1450: Jack Cade posthumously quartered

Add comment July 16th, 2017 Headsman

On or around this date in 1450 the body of the rebel Jack Cade was posthumously beheaded and quartered.

He’s one of England’s first names in rebellion, and Cade’s Kentish rising indexed England’s catastrophic breakdown under the weak king Henry VI, a milepost between the waning Hundred Years’ War and the onrushing Wars of the Roses.


Panel of a 1964-1965 ceramic mural in Peckham, by Polish artist Adam Kossowski. (cc) image from Peter Gasston.

And for all of these, Cade included, Henry was the chaos-making variable.

He had just about finished squandering the entire French patrimony so gloriously won for him by the sword-arm of his doughty father Henry V, and defeated troops fleeing French advances in Normandy compounded, as they tramped up the southeast beaten and looting, the general fury at the king’s unpopular marriage to the French princess Margaret of Anjou. With shambolic governance allied to a slumping economy, corrupt taxation, and mounting public debt, things were coming unglued.

Like many kings, Henry benefited from the instinct to target overt blame away from the sovereign himself and towards the aides and counselors who surround him. One of the very most hated of those counselors was the man who had negotiated that French marriage — giving away to the French crown the hard-won provinces of Anjou and Maine as its price. William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, was so near to being attainted or lynched around London that King Henry exiled him for his own safety to France. But Suffolk didn’t make there: instead, he was captured at sea and murdered.

When his body washed up in Kent, rumors seem to have anticipated a royal reprisal against that region and in favor of the late hated favorite, perhaps the trigger for the events in this post.

Nevertheless, the “rebels” did not conceive themselves engaged in a seditious enterprise; this is apparent from the manifesto of grievances it issued, with moderating tones and language echoing complaints that the Commons was raising to no avail in Parliament.

Item. The law serves of nought else in these days but for to do wrong, for nothing is spread almost but false matters by colour of the law for reward, dread and favour and so no remedy is had in the Court of Equity in any way.

Item. We say our sovereign lord may understand that his false council has lost his law, his merchandise is lost, his common people is destroyed, the sea is lost, France is lost, the king himself is so set that he may not pay for his meat nor drink, and he owes more than ever any King of England ought, for daily his traitors about him where anything should come to him by his laws, anon they take it from him.

Item. We will that all men know we blame not all the lords, nor all those that are about the king’s person, nor all gentlemen nor yeomen, nor all men of law, nor all bishops, nor all priests, but all such as may be found guilty by just and true inquiry and by the law.

Item. We will that it be known we will not rob, nor plunder, nor steal, but that these defaults be amended, and then we will go home …

The man at the forefront is a cipher: he went by the potent alias of “John Mortimer”, the surname unmistakably linking his cause to the rival royal claimants over at the the House of York, but neither the name of “Jack Cade” by which history recalls his movement nor the antecedent experiences that thrust him into leadership can be attested with any confidence.

He appears by the half-glimpses we catch of him in the period’s chronicles to be a vigorous and intelligent character. He shied away from battle with a royal army, wisely avoiding the taint of treason that would come with entering the field against the king’s own person; but, it was an organized withdrawal that left his forces capable of ambushing and destroying the detachment from that army that the king had sent to pursue them, a testament to Cade/Mortimer’s adroit command.

Panicked when the news of this reversal resulted in his own forces taking up the rebels’ call to punish traitorous lords, King Henry beat feet for the safety of Kenilworth Castle and abandoned the stage of London to this mysterious new character.

The rebel militia seized it on the third of July that year, visiting its promised popular justice in the process upon several of those “false counsellors” detested among the populace — including the Bishop of Salisbury, the Baron Saye and Sele, and the former sheriff of Kent, William Cromer; Shakespeare gives us a bloody-minded* Cade bantering with his prey Saye and Sele in Henry VI, Part 2 — “Ye shall have a hempen caudle, then, and the help of hatchet … Go, take him away, I say, and strike off his head presently; and then break into his son-in-law’s house, Sir James [sic] Cromer, and strike off his head, and bring them both upon two poles hither.”


