Posts filed under '15th Century'

1494: Joan Boughton, “old cankered heretic”

Add comment April 28th, 2019 Headsman

Lollard heretic Joan Boughton was burned on this date in 1494 — purportedly England’s first female Christian martyr.

Followers of pre-Luther English church reformer John Wyclif(fe) had been thick on the ground in the early 15th century, terrifying the English state into a violent suppression.

But these years of headline repression did not suffice to drive Lollardy into the grave … only underground. The Lollard heresy continued to persist, quietly, its trajectory and dimensions largely undocumented, barely surfacing here and there with the odd arrest. “Between 1450-1517, Lollardy was almost wholly restricted to the rural districts, and little mention is made of it in contemporary records,” notes this history. “How extensively Wyclif’s views continued to be secretly held and his writings read is a matter of conjecture.”

Its adherents still had the stuff of martyrdom, for on this occasion decades on from the heyday of Lollardy and into the reign of Henry VII,

an old cankered heretic, weak-minded for age, named Joan Boughton, widow, and mother unto the wife of Sir John Young — which daughter, as some reported, had a great smell of an heretic after the mother — burnt in Smithfield. This woman was four score years of age or more, and held eight opinions of heresy which I pass over, for the hearing of them is neither pleasant nor fruitful. She was a disciple of Wycliffe, whom she accounted for a saint, and held so fast and firmly eight of his twelve opinions that all the doctors of London could not turn her from one of them. When it was told to her that she should be burnt for her obstinacy and false belief, she set nought at their words but defied them, for she said she was so beloved with God and His holy angels that all the fire in London should not hurt her. But on the morrow a bundle of faggots and a few reeds consumed her in a little while; and while she might cry she spoke often of God and Our Lady, but no man could cause her to name Jesus, and so she died. But it appeared that she left some of her disciples behind her, for the night following, the more part of the ashes of that fire that she was burnt in were had away and kept for a precise relic in an earthen pot.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,God,Heresy,History,Martyrs,Milestones,Public Executions,Women

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1477: Hugonet and Humbercourt, in the wreck of Burgundy

Add comment April 3rd, 2019 Headsman

Willem Hugonet and Guy van Brimeu, officials of the collapsing Burgundian polity, were executed in Ghent on this date in 1477 for their failed diplomatic intrigue.

This moment fell just weeks after Burgundy itself had received her own fatal blow, at least as far as independent political standing goes: the death in battle on January 5 of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. Charles had energetically expansionist prince.

Charles’s dominions compassed not only Burgundy itself, but a swath of territory running up to Flanders and the Low Countries, a strip that was being squeezed by the rising powers of France to the west and Austria to the east. He had no male heir, so his 19-year-old daughter Mary succeeded him in title — but not in power. France and Austria immediately began sizing up Burgundy for dismemberment, a mission they accomplished within a few short years. And while both dynasties sought Mary’s inheritance via matrimony, more direct methods were also employed.

Before January was out, the French king Louis XI had already pressed into Picardy and Artois* with a scheming mix of armed intimidation and invocation of feudal rights — seeking Flanders and its rich trading cities like Ghent, where our executions will take place. These places, too, saw their opportunity to seek their own advantage; Burgundy had enforced its authority in Ghent at the point of the sword, bloodily crushing a revolt not 30 years before. In Flanders and Brabant, “the confirmation of the tidings of [Charles the Bold’s] death had been received with general feelings of relief and joy,” according to the Cambridge Modern History. “And throughout the Netherlands it was resolved to make the most of the opportunity.” There was no love lost between these locales and their Burgundian overlords, yet these places also feared the potential domination of Burgundy’s rivals. As a first step, the principal cities of the Low Countries immediately forced the weakened sovereign — who was personally stuck in Ghent when the dread news of her father’s fate arrived — to cede them a wide grant of privileges.

Meanwhile, Mary herself extended feelers to the neighboring empires, and it is here that our principal characters enter the story. Charles’s old chancellor, Wllem Hugonet and the Picardy-born knight Guy of Brimeu, Sire of Humbercourt** — French-friendly Burgundians both reviled of Ghent — prevailed on Mary to seek what terms they could France. Returning to the Cambridge Modern History,

Louis seems to have, by private communications with Hugonet and d’Himbercourt, secured their adherence to the marriage-scheme [between Mary of Burgundy and the six-year-old French Dauphin]. At Arras, of which he took possession in March, 1477, he received a deputation from Ghent, and — playing the kind of double game which his soul loved — revealed to them the confidence reposed by Mary in the privy councillors detesed by the city.

