Posts filed under 'Nobility'

1647: Francesco Toraldo

Add comment October 21st, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1647, Francesco Toraldo was put to summary death by rebelling Neapolitans.

Toraldo was a decorated commander during the Thirty Years’ War who was all set up to enjoy retirement as the Duke of Palata, a dignity conjured for him by the grateful Spanish.

This title persists in the Spanish peerage to this day, even though the namesake “duchy”, Palata, is a town in Italy — which is where Toraldo had some family holdings.

That meant he was in the neighborhood to get pulled into the action when Naples in 1647 rebelled against the King of Spain, the neglectful overlord of the City of the Sun.

In July 1647 a tax revolt led by a fisherman named Masaniello briefly gained control of the city.*


The Anti-Spanish Revolt of Masaniello in the Piazza del Mercato in Naples on 7 July 1648, by Michelangelo Cerquozzi and Viviano Codazzi, the latter of whom fled Naples because of this very event.

After the city’s merchants murdered Masaniello, Toraldo was called on as governor-general. He enjoyed widespread support among the still-restive populace, and when the Spanish royal house attempted a show of force under John of Austria to decisively quell the disturbance, Toraldo’s defense of the city might have led a more ambitious soul to declare himself the master of Naples. Indeed, many Neapolitans urged this course upon him — but Toraldo hewed to an increasingly untenable middle way of simultaneous fidelity to Spain and the Neapolitan masses that did for him in the end. (In fairness, the bolder attempt would surely have done for him just the same; his safety would have been in retiring.)

Hitherto the people had at least recognised the external sovereignty of Spain. Whilst they fought against the Spaniards, they professed their allegiance to the king of Spain; they rejected the accusation of rebellion, decidedly as well as vehemently; they had respected the pictures and arms of Philip IV and his ancestors, and always called themselves his most faithful people. But by degrees this had changed, and the unsuccessful expedition of Don John had given the last blow to this feeling of attachment to the royal family …A manifesto of the people on the 17th of October, 1647, set forth the grievance of the nation against their rulers, and invoked the aid of the Pope and the Emperor of kings and of princes. Political parties were formed; the most active at first were those who cried “Long life to the Pope! were he but our liege lord.” The Cardinal-Archbishop leaned to this side; the Nuncio Altieri was familiar with intrigues, and his brother was mixed up in it … Others, and amongst them some of the nobility, inclined towards France, and intriguers were not wanting who laboured in behalf of this power … Others again, considered a republic as feasible; but the great mass of the middle class began to perceive the danger into which they had fallen by the last steps taken in the revolution. They had been desirous of the abolition of burdens which were too oppressive, but not of a change in the government and dynasty. They had allowed the populace to have its own way about the gabelles. But when the populace prevailed, they changed their minds, as one insurrection followed upon another, when all commerce was at a stand-still, when all security was at an end, when the town was threatened with being turned into a heap of ruins, and that they were on the point of losing every thing, because they wanted too much. It was this middle class which later gave Spain an easy and bloodless victory.

