Posts filed under 'Nobility'

1844: John Knatchbull, moral madman

Add comment February 13th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1844, John Knatchbull hanged before an orderly crowd of 10,000 at Taylor Square in Sydney, Australia.

Knatchbull was among 20 children of a prolific baronet. The youngster fought at sea in the Napoleonic Wars but found himself in financial straits after demobilization and spiraled into a criminality.

Transported to Australia for an armed robbery, he there cultivated an extensive rap sheet — mutiny, forgery, poisoning his guards. It was a comprehensive Jekyll-to-Hyde heel turn: “all traces of a gentleman had long disappeared, he exhibited no evidence that he had been in a higher social position,” wrote a clergyman who visited him. “[H]e appeared to be in his natural place.”

So you couldn’t say that nobody saw it coming in early 1844 when Knatchbull, out on a ticket of leave, went

into the shop of a poor widow, named Ellen Jamieson, and asked for some trifling article. While Mrs. Jamieson was serving him, the ruffian raised a tomahawk, which he held in his hand, and clove the unfortunate woman’s head in a savage manner. She lingered for a few days, and died, leaving two orphan children … though an attempt was made to set up a plea of insanity, a barrister being employed by the agent for the suppression of capital punishment, so foul a villain could not be saved from the gallows. (Source)

This insanity defense was a then-novel “moral insanity” claim contending “a form of mental derangement in which the intellectual faculties were unaffected, but the affects or emotions were damaged, causing patients to be carried away by some kind of furious instinct.” That is, Knatchbull knew that he did wrong when he struck the luckless shopkeep, but he had no power to restrain himself. The court took a pass.


Sketch of the scene at Knatchbull’s hanging.

More fortunate of birth and temperament, John’s brother Edward Knatchbull, who was not only the sitting baronet but the UK’s Paymaster General, made good his vocation by arranging a donative to Ellen Jamieson’s orphaned children.

This family — the donors, not the orphans — remains among the peers of the realm, its vintage baronetcy of Mersham Hatch having been upgraded to a baronage in 1880. It’s currently held by Norton Knatchbull, who is also Earl Mountbatten (he’s the maternal grandson of the Mountbatten who led British forces in Southeast Asia, took down the Union Jack in India, and was assassinated by the IRA).

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Nobility,Notably Survived By,Public Executions

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1391: Agnese Visconti and Antonio da Scandiano, adulterous lovers?

Add comment February 7th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1391, the condottiero tyrant of Mantua, Francisco Gonzaga, removed his consort from his right arm by removing her head.

Daughter of the powerful Milanese Visconti family, Agnese Visconti had been dynastically married off to the Mantuan prince by her father. Dad had in 1385 been overthrown and murdered by a kinsman, Gian Galeazzo Visconti, but still this was all in the family: the thing was that Francisco Gonzaga started wanting to cut ties with that family.

No trouble: Francisco simply accused his wife of adultery with a knight,* Antonio da Scandiano, and had both put to death on February 7, 1391 — Agnese via the blade, Antonio at the end of a rope. Then, Francisco switched its allegiance from #TeamMilan to #TeamVenice in the peninsular geopolitics scrum.**

European courts were aghast as news of the divorce proceedings reached her preening chateaux, but “nimble, opportunistic changes of political loyalty like these were typical of Gonzaga foreign policy and helped them to navigate their small state safely in a sea of unpredictable alliances.” (Source)

Consummate survivors, the House of Gonzaga weathered the Visconti wrath and ruled Mantua into the 18th century, producing among other things down the centuries a name check in Hamlet and a pious Jesuit who became namesake to the many educational institutions called “Gonzaga”.

* The headsman is not so cold to the sentiments of the heart that he excludes the possibility of an actual dalliance. Consider him agnostic, beneath his dark cowl.

