1441: Henrik Reventlow

Add comment June 12th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1441, North Jutland peasant leader Henrik Reventlow was executed.

Reventlow was a nobleman who came to the fore of a 25,000-strong peasant army in rebellion over rising taxes.

The uprising threatened to derail the months-old reign of the young King Christian III … but he successfully defeated it by adroitly offering some pardons and leaving the remnants to be crushed.

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1442: Nguyen Trai

Add comment September 19th, 2018 Headsman

On this date* in 1442, Vietnamese writer, commander, and politician Nguyen Trai died for regicide.

The Confucian scholar (English Wikipedia entry | the far more detailed Vietnamese) was already a patriotic hero for taking to the hills in the successful rebellion that had expelled the occupation of the Chinese Ming dynasty some years before.

This philosopher of irregular war was famed for the very contemporary-sounding aphorism “better to conquer hearts than citadels”;** five centuries on, the great general of another era’s Vietnamese liberation struggle would credit Nguyen Trai’s “attacks on the minds, i.e. propaganda work among the enemy, persuading the enemy to surrender in many cities.”

A literal warrior-poet, Trai bequeathed the ages a corpus of beautiful musings to go with his martial axioms.

To A Friend

My fate naturally has many twists and sharp turns,
So in everything I trust in the wisdom of God.
I still have my tongue — believe me, I am able to talk,
Even though I’m still poor and, as we know, pathetic.
Never to return, the past flies too quickly and the time is short,
But, wandering in this cold room, the night is far too long.
I’ve been reading books for ten years, but I’m poor from clothes to bone
From eating only vegetables and sitting without a cushion.

But the very sharpest turn in his fate was the last one, when the Vietnamese sovereign, healthy and young and passing through the area, paid a courtesy call on the 60-something statesman — and shockingly turned up dead in the morning, thrusting the kingdom into turmoil since his heir was an infant. We have seen in these pages that inhabiting the mere vicinity of an unexpected royal death can be an extremely dangerous situation; so it was for Trai, no matter his former heroism or his poignant verse.

Perhaps his situation as the favored royal advisor had cultivated the envy of rival courtiers who suddenly found themselves in a position to vent their pique; or, maybe it was nothing but tunnel vision where the situation of being the most proximate initial suspect would transmute into an irresistibly self-reinforcing certainty. Or could this celestial household really have been involved in regicide? It’s one of the most famous mysteries in Vietnam’s history.

The man’s contemporaries came to their conclusion almost instantly. Barely six weeks after the emperor’s unexpected death, Nguyen Trai was put to death — and not only he but his wife, Nguyen Thi Lo and all their kin. It’s one of history’s most notorious incidents of the execution of nine relations — the most severe collective punishment to be found in China and Vietnam, wherein anyone closely related to an arch-traitor could be destroyed in a family extermination.

Twenty years later, Emperor Le Thanh Tong formally exonerated the man of the charge, a verdict that has been endorsed by a posterity that honors Nguyen Trai as a national hero.

* We’re translating the date from the Vietnamese lunisolar calendar, a perilous venture. I’m well outside my expertise here but sources I can find are unanimous on this date and Vietnamese calendar converters such as this one appear to agree.

** Another great Nguyen Trai-ism for guerrilla war: “Like the ocean which supports a ship but can also overturn it, so the people can support the throne or sink it.”

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1440: The Black Dinner

Add comment November 24th, 2016 Headsman

Edinburgh Castle, toune and towre,
God grant thou sink for sin!
And that e’en for the black dinner
Earl Douglas gat therein.

-Sir Walter Scott

On this date in 1440, 10-year-old King James II of Scotland celebrated the Black Dinner and saw two Clan Douglas rivals sent straight to the block.

Scotland in the early 15th century was a fractious kingdom that was often governed by rivalrous regency councils ruling in the stead of absent or enfeebled kings. That was the case after the 1437 assassination of King James I passed the crown to his young son.

