Posts filed under '14th Century'

1323: Jean Persant, a black cat, and the body of Jean Prévost

1 comment December 7th, 2014 Headsman

From the French Grandes Chroniques. The numbered footnotes within the blockquote are verbatim from this text.

Moreover, it befel in this year [1323] that an abbey of the Cistercian Order was robbed of a marvellous great sum of money.

So they managed by the procuration of a man who dwelt at Château-Landon and had been provost there (for which cause he was still called Jean Prévost) that an agreement was made between him and an evil sorcerer, that they should contrive to discover the thieves and compel them to make restitution, in the fashion here following.

First, the sorcerer made a chest, with the help of the said Jean Prévost, wherein they clapped a black cat; and this they buried in a pit in the fields, right at a cross-way, and set three days’ meat for the cat within that chest, to wit bread steeped and softened in chrism and consecrated oils and holy water; and, in order that the cat thus interred might not die, there were two holes in the chest and two long pipes which rose above the earth thrown over that chest, by which pipes the air might enter therein and suffer the cat to breathe in and out.

Now it befel that certain shepherds, leading their flocks afield, passed by this cross-way as had ever been their wont; and their dogs began to scent and get wind of the cat, so that within a brief while they had found the place where she lay. Then began they to scratch and dig with their claws, for all the world as it had been a mole, nor could any man tear them away from that spot.

When the shepherds saw that their dogs would by no means depart thence, then they drew near and heard the cat mew, whereat they were much amazed. And, seeing that the dogs still scratched without ceasing, one who was wiser than the rest sent word of this matter to the justice, who came forthwith to the place and found the cat and the chest, even as it had all been contrived; whereat he was much astonished, and many others who were come with him.

And while this provost of Château-Landon pondered anxiously within himself how he might take or find the author of so horrible a witchcraft, (for he saw well that this had never been done but for some black art; but whereof or by whom he knew not) then it came to pass, as he thought within himself and looked at the chest which was newly-made, that he called all the carpenters of that town, and asked them who had made this chest.

At which demand a carpenter came forward and said that he had made it at the instance of a man named Jean Prévost; “But so help me God,” quoth he, “as I knew not to what purpose he had bidden me make it.”

Then within a brief space this Jean Prévost was taken upon suspicion, and put to the question of the rack: upon which he accused one Jean Persant as the principal author, contriver, and inventor of this cursed witchcraft; and afterwards he accused a monk of Cîteaux, an apostate, as the special disciple of this Jean Persant, and the Abbot of Sarquenciaux [Serquigny?] of the Order of Cîteaux, and certain Canons Regular,(2) who were all abettors of this wickedness. All of whom were taken and bound and brought before the Official of the Archbishop of Sens and the Inquisitor at Paris.

When they were come before them, men enquired of them — and of these more especially of whom they knew by report that they were masters in this devilish art — wherefore they had done this thing. To which they answered that, if the cat had dwelt three days long at those four crossroads, then they would have drawn him forth and flayed him; and from his hide they would have made three thongs, which they would have drawn out to their fullest extent and knotted together, so that they might make a circle within the compass whereof a man might be comprised and contained. Which when they had done, he who was in the midst of the circle would first nourish himself in devilish fashion with the meat wherewith this cat had been fed; without which these invocations would be null and of none effect. After which he would have called upon a devil named Berich, who would presently have come without delay, and would have answered all their questions and discovered the thefts, with all those that had been principal movers therein and all who had set their hands thereunto; and in answer to their questions he would have told them all the evil to be done.

Upon the hearing of these confessions and downright devilries, Jean Prévost and Jean Persant, as authors and principals in this accursed witchcraft, were adjudged to be burned and punished with fire; but while the matter was drawn out and delayed, Jean Prévost chanced to die; whose bones and body were burned to ashes in detestation of so horrible a crime, and the other, to wit Jean Persant, was bound to the stake with the cat around his neck, and burned to ashes on the morrow of St Nicholas’ day; after which the Abbot, and the apostate monk, and the other Canons Regular who had administered the chrism and other matters to this witchcraft, were first degraded and then, by all rules of law, condemned and put into prison for their lives.

(1) In the face of such abuses of things consecrated, the church Councils of the Middle Ages constantly insisted that the Pyx, the Chrismatory, and the Font must be kept under lock and key in all churches. The neglect of these precautions is one of the points most frequently noted by official visitors.

(2) Canons bound to the lifelong observance of a Rule; the best known are the Austin Canons and the Praemonstratensians. They were in fact practically monks, and are often so-called by medieval writers, though modern pedantry sometimes ignores this. Cf. Chaucer, Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale.

