Posts filed under 'Politicians'

1196: William FitzOsbert, medieval rebel

Add comment April 6th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1196, William FitzOsbert was torn from church sanctuary and hanged for one of medieval London’s most famous rebellions.

The setting is an England of King Richard I, meaning an England with an absentee king levying heavy taxes on his putative home realm to bankroll his foreign adventures. In reviewing the period’s Pipe Rolls, Doris Stenton remarked that they “give the impression of a country taxed to the limit.” Certainly the laboring classes believed themselves squeezed past dry, for “more frequently than usual,” in the words of the contemporary chronicler Roger of Hoveden, “aids to no small amount were imposed upon them, and the rich men, sparing their own purses, wanted the poor to pay everything.”

Our man FitzOsbert (or Fitz Osbert) was an educated lawyer who had been on Crusade with the occulted king, a fellow distinguished in appearance by his facial hair — “Longbeard” was his nickname — and in his manner by an evident grant of charisma. A later historian judges him “sharp of wit and some deal lettered; a bold man of speech, and sad of his countenance, and took upon him greater deeds than he could wield.”

As this interesting article on FitzOsbert notes, tax collection was a communal endeavor organized in local neighborhoods and wards, where neighbors assessed one another’s means: they naturally invited class friction. Longbeard apparently had a talent for catalyzing it; according to William of Newburgh — another contemporary, and a far more hostile witness than Roger of Hoveden —

At length, by his secret labors and poisoned whispers, he revealed, in its blackest colors to the common people, the insolence of the rich men and nobles by whom they were unworthily treated; for he inflamed the needy and moderately wealthy with a desire for unbounded liberty and happiness, and allured the many, and held them fascinated, as it were, by certain delusions, so closely bound to his cause, that they depended in all things upon his will, and were prepared unhesitatingly to obey him as their director in all things whatsoever he should command.

A powerful conspiracy was therefore organized in London, by the envy of the poor against the insolence of the powerful, The number of citizens engaged in this plot is reported to have been fifty-two thousand — the names of each being, as it afterwards appeared, written down and in the possession of the originator of this nefarious scheme. A large number of iron tools, for the purpose of breaking the more strongly defended houses, lay stored up in his possession, which being afterwards discovered, furnished proofs of a most malignant conspiracy. Relying on the large number who were implicated by zeal for the poorer classes of the people, while he still kept up the plea of studying the king’s profit, he began to beard the nobles in every public assembly, alleging with powerful eloquence that much loss was occasioned to the revenue through their dishonest practices …

this man, bent upon his object, and surrounded by his rabble, pompously held on his way, convoking public meetings by his own authority, in which he arrogantly proclaimed himself the king or savior of the poor, and in lofty phrase thundered out his intention of speedily curbing the perfidy of the traitors.

The pride of his discourses is plainly shown by what I have learned of a trustworthy man, who asserted that he himself had some days before been present at a meeting convened by him, and had heard him address the people. Having taken his text or theme from the Holy Scriptures, he thus began: “With joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation” [Isaiah 12:3] — and applying this to himself, he continued, “I am the savior of the poor. Do ye, oh, poor! who have experienced the heaviness of rich men’s hands, drink from my wells the waters of the doctrine of salvation, and ye may do this joyfully; for the time of your visitation is at hand. For I will divide the waters from the waters. The people are the waters. I will divide the humble from the haughty and treacherous. I will separate the elect from the reprobate, as light from darkness.”

As FitzOsbert gained a wide following among commoners, the authorities — in this case led by the Archbishop of Canterbury/Crown Justiciar (same guy) Hubert Walter, since the vagabond king had returned to the continent and his beloved wars — feared an outbreak of civil war and moved to suppress the emerging rebel. When Hubert’s men attempted to arrest FitzOsbert, he escaped with his closest followers to St. Mary-le-Bow church. Fearing the consequences of a prolonged standoff that would permit this tribune of the people to rally an insurrectionary defense, the Archbishop gave no regard to sanctuary and “attacked with fire and smoke” this house of god until FitzOsbert was forced from its precincts. (And the steeple destroyed by fire.)

