1409: Jean de Montagu

Add comment October 17th, 2009 Headsman

Six hundred years ago today, onetime royal favorite Jean de Montagu* was, at the instigation of his powerful noble rival, beheaded in Paris and his body hung up at Montfaucon.

Montagu (French link) was the 50-something scion of an ennobled notary — or else the illegitimate produce of King Charles V, whose ennobled notary had been induced to claim him. Regardless his blood, the lad made himself quite wealthy with a virtuous cycle of administrative acumen and political connection, winning a variety of honorary posts and riches aplenty he did not shy from displaying. Typical “New Money” type.

Sadly for Montagu, this cycle crested during the reign of Charles VI, also known as Charles the Mad for his bouts of illucidity.

“History,” wrote Barbara Tuchman, “never more cruelly demonstrated the vulnerability of a nation to the person of its chief of state than in the affliction of France beginning [with Charles’ first spell of insanity] in 1392.”

Charles the Mad’s erratic tenure would help bring French fortunes to the low ebb from which Joan of Arc would retrieve them.

Montagu’s period sob story was that his wealth earned him the enmity of nasty Duke of Burgundy John the Fearless,** who induced King Charles during one of the latter’s episodes to affix on Montagu responsibility for the crown’s financial shortfalls. Our day’s victim was arrested on October 7, 1409, tortured into a confession, and beheaded in Paris October 17.

Montagu’s surviving family had the verdict reversed within three years, which would have been a better deal for them had the family’s main branch not been wiped out three years after that at the Battle of Agincourt.

For the wider benefit of posterity, the beheaded lord also left a fair collection of endowed building projects in his lands in Marcoussis, including (French links all): the usual village church; a Celestine monastery; and a picturesque castle unfortunately devastated during the French Revolution but once resembling this:


Atmospheric old sketch from here; others here.

* Not to be confused with his (likewise beheaded) contemporary across the channel, John Montagu, Earl of Salisbury.

** John the Fearless had most recently been seen engineering the infamous murder of the king’s brother, and surviving by dint of his ransom potential the hecatomb of the last crusade.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Nobility,Pelf,Posthumous Exonerations,Torture,Wrongful Executions

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1405: Richard le Scrope and Thomas de Mowbray, without color of law

Add comment June 8th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1405, Henry IV had two rebellious peers beheaded on his authority at York.


The lower panels of this stained glass in St. Andrew’s Church, Bishopthorpe, depict the trial of Archbishop Scrope. Image (c) Roger Walton and used with permission.

Richard le Scrope, Archbishop of York, and Thomas de Mowbray, Earl of Norfolk, had both become estranged from Henry Bolingbroke, the noble who had wrested control of the English crown as Henry IV.

Since Henry’s legitimacy was dubious, he faced even more than a monarch’s usual ration of plots and rebellions — most famously that of young Sir Henry Percy, remembered as “Hotspur” in Shakespeare’s Henry IV part 1.

That particular enemy met his end in 1403, but old man Percy was soon back to fomenting from his expansive holdings in the north.

Mowbray, a disaffected teenager, and Scrope, a seasoned prelate who should have known better, were drawn into the next intrigue — by “the odor of French promises or rewards,” their enemies charged. A noble loyal to Henry intercepted their modest force and (so the story goes*) by representing to accept Scrope’s offer to parley induced the rebels to disband, whereupon the ringleaders were arrested.

Henry demanded their immediate condemnation; Chief Justice William Gascoigne insisted upon their right to be judged by other peers of the realm (and upon the inviolability of the archbishop**). The hot-blooded† Henry was inclined not to bother, and simply had their heads lopped off on his own authority.

Shakespeare treats this episode in Henry IV, part 2:

HASTINGS [another rebellious lord, who shared the same fate]

Our Army is dispers’d:
Like youthfull Steeres, unyoak’d, they tooke their course
East, West, North, South: or like a Schoole, broke up,
Each hurryes towards his home, and sporting place

WESTMORLAND

Good tidings (my Lord Hastings) for the which,
I doe arrest thee (Traytor) of high Treason:
And you Lord Arch-bishop, and you Lord Mowbray,
Of Capitall Treason, I attach you both

MOWBRAY

Is this proceeding just, and honorable?