Charles Lucy, “Lord Saye and Sele brought before Jack Cade 4th July 1450″

Peasant risings like these are made for eventual failure, but it the unusually high water mark achieved by Cade’s rebellion before receding makes another measure of the crown’s weakness. After ceding the Kentishmen the run of London for several days, it took a desperate nighttime battle on London Bridge to finally push them out.

A general amnesty went abroad to induce the rebels to disperse, but it was not for Cade — who fled to Sussex where he was taken, and mortally wounded in the process, by the new sheriff of Kent, Alexander Iden. (A road called Cade Street now runs in the vicinity; there is a monument to his capture in Heathfield.) It was Cade’s good fortune to succumb to his injuries on the journey back to London but the pains of justice were inflicted upon his remains just the same.

Cade died on Sunday, July 12. The precise date for his posthumous disgrace is not certain from the sources available to us. Many writers report July 15, seemingly based on John Benet’s chronicle, which is a strong source and asserts the 15th unambiguously. I’m here guardedly preferring the 16th based on Gregory’s Chronicle, whose authors were clearly Londoners, and who narrated the progress of the week following Cade’s death with specificity.

And that day was that fals traytoure the Captayne of Kentte i-take and slayne in the Welde in the countre of Sowsex, and uppon the morowe he was brought in a carre alle nakyd, and at the Herte in Sowetheworke there the carre was made stonde stylle, the wyffe of the howse myght se hym yf hyt were the same man or no that was namyd the Captayne of Kente, for he was loggyd whythe yn hyr howse in hys pevys tyme of hys mys rewylle and rysynge. And thenne he was hadde in to the Kyngys Bynche, and there he lay from Monday at evyn [i.e., Monday, July 13] unto the Thursseday nexte folowynge at evyn [Thursday, July 16]; and whythe yn the Kynges Benche the sayde captayne was be-heddyde and quarteryde; and the same day i-d[r]awe a-pon a hyrdylle in pecys whythe the hedde by-twyne hys breste from the Kyngys Benche thoroughe owte Sowthewerke, and thenne ovyr Londyn Brygge, and thenne thoroughe London unto Newegate, and thenne hys hedde was takyn and sette uppon London Brygge.

Cade’s is the rebellion that gets the ink, but several other uprisings in the South of England followed in the months ahead … ill omen for the king who would soon experience the ruin of his reign and family.

The History of England podcast covers Jack Cade’s rebellion in Episode 161.

* It is one of Cade’s subalterns in this play who supplies posterity with the immortal quip, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

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1453: The garrison of Poucques, Jacques de Lalaing’s cannonball killers

Add comment July 5th, 2016 Headsman

On or about this date* in 1453, the Burgundians captured the fortress of Poucques (Poeke) during the revolt of Ghent, and put its entire garrison to summary death.

It was merely one of the appetizers the Burgundians had to chew off en route to devouring the main course at the Battle of Gavere, where the revolt was decisively crushed.**

While the battle itself was a footnote — sorry, slaughtered garrison! — it’s remembered for claiming the life of the Burgundian lord Jacques de Lalaing (English Wikipedia entry | French) — the Michael Jordan of 15th century tournament combat, “le chevalier sans reproche.”

About 32 at his death, the “Bon Chevalier” was a member of the prestigious (and still-extant) Order of the Golden Fleece on the strength of a remarkable 1440s ramble around European where he would theatrically stage combats with local knights and never fail to win them. Celebrity and emoluments followed in their turn.

“Above all else, he knew the business of arms,” sighs a chronicle detailing his feats, and on its evidence it would be difficult to disagree.

He achieved his fame besting great champions in Aragon, Castile, Scotland, and Flanders, then set up a pas d’armes — the Monty Python-esque open challenge/invitation to battle all comers who dared him at a set location. In Jacques’s case the challenge lasted a full year at a statue of a weeping woman from which our pugilist derived the brand the Passage of the Fountain of Tears.

These were not intended to be fatal bouts but they featured expert fighters with real weapons so life and limb certainly stood in peril; occasionally our protagonist even deliberately courted danger by suiting up in only partial armor. Some challengers managed to emerge with a satisfying draw, but none could defeat him. At his last tournament in 1452, he even jousted the young future Duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold. (There’s an enjoyable detailed recap of Jacques’s career here.)