But till this happened, Naples continued the theatre of horrible scenes. As the negotiations with Don John of Austria led to no results, the people tried to drive away the troops from the posts which they still occupied within the town. Thus Michele de Santis, the butcher who had murdered Don Giuseppe Carafa, led six hundred men against the Spanish post at Porta Meina. The Viceroy, after whom it was called, as has already been mentioned, had built this gate in the wall of Charles Vth, upon the heights of Montesanto, on the slope of the mountain upon which is situated the Carthusian convent and Sant’Elmo. Here stood fifteen Spaniards, armed only with pike and swords; they drove back six hundred men. The leaders perceived that, without the advantage of a commanding position, all individual detached successes were of no avail. Santa Chiara had resisted all their attacks. On the 21st of October a mine was sprung under the tower. Don Francesco Toraldo, who had been too weak to extricate himself, as he might possibly have succeeded in doing from his false position, and who now acted as a sort of check upon the people, commanded the attack in person. The mine was sprung, but being improperly laid, it only injured the neighbouring buildings, which buried numbers of the champions of the people under the ruins. The garrison of the convent made a sally at the same time, and the bands of the assailants withdrew, with the cry of treason. Their unfortunate leader was to atone for the treason; they seized him and dragged him to the market-place. In vain did Don Francesco Toraldo attempt to speak, in vain did his adherents try to silence the mad men. He sank down at the fish-market; they cut off his noble head upon a stone fish-stall. They stuck it upon a speak; thus had first [Don Giuseppe] Carafa’s head been carried in triumph, then that of Masaniello. They tore the still warm heart from the mangled corpse, and carried it in a silver dish to the convent, where Donna Alvina Frezza, the very beautiful wife of the unfortunate man, was staying. The savage murderers desired that the princess would show herself at the gate of the convent to receive the heart of her husband. The nuns, horror-struck, refused to deliver the message: then these savages collected the wood and faggots that were about to set fire to the convent. Toraldo’s widow, informed of the danger appeared at the threshold, and was obliged to receive from the hands of the barbarians this dreadful though beloved present. Many even of the mob wept at this sight. The corpse remained hanging on the gallows for two days, then they took it down, and in one of those sudden revulsions of mind that so often take place amongst the rude masses, they buried their murdered Captain-General with great pomp. (Source)

This fresh detonation of the powder keg led to the populace declaring itself the Neapolitan Republic; as the passage above hints, that project did not long survive the Spaniards’ pressure.

* Masaniello’s populist revolt left a wide literary footprint. Of special note is the opera La Muette de Portici, whose performance in Brussels in 1830 helped catalyze the Belgian Revolution.

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1526: Bianca Maria Gaspardone, the Insatiate Countess

Add comment October 20th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1526, Bianca Maria Gaspardone was beheaded at Milan’s Castello di Porta Giova, the present-day Castello Sforzesco.

She was only about 26 years old, but onto her second* dynastic marriage — this to Renato di Challant.

As the story was later recorded in Matteo Bandello‘s Novelle,** the young woman had wealth and options, and with her husband off fighting in Milan’s war against France, she indulged a series of boudoir intrigues — critically for our purposes, one Ardizzino Valperga, Count of Masino.

Per Bandello, the Lady of Challant grew annoyed by him and tried to dispose of him by provoking a quarrel between he and another of her lovers, the Count of Gaiazzo — but the two men compared notes and simply arrived at a mutual contempt for her.

The count made the sign of the cross, and all full of wonder said: Fie, shameless slut that she is. If it weren’t a dishonor for a knight to imbrue his hands in the blood of a woman, I would gouge out her tongue through the back of her neck; but first I would like her to confess how many times she begged me with her arms on the cross, that I have you killed! And so they repeated in public and private the crimes of this dishonest woman until they were on every person’s lips. She, hearing what these gentlemen said about her, even if she pretended no concern for it, was angry with indignation and thought of nothing else but to be highly avenged.

It was in those days in Milan there was one Don Pietro di Cardona, a Sicilian, who governed the company of his legitimate brother Don Artale. This Don Pietro was a young man of twenty-two, dark-faced but proportionate in body and melancholy appearance, who one day seeing Mrs. Bianca Maria fell wildly in love with her. She judging him to be a pigeon of first feather and instrument capable of doing what she so longed for, lured him to better ensnare and dazzle him. He, who had never before loved a woman of account, considering her to be one of the first in Milan, pined miserably for her sake. In the end she made it one night to go and sleep with him, and took such loving pleasure together that he believed himself to be the happiest lover in the world, and not long after asked the young man to kill the Count of Gaiazzo and Signor Ardizzino.

Don Pietro obligingly ambushed Signor Ardizzino and did him to death. Arrested thereafter, he was equally obliging in giving up his paramour as the moving spirit, and she foolishly admitted as much by trying to bribe her way out of trouble.

