Thanks for the guest post to Nancy Bilyeau, the author of The Crown and The Chalice, thrillers set in Tudor England. The main character is Joanna Stafford, a Dominican novice.
On this day in 1521, Edward Stafford, 43, third duke of Buckingham, was beheaded on Tower Hill outside the Tower of London, found guilty of high treason against Henry VIII.
In Shakespeare’s play Henry VIII, the king said of Buckingham, “He hath into monstrous habits put the graces that were once his, and is become as black as if besmear’d in hell.” Today few believe that the duke actively plotted to overthrow his king. But Edward Stafford was guilty nonetheless — of being too noble, too rich and too arrogant to survive in the increasingly paranoid court of Henry VIII, his cousin once removed.
Buckingham’s life had been marked with loss and suspicion.
When he was five years old, his father, the second duke, was executed by Richard III. Young Edward Stafford was hidden from Richard III in relatives’ homes, not to emerge until Henry VII defeated the last Yorkist king at Bosworth.
He became a royal ward of the Tudor family, knighted at the age of seven. But as he grew into a proud, preening adolescent, Henry VII cooled toward him, fearing that he outshone the heir to the throne, the future Henry VIII.
Stafford was a direct descendant of Edward III and so had a solid claim to the succession. What didn’t help was that foreign ambassadors wrote admiringly of “my lord of Buckingham, a noble man and would be a royal ruler.”
Henry VIII succeeded to the throne in 1509, unchallenged by his older cousin. In fact, the duke was lord high steward for the coronation and carried the crown.
But over the next ten years he was pushed out of the center of power more and more. As friends, Henry VIII much preferred lower-born, jovial men like Charles Brandon and William Compton. And the man who ran the entire kingdom was Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. There was no place for Buckingham.
In response, Edward Stafford married a noblewoman of the Percy family, fathered four children (and several illegitimate children), and withdrew to his vast estates, where he was the unquestioned man in charge.
What changed in the cousins’ relationship to draw treason charges in 1521?
For one, it was becoming apparent that Henry VIII would have no male heir.
Catherine of Aragon‘s last pregnancy was in 1518. They had a daughter, Mary. But the Tudor dynasty was a new one, and Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey weren’t sure that the nobility would accept a female ruler someday. Might they not look to the duke of Buckingham, instead?
On April 8, 1521, the duke was ordered to London from his castle at Thornbury. He set out for the court, seemingly unaware of any danger, and was greatly shocked when arrested along the way and taken to the Tower. At his trial, he was charged with “imagining and compassing the death of the king,” through seeking out prophecy from a monk named Nicholas Hopkins about the chances of the king having a male heir. Evidence was supposedly obtained from disgruntled former members of the duke’s household.
Buckingham denied all charges. But a jury of 17 peers found him guilty, led by the duke of Norfolk, who condemned him — while weeping.
Edward Stafford died with dignity on Tower Hill, and was buried in the Church of the Austin Friars. One chronicler said Buckingham’s death was “universally lamented by all London.”
Parliament passed a bill of attainder, and the duke’s enormous wealth — his castles and holdings and titles — passed to the crown. The illustrious Stafford clan never rose to prominence again. They were the first noble family to be crushed by Henry VIII … but definitely not the last.
Required by the revolutionary tribunal to identify herself, she retorted (since her brother’s death passed the succession to the imprisoned child Louis XVII), “I am called Elizabeth Marie de France, sister of Louis XVI, aunt of Louis XVII, your King.” The papers just reported that she said “Elizabeth Marie.”
This fate cannot have surprised her: her correspondence anticipates a bloody reckoning with the revolutionary “monsters from hell” from years earlier, and reflects the figure in the royal household pushing the king and queen on immoderate courses like their famous attempted escape. (Elisabeth posed as a maid with the fugitive party.) “The Assembly is still the same; the monsters are the masters,” she wrote in February 1790. “The king, and others, from the integrity of their own natures, cannot bring themselves to see the evil such as it is.”
Elisabeth was nevertheless quite attached to her brother and her sister-in-law, and swore an oath to keep with Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette during the royal couple’s harrowing attempt to ride out the revolution. She courageously quaffed the every terror that family endured all the way to the dregs; when the mob stormed the Tuileries on June 20, 1792, she was momentarily mistaken for the queen and thereby put in peril of her life. “Do not undeceive them!” she warned an associate who was about to save her by correcting the misapprehension.
Elisabeth’s correspondence shows her not “merely” self-sacrificing but a keen observer of events who pushed her brother to rein in the revolution by force … and pushed her exiled brother the Comte d’Artois** to do likewise. For Elisabeth, bloodshed would be necessary, and desirable sooner than later — in contrast to the national-reconciliation stuff the doomed king was still hoping for.
By the end Paris of the Terror probably didn’t really need any better reason to cut off Elisabeth’s head than the fact of her bloodlines — “sister of the tyrant.” There are enough little hagiographies out there concerning Elisabeth’s piety and loyalty, however, that some think she should eventually be proposed as a candidate for Catholic canonization.
On this date in 1946, the Dutch fascist leader Anton Mussert was shot
Mussert was a young engineer who came to the fore in the interwar period as a strident right-wing populist. He co-founded in 1931 the Netherlands’ homegrown Nazi knockoff, the Nationaal-Socialistische Beweging; by 1935, it was polling 300,000 votes.