As this warrior par excellence was simultaneously noted for the perfection of his outside-of-armor knightly conduct — fidelity, generosity, piety, swooning ladies — Jacques de Lalaing had a fair claim on his contemporaries’ admiration as the very apex of the age of chivalry.

And his own fate poignantly embodied that of his era.

Studying the Burgundian court to which our Walloon nobleman adhered when not doing his gladiator road show, Dutch historian Johan Huizinga reckoned this 15th century the “autumn of the middle ages” — a decadence flowering in decay.

“This hero-worship of the declining Middle Ages finds its literary expression in the biography of the perfect knight,” Huizinga wrote — like our Jacques de Lalaing, “that anachronistic knight-errant” of “fantastic and useless projects.”

The realities of court life or a military career offered too little opportunity for the fine make-belief of heroism and love, which filled the soul. So they had to be acted. The staging of the tournament, therefore, had to be that of romance; that is to say, the imaginary world of Arthur,† where the fancy of a fairy-tale was enhanced by the sentimentality of courtly love.

A Passage of Arms of the fifteenth century is based on a fictitious case of chivalrous adventure, connected with an artificial scene called by a romantic name, as, for instance, the Fountain of Tears or the Tree of Charlemagne. [the latter was another famous pas d’armes defended in 1443 by another Burgundian knight, Pierre de Bauffremont -ed.] … There is an unmistakable connection between these primitive forms of warlike and erotic sport and the children’s play of forfeits. One of the rules of the “Chapters” of the Fountain of Tears runs thus: he who, in a combat, is unhorsed, will during a year wear a gold bracelet, until he finds the lady who holds the key to it and who can free him, on condition that he shall serve her.

Jacques de Lalaing and his ritual delights came to a savage end at the siege of Poucques when he had the apt misfortune to be struck by a ball from a defending veuglaire. The romantic master of the lists thereby became one of the first European elites slain by a cannon: for a junction to modernity one could do a lot worse than this moment.‡

The untimely end of Jacques happens to have hit the news in recent months when the Getty Museum acquired a precious Renaissance manuscript illustration of the event by Simon Bening, never previously exhibited.

In this extraordinarily bright and detailed miniature, our courteous doomed glances upward at the citadel, forming a sharp compositional diagonal with the fatal cannonball speeding towards him … and the fiery plume belched by the chivalry-smashing device that has hurled it.


Detail view (click for the full image) of the Bening miniature.

* The precise date on which this minor siege concluded is elusive and perhaps ambiguous; I’m basing Executed Today‘s dating on the July 13, 1453 correspondence in this archive reporting that “Poucques est tombée en son pouvoir le 5 courant; qu’il a fait démanteler ce deux places fortes et livrer au dernier supplice leurs défenseurs.”

** Maybe so, but Ghent is still with us today whereas independent Burgundy would vanish within 30 years.

† The late 15th century also gives us the apotheosis of the Arthurian legend, Le Morte d’Arthur.

‡ Periodization fans should note that 1453 also marks the Ottoman capture of Constantinople.

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1455: Kunz von Kauffungen, Altenburg Prince-Robber

Add comment July 14th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1455, the German knight Kunz von Kauffungen was beheaded at the Freiberg marketplace for the trifling offense of kidnapping a couple of Saxon princes.

Kunz von Kauffungen (English Wikipedia link | German) fought on the side of Frederick II, Elector of Saxony in the colorfully christened Saxon Fratricidal War. That’s no ornamental prose: it was literally a war between siblings, namely the aforesaid Frederick and his little brother William III, Landgrave of Thuringia.*

While captaining a unit for Frederick, Kunz had his lands ravaged by William’s guys; eventually he even got outright captured and had to spring for a crippling 4,000-florin ransom.

The warring brothers settled things in 1451, but Kunz found to his fury that his postwar meaningful ahems around the Elector of Saxony did not meet with any compensation reciprocating the fortune ruined in the Elector’s service. (During the war Kunz had been given some captured property of one of William’s supporters, but the terms of the peace reverted everything to its original owner.)

Kunz skulked, and sued, and eventually Frederick flat-out banished him. But his grievance was never met, and in that day German nobles felt themselves entitled to force redress via feuds and private wars entirely alien to our post-Westphalian states.