Don Pietro was permitted to flee from prison. But the unfortunate young woman, having confirmed her lover’s confession with her own mouth, was condemned to have her head cut off. She, having heard this sentence, and not knowing that Don Pietro had run away, could not be prepared to die. At the end, being led onto the ravelin of the castle facing the square and seeing the block, she began to cry in despair and beg for the grace that, if they wanted her to die happy, they would let her see her Don Pietro; but she sang to the deaf. So the poor woman was beheaded. And whoever longs to see her face portrayed in life, should go to the Chiesa del Monastero Maggiore, and there he will see her painted.


Bandello’s closing remark about her painting has commonly been understood to claim her as the model for this fresco of Saint Catherine of Alexandria by Leonardo da Vinci follower Bernardino Luini (1530). More recent research has cast doubt on that notion: scholars now prefer to reckon her image as that of a kneeling patron (along with her first husband) in a different image.

This tale made its way from Bandello’s pen into subsequent literature, notably a Jacobean English sex-romp tragedy called The Insatiate Countess, and a 19th century Italian play, La Signora di Challant; the whole thing appears overall to have unrealized potential for digital-age revival as sultry costume drama for prestige television.

* First hubby Ermes Visconti was beheaded in 1519.

** Bandello’s Novelle stories, which mix history and folklore, also include a version of the pre-Shakespeare Italian Romeo and Juliet drama.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Italy,Milan,Murder,Nobility,Public Executions,Scandal,Sex,Women

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1568: Ivan Fedorov, zemshchina boyar

Add comment September 11th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1568, the Russian boyar Ivan Petrovich Fedorov-Chelyadnin was personally “executed” by Ivan the Terrible.

The vengeful tsar suspecting this man of aspiring to his position had him dressed in royal robes and sat him on the throne, then mockingly paid obeisance before stabbing him to death. It’s unclear whether this great lord had the benefit beforehand of any semblance of judicial process.


Detail view (click for the full image) of Nikolai Nevrev‘s painting of Ivan the Terrible, coiled in fury with dagger drawn, about to “depose” Ivan Fedorov.

The poet A.K. Tolstoy* (cousin of the Tolstoy) sketched the scene in an 1858 verse, “The Staritsky Voivode”:

When the old governor was accused,
That, proud of the nobility and antiquity of the family,
He dreamt of assigning himself a royal dignity,
Ivan ordered him to appear before his eyes.
And to the condemned he brought a rich crown,
And a garment of pearls and gold,
And he laid on the barmi,** and seated him on his own throne
He raised the guilty one on silk carpets.
And, dropping his gaze before him, he fell in the middle of the chamber,
And, bowing to the ground in mock obedience,
Said: “Satisfied in your majesty,
Behold, your slave smites your brow!”
And, having risen with merciless malice,
Plunged a knife into his heart with a greedy hand.
And, bending his face over the overthrown enemy,
He stepped on the corpse with a patterned boot
And he looked into the eyes of the dead, and with trembling unsteady
Sovereign lips snaked a smile.

The late 1560s bring us to the crescendo of Ivan’s oprichnina, years of terror and purging visited by the paranoid sovereign on his internal foes — actual, potential, or imagined.

Although remembered as the name for Ivan’s policy, the oprichnina was also a literal physical territory — created in 1565 when Ivan successfully forced his nobles to give him absolute power over life and death in the appanage of the oprichnina.† Over the succeeding years, Ivan extended both the physical reach of that realm, and the reach of the dictatorial authority that it embodied — threatening the zemschina, a distinct geographical area where terrified boyars administered the incumbent, non-Ivan Russian state.

“Ivan’s open hostility towards the zemshchina could not fail to alarm its leaders,” not Maureen Perrie and Andrei Pavlov in this biography of Ivan the Terrible … and this fact could not fail to catalyze those much-feared internal foes.

