1464: Johann Breyde, via Schandbild

Add comment April 1st, 2017 Headsman

On April 1, 1464 mayor of Cologne Johann Breyde was chopped into quarters … with ink.

This startling image does not depict an actual flesh-and-blood execution. It is, instead, an outstanding (and conveniently for our purposes, dated) instance of an artifact from medieval Germany, the Schandbild. Such “defamatory pictures” often supplemented a Schmahbrief or “defamatory letter” — intended, as the names suggest, to impugn publicly the target over a debt, a broken promise, or some other private breach of faith.

Something like 100 of these defamations survive from late medieval and early modern Germany (approximately 1400 to 1600), many of them fantasizing about their debtors’ executions in bloodthirsty scenes that also gesture to the place that ritual, spectacle, and dishonor held on the real-life gallows. Here are a few of the more piquant examples; many more await at a wonderful Pinterest gallery here.

The purpose of defamatory letters and pictures was to bring low the reputation of their target in the eyes of a wider community — leveraging social pressure either for revenge, or to force the defamed to repair the breach.

Matthias Lentz, one of the (regrettably few) historians working on these underappreciated objects, notes* that there are even surviving contracts from Germany, Bohemia and Poland enumerating an “explicit understand about injuring a person’s reputation and bringing dishonour upon a defaulting individual … a clause called Scheltklausel that laid down the practice of publicly scolding a defaulter.” For every Schandbild or Schmähbrief there must have been a dozen other potential swindlers quietly forced by the threat of public infamy to make good their contracts.

Per Lentz, the earliest known instance of an explicit contract dates to 1379, “wherein a ducal councillor accorded a nobleman, in eventuality of the former violating the terms of the contract, the right to denounce him as a fraud by ‘posting his name on the pillory [of the councillor’s home town], or wherever he likes'” — again, linking the “mere” text to the instruments of official corporal punishment.

Nor was it uncommon for the Schmähbrief, if things got to that point, to fantasize about the debtor’s bodily suffering in brutal terms that would like invite an investigation for terroristic threats were the modern debt collection call center to deploy them in its harangue. One quoted by Lentz captioned his illustration thus:

It is customary to judge thieves and traitors according to their offences, the first is sent to the gallows, the second broken on the wheel. As I have not got power to carry out the above-mentioned acts, it is my intention to use the painter to have them painted hanging from the gallows and being tortured on the wheel.

Still, Schandbilder und Schmähbriefe meant to intimidate not physically, but socially.** It was in this capacity that the iconography of the pillory and the scaffold entered the frame: ’twas an infamy to be exposed upon them for a public crime — serving as “an indictment of those who knew the criminal … [and] a punitive stigma over his or her relatives and friends.”† Posting a slur on the repute of a prominent person — for the targets were most always people of rank, who would feel an injury to their status — taxed this same, essential, civic currency.

This is why we should let his shameful picture hang here with his coat of arms, until he has given me compensation recognized by respectable people for those unwarranted things that he and his people did … and ask all those who seek charity, who see him painted hanging, that they let him hang. (Source)

By consequence the execution imagery was strictly optional, one iconographic choice among many. From the too-few examples that survive to us it is plain that creditors delighted in their symbolic chastisement, issuing all the obloquies a grievance could devise, untethered from the confines of possible or the … sanitary.


The Schandbild frequently evinced a scatological fixation.

* Quotes form Lentz’s “Defamatory Pictures and Letters in Late Medieval Germany: The Visualisation of Disorder and Infamy” in The Medieval History Journal, vol. 3, no. 1 (2000). Lentz also has several German-language journal titles on the same topic.

** Not necessarily true of their Italian cousins, pitture infamanti. These were a similar sort of thing, but were issued not privately but by the city-states themselves against absconded offenders — a sort of quasi-execution by effigy. Many of these were painted for public spaces and removed with the passage of time so we have lost exemplars, including the products of masters — the Medici, for example, commissioned Botticelli to grace Florence with pitture infamanti of the Pazzi conspirators, which were whitewashed in 1494.

A characteristic pose for these pictures, also used in Germany, had the “victim” hanging upside-down by one foot, conjoining “metaphors of inversion” (as Robert Mills puts it) to the disgrace of the gallows. This posture is commonly thought to have inspired the “Hanged Man” tarot card.


Left: a pittura infamante study by Florentine Renaissance artist Andrea del Sarto; right: the “hanged man” card from a tarot pack.

*† Maria Boes, “Public Appearance and Criminal Judicial Practices in Early Modern Germany,” Social Science History, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Summer, 1996)

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1460: Tiburzio di Maso, Roman brigand

Add comment October 31st, 2015 Headsman

The Roman outlaw-slash-rebel Tiburzio di Maso was executed on this date in 1460, with seven other members of his band.

Tiburzio’s father had been put to death seven years before for joining in the anti-papal intrigues of his kinsman (by marriage) Stefano Porcaro. Theirs was the old populist dream of Cola di Rienzi, to throw off the depraved overlordship of Rome’s patricians and resume the tribune of the people.

