1594: Michael Renichon, impoverished assassin

Add comment June 3rd, 2017 Headsman

Confession of Michael Renichon of Templeu, Parson of Bossier, in the County of Namours

Concerning, The bloudy enterprise, which by him should have bene committed upon the person of County Maurice, Prince of Orange, as also, The sentence denounced against hym for that déede, in the Haghe on the third of June 1594.

Printed at Utrecht, by Salomon de Roy, ordinary Printer of the Estates, in their language, and now truely translated into english by R. R.

LONDON Imprinted by John Wolfe. 1594.

Michael Renichon of Templeu, and Parson of Bossier in the County of Namur aforesaid (dispatched with Letters of the Earle of Barlaymont, in the habite of a Souldier, from Brussel, the tenth day of March last:) was by Convoy conducted thence to Louen, Diest, Herentals, and Tuernoult: from whence accompanied onely with one of the garrison of the sayd Towne, he was guided to the Towne of Bredau: where being entred, he delivered certaine close sealed Letters, unto the Governour there, which were addressed from the Earle of Barlaymont unto Captayne Larigon Commaunder of the Castle of Tuernoult, importing, that the bringer thereof, was sent thither by expresse commaundement of Archduke Ernestus of Austria, to communicate unto him a certaine enterprise, to be done upon the towne of Bredau.

The Gouernour desirous to be by him further instructed, as well of the cause of his comming thither, as of the particularities of the said enterprise: Renichon first humbly besought him, that it would please him to entertaine him into his service, and then, persisting (though differing and dubling in his assertions, which savored of manifest untruethes) that his matter was just and perfect: Affirmed, that for certaine yeares, he had bene Secretary to the Abbot of Malonne, and for his knowledge and experience, he was by him advaunced to the same place, with the Earle of Barlaymont: from whome hee had after thys manner withdrawen himselfe, onely for the fervent desire hé had to doe him service, with such other the like accomplements.

The Governour finding small probability in hys filed speeches, feared greatly some pretence of waightier matter: and for that cause, caused him forthwith to be conveighed to the Haghe: Where, upon the first of Aprill, (fearing what would ensue) he attempted to strangle himselfe with a corde made of points and stringes of his Armes, fastened to a certayne iron in the Gaole, under which he was found all be blouded, and speechlesse.

Revived now, and come to his speech agayne, one demaunded for what cause he would have committed this acte upon himselfe: whereunto replying, hee confessed volontarily, without proffer of any torture or constraint, as well by word of mouth, on the second of Aprill, as also afterward by his owne hand writing at sundry times, as namely on the twentieth day of Aprill, and last of May, the very absolute trueth of hys comming thither: affirming the speeches uttered by him and fathered uppon the Abbot of Malonne, and Earle of Barlaymont, to bee false and forged, acknowledging further.

That having had long processe in Law against his Parishioners of Bossier, touching the revenues of his Parsonage: as also endamaged through the dayly incursions of the unbrideled souldiours: he was enforced by meere necessity about some two yeares sithence, to abandon his Parsonage, and committing the cure thereof unto a Chaplaine, retired himselfe unto the Towne of Namours, where he supplied the roome of a Scholemaster.

The Earle of Barlaymont, having had some intelligence of my being there, entreated me by some of hys gentlemen, on an Evening to suppe with him: supper being ended, the Earle retired himselfe into hys Chamber, and commaunded me to bee brought in to him: where (his people withdrawen) he asked me how I could with so small allowance content my self, and spend my time, to so little proffite, adding further, that hee knew the meanes how to advaunce my estate, if eyther I would seeke it at his handes, or rouse and plucke up my appaled spirites, for which his honourable courtesies, humbly thanking him, I presented him my best service.

The which now presented, hee tooke occasion to send for me in February last past, by his Chaplaine after supper, falling in discourse with me, in the presence of some other, of an enterprise to be done upon the Towne of Bredau.

Likewise at an other time being entred into his Chamber, he sent for me againe, at which time he tolde mee, that hee was to communicate unto me a matter of greater consequence and importance, and that if I would employ my selfe in the service of the king, he would richly and royally recompence me. Uppon which promise, I vowed my service to him againe.

Not long after this, I was by him commaunded to follow him to Brussels, where the sayd Earle divers and sondry times frequenting the Court, at length commanded me to attend on him thither: with whome passing from chamber to chamber, at last, the Earle entred the chamber of the Archduke Ernestus: whom I then beheld, minding to follow after hym: at which tyme I was partly hindered by the suddaine falling too of the doore: which not fully shut, (listening what might passe betwéene the Archduke and the sayd Earle,) I easely heard them speake Spanish and Latine: and at sundry times, make repetition of recompence and reward: The Earle ready to take hys leave of the Duke, who brought him to the chamber doore: the Duke at his last farewell, sayd, Cumulate & largo foenore satisfaciam. When the Earle returned, he told mee, that they had all that time, conferred about my matters: and that the Archduke had ordained two hundred Phillips Dollors to be delivered me.

