Regent Morton had a reputation for avarice during his run in the 1570s. However, deriving as it does from his executive impingement on the treasures of courtiers and clans no less grasping than himself, that reputation probably ought to be taken with a grain of salt.
If nothing else, Regent Morton had the excuse of king and country. Sir Walter Scott, for one, favored this Red Douglas with a much more charitably statesmanlike gloss in The Monastery and The Abbott.
As one example, Morton irked divines by enforcing with a minimum of pious exceptions a pre-existing statute requiring a one-third cut of ecclesiastical revenues.
In 1578, this Argyll kidnapped King James VI and induced the 12-year-old to declare his majority and dismiss the Earl of Morton. Argyll landed a Chancellorship out of the deal: Morton — well, you know. He would eventually be accused, 14 years’ belatedly but not inaccurately, of complicity in the 1567 murder of Lord Darnley.
Argyll in the end lost his head to that distinctive Scottish proto-guillotine known as the Maiden. Though the apparatus actually dates back to 1564,* a legend as moralistic as it is specious holds that the Regent Morton was himself the man who ordered construction of the device that would eventually end his own life. Sir Walter could hardly be asked to resist that kind of material:
“Look you, Adam, I were loth to terrify you, and you just come from a journey; but I promise you, Earl Morton hath brought you down a Maiden from Halifax, you never saw the like of her — and she’ll clasp you round the neck, and your head will remain in her arms.”
“Pshaw!” answered Adam, “I am too old to have my head turned by any maiden of them all. I know my Lord of Morton will go as far for a buxom lass as anyone; but what the devil took him to Halifax all the way? and if he has got a gamester there, what hath she to do with my head?”
“Much, much!” answered Michael. “Herod’s daughter, who did such execution with her foot and ankle, danced not men’s heads off more cleanly than this maiden of Morton. ‘Tis an axe, man, — an axe which falls of itself like a sash window, and never gives the headsmen the trouble to wield it.”
“By my faith, a shrewd device,” said Woodcock; “heaven keep us free on’t!”
Beware, trust not in the vanity of the world, and especially in the flattering of the court … if I had followed God’s word in deed as I did read it and set it forth to my power, I had not come to this.
This was the execution date in 1536 of Anne Boleyn‘s co-accused, the undercard to the deposed queen’s beheading.
It was the accusation of adultery that furnished Anne’s downfall; some adulterers were perforce required. These were William Brereton, Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, Mark Smeaton … and the ex-queen’s own brother, George Boleyn.
They had just days prior been subjected to a trial whose outcome was a foregone conclusion. All pleaded their innocence save Smeaton, a commoner court musician who could not withstand torture and “admitted” fooling around with Queen Anne.*
Along with Smeaton, three gentlemen-doomed plucked from the Tudor court’s shadowy recesses — joined to the legendary queen at the chopping-block, if not very probably in her bed.
Norris, the Groom of the Stool
Weston, a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber
Brereton, a Groom of the Privy Chamber
“Everyone was moved at their misfortune, especially at the case of Weston, who was young and of old lineage and high accomplishments,” one contemporary recorded of the fearful pall cast upon King Henry’s court by the purge. “But no one dared plead for him, except his mother, who, oppressed with grief, petitioned the King, and his wife, who offered rents and goods for his deliverance.”
The most egregious charge, naturally, did not concern these men. To put the fallen queen beyond the reach of sympathy it was alleged that she
following daily her frail and carnal lust … procured and incited her own natural brother, Geo. Boleyn, lord Rocheford, gentleman of the privy chamber, to violate her, alluring him with her tongue in the said George’s mouth, and the said George’s tongue in hers, and also with kisses, presents, and jewels; whereby he, despising the commands of God, and all human laws, violated and carnally knew the said Queen, his own sister, at Westminster; which he also did on divers other days before and after at the same place, sometimes by his own procurement and sometimes by the Queen’s.
This outrageous smear on the extremely specious grounds that big brother “had been once found a long time with her, and with certain other little follies,” invited as much skepticism among the Boleyns’ contemporaries as it does for posterity. Even after Anne had been condemned for adultery and incest in her stage-managed trial, George — the last of the bunch to face the tribunal — fought his corner so vigorously “that several of those present wagered 10 to 1 that he would be acquitted, especially as no witnesses were produced against either him or her, as it is usual to do, particularly when the accused denies the charge.”