Their enemy in this endeavor, to speak a bit more specifically, must be the pope himself — for as Gibbon observed, “the policy of the Caesars has been repeated by the popes; and the bishop of Rome affected to maintain the form of a republic, while he reigned with the absolute powers of a temporal, as well as a spiritual, monarch.” It was this throne that had destroyed Tiburzio’s father, and upon which he proposed to revenge himself.

White breast, sweet tongue, kind eyes and ready wit! You marble limbs, full of vigour, when shall I see you again? When again shall I bite those coral lips, or feel again that tremulous tongue murmuring in my mouth, or ever handle those breasts.

Why, Achates, you have scarcely seen this woman. Where she is most feminine, there she is most lovely. I wish you could be me! Not the beautiful wife of Candaules, King of Lydia, was more beautiful than she. I cannot wonder that he wished to show his wife naked to his friend, to give him the greater pleasure. I would do the same myself. If it were possible, I’d show you Lucretia naked, for otherwise I cannot describe to you how beautiful she is, nor can you imagine how full and substantial was my pleasure. But rejoice with me, because my delight was greater than words can tell.

-[the man who would become] Pope Pius II, The Tale of Two Lovers

By the time the son Tiburzio came to avenge his father,* the pope in question was Pius II, once so much the gentleman-humanist that he is the only pontiff to byline an epistolary erotic novel. Come election to the seat of St. Peter, however, he had predictably discovered a newly illiberal affinity for the overweening prerogatives customarily asserted by his office

Among the lesser of these prerogatives was the option to make his residence in the less miasmatic confines of his native Siena, and his extended absence from Rome surely gave some air by which the brash youth could kindle a rebellion. Tiburzio attracted a gang who alternately caroused together and sallied together as highwaymen on the famously dangerous roads. “If in Porcaro the democratic movement had already generated to the level of Catiline, in Tiburzio and Valeriano, the heroes of 1460, it had sunk to that of mere brigandage,” wrote the German historian Ferdinand Gregorovius. (Via)

“Mere” brigandae posed a real danger to papacy’s safety, however, enough so that the governor’s running skirmishes with this most dangerous gang eventually required the returned of Pope Pius to steady the situation: a captured informant gave information that Tiburzio’s band was in league with Ghibelline nobles and had even arranged with the condottiero Jacopo Piccinino to throw open the city gates for his army.

But our man, well into the history-repeating-as-farce cycle, squandered his opportunity and his life by recklessly sallying into the city from refuge in nearby Palombara once one of his party was arrested. The Roman masses turned deaf ears on his calls to arms, and papal gendarmes captured Tiburzio and several misadventuring comrades. Without the inducements of torture, he too admitted the conspiracy with Piccinino — and the whole bunch hanged together on Capitoline Hill.

* Dad’s foe was Pope Nicholas V, who died in 1455.

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1469: Humphrey and Charles Neville, Lancastrians

Add comment September 29th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1469, Lancastrian nobleman Sir Humphrey Neville and his brother Charles were beheaded at York under the eyes of King Edward IV.

These Nevilles — cousins to the Bastard of Faulconbridge, who we have met previously in these pages — lost their heads in the Lancastrian cause during England’s War(s) of the Roses over royal legitimacy.

For the Nevilles, as indeed for the House of Lancaster in general, everything had gone pear-shaped with the 1461 deposition of the feebleminded Lancastrian ruler Henry VI. That seated on Albion’s throne the Yorkist contender Edward IV; the imprisoned Henry’s queen, Margaret of Anjou — who had already been the effective sovereign in view of Henry’s mental incapacitation — retreated to Scotland. Humphrey Neville was among the irreconcilable Lancastrians who went with her; he would be captured raiding into England later that same year of 1461.

The House of Neville being one of the greatest in northern England (and having under its roof adherents to both white rose and red), Neville had his life secured by royal pardon and even received a knighthood from the usurping king — just the messy expediency of court politics.

The problem was that Neville just wouldn’t stay bought. 1464 finds him back in the field on the wrong team when the Lancastrians were routed at the Battle of Hexham; it is said that he hied himself thereafter to a cave on the banks of the Derwent and survived an outlaw, for five long years.

In 1469 Neville reappeared on the scene along with the shattered Lancastrian cause when the “Kingmaker” Earl of Warwick (yet another Neville) turned against King Edward and took him into custody — with the invaluable assistance of various northern disturbances in favor of the Lancastrian cause, a ruckus that Humphrey Neville probably helped to raise.

Warwick, however, found his own position as jailer of the king untenable. Neither could he himself quell the Lancastrian ultras who intended a proper restoration and not merely leveraging the royal prisoner — so to Warwick’s chagrin, he was forced to release King Edward in order to raise the army needed to move against the Lancastrian rebels who were supposed to be his allies.

Neville’s rising, and then Neville himself, were dispatched with ease — but the cost of doing so was the imminent failure of the entire Lancastrian movement.

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1462: John de Vere, Earl of Oxford

Add comment February 26th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1462, the 12th Earl of Oxford, John de Vere, was beheaded in the Tower of London during the Wars of the Roses.

