Posts filed under 'Nobility'

1400: Thomas le Despenser, for the Epiphany Rising

Add comment January 13th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1400, the Thomas le Despenser was beheaded — as much a lynching as an execution — by a mob at Bristol.

“I have to London sent
The heads of Salisbury, Spencer, Blunt, and Kent.”

-Henry’s loyal (for now) nobleman Northumberland summing up the destruction of the Epiphany Rising in the last scene of Shakespeare’s Richard II

House Despenser had painstakingly rebuilt its position in the three generations since Thomas’s great-grandfather, the notorious royal favorite Hugh Despenser, was grotesquely butchered for the pleasure of Roger Mortimer. (Readers interested in a deep dive should consult this doctoral thesis (pdf))

By the end of the 14th century, the family patriarch, our man Thomas, had by 1397 parlayed his firm support of Richard II against the Lord Appellant into elevation to a peerage created just for him, the Earldom of Gloucester.

The “Gloucester” sobriquet had just gone onto the market thanks to the beheading that year of the attainted Duke of Gloucester and the consequent revocation of that patrimony. This ought to have been a hint, if his ancestors’ fate did not suffice, that such glories are fleeting. Thomas le Despenser had barely two years to enjoy his newfound rank before Richard II was deposed by Henry Bolingbroke who now styled himself Henry IV.

Despite initially making his terms with the new regime, Despenser joined a conspiracy of nobles that contemplated a coup d’etat during the 1399-1400 holidays — the Epiphany Rising, whose misfire has brought other victims to our attention previously.* Titles are the least of what one forfeits in such circumstances; Thomas managed to grab a boat for Cardiff and possible refuge but to his unhappy surprise the ship’s captain put in at Bristol to deliver him to his enemies: death was summary, his head posted to the capital for duty on the London Bridge.

The Despensers had already proven the resilience of their line in the face of the violent death of this or that scion and although this was a rough coda for their century of glory they were not done for the English political scene by a long shot. Thomas’s widow Constance** got her own plotting afoot by conspiring unsuccessfully in 1405 to kidnap Richard II’s heir from Henry’s custody as an instrument to leverage for political realignment. (Constance, Executed Today is grieved to report, was not executed for this.)

* Episode 134 of the History of England podcast grapples with the Epiphany Rising.

** Constance’s brother is popularly believed to have betrayed the Epiphany Rising.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Lynching,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Power,Public Executions,Summary Executions,Treason

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1528: Augustin and Christoph Perwanger

Add comment January 7th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1528, brothers Augustin and Christoph Perwanger were beheaded as heretical Anabaptists — “a third baptism, with blood,” in the record of the humanist chronicler Kilian Leib. (A German link, as are most in this entry.)

The noble Hofmarkherr at the Bavarian town of Günzlhofen, Augustin beefed with the district’s pastor over Augustin’s asserted right to appoint the vicar of his choosing to a vacant township. The lord lost that fight and vented about it in that novel medium of movable type.

In 1526 he and his younger brother Christoph joined the Anabaptist movement that was burgeoning in Upper Bavaria. There’s no direct indication of precisely who converted them and how, but Günzlhofen, small though it was, seems to have been a stronghold … just not nearly so strong as to withstand the general persecution of early adult baptism adherents.

Chronicles indicate that an unnamed miller suffered martyrdom with them.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Germany,God,Heresy,History,Martyrs,Nobility,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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1793: Armand Louis de Gontaut

Add comment December 31st, 2017 Headsman

Armand Louis de Gontaut, duc de Lauzun and later duc de Biron, an officer in the American Revolution and and the French Revolution, was guillotined during the Paris Terror on this date in 1793.

Born in 1747, Lauzun had some youthful finding-himself years “wasting his fortune in dissipation in various parts of Europe” before he got serious about being an Enlightenment Man, penned an essay on British colonial defenses, and went and fought them in a colonial skirmish.

Satisfactory performance in West Africa qualified him to twist the lion’s tail again by raising a legion of hussars for the American Revolution. Lauzun fought at the independence-clinching upset of Yorktown, winning promotion back in the home country to marechal de camp.

That Lafayette-like package of liberal sensibility, blue blood, and battlefield competence was just the thing for the more moderate early years of the French Revolution, and just the thing to cost his head by the time of the Terror. Our man found himself by 1793 transferred from the French army on the Rhine to the against War in the Vendee where he arrived already too milquetoast for the extreme violence being demanded for pacification. The Jacobin firebrand Marat had already petitioned for the ex-nobleman’s removal; it was effected by Jean-Baptiste Carrier who in 1793 was busily blackening his name by pacifying the Vendee with indiscriminate slaughter.

Lauzun/Biron/Gontaut was arrested at Carrier’s behest for incivisme, that want of revolutionary ardor that in this moment stood tantamount to treason. Vainly he protested (pdf) from his confinement that “my conscience reproaches me for nothing.” Still, he met the inevitable fate at the Revolutionary Tribunal’s hands with peace and was reported to have gone calmly to the guillotine, the last words upon his lips a self-recrimination:

“I die punished for having been false to my God, my King and my order.”