Thus, on the return of the civic deputies to Ghent, the storm broke out. The city was already in a condition of ferment; some of the partisans of the old regime had been put to death; and the agitation, which had spread to Ypres and as far as Mons, was increased by the claims put forward at Ghent on behalf of the restoration of Liegeois independence by the Bishop of Liege … distracted by her fears, Mary seems actually to have countenanced Hugonet’s final proposal that she should quit Flanders and place herself under the protection of the French King, when at the last moment Ravenstein induced her to reveal the design. He immediately informed the representative of the vier landen, and the deans of the trades of Ghent, and on the same night (March 4) Hugonet, d’Himbercourt and de Clugny were placed under arrest. A rumour having been spread that their liberation was to be attempted, and news having arrived of the resolute advance of the French forces, new disturbances followed; and Mary issued an ordinance naming a mixed commission of nobles and civic officials to try the accused with all due expedition (March 28). She afterwards interceded in favour of one or both of the lay prisoners (for de Clugny was saved by his benefit of clergy), and at a later date expressed her sympathy with the widow and orphans of d’Himbercourt, the extent of whose share in the Chancellor’s schemes remains unknown. After being subjected to torture, both were executed on April 3. They met with short shrift at the hands of their judges; but they cannot be said to have been sacrificed to a mere gust of democratic passion; and Mary and her Council, and the other Estates of the Netherlands assembled at Ghent, were with the city itself and the sister Flemish towns one and all involved in the responsibility of the deed.

This backlash closed all avenues to French nuptials; within weeks, Mary was engaged to the Habsburg Archduke Maximilian (they wed that August) and France and Austria fell into outright war over the Burgundian patrimonies, the resolution of which boiled down to Habsburg authority in the Low Countries and French absorption of most of the rest, including Burgundy proper.

* As well as, further inland, Franche-Comte, bordering the Duchy of Burgundy itself.

** Two years before this, Guy had personally extradited the rebellious Louis of Luxembourg to France for execution.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Beheaded,Belgium,Burgundy,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Torture,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1431: Thomas Bagley, Lollard martyr

Add comment March 10th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1431, an Essex priest named Thomas Bagley — “a valiant disciple and adherent of Wicliffe,” which is to say a Lollard heretic — was put to the torch at St. Paul’s Cross, London, while the Archbishop of Canterbury denounced his heresies.

He was prey to a crackdown on his seditiously egalitarian sect launched in 1428 by the said archbishop, Henry Chicele. That outlawed movement still persisted despite the defeat of its most famous rebellion more than a decade before.

Lollards had a low opinion of both the perquisites and the ritual trappings of the institutional church, so Bagley “was accused of declaring that if in the sacrament a priest made bread into God, he made a God that can be eaten by rats and mice; that the pharisees of the day, the monks, and the nuns, and the friars and all the other privileged persons recognized by the church were limbs of Satan; and that auricular confession to the priest was the will not of God but of the devil. And others [other Lollards] held that any priest who took salary was excommunicate; and that boys could bless the bread as well as priests.”

Pressed by their persecutors, the Lollard movement mounted its last major armed rebellion weeks later, in May of 1431 — storming Abindgon Abbey and Salisbury Cathedral. The attacks came to nothing save the execution of its leadership.

For many years thereafter, until its remnants swept into the Reformation, Lollardy haunted English elites from the shadows and the underground — “a persistent, covert tradition of radical thinking” whose reach in the English population is unknowable. It was never again strong enough to mount a rising in its own name but surfaced martyrs here and there and might have contributed inspiration and simpatico to other challenges that shook the masters in the 15th century, like (speculatively) 1450’s Jack Cade rebellion out of Lollard-rich Kent.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,God,History,Martyrs,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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1453: Stefano Porcari

Add comment January 9th, 2019 Edward Gibbon

(Thanks to the estimable historian Edward Gibbon for this guest post on the humanist Stefano Porcari, who aspired to follow the revolutionary trail of the previous century’s great tribune of the people Cola di Rienzi … and did follow Rienzi’s fate. Compare with the account of Machiavelli in History of Florence, who remarks that “though some may applaud his intentions, he must stand charged with deficiency of understanding; for such undertakings, though possessing some slight appearance of glory, are almost always attended with ruin.” -ed.)

It is an obvious truth, that the times must be suited to extraordinary characters, and that the genius of Cromwell or Retz might now expire in obscurity.

The political enthusiasm of Rienzi had exalted him to a throne; the same enthusiasm, in the next century, conducted his imitator to the gallows.

The birth of Stephen Porcaro was noble, his reputation spotless: his tongue was armed with eloquence, his mind was enlightened with learning; and he aspired, beyond the aim of vulgar ambition, to free his country and immortalize his name.

Spirto gentil, che quelle membra reggi

Gentle spirit, that rules those members
in which a pilgrim lives,
a brave lord, shrewd and wise,
now you have taken up the ivory sceptre
with which you punish Rome and her wrongdoers,
and recall her to her ancient ways,
I speak to you, because I see no other ray
of virtue that is quenched from the world,
nor do I find men ashamed of doing wrong.
I don’t know what Italy expects or hopes for,
she seems not to feel her trouble,
old, lazy, slow,
will she sleep forever, no one to wake her?
I should grasp her by the hair with my hand.