Kunz’s personal contribution to the annals of noble vendetta was the Altenburg Prinzenraub — the Altenburg Prince-Robbery, which consisted of, well, robbing Frederick of his two sons Ernest** and Albert.

On the night of July 7-8, 1455, Kunz and his retainers snatched the two boys, aged 14 and 11 respectively, from Altenburg. The kidnapping went pear-shaped almost immediately: starting for Bohemia on the 8th, Kunz was captured by some concerned citizen or other, liberating Albert. Various legends make it monks, villagers, or a heroic collier.

His buddies took Ernest to an abandoned medieval mine shaft, today known as the “Prince Cave”. After holing up three days — and catching the news of Kunz’s ignominiously easy capture — this party arranged to turn Ernest back over in exchange for an amnesty, and scuttled away.

Kunz, of course, was not so lucky. A black paving-stone in Freiburg is said to mark the spot where his severed head came to rest on the 14th of July, 1455.

* Data point for the nature vs. nurture debate: the father of Frederick and William was known as Frederick the Belligerent or Frederick the Warlike.

** This is the “Ernest” referenced by the the Ernestine line — a lineage ancestor to present-day royal families of Belgium and Great Britain.

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1459: Pietro di Campofregoso, former Doge of Genoa, stoned to death

Add comment September 14th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1459, the former Doge of Genoa Pietro di Campfregoso was stoned to death by his city’s enraged populace.

This Pietro (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) succeeded his cousin to the merchant oligarchy’s head in 1450. Genoa resided in a crab-bucket of rival peninsular and Mediterranean powers, and Pietro was distinctly out-scuttled in the 1450s.

Genoa unsuccessfully supported the Byzantine Empire when it was decisively conquered by the rising Ottomans in 1453, and the Genoans found themselves consequently rousted from a number of Aegean and Black Sea possessions. Meanwhile, fickle Italian fortune brought Neapolitan troops to the walls of Genoa and eventually forced Pietro to submit to a humiliating French protectorate under Charles VII.*

By this point, Genoa was also in the sights of Francesco Sforza, and when Pietro had to abdicate and blow town he went to the protection of the the great condottiero in Milan. There he joined a Sforza-backed plot to pull Genoa out of the French orbit and into that of the Duke of Milan, which coup utterly failed and got Pietro di Campofregoso lynched/murdered/summarily put to death near the Porta Soprana.

If only he’d been able to avoid that fate, he would have seen the plot come to fruition: when the French-supported Duke of Calabria left Genoa to attempt to re-establish his family’s foothold in Naples, Sforza’s agents got hold of the city and installed yet another Fregoso cousin, Spinetta, as the Milanese puppet.

The Campofregosos (or simply Fregosos) were far from finished with their misadventures in power. Pietro’s predecessor and kinsman Lodovico found his way back into office after Spinetta, but in 1462 the Genoan archbishop Paolo Fregoso (also kin!) arrested the sitting doge, and replaced him in office with his own self. Paolo was doge briefly in 1462, and again 1463-64, and then once again in the 1480s, being repeatedly deposed and exiled in between shifts.

* That’s the king at the end of his life whom Joan of Arc rallied to when he was a mere dauphin.

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1457: The Wallachian boyars

2 comments April 17th, 2011 Headsman

This date was Easter Sunday in 1457, which would make it the date associated with one of the more memorable displays of theatrical brutality by Wallachian proto-vampire Vlad Tepes, aka Vlad Dracula or Vlad the Impaler.

Having only just ascended the less-than-secure throne of Wallachia, a frontier principality pinched between the Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, the 25-ish prince and onetime Ottoman hostage had a bone-chilling inauguration plan to shore up his security both internal and external.

He threw a big party in Targoviste for the nobles of the realm … and had a little surprise waiting for them. It wasn’t an Easter egg hunt.

He asked the assembled noblemen:
“How many princes have you known?”
The latter answered
Each as much as he knew best.
One believed that there had been thirty,
Another twenty.
Even the youngest thought there had been seven.
After having answered this question
As I have just sung it,
Dracula said: “Tell me,
How do you explain the fact
That you have had so many princes
In your land?
The guilt is entirely due to your shameful intrigues.”