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Nobility,Public Executions,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1680: William Howard, Viscount Stafford

Add comment December 29th, 2017 David Hume

(Thanks to Scottish Enlightenment titan David Hume for the guest post on William Howard, 1st Viscount Stafford — a Catholic peer who fell victim to the hysteria of Titus Oates‘s “Popish Plot”. It takes some time to build into the execution itself, since Hume in his History of England narratively locates it in the proto-Whig party’s frustrated parliamentary efforts to exclude from the succession the king’s Roman Catholic brother, the eventual King James II who at this time was the Duke of York. -ed.)

Besides friendship for his brother, and a regard to the right of succession, there were many strong reasons which had determined Charles to persevere in opposing the exclusion. All the royalists and the devotees to the church, that party by which alone monarchy was supported, regarded the right of succession as inviolable; and if abandoned by the king in so capital an article, it was to be feared that they would, in their turn, desert his cause, and deliver him over to the pretensions and usurpations of the country party. The country party, or the whigs, as they were called, if they did not still retain some propensity towards a republic, were at least affected with a violent jealousy of regal power; and it was equally to be dreaded that, being enraged with past opposition, and animated by present success, they would, if they prevailed in this pretension, be willing, as well as able, to reduce the prerogative within very narrow limits.

All menaces, therefore, all promises were again employed against the king’s resolution: he never would be prevailed on to desert his friends, and put himself into the hands of his enemies. And having voluntarily made such important concessions, and tendered, over and over again, such strong limitations, he was well pleased to find them rejected by the obstinacy of the Commons; and hoped that, after the spirit of opposition had spent itself in fruitless violence, the time would come, when he might safely appeal against his Parliament to his people.

So much were the popular leaders determined to carry matters to extremities, that in less than a week after the commencement of the session, a motion was made for bringing in an exclusion bill, and a committee was appointed for that purpose. This bill differed in nothing from the former, but in two articles, which showed still an increase of zeal in the Commons: the bill was to be read to the people twice a year in all the churches of the kingdom, and every one who should support the duke’s title was rendered incapable of receiving a pardon but by act of Parliament.

The debates were carried on with great violence on both sides. The bill was defended by Sir William Jones, who had now resigned his office of attorney-general, by Lord Russel, by Sir Francis Winnington, Sir Harry Capel, Sir William Pulteney, by Colonel Titus, Treby, Hambden, Montague. It was opposed by Sir Leoline Jenkins, secretary of state, Sir John Ernley, chancellor of the exchequer, by Hyde, Seymour, Temple. The arguments transmitted to us may be reduced to the following topics.

In every government, said the exclusionists, there is somewhere an authority absolute and supreme; nor can any determination, how unusual soever, which receives the sanction of the legislature, admit afterwards of dispute or control. The liberty of a constitution, so far from diminishing this absolute power, seems rather to add force to it, and to give it greater influence over the people. The more members of the state concur in any legislative decision, and the more free their voice, the less likelihood is there that any opposition will be made to those measures which receive the final sanction of their authority. In England, the legislative power is lodged in King, Lords, and Commons, which comprehend every order of the community: and there is no pretext for exempting any circumstance of government, not even the succession of the crown, from so full and decisive a jurisdiction. Even express declarations have, in this particular, been made of parliamentary authority: instances have occurred where it has been exerted: and though prudential reasons may justly be alleged why such innovations should not be attempted but on extraordinary occasions, the power and right are for ever vested in the community. But if any occasion can be deemed extraordinary, if any emergence can require unusual expedients, it is the present; when the heir to the crown has renounced the religion of the state, and has zealously embraced a faith totally hostile and incompatible. A prince of that communion can never put trust in a people so prejudiced against him: the people must be equally diffident of such a prince: foreign and destructive alliances will seem to one the only protection of his throne: perpetual jealousy, opposition, faction, even insurrections will be employed by the other as the sole securities for their liberty and religion. Though theological principles, when set in opposition to passions, have often small influence on mankind in general, still less on princes; yet when they become symbols of faction, and marks of party distinctions, they concur with one of the strongest passions in the human frame, and are then capable of carrying men to the greatest extremities. Notwithstanding the better judgment and milder disposition of the king, how much has the influence of the duke already disturbed the tenor of government? how often engaged the nation into meaures totally destructive of their foreign interests and honour, of their domestic repose and tranquillity? The more the absurdity and incredibility of the popish plot are insisted on, the stronger reason it affords for the exclusion of the duke; since the universal belief of it discovers the extreme antipathy of the nation to his religion, and the utter impossibility of ever bringing them to acquiesce peaceably under the dominion of such a sovereign. The prince, finding himself in so perilous a situation, must seek for security by desperate remedies, and by totally subduing the privileges of a nation which had betrayed such hostile dispositions towards himself, and towards every thing which he deems the most sacred. It is in vain to propose limitations and expedients. Whatever share of authority is left in the duke’s hands, will be employed to the destruction of the nation; and even the additional restraints, by discovering the public diffidence and aversion, will serve him as incitements to put himself in a condition entirely superior and independent. And as the laws of England still make resistance treason, and neither do nor can admit of any positive exceptions; what folly to leave the kingdom in so perilous and absurd a situation, where the greatest virtue will be exposed to the most severe proscription, and where the laws can only be saved by expedients, which these same laws have declared the highest crime and enormity.

