Posts filed under 'Nobility'

1620: Thomas Dempster condemned

Add comment April 20th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1620, Thomas Dempster was condemned by a Scottish assize to execution for counterfeiting. No documentation specifying the execution date appears to be available but such sentences were commonly implemented almost immediately — either directly from the courtroom or within a couple of days.

The Dempster family of Muresk were baronial landowners who owed both privilege and surname to the hereditary rank of dempster. This curious office of “dooms-man” connects etymologically with judging (“deem”), the successor to a Gaelic position called the judex that once projected royal authority into the courtroom.

Over the centuries-long term, this pre-Norman holdover was on a downward trend towards obsolence; the dempster transitioned to being the pronouncer of the court’s sentences and “ultimately became the common hangman.”* (Source)

Nevertheless, in our man’s time the Muresk Dempsters had estate enough to squander, and the quarrelsome Thomas did yeoman work in that respect, blowing the family fortune on clan feuding that extended even to a violent rivalry with his own son, James.** The assize record would note him “altogidder sensles of that his miserable cairage, nawayis being movet thairwith, bot rather resolveing to rwn heidlongis in all godles and cruiket courses.”

Having been found in this degraded state guilty of forgery, he was condemned by the court “to be tane to the Castell-hill of Edinburgh, and thair his heid to be strukin frome his body; and all his moveable guidis and geir pertening to him to be escheit to his Maiesteis use, &c.”

* The office of the dempster was abolished in 1773.

** James and his team ambushed and injured the father in a rivalry over a woman, driving James to a life of banditry. Another son — James’s younger brother, confusingly also named Thomas Dempster — was snatched away from this noxious family atmosphere by a kindly uncle who gave him a continental education; this other better-favored Thomas Dempster grew up to become a noted ecclesiastical historian.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Counterfeiting,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Nobility,Pelf,Public Executions,Scotland,Uncertain Dates

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1720: Antoine-Joseph de Horn, humanity from an executioner

Add comment March 26th, 2018 Henry-Clement Sanson

(Thanks to Henry-Clement Sanson for the guest post. The former executioner — the last of his illustrious dynasty comprising six generations of bourreaux — was the grandson of that dread figure of the Paris Terror, Charles Henri Sanson. Henry-Clement’s Memoirs of the Sansons: From Private Notes and Documents (1688-1847) describes some famous or infamous executions from the family annals. “If it had for purpose to furnish food for the unhealthy curiosity of people who would seek emotions in a kind of written photograph of the scenes that take place on the scaffold, it should be received with loathsomeness,” our guest author disingenuously explains of his motivations after debts resulted in his dismissal from the family post. Rather, “I have been actuated in the course of my work by an abhorrence for the punishment denounced by so many eloquent voices, the punishment of which I have had the misfortune to be the living impersonation.” Although this document appears to draw from some manner of family records, it deserves a cautious reading as pertains the intimate conversations and beneficent motivations of his kinsmen. -ed.)

Count Antoine-Joseph De Horn was the scion of a princely race; and he was connected with the highest nobility of Europe. At the time when speculation, under Law‘s auspices, was raging in Paris, and the temptation of gain was leading astray many persons of position and family, Count de Horn was living in the capital the life of a young lord of fashion and fortune. The sensation which was produced may easily be imagined when it was heard that he had been arrested and put under lock and key under the twofold charge of having murdered, in company with a Piedmontese, called the Chevalier de Milhe, and a third unknown person, a Jew who speculated in the shares of the Royal Bank, in order to rob him of a pocket-book which contained a sum of 100,000 livres.

The murder was perpetrated in a tavern of the Rue Quincampoix, where, it was alleged, Count de Horn and his accomplices had made an appointment with the Jew, under pretence of purchasing the shares he had in his pocket, but in reality to steal them from him.

The greatest agitation prevailed at Court in consequence of this affair, owing to the illustrious rank or the accused, and of his connection with the loftiest aristocracy of the land. De Horn’s trial was pursued with unprecedented rapidity, and it seems as if the numerous steps taken to save the young man’s life only hurried his fate. When his parents heard of his incarceration, they lost no time in moving heaven and earth on his behalf. On the eve of the trial, a large number of his kinsmen assembled in the Palais de Justice, and waited for the members of the court, to bow to them as they passed, by way of commending the accused to their indulgence. This imposing manifestation, undertaken by the first seigneurs of France, produced no effect: the court of La Tournelle sentenced Count de Horn and the Chevalier de Milhe to be broken on the wheel, and left there until death should follow.

This sentence filled the young man’s friends and parents with terror and surprise. They sent to the Regent a petition in which it was represented that Count de Horn’s father was mad, that his kinsman Prince Ferdinand de Ligne was in a similar condition, that lunacy was a common ailing in his family, and that the young man must have committed the crime when of unsound mind. Among those who signed the petition were Prince Claude de Ligne, Marquis d’Harcourt, the Earl of Egmont, the Duke de la Tremouille, the Duke de la Force, the Archbishop of Cambray, Prince de Soubise, the Princess de Gonzague, and many others of the same rank. All the facts adduced in this petition were certainly authentic. The great race of the Princes de Horn and Overisque had given many examples of mental aberration. All the subscribers of the petition went in a body to the Palais Royal; but the Regent only consented to receive a deputation. He was inflexible with regard to a reprieve; and it was with much difficulty that he consented to a commutation of the sentence into decapitation. He could only be moved by being reminded that he was himself related to the culprit through his mother the Princess Palatine. How he kept his promise will be seen hereafter.

This obstinacy on the part of the Regent was much commented upon. Personal animosity was said to be the cause. M. de Horn, being young, handsome, and captivating, had been something of a lady-killer. Now, morality was not the distinguishing feature of Philip d’Orleans’ court, and it was said that several beauties in fashion had regarded the foreign young lord with more than ordinary favour. Mdme. de Parabere‘s name was particularly mentioned; and it was related that the Regent had once surprised M. de Horn in conversation with the beautiful marchioness. In his fury the prince showed him the door, saying, ‘Sortez’ —to which the Count made the proud and appropriate answer: ‘Monseigneur, nos ancetres auraient dit, sortons.’ To this adventure, whether real or invented, was attributed the Regent’s hatred for Count de Horn, whose life he had sworn to sacrifice. It is not my business to discuss this question. What was most certain was that Law, the minister of finance, and Dubois, the prime minister, showed themselves the bitterest foes of Count de Horn. The influence of the shares of the Royal Bank and of the Mississippi was diminishing; and they were in hopes that this might be mended by a display of unparalleled severity for the punishment of a murder committed with the object of taking possession of some of these shares.

Shortly afterwards, Charles Sanson received a visit from the Marquis de Creqy, the nobleman who had been the instigator and leader of all the attempts made to save the unfortunate youth. He seemed convinced that the Regent would keep his word, and showed him a letter in which the Duke de Saint-Simon expressed his conviction that Count de Horn would be decapitated. The Marquis added that his royal highness had also promised that the execution should take place in the court of the Conciergerie, to spare the culprit the shame of being led through the crowd. The only thing was to spare the unhappy young man as many sufferings as possible. M. de Creqy expressed a wish to see the sword which was to be used for his execution; he turned pale when my ancestor produced the broad double-edged blade, sharp and flashing, which could hardly be styled a weapon. On one side was engraved the word Justitia; on the other a wheel, emblem of torture. It was the sword with which the Chevalier de Rohan had been decapitated.

M. de Creqy could hardly refrain from weeping when he begged Charles Sanson to be as lenient as possible in the execution of his fearful mission, to uncover only the neck of the victim, and to wait until he received the priest’s absolution before giving him the fatal blow.

The conversation then turned to the measures to be taken for the remittance of the body, which M. de Creqy claimed in the name of the family. He requested my ancestor to procure a padded coffin wherein to place the remains of De Horn, which were then to be taken away in a carriage sent expressly for the purpose. Charles Sanson promised to see to the accomplishment of these lugubrious details.

When he left, M. de Creqy, wishing to reward my ancestor for the services he asked, presented him with 100 louis, and insisted on his accepting the gift. But Charles Sanson firmly refused. M. de Creqy appeared moved, and retired. I may be forgiven for dwelling with some complacency on this trait of disinterestedness on the part of one of those who preceded me in the office I held for many years; it may be considered as an answer to the charge of cupidity which has been launched at a profession which did not appear sufficiently soiled by blood.