The heir to one of the realm’s most ancient noble titles — one of the early Earls of Oxford was on hand for the Magna Carta — John de Vere was a Lancastrian during those treacherous years. He’d even been knighted as a young man with the (then-four-year-old, but already king) Henry Vi.

Despite due loyalty to his sovereign, however, he largely stayed out of the running contest for the throne. This neat trick served him well when the Lancastrian cause went pear-shaped.

Given his apolitical record, it’s a surprise to find Lord Oxford and his son Aubrey suddenly arrested in early February 1463, for treasonable correspondence with the deposed Lancastrian queen Margaret of Anjou. The precise nature of the “conspiracy” remains fuzzy,* as does the theretofore cautious Lord Oxford’s reason for involving himself in such a dangerous enterprise. (Aubrey might have been the moving spirit.) The verdict, however, was very sharp, for father and son alike, leaving the earldom to pass to Aubrey’s younger brother John de Vere.**

This man’s family is, of course, well known in literary fields. The 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, was an Elizabethan writer who’s been frequently hypothesized as the actual creator of the Shakespeare canon — the so-called Oxfordian theory of authorship. If so, perhaps he took a little special relish in writing into 3 Henry VI (Act 3, Scene 3) his predecessor’s brief against the Yorkists.

WARWICK
Can Oxford, that did ever fence the right,
Now buckler falsehood with a pedigree?
For shame! leave Henry, and call Edward king.

OXFORD
Call him my king by whose injurious doom
My elder brother, the Lord Aubrey Vere,
Was done to death? and more than so, my father,
Even in the downfall of his mellow’d years,
When nature brought him to the door of death?
No, Warwick, no; while life upholds this arm,
This arm upholds the house of Lancaster.

* This biography of the 13th earl rummages the sparse available evidence, but concludes that apart from a few basic facts the available accounts “agree on little else, and it is not easy to establish a coherent account of the episode, what form the conspiracy took, how it was betrayed, and above all, by what was it motivated.” Just those minor details.

** Several other conspirators besides the de Veres were also put to death in the affair. Minor consolation: the sentencing judge, John Tiptoft, was in 1470 executed himself.

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1469: Richard Woodville, father of the queen

5 comments August 12th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1469, Richard Woodville, the father of the queen, lost his head.

Though he died as Earl Rivers, Woodville started life as a commoner.

As a retainer to the Duke of Bedford, Woodville drew escort duty for the mistress of the house when the master died suddenly. Not one to waste an opportunity, Woodville soon made the merry widow his merry wife: at the time, he was around 30 and she around 20, while the late husband had kicked off at age 46.

For this impertinent and unauthorized union, the couple paid a fine … and their descendants enjoyed royal power. Well-behaved women and knights-errant seldom make history, right?

Marrying nobility put Woodville into the War of Roses game of throne, where he again proved a deft hand with sneaky conjugation.

In 1464, he secretly married his widowed daughter Elizabeth to the young king Edward IV. Elizabeth Woodville became thereby the first commoner in history to marry an English king.

She also became a lightning-rod.

The Earl of Warwick, so powerful that he was known in this era of uneasy-resting crowns as “The Kingmaker”, was embarrassingly undercut by the Woodville match in his own machinations to pair Edward with a French princess. A stunned Privy Council castigated Edward when it found out — “however good and however fair she might be,” they grumbled “she was no wife for a prince such as himself; for she was not the daughter of a duke or earl” — but the young king stood by his lady.

A love match? We leave that question for the poets and the novelists.

From left to right, Philippa Gregory‘s books about Richard Woodville’s wife, daughter, and granddaughter. Gregory also wrote a nonfiction companion to this bestselling series, The Women of the Cousins’ War: The Duchess, the Queen, and the King’s Mother.

But politically, the Woodville marriage certainly upset the game board. Richard Woodville got promoted to Earl Rivers and others of the tribe profited likewise: this made good sense for Edward because these people would owe their positions, and loyalty, to him.

Contrast with the independent, arrogant aristocrat set like Warwick, who soon proceeded — and what part l’affaire Woodville plazed in his defection is up for speculation, although it was part of his own publicly asserted justification — to desert Edward’s Yorkist cause for the Lancastrian claimant.

Warwick’s rebellion succeeded in overthrowing Edward in 1469, and it was in the glow of this victory that Warwick had the obnoxious arriviste Richard Woodville beheaded as a traitor, together with the man’s son John.

Unfortunately for Warwick, it was but a moment.

Unable to govern, Warwick had to release his royal prisoner, and the sides slid back into open conflict. Edward decisively crushed the Lancastrians at the Battle of Tewkesbury, conveniently killing Warwick in the process.

Duly returned to her station, Elizabeth Woodville produced two sons for her husband, the boys history remembers as the Princes in the Tower — which is where the last LancastrianYorkist king Richard III is thought to have murdered them. In Shakespeare’s Richard III, Queen Elizabeth is quite the bummer.

Ay me, I see the ruin of my house!
The tiger now hath seiz’d the gentle hind;
Insulting tyranny begins to jet
Upon the innocent and aweless throne.
Welcome, destruction, blood, and massacre!
I see, as in a map, the end of all.