The court party reasoned in an opposite manner. An authority, they said, wholly absolute and uncontrollable is a mere chimera, and is nowhere to be found in any human institutions. All government is founded on opinion and a sense of duty; and wherever the supreme magistrate, by any law or positive prescription, shocks an opinion regarded as fundamental, and established with a firmness equal to that of his own authority, he subverts the principle by which he himself is established, and can no longer hope for obedience. In European monarchies, the right of succession is justly esteemed a fundamental; and even though the whole legislature be vested in a single person, it would never be permitted him, by an edict, to disinherit his lawful heir, and call a stranger or more distant relation to the throne. Abuses in other parts of government are capable of redress, from more dispassionate inquiry or better information of the sovereign, and till then ought patiently to be endured: but violations of the right of succession draw such terrible consequences after them as are not to be paralleled by any other grievance or inconvenience. Vainly is it pleaded that England is a mixed monarchy; and that a law assented to by King, Lords, and Commons, is enacted by the concurrence of every part of the state: it is plain that there remains a very powerful party, who may indeed be outvoted, but who never will deem a law, subversive of hereditary right, any wise valid or obligatory. Limitations, such as are proposed by the king, give no shock to the constitution, which, in many particulars, is already limited; and they may be so calculated as to serve every purpose sought for by an exclusion. If the ancient barriers against regal authority have been able, during so many ages, to remain impregnable; how much more those additional ones, which, by depriving the monarch of power, tend so far to their own security? The same jealousy too of religion, which has engaged the people to lay these restraints upon the successor, will extremely lessen the number of his partisans, and make it utterly impracticable for him, either by force or artifice, to break the fetters imposed upon him. The king’s age and vigorous state of health promise him a long life: and can it be prudent to tear in pieces the whole state, in order to provide against a contingency which, it is very likely, may never happen? No human schemes can secure the public in all possible imaginable events; and the bill of exclusion itself, however accurately framed, leaves room for obvious and natural suppositions, to which it pretends not to provide any remedy. Should the duke have a son, after the king’s death, must that son, without any default of his own, forfeit his title? or must the Princess of Orange descend from the throne, in order to give place to the lawful successor? But were all these reasons false, it still remains to be considered that, in public deliberations, we seek not the expedient which is best in itself, but the best of such as are practicable. The king willingly consents to limitations, and has already offered some which are of the utmost importance: but he is determined to endure any extremity rather than allow the right of succession to be invaded. Let us beware of that factious violence, which leads to demand more than will be granted; lest we lose the advantage of those beneficial concessions, and leave the nation, on the king’s demise, at the mercy of a zealous prince, irritated with the ill usage which he imagines he has already met with.

In the House of Commons, the reasoning of the exclusionists appeared the more convincing; and the bill passed by a great majority. It was in the House of Peers that the king expected to oppose it with success. The court party was there so prevalent, that it was carried only by a majority of two, to pay so much regard to the bill as even to commit it. When it came to be debated the contest was violent. Shaftesbury, Sunderland, and Essex argued for it; Halifax chiefly conducted the debate against it, and displayed an extent of capacity, and a force of eloquence, which had never been surpassed in that assembly. He was animated, as well by the greatness of the occasion, as by a rivalship with his uncle Shaftesbury; whom, during that day’s debate, he seemed in the judgment of all to have totally eclipsed. The king was present during the whole debate, which was prolonged till eleven at night. The bill was thrown out by a considerable majority. All the bishops, except three, voted against it. Besides the influence of the court over them; the church of England, they imagined, or pretended, was in greater danger from the prevalence of presbyterianism than of popery, which, though favoured by the duke, and even by the king, was extremely repugnant to the genius of the nation.

The Commons discovered much ill humour upon this disappointment. They immediately voted an address for the removal of Halifax from the king’s councils and presence for ever. Though the pretended cause was his advising the late frequent prorogations of Parliament, the real reason was apparently his vigorous opposition to the exclusion bill. When the king applied for money to enable him to maintain Tangiers, which he declared his present revenues totally unable to defend; instead of complying, they voted such an address as was in reality a remonstrance, and one little less violent than that famous remonstrance, which ushered in the civil wars.

All the abuses of government, from the beginning almost of the reign, are there insisted on; the Dutch war, the alliance with France, the prorogations and dissolutions of Parliament; and as all these measures, as well as the damnable and hellish plot, are there ascribed to the machinations of Papists, it was plainly insinuated that the king had, all along, lain under the influence of that party, and was in reality the chief conspirator against the religion and liberties of his people.

Portait of William Howard as a young man by Anthony van Dyck, ~1638-1640. Howard was born in 1614, and beheaded at the age of 66.

The Commons, though they conducted the great business of the exclusion with extreme violence and even imprudence, had yet much reason for the jealousy which gave rise to it: but their vehement prosecution of the popish plot, even after so long an interval, discovers such a spirit, either of credulity or injustice, as admits of no apology. The impeachment of the Catholic lords in the Tower was revived; and as Viscount Stafford, from his age, infirmities, and narrow capacity, was deemed the least capable of defending himself, it was determined to make him the first victim, that his condemnation might pave the way for a sentence against the rest. The chancellor, now created Earl of Nottingham, was appointed high steward for conducting the trial.