I’ve no hope she’ll ever move her head
in lazy slumber whatever noise men make,
so heavily is she oppressed and by such a sleep:
not without the destiny in your right hand,
that can shake her fiercely and waken her,
now the guide of our Rome.
Set your hand to her venerable locks
and scattered tresses with firmness,
so that this sluggard might escape the mire.
I who weep for her torment day and night,
place the greater part of my hopes in you:
for if the people of Mars
ever come to lift their eyes to true honour,
I think that grace will touch them in your days.

Those ancient walls the world still fears and loves
and trembles at, whenever it recalls
past times and looks around,
and those tombs that enclose the dust
of those who will never lack fame
until the universe itself first dissolves,
and all is involved in one great ruin,
trust in you to heal all their ills.
O famous Scipios, o loyal Brutus,
how pleased you must be, if the rumour has yet
reached you there, of this well-judged appointment!
I think indeed Fabricius
will be delighted to hear the news!
And will say: ‘My Rome will once more be beautiful!’

And if Heaven cares for anything down here,
the souls, that up there are citizens,
and have abandoned their bodies to earth,
pray you to put an end to civil hatred,
that means the people have no real safety:
so the way to their temples that once
were so frequented is blocked, and now
they have almost become thieves’ dens in this strife,
so that their doors are only closed against virtue,
and amongst the altars and the naked statues
they commit every savage act.
Ah what alien deeds!
And no assault begun without a peal of bells
that were hung on high in thanks to God.

Weeping women, the defenceless children
of tender years, and the wearied old
who hate themselves and their burdened life,
and the black friars, the grey and the white,
with a crowd of others troubled and infirm,
cry: ‘O Lord, help us, help us.’
And the poor citizens dismayed
show you their wounds, thousand on thousands,
that Hannibal, no less, would pity them.
And if you gaze at the mansion of God
that is all ablaze today, if you stamped out
a few sparks, the will would become calm,
that shows itself so inflamed,
then your work would be praised to the skies.

Bears, wolves, lions, eagles and serpents
commit atrocities against a great
marble column, and harm themselves by it.
Because this gentle lady grieves at it,
she calls to you that you may root out
those evil plants that will never flower.
For more than a thousand years now
she has lacked those gracious spirits
who had placed her where she was.
Ah, you new people, proud by any measure,
lacking in reverence for such and so great a mother!
You, be husband and father:
all help is looked for from your hands,
for the Holy Father attends to other things.

It rarely happens that injurious fortune
is not opposed to the highest enterprises,
when hostile fate is in tune with ill.
But now clearing the path you take,
she makes me pardon many other offences,
being out of sorts with herself:
so that in all the history of the world
the way was never so open to a mortal man
to achieve, as you can, immortal fame,
by helping a nobler monarchy, if I
am not mistaken, rise to its feet.
What glory will be yours, to hear:
‘Others helped her when she was young and strong:
this one saved her from death in her old age.’

On the Tarpeian Rock, my song, you’ll see
a knight, whom all Italy honours,
thinking of others more than of himself.
Say to him: ‘One who has not seen you close to,
and only loves you from your human fame,
tells you that all of Rome
with eyes wet and bathed with sorrow,
begs mercy of you from all her seven hills.’

-Verse no. 53 from this English translation of Petrarch

The dominion of priests is most odious to a liberal spirit: every scruple was removed by the recent knowledge of the fable and forgery of Constantine’s donation; Petrarch was now the oracle of the Italians; and as often as Porcaro revolved the ode which describes the patriot and hero of Rome, he applied to himself the visions of the prophetic bard.

His first trial of the popular feelings was at the funeral of Eugenius the Fourth: in an elaborate speech he called the Romans to liberty and arms; and they listened with apparent pleasure, till Porcaro was interrupted and answered by a grave advocate, who pleaded for the church and state.

By every law the seditious orator was guilty of treason; but the benevolence of the new pontiff [Pope Nicholas V -ed.], who viewed his character with pity and esteem, attempted by an honorable office to convert the patriot into a friend.

The inflexible Roman returned from Anagni with an increase of reputation and zeal; and, on the first opportunity, the games of the place Navona, he tried to inflame the casual dispute of some boys and mechanics into a general rising of the people.

Yet the humane Nicholas was still averse to accept the forfeit of his life; and the traitor was removed from the scene of temptation to Bologna, with a liberal allowance for his support, and the easy obligation of presenting himself each day before the governor of the city.

But Porcaro had learned from the younger Brutus, that with tyrants no faith or gratitude should be observed: the exile declaimed against the arbitrary sentence; a party and a conspiracy were gradually formed: his nephew, a daring youth, assembled a band of volunteers; and on the appointed evening a feast was prepared at his house for the friends of the republic. Their leader, who had escaped from Bologna, appeared among them in a robe of purple and gold: his voice, his countenance, his gestures, bespoke the man who had devoted his life or death to the glorious cause.

