1499: Paolo Vitelli, duplicitous commander

Add comment October 1st, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1499, Florence decapitated its chief general for dereliction of command.

Paolo Vitelli, a noted condottiero whose family had taken over Citta di Castello, was hired by the post-Savonarola Florentine Republic during the Italian Wars to campaign against Florence’s traditional rival, Pisa.

“If this man had taken Pisa, nobody can deny that it would have been proper for the Florentines to keep in with him,” mused Machiavelli years later in The Prince. “For if he became the soldier of their enemies they had no means of resisting, and if they held to him they must obey him.”

The prospective kingpin made fantastic progress against the Pisans, and when news reached his Florentine patrons that Vitelli had taken a key gate in Pisa’s walls, the city smugly began drawing up wishlists of humiliations to heap upon the vanquished. But at the critical moment, “just when the whole army, and especially the youthful Florentines who had joined the camp as volunteers, were carrying all before them by their indomitable ardour, they were suddenly ordered to retreat. And Paolo Vitelli, seeing the unwillingness of the soldiers to obey, rushed among them with his brother Vitellozzo* and drove them back with blows.”

As jaws hit tables all around Florence, Pisa’s defenders were hurriedly patching the breach and retrenching. The attackers had ransacked their treasury to finance the expedition; there was nothing for a do-over. Had Vitelli quailed, or was he playing some double game? Either way, Machiavelli lamented — contemporaneously this time, in his capacity as an emissary of state — “We should have preferred defeat to inaction at so decisive a moment.”

With mingled urgency and circumspection, Florence’s leaders arranged to invite Vitteli to a war council at which he was arrested. Interrogated on September 30th, he was beheaded the very next day.

* Three years later, Paolo’s brother Vitellozzo would also achieve the pages of Executed Today … and once again did so under the sharp eyes of Machiavelli.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Florence,History,Italy,Military Crimes,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1499: Perkin Warbeck, Princes in the Tower pretender

18 comments November 23rd, 2010 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this day in 1499, Perkin Warbeck, pretender to the English throne, was hung at Tyburn for treason. He didn’t fare as well as the previous royal pretender, Lambert Simnel, who was pardoned by King Henry VII and made a spit-turner in the royal kitchens.

Warbeck claimed he was Richard, Duke of York, the younger son of King Edward IV. Richard and his older brother, the would-be Edward V, mysteriously vanished around 1483, allegedly murdered by their allegedly evil uncle Richard III, who had already had them declared illegitimate. (Shakespeare made this version — which was congenial to the ruling Tudor dynasty of his time — the standard in Richard III; the play channeled Thomas More‘s history of Richard.)

The murder story has never been proven and the princes’ bodies were never identified, leaving a yeasty petri dish for pretenders to grow and multiply — and so they did.

Warbeck, who later admitted he was actually born in Tournai, in Flanders, in approximately 1474 (his father is described by one source as “a renegade Jew”) first claimed to be the Duke of York either while at the court of Burgundy in France in 1490, or while serving a silk merchant in Ireland in 1491.

He did bear a strong resemblance to Edward IV, but there is no evidence that he was really Richard of York or that he and the late king were related in any way.

Nonetheless, his claim was soon recognized by Charles VIII, King of France … and it naturally appealed to the fledgling Tudor dynasty’s potential internal rivals, too.

Margaret of Burgundy, who was Edward IV’s sister and the disappeared Duke of York’s aunt, was one of these educated the pretender about “his” history and the ways of the English court, and she helped finance Warbeck’s attempted conquest of England in 1495. It went badly from the beginning: Warbeck’s army was trounced and 150 of his troops were killed on the beach in Kent before he even made it ashore. Warbeck fled to Ireland and then Scotland.

Warbeck had more success in his second invasion attempt, in Cornwall in 1497 on the heels of the Cornish Rebellion.

Warbeck promised an end to the exorbitant taxes levied on the citizenry, which welcomed both pretender and promise with open arms. His army grew to 6,000 or 7,000 men, and Warbeck began calling himself Richard IV of England, but when he found out King Henry was after him he panicked and deserted his men.

He was captured and imprisoned at the infamous Tower of London, but not before being “paraded through the streets on horseback amid much hooting and derision of the citizens.”

The execution was not until 1499, and only after it was alleged that Warbeck tried to escape with a real royal claimant, Edward Plantagenet, Earl of Warwick. On November 23, Warbeck was taken from the Tower to Tyburn, where he read out a confession and was hanged. His wife, Lady Catherine Gordon, a cousin of the King of Scotland, had a better fate; she was given a pension and a job of lady-in-waiting to the Queen.

At least she didn’t have to turn a kitchen spit.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Other Voices,Power,Pretenders to the Throne,Public Executions,Treason

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