(3) Quasi-heraldic personal insignia, with motto; cf. Richard II, Act iii, Sc. I. [“From my own windows torn my household coat,/Razed out my imprese”]

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1329: Alberghettino II Manfredi, upstart condottiero

Add comment November 18th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1329, Italian condottiero Alberghettino II Manfredi was beheaded in Bologna.

Fruit of the Manfredi family, the lords of Faenza. Posterity doesn’t know a tremendous amount about Alberghettino, but one can infer a certain state of mind from his actions. While dad ran Faenza, his brother Ricciardo was on the condottiero cursus honorum as the temporary captain of nearby Imola.

In the mid-1320s, Alberghettino got his Fredo Corleone on by allying with the lord of Forli, a Faenza rival, in a treasonable (not to say Freudian) plot to supplant his father’s position.

He enjoyed a temporary run of the place from 1327-28 but was ousted by papal troops.

Forced to retire to Bologna, he returned immediately to conspiring with an attempt to make Bologna’s first man L-o-u-i-s, as in the Holy Roman Emperor Ludwig IV — at that moment barging about the Italic peninsula setting up antipopes.

That plot, too, failed. After that, on top of all his other woes, Alberghettino stood a head shorter than his more fortune-favored relations.

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1326: Edmund FitzAlan, the Earl of Arundel

Add comment November 17th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1326, Edmund FitzAlan, Earl of Arundel was beheaded at Hereford for his support of King Edward II, during the rebellion of Queen Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer.

Arundel’s relationship with doomed king had not always been so fatally chummy. That he turned out to be one of the few great nobles to back Edward against his wife’s adulterous coup d’etat would probably have surprised his own younger self — for 15 years before his execution he had joined the Lords Ordainers in opposition to Edward and hated royal favorite Piers Gaveston. Indeed, Arundel was one of the men who eventually condemned Gaveston to execution. Two years after that, he passed on aiding Edward’s Scottish campaign and the upshot of that was the great defeat of Banockburn.

But these two foes were able to see their way to an arrangement as the 1310s unfolded, and Arundel married his son — the boy who would succeed as the next Earl of Arundel when our man got his head cut off* — to the daughter of the next royal favorite, Hugh Despenser.

This dynastic alliance with the man swiftly becoming the most powerful lord in England put Arundel firmly on Team Edward, with very lucrative results. When other nobles who hated the new favorite rebelled in the early 1320s, Arundel helped to put that disturbance down, and pocketed portions of the traitors’ forfeited estates for his trouble — including that of the attainted Mortimer himself.

These enemies were permanent.

Mortimer managed to escape the Tower of London and fled into exile, eventually taking up with the disaffected Queen Isabella, who was a French princess herself. When Mortimer and Isabella mounted an invasion in 1326, Arundell and his brother-in-law Surrey were the only earls to keep the king’s side. (Temporarily: Surrey made peace with the new regime when it carried the day.)

Captured by John Charleton, a Welsh landowner who’d been personally piqued by Arundel’s growing acquisitions in that region, he was hauled before Queen Isabella and put to summary execution. But not too summary: there’s a report by a chronicler that the “worthless wretch” wielding the blade required no fewer than 22 hacks to part head from shoulders.

Kathryn Warner’s excellent and venerable Edward II blog has a very thorough post on the Earl of Arundell as well as a separate one on John Daniel and Robert de Micheldever, two obscure courtiers who shared the same fate on the same occasion.

(Warner has also just recently — in October of 2014 — published her book about Edward II.)

* Technically Richard FitzAlan only became Earl of Arundel in 1331, when Edward III, having deposed the regime of his mother and Mortimer, re-granted the title.

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1306: Nigel de Brus, brother of the King

Add comment September 18th, 2014 Headsman

On an uncertain date in September of 1306 — sometime after the mid-September English capture of Kildrummy CastleNigel de Brus was drawn and quartered at the border town of Berwick.


The present-day ruins of Kildrummy Castle. (cc) image from Stu Smith.

As his name indicates, Nigel, Niall, or Neil — as your taste may run — was kin to Robert the Bruce, his brother in fact, and a key supporter of Robert in the latter’s fight for the Scottish crown.

Someone must have put the Bruces under that old Chinese curse about living in interesting times. Though the extremely interesting First War of Scottish Independence would indeed put Robert the Bruce on the Scottish throne, it was achieved in a period of devastation. Not only Nigel, but every single one of Robert’s brothers, died violently: three in all were executed, and a fourth slain in battle.

None of the five had reached his teens when times started getting really interesting with the shock 1286 death of Scotland’s King Alexander III, who got lost in the dark riding to Fife in bad weather and had a fatal fall down an embankment.