Mussert of course welcomed the German incursion into the Netherlands on the way to someplace else. That put the Dutch under wartime Nazi administration, but Mussert didn’t score a Quislingesque head-of-state plum out of arrangement. Instead, Mussert was brusquely shut out of any real power; the Austrian Arthur Seyss-Inquart ran the country instead, and would eventually hang via the Numremberg trial for his occupation atrocities, such as the wholesale deportation of the Dutch Jewish population that eventually swept up young diarist Anne Frank. Plum or no, however, what Mussert had done was more than enough to elevate him to the most conspicuous Nazi collaborator in the postwar Netherlands.
Mussert was captured after the war and shot at the open-air location near The Hague where over 250 people had been put to death during the war years.
At the time Richard came to grief at Bosworth Field, Edmund’s older brother John was the official (as designated by Richard) heir to the throne. John instead submitted to the victorious Henry VII, only to try his hand at Lambert Simnel’s ill-fated 1487 rebellion. John de la Pole died in battle.
Edmund de la Pole was about 15 years old at that point … and he had just become the potential leading Yorkist claimant.
Many years of on-again, off-again civil strife over the English throne had preceded this, and nobody in 1487 could say with confidence that many more such years might not lie ahead. Henry VII was proceeding cautiously, trying to keep former Yorkists in the tent.
But although the king permitted Edmund to succeed to his brother’s attainted Dukedom, the title was later stripped — leading Edmund to flee for the continent in 1501, and the fate of the knockabout pretender.
Sadly, his exile would end not in a tragically glorious failed invasion, nor a dastardly conspiracy foiled at the last moment. No, Edmund de la Pole wound up on the scaffold this way:
He was riding shotgun on the boat of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian, en route to Spain on a journey having nothing to do with the Yorkist cause;
A gale forced the boat into an English port;
Henry VII forced Maximilian to give up Edmund de la Pole as his exit fee from that English port, although Maximilian extracted the promise that the Yorkist pretender would not be harmed, only confined;
Henry VII died and his hotheaded young successor Henry VIII decided that he wasn’t bound by dad’s promises.
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
On this date in 998, Crescentius the Younger was beheaded in Rome.
In the abject Eternal City, sacked and scattered and plucked of its glories, even the title of Roman Emperor now belonged to a line of absentee Germans — “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire,” as Voltaire would later put it. But empire enough to push around the likes of Rome.
Rivalry between imperial and anti-imperial factions will write the city’s history for centuries to come. In the late 10th century, the 28-year-old emperor Otto II died unexpectedly, elevating his three-year-old son Otto III.
Anti-imperial Romans moved to capitalize on the turmoil, and Crescentius the Younger (his dad had the same name) raised himself up as the master of the city.
He was fruit of the the Crescentii family,* who attained their first rank in Roman politics a century before thanks to the propitious concubinage of a woman named Theodora and “her equally infamous daughters Marozia and Theodora, [who] filled the See of Peter with their paramours, their sons, and grandsons, who surpassed each other in vileness and wickedness of every kind.” (Johann Heinrich Kurtz) The fulminations of scribes against these libidinous, Machiavellian women** would eventually suggest to the history discipline one of its all-time best periodizations, the pornocracy. Sticks and stones, love: their lineage cast a long shadow on the Tiber throughout the 10th century.
Our guy Crescentius took the title Patricius Romanorum and bossed the town for a number of years in the late 980s and early 990s. There wasn’t much the Holy Romans and their boy-emperor could do about the scion of pornocrats.
But by 996, Otto III was all grown up to age 16, and marched down the Italic boot to set things straight in the Caput Mundi.
Temporarily cowed, Crescentius had to accept the appointment of Otto’s guy, Pope Gregory V, who then generously begged off an intended sentence of banishment for Crescentius, in the interests of comity.
Crescentius thanked the new pope, once Otto left town, by running Gregory out of Rome and setting up his own antipope and himself once more as big man on Campo Vecchio. Rome could not hope to match blows with the Germans, so the big idea here for Crescentius was to deliver his city to Byzantine protection; to this end, his antipope was Greek. Constantinople, however, was by this time much too weak in Italy for Crescentius to entertain realistic hope of success.
This in turn led Otto to re-invade in 997-998, and re-depose Crescentius, who retreated to the Castel Sant’Angelo. While Crescentius holed up there, his antipope was blinded, mutilated, and degraded out of the clergy, driven backward on an ass (literally ass-backward!) through the streets to the derision of the mob.† Certain of his control, the emperor set about restoring his authority while the friendless Patricius Romanorum and his followers cooled their heels in their dead-end fortress for two months.
Exactly how Crescentius came to die is sunken into the Tiber’s murky waters: was he lured from his redoubt by promise of royal clemency, or did he crawl to Otto to beg it? More probable is that the nigh-impregnable edifice was simply reduced over time until the Germans nigh-impregnated it; one version of the upstart’s end has him summarily executed on the battlements, his body thrown down into the moat below only to be dredged up and hung upside down on Monte Mario.
Grumbach was a knight who’s invariably described as an “adventurer”. As a young man he fought in the Peasants War, but as he headed into middle age he became your basic penniless minor nobleman chafing at the failures and obstructed opportunities life threw at him.
The thing he could not abide losing was the disappearing right of the nobility to enter into a feud or vendetta. This scans to the modern like rank anarchy, but feuds were part of the tapestry of medieval German society, long codified in law — an obvious descendant of clan and tribal obligations out of which the muddle of feudal vassalage had formed. “The passion for liberty and rights,” says this volume, “ran amok in Germany. Churchmen, princes, burghers, and peasants all wanted their independence and readily resorted to declarations of feud to secure and defend their rights.”