Yet even his death at Smithfield on April 6th — dragged “through the centre of the city to the elms, his flesh was demolished and spread all over the pavement and, fettered with a chain, he was hanged that same day on the elms with his associates and died” — was not his end, for the popular militant immediately ascended to the ranks of folk sainthood. William of Newburgh, again:

The extent to which this man had by his daring and mighty projects attached the minds of the wicked to himself, and how straitly he had bound the people to his interests as the pious and watchful champion of their cause, appeared even after his demise. For whereas they should have wiped out the disgrace of the conspiracy by the legal punishment of the conspirator, whom they stigmatized as impious and approved of his condemners, they sought by art to obtain for him the name and glory of a martyr. It is reported that a certain priest, his relative, had laid the chain by which be had been bound upon the person of one sick of a fever, and feigned with impudent vanity that a cure was the immediate result. This being spread abroad, the witless multitude believed that the man who had deservedly suffered had in reality died for the cause of justice and piety, and began to reverence him as a martyr: the gibbet upon which he had been hung was furtively removed by night from the place of punishment, in order that it might be honored in secret while the earth beneath it, as if consecrated by the blood of the executed man, was scraped away in handfuls by these infatuated creatures, as something consecrated to healing purposes, to the extent of a tolerably large ditch. And now the fame of this being circulated far and wide, large bands of fools, “whose number,” says Solomon, “is infinite,” and curious persons flocked to the place, to whom, doubtless, were added those who had come up out of the various provinces of England on their own proper business to London.

The idiot rabble, therefore, kept constant watch and ward over the spot; and the more honor they paid to the dead man, so much the greater crime did they impute to him by whom he had been put to death.

Hubert Walter was eventually obliged to set guards at this shrine to chase away its pilgrims and forcibly suppress the emerging cult.

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Entry Filed under: 12th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Heresy,History,Politicians,Public Executions,Treason

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1477: Hugonet and Humbercourt, in the wreck of Burgundy

Add comment April 3rd, 2019 Headsman

Willem Hugonet and Guy van Brimeu, officials of the collapsing Burgundian polity, were executed in Ghent on this date in 1477 for their failed diplomatic intrigue.

This moment fell just weeks after Burgundy itself had received her own fatal blow, at least as far as independent political standing goes: the death in battle on January 5 of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. Charles had energetically expansionist prince.

Charles’s dominions compassed not only Burgundy itself, but a swath of territory running up to Flanders and the Low Countries, a strip that was being squeezed by the rising powers of France to the west and Austria to the east. He had no male heir, so his 19-year-old daughter Mary succeeded him in title — but not in power. France and Austria immediately began sizing up Burgundy for dismemberment, a mission they accomplished within a few short years. And while both dynasties sought Mary’s inheritance via matrimony, more direct methods were also employed.

Before January was out, the French king Louis XI had already pressed into Picardy and Artois* with a scheming mix of armed intimidation and invocation of feudal rights — seeking Flanders and its rich trading cities like Ghent, where our executions will take place. These places, too, saw their opportunity to seek their own advantage; Burgundy had enforced its authority in Ghent at the point of the sword, bloodily crushing a revolt not 30 years before. In Flanders and Brabant, “the confirmation of the tidings of [Charles the Bold’s] death had been received with general feelings of relief and joy,” according to the Cambridge Modern History. “And throughout the Netherlands it was resolved to make the most of the opportunity.” There was no love lost between these locales and their Burgundian overlords, yet these places also feared the potential domination of Burgundy’s rivals. As a first step, the principal cities of the Low Countries immediately forced the weakened sovereign — who was personally stuck in Ghent when the dread news of her father’s fate arrived — to cede them a wide grant of privileges.

