They cut his throat from ear to ear,
His head they battered in.
His name was Mr William Weare,
He lived in Lyons Inn.
At noon this date in 1824, upon a fresh-built black gallows adjoining Hertford Prison, John Thurtell hanged for one of regency England’s most infamous crimes.
Son of the Norwich mayor, John Thurtell was rubbish with money and had twice crashed his bombazine business into insolvency while stiffing his creditors. (John’s brother Tom served time for defrauding an insurance company with a suspicious warehouse fire.)
But these were merely business matters.
When Thurtell fell into a £300 gambling debt to thanks to Weare’s cheating at cards, maybe it was a matter of honor. Thurtell invited the Lyon’s Inn barrister to a gaming piss-up at Thurtell’s cottage in the village of Radlett. They’d be joined by Thurtell’s mates Joseph Hunt and William Probert, “Turpin lads” in Thurtell’s estimation.
Just short of their destination, on a street later to be known as “Murder Lane”, Thurtell shot Weare in the face. The shot scored only a glancing hit against his victim’s cheekbone, but Thurtell was in for a penny, in for a pound: he tackled the fleeing Weare, opened his throat from ear to ear, and pistol-whipped his skull into bloody-brained bits.
Whatever malice aforethought had moved Thurtell to this vengeful crime did not contain near enough calculation. “The whole history of the murder, and the scenes which ensued, are strange pictures of desperate and short-sighted wickedness,” Sir Walter Scott marveled.
Abandoning the gun at the scene — it was one of a paired set of which Thurtell owned the other — the killer and his friends hauled the corpse to a nearby pond, then proceeded unperturbed to the night’s revelry fresh from homicide, even donning Weare’s own clothes in subsequent days.
Worst of all from the perfect-crime standpoint, Thurtell had undertaken the crime himself (openly popping off, per the subsequent court record, “if Weare comes down, I will do him, for he has done me out of several hundred pounds”) and his companions turned on him when the investigation inevitably bore down on them. Probert went crown’s evidence immediately in exchange for immunity, even leading authorities to the body; Hunt stalled and lied for a while, but cracked soon enough.
To the nationwide outrage at this shocking callousness among obnoxious society rakes was added the whiff of scandal about Thurtell’s involvement in “the Fancy” — the semi-illicit sport of amateur boxing.
Frequented then as now both by underworld elements and society gentlemen, boxing was officially illegal but widely celebrated and openly advertised without much fear of police intervention. At the same time, the burgeoning sport — with its naked brutality, more-than-occasional fatalities, multiracial proletarian cast, and associations with various unsavory characters, had ample moral-panic potential. The Fancy, said a judge in 1803,
draws industrious people away from the subject of their industry; and when great multitudes are so collected, they are likely enough to be engaged in broils. It affords an opportunity for people of the most mischievous disposition to assemble, under the colour of seeing this exhibition, and to do a great deal of mischief; in short, it is a practice that is extremely injurious in every respect and must be repressed.
But many of his peers were there in the audience, laying their own mischievous wagers.
As magistrates it may have been their duty to discountenance, but as county gentleman it was their privilege to support, the noble champions of the art, especially when they had their money on the event.
Thurtell, briefly an amateur pugilist himself, was a trainer and promoter on the boxing circuit.
Detail view (click for full image) of “A correct view of the execution, taken on the spot by an eminent artist.” (Source)
Thurtell was anatomized after execution; a wax likeliness of the hated murderer stood in Madame Tussaud’s until the 1970s.
As for Thurtell’s confederates: Joseph Hunt’s cooperation was sufficient to cop a last-second commutation of his death sentence; he was transported to Australia instead. William Probert completely avoided prosecution thanks to his expeditious turn to crown’s evidence, but the career criminal (now practically disbarred from honest labor by dint of his nationwide infamy) found himself in hangman Foxen‘s hands not long thereafter for stealing a horse.
And Thurtell’s victim Weare did his own posthumous bit for the annals of English publishing when a printer multiplied its customary revenue stream on a Thurtell gallows broadsheet with a second edition headed “WE ARE alive”. Printed in such a way to intentionally make the first two words appear to read “WEARE”, its handsome sales to the gullible allegedly originated the term “catchpenny”.