** Gian Galeazzo Visconti did right by his cousin by assailing Mantua in revenge, leading Gonzaga to throw up the gorgeous Castello di San Giorgio. This fortress was later used as a prison, and in its day has held some figures destined for Executed Today‘s pages, such as Andreas Hofer and the Belfiore martyrs.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Italy,Nobility,Power,Scandal,Sex,Soldiers,Women

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1718: Avram Lopukhin, Peter the Great’s brother-in-law

Add comment December 8th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1718, Tsar Peter the Great had his brother-in-law beheaded.

The brother of Peter’s discarded first wife Eudoxia Lopukina, our man Avram Fedorovich Lopukhin (Russian link) had neatly installed himself as a grey eminence of the rebellious Tsarevich Alexei.

It was to this youth Alexei that Old Russia turned its hopes while Peter westernized and modernized the empire. Someday Peter would die, and Alexei would inherit, and the clawback would begin.

Lopukhin foresaw a place of power for himself in Alexei’s Russia. He was an old guard boyar prince, formerly an influential courtier, and he had the blood and the ear of the tsarevich.

That also meant he would share the fate of the tsarevich.

What a disaster for Lopukhin when the truculent Alexei made bold enough to outright break with his father by fleeing Russia — but what was even worse was when Alexei returned.

Investigating the matter as a treason, the famously pitiless Peter did not spare his own child from torture and death; still less would he pardon the others in Alexei’s circle whom his inquisitions revealed to be scheming to overturn Peter’s life’s work, if not his very life.

Seditious correspondence and torture-adduced accusations implicated Lopukhin as just such a figure, and he was tossed into the dungeons of Peter and Paul Fortress to face interrogations, knouting, and execution.

Made to confess to desiring the death of the sovereign, Lopukhin had his head publicly on December 8. It was mounted afterwards on a pike overlooking a public market, and his body exposed on a wheel, until the tsar suffered his kinsman’s remains to be interred in the Lopukhin family crypt the following March.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Gibbeted,History,Nobility,Power,Public Executions,Russia,Torture,Treason

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1859: Yoshida Shoin, samurai sage

Add comment November 21st, 2018 Headsman

The name at the head of this page is probably unknown to the English reader, and yet I think it should become a household word like that of Garibaldi or John Brown. Some day soon, we may expect to hear more fully the details of Yoshida’s history, and the degree of his influence in the transformation of Japan …

Robert Louis Stevenson

On this date in 1859,* Japan’s fading Tokugawa Shogunate beheaded samurai sage Yoshida Shoin as an enemy of the state.

Inheriting leadership of an unprosperous samurai house by the untimely death of his adoptive father, Yoshida (English Wikipedia entry | the much more detailed Japanese) studied war and philosophy from the age of five but understood right away that the classics he knew backward and forward were no match for the American gunships that steamed into Edo Bay in 1853.

Keen to learn the barbarian’s secrets, Yoshida and a friend named Sakuma Shozan* surreptitiously presented the American flotilla with an illicit request to come aboard. The American Commodore Perry never knew their identities, but he remembered the two “men of some position and rank, as each wore the two swords characteristic of distinction, and were dressed in the wide but short trowsers of rich silk brocade. Their manner showed the usual courtly refinement of the better classes, but they exhibited the embarrassment of men who evidently were not perfectly at their ease, and were about doing something of dubious propriety. They cast their eyes stealthily about as if to assure themselves that none of their countrymen were at hand to observe their proceedings, and then approaching one of the officers and pretending to admire his watch-chain, slipped within the breast of his coat a folded paper.” That paper, in courtly Mandarin, implored the visitor that the authors

have been for many years desirous of going over the ‘five great continents,’ but the laws of our country in all maritime points are very strict; for foreigners to come into the country, and for natives to go abroad, are both immutably forbidden … we now secretly send you this private request, that you will take us on board your ships as they go out to sea.

Instead, the shogunate clapped them in cages.