It is quite probable in the circumstances that the idea of removing the tsar and transferring the throne to his cousin Prince Vladimir Staritskii might have been discussed among zemshchina boyars. Two foreign observers — the Germans Heinrich von Staden and Albert Schlichting, who both served in the oprichnina — refer to a conspiracy of the zemshchina boyars in favour of Vladimir. An unofficial Russian chronicle also mentions the ‘inclination’ of the opposition to promote Vladimir’s candidature for the Russian throne. But according to a chronicle account there was no overt conspiracy, only discussions (‘words’), for which the boyars who opposed the oprichnina paid a heavy price.

Our date’s principal, Ivan Fedorov, attracted Ivan’s attention in the ensuing investigation. A prince from a venerable noble family, Fedorov had been a pillar of the state, an important governor and military commander, for three-plus decades. It availed him little under Ivan’s suspicion.

Fedorov was placed in disgrace and exiled to Kolomna. Nobles and officials among his supporters were arrested and executed, and many of the equerry’s armed servants were exterminated. The oprichniki [Ivan’s personal army, the enforcers of the oprichnina -ed.] carried out several punitive raids against Fedorov’s lands. Many of the inhabitants were slaughtered (some were put to the sword, while others were herded into their cottages and burned alive). According to Staden, women and girls were stripped naked ‘and forced in that state to catch chickens in the fields’. Buildings were demolished, livestock was slaughtered and chancellery officials were put to death, along with about 300 boyars’ servants.

* A.K. Tolstoy also wrote a tragedy for the stage (banned in tsarist Russia), The Death of Ivan the Terrible.

** Barmi: an ornamental mantle or collar that comprised part of the royal regalia.


It’s the semicircle between Tsar Alexis‘s beard and his crucifix.

The term, now so dreadful in Russian historiography, originally denoted an inheritance of land left to a widow, as distinct from that left to her children.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,History,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Power,Put to the Sword,Russia,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Treason

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906: Adalbert of Badenberg

Add comment September 9th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 906, Frankish noble Adalbert of Babenberg was done in by a feud.

Our setting is the German duchy of Franconia, in the remains of Charlemagne’s Carolingian Empire. That mighty polity had been dismembered by subdivisions split among rivalrous sons, so Franconia here falls within a third part of a third part — the Kingdom of Saxony.

This decomposition summoned all manner of scavengers to squabble over the meat, and Franconia “was divided into counties, or gauen, which were ruled by counts, prominent among whom were members of the families of Conradine and Babenberg, by whose feuds it was frequently devastated.”

The latter of these houses, Babenberg, was sired by one of the last great Carolingian commanders. Descendants of this notable line would become in time dukes in their own right, and the red-white-red triband of their family arms are the basis for the flag of modern Austria. The city of Bamberg grew up around their family stronghold of Babenberg Castle.

Around the turn into the 10th century, however, they were getting the rough end of the pineapple from the Conradines — who waxed in royal favor and regional power while the Babenbergs waned.

Adalhard of Babenberg, the older brother of this post’s principal, had been seized and beheaded by the Conradines in 903. Not to be out-feuded, our guy Adalbert gave battle to his rivals in 906, killing the enemy family silverback.*

He was in his own turn besieged in Theres until he surrendered to a safe conduct promised by Saxon King Otto the Illustrious — who was his own brother-in-law thanks to Otto’s marrying Adalbert’s sister back when the Babenbergs stood higher in the pecking order. So much for sentiment: as soon as Adalbert gave up the protection of his city walls, Otto had his head cut off.

* A guy named Conrad: hence, the Conradines.

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1574: Charles de Mornay, sword dance regicide

Add comment September 4th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1574, the courtier Charles de Mornay was executed for an aborted plot against the Swedish king.

The French Huguenot had been a mainstay in the Swedish court for many years, and a favorite of King Erik XIV until that man was deposed in 1568.