On these councils, the clan Douglas always swung a very large claymore. Elevated to the first rank of lowland families by their early support of Robert the Bruce a century before, the Earls of Douglas had become perhaps the realm’s preeminent noblemen — the sort of overweening powers-behind-the-throne that everyone starts thinking about how to topple. No surprise, James II’s regent was this very Earl of Douglas, Archibald Douglas — until the latter died in 1439 and passed the title to a young heir of his own.

Only about 16 years old, the new Earl, William Douglas, wasn’t exactly a child by the standards of the time. (He already had a wife.) But he was no match for the grizzled schemers he was pitted against among James II’s other guardians, Crichton and Livingston. These two perversely connived with William’s own uncle James to be rid of the whelp before he could grow into another overmighty Earl of Douglas.

This day’s infamous meal accomplished the plot.

Caledonia’s answer to the Red Wedding — and an actual inspiration for that literary slaughter in the Game of Thrones universe* — the Black Dinner of folklore is supposed to have featured both William and his little brother David naively accepting an invitation to Edinburgh Castle for noshes with the king.** Having left their own strongholds, they were vulnerable here.

After their feast on this date, it is said — though this excessive detail was undoubtedly concocted by generations of folklore — that a severed black bull’s head was plopped onto the table, to symbolize the imminent decapitation of the Douglas alpha males.† Then the Douglas lads were subjected to a mock trial as traitors and instantly dragged outside for beheading. That devious uncle James happily inherited as the seventh Earl of Douglas.‡

* The Massacre of Glencoe, another great Scottish bloodbath, also figures in the Red Wedding’s source material. “No matter how much I make up, there’s stuff in history that’s just as bad, or worse,” said Thrones author George R.R. Martin. Amen to that.

** Along with Sir Malcolm Fleming of Cumbernauld, who was seized along with the Douglas boys but seemingly only killed a few days later.

† Still, not as terrifying as a Thanksgiving Cthurkey.

‡ While the child king was more prop than participant in the events of the Black Dinner, he would have the privilege little more than a decade later of personally stabbing to death the eighth Earl of Douglas, James’s son William.

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1441: Roger Bolingbroke, “hanged, hedyd, and quartered”

Add comment November 18th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1441, the astrologer and mathematician Roger Bolingbroke was put to death as a wizard.

Bolingbroke had the ill luck to attach to the household of the Duchess of Gloucester at a juncture where it was politically convenient to destroy her; we have previously examined this affair through the person of Margery Jourdemayne, the Witch of Eye who with Roger Bolingbroke and a third man, Thomas Southwell, produced a horoscope for the Duchess prophesying King Henry VI‘s imminent demise — which was a bit on the nose for the king when he found out about it since at that moment the Duke of Gloucester would have stood to succeed him as king.

This exercise was nothing but an occult diversion, the medieval aristocracy’s equivalent of the Ouija board, but in the hands of enemies it became a treasonable plot for regicide. It forced the Duchess’s fall, divorce, and perpetual imprisonment — but what it forced for the commoners who scried the stars on her behalf was considerably worse. In the words of the Chronicle of London, Roger Bolingbroke

was taken for werchynge of sorcery ayens the king, and he was put into the Tour; and after, he was brought into Poules, and there he std up on high on a scaffold ageyn Poulys crosse on a Sonday, and there he was arraied like as he schulde never the in his garnementys, and there was honged rounde aboughte hym alle his intrumentis whiche were taken with hym, and so shewyd among all the peple; and after he was broughte to-fore the lordys, and there he was examyned; and after broughte to the Yeldehalle, and there he was regned aforen the lordes of the kynges counseill and to-fore alle the juges of this land; and anon after, the lady of Gloucestre afornseid was mad to apere thre sondry dayes afore the kyng and alle his lordes spirituell and temperell; and there she was examyned of diverses poyntes of wicchecraft, of the whiche she knowleched that she hadde used thorugh the counseil of the wicche of Eye, the whiche was brent on the even of Symond and Jude in Smythefeld.

