1569: Gaspard de Coligny, in effigy

Add comment September 13th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1569, the intrepid Huguenot leader Gaspard de Coligny was hanged in Paris and gibbeted at Montfaucon. Luckily for him, Coligny as these events unfolded was miles away from the executioner, at the head of a large armed host.

One of the towering figures of France’s bloody Wars of Religion, Coligny (English Wikipedia entry | French) hailed from one of the most illustrious families of the realm; his father was a Marshal of France; as a young man at court in the 1540s he had been fast friends with the Duke of Guise, the staunch Catholic who was eventually the target of the botched Huguenot kidnapping in 1560 that set spark to tinder for sectarian civil war.

An admired battlefield commander, Coligny’s conversion to Protestant put a high card in the Huguenot party’s hand, one whom Catholic ultras increasingly yearned to eliminate.

Coligny frustrated that aspiration over and over. Just in 1569, he had escaped from a Catholic battlefield victory that saw the capture and murder of Protestant France’s other great leader; then, he routed the Catholics at La Roche-l’Abeille; and, just days before the events in this post, repelled the Siege of Poitiers.

With sectarian hatred running high that season in Paris — and the dwindling treasury in need of the capital infusions only forfeiture can supply — the Parlement summoned Coligny to a trial it knew he would not attend, and there condemned him a traitor in absentia.

The sentence was declared, barbarously ignoring every principle of justice. It denounced him as an outlaw. It forbade him “all defence against the charges and conclusions.” It branded him as a traitor, a conspirator, the disturber of peace, the violator of treaties, the author of rebellion and the like hard names. “Therefore, the said Coligny is deprived of all honours, estates and dignities, and sentenced to be strangled upon the Place de Greve, either in person or effigy, and his body to be hung upon a gibbet at Montfaucon. His arms and effigies to be dragged at the tail of a horse through the towns and fauxbourgs, and then to be broken and destroyed by the public executioner, in token of everlasting infamy. His feudal possessions to revert to the crown, and all his property to be confiscated to the king. His children are declared ignoble villains, plebeians, detestable, infamous, incapable of holding estates, offices and goods in this kingdom … No one shall give to the said Coligny shelter, aid, comfort, food, water, fuel or fire.” And, lastly, a reward of fifty thousand crowns was put upon his head. This was offered to “any person who should deliver the admiral, live or dead, into the hands of justice, with a full pardon if he was concerned in the rebellion.”

This sentence of Tuesday the thirteenth of September was enforced immediately. Nor was the violence confined to Coligny’s escutcheons for a troop was dispatched to the Coligny estates to sack his mansion, root up his vineyard, and put the adjoining town to the torch “so effectually that hardly a trace of it was left.”

Coligny himself fought on … but the ridiculous sentence foreshadowed his real fate, right down to the horrible gibbet.


The gibbet of Montfaucon, from the Grandes Chronique de France by Jean Fouquet (c. 1460).

With both Catholics and Huguenots gathered in Paris for the tense celebration of an intersectarian royal wedding, a Catholic assassin unsuccessfully attempted the life of Coligny on August 22, 1572 — placing the entire city on edge. Fearing the prospect of the now-vigilant Huguenots achieving either escape or revenge, Catholics unleashed on the night of August 23-24 a general massacre of Protestants that will blacken the feast of St. Bartholomew to the ends of recorded history. The injured Coligny was this butchery’s first and signal casualty, as we find from the historian Jacques Auguste de Thou, a witness to events as a young man in Paris —

The duke of Guise, who was put in full command of the enterprise, summoned by night several captains of the Catholic Swiss mercenaries from the five little cantons, and some commanders of French companies, and told them that it was the will of the king that, according to God’s will, they should take vengeance on the band of rebels while they had the beasts in the toils. Victory was easy and the booty great and to be obtained without danger. The signal to commence the massacre should be given by the bell of the palace, and the marks by which they should recognize each other in the darkness were a bit of white linen tied around the left arm and a white cross on the hat.

