1217: Eustace the Monk, turncoat outlaw

Add comment August 24th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1217, the pirate Eustace the Monk was defeated in battle and summarily beheaded, scuppering an ongoing invasion that nearly seated a French dauphin on the English throne.

This colorful outlaw commenced life as the younger son of a Boulogne lord, but his conventional path into the Abbey Saint-Wulms was aborted by the murder of his father — leading Eustace to abandon his cowl for a vain attempt at vengeance.

“From a black monk becoming demoniac” — in the words of one chronicle — the man’s career thence proceeded, first rejoining the secular economy as a seneschal and then pivoting to outlawry when his former master turned against him.

His exploits in banditry are greatly embellished and romanticized in the medieval French verse titled Eustache the Monk (peruse in full here; helpful introduction here), including a number of charming and imaginary vignettes that double as moral parables and medieval slices-of-life.

Eustache spotted the Abbot of Jumi├Ęges as he was coming down the road. “Sir Abbot,” he said, “stop where you are! What are you carrying? Come now, don’t hide it.” The Abbot answered: “What’s it to you?” At this, Eustache was ready to hit him, but instead replied: “What’s it to me, fat-ass? Upon my word, I’ll make it my business. Get down, fast, and not another word out of you, or I’ll let you have it. You’ll be beaten up so badly you won’t be worth a hundred pounds.” The Abbot thought the man was drunk, and said, more politely this time: “Go away. You won’t find what you are looking for here.” Eustache responded: “Cut the bullshit and get off your horse fast, or you’ll be in for a lot of trouble.” The Abbot got down, frightened now. Eustache asked how much money he had with him. “Four marks,” said the Abbot, “in truth I only have four marks silver.” Eustache searched him immediately and found thirty marks or more. He gave back to the Abbot the four marks he claimed to have. The Abbot became duly furious; for, had he told the truth, he would have got back all his money. The Abbot lost his money only because he told a lie.

Around this time Eustace set up as a freelance English Channel pirate and was regularly employed by the English King John from about 1205 until 1212, when he switched his allegiance back to Philip II of France. Eustace tormented his former English patrons during the civil war in that country that led to the Magna Carta; the rebel barons in this war offered the English throne to the French heir Louis, and Louis invaded and held London and about half the realm, merrily aided by Eustace’s channel buccaneers.

Things went sideways for Louis and for Eustace in 1217; the former suffered a devastating reversal at the Battle of Lincoln.* Our man Eustace, attempting to reinforce Louis’s camp, was intercepted at sea and trounced at the Battle of Sandwich.**

Run-of-the-mill French knights were captured for ransom as per usual;

With Eustance, however, the case was different. When the ship was captured, the English instituted a search for him, and he was at length discovered down in the hold (Matthew Paris says in the bilge-water) by ‘Richard Sorale and Wudecoc’. Then Eustace offered a large sum of money for a ransom, ten thousand marks, as the writer of the Guillaume le Marechal puts it; ‘but it could not be.’ His addition offer (so Wendover) to serve the king of the English faithfully thereafter, if actually made, would have been only a reminder of his previous injuries. It was Stephen Trabe (or Crave) [or Crabbe -ed.], one of the mariners, ‘who had long been with him,’ that executed him, so the Histoire des Ducs de Normandie tells us; or as the poem of Guillaume le Marechal narrates it: ‘There was one there named Stephen of Winchelsea, who recalled to him the hardships which he had caused them both upon land and sea and who gave him the choice of having his head cut off either upon the trebuchet or upon the rail of the ship. Then he cut off his head.’ The head was subsequently fixed upon a lance and borne to Canterbury and about the country for a spectacle. The Romance concludes with the sentiment: ‘Nor can one live long who is intent always upon doing evil.’ (Henry Lewis Cannon


13th century illustration: Eustace gets the chop over the side of the boat.

Eustace’s defeat completely undermined Louis’s position, and the chancer was obliged to retreat to his homeland — where he’d become king in 1223. He’s known as Louis the Lion, which is pretty good, but he was rather convincingly surpassed by his son Saint Louis.

* Known to history as the “Lincoln Fair” for all the looting that occurred afterwards.

** The English maneuver on this occasion was to use an advantageous wind to hurl lime onto the French ships, blinding the enemy crews.

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Arts and Literature,At Sea,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Cycle of Violence,England,Execution,France,History,No Formal Charge,Outlaws,Pirates,Power,Soldiers,Summary Executions,The Worm Turns,Wartime Executions

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1213: Peter of Pontefract, oracle

Add comment May 28th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1213, the hermit Peter of Pontefract (or Peter of Wakefield) was hanged by King John.

Reluctant Magna Carta signer and ridiculous Robin Hood villain, John has never been the most highly regarded sovereign. (A recent BBC poll saluted him as the 13th century’s very worst Briton.)

The papacy ranked among John’s many irritants. A 1205 dispute with Pope Innocent III over the successor to the late Archbishop of Canterbury — John wanted control of ecclesiastical appointments in his own realm, a little preview of coming attractions in English history — extended so far as Innocent’s excommunicating John, and laying England under a papal interdict prohibiting administration of any sacraments save baptism and last rites. There’s no bargaining chip quite like “do what I say or everyone goes to hell.”

John didn’t sweat the eternal damnation stuff much but in 1212 the specter of war with France — gleefully justified by Philip II on grounds of the English king’s impiety — started twisting the screws a little. Philip had already seized English holdings in Normandy; now, he was gathering forces to invade across the English Channel.

With discontent already afoot among the domestic nobility, some of whom were extending feelers to King Philip, the Yorkshire hermit Peter ran out a prophecy that John’s crown would pass to other hands by the next Ascension Day — which happened to be Thursday, May 23, 1213.

Peter’s prophecy gained no little folk following, prompting John to take him into custody.

And here a prophet, that I brought with me
From forth the streets of Pomfret, whom I found
With many hundreds treading on his heels;
To whom he sung, in rude harsh-sounding rhymes,
That, ere the next Ascension-day at noon,
Your highness should deliver up your crown.

-Shakespeare’s King John

But days before the momentous date arrived, John resolved the crisis and saved himself from potential deposition with a timely submission to the papal legate Pandulf, before whom he dramatically laid the crown and resumed it pledging an annual tribute of 1,000 marks from the throne of England to that of St. Peter.*

This was either — take your pick — a deft political masterstroke instantly neutralizing the threats to John’s throne, or else it was a craven surrender to the Vatican.

Peter of Pontefract gives us a hint of a judgment on that question.

John held Peter past the May 23 date — and then, just for good measure, past May 27, for that had been the calendar date of John’s coronation in 1199, which was also Ascension Thursday that year, and had been floated as a fallback interpretation of the prophecy — the seer had been duly discredited and, being made ridiculous, could now be made an example of.

Or had he been?

For,

the wise and the foolish alike began to see that John had prevented a literal fulfilment of the prophecy by lending himself to a figurative one. He had ‘ceased to be king’ by laying his crown at the feet of Pandulf, to take it back again on conditions which unquestionably helped to fix it, for the time at least, more securely than ever on his brow. The scapegoat of all parties was the unlucky prophet himself. Next day he and his son, who had been imprisoned with him, were tied each to a horse’s tail, dragged thus from Corfe to Wareham, and there hanged. (Source)

* John stopped paying in 1214, and Innocent left well enough alone.

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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