There are a number of 19th century accounts of this case available in the public domain, including here, here and here.
The honor posterity pays to Sir Thomas More‘s valor for his own eventual martyrdom has always been attenuated by More’s own keenness to visit that martyrdom on others. Six men were put to death as Protestant heretics during the Catholic More’s 30 months as Lord Chancellor and several of them — including John Tewkesbury, who burned at Smithfield five days before the sad Christmas of 1531 — were even held and tortured by More himself, at his personal estate.
More, famous for subjecting his own flesh to the hairshirt, was not ashamed to have his porter’s house outfitted as a personal torture chamber complete with his own set of stocks. When another wrongthinker, George Constantine, managed to break out of More’s cage and flee to the continent, the future saint joked in the Apology how humanely that showed Constantine was treated, that he proved “strong enough to break the stocks, nor waxen so lame of his legs with lying but that he was light enough to leap the walls.” LOL!
Others like Tewkesbury were not so robust after More got through with them.
This leather merchant had found his way to reform ideas after coming into possession of a contraband Tyndale English Bible, and was also found in possession of Tyndale’s subversive Parable of the Wicked Mammon.
“If Paul were now alive, and would defend his own learning, he should be tried through fire; not through fire of the judgment of scripture, (for that light men now utterly refuse,) but by the pope’s law, and with fire of fagots,” Tyndale thunders in Wicked Mammon.
Tewkesbury failed his first trial by fagot: after repelling the personal interrogation of Bishop Cuthberg Tunstall,* Tewkesbury
was sent from the Lollards’ tower to my lord chancellor’s, called sir Thomas More, to Chelsea, with all his articles; to see whether he might accuse others. There he lay in the porter’s lodge, hand, foot, and head in the stocks, six days without release: then was he carried to Jesu’s tree, in his [More’s] privy garden, where he was whipped, and also twisted in the brows with small ropes, so that the blood started out of his eyes … after this, he was sent to be racked in the Tower, till he was almost lame, and there he promised to recant. (Foxe’s Book of Martyrs
Recanting entailed public penitence meant to underscore the consequences of backsliding: carrying to St. Paul’s Cross a fagot of the sort that would be lit under the feet of a repeat heretic.
It seems, however, that Tewkesbury’s courage, once sapped by More’s persecution, was soon reinvigorated by the same. Foxe claims that he took heart from the example of Richard Bayfield, arrested at Easter for smuggling Tyndale Bibles into England from the Low Countries and returned to his heresies, fagot or no.
And here More’s vigorous escapee George Constantine enters the narrative in earnest, for before Constantine slipped More’s shackles the Lord Chancellor wrung from him the names of several Protestants, including Tewkesbury’s. Our repeat heretic was again imprisoned at More’s servants’ quarters where he received his sentence —
Imprimis, That he confessed that he was baptized, and intended to keep the catholic faith.
Secondly, That he affirmeth, that the abjuration oath and subscription that he made before Cuthbert, late bishop of London, was done by compulsion.
Thirdly, That he had the books of the Obedience of a Christian Man, and of The Wicked Mammon, in his custody, and hath read them since his abjuration.
Fourthly, That he affirmeth that he suffered the two faggots that were embroidered on his sleeve, to be taken from him, for that he deserved not to wear them.
Fifthly, He saith, that faith only justifieth, which lacketh not charity.
Sixthly, He saith, that Christ is a sufficient Mediator for us, and therefore no prayer is to be made unto saints. Whereupon they laid unto him this verse of the anthem: ‘Hail Queen our advocate,’ &c.; to which he answered, that he knew none other advocate but Christ alone.
Seventhly, He affirmeth that there is no purgatory after this life, but that Christ our Saviour is a sufficient purgation for us.
Eighthly, He affirmeth, that the souls of the faithful, departing this life, rest with Christ.
Ninthly, He affirmeth, that a priest, by receiving of orders, receiveth more grace, if his faith be increased; or else not.
Tenthly, and last of all, he believeth that the sacrament of the flesh and blood of Christ is not the very body of Christ, in flesh and blood, as it was born of the Virgin Mary.
Whereupon the bishop’s chancellor asked the said Tewkesbury, if he could show any cause why he should not be taken for a heretic, falling into his heresy again, and receive the punishment of a heretic. Whereunto he answered that he had wrong before, and if he be condemned now, he reckoneth that he hath wrong again.