A foolish bet, but perhaps one placed from a position of willful hope. If a peer of the realm could be condemned a traitor for hanging out with his sister, then no Henrician nobleman could hope to sleep securely.
Little could their dread fathom the bloody years to come. Many who saw the Boleyns’ heads drop would in time have cause to make of their gambling winnings a purse to tip their own executioners.
Thomas Cromwell, who engineered the Boleyn faction’s fall, outlived it by barely four years. The Earl of Surrey, who sat in judgment on this occasion, lost his head in 1547; his father the Duke of Norfolk,** who was the presiding judge, only avoided execution because Henry VIII died hours before Norfolk was to go to the block. George Boleyn’s wife, Lady Rochford, is supposed to have provided evidence against him; she was later swept up in the fall of Catherine Howard and beheaded for her trouble on that occasion.
But those were tragedies for later days.
In the spring of 1536, from his window in the Tower, the poet Thomas Wyatt witnessed this date’s executions: the young Anne’s last lover before the king descended on her, Wyatt too had been initially implicated in debauching the queen and he was fortunate not to be among their number. (Wyatt’s son would not be as lucky.) The shaken Wyatt wrote his fellow courtiers’ heartbreaking eulogy, and perhaps that of his era too, in his verse reflection on that terrible fall from fortune. (Via)
Veritas Viat Fides
me inimici mei
by Sir Thomas Wyatt, the Elder
Who list his wealth and ease retain,
Himself let him unknown contain.
Press not too fast in at that gate
Where the return stands by disdain,
For sure, circa Regna tonat.†
The high mountains are blasted oft
When the low valley is mild and soft.
Fortune with Health stands at debate.
The fall is grievous from aloft.
And sure, circa Regna tonat.
These bloody days have broken my heart.
My lust, my youth did them depart,
And blind desire of estate.
Who hastes to climb seeks to revert.
Of truth, circa Regna tonat.
The bell tower showed me such sight
That in my head sticks day and night.
There did I learn out of a grate,
For all favour, glory, or might,
That yet circa Regna tonat.
By proof, I say, there did I learn:
Wit helpeth not defence too yerne,
Of innocency to plead or prate.
Bear low, therefore, give God the stern,
For sure, circa Regna tonat.
* In the Tower awaiting execution, Anne would voice worry for Smeaton’s soul when she learned that he had failed to retract this confession at the block. But Smeaton and all the men were beheaded in preference to a sentence of drawing and quartering, and had reason to be cautious about their comportment on the scaffold lest crueler torments be reinstated for them.
** Norfolk was Anne Boleyn’s uncle.
† Circa Regna tonat: “Around the throne it thunders”, from Seneca’s Phaedra.
osing his head on May 12, 1543 made Jakob Karrer von Gebweiler’s name in the annals of art and and medicine.
The remains of the Basel felon — who attacked his wife with a knife when she discovered his bigamous marriage — were turned over after execution to Andreas Vesalius.
That brilliant Flemish doctor was in the midst of a proper Renaissance leveling up of medicine, lifting it past the centuries-long thrall of ancient Greek physician Galen.
Human dissection was essential to Vesalius’s project, as it was alike to many other medical men and to artists too. In his career, Vesalius’s cunning scalpel stripped numerous cadavers for students and urban grandees. With Karrer, Vesalius performed a public dissection, articulating Karrer’s skeleton.
Gifted to the university there, the skeleton was restored in 1985 and can be seen to this day at the Institute of Anatomy in Basel, Switzerland — one of the very earliest still-preserved articulated skeletons.
Why is it a Basel criminal who enjoys this distinction?
From Wikipedia’s library of De Humani illustrations.
Because in 1543, Vesalius was in that city* to work with printer Johannes Oporinus, even then publishing the physician’s magnum opus De Humani Corporis Fabrica. Vesalius personally transported to Oporinus the famously gorgeous and detailed woodcuts of Titian’s pupil Joannes Stephanus Calcarensis that made De Humani a smash hit in Vesalius’s own time and one of the most treasured artifacts of Renaissance scholarship.