In this yere my lady of Gloucestre hadde confessyd here wichecraft, as it is afornseid, she was yoyned be alle the spiritualte assent to penaunce, to comen to London fro Westminster on the Monday next suynge and londe at the Temple brigge out of here barge, and there openly barehede with a keverchef on hir hede, beryng a taper of wax of ii lb. in here hond, and went so thorugh Fletstrete on here foot and hoodless unto Poules, and there she offred up here taper at the high auter; and on the Wednesday nest suenge she com fro Westminster be barge, unto the Swan in Tempse strete, and there she londyd, and wente forthe on here feet thorugh Brigge strete, Graschirche strete, to the Ledenhalle, and so on Crichirche in the wyse aforensyd; and n Fryday she londed at Quen hithe, and so forth she wente into Chepe, and so to Seynt Mighell in Cornhull, in the forme aforenseid; and at iche of the tymes the mair with the schirreves and the craftes of London were redy at the places there she sholde londe:* and after, Roger the clerk aforenseyd, on the Satirday, that is to sey the xviii day of Novembre, was brought to the Yeldehalle, with sire John Hom prest, and William Wodham squyer, the whiche sir John and William hadden there chartres at that tyme; and the clerk was dampned, and the same day was drawe fro the Tour of London to Tiborn, and there hanged, hedyd, and quartered, and the heed sett upn Londn bregge; and his oo quarter at Hereford, another at Oxenford, another at York, and the fourthe at Cambregge; and the lady put in prison, and after sent to Chestre, there to byde whill she lyvyth.

* For present-day readers, this humiliating public penitential procession reminds of Cersei’s walk of atonement on Game of Thrones; however, the actual inspiration for this scene was the affair of a later 15th century Englishwoman, Jane Shore.

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1441: Margery Jourdemayne, the Witch of Eye

5 comments October 27th, 2014 Headsman

There was a Beldame called the wytch of Ey,
Old mother Madge her neyghbours did hir name
Which wrought wonders in countryes by heresaye
Both feendes and fayries her charmyng would obay
And dead corpsis from grave she could uprere
Suche an inchauntresse, as that tyme had no peere

On this date in 1441, a Westminster folk magician went to the stake.

The “Witch of Eye” had meddled with powers beyond her control — not the Satanic for which her sentence condemned her, but those of the royal court.

This local wise woman had been arrested as a sorceress once a number of years before. But medieval Europe, before the Reformation and Counter-Reformation and the attendant gloom of existential danger from within, was usually not eager to pursue a local shaman for serving a community’s demand for everyday magick — just so long as the charms and incantations purveyed were not being turned to any apparently injurious purpose. The Witch of Eye, Margery Jourdemayne by name, spent several months imprisoned in Windsor Castle and was released with a pledge to stop with the hocus-pocus.

In her fatal last affair this broken promise would augur very ill. But barring that extraordinary case, this was actually one of those little social regulations that could usually just be ignored in the breach. Our cowherd’s wife returned to purveying salves, potions, and elixirs, perhaps a bit more quietly.

Despite her humble rank, the Witch of Eye seems to have enjoyed a sizable client base among the great lords and ladies.

Such august persons of course had interests outside of love tonics. At the start of the 1440s, the royal court was absorbed by the affairs of the teenage king Henry VI.

In Late June of 1441, three servants of Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester were accused of compassing the death of the king by using astrological divination to forecast the date of his death — which looked especially treasonable since the result reported is supposed to have been soon.

Though a Peerress by marriage, Eleanor was only the daughter of a knight. A sort of proto-Anne Boleyn, she had raised herself (and not a few eyebrows) by starting off as a lady in waiting of the Duke’s previous wife, and (once dynastic machinations sent that Duchess packing for her native Low Countries) advancing herself into the master’s bed.