Three witnesses were produced against the prisoner; [Titus] Oates [conjurer of the Popish Plot panic -ed.], [Stephen] Dugdale, and [Edward] Turberville.* Oates swore, that he saw Fenwick, the Jesuit, deliver to Stafford a commission signed by De Oliva, general of the Jesuits, appointing him paymaster to the papal army, which was to be levied for the subduing of England: for this ridiculous imposture still maintained its credit with the Commons. Dugdale gave testimony, that the prisoner at Tixal, a seat of Lord Aston‘s, had endeavoured to engage him in the design of murdering the king; and had promised him, besides the honour of being sainted by the church, a reward of five hundred pounds for that service. Turberville deposed, that the prisoner, in his own house at Paris, had made him a like proposal. To offer money for murdering a king, without laying down any scheme by which the assassin may ensure some probability or possibility of escape, is so incredible in itself, and may so easily be maintained by any prostitute evidence, that an accusation of that nature, not accompanied with circumstances, ought very little to be attended to by any court of judicature. But notwithstanding the small hold which the witnesses afforded, the prisoner was able, in many material particulars, to discredit their testimony. It was sworn by Dugdale, that Stafford had assisted in a great consult of the Catholics held at Tixal; but Stafford proved, by undoubted testimony, that at the time assigned he was in Bath, and in that neighbourhood. Turberville had served a noviciate among the Dominicans; but, having deserted the convent, he had enlisted as a trooper in the French army; and being dismissed that service, he now lived in London, abandoned by all his relations, and exposed to great poverty. Stafford proved, by the evidence of his gentleman and his page, that Turberville had never, either at Paris or at London, been seen in his company; and it might justly appear strange that a person, who had so important a secret in his keeping, was so long entirely neglected by him.

The clamour and outrage of the populace during the trial were extreme: great abilities and eloquence were displayed by the managers, Sir William Jones, Sir Francis Winnington, and Serjeant Maynard. Yet did the prisoner, under all these disadvantages, make a better defence than was expected, either by his friends or his enemies: the unequal contest in which he was engaged was a plentiful source of compassion to every mind seasoned with humanity. He represented, that during a course of forty years, from the very commencement of the civil wars, he had, through many dangers, difficulties, and losses, still maintained his loyalty: and was it credible that now, in his old age, easy in his circumstances, but dispirited by infirmities, he would belie the whole course of his life, and engage against his royal master, from whom he had ever received kind treatment, in the most desperate and most bloody of all conspiracies: He remarked the infamy of the witnesses; the contradictions and absurdities of their testimony; the extreme indigence in which they had lived, though engaged, as they pretended, in a conspiracy with kings, princes, and nobles; the credit and opulence to which they were at present raised. With a simplicity and tenderness more persuasive than the greatest oratory, he still made protestations of his innocence, and could not forbear, every moment, expressing the most lively surprise and indignation at the audacious impudence of the witnesses.

It will appear astonishing to us, as it did to Stafford himself, that the Peers, after a solemn trial of six days, should, by a majority of twenty-four voices, give sentence against him. He received, however, with resignation the fatal verdict. God’s holy name be praised! was the only exclamation which he uttered. When the high steward told him, that the Peers would intercede with the king for remitting the more cruel and ignominious parts of the sentence, hanging and quartering, he burst into tears: but he told the Lords that he was moved to this weakness by a sense of their goodness, not by any terror of that fate which he was doomed to suffer.

It is remarkable that, after Charles, as is usual in such cases, had remitted to Stafford the hanging and quartering, the two sheriffs, Bethel and Cornish, indulging their own republican humour, and complying with the prevalent spirit of their party, ever jealous of monarchy, started a doubt with regard to the king’s power of exercising even this small degree of lenity. “Since he cannot pardon the whole,” said they, “how can he have power to remit any part of the sentence?” They proposed the doubt to both Houses: the Peers pronounced it superfluous; and even the Commons, apprehensive lest a question of this nature might make way for Stafford’s escape, gave this singular answer: “This House is content that the sheriffs do execute William, late Viscount Stafford, by severing his head from his body only.” Nothing can be a stronger proof of the fury of the times than that Lord Russel, notwithstanding the virtue and humanity of his character, seconded in the House this barbarous scruple of the sheriffs.

In the interval between the sentence and execution, many efforts were made to shake the resolution of the infirm and aged prisoner, and to bring him to some confession of the treason for which he was condemned. It was even rumoured that he had confessed; and the zealous party-men, who, no doubt, had secretly, notwithstanding their credulity, entertained some doubts with regard to the reality of the popish conspiracy, expressed great triumph on the occasion. But Stafford, when again called before the House of Peers, discovered many schemes, which had been laid by himself and others for procuring a toleration to the Catholics, at least a mitigation of the penal laws enacted against them: and he protested that this was the sole treason of which he had ever been guilty.

Stafford now prepared himself for death with the intrepidity which became his birth and station, and which was the natural result of the innocence and integrity which, during the course of a long life, he had ever maintained: his mind seemed even to collect new force from the violence and oppression under which he laboured.

When going to execution, he called for a cloak to defend him against the rigour of the season: “Perhaps,” said he, “I may shake with cold; but I trust in God, not for fear.” On the scaffold he continued, with reiterated and earnest asseverations, to make protestations of his innocence: all his fervour was exercised on that point: when he mentioned the witnesses, whose perjuries had bereaved him of life, his expressions were full of mildness and of charity. He solemnly disavowed all those immoral principles, which over-zealous Protestants had ascribed, without distinction, to the church of Rome: and he hoped, he said, that the time was now approaching, when the present delusion would be dissipated; and when the force of truth, though late, would engage the whole world to make reparation to his injured honour.