Meanwhile Coligny awoke and recognized from the noise that a riot was taking place. Nevertheless he remained assured of the king’s good will, being persuaded thereof either by his credulity or by Teligny, his son-in-law: he believed the populace had been stirred up by the Guises, and that quiet would be restored as soon as it was seen that soldiers of the guard, under the command of Cosseins, had been detailed to protect him and guard his property.

But when he perceived that the noise increased and that some one had fired an arquebus in the courtyard of his dwelling, then at length, conjecturing what it might be, but too late, he arose from his bed and having put on his dressing gown he said his prayers, leaning against the wall. Labonne held the key of the house, and when Cosseins commanded him, in the king’s name, to open the door he obeyed at once without fear and apprehending nothing. But scarcely had Cosseins entered when Labonne, who stood in his way, was killed with a dagger thrust. The Swiss who were in the courtyard, when they saw this, fled into the house and closed the door, piling against it tables and all the furniture they could find. It was in the first scrimmage that a Swiss was killed with a ball from an arquebus fired by one of Cosseins’ people. But finally the conspirators broke through the door and mounted the stairway, Cosseins, Attin, Corberan de Cordillac, Seigneur de Sarlabous, first captains of the regiment of the guards, Achilles Petrucci of Siena, all armed with cuirasses, and Besme the German, who had been brought up as a page in the house of Guise; for the duke of Guise was lodged at court, together with the great nobles and others who accompanied him.

After Coligny had said his prayers with Merlin the minister, he said, without any appearance of alarm, to those who were present (and almost all were surgeons, for few of them were of his retinue): “I see clearly that which they seek, and I am ready steadfastly to suffer that death which I have never feared and which for a long time past I have pictured to myself. I consider myself happy in feeling the approach of death and in being ready to die in God, by whose grace I hope for the life everlasting. I have no further need of human succor. Go then from this place, my friends, as quickly as you may, for fear lest you shall be involved in my misfortune, and that some day your wives shall curse me as the author of your loss. For me it is enough that God is here, to whose goodness I commend my soul, which is so soon to issue from my body.” After these words they ascended to an upper room, whence they sought safety in flight here and there over the roofs.

Meanwhile the conspirators, having burst through the door of the chamber, entered, and when Besme, sword in hand, had demanded of Coligny, who stood near the door, “Are you Coligny?” Coligny replied, “Yes, I am he,” with fearless countenance. “But you, young man, respect these white hairs. What is it you would do? You cannot shorten by many days this life of mine.” As he spoke, Besme gave him a sword thrust through the body, and having withdrawn his sword, another thrust in the mouth, by which his face was disfigured. So Coligny fell, killed with many thrusts. Others have written that Coligny in dying pronounced as though in anger these words: “Would that I might at least die at the hands of a soldier and not of a valet.” But Attin, one of the murderers, has reported as I have written, and added that he never saw any one less afraid in so great a peril, nor die more steadfastly.

Then the duke of Guise inquired of Besme from the courtyard if the thing were done, and when Besme answered him that it was, the duke replied that the Chevalier d’Angouleme was unable to believe it unless he saw it; and at the same time that he made the inquiry they threw the body through the window into the courtyard, disfigured as it was with blood. When the Chevalier d’Angouleme, who could scarcely believe his eyes, had wiped away with a cloth the blood which overran the face and finally had recognized him, some say that he spurned the body with his foot. However this may be, when he left the house with his followers he said: “Cheer up, my friends! Let us do thoroughly that which we have begun. The king commands it.” He frequently repeated these words, and as soon as they had caused the bell of the palace clock to ring, on every side arose the cry, “To arms!” and the people ran to the house of Coligny. After his body had been treated to all sorts of insults, they threw it into a neighboring stable, and finally cut off his head, which they sent to Rome. They also shamefully mutilated him, and dragged his body through the streets to the bank of the Seine, a thing which he had formerly almost prophesied, although he did not think of anything like this.