A cultivated humanist, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester gave every impression of having found a satisfying domestic union — but Eleanor’s social-climbing set her up for some resentment. It was even said by a chronicle, laying a retrospective interpretation on events, that only occult arts could account for Eleanor’s boudoir triumph:

And this same tyme was take a womman callid the wicche of Eye, whoos sorcerie and wicchecraft the said dame Alienore hadde longe tyme usid; and be suche medicines and drynkis as the said wicche made, the said Alienore enforced theforsaid duke of Gloucestre to love her and to wedde her.

The rank of the figures involved elevated such gossip beyond the court’s everyday palaver.

Humphrey had claimed the Regency for a brief period before Henry VI declared his own majority in 1437, at age 16. More than that, Humphrey was the most senior uncle to the unmarried* Henry, which made him the heir presumptive. He was a heartbeat away from having the crown on his own head.

And that made it a very colorable accusation that Eleanor’s servants — and those henchmen soon accused Eleanor herself, too — took interest in the prospective imminent death of a king in the springtime of his youth.**

Henry’s alarmed response was twofold. First, he commissioned a horoscope reading of his own; no surprise, this improved horoscope predicted a long, healthy life.† Second, he kicked off the judicial processes that would ruin all concerned — although some ruinations were more final than others.

The servants pointed the finger at Eleanor, and the Duchess desperately fled to the sanctuary of Westminster Abbey. This proved not to help her that much when an ecclesiastical court handed down charges of witchcraft and heresy. One of Eleanor’s three busted cronies, Roger Bolingbroke, had already been forced to publicly abjure his devilries amid a display of his necromancing tools.

Just as Bolingbroke claimed that “he wroughte the said nygromancie atte stiryng of the forsaid dame Alienore, to knowe what sholde falle of hir and to what astat she sholde come,” Eleanor implicated her old magic-vendor, the Witch of Eye for building some of the illicit charms. By now it was pratically beside the point that Eleanor said Bolingbroke’s damning wax figurines were meant to inflict children upon Eleanor rather than injury upon His Majesty. Margery Jourdemayne had shaped the wretched dolls, and nobody caught in the storm of charges had less pull than she. Plus, of course, she was now a repeat offender.

How she in waxe by counsel of the witch,
An image made, crowned like a king,
… which dayly they did pytch
Against a fyre, that as the wax did melt,
So should his life consume away unfelt.

Condemned by a court presided by the Archbishop of Canterbury, she was burned at Smithfield.

Two of the three courtiers died violently, too: Roger Bolingbroke was hanged, drawn, and quartered on November 18, while Thomas Southwell died suddenly in prison around the time of Jourdemayne’s execution. He might have poisoned himself. The third man, John Home, was only shown to have known what his fellows were up to and not to have taken part himself: he skated on a royal pardon.

The Duchess of Gloucester did well to confine her own juridical guilt to ecclesiastical charges only — heresy and witchcraft — and beat the much more dangerous treason charge that was leveled at her. (In another century, Britons would be much more used to the idea of executing elite nobility.) Her marriage was annulled (she procured it by witchcraft, remember?) and she was forced to perform a humiliating, Cersei Lannister-like‡ public penance on foot around Westminster and London before being shunted off into a forced and closely-watched retirement.


The Penance of Eleanor, by Edwin Austin Abbey (1900)

The scandal didn’t directly touch the Duke of Gloucester, but it essentially forced him out of public life. Six years later he was arrested for treason, but he died (possibly of a stroke, or possibly poison) within days.

The sensational fall of this household excited literary interlocutors almost before Margery Jourdemayne’s ashes were cold — such as this nearly-contemporary “Lament of the Duchess of Gloucester” which dwells on the titular character’s self-destruction by dint of her own vanity: “who wille be high, he shalle be low / the whele of fortune, who may it trow.”

The verses excerpted above in this post come from the following century’s “Mirror for Magistrates”, which makes use of historical figures who met terrible fates not unlike this very site. She might also have helped inspire a lost play from the late 16th or the 17th century.

