Posts filed under 'Belgium'

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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1943: Martial Van Schelle, Belgian Olympian

Add comment March 15th, 2019 Headsman

Former Olympian Martial Van Schelle was executed by the Nazi occupation on this date in 1943.

American-born, Van Schelle (English Wikipedia entry | Dutch) was orphaned by the sinking of the Lusitania and got his licks in on the Reich as a member of the American Expeditionary Force.

He later represented Belgium as a multifaceted sportsmen, competing in three summer Olympics, one winter Olympics, and the Gordon Bennett Cup balloon race. (No medals.)

Afterwards, he went into business as a Brussels sporting goods merchant. Dutch Wikipedia credits him with building the first ice rink in his country and numerous others thereafter.

During World War II, Van Schelle bankrolled an underground traffic of refugees off the continent to Great Britain, until the Gestapo arrested him on January 15, 1943. He was eventually shot at Fort Breendonk prison.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Athletes,Belgium,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Entertainers,Execution,Germany,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Shot,Torture,Wartime Executions

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1328: Willem de Deken, Flemish merchant-rebel

Add comment December 24th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1328, Willem de Deken, burgomaster of Bruges, had his hands cut off and his neck strung up in Paris for treason.


Belgian illustrator Jean-Leon Heuns‘s 20th century depiction of Willem de Deken.

De Deken was among the leaders of the 1323-1328 Revolt of Coastal Flanders.

“As with most rebellions in Flanders, the revolt was not a straightforward clash of social classes,” notes Medieval Bruges: c. 850-1550.

At first, the protests of the rebels of the castellany of Bruges and other rural districts in coastal Flanders were aimed at the abuses in tax collection by the ruling elites — and more specifically members of the castellany’s noblemen who were thought to be exploiting the commoners to line their own pockets … However, the rising was soon joined by a Bruges coalition of artisans and some disgruntled members of the city’s commercial elite.

De Deken “led a rebellious coalition uniting various social groups though with the textile workers as its backbone”; at one point the rebels even captured Louis, Count of Flanders. (He escaped.)

The rising’s scale brought in the intervention Louis’s French allies,* and the French finally brought Flanders to heel at the Battle of Cassel on August 23, 1328.** De Deken did not have the good sense of his peasant rebel counterpart Nicolaas Zannekin to die at this battle.


The Battle of Cassel, by Hendrik Scheffer (1837).

This was all bad news for the men and women in rebellion in the 1320s but triumph on the Cassel battlefield could not resolve a fundamental contradiction in the Low Countries between Flemish merchants, whose booming wool trade pulled them ever closer to the English cloth industry, and the French-facing political alignment of Count Louis.

Just a few years later when English-French rivalries blossomed into the start of the Hundred Years’ War, a new merchant-rebel succeeded where De Deken had failed, expelling the Count and aligning the Low Countries with England. (Eventually these precincts would become part of the Burgundian patrimony, and those dukes’ running rivalries with the French crown.)

* Times being what they were, French intervention also entailed having the Avignon Pope John XXII pronounce a sacramental interdict against Flanders pending its submission.

** It’s one of several battles of Cassel in northern France, further muddled by several battles of the unrelated but homophonic Cassel/Kassel in Hesse.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Belgium,Burgundy,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Hanged,History,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Torture,Treason

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1944: The massacres of Wereth and Malmedy, during the Battle of the Bulge

Add comment December 17th, 2018 Headsman

Two mass shootings of U.S. World War II infantrymen in Belgium marked this date in 1944.

It was the second day of the Battle of the Bulge, Nazi Germany’s surprise last offensive in the Ardennes. Hitler, in an inspired albeit ultimately unsuccessful gambit, intended here to burst through the thin-spread Allied line under cover of air power-negating foul weather, and still his western front enemies in time to fortify his east before the Red Army could destroy the Reich.

Needing to inflict a demoralizing lightning defeat, Hitler authorized rougher treatment of POWs than was usual on the western front, resulting in six weeks of savage no-quarter fighting and battlefield atrocities more characteristic of the eastern front. Our focus today is two such instances.

Wereth Eleven

Eleven artillerists from the all-black 333rd Field Artillery Battalion — having taken refuge at a farmhouse in the village of Wereth after their position was overrun during the German offensive — were arrested by the SS on December 17, 1944, taken to a nearby field, and summarily executed.

A monument in Wereth commemorates the massacre. (cc) image from Herald Post.

A villager named Matthias Langer had willingly taken them in, but an informer in the community made the Germans aware of their presence.