The standing right for miscellaneous minor lords to start miscellaneous private wars was quite naturally one that princes were ever keen to restrict. After centuries of two-steps-forward, one-step-back efforts to deal with the feud, the 1495 Imperial Diet formally codified a ban on feuding. In Poli Sci 101 terms, this is the state finally monopolizing legitimate violence.
As with dueling, however, official proscription did not end the practice. It was, indeed, Grumbach’s defeat and execution that would eventually be remembered as the decisive nail in the coffin for knightly feuds.
And so in Franconia where we lay our scene will civil blood make civil hands unclean …
Grumbach’s liege was Melchior Zobel von Giebelstadt, the Prince-Bishop of Wurzburg. (Still another confusing dimension of the political map, some princes of Germany’s many statelets were simultaneously ecclesiastical authorities. For purposes of this post, the “-Bishop” part doesn’t enter into it.)
Knights’ basic problem — the reason they were vulnerable to losing their wacky old-time rights — was poverty, and it was in money that Grumbach’s feud was rooted. Grumbach’s personal twist on this was being the sort of irascible, reckless coot who could carry a grudge so far as to get himself sawed into pieces over it.
Immediately upon assuming the Prince-Bishopric in 1544, Melchior Zobel von Giebelstadt forced Grumbach to return an unauthorized cash gift his predecessor had paid to the knight, and then stiffed said knight out of six villages whose revenues Grumbach sought by way of compensation.
He had to deal with Grumbach’s feud for the remainder of his term, which was also the remainder of his life … right up until Grumbach murdered him.
The disaffected knight hooked up with the margrave* Albert Alcibiades and started making a right mess in the middle of Europe with a 1552-54 mini-war. When Albert got thumped, Grumbach had to evacuate to France, and his holdings outside Wurzburg were plundered and/or destroyed by his foes.
So now the guy was even more aggrieved, and even more pfennigless.
He was downright vengeful about his feud at this point, although it’s noteworthy relative to that monopolization-of-violence trend that he was the only one: in days of yore, intra-elite wars might have started multiple self-reproducing vendettas.
The grumpy Grumbach now hooked up with another patron,** the deposed elector of Saxony Johann Friedrich II — another dude who felt hard done by in the Holy Roman Empire.
Grumbach evened his score with Melchior von Zobel by having the Prince-Bishop killed in Wurzburg in April 1558. (In present-day Wurzburg, three Zobelsaulen markers commemorate the Prince-Bishop’s assassination, one on the very spot of the murder.)
But that still left the money, and we know Grumbach wasn’t the type to write off a debt. In 1563, he successfully invaded Wurzburg with 1,300 soldiers and at swordpoint forced from the city a concession restoring his property.
For Grumbach, it was to prove a Pyrrhic victory.
In principle, he had achieved a great vindication of the ancient right of the feud, and for the hard-pressed nobility against the realms’ many princes. If others of his station had rallied to that banner, what a whirlwind Germany would have reaped.
Grumbach was in fact hatching an extravagant scheme† to liberate the entire German nobility … from the yoke of the princes. It was a radical aristocratic utopia … nobles were not only to be protected by the [Holy Roman] emperor from the princes, but to help him subdue them once and for all and to establish an hereditary monarchy in Germany. But despite Grumbach’s best efforts to incite the Franconian nobility, they did not line up behind him. Guidied by the captain of the Franconian Circle (Kreis), Georg Ludwig von Seinsheim, who denounced Grumbach’s undertaking as ‘against God, law and the emperor’, they formally turned away from him in 1564. In the view of the majority of them, the Knighthood was to maintain its autonomy by respecting the equilibrium between emperor and princes, not by irresponsibly challenging the latter. And it was this view, reassuringly transmitted to the princes, which carried the day.
Grumbach was outlawed by the empire and in 1566-67 was overcome with his protector Johann Friedrich at Gotha. Both men spent he remainder of their lives as imperial prisoners, with the notable difference that Johann Friedrich had the pull to live out his natural ration of days while Grumbach went straight to the dungeon for torture and thence to the scaffold in the town that had lately been his last redoubt. There, Grumbach was ripped apart — his dying eyes beheld the executioner wrench the heart out of his very chest and taunt him: “Behold, Grumbach, thy false heart!” The late knight’s rotting quartered remains got nailed up around town to broadcast the unmistakable message:
The noble right to feud was dead.
* Hereditary military commander.
** Among their other capers, Grumbach and his patron Johann Friedrich conspired with Torben Oxe‘s nephew Peder Oxe to depose the Danish king Frederick II in favor of the king’s grand-niece, Christina. (Christina will be known to Tudor-philes as the young woman who scuttled Henry VIII’s post-Anne Boleyn suit with the sharp remark, “If I had two heads, one should be at the King of England’s disposal.”) Nothing came of the plot. (Source)
† Christian Wieland writes that Grumbach deployed — unsuccessfully but still impressively — a 16th century multimedia propaganda campaign to state his case to the “common nobleman”: woodblock-illustrated printed leaflets, songs valorizing the attack on Wurzburg (sample verse: “Violence may be averted by violence / According to natural law”).
In the early 15th century, France had stacked upon the woes of the Hundred Years War those of a civil war — between Armagnacs and Burgundians.