Would that iron bars could contain the shock Commodore Perry’s ships had given to Japan. Those islands had long closed themselves against the West save for narrow apertures on Dutch Learning. The evident superiority of American arms and the consequent necessity of accepting unequal treaties proved a fatal blow to the shogunate. Anger at the shogun manifested in a movement to restore the rights of the emperor — a position that the shogunate had centuries before reduced to a mere figurehead.

Our man Yoshida Shoin emerged from prison as a teacher whose loyalty hewed to the emperor. In vain did the shogunate attempt to purge such characters, for their cause far outstripped this or that man. Several of Yoshida’s students would be important players in the coming Meiji Restoration that did indeed reanimate the imperial office and topple the shogunate by the late 1860s.

By that time, Yoshida was rated a martyr and spiritual forerunner, for the dying shogunate had indeed seen fit to destroy him: “the old story of a power upon its last legs,” as Stevenson’s biography figures it: “learning to the bastille, and courage to the block … He failed in each particular enterprise that he attempted; and yet we have only to look at his country to see how complete has been his general success.”

* The Gregorian date. By the Japanese calendar it occurred in the tenth month, and some sites erroneously place it in October for that reason.

** Shozan was destined to be assassinated in 1864 by Kawakami Gensai.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Intellectuals,Japan,Martyrs,Nobility,Power,Treason

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1682: Ivan Khovansky

Add comment September 17th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1682, the boyar Ivan Andreyevich Khovansky went from being the power behind the throne to one of the skulls under it.

A veteran military commander, Khovansky (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) became a key figure in the months after the death of Tsar Feodor III of Russia. This perilous political moment left the throne in the hands of two underage half-brothers overseen by a female regent.

With benefit of hindsight we know that 10-year-old (in 1682) Peter will emerge from this troika to become the mighty Tsar Peter the Great. In 1682, it was anybody’s guess whether any of these dubious prospective autocrats might survive at all.

Peter in particular had cause to fear for his life in May 1682 when the Streltsy, a hereditary guard of Moscow musketeers, bloodily rebelled in favor of his co-heir’s privileges and against his own, rampaging through the Kremlin murdering princes in Peter’s circle. And at the head of these furies stood Khovansky.

Many years later, Peter would revenge himself upon the Streltsy for this horror but in the moment it carried the day, incidentally also carrying Khovansky to a preeminent position in the state.

But he was pitted almost immediately against his erstwhile patron and ally, the regent Sophia Alekseyevna.

Even though the Streltsy rebellion had been conducted on Sophia’s behalf, she could see as well as the next tsar the perils of embracing these latter-day praetorians‘ authority to remake the government by force … and the Streltsy made sure to remind her of it almost immediately when the “Old Believer” movement that predominated among its ranks started raising complaints about Sophia’s religious accommodations.*

Fearing an overmighty nobleman at the head of a treasonable host — and Khovansky has been suspected by both his contemporaries and posterity of coveting the regency for himself — Sophia and the young co-tsars briefly fled Moscow “because we could not tolerate the many offences, unlawful and gross actions and violations committed by criminals and traitors.” Meanwhile she maneuvered adroitly to isolate him politically and had the boyar Duma vote his attainder.

His fate was sealed by the discovery of an anonymous (probably fabricated) letter of denunciation. On 17 September, her own name day, Sophia succeeded in luring Ivan Khovansky and his son Ivan to the royal summer residence at Vozdvizhenskoe outside Moscow. The charges against them centred on their ‘evil designs upon the health and authority of the great sovereigns’ which involved no less than plotting to use the strel’tsy to kill the tsars, Tsaritsa Natalia, Sophia and the patriarch, then to raise rebellion all over Moscow and snatch the throne. The lesser charges included association with ‘accursed schismatics’, embezzlement, dereliction of military duty, and insulting the boyars. The charges were full of inconsistencies and illogicalities, but their sheer weight sealed the Khovanskys’ fate and Prince Ivan and his son were beheaded on the spot … The strel’tsy were forced to swear an oath of loyalty based on a set of conditions, the final clause of which threatened death to anyone who ‘speaks approvingly of the deeds of late, or boasts of committing murder or makes up phrases inciting rebellion as before, or stirs up people to commit criminal acts.’ (Source)

He’s the subject of the Mussorgsky opera Khovanshchina.