In a studied oration, he expiated on the motives and the means of their enterprise; the name and liberties of Rome; the sloth and pride of their ecclesiastical tyrants; the active or passive consent of their fellow-citizens; three hundred soldiers, and four hundred exiles, long exercised in arms or in wrongs; the license of revenge to edge their swords, and a million of ducats to reward their victory. It would be easy, (he said,) on the next day, the festival of the Epiphany, to seize the pope and his cardinals, before the doors, or at the altar, of St. Peter’s; to lead them in chains under the walls of St. Angelo; to extort by the threat of their instant death a surrender of the castle; to ascend the vacant Capitol; to ring the alarm bell; and to restore in a popular assembly the ancient republic of Rome.

While he triumphed, he was already betrayed.

The senator, with a strong guard, invested the house: the nephew of Porcaro cut his way through the crowd; but the unfortunate Stephen was drawn from a chest, lamenting that his enemies had anticipated by three hours the execution of his design.

After such manifest and repeated guilt, even the mercy of Nicholas was silent. Porcaro, and nine of his accomplices, were hanged without the benefit of the sacraments; and, amidst the fears and invectives of the papal court, the Romans pitied, and almost applauded, these martyrs of their country. But their applause was mute, their pity ineffectual, their liberty forever extinct; and, if they have since risen in a vacancy of the throne or a scarcity of bread, such accidental tumults may be found in the bosom of the most abject servitude.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Italy,Martyrs,Other Voices,Papal States,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries

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1499: Paolo Vitelli, duplicitous commander

Add comment October 1st, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1499, Florence decapitated its chief general for dereliction of command.

Paolo Vitelli, a noted condottiero whose family had taken over Citta di Castello, was hired by the post-Savonarola Florentine Republic during the Italian Wars to campaign against Florence’s traditional rival, Pisa.

“If this man had taken Pisa, nobody can deny that it would have been proper for the Florentines to keep in with him,” mused Machiavelli years later in The Prince. “For if he became the soldier of their enemies they had no means of resisting, and if they held to him they must obey him.”

The prospective kingpin made fantastic progress against the Pisans, and when news reached his Florentine patrons that Vitelli had taken a key gate in Pisa’s walls, the city smugly began drawing up wishlists of humiliations to heap upon the vanquished. But at the critical moment, “just when the whole army, and especially the youthful Florentines who had joined the camp as volunteers, were carrying all before them by their indomitable ardour, they were suddenly ordered to retreat. And Paolo Vitelli, seeing the unwillingness of the soldiers to obey, rushed among them with his brother Vitellozzo* and drove them back with blows.”

As jaws hit tables all around Florence, Pisa’s defenders were hurriedly patching the breach and retrenching. The attackers had ransacked their treasury to finance the expedition; there was nothing for a do-over. Had Vitelli quailed, or was he playing some double game? Either way, Machiavelli lamented — contemporaneously this time, in his capacity as an emissary of state — “We should have preferred defeat to inaction at so decisive a moment.”

With mingled urgency and circumspection, Florence’s leaders arranged to invite Vitteli to a war council at which he was arrested. Interrogated on September 30th, he was beheaded the very next day.

* Three years later, Paolo’s brother Vitellozzo would also achieve the pages of Executed Today … and once again did so under the sharp eyes of Machiavelli.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Florence,History,Italy,Military Crimes,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1442: Nguyen Trai

Add comment September 19th, 2018 Headsman

On this date* in 1442, Vietnamese writer, commander, and politician Nguyen Trai died for regicide.

The Confucian scholar (English Wikipedia entry | the far more detailed Vietnamese) was already a patriotic hero for taking to the hills in the successful rebellion that had expelled the occupation of the Chinese Ming dynasty some years before.

This philosopher of irregular war was famed for the very contemporary-sounding aphorism “better to conquer hearts than citadels”;** five centuries on, the great general of another era’s Vietnamese liberation struggle would credit Nguyen Trai’s “attacks on the minds, i.e. propaganda work among the enemy, persuading the enemy to surrender in many cities.”

A literal warrior-poet, Trai bequeathed the ages a corpus of beautiful musings to go with his martial axioms.

To A Friend

My fate naturally has many twists and sharp turns,
So in everything I trust in the wisdom of God.
I still have my tongue — believe me, I am able to talk,
Even though I’m still poor and, as we know, pathetic.
Never to return, the past flies too quickly and the time is short,
But, wandering in this cold room, the night is far too long.
I’ve been reading books for ten years, but I’m poor from clothes to bone
From eating only vegetables and sitting without a cushion.