From 1572, at the instigation of the French ambassador, de Mornay went to work on a plot to assassinate King John III — Erik’s half-brother and successor. This Mornay Plot would have liberated Erik XIV from prison and enthroned in John’s place either (it’s not clear) this same Erik XIV or else their other brother, Charles.

What the plan lacked in subtlety it compensated in showmanship. The idea was to use the Scottish mercenaries present in Swedish service during a scheduled ceremonial performance of their sword dance in October 1573. It turns out that while wheeling around the sovereign twirling blades, it’s a simple enough matter to just twirl one right through him.


Maybe that’s what gave Shakespeare the idea for the big duel in Hamlet.

Apparently Charles de Mornay lost his nerve at the critical moment and didn’t issue his dancing assassins the go-ahead sign — leaving John on the throne, and several folks involved in the plot in position to inform upon it. Indeed, we’ve brushed up against one such previously in these pages, for prior to de Mornay’s exposure a Scottish officer who caught wind of a rumor of the coup became accused of leading it, and was unjustly beheaded as his rewarded for reporting it.

De Mornay was exposed a few months later. King John had Erik murdered in prison in early 1577.

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1497: Lorenzo Tornabuoni, Florentine nobleman

Add comment August 21st, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1497, five Florentines were beheaded for a seditious conspiracy, headlined by the scion of one of the city’s leading families.

Our scene is the Italian city-state of Florence, during the 20-year intrregnum with the Medici family out of power. Lorenzo the Magnificent had died in 1492; his much less magnificent son and successor Piero the Unfortunate was expelled in 1494. For the time being the Dominican cleric Savonarola holds sway; after his fall a few months hence, it would briefly be Machiavelli’s humanist republic.

For these years the Medici schemed from exile, and Florentines guarded warily against their prospective restoration … the circumstance that will bring five heads to the block here. Earlier that same month of August 1497, the Florentine apothecary Luca Landucci noted the arrest of a man who “when flogged … confessed to a certain plot with Piero de’ Medici, and accused many, who were sent for and detained n the Palagio and the Bargello, and put to the rack. Amongst these were Lorenzo Tornabuoni, Gianozzo Pucci, Bernardo Del Nero, Niccolo Ridolfi, and others who fled.”

Landucci’s diary records the speedy progress of this investigation.

6th August. Signore Rinuccio and other leaders were sent for, and soldiers were hired in the Piazza.

10th August. There was much talk in the city as to what would be done with them (these prisoners); some said they were not guilty, and some said they were.

13th August. It was said that the Tornabuoni had despatched an estafette to the King of France, to beg that he should request the liberation of Lorenzo.

This Tornabuoni family were powerful bankers and their name is preserved to this day on one of Florence’s major city streets. The elderly patriarch Giovanni Tornabuoni was Piero de’ Medici’s great-uncle and had long been tight with that family — and it’s due to their prominence as well as the unexpected extremity of political execution that we’re drawn to gawk in particular here at Giovanni’s son Lorenzo.

As a matter of fact, art lovers can still gawk at him thanks to his doting wealthy dad.

Look for Lorenzo mugging for the viewer as he beholds the expulsion of Joachim in a Domenico Ghirlandaio fresco at the Tornabuoni Chapel at the church of Santa Maria Novella.


Detail view; click for the full image

And a pair of Botticelli frescos now held at the Louvre are thought to model bride and groom on the occasion of Lorenzo’s sensational marriage to the beautiful daughter of a rival noble house, Giovanna degli Albizzi.


A Young Man Being Introduced to the Seven Liberal Arts (likely modeled on Lorenzo Tornabuoni)


Venus and the Three Graces Presenting Gifts to a Young Woman (likely modeled on Giovanna degli Albizzi)

All the brushwork in the world couldn’t save even this strapling oligarch when events tied him to a prospective Medici restoration, even though it broke soft republican hearts. Our apothecary Luca Landucci “could not refrain from weeping when I saw that young Lorenzo carried past the Canto d’ Tornaquinci on a bier” and if his diary is to be believed the dry eyes were few and far between.