“For which thynges and dyvers other horryble heresyes, he was delyvered at laste unto the secular handes and burned, as there was never wretche I wene better worthy,” More concluded with a satisfied dusting of hands. (Source)
* Tunstall submitted to Henry VIII’s authority over the Church of England and navigated the frightening Tudor years keeping his head down in preference to having it lopped off — although when he died in 1559 at age 85, it was while in prison for refusing to swear the Oath of Supremacy to Queen Elizabeth.
From the Monroeville (Ala.) Monroe Journal reported on Christmas Day 1925:
For the second time within a period of forty years, Monroe County has had a legal execution for the commission of crime. Frank Ezell and Brown Ezell, father and son, on Friday, December 19, expiated on the gallows under the sentence of the court the murder of Mr. William H. Northrup.
Morbid curiosity drew a large crowd to town on the fateful day, but few were admitted within the prison walls, while those outside could catch but an occasional word that fell from the lips of the accused men and realize only in imagination the gruesome task that fell to the lot of Sheriff Russell and his assistants.
Both negroes made statements on the gallows, the older man protesting his innocence of any complicity in the crime. The younger made full confession, asserting that he alone was responsible and that his punishment was just. The Journal spares its readers the frightful details of the execution. Let us hope that there may never again be occasion for a similar sentence of law.
This story arrives to us via Kerry Madden’s Harper Lee: Up Close, a biography of the reclusive author of To Kill a Mockingbird … and it is noteworthy in that context because Frank Ezell and Brown Ezell, father and son, were defended in this case by 29-year-old lawyer A.C. Lee: Harper Lee‘s father.
The future author would not be born until 1926, but this traumatizing event still troubled her father years later: it was his first criminal case, and his last. As another biographer, Charles Shields, remarked, “[T]his was fairly typical of the time. This method of doing business in the courts was informally called ‘Negro Law,’ which means that you get a young, inexperienced white attorney to practice on some hapless black client. Some of those trials took as little as half an hour.”
The family memory of the father’s futile defense, combined with Harper Lee’s own firsthand experience of a troubling miscarriage of justice, were influences that she channeled into To Kill a Mockingbird, modeling the heroic defense attorney Atticus Finch on her own father.
“Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win.”
On this date in 1678, Catholic courtier Edward Col(e)man was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn — the second victim of Titus Oates’s “Popish Plot” concotion.
Colman was a Catholic convert whose zeal for the old faith led him into a variety of treacherous intrigues with the French court — although Colman’s eager and fruitless offices more annoyed than profited his allies.
His behavior was sufficiently indiscreet that fabulist Titus Oates had Colman queued up by name* as a Catholic plotter in the first round of 1678 Catholic terrorism allegations that would roil the realm for the next three years.
That indiscretion was very real, however, and extended to a careless presumption of his own safety. He seems to have been tipped to his danger by the judge who first took Oates’s evidence, a friend named Sir Edmund Godfrey, but he failed to use this advance intelligence to destroy his own correspondence. Godfrey in his own turn went on to a starring role in the Popish Plot debacle when he turned up murdered in October of 1678, a crime whose immediate attribution to the Catholic conspiracy that Oates had unfolded for him sent England clear round the bend.**
Colman’s case had already begun and half-fizzled by that point but with the apparent assassination of the judge a cry for his own blood now shook Parliament — “Colman’s letters!” alluding to that correspondence he surely wished he had burned: its volumes unfolded intelligence leaks, offers to exert French influence in the government even so far as dissolving Parliament, and applications for King Louis’s gold.
There are some incriminating examples in the trial transcript that, Lord Chief Justice William Scroggs charged, show “That your Design was to bring in Popery into England, and to promote the interest of the French King in this place, for which you hoped to have a Pension.” While Oates was a legendary perjurer and his fables destined to take the lives of 20-odd innocent souls in the months to come, the fact was that Colman really was caught out. His scheming ought not have merited such spectacular punishment under less extraordinary circumstances, but the things Colman really did do made it easy for Oates to position him as a paymaster in the fictitious regicidal conspiracy. “Mr. Colman, your own papers are enough to condemn you,” Scroggs said when his prisoner asserted innocence.