But the very sharpest turn in his fate was the last one, when the Vietnamese sovereign, healthy and young and passing through the area, paid a courtesy call on the 60-something statesman — and shockingly turned up dead in the morning, thrusting the kingdom into turmoil since his heir was an infant. We have seen in these pages that inhabiting the mere vicinity of an unexpected royal death can be an extremely dangerous situation; so it was for Trai, no matter his former heroism or his poignant verse.

Perhaps his situation as the favored royal advisor had cultivated the envy of rival courtiers who suddenly found themselves in a position to vent their pique; or, maybe it was nothing but tunnel vision where the situation of being the most proximate initial suspect would transmute into an irresistibly self-reinforcing certainty. Or could this celestial household really have been involved in regicide? It’s one of the most famous mysteries in Vietnam’s history.

The man’s contemporaries came to their conclusion almost instantly. Barely six weeks after the emperor’s unexpected death, Nguyen Trai was put to death — and not only he but his wife, Nguyen Thi Lo and all their kin. It’s one of history’s most notorious incidents of the execution of nine relations — the most severe collective punishment to be found in China and Vietnam, wherein anyone closely related to an arch-traitor could be destroyed in a family extermination.

Twenty years later, Emperor Le Thanh Tong formally exonerated the man of the charge, a verdict that has been endorsed by a posterity that honors Nguyen Trai as a national hero.

* We’re translating the date from the Vietnamese lunisolar calendar, a perilous venture. I’m well outside my expertise here but sources I can find are unanimous on this date and Vietnamese calendar converters such as this one appear to agree.

** Another great Nguyen Trai-ism for guerrilla war: “Like the ocean which supports a ship but can also overturn it, so the people can support the throne or sink it.”

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Guerrillas,History,Intellectuals,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Politicians,Power,Soldiers,Treason,Vietnam,Wrongful Executions

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1402: Fang Xiaoru, of the ten agnates

Add comment July 25th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1402, the Yongle Emperor cemented his seizure of the throne by purging Confucian scholar-bureaucrat Fang Xiaoru with a legendary extermination to ten degrees of kinship.

Our numerous executions on this occasion bring us to the close of a three-year civil war that ensued the death of the Ming dynasty founder, known as the Hongwu Emperor. In this conflict, the old man’s designated successor, a grandson who took the ironic regnal moniker of Jianwen Emperor (meaning “establishing civility”), was defeated and deposed by one of the old man’s sons, a prince whose name can be transliterated as Zhu Di or Chu Ti.

The uncle was much the abler commander while the nephew was plagued by defections. In July of 1402, Zhu Di’s forces captured the capital city of Nanjing; the Jianwen emperor vanished into history’s fogs — burned to death, Zhu Di would claim, citing an unrecognizable corpse charred in the blaze that consumed the imperial palace; rumors long persisted that he had occulted himself into the mountains in a monk’s robes.

Either way, Zhu Di had occasion now to announce himself the Yongle Emperor. “Perpetual happiness,” that one means. And to make sure that everyone would real happy with the new arrangements, Boss Yongle insisted on the immediate fealty of the capital’s intelligentsia. “Those who are guilty I do not dare to pardon,” he said of the late emperor’s ex-ministers. “Those who are innocent I do not dare to execute.”

Most of those presented with these alternatives chose judiciously, as attested by the Yongle Emperor’s subsequent 22-year reign.

But our principal Fang Xiaoru was the most famous among a number of scholars to stand athwart history yelling stop.* For malcontents like Fang, the Yongle Emperor offered a compelling dissuasion in the form of the ancient “extermination of nine agnates”: the collective execution of the traitor’s entire family, compassing nine different classes of relations.

  1. The criminal himself
  2. His parents
  3. His grandparents
  4. His children (and children’s spouses)
  5. His grandchildren
  6. The criminal’s spouse
  7. The spouse’s parents
  8. The criminal’s aunts and uncles
  9. The criminal’s cousins

We don’t know how all his cousins and in-laws felt about the matter but for his own part, Fang was undaunted: “Never mind nine agnates; give me ten!” And that’s just what they did, drafting the scholar’s own pupils into the hecatomb as the tenth degree, an extremity unequaled in the history of China or academia.

All told, the ten agnates numbered 873 people, among perhaps as many as ten thousand noncompliant officials and family members purged overall. Yet still as he died, hewed apart at the waist, Fang dipped his finger in his own gore and scrawled on the floor his own last verdict on the new emperor: the single Chinese character meaning “usurper”.


An execution by “waist severing” delivers what it promises.

* Others include Huang Zicheng and Lian Zining. See “Venerating the Martyrs of the 1402 Usurpation: History and Memory in the Mid and Late Ming Dynasty” by Peter Ditmanson, T’oung Pao, Second Series, Vol. 93, Fasc. 1/3 (2007), pp. 110-158.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,Gruesome Methods,History,Innocent Bystanders,Intellectuals,Power,Treason

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1483: William Hastings, trusting too much

Add comment June 13th, 2018 Headsman

This honourable man, a good knight and a gentle; of living somewhat dissolute; plain and open to his enemy, secret to his friend, easy to beguile, as he that of good heart and courage forestudieth no perils; a loving man, and passing well-beloved; very faithful, and trusty enough — trusting too much.