Burgundy, doughty duchy of Nibelungenlied renown, stretched to the Low Countries and was a gestating wealthy merchant state that perhaps had more in common with the English than with feudal, agrarian France. What Burgundy and England demonstrably had in common from 1419 was an alliance. Together, they bossed the northern half of what is now France during the endless Hundred Years War.
Thanks to this timely arrangement, the English came to occupy Paris — in Burgundian possession since 1418, when said party had bloodily ejected the French royalist Armagnacs.
Into this very low ebb of Valois fortunes entered Joan of Arc.
It is true that the king has made a truce with the duke of Burgundy for fifteen days and that the duke is to turn over the city of Paris at the end of fifteen days. Yet you should not marvel if I do not enter that city so quickly. I am not content with these truces and do not know if I will keep them.
-Joan of Arc, in a letter to Reims
Late in the 1420s, the illiterate farm girl somehow reversed the failing fortunes of the southerly French court. Joan, of course, will die at an English stake … but it is the Burgundians who will capture her.
At any rate, in 1429, Joan showed up and the French suddenly began going from victory to victory, knocking English and Burgundian heads in north-central France and culminating with having Charles VII crowned at Reims … which is actually north (well, northeast) of Paris.
Although Joan’s attack on Paris failed, advancing French arms put the fear of Holy Maid in the city and also cut off quite a lot of its rural food supply. “The capital itself was in a frightful state. As a result of interrupted communication and exposed supply routes, together with harassment by brigands and peasants, many Parisians were starving.”
This naturally led some of the Armagnac-inclined citizens of Paris to think about ways to give the city back up to the French. We take up the narration of Anatole France, on a plot revolving around the “Seigneur de l’Ours,” or Jaquet Guillaume. (From here (HTML), or here (PDF).)
He was not of gentle birth and his arms were the sign of his hostelry. It was the custom in those days to give the title of Seigneur to the masters of the great Paris inns. Thus Colin, who kept the inn at the Temple Gate, was known as Seigneur du Boisseau. The hôtel de l’Ours stood in the Rue Saint-Antoine, near the Gate properly called La Porte Baudoyer, but commonly known as Porte Baudet, Baudet possessing the double advantage over Baudoyer of being shorter and more comprehensible. It was an ancient and famous inn, equal in renown to the most famous, to the inn of L’Arbre Sec, in the street of that name, to the Fleur de Lis near the Pont Neuf, to the Epée in the Rue Saint-Denis, and to the Chapeau Fétu of the Rue Croix-du-Tirouer. As early as King Charles V’s reign the inn was much frequented. Before huge fires the spits were turning all day long, and there were hot bread, fresh herrings, and wine of Auxerre in plenty. But since then the plunderings of men-at-arms had laid waste the countryside, and travellers no longer ventured forth for fear of being robbed and slain. Knights and pilgrims had ceased coming into the town. Only wolves came by night and devoured little children in the streets. There were no fagots in the grate, no dough in the kneading-trough. Armagnacs and Burgundians had drunk all the wine, laid waste all the vineyards, and nought was left in the cellar save a poor piquette of apples and of plums.
The Seigneur de l’Ours … was the proprietor of the house with the sign of the Bear (l’Ours). He held it by right of his wife Jeannette, and had come into possession of it in the following manner.
Fourteen years before, when King Henry with his knighthood had not yet landed in France, the host of the Bear Inn had been the King’s sergeant-at-arms, one Jean Roche, a man of wealth and fair fame. He was a devoted follower of the Duke of Burgundy, and that was what ruined him. Paris was then occupied by the Armagnacs. In the year 1416, in order to turn them out of the city, Jean Roche concerted with divers burgesses. The plot was to be carried out on Easter Day, which that year fell on the 29th of April. But the Armagnacs discovered it. They threw the conspirators into prison and brought them to trial. On the first Saturday in May the Seigneur de l’Ours was carried to the market place in a tumbrel with Durand de Brie, a dyer, master of the sixty cross-bowmen of Paris, and Jean Perquin, pin-maker and brasier. All three were beheaded, and the body of the Seigneur de l’Ours was hanged at Montfaucon where it remained until the entrance of the Burgundians. Six weeks after their coming, in July, 1418, his body was taken down from gibbet and buried in consecrated ground.
Now the widow of Jean Roche had a daughter by a first marriage. Her name was Jeannette; she took for her first husband a certain Bernard le Breton; for her second, Jaquet Guillaume, who was not rich. He owed money to Maître Jean Fleury, a clerk at law and the King’s secretary. His wife’s affairs were not more prosperous; her father’s goods had been confiscated and she had been obliged to redeem a part of her maternal inheritance. In 1424, the couple were short of money, and they sold a house, concealing the fact that it was mortgaged. Being charged by the purchaser, they were thrown into prison, where they aggravated their offence by suborning two witnesses, one a priest, the other a chambermaid. Fortunately for them, they procured a pardon.
The Jaquet Guillaume couple, therefore, were in a sorry plight. There remained to them, however, the inheritance of Jean Roche, the inn near the Place Baudet, at the sign of the Bear, the title of which Jaquet Guillaume bore. This second Seigneur de l’Ours was to be as strongly Armagnac as the other had been Burgundian, and was to pay the same price for his opinions.