All three of Alexander’s children had predeceased him, so the hope of succession settled on a three-year-old* granddaughter, the Norwegian princess remembered as Margaret, Maid of Norway. Margaret now became for several years a chesspiece of diplomacy between the Scottish, Norwegian, and English courts, and was slated for marriage to the crown prince, the future King Edward II.** But we can slide right past the delicacies in all that because Margaret, too, dropped dead — in her case, at sea while en route to Scotland in 1290.† Little Margaret had never once set foot in the country she putatively ruled.

With no clear successor to Margaret, a free-for-all scramble for power ensued with no fewer than 14 noblemen claiming the throne for themselves. This “Great Cause” soon coalesced into John of Balliol (the claimant by primogeniture) vs. Robert the Bruce (the claimant by proximity of blood) — and the Guardians solicited the arbitration of the English King Edward I.

Having been balked of his goal of bringing Scotland into his dynastic thrall by means of the marital arrangements, Edward did not mean to miss the diplomatic opportunity and twisted the candidates’ arms to accept the suzerainty that Edward claimed over them. The disunited Scots had little choice but to do so.

(The Great Cause is covered in this episode of the History of England podcast.)

Edward ruled for Balliol, but his impositions and concomitant Scottish resistance soon brought the situation to open warfare. Incensed at a Scots-French alliance to oppose them, the English invaded in 1296‡ — forcing Balliol’s deposition (he’s known as “Toom Tabard”, or “empty coat”, for the regal insignia torn from his raiments) and provoking the celebrated resistance of William Wallace.

We know what happened to that guy, but Edward’s bloody pacification of the north came undone in 1306.

In February of that year, Robert the Bruce summoned the successor Balliol claimant, his rival John Comyn, to Greyfriars Church in Dumfries and sacrilegiously stuck a knife in him.


19th century illustration of John Comyn’s murder. Since we’re citing the handy History of England podcast, here’s the relevant episode.

In this affray the relative measures of perfidy by Bruce and by Comyn, both of whom were scheming nobles angling for the throne, are down to your choice of parties and sources. The consequences, however, can hardly be mistaken.

Bruce had himself defiantly crowned King of Scotland just weeks after soaking his hands with Comyn’s blood, but a furious Edward I was smashing up the outclassed Scottish by springtime. The Bruce himself had to flee to hiding, and eventually to Ireland, while many of his supporters wound up hemmed in in Kildrummy Castle, commanded by our man Nigel. The English soon overwhelmed it (legend has it, as legend usually does, that the fortress was treacherously betrayed). Nigel was hauled off to Berwick for more or less immediate punishment; his fellow-commander at Kildrummy, the Earl of Athol, suffered the same in London on November 7.

One could forgive Nigel if, in the midst of having his entrails ripped out of his trunk by the executioner of Berwick, he indulged a moment’s despair for the family’s Great Cause. Robert himself was reduced to feeling out whether any English terms could be had.

But from this nadir of his fortunes, Robert the Bruce gloriously (nigh miraculously) returned to lead a successful guerrilla campaign against the English beginning in 1307, crucially aided by the death that same year of Edward I. He would sting the English repeatedly over the ensuing years before his gathering strength finally forced the English to recognize Scottish sovereignty in 1328.

* Margaret was actually just two years old at the time Alexander died. Alexander’s second wife was thought to be pregnant at the time — that turned out to be a nonstarter — so official succession didn’t settle on Margaret until she was three.

** Though this proposed union, never realized, raised the prospect of uniting English and Scottish realms, the Guardians of Scotland who called the shots while waiting for their sovereign to grow up insisted that the relevant document’s language assure that even if ruled by the same monarch Scotland would “remain separate, apart and free in itself without subjection to the English Kingdom.”

† A “False Margaret” posing as the lost Scottish queen would later turn up in Norway, and be executed for her charade.

‡ Among other things, this invasion seized the previously Scottish city of Berwick — Nigel’s eventual execution-place — for the English. Berwick changed hands repeatedly between the Scottish and the English for several hundred years before settling permanently into English possession in 1482.

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1340: Nicholas Behuchet, Battle of Sluys naval commander

Add comment June 24th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1340, the English and French fought an early naval engagement of the Hundred Years’ War: the Battle of Sluys.

The English won the battle … and the French admiral wound up hanging from a mast.

At the outset of the Hundred Years’ War in 1337, the French bossed the Channel and inflicted devastating sea raids on the English coast. In the long war’s first major battle at sea, a French fleet in September 1338 overwhelmed an English flotilla carrying valuable English wool to the Low Countries.

Nicholas Behuchet, one of the French commanders at this earlier battle, did not hesitate to massacre his prisoners.

Thus conquering did these said mariners of the king of France in this winter take great pillage, and especially they conquered the handsome great nef called the Christophe, all charged with the goods and wool that the English were sending to Flanders, which nef had cost the English king much to build: but its crew were lost to these Normans, and were put to death.