With ample proof of the boyars’ deceit and treacherous intents, Dracula decided it was timely to inflict upon them an exemplary punishment … mass impalement …

The oldest Romanian historical chronicle records the event two centuries later. It had taken place in the spring of 1457, during the Easter celebrations that the boyars were attending at the palace … “when Eastern Day came, while all the citizens were feasting and the young ones were dancing he [Dracula] surrounded them [the boyars] … led them together with their wives and children, just as they were dressed up for Easter, to Poenari, where they were put to work until their clothes were torn and they were left naked.” In actual fact, this episode, which is also recalled by the Greek historian Chalcondyles and firmly anchored in popular folklore, involved some two hundred boyars and their wives, as well as leading citizens of Tirgoviste … They were seized by Dracula’s men as they were finishing their meal in the main banqueting hall of the palace, following the elaborate Easter ritual at the Paraclete Chapel. In Dracula’s ingenious mind, one aspect of the punishment had a utilitarian purpose: the reconstruction of the famous castle high up on the Arges … On the way out of the chapel the old boyars and their wives were apprehended by Dracula’s henchmen and impaled beyond the city walls. The young and able-bodied were manacled and chained to each other and then marched northward under the vigilant eye of Dracula’s men.

This was revenge a decade in the making for the boyar class having toppled Vlad’s father and murdered Vlad’s elder brother in 1447.

But personal score-settling aside, Vlad’s sanguinary housekeeping had a statecraft dimension as well. It enabled him to centralize power in his own person, and had the happy side effect of speeding creation of a secure mountain fastness — Poenari Castle, which is one of several structures answering to the lucrative name of Castle Dracula.

While Vlad is (in)famous for his iron fist (and well-oiled spikes), it’s perhaps harder to say with confidence how much good this slaughter did him. Wallachia’s security situation was fundamentally defined by its neighbors no matter how cruel Vlad Tepes might be.

Vlad got some more impaling under his belt defending his country from Ottoman invaders (you’ll be shocked to learn that many boyars were more than happy to help the sultan get rid of this tyrant), but he was clapped in prison by the Hungarian ruler Matthias Hunyadi in 1462, lived most of the rest of his life in exile, and then died in battle attempting a Wallachian comeback in 1476. So basically, he got a few good years in … plus that whole latter-day afterlife he enjoys as tourist magnet, alleged literary inspiration, and nationalist icon.

And that’s more than one can say for most of the 15th century rulers who weren’t impaling their boyars.

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1453: Çandarli Halil Pasha, after the fall of Constantinople

5 comments June 1st, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1453, Ottoman Grand Vizier Çandarli Halil Pasha (or Chandarly) was put to death, the first time anyone holding that office had suffered such a fate.

In Istanbul, Halil Pasha tower — part of the siegeworks used to take Constantinople — overlooks Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge, named for the man who ordered Halil Pasha’s death.

It was a stunning fall for the man who had presented himself in the sultan’s council just six days before to argue for discontinuing the seven-week-old Ottoman siege of Byzantine Constantinople.

This siege would succeed, on May 29, in conquering the second Rome, and it may have been Halil Pasha‘s longstanding opposition to this project so glorious for the rising Ottomans that cost him his life.

Or, something else; we are obliged to speculate. Other possible factors include:

  • Halil Pasha’s enormous personal wealth, which made his family both a potential rival and a source of confiscated revenues badly needed by the state.

  • Personal rivalry with the sultan now known as Mehmed the Conqueror, whom Halil Pasha had deposed in the former’s childhood in favor of his retired father when exigencies of state required a more experienced hand.
  • A generation gap with the sultan’s younger advisors. Both Ottoman and Christian sources recorded charges that he was in league with Byzantium’s defenders; even if not true in a literally treasonous sense, the veteran statesman had relationships with Christians through Constantinople and (as evidenced by his opposition to the siege) likely had more to lose than to gain from Mehmed’s aggressive foreign policy.

Especially in the last respect, Chandarly Halil Pasha’s death turned over a leaf in Europe’s complex relationship with the rising Turks. And among those inclined to view a clash of civilizations between the Christian and Muslim worlds, the May 29, 1453 Ottoman conquest of Constantinople rates as a day just as weighty for the fate of the world as for that of Halil Pasha himself.