Meanwhile, Mary herself extended feelers to the neighboring empires, and it is here that our principal characters enter the story. Charles’s old chancellor, Wllem Hugonet and the Picardy-born knight Guy of Brimeu, Sire of Humbercourt** — French-friendly Burgundians both reviled of Ghent — prevailed on Mary to seek what terms they could France. Returning to the Cambridge Modern History,

Louis seems to have, by private communications with Hugonet and d’Himbercourt, secured their adherence to the marriage-scheme [between Mary of Burgundy and the six-year-old French Dauphin]. At Arras, of which he took possession in March, 1477, he received a deputation from Ghent, and — playing the kind of double game which his soul loved — revealed to them the confidence reposed by Mary in the privy councillors detesed by the city.

Thus, on the return of the civic deputies to Ghent, the storm broke out. The city was already in a condition of ferment; some of the partisans of the old regime had been put to death; and the agitation, which had spread to Ypres and as far as Mons, was increased by the claims put forward at Ghent on behalf of the restoration of Liegeois independence by the Bishop of Liege … distracted by her fears, Mary seems actually to have countenanced Hugonet’s final proposal that she should quit Flanders and place herself under the protection of the French King, when at the last moment Ravenstein induced her to reveal the design. He immediately informed the representative of the vier landen, and the deans of the trades of Ghent, and on the same night (March 4) Hugonet, d’Himbercourt and de Clugny were placed under arrest. A rumour having been spread that their liberation was to be attempted, and news having arrived of the resolute advance of the French forces, new disturbances followed; and Mary issued an ordinance naming a mixed commission of nobles and civic officials to try the accused with all due expedition (March 28). She afterwards interceded in favour of one or both of the lay prisoners (for de Clugny was saved by his benefit of clergy), and at a later date expressed her sympathy with the widow and orphans of d’Himbercourt, the extent of whose share in the Chancellor’s schemes remains unknown. After being subjected to torture, both were executed on April 3. They met with short shrift at the hands of their judges; but they cannot be said to have been sacrificed to a mere gust of democratic passion; and Mary and her Council, and the other Estates of the Netherlands assembled at Ghent, were with the city itself and the sister Flemish towns one and all involved in the responsibility of the deed.

This backlash closed all avenues to French nuptials; within weeks, Mary was engaged to the Habsburg Archduke Maximilian (they wed that August) and France and Austria fell into outright war over the Burgundian patrimonies, the resolution of which boiled down to Habsburg authority in the Low Countries and French absorption of most of the rest, including Burgundy proper.

* As well as, further inland, Franche-Comte, bordering the Duchy of Burgundy itself.

** Two years before this, Guy had personally extradited the rebellious Louis of Luxembourg to France for execution.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Beheaded,Belgium,Burgundy,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Torture,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1831: Vicente Guerrero, former President of Mexico

2 comments February 14th, 2019 Headsman

Vicente Guerrero, late the president of Mexico, was executed on this date in 1831.

He was once a rebel soldier under Jose Maria Morelos in the Mexican War of Independence against Spain.

The Afro-Mestizo Guerrero (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) cinched that conflict by successfully appealing to his royalist opposite number, Agustin de Iturbide, to switch sides. Their combined forces rode into Mexico City together in September 1821 but the conservative Iturbide and the liberal Guerrero soon parted ways.

Iturbide was elevated to emperor of Mexico; Guerrero by 1823 had returned to the field to rebel against the strongman. When Iturbide was deposed (and eventually executed), Guerrero became one of the ruling triumvirs and a national political figure. He contested the 19281828 presidential election which he lost at the ballot box but won in the ensuing street battles — an affair that featured the intervention on Guerrero’s side of Santa Anna.

He was quick about abolishing slavery and he had to be, for this mixed-race populist was deposed by his conservative vice president within months — beginning another round of civil conflict that was dishonorably resolved when an Italian sea captain arranged with the Mexico City government to lure him aboard and arrest him. For this gambit Judas received 50,000 pesos and Guerrero a summary court-martial and a firing squad at Cuilapam.