Only a few hours had elapsed since the visit of the Marquis de Creqy, when Charles Sanson received the order to take, on the next morning at six o’clock, from the Conciergerie, Count Antoine de Horn; to convey him to the Place de Greve, after passing through the torture-chamber, and carry out the sentence of Parliament in its cruel tenour. My ancestor’s expectation was justified; the Regent did not keep his word; Law and Dubois had won the day against the Duke de Saint-Simon and the nobility.

To my ancestor’s extreme surprise, the sentence did not even contain the secret restriction of a retentum, which spared horrible sufferings to the accused, by ordering the executioner to strangle him before breaking his limbs. How could he now keep the promise he had made to the Marquis de Creqy? Charles Sanson passed the night in anything but pleasant reflections.

It was broad daylight when my ancestor arrived at the Conciergerie with his sinister cortege. He immediately entered the prison, and was conducted to a lower room in which were the Count de Horn and M. de Milhe, who-had just been tortured. Both were horribly mangled, for they had supported the boot to the eighth spike. The Count was extremely pale. He cast a haggard look around him, and kept speaking to his companion, who seemed much more resigned and listened with religious attention to the priest who was consoling him. As to M. de Horn, instead of being plunged in the state of prostration which usually followed the abominable sufferings he had just borne, he gesticulated with feverish animation and pronounced incoherent words which almost seemed to justify what had been alleged in his defence concerning the unsoundness of his mind. He violently repulsed the priest, who was dividing his attention between the two sufferers, and repeatedly asked for Monsignor Francois de Lorraine, Bishop of Bayeux, from whom he had received the communion the day before.

The fatal moment came. The culprits were carried to the executioner’s cart. Charles Sanson sat down next to the Count, while the priest continued speaking to the Piedmontese. Seeing the unhappy young man’s extreme agitation, my ancestor thought he might quiet him by giving him some hope, even were that hope to remain unrealised.

‘My lord,’ he said, ‘there is perhaps some hope. Your relations are powerful.’

The prisoner violently interrupted him. ‘They have abandoned me,’ he exclaimed; ‘the Bishop — where is the Bishop? He promised to return.’

‘Who knows?’ my ancestor ventured to say; ‘reprieve may yet come.’

The young man’s lips turned up contemptuously. ‘If they wanted to spare my life, they would not have crippled me in this fashion,’ he replied, bitterly, casting a look at his lacerated legs and feet.

Charles Sanson says in his notes that he really hoped and expected that some attempt would be made to save De Horn. But nothing occurred. The Pont-au-Change was passed, and in another minute the cortege reached the Place de Greve. The Count looked at Sanson reproachfully as if upbraiding him for what he had said; but he was now quite collected and the fear of death had left him.

At length the cart stopped at the foot of the scaffold. The culprits, owing to the torture they had undergone, could not move unaided. Charles Sanson therefore took Count de Horn in his arms and carried him up the steps. At the same time he whispered in his ear the advice that he should ask permission to make revelations, as a means of gaining time; but the unfortunate young man had again lost his self-possession and gave vent to incoherent exclamations. ‘I knew they would not allow the Bishop to come,’ he said; … ‘they have arrested him because he had shares also. But I shall sell my life dearly; only give me arms! … they cannot refuse to give me arms!’ … While he was thus expressing himself, Charles Sanson stepped back, motioning to his assistants to begin their work which consisted in tying him to the plank on which he was to be broken. When this was done, the priest, who had just left the Piedmontese, approached De Horn: ‘My son,’ he said, ‘renounce the sentiments of anger and revenge which trouble your last moments. Only think of God: He is the sovereign author of all justice, if you appear before Him with a contrite and humbled heart.’

The Count at length seemed moved, and he joined in the priest’s prayer. As to my ancestor, he remembered M. de Creqy’s request as to priestly absolution, and in this respect his conscience was firm; but he had also promised not to make the young man suffer. In an instant he decided on the course he should adopt. Simulating sudden illness, he passed his iron bar to Nicolas Gros, his oldest assistant, took the thin rope used for the secret executions of the retentum, passed it round the Count’s neck, and before Gros had raised the heavy bar wherewith he was about to break the culprit’s limbs, he pulled the rope, and thus spared him the most atrocious sufferings ever devised by human cruelty.

On the other hand, the Chevalier de Milhe, who was being broken, uttered wild shrieks. In vain did the priest wipe the perspiration from his brow, and pour a few drops of water into his mouth. Charles Sanson was struck with the inequality of the sufferings of the two men, and told Gros to give him the coup de grace — the blow which broke the chest.

Gros obeyed, but not without casting an uneasy look at the commissaire, who was viewing the execution from the balcony of the Hotel-de-ville. No doubt the latter cared little for executions of this kind, of which, perhaps, he had seen but too many, for he perceived nothing. At this moment the priest, surprised not to hear the cries of Count de Horn, returned to exhort him to repentance: he saw that death had forestalled him. The rope was still hanging from the young man’s neck, and my ancestor hastened to conceal it while the ecclesiastic was standing between the Hotel-de-ville and himself; then, placing a finger on his lips, he solicited the priest’s discretion.

Both passed the remainder of the day beside the mangled remains. Shortly after the execution, a carriage drawn by six horses, preceded by a mounted servant, and followed by six servants in gorgeous livery, entered the Place de Greve. It was the Duke de Croy d’Havre, whose arms could be descried on the panels of his carriage through the black crape which covered it. He was soon followed by three other carriages, which stopped on the north sideof the square. They were all in deep mourning, as also the harness of the horses and the liveries of the servants. The blinds were closed, as much to avoid public curiosity as to conceal the cruel sight of the scaffold. But it was whispered in the crowd that the last comers were the Prince de Ligne, the Duke de Rohan, and a Crouiy, the last scion of the illustrious race of Arpad, which traced its origin to Attila, and put forth more legitimate rights to the crown of Hungary than the house of Hapsburg.

My ancestor was surprised not to see the Marquis de Creqy. But his astonishment was short-lived, for a rumour at the other end of the Place announced the arrival of two other carriages, in an apparel still more pompous. They drove up to the other carriages and took up a position in the same line. The Marquis de Creqy stepped out, and advanced on to the square clad in the uniform of a colonel-general and general inspector of the King’s armies, and wearing the insignias of the Golden Fleece, the grand crosses of Saint-Louis and Saint-Jean of Jerusalem. His countenance bore the traces of profound grief. He traversed the Greve with a firm step; the crowd stepped back respectfully before this great personage, who was one of Louis XIV’s godsons.

As soon as the commissaire saw M. de Creqy, he retired from the balcony of the Hotel-de-ville, as if only waiting for this final protest to bring the scene to a conclusion. This meant that justice was satisfied. The Marquis walked straight up to my ancestor with a severe face, and looking at him almost threateningly:

‘Well, sir,’ said he, in a stern voice, ‘what of your promise?’

‘Monseigneur,’ answered Charles Sanson, ‘at eight o’clock this morning M. le Comte de Horn was dead, and the bar of my assistant struck a dead body.’

The priest confirmed my ancestor’s words.

‘Well,’ said M. de Creqy, in a milder tone, ‘our house shall remember that if it could obtain nothing from the clemency of the Regent and from the justice of Parliament, it is at least indebted to the humanity of the executioner.’

The Count’s body was then untied and taken to one of the carriages. It was so mutilated that the limbs seemed ready to separate from the trunk. As a protest against the cruelty of the sentence, M. de Creqy insisted on holding one of the legs, which only adhered to the corpse by the skin. When this was done the carriages moved away in a file, and stopped before the house of the Countess de Montmorency-Lagny, nee De Horn, where the Count’s remains were placed in a bier and deposited in a chapel. It remained there for two days, surrounded by a numerous clergy who sang the mass of the dead. Meanwhile Prince Francois de Lorraine, Bishop of Bayeux, had returned to Paris. He expressed much grief at having been unable to attend his unfortunate kinsman to the scaffold, thinking that the execution was to take place at a later date. He nevertheless arrived in time to join his prayers to those of the clergy, and, in company with MM. de Creqy and de Plessis-Belliere, he escorted the body to the Castle of Baussigny, in the Netherlands, where the Prince de Horn, eldest brother of the defunct, and head of the family, usually resided.