As some children were in the act of throwing the body into the river, it was dragged out and placed upon the gibbet of Montfaucon, where it hung by the feet in chains of iron; and then they built a fire beneath, by which he was burned without being consumed; so that he was, so to speak, tortured with all the elements, since he was killed upon the earth, thrown into the water, placed upon the fire, and finally put to hang in the air. After he had served for several days as a spectacle to gratify the hate of many and arouse the just indignation of many others, who reckoned that this fury of the people would cost the king and France many a sorrowful day, Francois de Montmorency, who was nearly related to the dead man, and still more his friend, and who moreover had escaped the danger in time, had him taken by night from the gibbet by trusty men and carried to Chantilly, where he was buried in the chapel.


Print by Flemish-German artist Frans Hogenberg depicts on the lower left the assassination attempt on Coligny of August 22, 1573, and on the right the next night’s bedroom attack upon the wounded man, with the murderers spilling his body out the window. (Click for a larger image)

(Belatedly) part of the Themed Set: Executions in Effigy.

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1569: Orthodox Metropolitan Philip II of Moscow

Add comment December 23rd, 2016 Headsman

This date in 1569, Orthodox Metropolitan Philip II of Moscow was martyred for his opposition to Ivan the Terrible.

He was elevated in 1566 as Russia’s top prelate* by that same Ivan, who soon regretted and then raged at his selection when Philip righteously withheld the church’s blessing from the tyrant in the midst of Ivan’s Oprichnina bloodbath.

That was in Lent of 1568. Before the year was out Ivan, who did not fear to bully churchmen, had forced Philip’s deposition and had him immured in a Tver monastery.

Safely out of the way there, the tsar’s fell henchman Malyuta Skuratov arrived two days before Christmas of 1569 pretending to bear a message. “My friend, do what you have come to do,” the monk replied. Skuratov strangled him to death.


Here comes trouble: Metropolitan Philip in prayer as his executioner arrives. (By Aleksandr Nikanorovich Novoskoltsev, 1880s.) For a more mannered and less violent interpretation of the same scene, try this number by Nikolai Nevrev

The Russian Orthodox Church observes this saint’s feast date on January 9. His relics are enshrined today at the Kremlin’s Dormition Cathedral.

* Moscow did not become a patriarchate until 1589, so Philip did not bear that title.

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1569: Louis de Bourbon, Prince of Conde, at the Battle of Jarnac

Add comment March 13th, 2015 Headsman

In an admittedly borderline “execution”, Louis de Bourbon, the Hugueunot Prince of Conde, was killed summarily at the end of the Battle of Jarnac on this date in 1569.

This nobleman’s conversion to Protestantism had been attended with the zeal so usual to that period. In the case of Conde (English Wikipedia link | French), that meant dipping his beak into some dramatic plotting.

Though nothing could be proved about him, the Catholic faction suspected him of being a leading spirit in the 1560 Amboise Conspiracy, a plot to kidnap King Francis II.

Nothing daunted by its failure, he spearheaded the even riskier Surprise de Meaux, a design to seize not only King Charles IX but the rest of the royal family in 1567. This time, failure triggered a whole new installment of the on-again, off-again Wars of Religion.

The Year of Our Lord 1569 found Conde at the head of the principal Huguenot army in an extremely tense country. On March 13, that army met the Catholic force of Marshal Gaspard de Saulx at the Battle of Jarnac.*

The result was a smashing victory for the Catholics. As the disaster unfolded, Conde, wounded and alone, tried to offer his surrender to an enemy guardsman. He was instead shot on the spot — and his body borne back to Catholic lines for jeering.

This crippling defeat set the stage for the uneasy truce that quelled religious bloodshed in 1570 — the truce that would be shattered by the 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.

* The teenage Walter Raleigh fought at this battle on the Huguenot side.

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1569: Vladimir of Staritsa, royal cousin

Add comment October 9th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1569, Vladimir of Staritsa was forced by Ivan the Terrible’s goons to drink poison.

Vladimir was Ivan’s (barely) younger cousin, both of them grandsons of Russia’s state-building Ivan the Great.

Ivan the Terrible, of course, was the heir to the throne, an inheritance he received at the tender age of three when his father died unexpectedly — leading to Ivan’s famously miserable childhood of being kicked around by the boyars.