The cruel treatment of Guerrero requires an explanation. Bravo had been defeated in 1827 but was merely exiled and there were other similar cases. It is reasonable to ask, therefore, why in the case of Guerrero the government resorted to the ultimate penalty. The clue is provided by Zavala who, writing several years later, noted that Guerrero was of mixed blood and that the opposition to his presidency came from the great landowners, generals, clerics and Spaniards resident in Mexico. These people could not forget the war of independence with its threat of social and racial subversion. Despite his revolutionary past, the wealthy creole Bravo belonged to this “gentleman’s club’, as did the cultured creole, Zavala, even with his radicalism. Hence Guerrero’s execution was perhaps a warning to men considered as socially and ethnically inferior not to dare to dream of becoming president. (Source)

The southern Mexico state of Guerrero is named for him; its slogan, mi patria es primero (my fatherland is first) is the legendary reply that the young Vicente Guerrero made to his Spain-supporting father when asked to foreswear the independence movement.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Heads of State,History,Martyrs,Mexico,Politicians,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1610: Pierre Canal, Geneva sodomite

Add comment February 2nd, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1610* a Genevan official named Pierre Canal was twice capitally punished — broken on the wheel (for treason) and burned (for sodomy).

A longtime city official, as well as an Italian-educated doctor, Canal was progeny of city worthies. Although his own father was a hero of L’Escalade, Geneva’s successful defense against a 1602 attack on Geneva by the Duke of Savoy,** Canal was rounded up for alleged adherence to Savoy’s threatened (never executed) Escalade sequel in 1610.

Under torture for treason, he also copped to dozens of homosexual liaisons over many years, a behavior that he said he’d picked up in Italy.†

Canal’s roster of names named became fodder for a sodomy-hunt spasm in the ensuing months. At least three of his claimed lovers confessed under torture and were executed, and a fourth only survived because he managed to break jail. Others either withstood torture without admitting to an affair, or managed to confine their stipulated activities to non-capital versions of the perversions, such as oral sex without ejaculation. (The latter class ended up with punishments ranging from fines to banishment, but got to keep their limbs.)‡ Echoes of the affair continued in now-queer-vigilant Geneva in the form of several additional prosecutions running until 1623.

* Sources I’ve found are keenly divided between a February 2 and a February 3 execution.

The dispositive primary source, The Archives d’etat de Geneve Proces Criminels, does not appear to me to be digitized for the public, notwithstanding the canton’s exhibitions of a few choice artifacts. I’m going with the 2nd, gingerly, because the secondary sources that seem the most rigorous and credible (such as this Swiss historical dictionary and to me tend towards that date.

** The Escalade is the event commemorated in the Genevan “national” anthem “Cé qu’è l’ainô”.

† We’ve seen gay sex euphemized as le vice italien in the 19th century British navy, too.

‡ Canal named over 20 people, though not all were pursued. There are thirteen additional people named for prosecution by Judicial Tribunals in England and Europe, 1200-1700: Abel Benoit (20, soldier), Francois Felisat (24, carder), Pierre Gaudy (18, porter), George Plongon (25, Sieur Bellerive), Mathieu Berjon (36, printer), Antoine Artaut (30, carder), Jean Bedeville (23), Paul Berenger (23, tailor), Noelle Destelle (25, baker), Jean Maillet (61), Paul Andre (23), Claude Bodet (45, baker), Jean Buffet (23, tailor).

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Doctors,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Homosexuals,Politicians,Public Executions,Sex,Switzerland,Torture,Treason

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1945: Angelo Chiappe

1 comment January 23rd, 2019 Headsman

French Nazi collaborator Angelo Chiappe was shot on this day in 1945.

A right-wing legislator and adherent of the fascist Action Francaise movement before the war, Chiappe copped an appointment as the Vichy prefect of the Gard department. There he made himself hateful to the war’s eventual winners by his enthusiasm for hunting French Resistance members, communists, and Jews for forced labor and deportation and worse.

Captured in August 1944, he was shot January 23, 1945 before the gorgeous Roman arena of Nimes.

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1169: Shawar, Saladin forerunner

Add comment January 18th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1169, the vizier of Egypt, name of Shawar, was put to summary death as war collapsed the Fatimid Caliphate … a death required to prepare the way for a much more august successor.

