obedient wives.

One remarkable plank in that platform was to ramp abortion up to the stature of capital crime. Even though abortion was technically illegal before Vichy, it had long been winked at in practice.

No longer.

During the war years, the Vichy state plucked our principal Giraud from the seaside Norman village of Barneville-Cateret to prove they were serious about never again letting France get caught out with too few children.

Giraud had performed 27 illegal home abortions for hire, under hygienic conditions perfectly compatible with death by septicemia, which one of her patients suffered in January of 1942. Since the legitimate part of her economic life was as a hosteler to prostitutes, she was way out of strikes with the morals police.

The last woman ever guillotined in France, Marie-Louise Giraud is the subject of the wrenching 1988 Claude Charbol film Une Affaire de Femmes.

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1653: Six beheaded and one hanged for the Swiss Peasant War

Add comment July 24th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1653, seven ringleaders of Switzerland’s greatest peasant revolt were executed in Basel.


Six were decapitated (like the foreground) and one hanged (find the triangular gallows in the background).

Not widely known now outside of Switzerland, the peasant war of 1653 shook the Swiss city-states so profoundly that it was described in its own time as a revolution.

Like most peasant rebellions, it was triggered by the economy; a recovery of peacable harvests after the Thirty Years’ War ended in 1648 had staggered Swiss peasants who had grown accustomed to selling their produce abroad at a premium. When they were pressed even harder by taxes and currency devaluations inflicted by the city-states with their own budget problems, they found their breaking-point.

In February 1653, peasants of the Entlebuch Valley gathered in an illegal assembly and decided to stop tax payments to Lucern until they got some concessions.

To the chagrin of urban grandees, Entlebuch’s refusal soon began garnering sympathetic imitations among its neighbors and peasant resistance spread across the whole north, spanning the put-upon rural dominions of four cities: Lucern, Bern, Basel, and Solothurn.


(cc) image by Lupo.

Tense negotiations continued into April, but Lucern’s concessions were undone by its refusal to offer a blanket amnesty that would also cover the rebellion’s leaders. That May, with the cities still powerless to control affairs, the disaffected peasants throughout the region united in theLeague of Huttwil — named for the little town where they met. In this cross-confessional compact, Catholic and Protestant peasants made common purpose and declared themselves a sovereignty apart from the cantons. Then, the army they had raised from their number marched on both Lucern and Bern simultaneously, the threatened sieges respectively led by Christian Schybi and Niklaus Leuenberger. Bern was so unprepared for this turn of events that it had to capitulate to the peasantry’s demands, which arrangement led Lucern also to conclude a truce.

In so doing the cities had to capitulate to the peasantry’s economic demands. Had this state of affairs somehow stood, it would have forced a rewrite in the relationship between city and country throughout the Swiss confederation.

And for just that reason, the affected cities as well as nearby Zurich were raising armies to undo the nascent revolution. Within days, troops from Zurich had dealt the peasant force a crushing defeat at the Battle of Wohlenschwil, then united with a Bernese column to conclusively shatter the rebellion. Before June was out, all of Entlebuch Valley stood pacified and the rebellion’s leaders lay in dungeons. To the peasantry’s economic burdens was added a bitter levy to fund the war that had smashed them.

Several dozen peasants were executed in the ensuing weeks, most aggressively by the canton of Bern — whence derives today’s illustration.

Notwithstandng such vengeance, The Swiss were wise enough to wield the carrot along with the stick. Even as the cities re-established their political control of the countryside, they took care in the coming years to use a lighter touch in governing the peasantry for fear of stoking new disturbances; arguably, the memory and the threat of the peasant war might have checked the potential development of absolutism in Switzerland.

How’s your German? Two academic books on the Swiss Peasant War

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1535: Jacob van Campen, Amsterdam Anabaptist

Add comment July 10th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1535, the Amsterdam Anabaptist leader Jacob van Campen* was mutilated, beheaded, and consigned to flames.