This extraordinary affair greatly irritated the highest personages of the State against the Regent and his favourites: it proved of no assistance to Law, whose fall was unavoidable. On his return from his country-seat the Duke de Saint-Simon hastened to write to the Duke d’Havre to express his regret at what had occurred, and to say how he himself had been deceived by the false promises of the Duke d’Orleans.

I quote here the Duke d’Havre’s answer, because it not only expressed the sentiments of all the French nobility, but it corroborates what I have said concerning Charles Sanson’s conduct:

My dear Duke, — I accept with gratitude, and I understand quite well, the regret you are kind enough to express. I do not know whether the Marquis de Parabere or the Marquis de Creqy obtained of the executioner of Paris the charity which is attributed to him; but what I do know is that the death of Count de Horn is the result of a false policy, of the financial operations of the Government, and, perhaps, also of the policy of the Duke d’Orleans. You know my sentiments of consideration for you.

CROY D’HAVRE

Was Count de Horn really innocent? We have no right to judge the merits of those it was our mission to put to death. Nevertheless I have taken the liberty to allude to the rumours which were current at the time of De Horn’s arrest, and which made him out to be the victim of the Regent’s personal animosity. Another version tended to establish his innocence, or, at least, so to diminish his responsibility in the Jew’s murder, that, were the version correct, the sentence he suffered could only be regarded as a monstrous iniquity. It was said that M. de Horn and the Chevalier de Milhe had not made an appointment with the Jew with the intention of murdering and robbing him, but merely with the object of obtaining from him a large sum in shares of the Bank which the Count had really entrusted to him; that not only did the Jew deny the deposit, but that he went so far as to strike Antoine de Horn in the face. Upon this the young man, who was hot-blooded and passionate, seized a knife that lay on the table and wounded the Jew in the shoulder. It was De Milhe who finished him and took the pocket-book, of which the Count refused to have a share. If the affair occurred in this way, it must be acknowledged that the Regent, and the magistrates who served his hatred, had a heavy reckoning to answer for.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Gruesome Methods,Guest Writers,History,Murder,Nobility,Other Voices,Pelf,Public Executions,Torture

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1322: John de Mowbray, rebel lord

Add comment March 23rd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1322, northern baron John de Mowbray was hanged at York as a traitor.

A member of the aristocratic opposition to Edward II and to Edward’s favorite Hugh Despenser.

Mowbray was with said opposition’s chief, Thomas, Earl of Lancaster when the latter was trapped and defeated by Andrew Harclay at the Battle of Boroughbridge.

The surrender of these rebel lords offered the king a chance to clear many of his rivals from the board, and he did not miss it: something like two dozen nobles were put to death in its aftermath, Mowbray among them.

According to The Washingtons: A Family History, Volume 3, which notes Mowbray as a paternal ancestor of the American protopresident,

His body was left to hang and rot for an extended period before the vengeful king and the Despensers finally permitted his family to take it down and bury it in the church of the Dominican friars at York. Well into the nineteenth century, a legend proclaimed that his armor had been hung on an oak tree near Thirsk, and that ‘at midnight it may yet be heard creaking, when the east wind comes soughing up the road from the heights of Black Hambleton.’

Mowbray’s wife and son were locked in the Tower of London and their estates redistributed to more loyal subjects. They’d be restored to both liberty and property after Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer overthrew Edward.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Nobility,Public Executions,Treason

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1549: Thomas Seymour, more wit than judgment

Add comment March 20th, 2018 Headsman

Having been elevated to the shadow of the throne by one sibling, Thomas Seymour on this date in 1549 was seen to the block by another sibling.

The brother of Henry VIII’s favorite queen, Jane Seymour, our Thomas was when that burly king kicked the bucket beautifully positioned for a share of power, being named to the regency council that would govern for his nephew, nine-year-old heir Edward VI.

What dreams may come!

But Thomas Seymour would find like many a Tudor courtier before and after him, that around the throne it thunders.

His vaunting ambitions were blocked by the oldest ogre of all, big brother: Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, who surpassed our Thomas in ability and seniority alike, was the man who rose to the top of the regency and as Lord Protector exercised sovereignty in the child-king’s name. “As the Duke was elder in Years, so was he more staid in Behaviour,” one history has it, observing that Thomas Seymour “was fierce in Courage, courtly in Fashion, in Personage stately, in Voice magnificent, but somewhat empty of Matter.”

Courageous, empty Thomas — whom we shall call Sudeley for the sake of his barony* and our clarity — took a more generous estimate of his own talents and the boys soon festered a sibling rivalry of uncommon consequence. Our man connived to attract the favor of young Edward, inveigling and cajoling him to exercise his kingly prerogatives to lever Somerset out and Sudeley in. This campaign found little traction among fellow regents and finally came to the desperate strait of Sudeley skulking on the grounds of Hampton Court Palace one night in January 1549 in a possible adventure to kidnap the king. Instead, it landed him in the Tower with treason charges pending after he gave away the game by shooting one of the king’s barking dogs. It would afterwards emerge that he had conspired with a corrupted official of the mint to coin him a sum sufficient to furnish the rebellious army he had allegedly already begun recruiting.

King Edward wasn’t the only underage royal to labor under Sudeley’s excessive attentions.

This chancer had married the former queen, Catherine Parr, and in early 1548 they had the young princess ElizabethAnne Boleyn‘s daughter, the future queen, who was here all of 14 years old** — living with them at Chelsea. Pushing 40, the cocksure Sudeley got far too friendly with Elizabeth, repeatedly entering her chambers early in the morning despite the reprimands of Elizabeth’s governess and playing a lot of slap and tickle. It’s ambiguous just how far this frolic went and what Elizabeth thought about it but despite Catherine Parr’s occasional participation in such romps(!) Sudeley did eventually cross his wife’s boundary for good, giving, and game. As that governess explained,

the Admiral [Sudeley] had loved the Princess but too well, and had so done for a long while … [until] the Queen [Catherine Parr], suspecting too often access of the Admiral to the lady Elizabeth’s Grace, came suddenly upon them, when they were all alone (he having her in his arms). Whereupon the Queen fell out both with the Lord Admiral and with her Grace also … And this was not long before they parted asunder their families [households].

By the time Sudeley fell, he had resumed his suit of Elizabeth, Catherine Parr having died late in 1548 from childbirth — or, as was rumored, poison. It wasn’t merely that Sudeley was on the perv; he had married Catherine Parr secretly, against the will of the council, and that he now intended the princess should succeed the queen in his bed augured a seditious intent. The regents found out about it and swiped left, and their cockblock might have been the spur for Sudeley’s desperate attempt to grab the king’s own person; certainly his efforts to wed the princess featured among the many charges laid by the bill of attainder that claimed Sudeley’s head.

Her stalker’s attentions also put Elizabeth under close questioning and had she not the sangfroid to deny resolutely any part in the man’s schemes her history, and ours, might have gone very differently. It’s not the last time that Elizabeth proved her mettle under interrogation.

As for Thomas Seymour himself, a delicate proceedings unfolded in the winter of 1549 with the Lord Protector and the King ultimately both assenting to a fatal prosecution of their kinsman, and perhaps also to a convenient magnification of his faults. For example, it was said that he went scheming literally all the way to the block, having prepared secret revengeful letters for posthumous delivery intended to set the princesses Mary and Elizabeth against his brother; this detail would lead Hugh Latimer to preach about the Lord Admiral — “a covetous man … an ambitious man … a seditious man, a contemner of common prayer”:

As touching the kind of his death, whether he be saved or no, I refer that to God only. What God can do, I can tell. I will not deny, but that he may in the twinkling of an eye save a man, and turn his heart. What he did, I cannot tell. And when a man hath two strokes with an axe, who can tell but that between two strokes he doth repent? It is very hard to judge. Well, I will not go so nigh to work; but this I will say, if they ask me what I think of his death, that he died very dangerously, irksomely, horribly.

Edward Seymour himself set his own hand to his brother’s death warrant in concert with the rest of the regency council. In a fine case study for parents who might wish to impress quarreling children with their interest in finding common purpose, Edward met the same fate inside of three years.