But her house wasn’t quite ruined after all: Elizabeth Woodville also produced a daughter, also named Elizabeth. This latter “Elizabeth of York” married another descendant of a commoner, who carried the Lancaster standard: this fellow of doubtful lineage would finally resolve the War of the Roses and reign as Henry VII. (Father, namesake, and predecessor, of course, to this site’s patron head-chopping monarch Henry VIII: Richard Woodville’s great-grandson.)

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1460: The residents of Amlas, impaled by Vlad Dracula

5 comments August 24th, 2010 Headsman

This date is the 550th anniversary of (in)famous Wallachian dictator/vampire prototype Vlad III Tepes‘s destruction of the town of Amlas, impaling all its surviving citizens.

The signature execution form of “Vlad the Impaler” was as nasty as it sounds: still-living victim mounted on a long, oiled stake driven through the rectum and emerging through the mouth to expire agonizingly over a period of hours or days. Or, alternatively, stuck through the midsection, leaving the subject horizontally mounted like a flopping fish.

And he had frequent recourse to it during his long struggle for power in the treacherous 1450s and 1460s, the period* when Vlad III became famous for the iron-willed cruelty required to exercise power in a Wallachia squeezed between the expanding Ottoman Empire and Hungary.

It was this terrifying period from the late 1450s that made Vlad Dracula — the titular second name inherited from his father‘s investment into the Order of the Dragon, Draco in Latin — the namesake for Bram Stoker‘s famous bloodthirsty Transylvanian noble, and the granddaddy of all its lucrative latter-day offspring.

(Bram Stoker didn’t invent the vampire myth, and the notion that Vlad Dracula “is” Count Dracula is one of those bits of popular folklore that’s become academically unfashionable. But still.)

The historical Vlad has his latter-day defenders, who see him as a nation-builder. Certainly, both the man himself and his vulnerable frontier principality were menaced by innumerable threats both foreign and domestic.

This date’s massacre was to deal with one such, Germans in the territory of Transylvania, which lay to the north of Vlad’s own Wallachia. Both realms are part of present-day Romania, and they were closely connected in Vlad’s time as well; the young Dracula himself was born in Transylvania, and Transylvanian towns had helped him take the Wallachian throne with the support of Hungary.

So far, everyone was on the same page. But when a power struggle erupted for the Hungarian throne in 1457, the “Saxon” emigres who formed the upper crust of merchants in Transylvania (supported by a vast sea of Romanian peasants) backed the Holy Roman Emperor while Vlad supported the usurping Hunyadi family that had so ably patronized him.** It’s quite a bit more dizzyingly complex than that, but the bottom line is that commercial and political conflicts soon saw Vlad Dracula mounting a campaign of Transylvanian terror from 1458 onward.

During the summer of 1460 Dracula organized his final raid on Transylvania. This time he attacked townships and villages in the district of Amlas known as the “Land of the Forest” or Unterwald … The meistersinger Beheim gives the exact date of the attack as falling on the feast day of Saint Bartholomew in the year 1460: August 24. Dracula struck in the early morning after “passing through the great forest” with his cavalry force. He burned the town of Amlas and impaled all the citizens, a priest having led the procession to the burial scene …

Dracula’s raid on Amlas was aimed at eliminating any remaining dissident resistance and at killing rival contenders to his throne … Dracula knew, for instance, that … the boyar Bogdan Doboca, was hiding in the village of Sercaia, in the Fagaras district. So he had the entire village razed to the ground; it had to be completely repopulated in the following century. Similar was the fat of the village of Mica. The narrator Beheim tells us that Dracula burned or destroyed half the communities in the Amlas district, including the capital city by that name. He “assembled all the citizens and all those he could find” from other villages and hanged them on hooks and pitchforks, after having had his men hack them to pieces with knives, swords, and sabers. Amlas was reduced to a ghost town, as it still is today, and other villages such as Saliste, Apodul de Sus, and Tilisca were similarly destroyed. Beheim claims that altogether some 30,000 Germans were killed during this Dracula raid on the district of Amlas.

Impressive as this date’s butchery would have been — although we know it from German propagandists who figure to have made the most of it — it was simply of a piece with Vlad’s Transylvanian campaign. To this campaign, Florescu and McNally attribute an impressive catalogue of atrocities, such as:

  • Slaughtering all the inhabitants of a village named Bod

  • Impaling one of his own captains who reported an inability to take an enemy position “for the inhabitants are brave and well fortified”
  • Boiling alive 600 Saxon merchants
  • Impaling as spies 41 Saxons who came to Wallachia to learn the Romanian language
  • Forcing one captured rival claimant with Saxon support to go through a Mass for the dead clothed in funerary vestments before personally beheading him

Fleeing Germans carrying spine-tingling eyewitness accounts and rumors of even worse made a happy match with that new media technology, the printing press, giving Dracula continental infamy and a purchase on future literary immortality.

“The horror genre conformed to the tastes of the fifteenth-century reading public as much as it does today,” observe those same authors Florescu and McNally in another volume. “No fewer than thirteen different fiteenth- and sixteenth-century Dracula stories have been discovered thus far in the various German states.”