A highly recommended digression: Lars Brownworth’s coverage in the 12 Byzantine Rulers podcast of that empire’s last ruler, Constantine XI — who died with his boots on the day Constantinople fell, “the empire as his winding-cloth.”

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1450: William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk

2 comments May 2nd, 2009 Headsman

Henry VI, Part 2 — Act IV, Scene 1

The Coast of Kent.

[Alarum. Fight at sea. Ordnance goes off. Enter a Captain, a Master, a Master’s Mate, WALTER WHITMORE, and others; with them SUFFOLK, and others, prisoners.]

SUFFOLK.
Obscure and lowly swain, King Henry‘s blood,
The honourable blood of Lancaster,1
Must not be shed by such a jaded groom.
Hast thou not kiss’d thy hand and held my stirrup?
Bare-headed plodded by my foot-cloth mule
And thought thee happy when I shook my head?
How often hast thou waited at my cup,
Fed from my trencher, kneel’d down at the board,
When I have feasted with Queen Margaret?2
Remember it and let it make thee crest-fallen,
Ay, and allay thus thy abortive pride,
How in our voiding lobby hast thou stood
And duly waited for my coming forth.
This hand of mine hath writ in thy behalf,
And therefore shall it charm thy riotous tongue.

WHITMORE.
Speak, captain, shall I stab the forlorn swain?

CAPTAIN.
First let my words stab him, as he hath me.

SUFFOLK.
Base slave, thy words are blunt and so art thou.

CAPTAIN.
Convey him hence, and on our long-boat’s side
Strike off his head.

SUFFOLK.
Thou dar’st not, for thy own.

CAPTAIN.
Yes, Pole!

SUFFOLK.
Pole!

CAPTAIN.
Pool! Sir Pool! lord!
Ay, kennel, puddle, sink, whose filth and dirt
Troubles the silver spring where England drinks.
Now will I dam up this thy yawning mouth
For swallowing the treasure of the realm;3
Thy lips that kiss’d the queen shall sweep the ground;
And thou that smil’dst at good Duke Humphrey‘s death4
Against the senseless winds shalt grin in vain,
Who in contempt shall hiss at thee again.
And wedded be thou to the hags of hell,
For daring to affy a mighty lord
Unto the daughter of a worthless king,
Having neither subject, wealth, nor diadem.
By devilish policy art thou grown great
And, like ambitious Sylla, overgorg’d
With gobbets of thy mother’s bleeding heart.
By thee Anjou and Maine were sold to France,
The false revolting Normans thorough thee
Disdain to call us lord, and Picardy
Hath slain their governors, surpris’d our forts,
And sent the ragged soldiers wounded home.5
The princely Warwick, and the Nevils all,
Whose dreadful swords were never drawn in vain,
As hating thee are rising up in arms;
And now the house of York, thrust from the crown
By shameful murther of a guiltless king6
And lofty proud encroaching tyranny,
Burns with revenging fire, whose hopeful colours
Advance our half-fac’d sun, striving to shine,
Under the which is writ ‘Invitis nubibus.’
The commons here in Kent are up in arms;7
And, to conclude, reproach and beggary
Is crept into the palace of our king,
And all by thee.–Away! convey him hence.

SUFFOLK.
O that I were a god, to shoot forth thunder
Upon these paltry, servile, abject drudges!
Small things make base men proud; this villain here,
Being captain of a pinnace, threatens more
Than Bargulus the strong Illyrian pirate.8
Drones suck not eagles’ blood but rob bee-hives.
It is impossible that I should die
By such a lowly vassal as thyself.
Thy words move rage and not remorse in me.
I go of message from the queen to France;
I charge thee waft me safely cross the Channel.9

CAPTAIN.
Walter,–

WHITMORE.
Come, Suffolk, I must waft thee to thy death.

SUFFOLK.
Gelidus timor occupat artus; it is thee I fear.

WHITMORE.
Thou shalt have cause to fear before I leave thee.
What, are ye daunted now? now will ye stoop?