As for the savvy young Elizabeth, this early brush with reckless sexuality, political intrigue, and the perpetual proximity of the headsman’s axe, was perhaps an instructive event that would help to see her to her own glory. Her would-be lover had admirable qualities but she perceived well enough how they weighed as compared to his incontinence, and she quipped the definitive epitaph upon receiving news of his destruction: “This day died a man of much wit and very little judgement.”

* Sudeley Castle still stands today, and is open to tourists.

** Also crashing at the maison Sudeley in 1548: Lady Jane Grey. One of Sudeley’s numerous vain machinations was to orchestrate a Jane Grey-Edward VI marriage.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Nobility,Notably Survived By,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Treason

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1525: Cuauhtémoc, the last Aztec emperor

Add comment February 28th, 2018 Headsman

Although the primary accounts — those by conquistadors Hernán Cortés and Bernal Díaz del Castillo, and historian Francisco Lopez de Gomara* — did not explicitly record the date, February 28 is the traditionally recognized anniversary of the execution of the last Aztec emperor, Cuauhtémoc.

A monument to Cuauhtemoc in Mexico City. (Author’s photo; public domain)

Cuauhtemoc (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) was enthroned early in 1521, in a Tenochtitlan already in the train of devastation brought by the Spanish, which had over the preceding months laid low the Emperor Moctezuma II (by violence) and his brother Cuitlahuac (by smallpox, a disease that halved the city’s population within a year).

He was about 23 or 24 years old, a nobleman who must have distinguished himself in war — “a handsome man, both as regards his countenance and his figure,” in Bernal Diaz’s estimation; “a valiant man and a good warrior” by Gomara’s account.

And it would fall to him to bear his proud kingdom’s ruin.

Having previously been welcomed to Tenochtitlan as guests, Cortes and the Spanish had fought their way out and now returned as besiegers, joined by most of the Aztecs’ resentful former subject kingdoms. They soon had Tenochtitlan in a stranglehold, undaunted by the frightening sacrifice of captured prisoners.

all in a moment the large drum of Huitzilopochtli again resounded from the summit of the temple, accompanied by all the hellish music of shell trumpets, horns, and other instruments. The sound was truly dismal and terrifying, but still more agonizing was all this to us when we looked up and beheld how the Mexicans were mercilessly sacrificing to their idols our unfortunate companions, who had been captured in Cortes’ flight across the opening.

We could plainly see the platform, with the chapel in which those cursed idols stood; how the Mexicans had adorned the heads of the Spaniards with feathers, and compelled their victims to dance round the god Huitzilopochtli; we saw how they stretched them out at full length on a large stone, ripped open their breasts with flint knives, tore out the palpitating heart, and offered it to their idols. Alas! we were forced to be spectators of all this, and how they then seized hold of the dead bodies by the legs and threw them headlong down the steps of the temple, at the bottom of which other executioners stood ready to receive them, who severed the arms, legs, and heads from the bodies, drew the skin off the faces, which were tanned with the beards still adhering to them, and produced as spectacles of mockery and derision at their feasts ; the legs, arms, and other parts of the body being cut up and devoured!

In this way the Mexicans served all the Spaniards they took prisoners; and the entrails alone were thrown to the tigers, lions, otters, and serpents, which were kept in cages. These abominable barbarities we were forced to witness with our own eyes from our very camp; and the reader may easily imagine our feelings, how excessively agonizing! the more so as we were so near our unfortunate companions without being able to assist them. Every one of us thanked God from the bottom of his soul for His great mercy in having rescued us from such a horrible death!

-Bernal Diaz

Wracked by famine after Cortes successfully cut off its food and water, Tenochtitlan succumbed that August. (The conquistadors found they could barely endure the stench of countless rotting bodies as they took control of the famished city.) When captured, Cuauhtemoc implored Cortes through tears (again according to Bernal Diaz),

I have done what I was bound to do in the defence of my metropolis, and of my subjects. My resources have now become entirely exhausted. I have succumbed to superior power, and stand a prisoner before you. Now draw the dagger which hangs at your belt, and plunge it into my bosom.

There would be no bosom-daggering. Cortes had a much worse fate in mind.

He saluted Cuauhtemoc for his intrepidity in defense, vowing to maintain the latter as the ruler of Mexico … Cortes’s ruler, to ratify the dictates of the conquerors, beginning with commanding his remaining loyalists to surrender. Cuauhtemoc obeyed, with what posterity can only guess must have been fathomless shame and sorrow.

Upon humiliation, Cortes heaped physical torture when the invaders’ ransack of their captured city turned up far less lesser quantities of material loot than they had anticipated — torture which Cuauhtemoc and a cousin-king of a loyal Aztec ally both endured heroically without augmenting the Spanish bottom line. Bernal Diaz once again:

The next thing which Cortes did was to collect all the gold, silver, and jewels that had been found in Mexico, of which, however, there was very little; for Quauhtemoctzin, it was said, had ordered all the treasures to be thrown into the lake four days previous to his capture. A great quantity had likewise been purloined by the Tlascallans, Tezcucans, Huexotzincans, Cholullans, and other auxiliary troops which had assisted us in the siege, besides what had fallen into the hands of the troops on board the brigantines.

The crown officials were positive that Quauhtemoctzin had concealed the greater part, and asserted that Cortes was very pleased that the monarch refused to say a word where it was hidden; for he would then be able to get the whole treasure into his own possession.

The officers then proposed that Quauhtemoctzin and the king of Tlacupa, his most intimate friend and cousin, should be put to the torture, in order to extort from them a confession as to what had become of the treasures: but Cortes could not make up his mind to insult so great a monarch as Quauhtemoctzin, whose territory more than trebled that of Spain, and that for mere lust after gold. Moreover, the monarch’s household assured us they had given up all the gold they possessed to the officers of the crown, which, it was well known, amounted to 380,000 pesos, the whole of which had been melted into bars; and one thing is certain, that the emperor’s and Cortes’ fifths were deducted from that sum; but the conquistadores were not at all satisfied, and considered this sum much below the real amount, and several expressed their suspicion to Alderete, the royal treasurer, that Cortes’ only reason for not wishing to put the monarch to the torture was, that he might secretly take possession of all his riches. Cortes, not willing that such a suspicion should any longer he upon him, or that he should afterwards be called to an account on this score, at last consented that both should be put to the torture.


Detail view (click for the full image) of David Alfaro Siquieros‘s monumental 1950-51 mural, The Torment of Cuauhtemoc.

Boiling hot oil was then applied to their feet; upon which they confessed that, four days prior to Quauhtemoctzin’s capture, all the gold, with the cannon, crossbows, and muskets, which we had lost in the night of sorrows, when we retreated from Mexico, besides those which had been taken in Cortes’ last defeat on the causeway, had been thrown into the lake. A number of good swimmers were then sent to dive for the treasure in the spot they pointed out, but nothing was found. Yet there was some truth in the statement; for I was myself present when Quauhtemoctzin led us to a large and deep reservoir of water, built of stone, which lay near his palace. From this reservoir we fished up a sun of gold similar to the one sent us by Motecusuma, besides many jewels and other trinkets, though all of little value. The king of Tlacupa also informed us that he had hidden all manner of valuable things in some large houses, about twelve miles from Tlacupa, and he would accompany us there to point out the spot where he had buried them.

Alvarado was then despatched thither with six soldiers, among which number I also was; but when we arrived at the spot, this king assured us he had merely invented all this in the hopes that we would have killed him in a moment of anger at our disappointment.

(Diaz later added that “the suspicion was become pretty general that he [Cortes] had concealed the greater part of Quauhtemoctzin’s treasure,” and indeed some disgruntled companions — unsatisfied with the share they had been allotted for so magnificent a conquest — would come to lodge this charge against Cortes formally with Emperor Charles V.)

Cortes eventually brought both these hostages/puppet kings/torture victims along with him on a 1524-1525 expedition to Honduras, perhaps to deprive them of any opportunity to rebel in his absence.