Shakespeare too stages this entire affair in Henry VI, Part 2, representing Gloucester as an innocent tragically bearing the disaster his enemies visit on him through his wife.

In Act I, Scene 2, Eleanor arranges her divination — and we learn that her enemies are in the process of framing her.

Eleanor. While Gloucester bears this base and humble mind.
Were I a man, a duke, and next of blood,
I would remove these tedious stumbling-blocks
And smooth my way upon their headless necks;
And, being a woman, I will not be slack
To play my part in Fortune’s pageant.
Where are you there? Sir John! nay, fear not, man,
We are alone; here’s none but thee and I.

[Enter HUME]

Father John Hume. Jesus preserve your royal majesty!

Eleanor. What say’st thou? majesty! I am but grace.

Father John Hume. But, by the grace of God, and Hume’s advice,
Your grace’s title shall be multiplied.

Eleanor. What say’st thou, man? hast thou as yet conferr’d
With Margery Jourdain, the cunning witch,
With Roger Bolingbroke, the conjurer?
And will they undertake to do me good?

Father John Hume. This they have promised, to show your highness
A spirit raised from depth of under-ground,
That shall make answer to such questions
As by your grace shall be propounded him.

Eleanor. It is enough; I’ll think upon the questions:
When from St. Alban’s we do make return,
We’ll see these things effected to the full.
Here, Hume, take this reward; make merry, man,
With thy confederates in this weighty cause.

[Exit]

Father John Hume. Hume must make merry with the duchess’ gold;
Marry, and shall. But how now, Sir John Hume!
Seal up your lips, and give no words but mum:
The business asketh silent secrecy.
Dame Eleanor gives gold to bring the witch:
Gold cannot come amiss, were she a devil.
Yet have I gold flies from another coast;
I dare not say, from the rich cardinal
And from the great and new-made Duke of Suffolk,
Yet I do find it so; for to be plain,
They, knowing Dame Eleanor’s aspiring humour,
Have hired me to undermine the duchess
And buz these conjurations in her brain.
They say ‘A crafty knave does need no broker;’
Yet am I Suffolk and the cardinal’s broker.
Hume, if you take not heed, you shall go near
To call them both a pair of crafty knaves.
Well, so it stands; and thus, I fear, at last
Hume’s knavery will be the duchess’ wreck,
And her attainture will be Humphrey’s fall:
Sort how it will, I shall have gold for all.

In Act I, Scene 4, the enthusiasts summon a shade from the underworld and our day’s principal is favored with a few lines from the bard:

Margaret Jourdain. Asmath,
By the eternal God, whose name and power
Thou tremblest at, answer that I shall ask;
For, till thou speak, thou shalt not pass from hence.

But the entire party is arrested and Gloucester’s attempts to note the meaningless vagueness of the predictions supplied by the alleged demon are overruled abruptly.


The conjuration scene in Henry VI, Part 2, illustrated by John Opie.

In Act II, Scene 3 the Duke and Duchess are destroyed politically, and their hirelings destroyed bodily.

Henry VI. Stand forth, Dame Eleanor Cobham, Gloucester’s wife:
In sight of God and us, your guilt is great:
Receive the sentence of the law for sins
Such as by God’s book are adjudged to death.
You four, from hence to prison back again;
From thence unto the place of execution:
The witch in Smithfield shall be burn’d to ashes,
And you three shall be strangled on the gallows.
You, madam, for you are more nobly born,
Despoiled of your honour in your life,
Shall, after three days’ open penance done,
Live in your country here in banishment,
With Sir John Stanley, in the Isle of Man.

Eleanor. Welcome is banishment; welcome were my death.

Duke of Gloucester. Eleanor, the law, thou see’st, hath judged thee:
I cannot justify whom the law condemns.
[Exeunt DUCHESS and other prisoners, guarded]
Mine eyes are full of tears, my heart of grief.
Ah, Humphrey, this dishonour in thine age
Will bring thy head with sorrow to the ground!
I beseech your majesty, give me leave to go;
Sorrow would solace and mine age would ease.