Thomas More‘s assessment of William Hastings

The Baron Hastings arose this date as the trusted councillor of the Lord Protector. Before dinner, he’d had his head chopped off over a log in the Tower of London.


Lord Hastings sported this fancy badge of a handsomely endowed manticore.
Richard III, Act 3, Scene 4
by William Shakespeare

Richard III (Duke of Gloucester).
I pray you all, tell me what they deserve
That do conspire my death with devilish plots
Of damned witchcraft, and that have prevail’d
Upon my body with their hellish charms?

Lord Hastings.
The tender love I bear your grace, my lord,
Makes me most forward in this noble presence
To doom the offenders, whatsoever they be
I say, my lord, they have deserved death.

Richard III (Duke of Gloucester).
Then be your eyes the witness of this ill:
See how I am bewitch’d; behold mine arm
Is, like a blasted sapling, wither’d up:
And this is Edward’s wife, that monstrous witch,
Consorted with that harlot strumpet Shore,
That by their witchcraft thus have marked me.

Lord Hastings.
If they have done this thing, my gracious lord —

Richard III (Duke of Gloucester).
If? thou protector of this damned strumpet —
Tellest thou me of ‘ifs’? Thou art a traitor:
Off with his head! Now, by Saint Paul I swear,
I will not dine until I see the same.
Lovel and Ratcliff, look that it be done:
The rest, that love me, rise and follow me.

[Exeunt all but HASTINGS, RATCLIFF, and LOVEL]

Lord Hastings.
Woe, woe for England! not a whit for me;
For I, too fond, might have prevented this.
Stanley did dream the boar did raze his helm;
But I disdain’d it, and did scorn to fly:
Three times to-day my foot-cloth horse did stumble,
And startled, when he look’d upon the Tower,
As loath to bear me to the slaughter-house.
O, now I want the priest that spake to me:
I now repent I told the pursuivant
As ’twere triumphing at mine enemies,
How they at Pomfret bloodily were butcher’d,
And I myself secure in grace and favour.
O Margaret, Margaret, now thy heavy curse
Is lighted on poor Hastings’ wretched head!

Sir Richard Ratcliff.
Dispatch, my lord; the duke would be at dinner:
Make a short shrift; he longs to see your head.

Lord Hastings.
O momentary grace of mortal men,
Which we more hunt for than the grace of God!
Who builds his hopes in air of your good looks,
Lives like a drunken sailor on a mast,
Ready, with every nod, to tumble down
Into the fatal bowels of the deep.

Lord Lovel.
Come, come, dispatch; ’tis bootless to exclaim.

Lord Hastings.
O bloody Richard! miserable England!
I prophesy the fearful’st time to thee
That ever wretched age hath look’d upon.
Come, lead me to the block; bear him my head.
They smile at me that shortly shall be dead.

A longtime Yorkist pillar during the Wars of the Roses, Hastings parlayed his many years of proximity to King Edward IV into still-extant architectural glories like Ashby Castle and Kirby Castle.

Of greater moment for the pivotal year of 1483 was Hastings’s bitter enmity with the Woodville family — the kin of widowed queen when Edward died suddenly in 1483. In his life, the king had checked the rivalry between Woodvilles and York magnates. But “the king’s death at once broke up the unity of the court, the peace of the country, and the fortunes of the house of York.”

Before Edward’s body went cold, both factions raced into the power vacuum: the heir was a 12-year-old who wasn’t event present in the capital when his father died. Power in the realm hinged on the actions of men like Hastings in April and May of 1483.

And Hastings made the most of his moment — to his own later grief. While the Woodvilles flexed during the first days of the regency, Hastings drug his feet, threatened to start a civil war, and successfully negotiated for the respective sides to minimize their armed retinues when they arrived for the coronation of young Edward V. He also wrote urgently to the new de facto captain of Team York, the late king’s brother, Richard of Gloucester.

Hastening to answer the call, Gloucester hijacked a too-lax royal convoy en route to London, acquiring custody of the heir, and rolled into town that May as the master of both the boy king’s person and the political situation. Edward V and his brother were the urchins destined to disappear into the Tower of London; Gloucester would eventually crown himself King Richard III. The Woodvilles fled from power and danger, to the sanctuary of an obliging cathedral.