The St. Bartholomew’s Day 1460 events are seemingly sometimes conflated† with a more famous bloodbath during the spring of 1459, when Vlad arranged a demonstrative mass impaling on the outskirts of Brasov.‡

All those whom he had taken captive, men and women, young and old, chlidren, he had impaled on the hill by the chapel and all around the hill, and under them he proceeded to eat at table and enjoyed himself in that way.

It’s this 1459 event that provides us the most horribly recognizable images of Dracula’s reign, with the insouciant Wallachian prince enjoying his repast amid a thicket of impaled wretches.

* 1456 to 1462, specifically, which was the second (and most consequential) of the three different periods Vlad III was Prince of Wallachia. The Ottomans drove him out in 1462, and he took refuge in Hungary before a return bid in 1476, which ended in his own death in battle.

** And specifically, Mihaly Szilagy (Hungarian link), the uncle of the ascendant king Matthias Corvinus. The latter would seek to woo Saxon support, and he had an on-again, off-again relationship with Vlad Dracula. Wallachia was a small buffer state from the standpoint of a greater power like Hungary, and Wallachia’s ruler a political instrument no matter how much impaling he might do.

† Perhaps because Brasov’s Church of St. Bartholomew was among the targets ravaged by Dracula’s force?

‡ Attack staged from picturesquely vampiric Castle Bran.

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1461: Owen Tudor, sire of sires

3 comments February 2nd, 2010 Headsman

A Welsh courtier with the boldness to bed the queen lost his head this date in 1461 … but his career in usurpation was just getting started.

Owen Tudor’s coat of arms.

The House of Tudor that would come to rule England counted Owen its sire; the four-year-old grandson he left at his death grew up to become the first Tudor monarch, Henry VII.

Owen produced the root of this august line with Dowager Queen Catherine of Valois, the French princess Henry V had extracted as part of the price of peace after Agincourt.

That union was supposed to join the two great realms, but Henry V unexpectedly kicked the bucket in 1422, leaving an infant son who was not only unable to hold the French throne … he was too unstable to hold the English throne, either.

Unless he was a seer, suave Owen must not have been thinking dynasties when he took the Queen as his lover (and eventually his wife via a secret marriage in the early 1430s).

They produced six children, but it wasn’t the bedroom politics that did our prolific father in, at least not directly. Only decades later, when ownership of the crown was up for grabs in the War of the Roses and Owen loyally led Lancastrian forces at a battle he was unwise enough to lose, did he give up his head for the pedestrian crime of backing the wrong horse.

Owen reportedly thought he had stature enough to expect a reprieve until the very last moment, when the executioner’s ripping his collar caused him to sigh,

The head which used to lie in Queen Catherine’s lap, would now lie in the executioner’s basket.

In time, Owen’s descendants would get to pull the same trick, because the doomed cause in whose service Owen Tudor lost his life swept clear England’s political chessboard and made possible his own line’s accession.

Elizabethan poet Michael Drayton later versified Owen’s prodigious conquest in “Owen Tudor to Queen Catherine”.

When first mine eyes beheld your princely name,
And found from whence this friendly letter came;
Is in excess of joy, I bad forgot.
Whether I saw it, or I saw it not:

My panting heart doth bid mine eyes proceed,
My dazzled eyes invite my tongue to read,
Which wanting their direction, dully mist it:
My lips, which should have spoke, were dumb, and kist it,

And left the paper in my trembling hand,
When all my senses did amazed stand :
Even as a mother coming to her child,
Which from her presence hath been long exil’d,

With gentle arms his tender neck doth strain,
Now kissing it, now clipping it again;
And yet excessive joy deludes her so,
As still she doubts, if this be hers, or no.

At length, awaken’d from this pleasing dream,
When passion somewhat left to be extreme,
My longing eyes with their fair object meet,
Where ev’ry letter’s pleasing, each word sweet.

It was not Henry’s conquests, nor his court,
That had the power to win me by report;
Nor was his dreadful terrour-striking name,
The cause that I from Wales to England came:

For Christian Rhodes, and our religion’s truth,
To great achievement first had won my youth:
Th’ brave adventure did my valour prove,
Before I e’er knew what it was to love.

Nor came I hither by some poor event,
But by th’ eternal destinies’ consent;
Whose uncomprised wisdom did foresee,
That you in marriage should be link’d to me.

By our great Merlin was it not foretold,
(Amongst his holy prophesies enroll’d)
When first he did of Tndor’s name divine,
That kings and queens should follow in our line?

And that the helm (the Tudors ancient crest)
Should with the golden flow’r-de-luce be drest ?
As that the leek (our country’s! chief renown!)
Should grow with roses in the English crown –

As Charles his daughter, you the lilly wear;
As Henry’s queen, the blushing rose you bear;
By France’s conquest, and by England’s oath,
You are the true-made dowager of both :

Both in your crown, both in your cheek together,
Join Tether’s love to yours, and yours to Tether.
Then cast no future doubts, nor fear no hate,
When it so long hath been fore-told by fate ;

And by the all-disposing doom of Heav’n,
Before our births, we to one bed were giv’n.
No Pallas here, nor Juno is at all,
When I to Venus yield the golden ball:

Nor when the Grecians wonder I enjoy,
None in revenge to kindle fire in Troy.
And have not strange events divin’d to us,
That in our love we should be prosperous ?