Nor could he protect himself with position. (Men even higher than Colman would succumb to the panic in time.) As detestably elevated as Colman looked to the average commoner, he was not himself a lord and was already (pre-Oates) regarded by King Charles II and many members of the court as a loose cannon. Everything pointed to sacrificing him … and they did. But as events would prove, the popular rage was not quenched on Colman’s bones alone.
* By name — not by face: Oates would be embarrassed at Colman’s eventual trial by the prisoner pointing out that Oates, who now claimed to have been personally paid out by Colman for various seditious errands, had utterly failed to recognize his “conspirator” when Oates appeared before the Privy Council to lay his charges in September.
** Godfrey’s murder has never been satisfactorily explained. There’s a good chance that it was a wholly unrelated affair with amazing bad timing; the revenge of the truculent Earl of Pembroke, whom Godfrey had prosecuted for murder a few months previous, is one leading possibility.
On this date in 1806, 63-year-old Josiah Burnham hanged for murder in New Hampshire.
Eight days before Christmas in 1805, Burnham, a noted local churl “almost constantly engaged in litigation,” was languishing as a debtor in the Haverhill jail when he got into an argument with two cellmates. Burnham being merely a debtor and not a real criminal was apparently suffered to carry his own knife in his confinement, and he used it to savage effect. According to a graphic news report, Burnham
inhumanly stabbed Freeman in the bowels, which immediately began to gush out. At the noise occasioned by this, Starkweather endeavored to come to the assistance of his friend Freeman, when, horrid to relate, Burnham made a pass at him and stabbed him in his side and then endeavored to cut his throat, and the knife entered in the his collar bone. Burnham after this made a fresh attack on Starkweather and stabbed him four times more. By this time he had grown so weak that the monster left him and flew at Freeman, who all this time was sitting holding his bowels in his hands, and stabbed him three times more.
By this time the jailers were upon them as Burnham attempted to slash his own throat. His victims lived a few more hours in agony before both expired.
The irascible bankrupt was easily convicted; his greenhorn attorney had scarcely anything to leverage in defense of a known blackguard committing such a cold-blooded crime.
“Burnham had no witnesses. He could not bring past good character to his aid, nor ould we urge the plea of insanity in his behalf,” Daniel Webster remembered in 1851, then with a lifetime in law and rhetoric behind him. “I made my first and the only solitary argument of my whole life against capital punishment, and the proper time for a lawyer to urge this defence is when he is young and has no matters of fact or law upon which he can found a better defence.” Despite the legendary talent of his tongue to acquit the damned themselves, Webster couldn’t save Josiah Burnham.
It’s available free online here, in a pamphlet which is also the source of the other quotes in this post. (It does, however, misdate the execution for August 13. Contemporary news reports both before and after the hanging are categorical that it occurred on Tuesday, August 12.) There is also a halting biography purporting to have been communicated by the doomed man himself:
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.
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.
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.
* 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.
Three Greek Cypriots found Guilty of murder were hanged before dawn at Nicosia Central Prison today, the first capital sentences to be carried out in Cyprus since independence in August, 1960. Their fate had been in the balance until 11 o’clock last night, when Mr. Glafcos Clerides, the acting President, announced that after considering all the circumstances, he had decided not to grant a suspension of the executions.
The three men were Hambis Zacharia, Michael Hiletikos, and Lazaris Demetriou. Zacharia was convicted of killing a man with an axe in a Limassol vineyard in September, 1958. The other two were jointly convicted of the murder of a man outside a Limassol cabaret last year.
Last night Mr. Rauf Denktash [the future president of Northern Cyprus -ed.], the Turkish advocate who appeared for Zacharia, had filed a petition in the High Court seeking a declaration that the execution warrant issued by the acting President was illegal and ultra vires, and a declaration that the superintendent of prisons was not legally appointed and could not carry out the executions. The petition was heard in the chamber of Mr. Justice Vassiliades and adjourned for a full court hearing, but this morning was withdrawn.
The English-language Cyprus Mail this morning commends the courage of the acting President and points out that the House of Representatives has power to amend the law if it wishes to abolish capital punishment. It adds that such action is unlikely to be publicly welcomed in view of the number of murders in the republic in recent months.