The dreadful relationship thereby fostered between throne and nobles came to a crossroads in 1553, when Ivan the Terrible appeared to be on his deathbed. The fading tsar tried to get those boyars to swear loyalty to Ivan’s infant son. Most of the boyars openly preferred the adult Vladimir of Staritsa.

This dramatic encounter is a pivotal episode in Sergei Eisenstein’s classic film Ivan the Terrible.

Instead of dying, Ivan surprisingly recovered. Awkward!

Vladimir actually survived this episode, and he himself may not even have been actively trying to claim the throne: the boyars hated Ivan plenty without his seditious assistance.

And for a while it looked as if any ill feelings were water under the bridge. Vladimir swore loyalty to Ivan upon the latter’s recovery, fought military campaigns alongside Ivan, and was even depended upon by Ivan as a guarantor of peace among Ivan’s own several potentially rivalrous sons.*

But that was the 1550s.

As the 1560s unfolded, Ivan grew increasingly mistrustful of his boyars’ loyalty.** According to this volume, an elevation of Vladimir to the throne was the object of at least one plot during those years. As Ivan’s only male cousin, he was a natural successor should Ivan be deposed, and therefore a natural focal point for Ivan’s enemies.

When Ivan eventually gave rein to his paranoia and unleashed the bloody purges of the oprichnina, Vladimir inevitably succumbed. Ivan decreed his death and forced him to administer the sentence by his own hand with a draught of poison, even going so far as to extirpate Vladimir’s wife and children, too.†

In a twist of the cruel irony Russian history is so susceptible to, Ivan the Terrible’s homicidal suspicion of his relations helped to doom Ivan’s own Rurik dynasty: after Ivan accidentally killed his own son and heir in a fit of pique, the succession which might have found a backup option in Vladimir and his offspring instead utterly collapsed — plunging Russia into the “Time of Troubles” out of which one of those former boyar families, the Romanovs, emerged with the throne after all.

* See Sergei Bogatyrev, “Reinventing the Russian Monarchy in the 1550s: Ivan the Terrible, the Dynasty, and the Church”, The Slavonic and East European Review, Apr. 2007. (pdf here)

** Ivan’s nasty turn after 1560 might trace to the untimely death of his wife Anastasia Romanovna, whom Ivan suspected might have been poisoned by those hated boyars.

† One daughter Maria Vladimirovna of Staritsa, survived.

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1569: Three Huguenot Parisians

Add comment July 1st, 2011 Headsman

France during its intractable 16th century Wars of Religion was a scary place to be on the wrong team at the wrong time — nowhere more so than Catholic Paris, for its Protestant Huguenot minority. This, after all, is the city that Henri IV had to capture by conversion, with that quotable bow to temporal expediency, “Paris is worth a mass.”*

On this date in 1569, that settlement lay decades in the future … but looming around the corner was the era’s signature atrocity, the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre.

But Paris was already on tenterhooks in the 1560s as an abortive peace gave way to another installment of armed conflict, the “third war”, and the city girded itself against Huguenots without and within.


The state of the discourse: Catholic anti-Huguenot propaganda (click for larger image) from 1562 shows the heretics mounting a Catholic priest on the cross and shooting him. (Hey, don’t say it could never happen)

The September, 1568 Edict of Saint-Maur deprived Protestants of religious freedom, and municipal regulations confined most Huguenots to their homes — one part religious discrimination, one part pre-emptive crowd control in a city liable to pop out an anti-Huguenot pogrom at any moment. That happened in January to our day’s victims, Philippe and Richard de Gastines (father and son, respectively) and their in-law Nicolas Croquet, when a crowd attacked their home on suspicion of celebrating a Protestant Last Supper.

the seizure of the Gastines, along with several of their relatives and neighbors, took place amid widespread public disturbances … “The Huguenots were so hated by the Parisian populace that, if the king and authorities had let them have their way, there would not have been one [Huguenot] in the whole city who was not attacked.” De Thou added that crowds of people followed after the magistrates of Parlement when they left the Palais de Justice and so threatened them that they eventually pronounced a death sentence against the Gastines for a crime that would ordinarily have warranted banishment or a mere fine.**

The crowd also destroyed the subversive house. Upon the site of the former residence, the Parisian parliament erected a pyramid surmounted by a crucifix — the “Croix de Gastines”. This popular monument of religious chauvinism was maintained against a royal demand to demolish it for two-plus years, until the Marshall of France finally did so by force.†

But the Gastines were remembered by the Huguenot party, too.