He’s an oddly little-known figure considering his stature in the movement — an anomaly the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online attributes to van Campen’s radical affiliations during the time when Anabaptists’ rebellion at Muenster sent the movement into the wilderness. But in Amsterdam in 1535, the cloth shearer was a leader of some 3,000 adherents to the new heresy.

There had been a price on his head since at least May of 1534, so absent a Joris-esque disappearance his capture was probably just a matter of time.

Once in his enemies’ power, van Campen’s person was used to stage a particularly elaborate execution spectacle. According to Drama, Performance and Debate: Theatre and Public Opinion in the Early Modern Period, van Campen

was sentenced to be publicly exposed on a scaffold on the Dam Square wearing a tin mitre with an imprint of the city’s coat of arms. After having been exposed as a mock bishop for one hour or more, his tongue, which he had used to deceive people, was cut out, and his right hand, which he had used to re-baptise was chopped off. He was decapitated and burnt. His head with mitre and his hand were exhibited on the Haarlemmerpoort.


Seated on a platform, the scorned Jacob van Campen endures his tortures while the flame that will soon consume his remains awaits him. Via the Rijksmuseum.

* Not to be confused with the Dutch painter Jacob van Campen.

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1617: Eleonora Galigai, Marie de’ Medici favorite

1 comment July 8th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1617, Italian noblewoman Eleonora Galigai was beheaded in Paris for witchcraft.

Continuing the French crown’s glorious tradition of importing dubious Italians in the train of a Medici, Eleonora (also known as Leonora or Dianora) shipped over from Tuscany with her mistress Marie de’ Medici when the latter was dynastically married off to Henri IV. Like many in its time it was a marriage of convenience: Henri brought the kingdom — and Marie the money.


Detail view (click for the full panoramic panel) of Peter Paul Rubens‘s Coronation of Marie de’ Medici in [the Basilica of] St. Denis, part of a cycle of Marie de’ Medici paintings Rubens produced on the queen’s commission beginning in 1622.

The coronation depicted above occurred on May 13, 1610 after ten quarrelsome years of marriage, and it was noteworthy timing (some thought suspicious timing) because her husband was assassinated the very next day, leaving Marie to rule France in the stead of her eight-year-old firsborn Louis XIII.

To the boundless irritation of France’s native optimates, the import queen now bestowed an incommensurate favor on her own people, and were the French nobility to draw up their bill of particulars for us the very first name might be Eleonora Galigai’s husband.

This character, Concino Concini by name, was the quick-witted son of a Florentine notary who had hustled his way into that same nuptial entourage. Marrying Eleonora, who was one of Marie’s favorites, put him squarely in the limelight among the regal expats; indeed it was he who had the honor of informing Marie of her late husband’s murder with the cold words “L’hanno ammazzato”: they killed him.

Now (runs an English traveler’s epistle), Marie’s “Countenance came to shine so strongly upon him, that he became her only Confident and Favourite, insomuch that she made him Marquis of Ancre, one of the twelve Mareschals of France, Governor of Normandy; and conferr’d divers other Honours and Offices of Trust upon him.” He lived with his wife in splendor at the Louvre, both of them in the constant orbit of the queen whom they dominated.

Haughty, insolent, low-born, foreign, and possibly complicit in regicide, D’Ancre was widely loathed in France; certainly he had few greater enemies than the growing young king, who would already have been disposed to chafe under his mother’s regency. In Louis’s eyes, this adventurer-marquis was both emblem of his mother’s misrule and (as Marshal of France) a substantive roadblock to his own power.

At last in 1617 — not yet 15 years of age — Louis seized his own realm* by having D’Ancre ambushed crossing in front of the Louvre and murdered by palace guards. Afterwards, a crowd long hostile to the noxious favorite brutally vented its rage on his naked corpse, gleefully shouting at Eleonora those words Concino had made so notorious: l’hanno ammazzato! They were really baying for her blood, too.