Despite the correspondent’s confidence in the endurance of the gallows, these first executions for independent Cyprus were also its last executions: no further hangings occurred before Cyprus abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes in 1983, and for all crimes in 2002.
It also became a lusty early adopter of the emerging beheading-video genre: an ancient penalty perfectly adapted for the digital age.
This ferocious group was a severe mismatch for Berg, a Pennsylvanian freelance radio tower repairman (and pertinently, a Jew) who set up his Prometheus Methods Tower Service in the northern city of Mosul* in the months following the 2003 U.S. invasion. This was also around the time that American occupation forces’ abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib came to light — a powerful excuse for blood vengeance.
Berg vanished from Baghdad in April 2004, and was not seen in public again until the whole world saw him: the unwilling feature of a May 11 video titled Sheik Abu Musab al-Zarqawi slaughters an American infidel with his hands and promises Bush more.
“We tell you that the dignity of the Muslim men and women in Abu Ghraib and others is not redeemed except by blood and souls,” a voice says. “You will not receive anything from us but coffins after coffins … slaughtered in this way.”
Warning: Mature Content. This is both a political document of our time, and a horrifying snuff film. Notice that Berg appears in an orange jumpsuit, a seeming allusion to Muslim prisoners being held by the United States at Guantanamo Bay.
Twenty-five months later to the day, Zarqawi was assassinated by a U.S. Air Force bombing.
* As of this writing, Mosul is occupied by Zarqawi’s creation, the Islamic State.
On this date in 1356, the French King John II — John the Good, to history — avenged himself on his cousin and rival, Charles the Bad.
This affair embroils us in the French dynastic turmoil that spawned the Hundred Years’ War: five months after the nastiness in this post, King John was an English prisoner following the catastrophic Battle of Poitiers. It’s a good job he got his revenge in when he had the chance.
The fight — in its largest sense — was all about the throne of France, the poisonous fruit of the dynasty-destroying Tour de Nesle affair of royal adultery decades before. That affair destroyed two princesses who could have become queens, and with it the potential of legitimate heirs for their husbands. With the family tree’s next generation barren, succession passed from brother to brother until the last brother died.
So now who’s big man in France?
Awkwardly, the last king’s nearest male relative also happened to be the king of France’s rival — his nephew, Edward III of England.
France barred Edward with a quickness, on the grounds that Edward was related via a female line. That put the patrimony in the hands of John the Good’s father, a previously un-royal cousin known as Philip the Fortunate. Less fortunately, this succession also conferred upon the new Valois line Edward’s rival claim and the associated interminable violent conflict.
Besides these two, there was yet another cousin who aspired to the French scepter: our guy Charles the Bad, King of the Pyrenees-hugging realm of Navarre. This guy’s mother had her legitimacy cast in doubt by the whole adultery thing years ago, and her woman bits had ruled her out of ruling France — but not Navarre. (No Salic Law in Navarre: a digression beyond this post.)
So Charles, her son and heir in Navarre, was at least as close to the Capetian dynasty as were his cousins — and maybe closer. He was also “one of the most complex characters of the 14th century,” in the judgment of Barbara Tuchman (A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century). “A small, slight youth with glistening eyes and a voluble flow of words, he was volatile, intelligent, charming, violent, cunning as a fox, ambitious as Lucifer, and more truly than Byron ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know.’”
“His only constant was hate.”
And Charles sure hated King John. Was it the political rivalry? The daughter John had foisted on him as a bride? The territory John nicked from Navarre to confer on John’s favorite as Constable of France?* Yes.
Charles had subtlety in his bag of clubs, and brutal directness too. In 1354, he revenged at least one slight by having his brother murder the aforementioned Constable — also a favorite and childhood friend** of King John — in a tavern ambush.
(There’s an audio introduction to Charles the Bad complete with hammy re-enactment of the homicide in episode 110 of the History of England podcast. What follows below leads off episode 111.)
Too weak politically at that moment to repay Charles in his own coin, John had to sullenly consent to a putative reconciliation … but he was only biding his time. Charles compounded the enmity by his scheming on-again, off-again negotiations with the English, hoping to leverage the war between those powers to his own advantage.