England’s allies were in the Low Countries, so too many battles like this stood to strangle the English cause in the crib. For near two years, French privateers had leave to ravage the English coast, while French troops overran Flanders and made the English Queen Philippa* hostage.

Seeking a breakout, King Edward III requisitioned English merchant cogs — there was no standing navy at the time — into a fleet of perhaps 160 or 200 vessels, heavy with soldiers to invade Flanders.

On June 24, two days after setting out from the Orwell estuary at Ipswich, Edward’s armada boldly fell upon a larger French fleet anchored at the Flanders port of Sluys.

The medieval chronicler Froissart’s account makes for riveting reading.** This was no stately ballet of seamanship but a gory close-quarters melee: as was characteristic for the time, the “sea” battle was mostly just about coming together for the respective fleets’ marines to board one another’s ships and murder anyone on board who wasn’t worth a ransom. The French admiral Behuchet lashed his ships together across the mouth of the harbor, a sort of floating breastwork that would enable the French soldiery to shimmy up and down the entire line no matter where the English focused their attack.

To the sound of “scores of trumpets, horns and other instruments,”

Fierce fighting broke out on every side, archers and crossbowmen shooting arrows and bolts at each other pell-mell, and men-at-arms struggling and striking in hand-to-hand combat. In order to come to closer quarters, they had great iron grappling-hooks fixed to chains, and these they hurled into each others’ ships to draw them together and hold them fast while the men engaged. Many deadly blows were struck and gallant deeds performed, ships and men were battered, captured and recaptured. The great ship Christopher [a large English cog previously captured by the French and situated in the French front row -ed.] was recovered by the English at the beginning of the battle and all those on board were killed or taken prisoner …


An illustration of the Battle of Sluys from Froissart’s chronicle. Note the mast of the ship at far left: it displays the English arms quartered with the French, Edward III’s heraldic assertion of sovereignty over both realms.

It was indeed a bloody and murderous battle. Sea-fights are always fiercer than fights on land, because retreat and flight are impossible. Every man is obliged to hazard his life and hope for success, relying on his own personal bravery and skill … [it] rage[d] furiously from early morning until afternoon, during which time there were many notable feats of arms and the English were hard put to it to hold their own, since they were opposed by hardened soldiers and seamen, who outnumbered them by four to one.

Edward III took an arrow or crossbow bolt to the leg — great-man historical legend has it that it was fired by Nicholas Behuchet himself — but captained his flotilla to an overwhelming victory, capturing most of the French ships and destroying the French, their Genoese allies, “and all who were with them … [they were] killed or drowned, not a single one escaping in the general slaughter.” Poetic license aside, it was a spectacular triumph for the English — and a crushing defeat for the French.†

In the 1596 play Edward III, which might have been co-written by Shakespeare, imagined the scene in the report of an escaped mariner:

Purple the sea, whose channel filled as fast
With streaming gore that from the maimed fell
As did the gushing moisture break into
The crannied cleftures of the through-shot planks.
Here flew a head dissevered from the trunk,
There mangled arms and legs were tossed aloft
As when a whirlwind takes the summer dust
And scatters it in middle of the air.
Then might ye see the reeling vessels split
And tottering sink into the ruthless flood,
Until their lofty tops were seen no more.

Let it not be said that in this instance the commander escaped the consequences of his folly. Behuchet, who insisted against advice on lashing the boats together and thereby sacrificed all maneuverability, didn’t have much room for maneuver himself when the victorious English hanged him at battle’s end from the mast of his own ship.

* Seen elsewhere in these pages successfully begging her husband’s pardon of the famed Six Burghers of Calais later in the war. Philippa was a homegrown native of the Low Countries, and her marriage to Edward III reflects the alliance between their respective regions.

** For a snappy modern gloss on the battle, check this excerpt of Dan Jones’s The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England.

It is said that no courtier dared give King Philip VI of France the horrifying news until a jester availing his station’s license for cheek informed him that “Our knights are much braver than the English.” Asked why, the fool replied, “The English do not dare jump into the sea in full armour.”

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1310: Badoer Badoer, Venetian rebel

Add comment June 22nd, 2014 Headsman

A Venetian rebel was beheaded on this date in 1310.

Our grim tale actually tacks back to an altogether different death: the sudden January 31, 1308 demise of Azzo VIII d’Este, lord of Venice’s neighbor Ferrara.*

The resulting power vacuum saw Venice under the Doge Pietro Gradenigo tangle for influence in Ferrara with the Papal States of Pope Clement V.

This controversial intervention briefly put a Venetian puppet ruler in charge of Ferrara, but it also led Clement to excommunicate Gradenigo and place La Serenissima under a papal interdict.