Retired now to his lodging, he gave me further to understand that the Archdukes pleasure and full intention was, to roote out, or by a third hand violently to murther the Counte Maurice of Nassau: and for that end and purpose, he had already dispatched certaine other persons, assuring me, that if I would likewise undertake the like action, it should be great advauncement for me and all my fréendes: saying further, that there were allready fiftéene thousand crownes gathered together, to bee disbursed to him, that first should bring to passe the foresaid massacre or murther.

Uppon this point I aunsweared the Earle, that it was an action méerely impertinent to my profession, who had never borne armes: he replied that it was the will and pleasure of the king, and the commaund of the Archduke, and therewithall, fell to perswading me agayne wyth many vehement reasons, in such sort, as I promised to do my uttermost endevor to that ende.

Thereuppon I desired the said Earle, to instruct mee how I might behave my selfe in this enterprise: hee aunsweared, that the Counte Maurice being a yong noble man, very familiar and popular, it were a very easie matter to insinuate himselfe in hys favor: that it must not bee wrought in hast or rashly, but wyth great advise and leysure, That he was to make hys repaire into the Haghe, or such other place where the Counte were most restant: that there, he should under the coullour of teaching a common schoole, expect and waight for the comming of such other as were assigned to the like ende and purpose (whereof there were six and he was the seaventh, who taking advise and councell together uppon one observation made, might easely woorke the depth of their desire: advising me further, that I was to provide my selfe of a paire of good Pistols, with firelockes, the which (biting carefully and clenly kept) I should charge with two or thrée bullets, and upon the first occasion proffered, should shoot through the said Counte, or otherwise murther hym by what devyse or practise I either best could my selfe: or the other which yet were to repayre unto me. In conclusion affirming, that hee who best and first behaved himselfe in this action, should be best and first rewarded.

That there were also other, which were to be made away by like practise, videlicet, Barnevelt, Longolius, and S. Allegonde: of whome, or any of them, if he could procure their death and destruction: he should bee richly likewise recompenced, charginge him especially to alter his name, and to apparell himselfe souldiorlike for this purpose.

These and such other exhortations ended, the Counte Barlaymont caused certayne other persons to bee brought into my presence: of whome, he said that one of them, was of the six above mentioned: to whome he declared that I was lately adopted into their fellowship: upon which spéech, the said party embracing me, called me his Camerado: assuring me that in short time, he would follow me into Holland, for and upon the like occasions.

The said Countie further declared, that the sayde sixe persons are, and have bene ever since the death of the Prince of Parma, and before, notorious murtherers, and that they are allowed gentlemens pay in the Court there, by the King, and uppon any such desperate action, are onely and ever employed against the ennemy.

Thus retyring himselfe from our company, he dispatched hys Secretary incontinently to Stephen de Narra, of whome he received in sundry kindes of quoyne, the foresayde somme of two hundred Dollars, the which was presently by him delivered me.

Being now furnished of all things expedient for my iourney, and ready to depart from Brussels to Andwerpe, I was by one of the sixe persons above mencioned, conducted to the Schuite, who at my very departure signified unto mee, that hee assuredly hoped to have borne me company to Leiden: of whom demaunding where that was, and to what ende: hee aunsweared me, that Leiden was a Towne and an University in Holland, wher the younge Prince of Orange studied, whether hee should likewise be employed, to the intent that insinuating himselfe into his favor, he might with better conveniency bereave hym of hys life.

Thus resolved to obey the Counte of Barlaymonts pleasure and commaund, I first cloathed my selfe souldierlike, named my selfe Michil de Triuier, and arrived at Andwerpe with the forsaid Letters of the County of Barlaymont, addressed to Largion, where (understanding that he was upon occasions departed from Tuernault) I was enforced to alter my course, and returned to Brussels againe: where receiving other Letters of the foresaide County, tooke my way to Louen, Diest, Herentals, and Tuernault, from whence as aforesaid, I came to Bredau.

The generall Estates of the united Provinces of the Low-Countries, duely examining the state of this cause, finding it a matter of very evill example, as also, that in a Country of Justice, where all daungerous and perillous actions and eventes ought to be prevented, and the peace and tranquillity of the same highly preferred and advaunced, estéemed it in their wisedomes a matter not onely not tollerable, but rather severely to bee punished, to the terror and example of all other: and thereuppon have condemned and adjudged, and doe by these presentes condemne and judge the Author of this intended murther, to be presently conveighed from hence to the ordinary place of execution, and there to be beheaded with the sword: and afterwardes, hys body to be quartered, his head to bee put uppon a pole, and the quarters hanged on the foure corners of the Haghe, declaring further his goods to be confiscated.

This was pronounced in the Audience of the Court of Hol?land, the third of June 1594. And Signed

Nievelt.

Under that was written, The Decree of the foresaid Councel. And was subscribed.

J. van Zuilon.

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1592: Thomas Pormort, prey of Richard Topcliffe

Add comment February 20th, 2017 Headsman

Thomas Pormort (or Pormant) was hanged on this date in 1592 on a gibbet erected adjacent to a Paul’s Churchyard haberdashery whose proprietor had once entrusted the condemned Catholic priest with his confession.