WESTMORLAND

Is your Assembly so?

BISHOP SCROPE

Will you thus breake your faith?

JOHN

I pawn’d thee none:
I promis’d you redresse of these same Grievances
Whereof you did complaine; which, by mine Honor,
I will performe, with a most Christian care.
But for you (Rebels) looke to taste the due
Meet for Rebellion, and such Acts as yours.
Most shallowly did you these Armes commence,
Fondly brought here, and foolishly sent hence.
Strike up our Drummes, pursue the scatter’d stray,
Heaven, and not wee, have safely fought to day.
Some guard these Traitors to the Block of Death,
Treasons true Bed, and yeelder up of breath.

(See this scene played here.)

Scrope’s execution in particular played very badly as an arrogation of secular power over the ecclesiastical authorities. The pope was persuaded not to excommunicate Henry — that step would be reserved a later King Henry — but many contemporaries viewed the monarch’s subsequent (and ultimately fatal) bouts with disfiguring “leprosy” as a judgment from above St. Peter’s throne.

This Google books freebie has much more on the cast of characters at the center of this day’s action.

* This popular version has its opponents; the rebels may have simply surrendered when they recognized their hopeless military disadvantage.

** Interestingly, the very uncle of the noble who effected the arrest of Scrope and Mowbray had been implicated a traitor a generation before by the Merciless Parliament. Unlike many, Alexander Neville was spared a death sentence for his perceived proximity to Richard II … because he was, as Scrope would become, the Archbishop of York.

† Henry was making noises about destroying York altogether as punishment for its disloyalty as he rode there following the “Battle” of Shipton Moor. Residents of that northern city met him in poses of desperate submission — dressed in sackcloth, ropes about their necks, offering up their weapons.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Notable Participants,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Summary Executions,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1407: Chen Zuyi, Zheng He’s prisoner

6 comments October 21st, 2008 Headsman

On an uncertain date this month in 1407, a Sumatran pirate was put to death in Nanking (or Nanjing) to the glory of the Yongle Emperor.

The day’s subject is not the corpse, but Zheng He (also known as Cheng Ho or Ma Sanbao), the Muslim Chinese eunuch-mariner whose early 15th century expeditions to the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean and beyond* pointed the way to a sea-striding colonial future that his country turned its back upon.

On the first of Zheng’s seven expeditions, his enormous fleet did battle with Chen Zuyi, whose own substantial armada based in Palembang controlled the strategic Strait of Malacca.

Five thousand pirates are said to have gone to Davy Jones’ locker in Zheng’s victory; his captured enemy got a ride back to the Chinese capital to be made an example of.

But Zheng’s heroics in this adventure and others did not long outlive the emperor Zhu Di.

He had rivals at court. Enormous treasure ships don’t come cheap, and though they brought back curiosities like giraffes, they didn’t earn back their investment in new tribute; the state budget had competing priorities, while China’s concern with the sea was so overwhelmingly fear of piracy that it all but shut down maritime activity for a time.

Though the pat story of Chinese isolationism might be a tad overstated, hindsight from New World locales with Spanish or English or French names rather than Chinese ones still can’t help but see the aborted age of discovery as a turning point.

An enormous, wealthy, centralized state on the rim of the Pacific Ocean, with the baddest seafaring flotilla around. If you had to pick the world’s probable leading colonial power of the coming centuries, you’d probably have put your money on China in October 1407.

Chen Zuyi sure would have.

* To America ahead of Christopher Columbus? To Italy to launch the Renaissance? To 1955 to inspire Chuck Berry? Hey, whatever pays the bills.

Point. Counterpoint.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Indonesia,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,Pirates,Power

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