The moral force which the condition of society lent to such a measure was immense … It paralyzed trade; it dried up the sources of industrial wealth; it laid a country under every civil and religiou disability; it shed over society an atmosphere of gloom; it affected every relation of life … At home it fomented agitation, gave colour and pretext to the worst motives, and evoked all the latent distempers of the public mind. Abroad, it legitimized rebellion, imparted to moribund antipathies a new vitality, and transformed wavering allies into open enemies. (From History of the Venetian Republic, vol. II, whose detailed narrative of the events relevant to this post continues in Volume III)

Clement also had more temporal weapons to fight with, and he used them to ruthless effect.

In August 1309, papal troops overran the Venetian garrison at the Ferrara fortress of Tedaldo and handled the prisoners like they had the Dolcinians, choking the Po with Venetian corpses.

Conditions were ripe for some disturbances in La Serenissima. The Ferrara thing was a complete debacle, and not only was the same guy still in charge, but his previous foreign policy resume basically consisted of being repeatedly outmaneuvered by Genoa.

Hotheads of three leading families of the Venetian opposition who had vainly counseled neutrality in the Ferrara affair, the Quirini, the Badoer, and the Tieopolo, embarked an audacious plot to mount a coup d’etat toppling the Doge and the whole Ground Council of noblemen by whom he ruled. The conspirators were to act on the morning of June 15 — but hours before that, a vacillating confederate had betrayed them. As a result, when the ferocious Marco Quirini arrived at the Piazza San Marco that morning with his men-at-arms, the Doge had a surprise force waiting to rout him under a furious downpour.

Quirini at least had the honor of dying in hopeless battle for his cause. His son-in-law and co-conspirator Bajamonte Tiepolo, who was to arrive at the same square via the Mercerie, dithered and showed up only when Quirini was already defeated and dead. Legend has it that a woman named Giustina Rosso killed Tiepolo’s standard-bearer dead by hurling (or just accidentally dropping) a mortar upon the rebels as they advanced up the street. (Present-day tourists traversing this upscale shopping street can catch a small bas-relief commemorating this character near the clock tower where the Mercerie opens onto St. Mark’s.)

Tiepolo belatedly charged the square, and was like Quirini repulsed; however, he was able to fall back across the Grand Canal, cutting the bridge against his pursuers, and holed up in a makeshift fortress hoping for reinforcements from the last-arriving of their fellows, Badoer Badoer.

The latter, however, was intercepted on his way to reinforcing the revolutionaries’ position and taken prisoner, which defeat of his hopes led Tiepolo and Doge alike to prefer a negotiated surrender to the charnel house that would have resulted from storming the redoubt. His followers were amnestied and Tiepolo himself sent into exile.

But Badoer Badoer was not covered by this deal. The Council he had proposed to overturn instead tried him for treason, and voted his condemnation on June 22 — a sentence put into immediate effect.

The exiled Tiepolo’s home was razed to the ground and replaced with a column eternally damning his memory:

This land belonged to Bajamonte
And now, for his iniquitous betrayal,
This has been placed to frighten others
And to show these words to everyone forever.

That column today has been removed to a museum — evidently one needs special permission to find it — but a worn stone outside a souvenir shop labeled “Loc. Col. Bai. The. MCCCX” marks the spot where it stood for four centuries.

The plot’s other legacy to Venice was the Council of Ten, a sort of inner secretariat of the Grand Council. Introduced in July 1310 as an emergency measure, the Ten soon became a permanent feature of the state, and an increasingly powerful one into the 17th century. The “temporary” council ended up lasting until the Napoleon finally toppled a by-then tottering Venetian Republic in 1797.

* In the Inferno, Dante accuses Azzo of assassinating his father.

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1330: Edmund of Woodstock, family man

Add comment March 19th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1330, the king’s half-brother Edmund of Woodstock lost his head for treason.

Edmund was the youngest son of Edward I. That patrimony didn’t come with a throne attached, but hey, you could do a lot worse than Earl of Kent.

You could do a lot better too, though, if you had royal blood.

According to the chronicle Vita Edwardi Secundi, Edmund (or possibly the middle brother Thomas) was intended by his father for the more august and lucrative earldom of Cornwall.* But Edward I died when Edmund and Thomas were young boys, and “his sad death prevented what would have been appropriate from being consummated.” Instead, the heir-turned-king Edward II stiffed flesh and blood to hand Cornwall to his notorious favorite, Piers Gaveston.

Edmund seemed to get over the slight and generally had the king’s back during the turbulent 1320s.

However, after fighting for his brother’s interests in France, he found himself there in Paris in 1325-26 with Edward’s French Queen Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer just as that couple set about plotting their rebellion.