When in your presence I was call’d to dance,
In lofty tricks whilst I myself advance,
And in a turn my footing fail’d by hap,
Was’t not my chance to light into your lap ?

Who would not judge it fortune’s greatest grace,
Sith he must fall, to fall in such a place ?
His birth from Heav’n, your Tudor not derives,
Nor stands on tip-toes in superlatives,

Although the envious English do devise
A thousand jests of our hyperbolies;
Nor do I claim that plot by ancient deeds,
Where Phoebus pasture his fire-breathing steeds:

Nor do I boast my god-made grandsire’s scars,
Nor giants trophies in the Titans wars:
Nor feign my birth (your princely ears to please)
By three nights getting, as was Hercules:

Nor do I forge my long descent to rim
From aged Neptune, or the glorious Sun:
And yet in Wales, with them that famous be,
Our learned bards do sing my pedigree

And boast my birth from great Cadwallader,
From old Caer-Septon, in mount Palador:
And from Eneon’s line, the South-Wales king,
By Theodor, the Tudors’ name do bring.

My royal mother’s princely stock began
From her great grandame, fair Gwenellian,
By true descent from Leolin the great,
As well from North-Wales, as fair Powsland’s seal.

Though for our princely genealogy
I do not stand to make apology:
Yet who with judgment’s true impartial eyes,
Shall look from whence our name at did first rise,

Shall find, that fortune is to us in debt
And why not Tudor, as Plantagenet?

Nor that term Croggen, nick name of disgrace
Us’d as a by-word now in ev’ry place,
Shall blot our blood, or wrong a Welshman’s name,
Which was at first begot with England’s shame.

Our valiant swords our right did still maintain,
Against that cruel, proud, usurping Dane,
Buckling besides in many dang’rous fights,
With Norway, Swethens, and with Muscovites;

And kept our native language now thus long,
And to this day yet never chang’d our tungue:
When they which now our nation fain would tame,
Subdu’d, have lost their country and their name.

Nor ever could the Saxons’ swords provoke
Our British necks to hear their servile yoke:
Where Cambria’s pleasant countries bounded be
With swelling Severn, and the holy Dee:

And since great Brutus first arrived, have stood
The only remnant of the Trojan blood.
To every man is not allotted chance,
To boast with Henry, to have conquer’d France:

Yet if my fortune be thus rais’d by thee,
This may presage a further good to me;
And our Saint David, in the Britons’ right,
May join with George, the sainted English knight:

And old Caer-merdin, Merlin’s famous town,
Not scorn’d by London, though of such renown.

Ah, would to God that hour my hopes attend,
Were with my wish brought to desired end !
Blame me not, madam, though I thus desire,
Many there be, that after you inquire;

Till now your beauty in night’s bosom slept,
What eye durst stir, where awful Henry kept ?
Who durst attempt to sail but near the bay,
Where that all-conqu’ring great, Alcides lay ?

Your beauty now is set a royal prize,
And kings repair to cheapen merchandise.
If you but walk to take the breathing air,
Orithia makes me that I Boreas fear:

If to the fire, Jove once in light’ning came.
And fair Egina makes me fear the flame:
If in the Sun, then sad suspicion dreams
Phoebus should spread Lucothoe in his beams:

If in a fountain you do cool your blood,
Neptune, I fear, which once came in a flood:
If with your maids, I dread Apollo’s rape,
Who cous’ned Chion in an old wife’s shape :

If you do banquet, Bacchus makes me dread,
Who in a grape Erigone did feed :
And if myself your chamber-door should keep,
Yet fear I Hermes coming in a sleep.

Pardon (sweet queen) if I offend in this,
In these delays love most impatient is:
And youth wants pow’r his hot spleen to suppress,
When hope already banquets in excess.

Though Henry’d fame in me you shall not find,
Yet that which better shall content your mind;
But only in the title of a king
Was his advantage, in no other thing:

If in his love more pleasure you did take,
Never let queen trust Briton for my sake.
Yet judge me not from modesty exempt,
That I another Phaeton’s charge attempt;

My mind, that thus your favours dare aspire,
Shows, that ’tis touch’d with a celestial fire:
If I do fault, the more is beauty’s blame,
When she herself is author of the same;

“All men to some one quality incline,”
Only to love is naturally mine.

Thou art by beauty famous, as by birth,
Ordain’d by Heav’n to cheer the drooping Earth :
Add faithful love unto your greater state,
And be alike in all things fortunate.

A king might promise more, I not deny,
But yet (by Heav’n) he lov’d not more than I.
And thus I leave, till time my faith approve,
I cease to write, but never cease to love.