A Shia dynasty that had once stretched across North Africa and the Levant, the Fatimids by the 1160s controlled only Egypt but they did not control it decisively, as neighboring powers could readily discern.

Shawar, vizier since 1162, was the effective ruler of the empire but he’d been chased to exile in Damascus by an internal rival. Nothing daunted, Shawar successfully appealed to the Turkish governor of that city, Nur al-Din, to restore him.

A Kurdish general named Shirkuh led this successful intervention, which is notable as the entry onto history’s battlefields of Shirkuh’s nephew — the mighty Saladin.

While Shawar profited from Shirkuh and Saladin’s intervention, he had no desire for them to stay — while of course staying was the whole reason that Nur al-Din had sent them to intervene. Egypt slid into a three-way war when the Frankish Crusader King Amalric of Jerusalem invaded to check the influence of Shawar’s overstaying benefactors. Miraculously, Shawar came out of this unscathed when the rival powers fought to a stalemate and departed Egypt under truce.

Alliances shift like the sands hereabouts; by 1168 it was the Franks attacking, and overwhelming, the Egyptians, forcing a desperate Shawar to torch his own capital, Fustat. Replaying the same script from 1163 with the roles reversed, Shirkuh and Saladin were soon sent to counter the Crusaders, which their very presence accomplished: Amalric withdrew as soon as they arrived.

And this, at last, left Egypt in Shirkuh’s hands and the nimble Shawar exposed to his fate. The Fatimid caliph was induced on January 18 to consent to Shawar’s immediate execution.

Shawar’s passion also signaled the imminent death of the Fatimid Caliphate. The vizier’s post was filled subsequently by Shirkuh himself … and when Shirkuh died two months later, by Saladin.

Egypt thereafter would prove the launching-point for a scintillating career: Saladin reorganized the unstable polity and by 1171 disbanded the Fatimid state, founding in its place the Ayyubid Dynasty.* From this base of power, Saladin took over Syria when his former patron (by then rival) Nur al-Din passed away in 1174, and proceeded thence to become the preeminent conqueror of his day.

* Named for Saladin’s father.

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Entry Filed under: 12th Century,Borderline "Executions",Caliphate,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Egypt,Execution,Heads of State,History,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Summary Executions,Syria,Wartime Executions

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1870: Sylvain Salnave, deposed Haitian president

Add comment January 15th, 2019 Headsman

Former Haitian president Sylvain Salnave was executed on this date in 1870.

Salnave was a general who in 1866 overthrew and replaced president Fabre Geffrard — an act which “profoundly unsettled the country.”

Salnave stood at the head of a triumvirate that promulgated a new and more democratic constitution in 1867, abolishing the president-for-life position that his predecessors had asserted — but the political rearrangement collapsed within months and saw the the president and legislature at loggerheads, and then at outright civil war as regional risings multiplied against Salnave.

The president held out under bombardment in the capital of Port-au-Prince until the last days of 1869, when he fled to what he believed was the safety in the Dominican Republic — only to be arrested by the Dominican general Jose Maria Cabral and handed back over to the now-triumphant Haitian rebels. They had Salnave tried on January 15 and immediately executed that same day.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Haiti,Heads of State,History,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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1987: Five in South Yemen for the Events of ’86

Add comment December 29th, 2018 Headsman

From Yemen Divided: The Story of a Failed State in South Arabia concerning the juridical follow-up to the ouster of Ali Nasir Muhammad during the a civil war in South Yemen referred to as the Events of ’86. This breakdown of order in the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) would set the stage for its eventual 1990 unification with North Yemen.