The populace, who had exulted at Stafford’s trial and condemnation, were now melted into tears at the sight of that tender fortitude which shone forth in each feature, and motion, and accent of this aged noble. Their profound silence was only interrupted by sighs and groans. With difficulty they found speech to assent to those protestations of innocence which he frequently repeated: “We believe you, my lord! God bless you, my lord!” These expressions, with a faltering accent, flowed from them. The executioner himself was touched with sympathy. Twice he lifted up the axe, with an intent to strike the fatal blow; and as often felt his resolution to fail him. A deep sigh was heard to accompany his last effort, which laid Stafford for ever at rest. All the spectators seemed to feel the blow. And when the head was held up to them with the usual cry, This is the head of a traitor! no clamour of assent was uttered. Pity, remorse, and astonishment, had taken possession of every heart, and displayed itself in every countenance.


Detail view (click for the full image) of an engraving of the trial and execution of Viscount Stafford. (via the British Museum).

This is the last blood which was shed on account of the popish plot: an incident which, for the credit of the nation, it were better to bury in eternal oblivion; but which it is necessary to perpetuate, as well to maintain the truth of history, as to warn, if possible, their posterity and all mankind ever again to fall into so shameful, so barbarous a delusion.

The execution of Stafford gratified the prejudices of the country party; but it contributed nothing to their power and security: on the contrary, by exciting commiseration, it tended still farther to increase that disbelief of the whole plot, which began now to prevail.

* Channeling Jacques de Molay, Stafford prophesied that Turberville, the perjured witness against him, would not outlive him by so much as a year. Turberville obligingly dropped dead of smallpox late in 1681, after falling out with his former Popish Plot conspirator Titus Oates.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Nobility,Other Voices,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Wrongful Executions

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1531: Rhys ap Gruffydd

Add comment December 4th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1531, a Welsh nobleman whose grandfather had been instrumental in raising the Tudor dynasty up caught the downswing of the Tudor dynasty’s axe.

Gruffydd ap Rhys ap Thomas (“son of Rhys, son of Thomas”) was the Welsh patriarch of an illustrious house who had taken the Lancastrian side during the English Wars of the Roses.

When the Lancastrians lost, he took the necessary oaths to the likes of Richard III but his reputed promise to defend Wales for his king with such ferocity that an invader must needs “make his entrance and irruption over my belly” was discharged in a ceremony equally literary and lawyerly — when he stood under a bridge while his invading ally, the Welsh-descended Henry Tudor, marched over it.


There’s always a loophole when one fails to insist on direct language.

Together the two would win the crown for Henry — and in a sense very much win it for Wales — at Bosworth Field, where Gruffydd is sometimes credited personally with the blow that felled King Richard.

He lived on to 1525, a loyal supporter of Henry VII and his son Henry VIII. But the reciprocal gratitude of the kings did not outlive Gruffydd’s passing, for the Welsh offices that he designed to pass to his grandson Rhys ap Gruffydd were instead foisted on Water Devereux, Baron Ferrers.*

The consequent hostility would set Rhys on his way to the block. In 1529, our man drew a blade on Devereux, and their respective bands of retainers skirmished violently with each other over succeeding months.

Attempting to elevate his frustrated political claim by assuming the name “Fitz Urien” — in reference to a half-legendary ancient Welsh king — finally got him clapped in the Tower. His subsequent trial on a fanciful charge of conspiring with Scotland to form a Celtic league against the English asserted the central royal authority against a noble loose cannon who also happened to be part of the Catholic, anti-Anne Boleyn faction; at a stretch it could arguably** be read to make him one of the earliest victims of the still-nascent English Reformation. Be that as it may, his countrymen did not much mourn the fall of a vaunting and greedy line, however spurious the grounds.

And indeed many men regarded his [Rhys’s] death as Divine retribution for the falsehoods of his ancestors, his grandfather, and great-grandfather, and for their oppressions and wrongs. They had many a deep curse from the poor people who were their neighbours, for depriving them of their homes, lands and riches. For I heard the conversations of folk from that part of the country that no common people owned land within twenty miles from the dwelling of Sir Rhys ap Thomas, that if he desired such lands, he would appropriate them without payment or thanks, and the disinherited doubtless cursed him, his children and his grandchildren, which curses in the opinion of many men fell on the family, according to the old proverb which says — the children of Lies are uprooted, and after oppression comes a long death to the oppressors. (Source)

* An ancestor of Elizabethan loverboy Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex.

** That argument is made by Ralph Griffiths in Sir Rhys ap Thomas and his Family: A Study in the Wars of the Roses and Early Tudor Politics.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Nobility,Power,Treason,Wales,Wrongful Executions

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1671: Hans Erasmus, Count of Tattenbach

Add comment December 1st, 2017 Headsman

Hans Erasmus, Count of Tattenbach, was beheaded as a traitor in Graz.

Governor of Styria in present-day Slovenia, Tattenbach took an unwise interest in Zrinski and Frankopan’s Magnate Conspiracy, hoping to position himself as a big wheel in the prospective southern realm broken away from the Austrian empire.

Perhaps a more thoroughgoing assessment of risks was called for.