On the evening of February 27, Cortes received a report or a rumor that the Indian kings had rebellion on their mind just the same. The timetable from this report to execution is uncertain from the records, but if it was not within 24 hours it cannot have been much longer. Diaz, a hostile-to-Cortes witness here whose narrative indicates his dismay at proceedings, describes it thus:

I have now to relate a circumstance of a very different nature, which occasioned much grief to us all. Quauhtemoctzin and other Mexican chiefs who accompanied our army had, it would appear, spoken among themselves, or secretly determined to put the whole of us to death, then march back to Mexico, and assemble the whole armed power of the country against the few remaining Spaniards, and raise an insurrection throughout the whole of New Spain. This circumstance was discovered to Cortes by two distinguished Mexican chiefs, one of whom was named Tapia, and the other Juan Velasquez. This latter personage had been Quauhtemoctzin’s captain-general during our war with Mexico, and his testimony was borne out by the investigation which Cortes made into the matter, and by the confession of several of the caziques themselves who were implicated in the conspiracy. These men fearlessly declared, that seeing how carelessly and dispiritedly we roamed about; that numbers of the men were ill from want of food; that four of our musicians, with the buffoon and five soldiers, had died of hunger; and that three other men had turned back, more willing to run the risk of reaching Mexico again than of moving forward, the thought struck them that they could not do better than fall suddenly upon us while we were crossing some river or marsh, particularly as they were upwards of 3000 in number, all armed with lances, and several of them with swords. Quauhtemoctzin did not hesitate to acknowledge that these men had spoken the truth, but added that the conspiracy did not emanate with him, and that he himself had never for a moment contemplated carrying it into effect, but had merely spoken about it with the other caziques. All the cazique of Tlacupa confessed was, his having declared to Quauhtemoctzin that it was better to die at once than daily to have death before their eyes on these fatiguing marches, and see their countrymen and relations perish with hunger.

These were sufficient proofs for Cortes, and without any further ceremony he sentenced Quauhtemoctzin and his cousin the king of Tlacupa to the gallows. Before, however, this sentence was executed, the Franciscan monks, with the assistance of Dona Marina, strove to comfort these unfortunate men, and commended their souls to God. When they were being led to the place of execution, Quauhtemoctzin turned to Cortes, and said: “Oh Malinche! I have for a long time perceived, from your false words, that you had destined me for such a death, because I did not lay violent hands on myself when you entered my city of Mexico! Why are you thus going to put me unjustly to death? God will one time ask this of you!”

The king of Tlacupa said, he could only rejoice in a death which he would be permitted to suffer with his monarch Quauhtemoctzin.

Previous to their being hung, both these unhappy caziques confessed to father Juan, who understood the Mexican language, and they begged of him to commend their souls to God. For Indians they were good Christians, and they died in the true faith, and fully believed in our holy religion.

The death of these two monarchs grieved me excessively, for I had known them in all their glory, and on our march they honoured me with their friendship, and showed me many little attentions; for instance, they would often order their servants to go in quest of fodder for my horse; besides which, they were innocent of the guilt imputed to them, and it was the opinion of all who accompanied this expedition that they were put to death unjustly.

But I will leave this miserable subject, and return to our march, on which we henceforth observed the utmost vigilance, for we greatly feared the Mexicans might rise up in arms against us, after they had thus beheld their monarch ignominiously hung by the neck from a tree. But hunger, fatigue, and sickness weighed heavier upon their minds than the misfortune of Quauhtemoctzin.


Detail view (click for the full image) of the “rebel” kings hanged from a tree.

Gomara and, of course, Cortes characterize the accusations against the Indian kings as true and the proceedings against them lawful. From the footnotes in this same Bernal Diaz volume, we have this from the later Jesuit historian and ethnographer Juan de Torquemada, who was fluent in Nahuatl:

I find it differently represented in a history written in the Mexican language, and which I believe to be perfectly correct. While Cortes (the Mexican author says) was quartered in a certain township, the Mexican chiefs one evening began to discourse among themselves about the recent hardships they had suffered, and Cohuanacotzin said to Quauhtemoctzin, to Tetlepanquetzaltzin, and to other distinguished Mexicans, ‘Thus you see, gentlemen, from kings we are become slaves, and we suffer ourselves to be led about by Cortes and this handful of Christians. If we were other people than we are, and would break through the promise we have made these Spaniards, we could play them a pretty trick here, and revenge ourselves upon them for all they have done to us, and the ill-treatment my cousin Quauhtemoctzin has suffered at their hands.’ To this the Mexican monarch replied, ‘I beg of you Cohuanacotzin to drop this subject, lest some one should overhear us, and imagine we were in earnest.’ It appears (continues Torquemada) that they were indeed overheard, for the whole of this discourse was reported to Cortes by a low-minded Mexican of the lower classes.

By law, Mexican flags in Mexico fly at half-staff in his honor on February 28.

* These texts are cited throughout the post, but for ease of reference … Bernal Diaz: Memoirs of the Conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo, vol. 1, vol. 2 | Gomara: The Pleasant Historie of the Conquest of the West India; now called New Spaine | Cortes: History of New Spain, which is a Spanish text as I could not locate an English translation. However, even the Anglophone is liable to appreciate (from p. 225) the illustrations of Indian material culture observed by the Spaniards.

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1794: The Comte de Feuillide, Jane Austen in-law

Add comment February 22nd, 2018 Headsman

To Madame la Comtesse de Feuillide this novel is inscribed by her obliged humble servant The Author.

-Jane Austen’s author’s dedication in Love and Freindship

On this date in 1794, the guillotine brought tragedy to Jane Austen’s family.

The blade’s more immediate victim was Jean Gabriel Capotte, the Comte de Feuillide and the husband of Eliza de Feuillide (nee Hancock), Jane Austen’s “outlandish cousin.”

Fourteen years the novelist’s senior, Eliza was born in India to Jane’s Aunt Philadelphia who went abroad seeking a mercenary marriage and landed an unhappy one to a surgeon twice her age, Tysoe Saul Hancock. Eliza Hancock might possibly have been the illegitimate daughter of colonial administrator Warren Hastings, who stoked rumors by establishing a trust for the young woman. (Eliza also later named her only son “Hastings”.)

Either way, she didn’t grow up in the colonies but in England and France, where her vivacity conquered the heart of a prosperous French officer on the make, a barrister’s son who self-aggrandized his rank of Comte de Feuillide. As a gadabout exile “French countess” during the French Revolution, the charming Eliza de Feuillide was a hit both with London society and with her debutante cousin Jane, “whose kind partiality to me” Eliza would write in a letter “indeed requires a return of the same nature.”

Eliza exerted a magnetic influence on her kinswoman, and she’s popularly suspected to be the model for the Mansfield Park character Mary Crawford.* There’s even a book theorizing that this peripatetic polyglot was the true author of Jane Austen’s canon.


Lucy Cohu as Eliza de Feuillide makes some guillotine banter in Becoming Jane.

Back in France, where he served in the army, the hubby with an emigre wife and an aristocratic pretension made a decidedly poorer impression upon the Jacobins, as Maggie Lane observes in Jane Austen’s Family:

On 22 February 1794 the Comte de Feuillide fell victim to the guillotine. He had foolishly, if gallantly, tried to bribe one of the Secretaries of the Committee of Safety to secure the liberty of the widow of an army colleague, Jacques Marboeuf, Marquis and Marechal-de-camp. The fifty-five-year-old Marquise stood accused of laying down certain arable lands on her estate to fodder crops, with the idea of producing a famine in an effort to undermine the Republic.

De Feuillide was double-crossed by the Secretary and arrested at his lodging in the rue Grenelle et St Honore, where incriminating documents and sums of money parcelled up for the bribery were seized. The Marquise, the Comte and the Marquise’s man of business who had acted as a go-between in the attempt, all were sentenced to death.

After a few years as a merry widow, Eliza wed her cousin Henry Austen — Jane’s brother and Eliza’s “perpetual sunshine”. Eliza Austen died in 1813, with Jane Austen at her bedside.

* In Jane Austen and the French Revolution, Warren Roberts argues that the Comte de Feuillide has his own literary doppelganger in the unfinished Austen novel Catherine, in the form of Edward Stanley.

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2 CE: Iullus Antonius

1 comment February 14th, 2018 Headsman

On some undateable occasion in the second year of our Lord, Roman Emperor Augustus had his notorious daughter’s lover put to death.