There was a relentless propaganda campaign against Ali Nasir and his associates, especially Muhammad Ali Ahmad. The main leaders were put on trial in open court in the presence of television cameras and the media. For a while it was compulsive viewing, as hundreds of witnesses testified in a unique experiment. As the process dragged on, however, the leaders became increasingly uncomfortable. The desire for revenge in early 1986 had been replaced by a need by mid 1987 to heal wounds. They now wanted to persuade Ali Nasir’s followers to return to the PDRY and cooperate with the new regime. In March 1987, for example, [Haidar Abu Bakr] al-Attas said that, of the 5,000 who had been arrested in early 1986, only 200 were still being held, of whom 94 were on trial in Aden and 48 were being tried in absentia. Later in the year, a general amnesty was declared for people who returned to the PDRY by the end of the year — subsequently extended to July 1987. Throughout this period, Ali Nasir (by now living in Syria) offered negotiations, which were scorned, but also sent operatives over the border in Shabwa and Abyan to stir up trouble. There was also a steady stream of defections to his headquarters in Ta’izz, not far from the PDRY border.

The trials were concluded in December 1987, and on 27 December the Politburo ratified death sentences on Ali Nasir, Muhammad Ali Ahmad, Ahmad Musa’id Husain, Abdullah Salih Ulaywa, Ahmad Abdullah al-Hassani, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi (now president of the Republic of Yemen), Faruq Ali Ahmad, Alawi Husain Farhan (former deputy minister of state security), Hadi Ahmad Nasir (former YSP Secretary for Aden), Ahmad Husain Musa and Mubarak Salim Ahmad. It commuted sentences passed on another 24 to 15 years in prison (including Muhammad Abdullah al-Battani and Sulaiman Nasir Muhammad), and it reduced a sentence of 15 years imposed on al-Tali’a leader Anis Hassan Yahva to seven years. Others were given lengthy sentences. Five were executed on 29 December: Faruq Ali Ahmad, Hadi Ahmad Nasir, Alawi Husain Farhan, Ahmad Husain Musa (a former commander of the air force) and Mubarak Salim Ahmad (commander of Ali Nasir’s bodyguards). The executions led to outrage in the north and parts of the PDRY, as well as the wider Arab world. A shocked [Ali Salem] al-Bidh remained firm, but al-Attas and others argued that the remaining prisoners should be treated with leniency. Over the next two years, many of those in prison were released or pardoned.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Mass Executions,Politicians,Power,Soldiers,Yemen

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1328: Willem de Deken, Flemish merchant-rebel

Add comment December 24th, 2018 Headsman

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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1793: Francois de Laverdy, former Controller-General

Add comment November 24th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1793, Clément Charles François de Laverdy, Marquis of Gambais and the ancien regime‘s former Controller-General of Finances, was guillotined in Paris.

“Un financier erudit,” Laverdy (English Wikipedia entry | French) was a member of the Paris Parlement and a scholar who at one point unearthed previously unknown manuscripts about the trial of Joan of Arc — but became a bit overmatched when political machinations situated him at Louis XV’s treasury.

A physiocrat, Laverdy made a go in the 1760s at liberalizing the grain trade by authorizing via a July 1764 edict the free export of grain, then reaped the whirlwind when grain prices spiked. In the 1760s, the whirlwind just meant losing his job: by the 1790s, the loss was very much more dear.

Laverdy labored in a pre-industrial kingdom, at a time when the field of economics still lay in its infancy. Nevertheless, he is a recognizably modern character, both in his principles and his disposition, as Steven L. Kaplan describes him in Bread, Politics and Political Economy in the Reign of Louis XV:

Laverdy correctly believed that traditional attitudes toward subsistence constituted the single greatest barrier to change. But, like many self-consciously enlightened ministers and reformers, he neither understood nor sympathized with it. Diffusing light, to be sure, was no easy matter; since all men were not equally equipped to seize the truth, often it was necessary to force them to accept it. To re-educate the public, Laverdy saw no alternative to brutal and relentless reconditioning.