Tattenbach’s own valet turned him in. The nobleman lost his head a few months after the plot’s principal authors, and punitive confiscation relieved his heirs of the count’s estates.

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1343: A dozen Breton nobles

Add comment November 29th, 2017 Headsman

From The Law of Treason and Treason Trials in Later Medieval France, concerning the rough handling the king deployed in an attempt to squelch the Breton War of Succession:

Not long after the executon of Olivier de Clisson a group of Breton nobles attacked Charles de Blois as he was on his way to Paris. Fourteen — among them the two Geoffroys de Malestroit, father and son, Alain de Cadillac, Jean de Montaubon, Fulk de Laval and Henri d’Avaugour — were captured and taken to Paris. Although Philippe VI formally turned the case over to the Parlement, he made sure that the court did as he wished. On 24 November 1343 he advised it that he was sending the prevot of Paris and Jean Richer, maitre de requetes de l’hotel, ‘for certain matters regarding the Breton prisoners. We instruct you accordingly,’ the king cautioned, ‘that you accept what they have to say on our behalf.’

On 29 November the accused appeared in the Parlement, confessed to their treason and were then sent back to the Chatelet without the court having passed sentence. In fact the decision in this case was taken away from the Parlement by the king. On that same day Philippe VI ordered the prevot of Paris to execute the prisoners forthwith, ‘because we condemn them as traitors’. Philippe’s determination in this matter was patent. In concluding his instructions he wrote: ‘take care that there is no slip-up if you do not want to incur our wrath’. Except for Laval and Avaugour, the Bretons were drawn and beheaded that same day; and their corpses were then drawn to the gibbet to be hanged there. These executions had the desired effect on at least some of Montfort‘s partisans: Jean, eldest son of the count of Vendome, for example, quickly made his peace with Philippe VI.

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1405: Astorre I Manfredi, former lord of Faenza

Add comment November 28th, 2017 Headsman

Baldasar Cossa,* in Romandiola cardinalis Ecclesieque legatus pro Ecclesia romana, Astorgium Manfredum, paulo ante dominum Faventie, publice decapitari fecit.

-Annales Forolivienses: ab origine urbis usque ad annum MCCCCLXXIII

On this date in 1405, the Italian nobleman/warlord Astorre I Manfredi was beheaded in his family’s on-again, off-again stomping ground of Faenza.

A clan made for an HBO series, the Manfredi had cut a colorfully scheming profile on the Renaissance scene for years, not excluding previous encounters with the executioner.

Astorre’s own calling was to retrieve with his sword in 1377 the family patrimony from which his father had been dispossessed twenty years previous. For the balance of Manfredi’s life it would be the seat of an opera buffa for a hard-working mercenary prince trying to claw his place in the peninsular crab bucket.

Manfredi’s mercenary company was destroyed in a Genoa-Venice war, with Manfredi on that occasion only barely eluding the capture and summary death that his brothers in arms suffered. He returned to Faenza to throw his brother in the dungeon for plotting a coup, then tangled with the Marquess of Ferrara who is infamous in these pages for executing his own wife and son for an incestuous affair.**

Manfredi also cultivated an ultimately lethal rivalry with groundbreaking condottiero Alberico da Barbiano, the former beheading the latter’s brother which would help to incite Alberico to a campaign against Faenza that Manfredi could not withstand. At the end of his resources, he resigned his territories to the Vatican in exchange for a pension — but this brief period in the new boss’s employ was terminated when he was found intriguing to reassert his lordship.

Rum luck for Astorre Manfredi was far from the last chapter for his house, which was only definitively relieved of its preeminence in Faenza a century later, by Cesare Borgia. The Manfredi name has graced many notable Italians even since.

* The papal legate Baldasar Cossa who orchestrated Manfredi’s decapitation is more notorious to posterity under a name he subsequently achieved: Antipope John XXIII.

** Parisina Malatesta, the wife/victim of the Marquess in this domestic tragedy, hailed from a Rimini noble house allied to the Manfredi. (Astorre Manfredi for a time was betrothed to the Malatesta lord’s sister, Gentile; likewise, Astorre initially retired to Rimini in 1404 when muscled off his home city.) For detail on the tangled and fascinating dynastic politics proximate to these families, see The Malatesta of Rimini and the Papal State.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,Italy,Mercenaries,Nobility,Papal States,Power,Public Executions,Soldiers,Treason

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1665: Gabriel de Beaufort-Canillac vicomte la Mothe, during the Grands Jours of Auvergne

Add comment October 23rd, 2017 Headsman

As with Peter the Great a few decades later, the budding absolutist Louis XIV experienced a scarring breakdown in law and order in his youth that at times threatened his own person.

In the French case, this was the Fronde — meaning “sling”, a weapon of choice for Parisian mobs — or rather the Frondes, successive insurrections in defense of feudal liberties launched against Louis’s mother and regent, Queen Anne that consumed the 1648-1653 span.

(Among other things, Louis’s experience during these disturbances of fleeing trouble spots in Paris, or cowering practically imprisoned behind palace walls, eventually resolved him to relocate his royal person away from the restive capital, to Versailles; his fear was more than vindicated by the fate of the 16th sovereign of his name at the hands of a different century’s Parisian enragees.)