He was a constant thorn in King John’s side, and the latter had problem enough with the English invasions and the struggle he had to gin up tax revenue to oppose them. The apparent last straw: Charles buddied up to John’s son the Dauphin and tried to engineer a coup d’etat against John. John settled on a vengeful stroke to put both the King of Navarre and the crown prince in their places, a party-fouling scene to beggar Game of Thrones in Froissart’s description:
The king of France, on Tuesday the 5th of April, which was the Tuesday after midlent Sunday, set out early, completely armed, from Mainville, attended by about one hundred lances. There were with him his son the earl of Anjou, his brother the duke of Orleans, the lord John d’Artois, earl of Eu, the lord Charles his brother, cousins-german to the king, the earl of Tancarville, sir Arnold d’Andreghen, marshal of France, and many other barons and knights. They rode straight for the castle of Rouen, by a back way, without passing through the town, and on entering found, in the hall of the castle, Charles, duke of Normandy, Charles king of Navarre, John earl of Harcourt, the lords de Preaux, de Clerc, de Graville, and some others seated at dinner. The king immediately ordered them all, except the dauphin, to be arrested, as also sir William and sir Louis de Harcourt, brothers to the earl, the lord Fricquet de Friquart, the lord de Tournebeu, the lord Maubué de Mamesnars, two squires called Oliver Doublet and John de Vaubatu, and many others. He had them shut up in different rooms in the castle; and his reason for so doing was, that, since the reconciliation made on occasion of the death of the constable of France, the king of Navarre had conspired and done many things contrary to the honour of the king, and the good of his realm: the earl of Harcourt had also used many injurious expressions in the castle of Vaudreuil, when an assembly was holden there to grant a subsidy to the king of France against the said king, in order to prevent, as much as lay in his power, the subsidy from being agreed to. The king, after this, sat down to dinner, and afterwards, mounting his horse, rode, attended by all his company, to a field behind the castle, called the Field of Pardon.
The king then ordered the earl of Harcourt, the lord of Graville, the lord Maubué and Oliver Doublet to be brought thither in two carts: their heads were cut off,† and their bodies dragged to the gibbet at Rouen, where they were hung, and their heads placed upon the gibbet. In the course of that day and the morrow, the king set at liberty all the other prisoners, except three: Charles king of Navarre, who was conducted to prison in the Louvre at Paris, and afterwards to the Châtelet: some of the king’s council were appointed as a guard over him. Fricquet and Vaubatu were also confined in the Châtelet. Philip of Navarre, however, kept possession of several castles which the king his brother had in Normandy, and, when the king of France sent him orders to surrender them, refused to obey, but in conjunction with the lord Godfrey de Harcourt and other enemies of France, raised forces in the country of Coutantin, which they defended against the king’s troops.
But Catherine was a foreigner and the royal authority rested uncertainly on her children’s wee heads. Tense as matters already stood between Catholics and Huguenots, the realm’s shaky sovereignty disinhibited both confessions when it came to ever more irksome provocations.
Seeking to steer past the looming civil war, Catherine promulgated a decree of limited toleration for Huguenots, who were now to be permitted to worship publicly outside of towns. This is called the Edict of Saint-German or the Edict of January — as in, January of 1562, two months before our massacre. It is not taught in politics classes as a triumph of governance.
Whether this right even had force of law at the moment of our story is unclear, inasmuch as Catholic parlements whose ratification was required dragged their feet when it came to reading the edict into the statutes. But some incident like this was looming no matter where things stood from a scriptorium proceduralist’s standpoint.
At Vassy (or Wassy) our our date arrived the retinue of Francis, Duke of Guise. The Guises were a proverbial more-Catholic-than-the-Pope house, and Francis was not the sort of man to pass with equanimity the spectacle of Vassy’s Huguenots openly holding heretical services in a barn. His retainers tried to barge in. High words were exchanged. Scuffles gave way to brickbats and when something struck the duke’s own person a vengeful slaughter of the Calvinists ensued.
Warfare followed fast upon the publication of this atrocity. The chief Protestant lord, the Prince of Conde, openly mobilized for hostilities, seizing and fortifying Protestant towns — and the Catholic faction likewise. Inside of a year, Guise himself would be slain during a siege: one of the first wave of casualties amid 36 years of civil war.