Big win for Bill Hastings, right? He

was extremely elated at these changes to which the affairs of the world are so subject, and was in the habit of saying that hitherto nothing whatever had been done except the transferring of the government of the kingdom from two of the queen’s blood to two more powerful persons of the king’s; and this, too, effected without any slaughter, or indeed causing as much blood to be shed as would be produced by the cut of a finger. In the course, however, of a very few days after the utterance of these words, this extreme of joy of his supplanted with sorrow. (Croyland Chronicle)

The sorrow arrived like a thunderbolt at a particularly infamous royal council meeting on June 13, 1483, when Gloucester seemingly out of nowhere denounced Hastings as a traitor, along with three others. The others we set aside; they were politically insulated from membership in the pages of Executed Today. But not so Hastings, who was detailed for immediate beheading on Gloucester’s say-so, and never mind the trial.

Politics on this plane was intrinsically cutthroat; nevertheless, this shock destruction of an essential ally puts Richard in a pretty unflattering light. Was he really, as Gloucester claimed, plotting against him? Perhaps Gloucester perceived Hastings too loyal to Edward V at a moment when he was resolved upon usurpation? Had it factored, as the proclamation alleged, that Hastings took up with the late king’s remarkable mistress Jane Shore,* “one of his secret counsel in this heinous treason, with whom he lay nightly, and namely the night past before his death”? Claims and counterclaims around this black June 13 grow thick on the ground, none of them rooted in any decisive evidence.

The estimable David Crowther deals with these perilous months in Episode 187 of the History of England Podcast. The guest episode 187a in that same series explores the aforementioned mistress of William Hastings, whose humiliating public penance inspired the Walk of Shame scene in Game of Thrones.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Power,Summary Executions,Treason

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1453: Alvaro de Luna, Spanish favorite

Add comment June 2nd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1453, the man who was once the power behind Castile’s throne became its foremost cautionary metaphor.

The greatest privado — royal favorite — in Spain’s annals, Alvaro de Luna (English Wikipedia entry | the far more detailed Spanish) sprang from noble albeit illiterate stock. He came to the Castilian court in 1410 as a witty and talented young page and adroitly got his hooks into the five-year-old crown prince, the future Juan II.

Quite uncommonly for a royal favorite, Don Alvaro held his king’s affection for many decades, and even while enriching himself into the mightiest subject in the land, he energetically served his prince’s interest.

Chief among these was managing the truculent nobility who would surely have dominated the weak-willed Juan but for his capable lieutenant — who was known from 1423 ask the Constable of Castile and Count of San Esteban de Gormaz in 1423. Don Alvaro proved a consummate politico, scheming to deflect the ambitions of Juan’s rivals and to consolidate the power of the throne … which meant his own power, too. To a very great degree the favorite was the real sovereign, until he suddenly wasn’t.

“Alvaro de Luna would probably not be particularly consoled by the judgement of modern historians,” observes a wry James Boyden in The World of the Favourite** — for they “praise his efforts on behalf of Juan II for opening the way to royal absolutism in Castile, citing his own arbitrary death sentence as the clinching proof of the newfound powers of the crown.”

Don Alvaro’s downfall from his post of seemingly unassailable preeminence satisfied every literary device imaginable, beginning with poetic justice.

When Juan’s first wife, Maria of Aragon, died in 1445 — and Don Alvaro’s own hand has been suspected in that death — the Constable managed Juan’s pivot to 19-year-old Portuguese princess Isabella as the successor queen.

From her advantageous position in the king’s bed, Isabella soon began to work against Don Alvaro. She resented his intrusions into even their most intimate chambers, and she surely feared sharing the fate of her predecessor, Maria. Eventually, her arguments carried the day. Boyden once again:

It is difficult to imagine a more striking illustration of the transitory nature of earthly fortune than the spectacle of the constable’s execution in a public square of Valladolid on 2 June 1453. Certainly the event caught the imagination of contemporary poets. ‘Look then to that great Constable,’ wrote Jorge Manrique, ‘the Master whom we knew so deeply favoured by the king / And yet even of him nothing more need be said than that we saw him beheaded. / His limitless treasures, his towns and villages, his power of command / What did they bring him but tears? / What were they to him except sorrows at the leaving?’

According to Juan II, Don Alvaro’s principal crime was that he ‘has for a long time held and usurped a chief position near me and in my household and court’, and despite having been admonished about his excessive pride and effrontery ‘he has persevered in it … grasping more power to himself each day, excessively, without temperance or measure, so that there remains to me no more room to rule and administer my kingdoms personally, nor to maintain my towns in justice and truth and law …’

Not surprisingly, the constable saw matters in another light. While the king alleged usurpation of his royal authority, Don Alvaro responded with a charge of ingratitude, levelled in a tone meant to convey the sadness and resignation of a loyal servant stripped at last of his illusions. Rather than withdraw into a well-deserved retirement after forty-five years of service, he wrote,

I chose … to serve as I was in duty bound and as I felt the situation demanded; I deceived myself, for this service has been the cause of my misfortune. How bitter that I should find myself deprived of liberty who more than once have risked life and fortune to preserve your highness’s freedom! I am well aware that for my great sins I have angered God, and I will consider it a boon if I can placate his rage through these travails.