“If I flinch from the pain of the burning, believe not the doctrine that I have preached.
— His words on being chained to the stake.
Bloody Mary’s venomous flames can curl;
They can shrivel sinew and char bone
Of foot, ankle, knee and thigh, and boil
Bowels, and drop his heart a cinder down;
And her soldiers can cry, as they hurl
Logs in the red rush: “This is her sermon.”
The sullen-jowled watching Welsh townspeople
Hear him crack in the fire’s mouth: they see what
Black oozing twist of stuff bubbles the smell
That tars and retches their lungs: no pulpit
Of his ever held their eyes so still,
Never, as now his agony, his wit.
An ignorant means to establish ownership
Of his flock! Thus their shepherd she seized
And knotted him into this blazing shape
In their eyes, as if such could have cauterized
The trust they turned towards him, and branded on
Its stump her claim, to outlaw question.
So it might have been: seeing their exemplar
And teacher burned for his lessons to black bits,
Their silence might have disowned him to her,
And hung up what he had taught with their Welsh hats:
Who sees his blasphemous father struck by fire
From heaven, might well be heard to speak no oaths.
But the fire that struck here, come from Hell even,
Kindled little heavens in his words
As he fed his body to the flame alive.
Words which, before they will be dumbly spared,
Will burn their body and be tongued with fire
Make paltry folly of flesh and this world’s air.
When they saw what annuities of hours
And comfortable blood he burned to get
His words a bare honouring in their ears,
The shrewd townsfolk pocketed them hot:
Stamp was not current but they rang and shone
As good gold as any queen’s crown.
Gave all he had, and yet the bargain struck
To a merest farthing his whole agony,
His body’s cold-kept miserdom on shrieks
He gave uncounted, while out of his eyes,
Out of his mouth, fire like a glory broke,
And smoke burned his sermon into the skies.
Dutch artisan Sikke Freriks, beheaded on this date in 1531 in Leeuwarden‘s market, was the first Anabaptist put to death in that Friesland city.
While a minor milestone in the crowded history of Reformation martyrdoms, Freriks had a noteworthy posthumous effect: word of his heresy — adherence to adult, rather than infant, baptism — came to the ears of a Catholic priest, who later wrote that a man’s dying for this illicit doctrine led him to investigate it further.
To his amazement, the priest found no scriptural support for the established church’s practice of baptizing infants before they developed the maturity and volition to embrace Christ from the will of their own hearts. Christians are “cheated” by the loss of that opportunity of freely giving oneself in baptism, he later wrote.
This man, Menno Simons, would follow his discomfiting scrutiny of holy writ all the way out of the priesthood and into that same forbidden sect. His preeminence in the Anabaptist movement after its disastrous Münster rebellion — and particularly his pacifistic orientation — eventually ennobled him as the founder as well as the namesake of the Mennonites, a term that in Menno Simons’s own lifetime became all but synonymous for Dutch Anabaptism.
In an admittedly borderline “execution”, Louis de Bourbon, the Hugueunot Prince of Conde, was killed summarily at the end of the Battle of Jarnac on this date in 1569.
This nobleman’s conversion to Protestantism had been attended with the zeal so usual to that period. In the case of Conde (English Wikipedia link | French), that meant dipping his beak into some dramatic plotting.
Though nothing could be proved about him, the Catholic faction suspected him of being a leading spirit in the 1560 Amboise Conspiracy, a plot to kidnap King Francis II.
Nothing daunted by its failure, he spearheaded the even riskier Surprise de Meaux, a design to seize not only King Charles IX but the rest of the royal family in 1567. This time, failure triggered a whole new installment of the on-again, off-again Wars of Religion.
The Year of Our Lord 1569 found Conde at the head of the principal Huguenot army in an extremely tense country. On March 13, that army met the Catholic force of Marshal Gaspard de Saulx at the Battle of Jarnac.*
The result was a smashing victory for the Catholics. As the disaster unfolded, Conde, wounded and alone, tried to offer his surrender to an enemy guardsman. He was instead shot on the spot — and his body borne back to Catholic lines for jeering.
Niccolo Machiavelli‘s exile from Florentine politics — and subsequent entry into the intellectual canon — was cinched this date in 1513 when two of his friends (or possibly co-conspirators) were executed for a plot against the Medici.