Six years had passed since his release from prison, when, in the March of 1430, there was plotted by the Carmelites of Melun and certain burgesses of Paris that conspiracy which we mentioned on the occasion of Jeanne’s departure for l’Île de France. It was not the first plot into which the Carmelites had entered; they had plotted that rising which had been on the point of breaking out on the Day of the Nativity, when the Maid was leading the attack near La Porte Saint-Honoré; but never before had so many burgesses and so many notables entered into a conspiracy. A clerk of the Treasury, Maître Jean de la Chapelle, two magistrates of the Châtelet, Maître Renaud Savin and Maître Pierre Morant, a very wealthy man, named Jean de Calais, burgesses, merchants, artisans, more than one hundred and fifty persons, held the threads of this vast web, and among them, Jaquet Guillaume, Seigneur de l’Ours.
The Carmelites of Melun directed the whole. Clad as artisans, they went from King to burgesses, from burgesses to King; they kept up the communications between those within and those without, and regulated all the details of the enterprise. One of them asked the conspirators for a written undertaking to bring the King’s men into the city. Such a demand looks as if the majority of the conspirators were in the pay of the Royal Council.
In exchange for this undertaking these monks brought acts of oblivion signed by the King. For the people of Paris to be induced to receive the Prince, whom they still called Dauphin, they must needs be assured of a full and complete amnesty. For more than ten years, while the English and Burgundians had been holding the town, no one had felt altogether free from the reproach of their lawful sovereign and the men of his party. And all the more desirous were they for Charles of Valois to forget the past when they recalled the cruel vengeance taken by the Armagnacs after the suppression of the Butchers.
One of the conspirators, Jaquet Perdriel, advocated the sounding of a trumpet and the reading of the acts of oblivion on Sunday at the Porte Baudet.
“I have no doubt,” he said, “but that we shall be joined by the craftsmen, who, in great numbers will flock to hear the reading.”
He intended leading them to the Saint Antoine Gate and opening it to the King’s men who were lying in ambush close by.
Some eighty or a hundred Scotchmen, dressed as Englishmen, wearing the Saint Andrew’s cross, were then to enter the town, bringing in fish and cattle.
“They will enter boldly by the Saint-Denys Gate,” said Perdriel, “and take possession of it. Whereupon the King’s men will enter in force by the Porte Saint Antoine.”
The plan was deemed good, except that it was considered better for the King’s men to come in by the Saint-Denys Gate.
On Sunday, the 12th of March, the second Sunday in Lent, Maître Jean de la Chapelle invited the magistrate Renaud Savin to come to the tavern of La Pomme de Pin and meet divers other conspirators in order to arrive at an understanding touching what was best to be done. They decided that on a certain day, under pretext of going to see his vines at Chapelle-Saint-Denys, Jean de Calais should join the King’s men outside the walls, make himself known to them by unfurling a white standard and bring them into the town. It was further determined that Maître Morant and a goodly company of citizens with him, should hold themselves in readiness in the taverns of the Rue Saint-Denys to support the French when they came in. In one of the taverns of this street must have been the Seigneur de l’Ours, who, dwelling near by, had undertaken to bring together divers folk of the neighbourhood.
The conspirators were acting in perfect agreement. All they now awaited was to be informed of the day chosen by the Royal Council; and they believed the attempt was to be made on the following Sunday. But on the 21st of March Brother Pierre d’Allée, Prior of the Carmelites of Melun, was taken by the English. Put to the torture, he confessed the plot and named his accomplices. On the information he gave, more than one hundred and fifty persons were arrested and tried. On the 8th of April, the Eve of Palm Sunday, seven of the most important were taken to the market-place on a tumbrel. They were: Jean de la Chapelle, clerk of the Treasury; Renaud Savin and Pierre Morant, magistrates at the Châtelet; Guillaume Perdriau; Jean le François, called Baudrin; Jean le Rigueur, baker, and Jaquet Guillaume, Seigneur de l’Ours. All seven were beheaded by the executioner, who afterwards quartered the bodies of Jean de la Chapelle and of Baudrin.
Jaquet Perdriel was merely deprived of his possessions. Jean de Calais soon procured a pardon. Jeannette, the wife of Jaquet Guillaume, was banished from the kingdom and her goods confiscated.
Joan, for her part, had taken a noble prisoner named Franquet d’Arras. Anatole France says that after the plot was discovered, she attempted to exchange that hostage for Jaquet Guillaume. Having no affirmative reply, Joan proceeded to execute Arras shortly before her capture in May 1430 — a fact that was used against her at her trial.
This date in 1777 saw the public execution of “John the Painter” — a Scotsman who had been christened “James Aitken” at his birth less than 25 years before, but who had run through countless aliases in his adult life as a (mostly) petty thief.
But this man was not a hapless victim of England’s Bloody Code, although he often enough offended the capital statutes against petty property crime.
Rather, the scraggly redhead with the thick Scottish brogue was the author of a stunning act of domestic terrorism, in England, in freelance support of the rebellious American colonies an ocean away.
“So dangerous an individual to the kingdom as this man perhaps never existed,” in the judgment of the Newgate Calendar, who knew him as “John Hill” — just one of Aitken’s many aliases. “and whose confession and repentence can hardly soften the abhorrence felt on the contemplation of the extent of his crimes.”
James Aitken, aka John Hill, aka John the Painter — for this last was, unfortunately, the unprofitable occupation of his apprenticeship training — fired the Portsmouth dockyards on December 7, 1776, then followed that up with an attack on the Bristol dock and city shortly after the New Year, as well as an unsuccessful attempt to ignite the Plymouth quay.
Although he was well-read for his class, he was not ideological, not a zealot of any creed religious or secular.