Upon the death of his mother’s Richelieu figure (and literal Richelieu protege) Cardinal Mazarin, Louis took the state in hand in 1661 at age 22, determined to bring France to his elegant heel.

“You will assist me with your counsels when I ask for them,” he directed stunned ministers who had been accustomed to doing a good deal of the day-to-day governing themselves. “I request and order you to seal no orders except by my command, or after having discussed them with me, or at least not until a secretary brings them to you on my behalf. And you Messieurs of state, I order you not to sign anything, not even a passport, without my command; to render account to me personally each day and favour no one.”

L’etat c’est moi … he wasn’t kidding about that.

Bold reforms followed pell-mell through the 1660s and beyond: of the army, the bureaucracy, industry, the tax system. The archetype absolutist, Louis meant to gather into his Leviathan all the little redoubts of cumbersome right and privilege strewn about from France’s feudal antiquity, and above all to master the independence of his aristocrats and parlements.

One district in particular, the region of Auvergne, had in the chaotic 1650s descended into a minor dystopia ruled by avaricious and unprincipled officials gleefully abusing their control of the local judicial apparatus.

The investigations … revealed that quite a few judges lacked professional scruples and were of questionable moral character. Officers in the bailliages and senechaussees were aware of crimes but did nothing to prosecute them … registration of letters of remission could be bought “with ease.” Officers extorted money from countless victims … At the bailliage of La Tour in Auvergne, officers made arbitrary seizures of oxen belonging to peasants … seized property for “salaries and vacations,” forced minor girls to pay a price for marriage authorizations, and so on. Since all the officers in each of the lower courts were related to one another, “they all upheld one another so that it was impossible to obtain justice.”

The clergy had fallen into disarray … committed kidnappings and assaults and lent their names to laymen so that they might enjoy an ecclesiastical benefice. And this is to say nothing of such “peccadilloes” as frequenting taverns, taking the name of the Lord in vain, keeping mistresses, and fathering children. Monasteries and even convents were rife with “libertinage.” Their income was being squandered on banquets for visitors.

Gentilshommes had been using violent means to maintain their tyranny over the peasants. Forcible extortion of money was “the common offense of the gentilshommes of Auvergne,” according to Dongois, clerk of the Grands Jours. The king’s lieutenant in Bourbonnais, the marquis de Levis, was a counterfeiter who manufactured pistoles that were then circulated by his maitre d’hotel. Many gentilshommes exacted seigneurial dues beyond what they were entitled to, for watch, wine, oxen, supply and transport, and the use of seigneurial mills. They usurped such communal property as meadows, woods, and rights to gather firewood, collected money on every pretext, raised the cens without justification, and collected new dues. (Source

Practical princes see opportunity in such crises, in this case the opportunity to make common cause between the crown and the populace at the expense of of those gentilshommes. And so Louis decreed for Auvergne a Grands Jours, a sort of special visiting assize that could circumvent the incestuous area magistrates. From September 1665 to January 1666 the Grands Jours d’Auvergne processed more than 1,300 cases, meting out 692 convictions and 23 executions (although many sentences were executed in effigy). Six of those actually put to death were gentlemen.*

No noble crest attracted the inquisitors’ attentions more urgently than the ancient family of Montboissier-Beaufort-Canillac whose patriarch,

Jacques-Timoleon, marquis de Canillac, age seventy-two, accompanied by a bodyguard of valets known as his “twelve Apostles,” terrorized his fiefs and seigneuries from Clermont to Rouergue. All his close relatives were guilty of serious crimes or misdemeanors. His eldest son stole his neighbors’ animals, besieged their homes, and murdered them. His next eldest son murdered a curate. Guillaume de Beaufort-Canillac had not only extorted money but also abducted and held captive a notary who had drawn up a document against him. Gabriel de Beaufort-Canillac, vicomte de La Mothe, had attempted to murder another gentilhomme …

Charges had been mounting against the Canillacs, and especially against the old marquis, for decades without any effect. (Same source)

They would continue without effect here for the cagey patriarch, who absented himself in time to suffer only a condemnation in absentia,** but his son Gabriel, the vicomte de la Mothe, was taken by surprise as one of the Grands Jours commission’s very first acts and would distinguish himself its highest-ranking prey — on October 23rd, 1665, a mere four hours after his trial.

The charge against him was one of murder, under what was then considered extenuating circumstances. During the civil war [i.e., the Fronde] he had been commiss[i]oned by the great Conde to raise some regiments of cavalry, and had handed over some six thousand francs of the sum entrusted to him for this purpose, to his friend, D’Orsonette, who would neither furnish the troops nor refund the money. Conde, naturally enough, reproached the vicomte, who thereupon left his service, full of rancor against D’Orsonette. The quarrel grew fiercer as time passed on, until on an evil day the disputants met, each accompanied by a body of servants. M. de la Mothe’s party was the most numerous. D’Orsonette and one of his men were wounded, and his falconer was slain. The facts were incontrovertible. A striking example was deemed essential, and despite the entreaties of his family, and a short delay occasioned by an effort to traverse the jurisdiction of the court, the accused was sentenced to death and executed within a month from the commencement of the assize. It affords a significant illustration of the condition of Auvergne to note that the prosecutor in this case and all his witnesses were far more guilty than the prisoner. The prosecutor was accused by his own father of having murdered his own brother, of being a parricide in intention, and of a hundred other crimes. The next principal witness had been condemned for perjury, and was an acknowledged forger. The others were either outlaws or convicts at the galleys. Against M. de la Mothe no other crime was alleged, and he was generally regarded as the most innocent member of his family. Public opinion held that he suffered for having joined the losing side in the civil war, and for bearing a powerful and deeply-hated name. (A different source)

* A full and colorful account of the affair awaits the Francophone reader in Esprit Flechier’s Memoirs de Flechier sur les Grands-Jours d’Auvergne en 1665 (alternate link).