Edmund joined their circle, took part in their invasion of England, and sat on the tribunal that condemned the deposed king’s new notorious favorite, Hugh Despenser, to death. As the price for his support, Isabella and Mortimer fulfilled the cash pledges Edward I had long ago made to the boy.

His attitudes and allegiances appear ambiguous during the unsteady years of Isabella and Mortimer. Whatever his acquiescence — whatever his payoff — he had little real affection for the new master and mistress of the realm.


Edmund’s end in 1330 touches a sensitive historical controversy.

Of a sudden, the Earl of Kent became convinced that his brother Edward II was being held at Corfe Castle and resolved to liberate him. He attempted to pass a letter to the captive king — a letter that proved quite enough to incriminate him when it was intercepted by Roger Mortimer. (Mortimer might have baited him into writing it in the first place.)

Worships and reverence, with a brother’s liegeance and subjection. Sir knight, worshipful and dear brother, if you please, I pray heartily that you are of good comfort, for I shall ordain for you, that you shall soon come out of prison, and be delivered of that disease in which you find yourself. Your lordship should know that I have the assent of almost all the great lords of England, with all their apparel, that is to say with armour, and with treasure without limit, in order to maintain and help you in your quarrel so you shall be king again as you were before, and that they all – prelates, earls and barons – have sworn to me upon a book.

What’s really queer about this isn’t so much the volte-face on whether Edward ought to rule: it was the fact that Kent had actually attended Edward II’s funeral in 1327.

How could Edmund think a guy he saw buried would read his letter three years later? Was the funeral a sham? Did Edward survive his (conventionally accepted) 1327 death/murder in captivity? Edward II blogger Kathryn Warner, who calls Edmund “a brave man who tried to do the right thing”, thinks so. She makes the case in a four-part series on the Earl of Kent’s conspiracy here:

Fortunately for your humble narrator, mere headsmen are not called upon to adjudicate such controversies. Our job is just to cut whose head we’re told. Although in Edmund’s case, even that couldn’t go to plan: the poor guy was parked outside the walls of Winchester for the whole day of March 19th before someone could finally be found to give him the chop. It was a condemned prisoner who obtained his own release by turning executioner. (Source)

Later that same year of 1330, Edmund’s 17-year-old nephew Edward III — in whose name the usurpers Isabella and Mortimer ruled — mounted a palace coup to take his reign into his own hands.

With that turn of fortune, Mortimer found himself in the executioner’s clutches, and Edmund was posthumously rehabilitated. Edmund’s daughter Princess Joan — the “Fair Maid of Kent”, and in Froissart’s estimation, “the most beautiful woman in all the realm of England, and the most loving” — married Hundred Years War hero Edward, the Black Prince. Among the children Joan bore Edward was the eventual King Richard II.

* Infinitely more lucrative: the Earldom of Kent was a newly re-created title that had last been used 50 years before. It came initially with no estates or income at all.

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1318: Dukes Erik and Valdemar Magnusson

Add comment February 16th, 2014 Headsman

This is the generally attributed death date of Duke Erik and Duke Valdemar of Sweden — intentionally starved to death at the order of their royal brother, according to the 14th century Erikskrönikan.

This is pretty borderline as an execution, to be sure, but brutal games of thrones ran in these men’s family. Their grandfather Birger Jarl was a powerful duke who got his young child elected king when the throne came open in 1250, possibly circumventing family of the preceding monarch.

And no sooner did the old silverback shuffle off then said son was rudely usurped by his little brother Magnus.

We’re still in the family lore here, but past proved to be prologues for King Magnus’s kids. Magnus had his oldest child Birger set up to succeed, but Birger’s brothers Erik and Valdemar would struggle with the official heir for power after Magnus died.

The boys had a civil war in the 1300s that even resulted in Erik and Valdemar deposing Birger and clapping him in a dungeon — an outcome reversed by pressure from the Norwegians and Danes.

Come the 1310s, things were still tense. Situated on impressive domains of their own — Erik was Duke of Sodermanland, Valdemar, Duke of Finland — the kid brothers looked a potent threat to King Birger once again. Not fancying another stay in the family prison, Birger pre-emptively arrested his brothers at the family Christmas celebration in 1317.

Birger would learn that you can’t solve all family problems by starving them. Weeks after his fratricide, the brothers’ supporters ousted him for good.

Birger fled to exile. His own son, Magnus Birgersson, remained to answer at the executioner’s block for his father’s sins … while his three-year-old cousin, Erik’s son King Magnus, succeeded the throne and held it until 1364.

Cold comfort to the dead dukes, perhaps, but they at least had the consolation of being exalted as “holy dukes” thanks to the winner-written history.