So, as dusk fell, a patrol of SS men pulled up to Langer’s home and took the black Americans into custody. They weren’t ever seen alive again.

Their bodies were recovered after Americans recaptured the position weeks later, showing the injuries of gratuitous brutalization inflicted before their murder.

However, the U.S. Army closed its investigation hastily and kept the soldiers’ families in the dark about the nature of the men’s deaths.

It only came to public light many years later thanks to Matthias Langer’s son, Hermann — who was a 12-year-old boy during the Battle of the Bulge but could never shake the haunting sight of the frightened refugees being marched away under German guns.

Malmedy Massacre

About 10 kilometers away on the same day, a column of approximately 120 American POWs was machine-gunned without warning by its German captors in a field near the village of Malmedy — which is where those who survived fled to for safety.

This Malmedy Massacre, which is much the larger and better-known atrocity compared to that of Wereth, claimed 84 lives.*

It also resulted in a postwar death sentence for the German commander Joachim Peiper — although that sentence was never carried out, at least not judicially. Controversially freed in 1956, Peiper was assassinated in 1976: an unknown group calling itself the Avengers claimed credit.


The Malmedy Massacre as depicted in the 1965 film Battle of the Bulge.

* The figure of 72 is sometimes given; this appears to describe the count of bodies initially (in January 1945) recovered in the meadow where the shooting took place. An additional 12 victims of the massacre were discovered in outlying stretches over the following weeks: men who had managed to flee some distance before they were felled. This same unit also massacred other prisoners in the surrounding days.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Belgium,Borderline "Executions",Execution,Germany,History,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Torture,Wartime Executions

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1564: Fabricius

1 comment October 4th, 2018 John Lothrop Motley

(Thanks to John Lothrop Motley for the guest post on the rudely truncated burning of Christopher Smith, an apostate monk turned popular preacher under the name “Fabricius”, at Antwerp on this date in 1564. It originally appeared in Motley’s The Rise of the Dutch Republic: A History. -ed.)

A remarkable tumult occurred in October of this year, at Antwerp. A Carmelite monk, Christopher Smith, commonly called Fabricius, had left a monastery in Bruges, adopted the principles of the Reformation, and taken to himself a wife. He had resided for a time in England; but, invited by his friends, he had afterwards undertaken the dangerous charge of gospel-teacher in the commercial metropolis of the Netherlands.

He was, however, soon betrayed to the authorities by a certain bonnet dealer, popularly called Long Margaret, who had pretended, for the sake of securing the informer’s fee, to be a convert to his doctrines. He was seized and immediately put to the torture. He manfully refused to betray any members of his congregation, as manfully avowed and maintained his religious creed.

He was condemned to the flames, and during the interval which preceded his execution, he comforted his friends by letters of advice, religious consolation and encouragement, which he wrote from his dungeon. He sent a message to the woman who had betrayed him, assuring her of his forgiveness, and exhorting her to repentance. His calmness, wisdom, and gentleness excited the admiration of all.

When, therefore, this humble imitator of Christ was led through the streets of Antwerp to the stake, the popular emotion was at once visible.

To the multitude who thronged about the executioners with threatening aspect, he addressed an urgent remonstrance that they would not compromise their own safety by a tumult in his cause. He invited all, however, to remain steadfast to the great truth for which he was about to lay down his life.

The crowd, as they followed the procession of hangmen, halberdsmen, and magistrates, sang the hundred and thirtieth psalm in full chorus.

As the victim arrived upon the market-place, he knelt upon the ground to pray, for the last time. He was, however, rudely forced to rise by the executioner, who immediately chained him to the stake, and fastened a leathern strap around his throat. At this moment the popular indignation became uncontrollable; stones were showered upon the magistrates and soldiers, who, after a slight resistance, fled for their lives.

The foremost of the insurgents dashed into the enclosed arena, to rescue the prisoner. It was too late. The executioner, even as he fled, had crushed the victim’s head with a sledge hammer, and pierced him through and through with a poniard.

Some of the bystanders maintained afterwards that his fingers and lips were seen to move, as if in feeble prayer, for a little time longer, until, as the fire mounted, he fell into the flames.

For the remainder of the day, after the fire had entirely smouldered to ashes, the charred and half-consumed body of the victim remained on the market-place, a ghastly spectacle to friend and foe. It was afterwards bound to a stone and cast into the Scheld. Such was the doom of Christopher Fabricius, for having preached Christianity in Antwerp.