1 GENTLEMAN.
My gracious lord, entreat him, speak him fair.

SUFFOLK.
Suffolk’s imperial tongue is stern and rough,
Us’d to command, untaught to plead for favour.
Far be it we should honour such as these
With humble suit; no, rather let my head
Stoop to the block than these knees bow to any
Save to the God of heaven and to my king,
And sooner dance upon a bloody pole
Than stand uncover’d to the vulgar groom.
True nobility is exempt from fear;
More can I bear than you dare execute.

CAPTAIN.
Hale him away, and let him talk no more.

SUFFOLK.
Come, soldiers, show what cruelty ye can,
That this my death may never be forgot!
Great men oft die by vile bezonians:
A Roman sworder and banditto slave
Murther’d sweet Tully; Brutus’ bastard hand
Stabb’d Julius Caesar; savage islanders
Pompey the Great; and Suffolk dies by pirates.10

1 Shakespeare brackets Suffolk clearly into the political faction that would become the winning contestant in the War of the Roses and give rise to the Tudor dynasty that ruled England at the time of the play’s writing. Suffolk’s key ally, Somerset, was slain in 1455 at the first battle of the generation-long conflict.

2 Margaret of Anjou was wed to the feebleminded King Henry VI by William de la Pole’s offices. Shakespeare portrays Suffolk and Margaret as maybe a little too close. When Suffolk’s head is posthumously retrieved for her, she laments,

… who can cease to weep and look on this?
Here may his head lie on my throbbing breast;
But where’s the body that I should embrace?

3 William de la Pole had a serious popularity problem, on several scores (as we shall see). Endemic corruption that had dissipated the wealth of the crown during Henry VI’s reign was among the most explosive, and laid at his door because of his proximity to power (and because Suffolk had not failed to exploit the revenue opportunities afforded by his position).

4 Another grievance: Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, the popular uncle to the king and onetime Lord Protector, had been arrested for treason at the Suffolk-Beaufort faction’s instigation in 1447. He died shortly thereafter, which naturally gave rise to suspicions of assassination.

5 Perhaps most damaging of all for Suffolk, England’s foothold in northern France from which it had maintained itself during the Hundred Years’ War preceding, had suddenly collapsed in the 1440s. Maine was handed directly over to Charles VII — the price, critics charged, of the king’s marriage to Anjou. Then an ill-advised offensive had invited a French counterattack that rousted the English from Normandy and brought furious domestic recriminations for the debacle.

Incidentally, as a younger man, this day’s victim had been one of the commanders besieging Orleans when Joan of Arc famously relieved the city. He was captured by the Maid shortly thereafter, and eventually ransomed.

6 Again, a clear identification of the the factions taking shape for the Wars of the Roses. Richard, Duke of York, the standard-bearer of (obviously) the Yorkist cause in the coming conflict, had been Suffolk’s main rival at court, and is a key suspect in engineering Suffolk’s death. The guiltless king referred to is Richard II, overthrown a half-century before by Henry Bolingbroke which gave rise to the competing claims of legitimacy that would color the York-Lancaster contest.

7 Weeks after Suffolk’s death, Jack Cade’s rebellion erupted in Kent, an infamous affair whose dubious connection to York was great fodder for Tudor propaganda like, well, Henry VI, Part 2. Be that as it may, the Bard placed one of his immortal lines in the mouth of one of Cade’s peasants:

The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.

8 This reference may be an anachronism. Pirates operating from Illyria — the uskoci (or uskoks) — plagued the Adriatic Sea in Shakespeare’s time.

9 As a royal minister, Suffolk was essentially immune from Parliament as long as the king backed him … unless he could be hit with a treason charge. Given his unpopularity, a great many mostly outlandish charges of treason were duly conjured early in 1450, and Suffolk had not the political support to repel them. Henry VI, still Suffolk’s supporter, exiled the noble to protect him from possible execution. He was intercepted as he left England for France, however, and what the House of Commons had wanted done by a bill of attainder was simply handled extrajudicially upon the seas instead.

10 The duke was beheaded (“within half a dozen strokes” of “a rusty sword”) upon one of the pirate vessel’s small boats.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,At Sea,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",England,Execution,France,History,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Soldiers,Summary Executions,The Worm Turns,Wartime Executions

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