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1348: The Duke of Durazzo, all in the family

Add comment January 23rd, 2014 Headsman

The Neapolitan King Robert “the Wise”* dominated Italian politics for his 34-year reign, but his death in 1343 left a disastrously disputed succession.

Robert, who hailed from the French House of Anjou, had had only two sons, and they both predeceased him. So Robert’s will designated his granddaughter Joanna as his successor, and her sister Maria as no. 2 in line should Joanna die without an heir.

But Joanna was 16 years old, and Robert had had three brothers whose lines each coveted a taste of Neapolitan for themselves. In particular, the family of Roberts’ oldest brother, whose descendants had managed to establish an Angevin ruling dynasty in Hungary, arguably had a better claim that Robert himself. So in an effort to cement the Joanna-plus-Maria succession plan, Robert married Joanna off to a child of that branch, Andrew, Duke of Calabria, Joanna.

Maria, for her part, had been intended for another dynastic marriage, but after Robert’s death she got abducted by the heirs to the youngest of Robert’s brothers and married off to Charles (or Carlo), Count of Gravina and Duke of Durazzo (English Wikipedia entry | Italian). This set their branch up to be a player for Robert’s patrimony, too; as one may infer from this character’s presence on this here execution blog, the play didn’t go to plan.

Dumas reckoned Charles an inveterate, and a sinister, schemer, “one of those men who to gain their end recoil at nothing; devoured by raging ambition and accustomed from his earliest years to conceal his most ardent desires beneath a mask of careless indifference, he marched ever onward, plot succeeding plot … His cheek grew pale with joy; when he hated most, he smiled; in all the emotions of his life, however strong, he was inscrutable.”

Now that we have the dramatis personae … to the action!

Nice knowin’ ya, Andrew. 1835 watercolor of his murder by Karl Briullov.

Robert was scarcely cold in his coffin when Joanna’s husband Andrew (supported by a faction within the Neapolitan court) began maneuvering for more power. Days before he was to capture a strategic hilltop in that campaign by becoming crowned in his own right in September 1345, a conspiracy of his rivals surprised Andrew on a hunting trip and murdered him — violently subduing the resisting teenager until they could strangle him to death and pitch him out a window. Joanna cowered in her bed as her shrieking husband was murdered; the suspicion of her involvement in the plot would follow her all the 37 years she had left on this earth, although she defeated the charge when she was formally investigated.

With this stunning act, peninsular politics got almost as messy as the Angevin family tree.

Andrew’s murder, which was succeeded by no pretext of punishing any guilty parties, opened a power vacuum and simultaneously supplied all Andrew’s power-hungry kinsmen the ideal pretext for elbowing their respective ways into it. The Hungarian Angevins, led by the murdered Andrew’s big brother King Louis I swept into Naples, routing Joanna** who was forced in 1348 to flee to the pope at Avignon, maybe on the very ships that were at this very moment introducing the Black Death from Sicily to ports all over Europe.

Cousin Charles made an expedient alliance with cousin Louis and joined the fun, angling to add Naples to his own domains once the dust settled and Hungarian affairs pulled Louis away. But almost immediately after expelling Joanna, the Hungarian king turned on Charles, too. In Dumas’s dramatic rendering, he accuses Charles of complicity in Andrew’s murder and treachery against his own royal person.

Traitor! At length you are in my hands, and you shall die as you deserve; but before you are handed over to the executioner, confess with your own lips your deeds of treachery towards our royal majesty: so shall we need no other witness to condemn you to a punishment proportioned to your crimes. Between our two selves, Duke of Durazzo, tell me first why, by your infamous manoeuvring, you aided your uncle, the Cardinal of Perigord, to hinder the coronation of my brother, and so led him on, since he had no royal prerogative of his own, to his miserable end? Oh, make no attempt to deny it. Here is the letter sealed with your seal; in secret you wrote it, but it accuses you in public. Then why, after bringing us hither to avenge our brother’s death, of which you beyond all doubt were the cause,–why did you suddenly turn to the queen’s party and march against our town of Aquila, daring to raise an army against our faithful subjects? You hoped, traitor, to make use of us as a footstool to mount the throne withal, as soon as you were free from every other rival. Then you would but have awaited our departure to kill the viceroy we should have left in our place, and so seize the kingdom. But this time your foresight has been at fault. There is yet another crime worse than all the rest, a crime of high treason, which I shall remorselessly punish. You carried off the bride that our ancestor King Robert designed for me, as you knew, by his will. Answer, wretch what excuse can you make for the rape of the Princess Marie?

Charles was put to summary death upon this accusation on January 23, 1348.

As for the Princess Marie, who at this point was 18 years old and had already borne Charles five children in almost continuous succession, she wasn’t done being abducted: another nobleman, the Lord of Baux, snatched her from the Castel dell’Ovo later that same year and had four more children with her before Maria had him murdered in 1353. Then she married yet another cousin and had five more kids by him.