The Protestant French poet Agrippa d’Aubigne, who grew up during this delirious age, retrieved the story of their martyrdom — and the somewhat incidental fact that Richard de Gastines had also been (non-capitally) convicted for a minor incident of supposed heretical evangelizing while languishing in prison — and made Gastines the eloquent exponent of Protestant fidelity in d’Aubigne’s poetical magnum opus, Les Tragiques. The relevant bit, rousing other prisoners to embrace the torments of martyrdom, is available in French here. (There’s a bit more about d’Aubigne’s martyr-making in this book.)

* And also the city where a Catholic assassin murdered that monarch.

** Barbara Diefendorf, “Prologue to a Massacre: Popular Unrest in Paris, 1557-1572,” The American Historical Review, Dec., 1985

† The Marshal literally had to shed blood to repel the throng attempting to defend the Croix. Frustrated of its public monument, the mob proceeded to sack two neighboring homes believed occupied by Protestant fellow-travelers. Both those domiciles were again of mob violence during the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. (Diefendorf)

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1569: Dirk Willems, for loving his enemy

5 comments May 16th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1569, Dirk Willems paid the penalty for a famous act of charity.

Willems was condemned by the still-ascendant Catholic church as an Anabaptist, but escaped prison.

Fleeing a pursuer across a frozen pond, Willems had an opportunity to make good his escape when his persecutor crashed through the ice. But he turned back to save the drowning man:

One good turn did not deserve another: the man arrested Willems, and the compassionate Protestant found himself burned to death* this day at Asperen.

Hundreds of Anabaptists suffered similar fates, many of them registered in the Martyrs Mirror (available online here). But Dirk Willems’ story has always been one of the most affecting and popular with the Mennonite communities who trace their lineage to the Anabaptists:

[W]hen he fled he was hotly pursued by a thief-catcher, and as there had been some frost, said Dirk Willems ran before over the ice, getting across with considerable peril. The thief-catcher following him broke through, when Dirk Willems, perceiving that the former was in danger of his life, quickly returned and aided him in getting out, and thus saved his life. The thiefcatcher wanted to let him go, but the burgomaster, very sternly called to him to consider his oath, and thus he was again seized by the thief-catcher, and, at said place, after severe imprisonment and great trials proceeding from the deceitful papists, put to death at a lingering fire by these bloodthirsty, ravening wolves, enduring it with great steadfastness, and confirming the genuine faith of the truth with his death and blood, as an instructive example to all pious Christians of this time, and to the everlasting disgrace of the tyrannous papists.

(Bygones, tyrannous papists: last year, a Mennonite delegation to the Vatican gave Pope Benedict XVI a framed picture of Willems saving his romish persecutor.)

Few are the faiths that lack a martyrology, but notwithstanding the incendiary language of our 17th-century source, the place of martyrs (“Dirk Willems warns Mennonites not to expect to be rewarded for good works — a sharp contradiction to the American gospel of success”) and the right way to commemorate them without stoking confessional hostility occupy unusually nuanced places in Mennonite thought.

* The burning came off badly, the Martyrs Mirror records:

[A] strong east wind blowing that day, the kindled fire was much driven away from the upper part of his body, as he stood at the stake; in consequence of which this good man suffered a lingering death, insomuch that in the town of Leerdam, towards which the wind was blowing, he was heard to exclaim over seventy times, “O my Lord; my God,” etc., for which cause the judge or bailiff, who was present on horseback, filled with sorrow and regret at the man’s sufferings, wheeled about his horse, turning his back toward the place of execution, and said to the executioner, “Dispatch the man with a quick death.” But how or in what manner the executioner then dealt with this pious witness of Jesus, I have not been able to learn, except only, that his life was consumed by the fire.

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