He was not American himself even in the loose sense that term could hold for the immigrant proto-nation. His only brush with that land was brief and unedifying: fearing his many thefts had made London a bit too hot for him, he signed on as an indentured servant and shipped out to the colonies in 1773 and slave-like labor in the fields. He escaped his master in 1775 and immediately shipped back to Europe, leaving no evidence of any revolutionary contacts.
And he wasn’t a madman. Just lonely, as evidenced, Warner says, by the “sad and always desperate invitations” to drink with which he plied the newest of acquaintances, to their discomfort. “He asked complete strangers to drink with him because he was lonely, and loneliness overrode his reason. His invitations always came too quickly, and his conversation and his manner always just a little off.” He even invited this indiscreet attention when on the incendiary job.
James Aitken reads like an Enlightenment version of the disaffected loser “going postal” on a world that could barely see him to tread upon him. His fondest desire from childhood was that classic Scots aspiration, the army commission. The closest he came was a series of short-term army enlistments to pocket the enrollment bonus, each of which he deserted as soon as practicable. (He did dream that his terrorism spree would earn him an appointment in the Americans’ Continental Army.)
Back in Britain after his unsuccessful foray in the colonies, Aitken conceived a disordered affinity for the burgeoning patriotic cause of the colonies he had recently fled. (Warner thinks he read Thomas Paine‘s Common Sense.) Only accidentally, when he overheard boozers at an Oxford pub chatting about the importance of the dockyards to the British Navy, did the heretofore aimless Aitken animate his wanderings with a new revolutionary purpose: he, scorned nobody, could win the War of Independence by crippling these facilities.
I spent two days in the contemplation of this malicious design, and promised myself immortal honour in the accomplishment of it. I beheld it in the light of a truly heroic enterprise, such as never would have been equalled to the end of time. I was persuaded it would entitle me to the first rank in America, and flattered myself with the ambition of becoming the admiration of the world! (Source)
Aitken was not a criminal mastermind, but there was a plausibility to the plot that fluttered the Admiralty’s heart once the details emerged. The dockyards were critical. They were also — Aitken readily perceived this as he began to case them — scarcely guarded; at Portsmouth, Aitken came and went as he pleased, freely schlepping his materiel in and out. (His attempt at Portsmouth set the subsequent facilities more on guard; the man’s initial plan to hit five different dockyards in sequence would ultimately have been as self-defeating as the 9/11 hijackers planning to commandeer a different plane on five consecutive days … but this was the way Aitken had to conceive it since he lacked the charisma or leadership aptitude to form a cell of fellow-travelers for a coordinated attack.)
Before launching himself into history, Aitken made an autumn 1776 visit to Paris to call upon the American representative there, Silas Deane.
Deane’s own recounting says he was struck by the wildness of Aitken’s scheme. But he was sufficiently taken with the prospective payoff to lend it his blessing, and “sponsor” it to the extent of giving the Scotsman a little pocket money to make his way back to England. He would later defend himself against “respectable persons,” presumably British ones, who “[regard] me equally criminal with the actor.”
[S]upposing me to be the liege subject, not of Great Brittain, but of a foreign independant Nation, at the Time at War with Great Brittain, and that imagining that I had found a favorable opportunity, & met with a proper Agent to destroy, at one blow, the Fleet & armaments preparing to carry, and to spread devastation, and bloodshed in my Country, and that I improved the favorable moment, and attempted through this agency, to effect this great object; on this view of the case I am confident that every one of common sense & impartiality must acquit me, nay more though they rejoice at the defeat of the enterprize they must approve of the motives, which influenced me to engage in it, motives no less than a desire to weaken a declared Enemy, and to preserve my Country, by every means in my power, from the horrors, and distress of Fire and desolation.
… if it was a noble, and most honorable Action in Lord Rodney to defeat the Count de Grasse, would not the Man who at equal hazard of his Life, had set fire to the Count’s Squadron in Brest, & thereby have equally defeated his expedition, been entitled (at least in the Court of Common sense) to the same Honors?
This was certainly good enough to convince Aitken that he torched in the name of Liberty, and he made his way back to set his plan in motion.
After botching his first attempt at Portsmouth and getting locked in the rope house — he pounded on the door until he got someone to open up, then bluffed his way out of the situation — Aitken got the least mileage possible from a superficially successful attack.
At about 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, December 7, Aitken fired three homemade incendiaries in the rope house and slipped away in what witnesses would later reconstruct as an evident state of agitation. The flames soon gutted the brick building (the damage would eventually reckon to £20,000) but he was this close to an exponentially more impressive bit of sabotage.
To begin with, many of his matches failed to start up Aitken’s jerry-built fuses. (This is also what caused his initial arson attempt to abort.) Having been once bitten by finding himself locked into the rope house at night, Aitken made his next trip earlier in the afternoon: that ensured that plenty of dockhands would still be in the vicinity to contain the fire to the one building. It also meant that the tide was in, and the nearby brig swollen with two thousand pounds of gunpowder could be easily put out to sea and away from danger as soon as the alarm went up.*
Admiralty investigators weren’t even sure at first that it was arson. Yards in the era of wood ships and wood buildings had a lot of flammable materials lying around. Fires happened.
Aitken soon dispelled any possible confusion.
Finding the Royal Navy dockyards at Plymouth too vigilant for his machinations, Aitken settled on an ambitious, and again somewhat plausible, scheme to engulf the densely-populated port of Bristol — dockyard and city alike. Repeatedly his blazes petered out or were suppressed. They did little consequential damage, but raised a rapidly-escalating panic at revolutionary incendiaries abroad, and it did not take long to link them to Portsmouth. (Copycat attempts and crackpot anonymous letters threatening same also started popping up elsewhere in the realm.)