* Fruit of the Angevin dynasty that had dispossessed the Hohenstaufens the previous century.

** Joanna tried to shore herself up ahead of the invasion by remarrying another cousin, Louis of Taranto.

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1355: Ines de Castro, posthumous queen

Add comment January 7th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1355, the 29-year-old lover of the Portuguese crown prince was put to summary death by the reigning king’s minions.

Ines de Castro (English Wikipedia entry | Portuguese) would be posthumously acknowledged as queen on the say-so of her ex, whom everyone obeyed because he was called Peter (Pedro) the Cruel.

But in the years before Ines’s death you could just call him loverboy.

As a young man, Peter got plugged into a typical dynastic marriage with Constance of Panafiel, a descendant of kings of Castille and Aragon.*

In Constance’s entourage came the enchanting Ines, the daughter, albeit illegitimate, of a Galician nobleman.

Peter was entirely smitten by entirely the wrong woman. Vainly did the Portuguese sovereign Afonso IV strive to conform his indiscreet son to the demands of conjugal propriety. At last, the put-upon Constance died after bearing Peter his heir in 1345 and left the field to her rival.

Afonso steadfastly refused to let his lovestruck son marry Ines, and even tried banishing her to Castile, but the two carried on their forbidden passion secretly like they were in poetry, which would soon be the case.


One of 20-plus operas and ballets about Ines de Castro. She also turns up in the Portuguese national epic The Lusíadas, the French play La Reine Morte, and Ezra Pound’s Cantos (“Ignez da Castro murdered, and a wall / Here stripped, here made to stand”) … among many other literary appearances.

But beyond any qualms of prudery, Peter’s obsession made dad sweat the politics.

Peter refused to marry anyone else, and got tight with Ines’s brothers. These guys were Castilian exiles with their own axes to grind. Was the whole fortune of his house and his realm to fall under the sway of this unpredictable faction just because Peter couldn’t keep it in his codpiece? The affair had already made a dog’s breakfast of the alliance Peter was supposed to contract with his scorned wife’s family; now that Peter was having kids** with his mistress, there was the potential for a contested succession, and the brothers were goading Peter to pretend to the throne of their native Castile.

Afonso figured that this was about where his son’s right to romantic love ended. Peter had proven many times that only the most drastic of steps could separate him from Ines.

On the 7th of January 1355, Afonso and his own advisors met in secret and declared Ines’s death. Then three of the king’s emissaries, Pêro Coelho, Álvaro Gonçalves and Diogo Lopes Pacheco, rode out to find the irksome mistress at Coimbra, and chopped off her head right in front of her children.†


Assassínio de Dona Inês de Castro (date unknown), by Columbano Bordalo Pinheiro.

It was only with difficulty that a sufficient reconciliation between father and son was effected to manage a stable transition once Afonso kicked off in 1357. Finally in charge, Peter set about earning that “the Cruel” sobriquet by hunting down the retainers who had slain his wife and having them all put to terrible deaths in their turn, like their hearts ripped out of their chests. Just like had happened to Peter, see.

Peter also announced that he had been secretly married to Ines, posthumously legitimizing her. Legend, probably apocryphal, has it that he even exhumed her body and set her up on the throne in regal finery like the cadaver synod, so that his courtiers could pay their respects to the putrefying flesh of “the queen who was crowned after death”. But she wasn’t coming back for real: in the still-extant Portuguese idiom, “Agora é tarde; Inês é morta” — “It’s too late, Ines is dead.”


Couronnement d’Inés de Castro en 1361 (c. 1849), by Pierre-Charles Comte.

In death at this hour, Ines de Castro reigns in a gorgeous carved tomb in the Alcobaca Monastery … right next to her lover, King Peter I.

* The Peter-Constance marriage was itself an alliance of marital castaways. Constance had been the child bride of Castilian King Alfonso XI, but was put aside by Alfonso so that he could realign his bedroom politics by instead marrying Peter’s own elder sister. But Alfonso neglected her, too — causing a love triangle that would in time end with an execution.

When Peter’s humiliated sister fled the Castilian court, the Portuguese royal family allied with Constance’s family against Alfonso, by marrying the spurned Constance to the spurned-in-law Peter.

** High noble titles were bestowed on the three children of Peter and Ines who survived into adulthood. Two of them, John and Denis, unsuccessfully attempted to claim the throne during the chaotic interregnum of Portugal’s 1383-1385 Crisis.

† Ines’s execution/murder is associated with Quinta das Lagrimas, the Estate of Tears, even though that’s not where it actually occurred. A fountain there is said to have sprung from the tears she said as she was slain, and its red stones stained by her blood.

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