1462: John de Vere, Earl of Oxford

1 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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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Nobility,Treason

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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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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.

[audio:Villon_ballade_du_concours_de_Blois.mp3]

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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