Days after that stern friar burned to ashes on the Piazza della Signoria, Machiavelli was named the secondo segretario fiorentino,* alongside a primo segretario counterpart, the older and more cautious Marcello Virgilio Adriani.
What a moment this was to be a Florentine! The mighty Medici had been chased out of Florence and with the fall of Savonarola and his grim morals police the humanist dream of a classical republic suddenly seemed within grasp.
Machiavelli was just 29 years old when he reached this office, bursting with a patriot’s reckless exuberance — and a virile young man’s hedonism. He delighted in whores and in boozing around with his Chancery cronies Agostino Vespucci** and Biagio Buonaccorsi.
The correspondence of these indiscreet young Turks fill with profane and cutting takes on the leading citizens of Florence; Machiavelli, who was known in his own time as a playwright and not a political philosopher, was even bold enough to put such ridicule in print. The 1504 play Le Maschere is tragically lost, but by surviving accounts it lampooned “under feigned names, many citizens who were still living.”†
A few books about Niccolo Machiavelli
While not scribbling pasquinades and getting laid, the Second Secretary had matters of state to attend to. We have met him in these pages, as the Florentine ambassador to the court of Cesare Borgia; Machiavelli could not help but admire the condottiero‘s ruthlessness. Machiavelli also represented Florence in Rome, Spain and France.
Showing an equal aptitude for politics by other means, Machiavelli moved the Florentine military muscle towards a citizen militia, presciently replacing its dependence on mercenaries. In 1509 this force captured Pisa.
But Machiavelli’s excessive regard for this strategic advance married to his excessive affinity for the republic of Piero Soderini undid him in the end. While the First Secretary, Adriani, quietly cultivated contacts of various political persuasions, Machiavelli went all in against the stirring Medicean party. This became a problem when the fortunes of peninsular war drove Florence’s French allies away, leaving the city ripe for recapture by Giuliano de’ Medici, who also happened to be the brother of the pope in waiting.
In 1512, a hastily-assembled city militia of about three or four thousand infantry and 100 men-at-arms met an overwhelming Spanish-Papal-Medicean force at Prato. Scrambling to defend a lost cause, Machiavelli had mustered about a third of the militia and was trying to organize the city’s defenses. Florence’s crushing defeat in this battle and the ensuing civic massacre in Prato (with “countless murders, sacrileges and rapes”) convinced the Florentines to depose Piero Soderini and throw open the gates to Giuliano de’ Medici.
This was the end of Machiavelli the statesman … and, of course, the birth of Machiavelli the philosopher. The ensuing 15 years’ frustrating exile left him no other outlet for his political passions save his pen; needless to say, works like The Prince and Discourses on Livy retain exalted seats in the canon down to the present day. (They made little impression on Machiavelli’s contemporaries; Florentines still knew him for the plays he kept writing.)
A few books by Niccolo Machiavelli
When eveniing comes, I return home and enter my study; on the threshold I take off my workday clothes, covered with mud and dirt, and put on the garments of the court and palace. Fitted out appropriately, I step inside the venerable courts of the ancients, where I nourish myself on that food that alone is mine and for which I was born; where I am unashamed to converse with them and to question them about the motives for their actions, and they, out of their human kindness, answer me. And for four hours at a time I feel no boredom, I forget all my troubles, I do not dread poverty, and I am not terrified of death. I metamorphose into them completely.
-Machiavelli, December 10, 1513
The cautious primo segretario Adriani, who could better see where the winds were blowing, survived the transition by having the wisdom not to align himself with the losing party. Whatever the verdict of posterity, the 1510s were Adriani’s time to bask in the center of events while Machiavelli did his work of ages in obscurity.
But what cinched Machiavelli’s unhappy permanent banishment from Florentine politics — notwithstanding unctuous expedients like dedicating The Prince to the Medici ruler — were the events culminating in two February 23, 1513 beheadings.
Machiavelli had been dismissed in November 1512. Four months later, a nascent (or wildly exaggerated) anti-Medici conspiracy led by a republican named Pietro Boscoli came to light. Its chief, and paltry, evidence was little more than a written list of around 20 fellow-travelers, upon which appeared the name of Niccolo Machiavelli. It’s more than likely that the “treason” comprised merely to the idle chatter of some disaffected republicans, but after a generation in exile the newly restored Medici dynasty wasn’t taking any chances.
