1477: Hugonet and Humbercourt, in the wreck of Burgundy

Add comment April 3rd, 2019 Headsman

Willem Hugonet and Guy van Brimeu, officials of the collapsing Burgundian polity, were executed in Ghent on this date in 1477 for their failed diplomatic intrigue.

This moment fell just weeks after Burgundy itself had received her own fatal blow, at least as far as independent political standing goes: the death in battle on January 5 of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. Charles had energetically expansionist prince.

Charles’s dominions compassed not only Burgundy itself, but a swath of territory running up to Flanders and the Low Countries, a strip that was being squeezed by the rising powers of France to the west and Austria to the east. He had no male heir, so his 19-year-old daughter Mary succeeded him in title — but not in power. France and Austria immediately began sizing up Burgundy for dismemberment, a mission they accomplished within a few short years. And while both dynasties sought Mary’s inheritance via matrimony, more direct methods were also employed.

Before January was out, the French king Louis XI had already pressed into Picardy and Artois* with a scheming mix of armed intimidation and invocation of feudal rights — seeking Flanders and its rich trading cities like Ghent, where our executions will take place. These places, too, saw their opportunity to seek their own advantage; Burgundy had enforced its authority in Ghent at the point of the sword, bloodily crushing a revolt not 30 years before. In Flanders and Brabant, “the confirmation of the tidings of [Charles the Bold’s] death had been received with general feelings of relief and joy,” according to the Cambridge Modern History. “And throughout the Netherlands it was resolved to make the most of the opportunity.” There was no love lost between these locales and their Burgundian overlords, yet these places also feared the potential domination of Burgundy’s rivals. As a first step, the principal cities of the Low Countries immediately forced the weakened sovereign — who was personally stuck in Ghent when the dread news of her father’s fate arrived — to cede them a wide grant of privileges.

Meanwhile, Mary herself extended feelers to the neighboring empires, and it is here that our principal characters enter the story. Charles’s old chancellor, Wllem Hugonet and the Picardy-born knight Guy of Brimeu, Sire of Humbercourt** — French-friendly Burgundians both reviled of Ghent — prevailed on Mary to seek what terms they could France. Returning to the Cambridge Modern History,

Louis seems to have, by private communications with Hugonet and d’Himbercourt, secured their adherence to the marriage-scheme [between Mary of Burgundy and the six-year-old French Dauphin]. At Arras, of which he took possession in March, 1477, he received a deputation from Ghent, and — playing the kind of double game which his soul loved — revealed to them the confidence reposed by Mary in the privy councillors detesed by the city.

Thus, on the return of the civic deputies to Ghent, the storm broke out. The city was already in a condition of ferment; some of the partisans of the old regime had been put to death; and the agitation, which had spread to Ypres and as far as Mons, was increased by the claims put forward at Ghent on behalf of the restoration of Liegeois independence by the Bishop of Liege … distracted by her fears, Mary seems actually to have countenanced Hugonet’s final proposal that she should quit Flanders and place herself under the protection of the French King, when at the last moment Ravenstein induced her to reveal the design. He immediately informed the representative of the vier landen, and the deans of the trades of Ghent, and on the same night (March 4) Hugonet, d’Himbercourt and de Clugny were placed under arrest. A rumour having been spread that their liberation was to be attempted, and news having arrived of the resolute advance of the French forces, new disturbances followed; and Mary issued an ordinance naming a mixed commission of nobles and civic officials to try the accused with all due expedition (March 28). She afterwards interceded in favour of one or both of the lay prisoners (for de Clugny was saved by his benefit of clergy), and at a later date expressed her sympathy with the widow and orphans of d’Himbercourt, the extent of whose share in the Chancellor’s schemes remains unknown. After being subjected to torture, both were executed on April 3. They met with short shrift at the hands of their judges; but they cannot be said to have been sacrificed to a mere gust of democratic passion; and Mary and her Council, and the other Estates of the Netherlands assembled at Ghent, were with the city itself and the sister Flemish towns one and all involved in the responsibility of the deed.

This backlash closed all avenues to French nuptials; within weeks, Mary was engaged to the Habsburg Archduke Maximilian (they wed that August) and France and Austria fell into outright war over the Burgundian patrimonies, the resolution of which boiled down to Habsburg authority in the Low Countries and French absorption of most of the rest, including Burgundy proper.

* As well as, further inland, Franche-Comte, bordering the Duchy of Burgundy itself.

** Two years before this, Guy had personally extradited the rebellious Louis of Luxembourg to France for execution.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Beheaded,Belgium,Burgundy,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Torture,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1477: Gerolamo Olgiati, ducal assassin

Add comment January 2nd, 2015 Headsman


Dramatization of events in this post for the video game-derived film Assassin’s Creed: Lineage.