Henry VI. Stay, Humphrey Duke of Gloucester: ere thou go,
Give up thy staff: Henry will to himself
Protector be; and God shall be my hope,
My stay, my guide and lantern to my feet:
And go in peace, Humphrey, no less beloved
Than when thou wert protector to thy King.

Queen Margaret. I see no reason why a king of years
Should be to be protected like a child.
God and King Henry govern England’s realm.
Give up your staff, sir, and the king his realm.

Duke of Gloucester. My staff? here, noble Henry, is my staff:
As willingly do I the same resign
As e’er thy father Henry made it mine;
And even as willingly at thy feet I leave it
As others would ambitiously receive it.
Farewell, good king: when I am dead and gone,
May honourable peace attend thy throne!

[Exit]

Queen Margaret. Why, now is Henry king, and Margaret queen;
And Humphrey Duke of Gloucester scarce himself,
That bears so shrewd a maim; two pulls at once;
His lady banish’d, and a limb lopp’d off.
This staff of honour raught, there let it stand
Where it best fits to be, in Henry’s hand.

Earl of Suffolk. Thus droops this lofty pine and hangs his sprays;
Thus Eleanor’s pride dies in her youngest days.

See also: Jessica Freeman, “Sorcery at Court and Manor: Margery Jourdemayne, the Witch of Eye Next Westminster,” Journal of Medieval History, vol. 30, pp. 343-357.

* Henry married Margaret of Anjou in 1445. Despite the Shakespeare portrayal, she had no part in the proceedings against Eleanor or the Witch of Eye.

** It has long been supposed that part or all of the real impetus for these charges was an opportunistic attack by the Duke’s political rivals, specifically around the question of making peace with France in the Hundred Years’ War. Gloucester, who fought at Agincourt (Shakespeare’s Henry V name-checks him in the great Crispin’s Day pre-battle oration), opposed the growing pro-peace faction.

† It did not predict that Henry would end up murdered in prison.

‡ Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin unquestionably mines historical atrocities for inspiration and the notorious Walk of Shame scene is no exception; however, the specific public penance he’s cited as the fountainhead for Cersei’s ritual humiliation was not Lady Gloucester’s, but a similar walk endured some years afterward by Edward IV mistress Jane Shore, for which affair we may digressively endorse this History of England podcast episode.


The Penance of Jane Shore, by William Blake (1780).

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1449: Ulugh Beg, astronomer prince

Add comment October 27th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1449, Timurid sultan and astronomer Ulugh Beg was beheaded at the order of his son.


Ulugh Beg and his famous astronomical observatory, depicted on a Soviet stamp.

Grandson of the conqueror Timur (Tamerlane), Ulugh Beg had hitched along on some of those legendary military campaigns.

As power passed to Ulugh Beg’s father Shah Rukh, our man settled in as governor of the silk road city of Samarkand, in modern Uzbekistan — and turned it into an intellectual capital of the empire.

A great patron of the sciences, Ulugh Beg was a brilliant astronomer in his own right, nailing NASA-quality precise calculations of heavenly bodies’ positions and the revolutions of the earth a century ahead of the likes of Copernicus.

An inscription on the madrasah he erected summed up the city’s philosophy under its philosopher-prince: “Pursuit of knowledge is the duty of each follower of Islam, man and woman.”

Wedding scientific genius to political power enabled Ulugh Beg to build a great observatory in Samarkand. Though this structure unfortunately did not outlive Ulugh Beg himself, it made Samarkand the world’s astronomical capital in the 1420s and 1430s.

But the flip side of wedding scientific genius to political power was that the guy had to govern — which wasn’t his strong suit. Within two years of his father’s 1447 death, Ulugh Beg had been overthrown by his own son* and summarily beheaded.

* The son became known as “Padarkush”, meaning “parricide” … and appropriately, he was overthrown by his own cousin within months.