17th century French engraving.

And they got it.

With France in hand and public opinion at his back — “I cannot represent to the king one thousandth part of joy of all these people who are exalting him to heaven for having delivered the earth from this miserable burden,” one toady reported; “I can’t tell you in what execration this public pest was held” — Louis’s party began purging the remaining dregs of his mother’s regency.** They soon shut up Eleonora in the Bastille, and had her charged as a sorceress.

* This coup was naturally big news in England as well; there’s evidence of a now-lost play about it within weeks of D’Ancre’s murder.

** The eminence grise himself, Cardinal Richelieu, first attained the summit of the state as a loyal aide to Marie and Concino. Briefly banished from Paris in the wake of Louis’s coup, Richelieu bided his time and won his way back into the confidence of the young king with whom he was to become so closely identified.

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1680: The wife of Abdullah Celebi, and her Jewish lover

Add comment June 28th, 2016 Headsman

At noon on Friday, 28 June 1680, people crowded into Istanbul’s Hippodrome, the city’s main public space, to stone to death a Muslim woman identified as ‘the wife of Abdullah Celebi’ for adultery with an infidel, and to witness the beheading of the Jew who was alleged to be her lover, a neighbourhood shopkeeper. Neighbours who had raided her home when they knew that the Jew was inside claimed to have found the couple having intercourse, which was doubly illicit: not only was she married, but sexual relations between Christian or Jewish men and Muslim women were forbidden by law. The accused denied any wrongdoing, but a mob dragged the two before the chief justice of the empire’s European provinces (known as Rumelia), Beyazizade Ahmet (d. 1686), who had previously been the main judge at Istanbul’s Islamic law (shariah) court.

Beyazizade accepted the testimony of the witnesses. Denying the accused a trial, he condemned the pair to death. Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa Pasha (d. 1683) reported his decision to Sultan Mehmet IV (r. 1648–87, d. 1693), who confirmed the sentence. The sultan attended the double execution in person and offered the man conversion to Islam, permitting him to die swiftly and with dignity by decapitation. Mehmet IV was the only sultan to order an adulteress to be executed by stoning during 465 years of Ottoman rule in Istanbul.

Indeed, public stoning of adulterers was such a rare event in medieval and early modern Islamic history that it is difficult to find any other examples of Islamic rulers punishing transgressors of sexual norms in this way.

This remarkable double execution comes to us by way of three Muslim chroniclers via “Death in the Hippodrome: Sexual Politics and Legal Culture in the Reign of Mehmet IV” by Marc Baer* — whom we have excerpted above. Regrettably, it’s entombed behind a paywall.

Our Ottoman interlocutors universally hold the stoning and beheading as a gross moral failure on the part of both judge and sultan. To begin with, all three chroniclers consider the accusation against the couple legally groundless: evidently the two were not really caught in flagrante delicto and both denied the liaison; this led Sari Mehmet Pasha** to sharply criticize the judge for even admitting neighbors’ suspicions as evidence — rather than punishing the accusers themselves for slander.

According to shariah it is incumbent to accept such testimony only when this situation is witnessed with one’s own eyes, meaning that the witnesses actually see the man insert his penis in and out of the woman ‘like inserting the reed pen in and out of the kohl pot’. But this is one of those impossible conditions set forth to ensure that such charges and their punishment are not frivolously made. Moreover, what is also needed is the woman’s own confession, or admission of guilt. Yet in this case she insistently denied the charge. The Jew likewise continuously claimed he had no knowledge of the affair.

Indeed, another astonished chronicler, Mehmet Rashid, believed that the law required such exacting pornographic specificity of a witness that no adulterers had ever been executed in the history Islam without their own confession. All describe the eyewitness standard as a shield, not a cudgel.