** It would be the second time in his rapacious career that Canillac pere was executed in effigy.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Murder,Nobility,Pelf,Public Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1415: Lello Capocci, schism victim

1 comment October 7th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1415, Lello Capocci was beheaded at Rome’s Capitoline Hill.

Capocci in a sense was a casualty at second remove of Europe’s “Western Schism”, the awkward 40-year era (here entering its twilight) when the Catholic world divided into two and then three rival papal claimants.

The Schism’s opening up in the first place owed a little to the viperous politics of Capocci’s Rome, to which ancient capital the papacy had in 1377 been returned from its Avignon exile by the last clearly legitimate pope, who then promptly died.

Having been deprived of the papacy for the best part of a century, the Roman populace raised a violent clamor for the College of Cardinals to anoint a Roman successor. (The Avignon popes had all been Frenchmen.)

In a confused conclave echoing with the din of a riot at the doors, the cardinals settled on the Archbishop of Bari, who was not one of their number,* as a compromise candidate whom the French cardinals could live with. This man, now dignified Urban VI, was an Italian … but not a Roman; he was, indeed, a subject of Rome’s resented neighbor Naples. He also turned out upon closer examination by the cardinals who elected him blindly to be a bit of a prick, when for instance “the very next day after his coronation he gave offence to many Bishops and Prelates, who were sojourning in Rome … When, after Vespers, they paid him their respects in the great Chapel of the Vatican he called them perjurers, because they had left their churches. A fortnight later, preaching in open consistory, he condemned the morals of the Cardinals and Prelates in such harsh and unmeasured terms, that all were deeply wounded.” (Source)

Piqued at this arriviste threatening them over their simoniacal predilections, the cardinals popped over the nearby town of Anagni and expressed their buyers’ regret by electing a different guy pope. This completely irregular action was justified by the curia on the grounds that the rude Roman mob had stampeded the initial decision.

So now you’ve got two guys, Urban VI and Clement VII (the latter resuming residence at Avignon, where much of the papal bureaucracy still stood) both claiming to be pope. In the official church history, Urban rates as the legitimate pope and Clement as the illegitimate antipope but this situation had no precedent: it was the very same body that had elected each man and, despite their mutual excommunications, there was no doctrinal controversy dividing them. Small wonder that it befuddled and infuriated contemporaries.

Once commenced, the two opposing “obediences” proved nigh impossible to reconcile and initiated rival successions — Urban giving way to Boniface IX, Innocent VII, and Gregory XII in Rome; Clement to Benedict XIII in Avignon. In 1409, a church council tried to resolve the schism by vacating the existing papal claims and naming Alexander V pope. Unfortunately, neither the Roman nor the Avignon claimant had signed up for the plan, so this blunder forked the schism into a third obedience.

And it is this moment that brings us in roundabout fashion to our man, a very minor figure from the standpoint of posterity: the Roman noble Lello Capocci (Italian link).

Locally in the Eternal City, the Avignon pope didn’t much feature but the Roman pope and the third guy (not the short-lived Alexander but his successor John XXIII**) were simultaneously rivals of one another, and (as would-be rulers of the church) rivals of the Neapolitan crown for power in Rome.

Although the Capoccis were traditionally adherents to the papal authority in this scrum, the Schism had finally come to its endgame in 1415 when the Council of Constance successfully deposed all the claimants to St. Peter’s throne.† The papacy would stand vacant for two years, although the cardinal legate of the fugitive John XXIII still still governed unsteadily from the Castel Sant’Angelo — and it appears that amidst a disordered situation Capocci treated with the nearest potential guarantors of stability. (The short-lived by frightening-for-aristocrats popular revolution of Cola di Rienzi would still have been in living memory for a few old-timers.) He had his head cut off for attempting to betray the city to Naples, which would indeed regain sway in Rome … but not until a couple of years later.

* Nothing in canon law says the pope has to be a cardinal first, or even a member of the clergy, but that’s the way it works in practice now: Urban VI is still the most recent pope to have been selected from outside the College of Cardinals. (The Young Pope will be the next.)

** The antipope John XXIII — who refused to submit to the Council of Constance and “was brought back a prisoner: the most scandalous charges were suppressed; the vicar of Christ was only accused of piracy, murder, rape, sodomy, and incest” (Gibbon) — made the regnal name “John” radioactive for centuries of subsequent popes, notwithstanding its popularity among the laity; it was thought an adventurous choice in 1958 when a newly elected pontiff — a great reformer of the church, as it would prove — made bold enough to announce himself Pope John XXIII.

† We would be remiss on a site such as this not to add that this is also the council that invited under safe conduct, and then perfidiously condemned and burned, the Bohemian reformer/heretic Jan Hus.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Italy,Naples,Nobility,Papal States,Power,Public Executions,Treason

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