This appeal to justice was accompanied by an offer of treasure, but neither swayed the king, who was so intent upon Don Alvaro’s destruction that he would finally order his execution despite the failure of a hand-picked tribunal to render a clear sentence of death.

Although it cut no ice with his king, Alvaro de Luna’s posture of betrayed fidelity — his courage and dignity on the scaffold, ere his throat was cut and his severed head mounted on a hook — helped to salvage what might easily have become a hateful reputation among Spaniards. The annalist Pedro de Escavias recorded that Don Alvaro “struck terror into all who saw him” but “he died with a good countenance and good courage, as a knight and a faithful Christian should. May God forgive him, for he handled many great matters in the days when he enjoyed the king’s favour.” (Quoted in the out-of-print volume The Greatest Man Uncrowned: A Study of the Fall of Don Alvaro de Luna) This respectful epitaph is evident in the numerous artistic treatments around the Constable’s corpse.


Collection to Bury the Body of Alvaro de Luna, by Ramirez Ibanez Manual (1884)

Collection to Bury the Body of Alvaro de Luna, by Jose Maria Rodriguez de Losada (1867)

Burial of Alvaro de Luna, by Eduardo Cano de la Pena (19th century).

Juan’s rancor did not extend to denying his favorite an ornate tomb in Toledo Cathedral. Like all the best sovereign-favorite pairs — Richelieu comes to mind — Juan II soon followed to the grave his secret-sharer, dying in July 1454 allegedly stricken with remorse.† His daughter was Isabella of Castile, famed of Christopher Columbus sponsorship.

* There appears to be some ambiguity among sources between June 2 and June 3 whose resolution lies beyond the reach of myself and perhaps of any human. I tentatively prefer June 2 based on a preponderance of citations, and because June 3 was a Sunday.

** There’s also a fine essay on our principal to be found in The Emergence of León-Castile c.1065-1500: Essays Presented to J.F. O’Callaghan.

† However, Juan’s knowledge of his own failing health and a desire to disencumber his successors of this overmighty minister have also been suggested as reasons for Don Alvaro’s destruction. The favorite treads a very treacherous road indeed.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Spain

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1431: Beaumont and Vivonne

Add comment May 31st, 2018 Headsman

From The Law of Treason and Treason Trials in Later Medieval France:

Little is known about the prosecution of treason during the first fifteen years of Charles VII‘s reign. A few minor cases only came before the Parlement of Poitiers. Struggling to consolidate his position against the Anglo-Burgundians, Charles VII appears to have tacitly approved of, even to have subtly encouraged, court intrigues. But when political machinations went beyond certain limits, as was the case with Louis d’Amboise, vicomte of Thouars, Andre de Beaumont, baron of La Haye, and Antoine de Vivonne, Charles VII did not hesitate to act with the full authority at his disposal. During the winter of 1429-30 Amboise, Beaumont and Vivonne plotted not only to seize Georges de La Tremoille, the most powerful lord at court, and to kill him if necessary, but also to take the king into custody. Amboise was one of Artur de Richemont‘s staunchest allies, and one does not have to look very hard to see the hand of the constable, then fallen from grace, in this conspiracy to take control of the government. Amboise, Beaumont and Vivonne were arrested in mid-November 1430, but it seems that not all the details of their treason were known to the king at that time. When Charles VII decided to take Amboise with him from Loches to Saint-Aignan, Amboise managed to send word to his intimates and advised them to ambush the royal party in order to free him. It was the king’s discovery of this communication that sealed Amboise’s fate. He, Vivonne and Beaumont were subsequently imprisoned at Poitiers. Charles VII then commissioned the presidents and lay councillors of the Parlement there, along with several members of the grand conseil, to conduct their trial. On the advice of his commissioners Charles VII himself then condemned the three traitors to death, with confiscation of their property. This procedure was a compromise between the king’s personal act of justice and condemnation by a court, and was to be a regular feature of the prosecution of treason in the reigns of Charles VII and Louis XI. On 31 May 1431 Beaumont and Vivonne were executed, but Charles VII commuted Amboise’s death sentence to a term of imprisonment ‘at our good pleasure’; and Amboise’s children were spared the penalty of complete disinheritance that would ordinarily have ensued. In not having Amboise executed Charles VII demonstrated for the first time the clemency towards members of the higher nobility that was a distinct characteristic of his rule. In 1434, at the intercession of Yolande d’Aragon and Charles d’Anjou — La Tremoille had since fallen from power and the Angevins were now in the ascendants at court — Charles VII released Amboise from prison and restored to him all of his property except for the castellanies of Chaumont, Chateau-Gontier and Amboise.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Nobility,Pardons and Clemencies,Public Executions,Treason

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