* Old Believers wanted a rollback of religious reforms decreed in recent years; Sophia said no dice. Once Peter the Great took over, Sophia and Old Believers alike would end up in the same boat.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Russia,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Treason

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1568: Jan van Casembroot, Lord of Backerzele

Add comment September 14th, 2018 Headsman

The implacable Duke of Alva/Alba bloodily suppressing the Low Countries’ revolt against Spain claimed the head of Flemish nobleman and poet Jan van Casembroot.

Although Catholic himself, the Lord of Backerzele (English Wikipedia entry | Dutch) shared the umbrage of his countrymen at the Spanish King‘s punitive anti-heresy edicts: not only were they brutal, but they infringed the Low Countries’ constitutional rights.

Casembroot/Backerzele was among the 300 lords who in early 1566 set his hand to a petition demanding moderation of an immoderate Spanish crown. Known as the Compromise of Nobles, it was roundly rejected by Spain — and the growing boldness of Protestant evangelists along with the outbreak of iconoclastic attacks on Church symbols soon pushed events past any possible point of compromise.

Appointed by the beloved-of-Beethoven Count Egmont to quell such disturbances as governor of Oudenaarde, Casembroot was held to have made treasonably liberal concessions to the Calvinists — and three months after Egmont himself went to the block, Casembroot lost his head at Vilvoorde.

Several of his Latin verses have reached posterity, although seemingly not the further shores of the World Wide Web.

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

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1799: Ettore Carafa

1 comment September 4th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1799, a nobleman turned republican was turned into a martyr.

Fruit of the distinguished Carafa family, Ettore Carafa (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) was the Count of Ruvo but preferred the ennoblement of all mankind.

After a youthful trip to Paris on the verge of the French Revolution, Carafa returned to make himself the scandal of the Neapolitan aristocracy by such behaviors as translating the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and wearing the republican tricolor to the opera. Carafa was eventually obliged to break out of prison and take sanctuary in the Cisalpine Republic but he returned in glory (and no little satisfaction) with the 1799 Parthenopean Republic, when Naples briefly went republican, too. Commissioned an officer in revolutionary Naples’s army, he besieged his hometown of Andria.

Alas, this democratic interlude did not even live out the year, and many of its leading lights paid the forfeit to a violent reaction. Naples’s briefly-exiled queen was Marie Antoinette‘s sister and nowise forgiving when it came to Jacobin types and certainly not “such a man as Carafa, fit match as he was to Caracciolo, and held in almost equal terror by the Court.”

Carafa was one of its last holdouts, defending Pescara from siege well after Naples itself had fallen.

On September 4, 1799, Carafa mounted the guillotine with aplomb, his last words a command to the executioner Tommaso Paradiso, “You will tell your queen how a Carafa can die!” Then he slid himself under the knife on his back, boldly looking up at the instrument of death as it crashed through him.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guillotine,History,Italy,Martyrs,Naples,Nobility,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Soldiers,Treason

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1766: Don Francis de Sallesar y Corvetto

Add comment June 27th, 2018 Headsman

A letter from Aranjuez, dated June 30, says,

Don Francis de Sallesar y Corvetto, a native of Murcia, where his father was regidor, was on Friday publicly degraded at Madrid from the rank of nobility, had his tongue and his right hand cut off, and afterwards was hanged. His crime was assassinating some persons, and having formed the horrid design of laying his sacrilegious hands upon the king and the royal family.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Nobility,Public Executions,Spain,Torture

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1483: William Hastings, trusting too much

Add comment June 13th, 2018 Headsman

This honourable man, a good knight and a gentle; of living somewhat dissolute; plain and open to his enemy, secret to his friend, easy to beguile, as he that of good heart and courage forestudieth no perils; a loving man, and passing well-beloved; very faithful, and trusty enough — trusting too much.