17th August. The Practica [Court] met and sat in the Palagio from the morning till midnight. There were more than 180 men. And the five prisoners were condemned by word of mouth to be put to death and their property to be confiscated according to law. The five men condemned were Bernardo Del Nero, Niccolo Ridolfi, Giovanni Canbi, Gianozzo Pucci, and Lorenzo Tornabuoni, for whom all Florence was sorry.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Florence,History,Italy,Mass Executions,Nobility,Power,Public Executions,Torture,Treason

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1469: Andrea Viarani

1 comment August 12th, 2020 Headsman

The August 12, 1469 beheading of a Ferrara nobleman named Andrea Viarani is the subject of a chapter in the very fine volume The Art of Executing Well: Rituals of Execution in Renaissance Italy.

This scholarly tome explores via six chapters with different authors and several translated texts the spiritual and ritual experience of execution, particularly as mediated by confraternities of lay comforters who worked to steady the condemned for their ordeal and — as they prayed — their salvation.

Notably, The Art of Executing Well favors the reader with a 100-page translation of a Bolognese Comforters’ Manual and its associated hymnal. This resource was used by the Compagnia di Santa Maria della Morte to train its brethren for their weighty task of counseling the doomed.

This manual is, in the first place, a philosophical text for the counselor — to get his mind right, fully versed in Church doctrine concerning the afterlife and approaching his somber task full of contrition, humility, and piety.

Those doing this work must put their heart in it and act only out of love for God, and also out of charity for and the salvation of the neighbor. And they must make a great effort to do this, otherwise it would be displeasing to God. And take note that it will not gain you anything for eternal life if it is done for any vain reasons: any aspect of glory or mundane pomp, or to be held in high esteem by the people of this world, or to avoid disrespect of your fellow man, or for any worldly gain, or to be on everyone’s lips, or to be praised, or to be able to learn the secrets or the deeds of those people, or out of revenge, or out of ill will, or for faction, or for reward. But you should only do it out of reverence for God and to observe his commandment.

And in the second place, it’s a practical handbook for navigating the many reactions and considerations that people in their last hours might have, as part of guiding the sufferer towards reconciliation with God. “You must not tire of speaking” to those who wish to listen and pray with you, but also bring several enumerated volumes for those who prefer to read; in many other cases, “you will find those who do not willingly accept their death and for whom it is a very big thing” and who must be guided empathetically when their thoughts are preoccupied by concern for their family, or by writing their will, or by their raw resistance to death. At times the guidance reads strikingly modern; set aside the figure of the executioner and words like these would not be amiss to aid you or I in a 21st century personal crisis:

There are those whom you will find hard-hearted in the beginning and who do not want to hear anything you say … Be very careful not to unsettle him with words or harshness. Because sometimes those who are so hardened and miserable may react quite violently against one word they don’t like, with the result that you risk never being able to say anything that they do like, and this leads to worse. And if you see that in spite of your words he doesn’t wish to repent and remains hard-hearted, let it be and say nothing to him. Rather, let him say what he wants. And then tell some appropriate story or some example to your companion [i.e., a brother emissary from the confraternity -ed.] or with whoever is around, and tell in such a way that he who is to die hears you. And when his anger subsides and he is just there not doing anything, then go and put your hand on his back and ever so gently reprove him for his folly and place him on the proper road.

We’ve previously seen in these annals an example of lay brother and condemned prisoner working together to ready a soul for the block, in the person of Niccolo Machiavelli associate Pietro Boscoli, who was involved in (or perhaps merely adjacent to) an anti-Medici plot.