Moreover, even a demonstrable crime of the flesh — and even one committed by a Jew or Christian with a married Muslim woman — ought not result in capital punishment according to religious scholars of the period marshaled by Baer. (At least, not of the man: theoretically the woman could be stoned to death although in practice this never occurred either.)

What was bizarre and blameworthy to contemporaries was that an esteemed judge issued a verdict of literally historic harshness on such dubious grounds — and that the sultan seemed eager not to restrain, but to enforce it. Their narratives† cast Mehmet in a very dark light. “Let me see [the executions] in person,” he says in Silahdar Findiklili Mehmet Agha’s account — then makes a point to cross the Hellespont that morning from the Asian to the European side of the city the better to establish himself in a mansion commanding a view of the ceremonies.

At that time they brought the woman and the Jew to the place of execution. Being told, “Become a Muslim, you will be redeemed, you will go to Paradise,” the Jew was honored by the glory of Islam and then decapitated at the base of a bronze dragon

Wailing and lamenting, [the woman] cried, “They have slandered me. I am innocent and have committed no sin. For the sake of the princes, do not kill me, release me!” But they did not let her go.

Since the incident is unique even in Mehmet’s own long reign one draws larger conclusions at one’s own risk: hard cases make bad law. But it might be possible to perceive here a misjudgment by a man who, having grown to manhood out of the shadow of the dangerous harem that had lately dominated Ottoman politics felt keen to assert himself as a champion of realm and faith alike. (And his sex into the bargain.)

Baer presents Mehmet as an unusually eager proselytizer, always ready with a conversion blandishment whether for infidels captured in the empire’s European wars or for chance encounters with Jewish and Christian commoners. (He also forced a noted rabbi, Shabbatai Tzevi, to convert after the latter started getting some traction as a possible Messiah, and eventually began pressuring Istanbul’s numerous court Jews — physicians, advisors, and miscellaneous elite intelligentsia — to become Muslims as well.) And a Muslim movement had in recent years clamped down on carnivalesque diversions like taverns and public singing thought to trend toward impiety.

Three years later, Mehmet would (over)extend the Porte’s sway to the gates of Vienna. But Mehmet’s defeat there helped to collapse his own power back home, and he was deposed in 1687.

Our correspondents, writing in the wake of that reversal, unmistakably view affairs like this date’s executions as evidence of moral depravity that was punished by its authors’ subsequent misfortunes. Writing of the once-powerful judge, who chanced to die around the same time Mehmet fell, Defterdar concludes that “Beyazizade fearlessly persevered in the matter without scruple” until “the hearts of young and old turned away from him in disgust” and he fell “from the summit of his dignity.”

* Past and Present, Feb. 2011

** The imperial treasurer, himself executed in 1717.

† It does bear remarking that all three chroniclers wrote after Mehmet IV’s own fall.

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1378: Pierre du Tertre and Jacques de Rue, Charles the Bad men

Add comment June 21st, 2016 Headsman

On this date* in 1378, Jacques de Rue and Pierre du Tertre, aides to King Charles II of Navarre, were beheaded at Les Halles.

Both men were casualties of their devious master’s most recent betrayals, part of a career that had honed the double game to nearly sadistic precision.

Navarre spent the latter half of the 14th century fouling up alignments in the Hundred Years’ War by constantly switching his allegiances between England and France. Come the 1370s, he was supposed to be on team France — having paid homage to the French king in 1371 — but was still conniving with the English whose expeditions might one day apply enough pressure to force France to restore him some lost domains.

The last great plot of the man contemporaries knew as Charles the Bad really fell apart in the spring of 1378 when the French detained en route to Normandy Jacques de Rue and Pierre du Tertre, two emissaries of Charles’s “criminal entourage”. They carried coded messages** confirming that Navarre was not only back to scheming with the English, but that he was trying to orchestrate the assassination of the French king by means of poison — plots that Jacques confirmed under torture.