Half-predator and half-prey in the incestuous Julio-Claudian family web, Iullus Antonius was the son of Augustus‘s great (and here, long-vanquished) rival Marc Antony, as well as the half-brother of Augustus’s discarded first wife.

Who fain at Pindar’s flight would aim,
On waxen wings, Iulus, he
Soars heavenward, doom’d to give his name
To some new sea.

Pindar, like torrent from the steep
Which, swollen with rain, its banks o’erflows,
With mouth unfathomably deep,
Foams, thunders, glows,

All worthy of Apollo’s bay,
Whether in dithyrambic roll
Pouring new words he burst away
Beyond control,

Or gods and god-born heroes tell,
Whose arm with righteous death could tame
Grim Centaurs, tame Chimaeras fell,
Out-breathing flame,

Or bid the boxer or the steed
In deathless pride of victory live,
And dower them with a nobler meed
Than sculptors give,

Or mourn the bridegroom early torn
From his young bride, and set on high
Strength, courage, virtue’s golden morn,
Too good to die.

Antonius! yes, the winds blow free,
When Dirce’s swan ascends the skies,
To waft him. I, like Matine bee,
In act and guise,

That culls its sweets through toilsome hours,
Am roaming Tibur’s banks along,
And fashioning with puny powers
A laboured song.

Your Muse shall sing in loftier strain
How Caesar climbs the sacred height,
The fierce Sygambrians in his train,
With laurel dight,

Than whom the Fates ne’er gave mankind
A richer treasure or more dear,
Nor shall, though earth again should find
The golden year.

Your Muse shall tell of public sports,
And holyday, and votive feast,
For Caesar’s sake, and brawling courts
Where strife has ceased.

Then, if my voice can aught avail,
Grateful for him our prayers have won,
My song shall echo, “Hail, all hail,
Auspicious Sun!”

There as you move, “Ho! Triumph, ho!
Great Triumph!” once and yet again
All Rome shall cry, and spices strow
Before your train.

Ten bulls, ten kine, your debt discharge:
A calf new-wean’d from parent cow,
Battening on pastures rich and large,
Shall quit my vow.

Like moon just dawning on the night
The crescent honours of his head;
One dapple spot of snowy white,
The rest all red.

-Horace, celebrating Iullus Antonius‘s verse in verse. The latter’s verse has not reached posterity, though he was a well-regarded poet in his time.

Contrary to what one might expect, Augustus didn’t hold the kid’s parentage against him* and “not only granted him his life, but after honouring him with the priesthood, the praetorship, the consulship, and the governorship of provinces, had admitted him to the closest ties of relationship through a marriage with his sister’s daughter.” (Per Marcus Velleius Paterculus**)

But at some point Iullus took his relations rather too far for the old man by achieving the favors of Augustus’s only daughter, Julia — notorious of ancient scribes for her promiscuity and eventually destined to be murdered off when her crusty, cuckolded husband Tiberius attained the purple.

There is nobody party to this event that comes out the better for it; Augustus for his part really cemented his uptight prig reputation for the history books, and Tacitus censures him because in “[c]alling, as he did, a vice so habitual among men and women by the awful name of sacrilege and treason, he went far beyond the indulgent spirit of our ancestors, beyond indeed his own legislation.”

In the telling of Cassius Dio:

when [Augustus] at length discovered that his daughter Julia was so dissolute in her conduct as actually to take part in revels and drinking bouts at night in the Forum and on the very rostra, he became exceedingly angry. He had surmised even before this time that she was not leading a straight life, but refused to believe it. For those who hold positions of command, it appears, are acquainted with everything else better than with their own affairs; and although their own deeds do not escape the knowledge of their associates, they have no precise information regarding what their associates do. In the present instance, when Augustus learned what was going on, he gave way to a rage so violent that he could not keep the matter to himself, but went so far as to communicate it to senate. As a result Julia was banished to the island of Pandateria, lying off Campania, and her mother Scribonia voluntarily accompanied her. Of the men who had enjoyed her favours, Iullus Antonius, on the ground that his conduct had been prompted by designs upon the monarchy, was put to death along with other prominent persons, while the remainder were banished to islands. And since there was a tribune among them, he was not tried until he had completed his term of office. As a result of this affair many other women, too, were accused of similar behaviour, but the emperor would not entertain all the suits; instead, he set a definite date as a limit and forbade all prying into what had occurred previous to that time. For although in the case of his daughter he would show no mercy, remarking that he would rather have been Phoebe’s father than hers, he nevertheless was disposed to spare the rest. This Phoebe had been a freedwoman of Julia’s and her accomplice, and had voluntarily taken her own life before she could be punished. It was for this that Augustus praised her.

* Iullus’s older brother was not so lucky, nor was Marc Antony’s very dangerous son by Cleopatra.

** Worth noting: Velleius Paterculus says that Iullus died by his own hand rather than (as most other sources in antiquity give it) the executioner’s.

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1707: Baron Otto Arnold Peikel

1 comment February 4th, 2018 Headsman

A few line breaks have been removed for readability, and most of the author’s original footnotes excised, from this source text.

CHARLES XIIS TREATMENT OF
LIEUTENANT-GENERAL BARON PEIKEL.

By Charles Dalton, Esq.,
Editor of English Army Lists and Commission Registers, 1661-1714.

BARON PEIKEL (or Pykul) has been mistaken by several writers for his kinsman the better-known Count Patkul, the famous Livonian patriot, who was executed, after being mercilessly broken on the wheel, at a village near Casimir, in Great Poland, October 10th, 1707, by order of Charles XII. The confusion occasioned by the similarity in names may also be traced to the remarkable fact that both Peikel and Patkul held the rank of lieut.-general in the Polish Army; and the former succeeded the latter in command of the Saxon contingent which fought on the side of Augustus, King of Poland, against Charles XII. Fate decreed that both Peikel and Patkul should fall into the hands of the iron-hearted King of Sweden, and after a long imprisonment be executed within a few months of each other.

Here the parallel between these two Livonian patriots stops, as Peikel (English Wikipedia entry | Latvian) was neither a great commander nor a diplomatist, but he possessed one remarkable talent which alone makes him intrinsically interesting and worthy of a niche in the Temple of Fame. Baron Peikel claimed, and was allowed by impartial and trustworthy witnesses, to have discovered the secret of making gold!

The Province of Livonia [present-day Latvia and Estonia -ed.], which had been a bone of contention between the northern countries of Europe for centuries, was ceded by Poland to Sweden in 1660. The confiscation of Livonian estates, and the heavy taxes imposed by Charles XI, alienated the Livonian nobility and people from Sweden and Swedish rule.

The sympathies of the conquered province were with Poland, and thus it came to pass that when Russia and Poland engaged in war with Sweden, in 1700, some of the leading Livonian noblemen were found ranged against Charles XII, whose proclamation summoning them to return to their allegiance was treated with open defiance. Prominent among the Livonian revolters was Baron Peikel, who sided with Augustus II, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony.

Passing over the fluctuating fortunes of the Polish arms under Augustus the Strong (who was deposed in 1704, but re-elected some years later to the Polish Crown), we find that a battle was fought near Warsaw, in the summer of 1705, between the Saxons and Poles on one side, and the Swedes on the other. In this engagement the Saxons are said to have fought well, but not being supported by the Poles, who fled on the first discharge, had to retire. The loss on both sides was equal. General Bond (the Swedish commander) was killed, and Baron Peikel (the Saxon general) was taken prisoner. Peikel and several other Saxon officers taken on this occasion were sent to Stockholm, where they suffered a rigorous imprisonment.

In November, 1706, a treaty was concluded between Charles XII and Augustus II The cessation of hostilities only hastened Peikel’s doom. He was tried by the Advocate Fiscal in Stockholm as a traitor to his country, and being found guilty was sentenced to death. On the face of the evidence against Peikel, this sentence was doubtless a just one. But the prisoner had a strong argument in his favour against his condemnation, as appears from a contemporary MS.