Aficionados of old tyme history novelizations can also kick back with Owen Tudor: An Historical Romance.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous Last Words,History,Notably Survived By,Pirates,Power,Public Executions,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1463: David of Trebizond and his heirs

1 comment November 1st, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1463, the last regal claimants of Byzantium’s last successor state were executed in Constantinople.

They were, by this time, two years deposed from actual power. David of Trebizond (aka David Comnenos) had inherited the enclave“empire” clinging to the Black Sea coast in 1459, and proved himself “a fit agent for consummating the ruin of an empire.”

Specifically, he cleverly set about needling the overwhelming Turkish power on his borders by vainly attempting to stir up another Crusade, and refused to pay the Mohammedan tribute.

Having recently reduced the impregnable fastness of Constantinople, Mehmed the Conqueror handily availed this provocation to overrun Trebizond.

David and kin made out okay by this calamitous extinction of the Byzantine candle, negotiating in the summer of 1461 an arrangement to settle in Adrianople under the sultan’s protection (and monitoring).

Two years later, David was reportedly caught plotting against the keeper of his gilded cage once more, and Mehmed had the former Emperor, his sons, a nephew and a brother-in-law beheaded, neatly extinguishing the last people with any lineal claim the late Greek imperium.

Theodore Spandounes, a Venetian of Byzantine refugee stock writing in the early 16th century,* claims this was a set-up by Mehmet, “ravenously thirsting for Christian blood,” and that the Komnenoi were given the chance to convert to Islam and atoned their poor statecraft with holy martyrdom.

Furthermore,

Mehmed confiscated all the property of the imperial family of Trebizond and condemned the Empress [Helen Kantakouzene or Cantacuzene] to pay 15,000 ducats within three days or be executed. Her servants, who were Mehmed’s prisoners in Constantinople, worked from dawn to dusk to raise the money and paid it … [but] she had no desire to remain in this world; and, clad in sackcloth, she who had been accustomed to regal finery, refused to eat meat any more and built herself a hovel covered in straw in which she slept rough. Mehmed had decreed that no one was to bury the bodies under pain of death. They were to be left for the dogs and ravens to devour. But the sainted Empress secretly acquired a spade and with her own delicate hands as best she could dug a trench in her hut. All day long she defended the corpses against the animals and at night she took them one by one and gave them burial. Thus did God give her the grace to bury her husband and her sons; and a few days later she too died.

* And writing, it should be observed, with the polemical intent of persuading western powers to go fight the Ottomans.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,Mass Executions,Milestones,Occupation and Colonialism,Ottoman Empire,Power,Royalty,Treason,Trebizond,Turkey

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1468: Charles de Melun, governor of Paris

Add comment August 22nd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1468, Charles de Melun (French link) was executed at Andelys by Louis XI on a trumped-up treason charge.

The execution stemmed from a civil war fought by crown against nobles struggling to preserve their feudal rights — and specifically, a 1465 battle won by the nobles’ intrepid standard-bearer Charles the Bold. Louis was grumpy at his governor of Paris for not relieving him in time, and when the wheel of courtly politics turned sufficiently, that incident supplied enough suspicion to destroy Melun.

Hear now of Melun from The History of the Bastile, and of Its Principal Captives.

The war, caused by the League of the Public Good, which restored liberty and fortune to Chabannes, deprived his enemy, the count de Melun, not only of both, but of life also. When we are told that Melun was so addicted to pleasure, luxury and sloth, as to have acquired the name of the Sardanapalus of his times, we can form no very flattering estimate of his character. Yet he stood high in the good graces of Louis XI, and participated largely in the spoils of Chabannes. In his capacity of governor of Paris and the Bastile, he was also entrusted with the custody of that nobleman. It was not till after the battle of Montlheri that Louis began to suspect him. The monarch had, indeed, some excuse for suspicion. Melun had at least been criminally negligent, in a post which demanded the utmost vigilance. He had prevented a sally from the city during the battle, which might have turned the scale in the king’s favour, and he had been ignorant of, or winked at, a correspondence carried on with the chiefs of the League by some of the disaffected citizens. These indications of treachery were strengthened by two circumstances; some of the cannon of the Bastile had been spiked, and the gates of the fortress, on the side next the country, had been left open while the besiegers were making an attack. The escape of Chabannes might also afford a reason for doubting his keeper’s fidelity. Louis, however, was, at this moment, too closely pressed by his numerous enemies to enter into an investigation of the subject; and he, therefore, only dismissed the governor.


The Battle of Montlhery

Melun retired to his estates, and imagined that the storm was blown over. He was mistaken. As soon as Louis had disembarrassed himself, he instituted a rigid enquiry into the conduct of his disgraced favourite. One of the most active in pushing it on was a man who was indebted to the count for his rise in life; the cardinal Balue, of whom further mention is about to be made. The result of the enquiry was, a charge of having maintained a secret correspondence with the heads of the League, especially with the duke of Britanny. Melun was in consequence arrested, and conveyed to Chateau Galliard, in Normandy, by the provost Tristan l’Hermite, of infamous memory.*

The trial was commenced without delay, and, as he refused to confess to any crime, he was put to the torture. With respect to his correspondence with the chiefs of the League, he avowed it, but pleaded that it had the king’s sanction. It is probable that this was really the case. Many motives might have induced the king to allow of his officer corresponding with the enemy. But Louis had now resolved upon the destruction of Melun; and, as he never scrupled at falsehood when he had any point to gain by it, he denied that he had given the permission. By adding that he had long had cause to be dissatisfied with the prisoner, he gave a broad hint as to what kind of verdict he desired.** The judges, as in duty bound, pronounced Melun guilty, and he was consigned to the scaffold. His execution took place in 1468. Of his confiscated property, a considerable portion was bestowed on Charbannes.