On this date in 1477, the assassins of the Duke of Milan suffered bitter death for fame eternal.

Famous for both his astute political machinations and for cruelty verging on the sadistic, Galeazzo Maria Sforza inherited leadership of Milan in at the age of 22 with the passing of his father, the great condottiero Francesco Sforza.

Francesco, the founder of the Sforza dynasty, had dynastically married himself to one Bianca Maria Visconti, a daughter of Milan’s previous ruling house.* But not all of the Visconti were at home with the Sforza.

A brash young man of that noble family, Carlo Visconti, as full of humanistic idealism as he was of bile for the licentious Duke’s alleged violation of his sister, joined a conspiracy also compassing two other gentlemen, Giovanni Andrea Lampugnani and Gerolamo Olgiati, to do Galeazzo Sforza to death.

At a St. Stephen’s Day service in a basilica christened to Stephen Lampugnani approached the prince feigning supplication for some audience, then produced a hidden blade and stabbed Galeazzo Sforza. Visconti and Olgiati then rushed on Sforza as well and before anyone realized what was happening the Duke, croaking some half-heard invocation of Mary, was falling dead on the church floor.


Illustration of Galeazzo Sforza’s murder on the title page of a 1476 Lament for the Duke decrying the assassination.

Pandemonium ensued, and in the ensuing helter-skelter, Sforza’s bodyguards fell on Lampugnani and killed him on the spot, while Olgiati managed to escape.**

“It now only remains for us to consider those dangers which follow after the execution of a plot,” Machiavelli mused in his “Of Conspiracies” typology of his Discourses. “These in fact resolve themselves into one, namely, that some should survive who will avenge the death of the murdered prince. The part of avenger is likely to be assumed by a son, a brother, or other kinsman of the deceased.”

Well, yeah.

The assassins of the Duke of Milan appear not to have burdened themselves overmuch with advance consideration of this danger, possibly indulging the dream of Brutus that by a dagger’s stroke alone they could restore the lost republic.

Needless to say, this beautiful hope vanished in the bloody revenge carnival that actually ensued the murder. Just a few days after the assassination, having taken refuge with a priest — his justly frightened family had closed its door on him and needed to make theatrical denunciations of his treason for their own safety — Olgiati was captured, put to a torturous interrogation, and publicly butchered. He had outlived the Duke by only a week, and his gashed carcass was hung up in sections around town by way of warning. The rotting heads of the conspirators remained impaled on lances on the city’s bell tower well into the 1490s.

According once again to Machiavelli, Olgiati “exhibited no less composure at his death than resolution in his previous conduct, for being stripped of his apparel, and in the hands of the executioner, who stood by with the sword unsheathed, ready to deprive him of life, he repeated the following words, in the Latin tongue, in which he was well versed

“‘Mors acerba, fama perpetua, stabit vetus memoria facti.'”

That is,

‘Death is bitter but fame is eternal, and the memory of the deed will endure.’

This attempt, quixotic and doomed, to depose an Italian tyrant by murdering him in church might well have formed the blueprint for a similar plot in Florence in 1478, the Pazzi conspiracy. That version was even less successful than its Milanese predecessor: at least Olgiati and company could say that they actually managed to kill their target before everything else hit the fan.

And republic or not, Sforza’s murder did shake up the polity. It put the Duchy of Milan in the hands of his wife, as the unsteady regent of a seven-year-old heir. A few years later, the late duke’s brother Ludovico displaced the regent and effectively bossed Milan until the French imprisoned him in 1500 during the Italian Wars.

While he had the run of the place, Ludovico Sforza commissioned of Leonardo da Vinci a monumental equestrian statue in memory of his brother that da Vinci never finished.† Quite strangely, the master’s notes were plumbed by a 20th century Pennsylvania airline pilot who dedicated the latter part of his life to actually casting “Leonardo’s Horse”.

* The names Visconti and Sforza are also associated with some of the earliest tarot decks and among the first to introduce to playing cards the use of trionfi, or “triumph” cards — that is, “trumps”. One can readily purchase present-day reprints of this historic pack.

** There is a positively maddening inconsistency, thus far irresolvable for this author, between accounts (here’s one example | and another) asserting that Carlo Visconti was slain by Sforza’s bodyguards directly after the assassination, and other accounts (like Gregory Lubkin’s 1994 history of Sforza’s Milan) that put Visconti on the scaffold beside Olgiati.

† Da Vinci’s ponderously slow progress on this high-profile project led Michelangelo to cattily impugn the rival artist’s bronze-casting aptitude.

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