During the night an anonymous placard, written with blood, was posted upon the wall of the town-house, stating that there were men in the city who would signally avenge his murder. Nothing was done, however, towards the accomplishment of the threat.

The King, when he received the intelligence of the transaction, was furious with indignation, and wrote savage letters to his sister, commanding instant vengeance to be taken upon all concerned in so foul a riot. As one of the persons engaged had, however, been arrested and immediately hanged, and as the rest had effected their escape, the affair was suffered to drop.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Belgium,Bludgeoned,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,Guest Writers,Heresy,History,Martyrs,Other Voices,Public Executions,Put to the Sword,Religious Figures,Spain,Torture

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1654: Hieronymus Duquesnoy the Younger, sculptor

Add comment September 28th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1654, Flemish sculptor Hieronymus Duquesnoy the Younger was strangled and burned in Ghent for sodomy (sodomy in a church, no less).

As an artist, the man’s legacy is forever overshadowed by his father’s Brussels tourist essential Manneken Pis; Hieronymus (or Jerome) the Younger learned his craft from dad as a studio apprentice. (We here dismiss Hieronymus the Elder from our narrative; Hieronymus the Younger is meant by all subsequent references in this post.)

This was not to be the end of the story when it came to Hieronymus and naked young boys, but in 1621 he upped stakes for Italy and proceeded to spend the next two decades honing his craft in Mediterranean climes. Or at least, this is the necessary assumption, as very little direct evidence traces his movements in that period.

Returning to the Low Counties in the early 1640s, Duquesnoy earned a number of baroque commissions as “architecte, statuaire et sculpteur de la Cour.” (For a taste of his work: The Infant Hercules | Ganymede.)

The last of his projects was this tomb for Bishop Antonius Triest in Ghent; “he set himself up with his assistants in one of the cathedral‘s chapels, to lay out and prepare the sections of this tomb, which could have been for the master the finest jewel in a new sculptural crown, had he not come to a sad end,” according to Edmond de Busscher.


This monumental tomb would also prove the death of its sculptor. (cc) image by www.pmrmaeyaert.com — Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0.

He was arrested when 8- and 11-year-old boys accused him of molestation in the church during his work on the bishop’s shrine. Duquesnoy vigorously denied the charges and tried to call in favors from his patrons to squelch the case, but Ghent’s council decided otherwise and had him executed in the city’s Koornmarkt (Grain Market).

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Belgium,Burned,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Habsburg Realm,History,Homosexuals,Public Executions,Sex

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1917: Herbet Morris, British West Indies Regiment deserter

Add comment September 20th, 2017 Headsman

At dawn on this date in 1917, 17-year-old Jamaican soldier Herbert Morris was shot in a courtyard behind the town hall in the Flemish town of Poperinge.

He’d volunteered the year before, 8,000 kilometers away from the terrible trenches, to cross the Atlantic and stake his life for the 6th Battalion of the British West Indies Regiment but in the end it was the guns of his own countrymen who would fell him.

Like numerous front-line troops, Morris became disordered by shellshock, and despite a generally commendable service record, routed during a bombardment to be discovered days later wandering at Boulogne. With that (non-capital) precedent already to his name, Morris’s second desertion on August 20 met a very much harsher response.

When on active service deserting His Majesty’s Services, in that he, in the Field on the 20th of August 1917, when warned for duty, in the neighbourhood of the front line absented himself from his detachment until apprehended by the Military Police at Boulogne on the 21st of August 1917.

-Morris’s death sentence, endorsed by Douglas Haig, 15 September 1917

“I am troubled with my head and cannot stand the sound of guns,” Morris explained to his very brief court-martial, unavailingly. “I reported to the Dr. [sic] and he gave me no medicine or anything. It was on the Sunday that I saw the doctor. He gave me no satisfaction.” Two character witnesses from his unit comprised the entirety of his defense.

During the week between Morris’s hearing and his Field Marshal Haig-confirmed sentence, a violent mutiny by British Empire troops in Etaples, France shook the high command. Nobody can say if it was determinative for Morris’s fate, but it cannot have weighed in favor of leniency.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Belgium,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Desertion,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,History,Jamaica,Military Crimes,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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1917: James Smith, Early One Morning

Add comment September 5th, 2017 Headsman

One hundred years ago today, a Bolton private (formerly lance corporal) named James Smith fell to his countrymen’s guns on Belgian soil during World War I.

A career soldier since 1909, Smith had served honorably in India and Egypt before the war. He had the hardiness and luck to survive Gallipoli and the Somme — but their horrors broke him mentally.