Peikul (sic) happened to be born in Poland about three miles from the Livonian border, and this fact was used against him in a law-suit he had with an uncle for a considerable estate. After going through all the Livonian Courts it was, as is customary, brought to the King for decision, for to him is the last appeal in all civil causes. The King gave judgment against Peikul for this only reason because he was an alien and not his natural-born subject. However, this determination, unjust as it was, afterwards was brought as a good argument for Peikul against the King, when his Majesty condemned him as a natural-born subject of Sweden. But it seems, though his being born out of the King’s dominions proved a good reason for depriving him of his estate, it proved ineffectual to the saving of his life.

The sympathy of the Queen of Sweden (who was acting as Regent of the Kingdom during her grandson’s absence with the army), her ineffectual efforts to obtain a pardon for Peikel, the condemned nobleman’s extraordinary offers to the Queen and Senate for filling the Swedish Treasury, then at a very low ebb, provided his life were spared, and the remarkable proof he gave before witnesses of his ability to perform what he promised, are fully and graphically detailed by the British Envoy at Stockholm in his official letters to the Right Hon. Robert Harley, Secretary of State:

Mr. Robert Jackson to the Secretary of Stale.
Stockholm, January 5th, 1707.

An order is now come from the King to suffer all the Saxon officers now prisoners in Sweden to go where they please, except one Lieutenant General Pykull (sic), a native of Liefland [Livonia], who was taken about two years ago in Poland, and in November last was condemned here as a traitor for serving against this Crown, which sentence the King not only lately confirmed, but gave also at the same time express order for his execution as on the 7th instant; but the Queen-Mother and all the Royal family here having interceded for him, and not yet got his Majesty’s answer, her Majesty has therefore by her own authority reprieved him for a month, yet it is thought his pardon will not be granted at last.


Mr. Robert Jackson to the Secretary of State.
Stockholm, January 30th, 1707.

The King has renewed his former orders for the execution of Lieutenant-General Pykull, not having thought fit to hearken to the Queen-Mother’s intercession on that gentleman’s behalf.


Mr. Robert Jackson to the Secretary of State.
Stockholm, February 9th, 1707.

The Saxon Lieutenant-General Peikel was beheaded on Monday last;* he chose to be executed with an axe (though it be esteemed very dishonourable in this country) rather than with a sword, by reason of the unskilfulness of the executioner. There was no other crime laid to his charge in the Fiscal’s accusation than that he, being a native of Liefland, presumed in disobedience to his Majesty’s avocatoria** to serve his enemy, wherefore it was thought here that the King’s neither hearkening to the many high intercessions made on his behalf, nor the advantageous proposals he made to save his life, proceeded from the knowledge his Majesty must have of some other crimes of a blacker nature.

But the morning Peikel suffered he told the divines which assisted him, and administered the Sacrament to him, that having heard of a report spread as if he had been one who had particularly encouraged King Augustus to begin this war, on the prospect of the Lieflanders, his countrymen, revolting from Sweden; and also of another that he had been engaged in a design upon the King of Sweden’s person, he therefore took that opportunity to declare in that solemn manner that all such reports were false, and that he never had acted anything against his Swedish Majesty’s person, or Kingdom, contrary to the principles of a man of honour. And since his one crime was that he was born in the Swedish dominions, he could not allow to have deserved death merely for that reason.

But he added that it having pleased God some time ago to bring him wonderfully to the knowledge of a great secret in Nature, whereby he could not only himself have lived in the greatest happiness, but likewise have been capable of doing much good in the world. Yet he nevertheless suffered his ambition to prevail against his reason, which led him to accept the command of those troops amongst which he was taken prisoner, and for that he said he had justly incurred the punishment which was to be inflicted on him.

The secret he speaks of was making gold to a prodigious advantage; and he actually gave such proofs to the archiater at the Court, as well as some other knowing persons, of his profound knowledge in chemistry, that nobody now doubts of his having been able to perform what he pretended, and also proposed in case the King would have given him his life; and for your Honour’s curiosity I shall presume in my next humble account to send your Honour an extract of the said proposals (whereby, if he could have fulfilled his promise, would have arose a yearly revenue of five hundred thousand ducats to this Crown), and also an authentic relation of an experiment of his having had that secret performed by the Advocate Fiscal, and one Colonel Hugo Hamilton, a native of Ireland, who is Commandant of this city, and had the custody of Monsr. Peikel during his imprisonment, which papers being but lately come to my hands I have not yet had time to translate them.


Mr. Robert Jackson to the Secretary of State.
Stockholm, February 16th, 1707.

Having in my last presumed to mention several things relating to the lately executed Baron Peikel, I therefore now further presume to transmit, along with this, the translation of his proposals together with Colonel Hamilton’s relation of the experiment he made, both which papers I humbly take the liberty to beg may be managed with a little secrecy for fear of injuring some persons here, who are thought to have employed themselves too much in favour of the said Baron.

Translation of the extract of Lieut.-General Peikel’s proposals to the Queen and Senate.

That it having pleased God to bless his study and labour for bringing him to the knowledge of a great secret; and he now laying under sentence of death was willing, in case he could thereby save his life, not only to reveal the said secret to any one person, to be under an oath of secrecy, whom his Majesty should think proper to appoint, but would likewise oblige himself to make at his own charge this year four hundred thousand ducats for his Majesty; and in case he performed not he then desired no mercy, but that not only the punishment of death might be inflicted upon him by virtue of the sentence lately pronounced against him, but that also there might be added any further punishment, as a just reward, for his demerits in presuming to abuse his Majesty.

He further obliged himself to make yearly, so long as he lived, the same quantity of gold for the King’s use, his Majesty building only a proper house for carrying on the work, and being at the charge of providing materials, and maintaining the servants which should be found necessary to be employed therein, the whole charge of which he computed would not amount to twenty thousand ducats yearly.

When he had performed what he thus proposed two years he then desired to have a reasonable enlargement, but in the meantime to be under the strictest confinement that was possible, and besides he would bind himself by the most solemn oath never to endeavour to make his escape, neither during the time of his confinement nor when he should have his liberty; and for further security he would forthwith dispose of his estate in the Brandenburg country and buy other lands of like value in Sweden and establish his family here.

And to confirm the probability of his being able to perform what he proposed, he desired that Colonel Hugo Hamilton and the Advocate Fiscal might be commanded to give an account of the experiment they were eye-witnesses to, or rather had themselves performed by his directions, he only having now and then been present during the operation. The whole charge of which operation cost not above twelve crowns and yet produced the weight in gold of forty-nine ducats, and the officers of the Mint attested the gold to be perfectly fine as any they ever saw.

These proposals were presented along with a petition to the King, January 4th, 1707.

Translation of Colonel Hugo Hamilton’s relation.

To the Queen’s Majesty most humble relation:—

Whereas Peikel, who lies under the sentence of death, has, in all humility, informed your Majesty of his having the knowledge of making gold and likewise offered to reveal the said secret, agreeable to what I also in all humility lately had the honour to acquaint your Majesty; wherefore in obedience now to your Majesty’s most gracious commands that I should in writing give a further humble account of that matter, therefore with the same humble intention for the service and advantage of my most gracious Sovereign as in all humility I formerly represented, I do now, by the oath and duty wherewith I am bound, declare that when Peikel first intimated to me his having that secret I suspected the truth of it a long time, and looked on his making me that confidence as a design he had the better by one means or other to make his escape.

Wherefore I also took care to have him the better guarded; but he several times after repeating the matter, and withal offering in my presence to make a proof thereof, to convince me that what he said was a real truth, I thought that such an opportunity of serving my most gracious King ought not to be neglected, and therefore I asked him if he was willing that I might take a second person to be also present, whereto he agreeing I thought none could be more properly employed than the Advocate Fiscal, Thomas Fehman, his accuser, whom, Peikel approving of, I acquainted the said Advocate Fiscal therewith and requested him to be a witness at the operation, who thereupon expressed himself that in case there was any reality in the thing he could not be a faithful subject who would not endeavour to forward so important a work; yet for his own person he was unwilling to be concerned therein lest he should thereby incur too many undeserved censures, however I importuned him till he at length promised to be present.