For the onetime Second Secretary, this meant prison and torture by the strappado. Three months on, he was released to his estate with no political succor save the haunts in his head.
But the head he got to keep — and that was better than one could say for Pietro Boscoli.
Boscoli and one Agostino Capponi were beheaded early in the morning of February 23, a bare eight hours after their death sentences were announced. Their last hours were recorded as a Recitazione by a young friend named Luca della Robbia: the tender Passion scene of Boscoli in particular struggling to come to grips with his shockingly sudden fates. The full narrative can be found in translation by Alison Knowles Frazier in The Art of Executing Well: Rituals of Execution in Renaissance Italy. We excerpt a little taste below:
At about 8 o’clock, having had his supper, Boscoli was brought with his legs in irons to the chapel where … he was told that he had to die …
Pietro Paolo cried out “Oh Pietro Paolo, oh poor Pietro Paolo! What has become of you!”
Poor Pietro Paolo struggles on here for 15-odd pages in evident anguish, veering between practical considerations of the family he is leaving behind and whom to rustle up as his last-minute confessor, and his uncertain spiritual readiness for death (he was particularly upset at being told of his fate after dinner, for “I am too loaded down with food, and I have eaten salty things, so that I don’t feel able to join my spirit to God”). Della Robbia stays with him the whole time; in the latter’s introduction, he says he “noted diligently all his words, both questions and replies, and kept them in my memory … that such a great and well-formed example of strength and spiritedness would not be lost” and recorded them faithfully later on.
By the end, Boscoli has reconciled his mind to the scaffold.
He is escorted down the stairs from the chapel of the Bargello to its interior courtyard where
leaving the first step, he encountered the Confraternity’s‡ crucifix.
“What am I to do?” [Boscoli] said.
“This is your captain, who comes to arm you,” the friar responded. “Greet him, honor him, ask him to make you strong.”
Then he said, “Greetings, Lord Jesus. I adore you, hanging on the cross. Make me, I beg you, like to your Passion. True Lord, I ask you for peace.”
“Okay, yes,” the friar replied, “Your ear heard the preparations …,” and told him once again the three things.§
And he answered, and said, “‘Let your ear hear the preparation of my heart, Lord Jesus.'”
Then the execution, because he wanted to put a kerchief over his eyes, asked his forgiveness and offered to pray to God for him.
“Go ahead and do your duty,” Pietro Paolo said. “And when you have put me at the block, leave me like that for a bit and then finish me off, and that you pray God for me, I accept.”
The reason why he asked for a little time at the block, was that he had all night long always desired a great joining with God and he didn’t feel that he had achieved it as he desired, so that he hoped in that last moment to make a great effort and so to offer himself wholly to God …
Agostino Capponi, whom della Robbia has seen only glancingly over his long narrative, follows Boscoli. Although Capponi required two blows of the executioner’s blade, he perhaps went into the hereafter with a soul better at peace — for he “retained on his face a certain wry expression, perhaps not distant from true sincerity.”
† Landon says the primo segretario Adriani encouraged Machiavelli to publish this play, even though Adriani himself is one of its targets — in Landon’s view, because Adriani was playing a long game for power, and revenge: quietly encouraging Machiavelli’s excesses while positioning himself politically to profit from his consequent fall.
§ Shortly before proceeding to execution, Boscoli steeled himself for the ordeal by resolving that “In this journey I have to have three things. I have to believe the faith. I have to have firm hope that God will pardon me. And the third is that I have to suffer this death for love of Christ and not for others.”
Guillaume Jobert, one of the first Reformation martyrs in Paris, had his tongue bored through on this date in 1526,* then was burned at the stake at the Place Maubert.
Jobert, the young gentleman son of the avocat du roi of La Rochelle, incurred this ghastly punishment by making some impious cracks about the faith and in particular the devotions given St. Genevieve.
Genevieve was no one to be trifled with. She was supposed to have stopped Attila the Hun dead in his tracks with her prayerful intercession and saved Paris from the sack in 451, in remembrance of which feat she had become honored as the patron saint of Paris.