“I have not the least doubt that the late fires have been the effects of premeditated malice,” wrote Bristol’s M.P. — the political philosopher Edmund Burke. Naturally this only had the effect of silencing potentially considerable pro-American sentiment in Bristol and throughout the realm. Lord Germain exploited the terrorist panic to push through a February 1777 Treason Act aimed at the American colonies. It authorized detention of suspected rebels without habeas corpus protection at His Majesty’s pleasure.
Aitken himself, though, was at the end of his own fuse. At Sir John Fielding‘s urging, the Admiralty posted an eye-popping £1,000 reward for the terrorists’ (multiple attackers were presumed, owing to the quantity of fires) capture. The arsonist was in irons with a week; a gaoler had noticed him and recognized Aitken’s fit to the description of the unknown Scotsman who had been seen in the vicinity of some of these blazes which Fielding had published in his crime clearinghouse periodical, Hue and Cry.** That man rode off after the suspect and overtook him in the village of Odiham,† where an exhausted and by now fatalistic Aitken surrendered without a fight.
The mizzenmast of the docked HMS Arethusa was removed and set up on land to hang this enemy of the navy outside the walls of the damaged Portsmouth dockyard.
Upon it, they would hang their man as high as Haman: after being turned off, a team of workmen hoisted Aitken’s still-strangling body 60 feet into the air. It’s reportedly the highest gallows ever known to be erected in England, and for the benefit of anyone who didn’t get a good enough look at the spectacle, his body remained conspicuously suspended in chains for years thereafter at Fort Blockhouse, overlooking the Portsmouth harbor as it rotted away.
One might expect that a man who had turned his face against king and country to such an extent would make his end defiantly. James Aitken, once again, defies expectations here, sounding submissive and contrite in the officially reported last words.
I asked John the Painter author Jessica Warner what it was that the state hoped a prisoner like Aitken would say from the scaffold. How did condemned prisoners typically come to shape their last words in (usual) conformity to the expected models? Was it usually necessary for somebody to convince them to do so?
JW: I can only speak for eighteenth-century England. The so-called “dying speeches” of the condemned follow a pretty predictable pattern: the condemned man expresses contrition for his crime, warns others against following his example, and says, in so many words, that he is reconciled with his Creator. That’s the official version, and really two things are going on here: the prisoner is in effect upholding the state’s right to take his life while also upholding the moral order of the Ancien Regime, its laws as much as its religious teachings. I say “official” because just about all dying speeches were penned by other people, the most notorious being the succession of chaplains (ordinaries) who presided over the condemned prisoners at Newgate. It was a bit of a standing joke that dying speeches were printed before they were delivered. The irony is that shorthand was used in the eighteenth century, and so theoretically it was possible to take down exactly what prisoners said.
Popular expectations, to the extent that they can be penetrated, also expected the condemned to make a good end, a good end being measured in terms of bravery bordering on contemptuous indifference to one’s fate. It’s hard to reconcile this indifference with the regret the prisoner was supposed to express.
ET: Did the fact that Aitken was a hated state criminal, rather than an everyday felon, alter anything about the role he was expected to play in the execution ritual?
JW: I don’t think so. The various accounts of his last moments read suspiciously like those you find in other dying speeches. Given the fact that he was a Scot who had poor social skills and who was also more than a little off his head, it beggars belief that he would have performed his part so well and in so conventional a fashion. I don’t doubt, though, that he made a brave end of it.
* The original Portsmouth plan was to start with a diversionary fire in the city itself, and then burn the dockyard while fire engines were occupied with the previous blaze. Again, his imagination outstripped his reach as a lone wolf: the attempt to kindle this preliminary fire just got him run out of his boarding-house and made the landlady a later witness against him.
** For more on Fielding’s criminal investigation reforms, see this post.
Set against the background of the Soviet moderisation process, the development of sport in the two decades from the early 1930s to the early 1950s not only established the world-recognised pattern of sport in the Soviet Union and, later, in many other communistcountries (like China, Cuba and the GDR), it also resulted in a phenomenon unprecedentedin world sports history: the arrest and execution of a host of sports personalities. No one knows the exact numberof victims; but the purges carried off five sports ministers, Olympic Committee members for the Baltic states, heads of the major physical education colleges, eminent sports scientists and medics4 and probably thousands of leading athletes.
Sports and the physical body emerged early in Soviet history as a major doctrinal focus. A 1925 party resolution (quoted in this pdf) declared it
“essential to consider physical culture not only from the standpoint of physical education and health, and as one aspect of our youth’s cultural-industrial and military training, but also as a method of educating the masses.”
Dziga Vertov’s Soviet silent masterpiece Man With A Movie Camera (1929). This clip should cue up at the sports bit (45:26), but the entire film is a must-watch.
In the Stalin years, Soviet athletics took on the institutional patterns that continue to structure Russian sport to this day.
Given his position during the time of purges, Alexander Kosarev might have been bound for a bad end regardless. At least he had the consolation of leaving his fingerprints on a sporting institution that still thrives to this day.
We get to Kosarev by way of another man, Nikolai Starostin, an elite athlete of the 1920s and 1930s.**
A hockey star as well as a footballer, Starostin supported his family with his athletic gifts in the 1920s, and in 1922 helped found the local sports club that eventually developed into one of Europe’s most storied champions.