I forthwith permitted Peikel to begin the operation, which he did by dissolving of a powder of mineral antimony and winestone from Montpelier; this was set forty days in digestion, and afterwards was burnt with a prepared spirit that produced a greyish-coloured metal, which being beaten to powder was likewise set forty days in fermentation; when that time was expired it was taken out and mixed with powdered common antimony, brimstone, and a little lead, and was afterwards melted in a melting-pot and cast into a pot of brass metal, at the bottom whereof it left a weighty and substantial white metal, which being afterwards again melted in a melting-pot produced the same pure and fine gold that I showed your Majesty; and lest that any other than the true powder should be conveyed into the said pot, the Advocate Fiscal and I did by ourselves make the experiment, and found that the like quantity of the powder by us weighed produced the same effect as when Peikel was present.

I must acknowledge that during this operation I always suspected some deceit would be therein practised, and therefore more narrowly observed everything that Peikel undertook, as did likewise the Advocate Fiscal, whereto we frequently admonished each other. And whereas the best opportunity to practise the deceit seemed to be by conveying gold among the common antimony wherewith the chemical prepared powder was to be mixed, I therefore directed Peikel, the evening before, to weigh the same, but when he was gone I cast it away and took the same quantity of other common antimony, and the effect the virtue of the other powder produced both the Advocate Fiscal and I were witnesses to; and I do further declare upon my salvation, and the disfavour of my most gracious Master, that I do firmly believe, and do not otherwise know, but he the said Peikel is really possessed of the knowledge he pretends, and this the Advocate Fiscal must likewise, as a faithful servant of his Majesty, confirm whenever he is called upon.†

It was further between us agreed and resolved on, according to the oath and duty wherewith we are bound, to make a discovery of this affair, whatever sentence Peikel should receive; that this has thus been transacted I own, but the great secret, which consists in a very small composition, and which he prepared in an hour’s time, and is laid at the last melting amongst the other powder, I neither know, nor desire to know, it only having been both our sincere intentions to promote what we judged might conduce to the advantage and service of our most gracious King.

(Signed) Hugo Hamilton.‡

The refusal of Charles XII to entertain the proposals made to him by Baron Peikel, or to allow the Queen Regent’s intercession to turn him aside from his fixed resolve, does not in any way throw discredit on Peikel’s honesty of purpose or belief in his ability to carry out what he had undertaken. Charles’s utter recklessness where money was concerned is a matter of history. When this monarch ascended the throne in 1697, at the age of fifteen, he found a full treasury and the country at the height of prosperity. In a few years’ time the treasury was well-nigh exhausted, and Sweden was engaged in a gigantic struggle with Russia.

Any other monarch, at the period in question, would have taken Peikel at his word and put him to the crucial test. Had the promised gold not flowed from Peikel’s crucible, Charles could have satisfied his own revengeful spirit by putting Peikel to death in the same barbarous manner that disgraced the execution of the unfortunate Count Patkul. The Lutheran minister who attended Patkul in his last hours, and who wrote a MS. narrative of the Count’s chequered career and miserable death, has left on record the following anecdote regarding Baron Peikel, which story, if true, leaves an indelible stain on the character of Charles XII whose many noble qualities were marred by an implacable spirit which neither knew how to forgive nor how to forget.

After King Charles had entirely got the better of Augustus (King of Poland), and the latter was forced to comply with everything required of him, Augustus, in order to put the best face he could on a bad matter, made great entertainment for the King of Sweden at a very fine pleasure-house not far distant from Dresden. Peikul’s poor lady and children had taken a great journey from Stockholm, on purpose to solicit for her husband’s pardon; and King Augustus with his courtiers, as well as several of the King of Sweden’s officers, had promised her to make use of the utmost of their interest in his behalf; and had contrived the matter so, that after the usual jollity and good humour, caused by a great feast, she, with her children, should unexpectedly come into the dining-room, and fall at the King of Sweden’s feet, imploring his mercy for her husband; to which King Augustus, with all the other noble guests, were to join their intercession.

So far matters were well concerted; but the King of Sweden, having by some means or other got an inkling of this design, after he was come to the place appointed for the feast, and being resolved that nothing should prevent his intention, desired leave to retire for a few minutes before dinner, into a private closet, where he called for pen, ink, and paper, and wrote and signed an order which he sent by express for Peikul’s immediate execution upon receipt of it. After this he came out to dinner, which being ended, the poor woman and her children came in and flung herself at King Charles’s feet, as it had been forecasted, in the midst of the mirth, King Augustus with all the company mixing their intercessions with her tears.

The King of Sweden, after some seeming struggle, granted the pardon which was desired, and signed an instrument to that purpose, which by Peikul’s friends was presently despatched away. But the King’s courier arrived first at Stockholm, and poor Peikul was beheaded about four hours before the second got thither.§

Voltaire tells us in his History of Charles XII that when King Augustus (whose Saxon subjects had been heavily subsidised by the Swedish monarch) heard that Peikel had been executed, he said “he did not wonder that the King of Sweden had so much indifference for the Philosopher’s Stone as Charles had found it in Saxony.”

Baron Peikel’s great secret died with him. By his own showing he had expected the greatest happiness from his chemical discovery, but the path he pursued was not the “golden mean” which Horace recommended when he wrote the lines:—

Auream quisquis mediocritatem
Diligit, tutus caret obsoleti
Sordibus tecti, caret invidenda
Sobrius aula.

[Whoever cultivates the golden mean avoids both the poverty of a hovel and the envy of a palace. -ed.]

* We’ve grappled often with calendar ambiguity in these pages, but this one is a fun case. England was still on the Julian calendar at this point so the most recent Monday as of Jackson’s letter would have been Monday, February 3.

However, Sweden in the first years of 18th century was trying its own calendar: a strategy to “catch up” to the Gregorian calendar gradually over a period of 40 years instead of all at once. So, locally in Sweden, the calendar was off from both the Julian (one day ahead) and the Gregorian (ten days behind) and the beheading occurred on Monday, February 4. This is also the date supplied by Swedish volumes that have primary source access; by the same token, correspondence on the same event from a German perspective reports (p. 234) the equivalent Gregorian date of Monday, February 14. (Protestant German states, together with Denmark and the Netherlands, had adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1700.)

Incidentally, Sweden’s strange attempt at calendar incrementalism proved a massive bust. A few years after Baron Peikel lost his head, Charles XII gave the Nordic calendar the chop too — ordering Sweden reverted back to the Julian schedule by the expedient of doubling the next leap-day. As a result, Sweden had a February 30, 1712. A free pack of Executed Today playing cards for anyone who can document a February 30 execution for the annals!

** Dalton’s original footnote on this word reads: “Royal Proclamation for all the King of Sweden’s subjects to return out of foreign service.”

† Sweden’s Royal Coin Cabinet still preserves the medal that was struck by the triumphant alchemist or prestidigitator out of his transmutation, stamped hoc aurum arte chimica conflavit holmle 1706 O. A. V. paykhull. (O. A. Von Paykhull cast this gold by chemical art at Stockholm, 1706.) This post badly wants an image of said artifact.

‡ A Scots-Irish officer, heir to the long tradition of Celtic involvement in Sweden.

§ Dalton’s footnote sources this anecdote to vol. 13 of Lord Somers’s Tracts by Walter Scott.

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

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1716: Stefan Cantacuzino, Wallachian prince

1 comment January 21st, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1716, the Ottomans extinguished their Wallachian (Romanian) client king — and with him native rule on that soil.

The Cantacuzino family has bequeathed Romania no small quantity of notables down to our present time. Our man Stefan Cantacuzino (English Wikipedia entry | Romanian) got the throne of the Ottoman satellite principality of Wallachia via intriguing against a cousin whom the Ottomans deposed and executed in 1714. That guy is a saint today for refusing to convert to save his life.

Stefan Cantacuzino aimed perhaps at a more secular apotheosis, tipping the Austrians to Turkish battle plans as the frontier slid into war between those empires. Who knows what reverential murmurs would attend his name had he been able to attach the Danubian Principalities to Christendom?

But considering that summary death at the command of dissatisfied sultans was an occupational hazard for Wallachian princes, he can’t have been surprised to find the bowstring around his own neck instead.

“With him terminated the rule of the native princes,” notes this 19th century history — and began that of “the so-called Phanariote governors,” a class of Greek magnates initially resident in Istanbul. The Porte’s arbitration among these as deputies for Wallachia enabled it to maintain much better control of the troublesome province than entrusting succession to the treacherous local boyars.

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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.

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