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1440: Gilles de Rais, unholy

Add comment October 26th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1440, the wealthiest man in France, a noble who had once fought under Joan of Arc‘s banner, was hanged for an outlandishly demonic crime spree.


This dashing Gilles opposite Milla Jovovich in The Messenger; you’d never think he would sodomize hundreds of children.

Rivaling Hungarian blood-bather Erzsebet Bathory for the reputation of most bewitchingly depraved aristocratic sex-killer of early modern Europe, Gilles de Rais (or de Retz) hanged for abducting numberless legions of anonymous young commoners (boys, mostly) for rape and murder.

It’s a rap sheet trebly astounding given that a decade before, de Rais’s reputation for posterity would have figured to be his role as Saint Joan’s chief lieutenant when she raised the siege of Orleans, culminating with elevation to the rank of Marshall of France on the very day Charles VII was crowned in Reims. Talk about a fall from grace.

A 1440 investigation triggered by de Rais’s attack on a priest during an intra-aristocracy dispute turned up a Gacy‘s floorboards’ worth of Nantes-area kids allegedly disappeared into the Marechal’s creepy castle. Remarkably detailed trial records preserve a heartbreaking cavalcade of parents who entrusted their children to de Rais’s service or just sent them out one morning never to be heard from again. “It is notorious,” one added, “that infants are murdered in the said chateau.” (Many of these depositions and other original trial records can be read here.)

His servants and co-deviants Henriet and Pouitou admitted the most shocking stuff —

that de Rais then raped [the typical captive] as he was hanged from a hook by the neck. Before the child died, Gilles took him down, comforted him, repeated the act and either killed him himself or had him slain.

Poitou testified that the child victims were murdered sometimes by decapitating them, sometimes by cutting their throats, sometimes by dismembering them, sometimes by breaking their necks with a stick …

Gilles de Rais rarely left a child alive for more than one evening’s pleasure, Poitou claimed.

Now, it needs to be said that the servants were induced to these confessions by the threat of physical harm — and that when de Rais reversed his own denials he had likewise been menaced with torture. Nobody had been tortured, mind. But they had been given to understand that they would be corroborating the witnesses with self-incriminating statments, and we can do this the easy way or the hard way. In a world without dispositive forensics, confessions were the evidentiary gold standard … and torturing to obtain them was standard operating procedure.

It’s for that reason that there has also long persisted a revisionist thesis that de Rais was actually innocent, framed up by elite rivals who cannibalized the man’s estates. A 1992 “rehabilitation tribunal” re-tried the affair, and returned an acquittal.

Arguably, the populace — font of all those damning accusations — did likewise on the day de Rais hanged with his two servants. A crowd one might expect to be frenzied with rage actually sympathized with the doomed noble, even rescuing his hanged body from the fire. A monument his daughter put up became an unsanctioned popular pilgrimage site until it was destroyed during the French Revolution.

Whether as fact or fable, there’s something gorgeously baroque about de Rais’s dungeon mastering — especially when considered vis-a-vis his historical casting call opposite the abstemious Maid.

As a text for our latter-day edification, de Rais appears a carnivore devoured by his own appetites (and not only sexual: he also blew through the gargantuan family fortune). Reduced from hero to beast, he’s almost a literal werewolf or vampire; he’s often cast as such in video games and the like.

And he transfixes us because he personifies this uncanny bridge from the atomized digital age with its iconic serial killers, alone and psychologically deconstructed, back into the medieval — feudal, irrational, communal, violent and physical but also suffused with an omnipresent alien-to-us paranormal spirit world. It is enough to glance to experience the pull of the abyss gazing back.

Sabine Baring-Gould anticipated the modern afterlife of Gilles de Rais in the mid-19th century Book of Were-Wolves — which incorporated an extended account of de Rais’s trial into a wider narrative of folklore shapeshifting.