After juggling sponsorships and team names for a decade, Starostin approached Kosarev about bringing the club under the patronage of the Communist Party’s youth organ Komsomol, which Kosarev headed. He also suggested the name by which the team is still known, Spartak Moscow — paying tribute to the ancient rebel Spartacus.†
Komsomol support was not Komsomol control, however: Spartak remained basically independent, and this set it starkly apart from the other top Soviet teams, each controlled by a state ministry and its associated industry. (e.g., Lokomotiv Moscow, or the Red Army team CSKA.‡)
The football bully on the block at the time was Dynamo Moscow, a club dating to the tsarist age that was in the ambit of the internal security services. Dynamo won the first Soviet championship in 1936.
But Spartak quickly stepped over the Lokomotivs and established itself as Dynamo’s top rival.
Football matches, like everything else in Stalinist Moscow, were about politics, bureaucratic infighting, and the characteristic through-the-looking-glass rules of the dictatorship. Spartak used a controversial goal to beat Dynamo Tblisi (there were six Dynamo teams in the top division) in a Soviet Cup semifinals in 1939, the last before World War II. After Spartak went on to win the final, the Dynamo teams’ scary patron, NKVD boss Lavrenty Beria, ordered the semifinal match replayed. Spartak, already the tournament champion, then proceeded to win its semifinal a second time, compounding Beria’s fury. The referee from the first match was later arrested.
Beria was a passionate fan of the beautiful game — the ultimate football hooligan, you might say. He frequently attended Dynamo matches.
The secret police chief had even played for a Georgian club in his youth; in fact, he had played against (and lost to) a Starostin team. (Starostin thought Beria was a dirty player. Truly the Georgian was a man who tackled life studs-up.)
In contrast to Dynamo’s establishment backing, independent Spartak didn’t even have a home stadium until 1956. Nevertheless, it soon began attracting a sizable popular following. Its tactics were less stodgy; its persona less institutionally leaden; its star, Starostin, was a legend. And Spartak won, a lot.
“The people’s team” became a pole for — not resistance, exactly. But something a little bit alienated. A little bit defiant. Sport might not be your thing, but you have to appreciate any team that can embarrass the national torturer-in-chief. You have to appreciate the opportunity to hiss the secret police under cover of innocent fandom.
Unfortunately, Spartak’s Komsomol patron Kosarev fell. There’s an apocryphal sory that Kosarev’s fate was football-related; surely the rivalry did him no favors when his life was hanging in the balance.
But it was actually just the routine infighting that did Soviet bureaucrats in throughout the late 1930s. His power eroded; a Komsomol official whom Kosarev had previously booted went over his head to Stalin himself, and Uncle Joe’s apparatchiks brought him down at a November 1938 Komsomol plenum with accusations of favoritism and alcoholism. (Stalin popped in briefly to see if “maybe this is a system and not a mistake?”)
Kosarev spent November 19-22 desperately fending off accusations at the rostrum, was removed from his post by the end of the session, and resided in a Lubyanka dungeon before the month was out. And you thought your committee meetings were awful.§
Kosarev got the bullet. Spartak lived on.
So did Starostin, who was not executed but sent to the Gulag. In 1948, Stalin’s son Vasily extracted Starostin to use as a coach for the Soviet Air Force’s football team, leading to a bizarre saga as a, well, human football between Vasily and Beria. (Beria’s security services kept trying to arrest Starostin, leaving the coach shuttled from city to city as the political winds shifted — and sometimes even bunking with his young protector and the revolver Vasily kept under his pillow. All for football!)
Kosarev was rehabilitated shortly after Stalin died. Khrushchev mentioned him by name in his “secret speech” denouncing the previous years’ terror.
And since Stalin’s death precipitated Beria’s own execution, Starostin was rehabilitated as well. “It was like the sun rising in the Far North after the long Polar night,” Starostin remembered of 1953.
The exiled football legend returned to coach and manage Spartak Moscow — from 1955 until 1992, when he retired at age 90. Nikolai Starostin was associated with the club he helped create in 1922 almost as long as the Soviet Union was associated with Russia: 70 years … minus those lost to the Arctic labor camps.
“Camp bosses, arbiters of the life and death of thousands upon thousands of human beings, personifications of the GULAG brutalities and horrors, were so benevolent to anything concerning soccer,” said Starostin in his memoirs of the starstruck commandants who treated their special prisoner with kid gloves and invariably recruited Starostin to coach local clubs. (Dynamo clubs, ironically.) “Their unbridled power over human lives was nothing compared to the power of soccer over them.”
“The soccer ball was always out of Beria’s reach.”
* “The Strange Story of Nikolai Starostin, Football and Lavrentii Beria,” Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 46, No. 4 (1994). Riordan, a Briton, played for Spartak in the 1960s. (He wote an autobiography about it.)
** Nikolai was the oldest of four Kosarev brothers, all four of whom played for Spartak. All four were also arrested and tortured in 1942. Nikolai was the only one of them to remain involved in football after his release.
‡ In the 1930s, the Red Army team was known as CDKA. The reason its name changed was because a CDKA-based national team lost to Tito’s Yugoslavia in the 1952 World Cup, and Stalin in a huff ordered the CDKA club dissolved.
§ Information on Kosarev’s fall and the November 1938 Komsomol plenum from Seth Bernstein’s 2011 University of Toronto graduate paper “‘Lifestyle Cannot Be Separate from Politics’: Degeneracy and Promotion in the Purge of the Soviet Komsomol Leadership, 1934-1938″. This paper no longer appears to be available online.