According to this biography, “Jimmy almost lost his life on the Somme on 11 October 1916 when a German artillery shell exploded, burying him alive and causing a shrapnel wound ‘the size of a fist’ on his right shoulder.” When he returned from two months’ convalescence leave his mates could see that shellshock had destroyed the old Jimmy Smith.

Erratic behavior that cost him his good conduct badges culminated in a break on July 30, 1917, the eve of the frightful Battle of Passchendaele, when Smith deserted his post and disappeared from the front — to be found later, wandering in a nearby town. In World War I, such an offense invited the brass to make an example of you.

Smith’s own comrades from the 17th Battalion King’s Liverpool Regiment were drafted into the firing squad. Pitying their victim, the executioners pulled their shots and missed the target, only succeeding in wounding the brutalized private. When the firing squad commander faltered at his duty to deliver the coup de grace, the task monstrously fell on a close friend of Smith’s, Private Richard Blundell, to press the revolver to Smith’s temple and blow out his brains. For its service to the war effort, the firing detail got 10 days’ R&R … and a lifetime of shame.

In the weeks before his own death, in February 1989, Blundell was often heard by his son, William, to murmur deliriously: ‘What a way to get leave, what a way to get leave.’

According to historian Graham Maddocks, in his book Liverpool Pals, William Blundell asked his father in a more lucid moment what he meant.

Still desperately upset seven decades after the incident, the dying Richard told his son what had happened. It was clear, that as he faced his own death, Richard had never forgiven himself.

Jimmy Smith was the subject of a 1998 play, Early One Morning.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Belgium,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,Diminished Capacity,England,Execution,History,Military Crimes,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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1940: Julien Vervaecke, Tour de France cyclist

Add comment May 25th, 2017 Headsman

On or around this date — exactly when is forever obscure* — the former Tour de France cyclist Julien Vervaecke was summarily executed by Polish and British soldiers in German-occupied Belgium.

The Belgian velocipeddler raced professionally from 1924 to 1936 and reached the top ten of cycling’s signature event four times — capped by a third-place ride in 1927.

He’s most famous in the annals of his sport for his controversial victory in the 1930 Paris-Roubaix race, when he crossed the finish line second after getting the worst of a late collision with French cyclist Jean Marechal, but was awarded the win by judges who faulted Marechal for the incident. (Vervaecke got the medal but not the branding: it’s known as l’affaire Marechal.)

By the time war clouds had gathered anew, Vervaecke (English Wikipedia entry | German | French) had retired to proprietorship of a restaurant in Menen, on the French border.

As the Wehrmacht blitz overran Belgium, Vervaecke’s home chanced to fall within the British pocket pinned to Dunkirk, 70 kilometers away away. The famous evacuation would commence on May 26.

On May 24, scrambling soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force, apparently including some officers of the exiled Polish army,* tried to ransack Vervaecke’s place for supplies, and the ex-cyclist resisted. As with Marechal all those years ago, Vervaecke had the worst of this collision, and the tetchy troopers led him away.

Nobody witnessed what happened to him; his body only turned up weeks later, over the border in France. It’s guessed that he might have been detained and then shot out of hand hours later — more prey to the fog of war.


At least he didn’t die of lung cancer: In a different era for athletics, Vervaecke and Maurice Geldhof take a trip to flavor country during the Tour de France.

* Poland had already been occupied by Germany and the USSR, in September 1939.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Athletes,Belgium,Borderline "Executions",Businessmen,England,Entertainers,Execution,France,History,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Shot,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates,Wartime Executions

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1803: Ludovicus Baekelandt, Vrijbos bandit

Add comment November 2nd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1803, Flemish outlaw Ludovicus Baekelandt was guillotined at Bruges with about 20 of his gang.

Deserting the army of the conquering French, Baekelandt set up as a bandit preying the deep spruce forests of the Vrijbos, eventually attaining leadership of a gang more than 30 strong.

Baekelandt is one of those whom popular memory and national sentiment (resentful here of the French occupation) has elevated into huggable social banditry. But the evidence remaining us testifies to little but a garden-variety brigand whose offenses were in no way confined to property crimes.

The gang was rounded up in 1802 and the Bruges court heard testimony from more than 100 witnesses, eventually dooming 21 men and three women to death for a litany of murders and robberies.

Almost all the information about Baekelandt available online is in Dutch; if that tongue is in your toolkit, gentle reader, this public-domain book is sure to level you up on Ludovicus Baekelandt and friends.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Belgium,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Mass Executions,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Outlaws,Public Executions,Theft

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