Impetuously, the people believed that their right to subsist took precedence over all the rights prescribed by natural law as the basis of social organization. They assumed that it was the solemn duty of the state to intervene when necessary to guarantee their subsistence without regard for so-called natural rights. Such views, in Laverdy’s estimation, were erroneous and pernicious; they misconceived the role of the government and its relation to the citizenry and did violence to the soundest principles of political economy. In a word, they were irrational; the Controller-General refused a dialogue with unreason. “The people,” he lamented, “hardly used their reason in matters of subsistence.” …

To combat and discredit this mentality, Laverdy chose to belittle and insult it with all the sophistry of progressive thinking. It consisted of nothing more than a crazy quilt of “prejudices.” “Prejudice” was one of the harshest epithets in the political vocabulary of the Enlightenment; it acquired added force when accompanied by Laverdy’s favorite metaphors, light and sight. Their prejudices “blinded the people,” not only to the “veritable principles of things,” but also to “their true interests.” (A decade later, in similar fashion, Turgot explained popular resistance to his liberal program on the grounds that the people are “too little enlightened on their real interests.”) In letter after letter, the Controller-General railed against the “old prejudices which still subsist against liberty of the grain trade.” He hated “ignorance” and “prejudice” en philosophe for the “obstacles … always contrary to all sorts of good [which they] opposed to progress.” …

Only a tough, unbending stance would produce results. “By stiffening against the prejudices of the people,” he predicted, “they will gradually weaken and we will succeed in accustoming them to a bien,” though, he conceded, “they will continue to misjudge [it] for still some time to come.” Misjudging it, however, was one thing, and actively opposing it, quite another. The threat of bludgeoning them into submission was the only real incentive the Controller-General offered the people to embrace the liberal program.

The bread riots that afflicted the remainder of his term he could not but ascribe to this unreason; proceeding from the certainty that his policies were objectively correct, “Laverdy claimed that grain was abundant and prices moderate” and riots “could only have resulted from ‘the prejudice which exists against the liberty of the grain trade.'”

Or, as a liberal journal serenely put it, the riots “are not and cannot be the effect of real need” because in a regime of liberty, “the dearth that the enraged minds fear, or feign to fear, is manifestly impossible.” …

Two assumptions, in Laverdy’s view, seemed to have emboldened the people. First, that they could riot with “impunity,” an expectation encouraged by many police authorities — those at Rouen, for example — who fail to put down popular movements swiftly and mercilessly and who in some instances even seem to sympathize with the insurgents. Second, “the persuasion which the populace of the cities ordinarily shares that the fear of the riots which it might excite will force the King to modify the laws which established liberty.” Nothing was “more essential,” according to the Controller-General, than to “destroy” these aberrant opinions.

To dispel the idea that consumers could riot without risk, Laverdy instructed and exhorted the police after every episode to repress with dispatch and pitilessness. Repeatedly, he asked for “a few examples of severity,” which would serve not only to “contain the people,” but also to “destroy those prejudices” which motivated them, presumably by revealing the futility of following their lead. If the repression were to be delayed, the didactic advantages would be lost. “Nothing is more important,” Laverdy wrote Joly de Fleury in reference to a riot which took place in the fall of 1766, “than to accelerate the procedures instituted against the principal authors … examples in such circumstances are of the greatest necessity and when they are deferred, they do not produce nearly the same effect.” … Impatient with “the slowness of the official inquiries, the appeals, the forms to which the [ordinary] tribunals are subjected,” the Controller-General considered resuscitating a draconian repressive law which had been used before to bypass local jurisdictions …

Soft sentences annoyed Laverdy as much as dilatory ones. Even as he urged the police to show rigor in the streets and marketplaces, so he goaded prosecutors to demand heavy penalties and judges to pronounce them. He followed cases eagerly in all their details, made his expectations clearly known, and bristled with indignation when the results displeased him. In the wake of a massive riot at Troyes, for example, in which the police had failed to deal harshly with the insurgents, Laverdy pressed for a stern judicial reckoning. He was satisfied to learn that the royal procurator and the rapporteur would ask the death penalty for three of the putative leaders and stringent punishment for the others. In anticipation of such a verdict and a hostile popular reaction, extra brigades were sent to reinforce the constabulary. To virtually everyone’s surprise, the presidial rendered a stunningly mild provisional sentence which could lead to the release of all the prisoners in three months. The Controller-General angrily denounced the verdict and demanded an explanation; “the excesses to which the people have given themselves in this circumstance,” he wrote, “require a much more severe punishment.”

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Intellectuals,Politicians,Power,Public Executions

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