Genevieve’s cult really took off in the High Middle Ages, the period when a burgeoning Paris firmly established itself as the hub of all France. So powerful was the Parisian devotion to the saint (and the saint’s devotion to Paris) that her cult became a defining marker of the community — and when that community was ruptured by the Reformation, affinity for the cult came to mark the community’s boundaries. To the extent that Genevieve was identified with Paris, with France, with the sacraments, with the royal family — and she was identified with all these things — the Protestant skepticism of saints posing as divine intercessors with demigod-like spheres of influence positioned reformers in opposition to a good many things more than “merely” theology. There is a secular echo of this same critique from centuries later in Voltaire:
The girl that was born in the stubble fields of Nanterre,
Has become a saint that is implored by hollow and stupid people …
But a good citizen should be devout only to you.
challenged the sacrality of Paris, the identity of France, and the cult of the saints. It was therefore necessary to reaffirm the city’s Catholicity by redefining it in opposition to heresy. Sainte Genevieve was used to delineate who should be included in the sacred social body and who should be excluded from it.
Overtly blaspheming Genevieve certainly put Joubert in the “exclusion” category.
While we have little specific detail about Joubert, some sense of the gravity of his offense might be gleaned from an event that ensued a decade after his tongue-boring execution, when the Affair of the Placards sparked a furious Catholic backlash against religious dissidents. One week later, six Protestants were burned at the stake following a monumental procession through the city meant to reaffirm France’s devotion to the Catholic faith.
For the occasion, St. Genevieve’s relics were removed from her sacred abbey and marched along with all that abbot’s canons and the king himself. These 1,000-year-old remains never appeared in these sorts of ceremonies “without grette and urgent causes,” an English Protestant observer remarked. Notably, accrding to Sluhovsky, the reliquary on this occasion crossed the Seine to the Right Bank for the first time ever.
On this date in 1527, apostate Catholic priest Georg Wagner went to the stake in Munich.
Called “Carpentarius”, Wagner’s renounced a comfortable pastorship in Emmeringen, espousing the unacceptable tenets that his office was not empowered by Scripture to forgive sins, nor to transubstantiate bread and wine into Christ’s own body, nor to perform baptism on infants. He’s claimed as a martyr both by Anabaptists and Lutherans.
Wagner was a worthy enough man in his time and place that the propaganda coup of his defection drew urgent efforts at re-converting him by his former co-religionists — and even, allegedly, the Duke of Bavaria himself. He spurned them all, insisting only “that, as long as I can open my mouth” in the fires that would devour him, “I will confess the name of Jesus Christ.”
The Martyrs Mirror account of Wagner’s martyrdom credits God with, hours after the execution, smiting dead the sheriff who brought Wagner to the pyre.
On this date in 1545, the leaders of the violent Anabaptist Batenburgers were burned at the stake in Utrecht.
We know Anabaptists best as peaceniks, but the Batenburgers were the dead-end trail to a wholly different reputation. Named for a former Dutch mayor named Jan Van Batenburg, these Zwaardgeesten (“sword-minded”) Anabaptists answered the annihilation of their brethren’s Münster commune by doubling down on revolutionary struggle.
Batenburgers rejected the blandishments of David Joris to lay down the impolitic swords. Their numbers and their philosophies are hard to know with certainty owing to their secrecy, but they’re thought to have maintained the radical Munsterite teachings on polygamy and property.
Van Batenburg himself was caught and executed in 1538, and with that the Batenburgers — who had been living secretly in regular Catholic and Protestant communities — took to the wilderness under the leadership of a Leiden weaver named Cornelis Appelman. For the next ten years or so (even outlasting Appelman’s own death) this band of a couple of hundred desperate men made their way as marauders. We’d probably just call them terrorists today.
Appelman was even more extreme than his predecessor, verging right into crazy cult leader territory with his dystopian insistence on being called “The Judge” and readiness to mete out the severest penalties for any breach of obedience — to say nothing of the arsons, the church-sackings, and the summary executions dealt out to unbelievers. He was finally caught and put to death with his aide Willem Zeylmaker. Batenburger remnants, however, persisted for several more years with at least one splinter continuing until around 1580.