Thomas More‘s assessment of William Hastings

The Baron Hastings arose this date as the trusted councillor of the Lord Protector. Before dinner, he’d had his head chopped off over a log in the Tower of London.


Lord Hastings sported this fancy badge of a handsomely endowed manticore.
Richard III, Act 3, Scene 4
by William Shakespeare

Richard III (Duke of Gloucester).
I pray you all, tell me what they deserve
That do conspire my death with devilish plots
Of damned witchcraft, and that have prevail’d
Upon my body with their hellish charms?

Lord Hastings.
The tender love I bear your grace, my lord,
Makes me most forward in this noble presence
To doom the offenders, whatsoever they be
I say, my lord, they have deserved death.

Richard III (Duke of Gloucester).
Then be your eyes the witness of this ill:
See how I am bewitch’d; behold mine arm
Is, like a blasted sapling, wither’d up:
And this is Edward’s wife, that monstrous witch,
Consorted with that harlot strumpet Shore,
That by their witchcraft thus have marked me.

Lord Hastings.
If they have done this thing, my gracious lord —

Richard III (Duke of Gloucester).
If? thou protector of this damned strumpet —
Tellest thou me of ‘ifs’? Thou art a traitor:
Off with his head! Now, by Saint Paul I swear,
I will not dine until I see the same.
Lovel and Ratcliff, look that it be done:
The rest, that love me, rise and follow me.

[Exeunt all but HASTINGS, RATCLIFF, and LOVEL]

Lord Hastings.
Woe, woe for England! not a whit for me;
For I, too fond, might have prevented this.
Stanley did dream the boar did raze his helm;
But I disdain’d it, and did scorn to fly:
Three times to-day my foot-cloth horse did stumble,
And startled, when he look’d upon the Tower,
As loath to bear me to the slaughter-house.
O, now I want the priest that spake to me:
I now repent I told the pursuivant
As ’twere triumphing at mine enemies,
How they at Pomfret bloodily were butcher’d,
And I myself secure in grace and favour.
O Margaret, Margaret, now thy heavy curse
Is lighted on poor Hastings’ wretched head!

Sir Richard Ratcliff.
Dispatch, my lord; the duke would be at dinner:
Make a short shrift; he longs to see your head.

Lord Hastings.
O momentary grace of mortal men,
Which we more hunt for than the grace of God!
Who builds his hopes in air of your good looks,
Lives like a drunken sailor on a mast,
Ready, with every nod, to tumble down
Into the fatal bowels of the deep.

Lord Lovel.
Come, come, dispatch; ’tis bootless to exclaim.

Lord Hastings.
O bloody Richard! miserable England!
I prophesy the fearful’st time to thee
That ever wretched age hath look’d upon.
Come, lead me to the block; bear him my head.
They smile at me that shortly shall be dead.

A longtime Yorkist pillar during the Wars of the Roses, Hastings parlayed his many years of proximity to King Edward IV into still-extant architectural glories like Ashby Castle and Kirby Castle.

Of greater moment for the pivotal year of 1483 was Hastings’s bitter enmity with the Woodville family — the kin of widowed queen when Edward died suddenly in 1483. In his life, the king had checked the rivalry between Woodvilles and York magnates. But “the king’s death at once broke up the unity of the court, the peace of the country, and the fortunes of the house of York.”

Before Edward’s body went cold, both factions raced into the power vacuum: the heir was a 12-year-old who wasn’t event present in the capital when his father died. Power in the realm hinged on the actions of men like Hastings in April and May of 1483.