France retaliated by attacking its disloyal partner’s Norman holdings and by year’s end the whole region had been chopped up between the French and the English, never to return to Navarrese hands. His retainers were put to death and their corpses strung up on Montfaucon.

This was the humiliating end to the political life of Charles the Bad: reduced to a client king dominated by France (to his north) and Castile (to his south). It would soon find its parallel in the horror ending of his actual life on New Year’s Day 1387:

Charles the Bad, having fallen into such a state of decay that he could not make use of his limbs, consulted his physician, who ordered him to be wrapped up from head to foot, in a linen cloth impregnated with brandy, so that he might be inclosed in it to the very neck as in a sack. It was night when this remedy was administered. One of the female attendants of the palace, charged to sew up the cloth that contained the patient, having come to the neck, the fixed point where she was to finish her seam, made a knot according to custom; but as there was still remaining an end of thread, instead of cutting it as usual with scissors, she had recourse to the candle, which immediately set fire to the whole cloth. Being terrified, she ran away, and abandoned the king, who was thus burnt alive in his own palace.

* There are some cites for May 21 out there, but the sourcing on June appears stronger to me, and references to the men’s interrogations and trial run to June. The beheading is also referred to as having taken place on a Monday, which fits June 21 (but not May 21) in 1378.

** According to CryptoSchool this is one of the oldest known documents in the history of cryptology. Devised personally by Charles of Navarre, its gambit was to “move the names of princes, castles and cities to other names not their own.” (Chronique Normande)

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1375: Niccolo di Toldo, in the arms of St. Catherine of Siena

Add comment June 20th, 2016 Headsman

I have one body
And to you I offer and return it.
Here is my flesh;
Here is my blood;
Let me be slain, reduced to nothing;
Let my bones be split apart
For those for whom I am praying, if such is your will.

-Prayer of St. Catherine of Siena (Source)

This date in 1375 is the best data point we have for the beheading of Niccolo di Toldo.

The Sienese archives offer scant documentation of this political execution; a decree of June 4, 1375 orders his examination for “the discord sowed by him in the city of Siena, pernicious and deadly to the state of the present government” — and a couple of letters on Niccolo’s behalf from the governor of neighboring Perugia. Francis Thomas Luongo in The Saintly Politics of Catherine of Siena — we will come to Catherine presently — next points in lieu of any remaining record of Niccolo’s execution to “the necrology of the Sienese Dominican friary [which] includes an entry for one ‘Nicholaus, familiarius of the Lord Senator,’ who died and was entombed in the cloister of San Domenico on 20 June, the vigil of the feast of Corpus Christi.” It’s not certain that this is the same man but the description fits him, and the date is one week after the last known letter on his behalf from Perugia — which was an appeal for mercy.

We are as ignorant of Niccolo di Toldo’s offense as we are of the date of his death. But his position (in the household of a senator) and his Perugian affiliation suggest him an agent of papal subversion.

Siena’s centuries-long decline from the ranks of Italy’s city-state powers dates ultimately to the Black Death outbreak of 1348. The Plague devastated Siena.

The ensuing generations saw authority in the great Tuscan city furiously contested; the government turned over repeatedly in the 1360s — the Dodici (the Twelve), the Tredici, the Quindici, each an executive committee of interested parties in the coalition of the day.

From the late 1360s and through the 1370s, the Quindici held sway: reformist guild leaders* who were opposed by the the deposed (and by now proscribed) ex-Dodici, Siena’s great magnates in alliance with the papacy. (Luongo delves into Sienese politics in considerable detail in his book.) By year’s end Siena would join a city-state coalition led by Florence that fought a three-year war against the papal states with the excellent name “the War of Eight Saints”.

That coalition and that thrust of policy is likely what a “political subversive” in 1375 Siena would be subverting. And the governor of Perugia appealing to the Sienese for Toldo’s life? He was a French cardinal, kin to Pope Gregory XI.**


Little as we know of Niccolo di Toldo prior to his death, that execution is one of the most famous in all of medieval Europe.