It is said, that the executioner having only wounded him at the first stroke, Melun raised his head from the block, and declared, that he had not deserved death, but that, since the king willed it, he was satisfied. If this be true, we must own that tame submission to the injustice of a despot was never more strikingly displayed.

Had Melun lived but a little longer, he might have triumphed in the downfall and punishment of his ungrateful enemy, the cardinal, which took place in 1469 … The cardinal, and his his friend and agent William d’Harancourt, bishop of Verdun, were in close correspondence with his enemies.†

Though Melun generally goes down as a guy who caught a bum rap — probably even Louis XI thought so, given the subsequent fall of Melun’s rivals — this 19th century history of France observes that such consideration turns on noblesse oblige, for while “such crime on the part of a burgess was considered worthy of death, nobles practised breach of faith as a pastime, and a lucrative one, until it was rendered a serious matter by sending the guilty to the scaffold.”

* For instance, in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tristan l’Hermite is the man dispatched by Louis XI to seize Esmeralda from the cathedral for hanging.

** According to The Law of Treason and Treason Trials in Later Medieval France, Louis XI actually testified at Melun’s trial. Talk about a star witness.

† More about Balue’s disgrace here.

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1463: Not François Villon

4 comments January 5th, 2008 Ksenia Zanon

Je suis François, dont ce me poise,
Né de Paris emprès Ponthoise.
Or d’une corde d’une toise
Saura mon col que mon cul poise.*

-F. Villon, LE QUATRAIN
“Que feit Villon quand il fut jugé à mourir.”

On this day in 1463 François Villon vanished into thin air — along with his mastery for words and for mischief.

Posterity is left to write blog entries about his miraculous deliverance from the gallows; to credit him with influence on Fin de siècle poets, contemporary cinema and god knows what else; to speculate about his destiny; to explain the motives for his disreputable lifestyle (oh, why, my dear reader, are we so presumptuous?); and, well, to read his verse.

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The epithets “thief” and “rogue” are de rigueur when a discourse demands an allusion to his name. The man was a villain, all right. Villon’s official criminal career started with a drunken brawl murder. He got entangled with a gang. He stole, imbibed and rollicked. He was banished, imprisoned and tortured.

One prim Scotsman, a trained lawyer and a beloved writer, wields rather harsh albeit stunningly eloquent prose to depict our pauvre Villon. To Stevenson, Villon was “the first wicked sansculotte”, a “sinister dog”, “the sorriest figure on the rolls of fame”, whose “pathos is that of a professional mendicant who should happen to be a man of genius”.

Incidentally (I hope the reader will forgive this digression given the general topicality of the issue), Stevenson, a harsh judge of Villon’s ignoble nature, says this about waterboarding:

[Villon] was put to the question by water. He who had tossed off so many cups of white Baigneux or red Beaune, now drank water through linen folds, until his bowels were flooded and his heart stood still. After so much raising of the elbow, so much outcry of fictitious thirst, here at last was enough drinking for a lifetime. Truly, of our pleasant vices, the gods make whips to scourge us …

A different take on Villon’s despicable life is voiced by another poet, Osip Mandelstam:

Villon’s sympathy to the society’s scumbags, to everything that is vile and criminal is not demonism. The nefarious company, to which he was so quickly and intimately drawn, captivated his feminine nature with great temperament and powerful rhythm of life, which he could not find elsewhere in the society.

… With odd brutality and rhythmic ardor, he depicts in his ballad [The Ballad of the Hanged], how wind swings the bodies of the wretched, to and fro, as it will … Even death he endows with dynamic qualities, and here manages to manifest his love to rhythm and movement … I think that Villon was allured not by demonism, but by the dynamics of crime …

(Mandelstam’s original is in Russian; this translation is mine)

In the autumn of 1462 François Villon was arrested. He expected to be hanged. Instead, on this date, parliament granted him a pardon and banished him from Paris (for the third time, no less).

What happened to the poor vagabond, medieval Parisian desperado, that troubadour of the rascals?

The trail goes cold — the yellowed parchments fall silent. He vanished into thin air …

* Below is a rather unsatisfactory and uncredited translation found here, which nevertheless conveys the idea:

Surname? Villon, just my luck.
Born? In Paris, near Pontoise.
You wonder what my backside weighs?
Ask my neck when they string me up.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Famous,Famous Last Words,France,Freethinkers,Gallows Humor,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Lucky to be Alive,Not Executed,Other Voices,Pardons and Clemencies,Theft,Torture

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