And Hastings made the most of his moment — to his own later grief. While the Woodvilles flexed during the first days of the regency, Hastings drug his feet, threatened to start a civil war, and successfully negotiated for the respective sides to minimize their armed retinues when they arrived for the coronation of young Edward V. He also wrote urgently to the new de facto captain of Team York, the late king’s brother, Richard of Gloucester.

Hastening to answer the call, Gloucester hijacked a too-lax royal convoy en route to London, acquiring custody of the heir, and rolled into town that May as the master of both the boy king’s person and the political situation. Edward V and his brother were the urchins destined to disappear into the Tower of London; Gloucester would eventually crown himself King Richard III. The Woodvilles fled from power and danger, to the sanctuary of an obliging cathedral.

Big win for Bill Hastings, right? He

was extremely elated at these changes to which the affairs of the world are so subject, and was in the habit of saying that hitherto nothing whatever had been done except the transferring of the government of the kingdom from two of the queen’s blood to two more powerful persons of the king’s; and this, too, effected without any slaughter, or indeed causing as much blood to be shed as would be produced by the cut of a finger. In the course, however, of a very few days after the utterance of these words, this extreme of joy of his supplanted with sorrow. (Croyland Chronicle)

The sorrow arrived like a thunderbolt at a particularly infamous royal council meeting on June 13, 1483, when Gloucester seemingly out of nowhere denounced Hastings as a traitor, along with three others. The others we set aside; they were politically insulated from membership in the pages of Executed Today. But not so Hastings, who was detailed for immediate beheading on Gloucester’s say-so, and never mind the trial.

Politics on this plane was intrinsically cutthroat; nevertheless, this shock destruction of an essential ally puts Richard in a pretty unflattering light. Was he really, as Gloucester claimed, plotting against him? Perhaps Gloucester perceived Hastings too loyal to Edward V at a moment when he was resolved upon usurpation? Had it factored, as the proclamation alleged, that Hastings took up with the late king’s remarkable mistress Jane Shore,* “one of his secret counsel in this heinous treason, with whom he lay nightly, and namely the night past before his death”? Claims and counterclaims around this black June 13 grow thick on the ground, none of them rooted in any decisive evidence.

The estimable David Crowther deals with these perilous months in Episode 187 of the History of England Podcast. The guest episode 187a in that same series explores the aforementioned mistress of William Hastings, whose humiliating public penance inspired the Walk of Shame scene in Game of Thrones.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Power,Summary Executions,Treason

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1639: The Duke of Valette, in effigy

Add comment June 8th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1639, the Duke of Valette was beheaded in Paris as a traitor. Having anticipated this cruel stroke, however, he was happily away in England at the time.

Valette (later the Duke of Epernon, like his dad) outlived his execution by 22 years.

Valette‘s father, the Duke of Epernon, was a rival of the realm’s mighty consigliere, Cardinal Richelieu, which was a dangerous thing to be. The rivalry had already impacted the duke’s second son: Valette was married to Richelieu’s niece in 1634, in a vain bid for detente. (Valette preferred his mistress.)

Valette’s military reversal at the French Siege of Fuenterrabia in 1638 set him up for the revenge of his scheming in-law. Blamed for refusing to lead an ill-conceived charge, he got the Iraq War critic treatment when that charge turned into a debacle as he had warned.

But rather than face Richelieu’s summons to answer a charge he obviously had no odds of defeating, Valette crossed the channel and chilled in the exile court of another defeated Richelieu foe, Marie de’ Medici.

The Cardinal de Richelieu not contented with his having left the Kingdom, caus’d a Process to be commenc’d against him,” outrageously fixing the verdict.

Just as Valette lost his head only ceremonially, he lost his homeland only temporarily. When Louis XIII died in 1643, Valette — by this time become the Duke of Epernon — was able to return and re-enter the ranks of respectable nobility, unimperiled by the headsman’s blade for the remainder of his days. He died in 1661.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Executed in Effigy,Execution,France,History,Nobility,Not Executed,Power,Public Executions,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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