The wretch was comforted in his last days by Catherine of Siena, a young mystic — and, not incidentally, an increasingly influential opponent of the anti-curial political climate. Today, Catherine is the patron saint not only of Siena but of all Europe, and her dessicated head (sawed off her body by devotees for use as a fetish) greets the reverent and the gawker alike, enthroned in its grisly reliquary in the Basilica San Domenico.


(cc) image by Patrick Denker.

Catherine found Niccolo angry at his impending fate, initially refusing to see any spiritual counselor: no state of mind for a soul to meet its maker. Any of the confraternities tasked at this time with succoring those about to face execution would have been charged with bringing such a person to a condition of resignation and penitence.

Catherine achieved her mission to join the doomed man to God but much, much more than that: her account of their relationship, up to the moment when she ecstatically catches his falling bloody head, is a celebration of erotic mysticism. It’s also one of the most famous episodes of the saint’s life.

Niccolo’s virgin helpmate was herself noted for her mystical “marriage to Christ”: in it, Catherine presented her heart to the phantom Savior, and he his ritually circumcised foreskin to her.

Converging religious fervor and carnality mark her interaction with Niccolo, too; at one point she implies that she has sublimated the condemned traitor’s attraction to her into piety, and (as Catherine wrote a follower),

God’s measureless and burning goodness tricked him, creating in him such an affection and love in the desire of me in God, that he did not know how to abide without God, and he said: ‘Stay with me and do not leave me. Like this I cannot but be alright, and I will die content!’ and he had his head resting on my breast. I sensed an intense joy, a fragrance of his blood, and it was not without the fragrance of my own, which I wait to shed for the sweet husband Jesus.

Catherine saw Niccolo di Toldo only twice in the days leading up to his execution. When he went to the block, she was there to meet him: in fact, she was there early and made bold to occupy the condemned’s place on the scaffold, and to stretch her own neck out over the headsman’s block that her kindred spirit would soon soak in gore. It was as if preparing his bridal bed, where she would embrace Niccolo even as the executioner struck — the two as passionately near to one in soul and body as the logistics of a heavy blade’s arc can permit.

[H]e arrived, as a meek lamb, and seeing me, he began to laugh, and he wanted me to make the sign of the cross. When he received the sign, I said, “Come on! to the nuptials, my sweet brother! for soon you will be in life without end.” He got down with great meekness, and I stretched out his neck, and leaning down, I reminded him of the blood of the Lamb. His mouth said nothing but “Jesus” and “Catherine.” And, as he was saying thus, I received his head in my hands, closing his eyes on divine goodness and saying, “I want this!” (“lo voglio”)†

She clutched to herself the lifeless head that had dropped into her lap and beheld “with the greatest envy” Niccolo’s soul ascending in the martyrdom Catherine aspired to. Afterwards, she was reluctant to wash out the clothes spattered with blood from the sacred climax of death.

The Dominican friar Caffarini, an ally of Catherine who was later to become of the principal exponents of her canonization, wrote of the tableau that Niccolo

accepted death while still at a young age, in the presence of the Virgin and with her receiving his head into her hands, with such marvelous devotion that it was like the transitus of some devout martyr and not the death of one who was condemned for a human crime. And everyone watching among whom I was only one was so moved internally and from the heart that I do not remember any previous burial accompanied with as much devotion as that one.


Panel of Francesco Messina‘s 1962 monument to St. Catherine of Siena outside Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo.

* Apart from the enmity of the papal party, the powerful guild leaders of the Quindici faced working-class opposition that resulted in a 1378 revolt.

** Gregory XI was the guy who moved the papacy back from Avignon to Rome.

† Translated excerpts culled from snippets and excerpts in various locations. Original Italian versions of Catherine’s poetic letters are available in public-domain Google books here; there’s also a recent English translation by Susan Noffke.

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