De Rais himself shapeshifts even within the brief arc of his dramatic trial: from indignant defendant into contrite supplicant, every drop sincere so far as one can perceive. His very prosecutors, indeed his very victims, wept for the fallen Marechal, and the “monster” reversed with this display his excommunication. (This may have been the part of the punishment de Rais feared most: again, we encounter the alien cosmology.)

“Nothing seems to me to be more beautiful –- and farthest away from our mentality of today — than the crowd of parents of the victims praying for this soul’s salvation,” one modern observed. “That is spiritual nobility.”

Agonizing ecstacist Georges Bataille wrote a whole book about de Rais, characteristically taken by the intersection of repugnance and transcendence. For Bataille, Christianity even reconciles our prisoner’s stupendous villainy with his unfeigned anticipation of spiritual salvation that “ultimately summarize the Christian situation.”

“Perhaps,” Bataille mused, “Christianity is even fundamentally the pressing demand for crime, the demand for the horror that in a sense it needs in order to forgive.”

A Few Books About Gilles de Rais

There are also several free public-domain books, such as Bluebeard: an account of Comorre the cursed and Gilles de Rais, with summaries of various tales and traditions and (already alluded to, the one with the original trial documents) Blue-beard, a contribution to history and folk-lore. Gilles de Rais is popularly, though I think not very persuasively, believed to have helped inspire the “Bluebeard” legend of the murderous aristocrat.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Hanged,History,Homosexuals,Infamous,Murder,Nobility,Public Executions,Rape,Scandal,Serial Killers,Sex,Soldiers,Torture,Wrongful Executions

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1441: Corrado Trinci, Lord of Foligno

1 comment June 14th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1441, Corrado Trinci was executed in Foligno.

Once the hereditary lord of that venerable town,* Trinci (English Wikipedia page | Italian), had turned tetchy with his Guelph family’s onetime papal patrons and suffered the consequences.

As the proper captain of an Italian city-state in the 15th century, Trinci had taken a few spins around the wheel of fortune in battle with his neighbors. He kicked off his reign in operatically sanguinary style when a neighboring town‘s castellan murdered Trinci’s brothers, suspecting one of them of adultery with his wife. Trinci revenged himself by sacking Nocera Umbra, which still holds a civic relay race (Italian link) commemorating the occasion.

Trinci didn’t fare as well when it came to picking on someone his own size.

For the next generation, Trinci would do the Machiavellian dance characteristic of his time and station — by turns allied with, at war with, or plotting with the papacy, Condottiero Francesco Sforza, the archbishop of Florence, and miscellaneous other peninsular neighbors and rivals. He was down. He was back up. He was beaten. He fought back. Etc.

Trinci pushed the wheel of fortune one turn too far by rebelling (again) against papal authority in the mid-1430s. His march on the Vatican-controlled Duchy of Spoleto was an initial success —

Corrado brought to Foligno four hundred youths of Spoleto, the standard of Spoleto, the chains, the locks from the city gates, the seal, and the clapper from the great bell of the commune.

Durante Dorio, as quoted and translated by Sergio Bertelli

That was in 1436. By 1439, Foligno itself (with Trinci inside it) had capitulated to a papal siege. Spoleto really wanted its clapper back.

Trinci was imprisoned with his family, and after a couple years’ languishing, put to death on this date. While both the English and Italian Wikipedia entries currently assert that he was strangled, the principal source for this gentleman’s biography, the freely-available Istoria della Famiglia Trinci by Durante Dorio, flatly asserts that the washed-up brawler was dispatched by decapitato.

By whatever method Corrado laid down his life, he retired with it not only the fame of his family but its Lordship of Foligno. The title fell extinct: Foligno became part of the Papal States and remain so right up to Italy’s 19th century unification.

* When next in central Italy, be sure to visit the lovely Palazzo Trinci. Corrado commissioned the Ottaviano Nelli frescoes in the chapel.


(cc) image from http://www.flickr.com/photos/bramhall/3566795885/

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,Italy,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Papal States,Politicians,Power,Soldiers,Strangled

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