That’s not dissimilar from the situation of our day’s principal. Andrea Viarani came from a cultured noble family numbering diplomats, doctors, and astrologers among its ranks — and he came to his grief by his involvement in a conspiracy against the local tyrant, Borso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara.*

Not much is really known about this man’s life, but he comes alive in Alfredo Troiano’s examination of three poems that the man wrote while awaiting execution. These poems later made their way to Bologna, where the aforementioned Compagnia di Santa Maria della Morte incorporated them into its own corpus and for Troiano, that’s no coincidence: they exhort the reader to attitudes characteristic of confraternities, revealing the unrecorded exertions these lay brethren must have made in Viarani’s cell.

If the blind, false, and treasonous world,
full of injustice, betrayal, and deception
has held you many years
far from your Maker and the Supreme Good,

Shows now both the shadowy and the fleeting nature
of hoping for vain pleasures, which
that foolish desire inclines towards
never thinking of its true salvation:

Now that heaven has given you much grace
and you are brought back to the point,
Andrea, that God has made you
repentant of the wrong committed.

Lift your mind to God, move your hard heart
and do not be so obstinate with him
but with devout tears,
repentant of having erred, ask for forgiveness.

Ah! Don’t wish to abandon your soul,
being diffident of eternal grace,
for it never is tired of gathering
he who, repentant, so asks.

This sirvente runs to 35 stanzas, and the translation is original to The Art of Executing Well where the reader may peruse it at length; Viarani also wrote two sonnets, one addressed to the Eternal Father and the other the Eternal Queen (that is, to God and to the Virgin Mary), which also appear in that book.

* The son of Niccolo d’Este, a name distinguished in execution annals by meting that fate out to his young wife and his son for their shocking affair. (The lovers weren’t kin themselves.)

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Ferrara,History,Italy,Nobility,Power,Public Executions,Treason

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979: Gero, Count of Alsleben

Add comment August 11th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 979, a Saxon lord won a trial by combat at the cost of his head.

You’re not supposed to call this period the “Dark Ages” but it’s fair to say that our sources don’t throw a comprehensive illumination on the story.

Our date’s principal is a count named Gero, possibly/presumably the descendant of one Gero the Great who governed a vast eastern march of the Holy Roman Empire. Famous for his campaigns against the Slavs, the Great Gero is the historical personage behind the “Margrave Gere” character in the Nibelungenlied.

By our Gero’s generation, that vast eastern march had been fragmented into smaller territories, so he carried the same name with nothing like the same political muscle. The man who concerns us was Count of the town of Alsleben, in Saxony, and somehow he made an enemy of a knight named Waldo. What grievance did they have worth fighting about? This is one of those topics left un-lit for us by history, but as we shall see we might be entitled to guess that Gero was the guy in the wrong.

At any rate, the two fought a sanctioned judicial duel on August 11, 979, a date we have via several chroniclers taken by the remarkable event. In the course of the scrap, both antagonists gave like they got, but Waldo having stunned Gero with a blow stepped out of the lists and began unstrapping. We can perhaps picture him, smirking in peppermint-striped armor, pumping his gauntlets … but …

… well, Gero had also wounded Waldo about the neck in the melee, and that wound took lethal, albeit delayed, effect. Was it a subtle injury that left Waldo bleeding out internally, blissfully unaware of death stealing up on him? Or a vicious wedge-shaped gash that spat wheezing gore through his fingers as he tried to stanch it? Whatever it was, it was good enough: “as he refreshed himself, Waldo fell down dead,” the prince-bishop Thietmar noted. (Book 3, paragraph 9 of Thietmar’s Chronicle.)

Executed Today has previously skirted the strange (and strangely long-lasting) juridical enclave of judicial duels/trials by combat. The way this is supposed to work is, the dead guy is deemed owned and the living guy, however concussed he might be, is legally vindicated by prowess at arms.

Not so here. Emperor Otto II revealed the whole spectacle to have been a sham all along and decreed Gero’s death anyway. He was beheaded that very evening.

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1573: Lancelot van Brederode, sea beggar

Add comment July 20th, 2020 Headsman

Dutch revolt general Lancelot van Brederode was beheaded on this date in 1573, bequeathing posterity the gorgeous ruin of his sacked castle.

Lancelot van Bredrode, detail from an illustration of him alongside fellow ‘sea beggar’ Jan van Duivenvoorde, by Johannes Hilverdink.

Lancelot van Brederode (English Wikipedia entry | Dutch) was the bastard half-brother of Hendrick, Lord of Broderode, and both men numbered among the ranks of Calvinist Low Countries nobles determined to break away from Spanish Catholic domination.

This faction became known as the Geuzen, meaning “Beggars”; so prominent was Hendrick that he was the Grote Greus, or “Big Beggar”. Alas, he was chased into exile by the Spanish crackdown and became the Died Young Beggar.

Lancelot’s talents were on the waves, and it’s no surprise that seafaring Watergeuzen were the most prominently successful Beggars of all in the unfolding Dutch Revolt. Unfortunately he was not successful at supporting the defense of Haarlem against Spanish siege: when the Spanish took the city, Lancelot lost his head. To add insult to injury, they destroyed Brederode Castle; the gorgeous ruins were protected as a national monument and partly restored in the 19th century.


The Ruins of Brederode Caste, by Meindert Hobbema. For a more present-day view of the shattered citadel, see here.

Lancelot’s young (at the time of dad’s beheading) son Reinoud van Brederode went on to become a powerful lawyer and diplomat in the Dutch Republic. But not so powerful that he could save his father-in-law, Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, from his own date with Executed Today.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Netherlands,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Soldiers,Spain,Wartime Executions

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1485: William de La Marck, the Wild Boar of the Ardennes

Add comment June 18th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1485, the German warrior William de La Marck was beheaded at Maastricht.

“There is, moreover, in the land, a nobleman of good descent, and fame in warlike affairs, but otherwise, so to speak, Lapis offensionis et petra scandali — and a stumbling block of offence to the countries of Burgundy and Flanders. His name is William de la Marck.”

“Called William with the Beard,” said the young Scot, “or the Wild Boar of Ardennes?”

“And rightly so called, my son,” said the Prior, “because he is as the wild boar of the forest, which treadeth down with his hoofs and rendeth with his tusks. And he hath formed to himself a band of more than a thousand men, all, like himself, contemners of civil and ecclesiastical authority, and holds himself independent of the Duke of Burgundy, and maintains himself and his followers by rapine and wrong, wrought without distinction upon churchmen and laymen.”

Sir Walter Scott, Quentin Durward. The boar is a major antagonist in this novel, but Scott has him killed, ahistorically, in melee.

Le Sanglier des ArdennesThe Wild Boar of the Ardennes, so christened for his resemblance to that ferocious beast; “he affected to delight in this surname, and endeavoured to deserve it by the unvarying cruelty and ferocity of his life” — tusked his way onto history’s stage in the power vacuum following the collapse of Burgundy as an independent power.

Among other effects, Burgundy’s fall greatly widened the local autonomy of the city of Liege, in present-day Belgium — a city that Burgundy in its recent heyday had violently brought to heel.

And not merely the city, but the entire Prince-Bishopric of Liege.

A tasty truffle for the snuffling, to porcine eyes.

In 1482, the Wild Boar assassinated the sitting Prince-Bishop of Liege, Louis de Bourbon. It’s a scene captured in dark melodrama by Executed Today‘s court painter Eugene Delacroix.

He intended by this stroke to set up his son Jean de La Marck as the Prince-Bishop. Instead he kicked off a civil war and in lieu of the mitre he obtained a payoff from the Prince-Bishopric as Liege turned to resisting the inroads of the Austrian Empire. The Boar now allying with Liege in this endeavor, he was ingloriously ambushed by imperial forces and brought in for butchering.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Belgium,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Habsburg Realm,History,Netherlands,Nobility,Power,Public Executions,Soldiers

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