Pormort was a priest trained on the continent who returned to native soil about the beginning of 1591 to brave the Elizabethan persecution, but managed only a few months in the field before his arrest.

He had the misfortune to face the personal interrogation of the vindictive inquisitor Richard Topcliffe, notorious even in his own day for his gleeful sadism. Topcliffe seems not to have even feigned a politic distaste for the breaking of bones and and of men and made a point to attend the executions his offices effected, including Pormort’s.

Now, back in the day such grim ministers of state could be empowered to toy with their prey in their very own lairs. Even the sainted Thomas More had kept a personal torture chamber at his own home.

So it was with Topcliffe, who inflicted his hospitality on Pormort in the intimacy of his own place, where he apparently had the facilities necessary to put a prisoner to the rack. According to Portmort, the torturer had another intimacy besides during their pain-wracked discourse, taunting or boasting to his victim of carnal indulgences he enjoyed from the queen herself. Pormort would allege at the bar that

Topcliffe told [Pormort] that he was so familiar with her Majesty that he many times putteth [his hands] between her breasts and paps and in her neck.

That he hath not only seen her legs and knees [but feeleth them] with his hands above her knees.

That he hath felt her belly, and said unto her Majesty that she had the softest belly of any woman kind.

That she said unto him, ‘be not these the arms, legs and body of King Henry?’ To which he answered: ‘Yea.’

That she gave him for a favour a white linen hose wrought with white silk, etc.

That he is so familiar with her that, when he pleaseth to speak with her, he may take her away from any company; and that she is as pleasant with everyone that she doth love.

This Penthouse letter for the queen has no factual plausibility, and nobody thought so in 1592. Whether the priest’s report of its utterance is an actual glimpse into a seditious perversion of the torturer, or a desperate attempt by a doomed man to smear his persecutor, Topcliffe took the matter seriously enough that he made Pormort stand on the ladder under his noose in freezing cold for two hours on execution day while Topcliffe browbeat him to withdraw the allegation. (Pormort didn’t budge.)

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1594: Jean Châtel, lipstabber

Add comment December 29th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1594, Catholic militant Jean Châtel was dismembered for the near-assassination of King Henri IV.

Just two days before his public butchery, the 19-year-old clothier’s son (English Wikipedia entry | French) had milled about in a crowd awaiting the Huguenot* king’s return from Picardy. As Henri entered the Hotel de Bouchage and bent over to accept the obeisance of two courtiers, Châtel sprang out of the crowd and daggered him. The blade cut Henri’s lip — a glancing blow just a few degrees distant from a history-altering one.

Châtel would cite Jesuitical inspiration, and when his instructors’ quarters were searched they yielded seditious exhortations against Protestant princes. One Guignard, who had authored the most inflammatory tracts (e.g., regretting that Henri had not been slain at the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre), was put to death on January 7; the rest of the order was expelled from Paris — as was Châtel’s family, whose home was razed and replaced with a monument against religious fanaticism.


The pyramid memorial was replaced by a succession of fountains, of which the most recent is the present-day Fontaine Cuvier.

It was of course far too much to hope that this scolding plinth could bring down the dangerous sectarian temperatures raised by a half-century of civil war. In his time Henri IV evaded numerous — some 20 or more — attempts on his life, before a different Catholic enragee, one Francois Ravaillac, successfully murdered him in 1610.

* The threat of pedantry in the comments section obliges us to allow that Henri nominally converted to Catholicism in order to take the throne and end the Wars of Religion — the occasion on which he was purported to murmur that (staunchly Catholic) Paris is worth a Mass.

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1591: Brian O’Rourke, Irish lord

Add comment November 3rd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1591, Brian na Múrtha Ó Ruairc — Brian O’Rourke to the English who killed him — was drawn and quartered as a rebel at Tyburn.

O’Rourke was a chieftain in a disappearing world, the Gaelic Ireland that the English had been engaged in reducing ever since King Henry VIII realized that he was King of Ireland back in 1542.

O’Rourke’s patrimony in this Tudor conquest was the kingdom of West Breifne, with a lineage going right back to its 12th century founder. As far as the Tudors were concerned he was just one more truculent local lord to subdue — even if the very “proudest man this day living on the earth.” (per Nicholas Maltby)

O’Rourke’s pride put him into oppositin against the English satrap and even to succor sailors taking refuge from the shattered Spanish Armada in 1588. But fighting in his environs and eventual outright occupation steadily constrained the scope of his autonomy.

In the end it was his brother-Celts in Scotland who finished him: when O’Rourke turned up there in 1591 seeking license to recruit sword-arms there from King James VI (James was not yet James I of England at this point), Queen Elizabeth successfully prevailed upon her Scottish counterpart to arrest and extradite the man — an incident that triggered a riot in Glasgow.

Tried on the highly dubious grounds of treason against England committed in Ireland — plus a lese-majeste incident of having the queen’s image dragged in the mud tossed into the indictment for good measure* — O’Rourke scornfully refused to plead, or to defend himself unless Elizabeth herself would deign to sit in judgment — sovereign to sovereign. The court required only O’Rourke’s body, not his assent, to proceed.

O’Rourke had a sharp enough tongue when minded to deploy it, however. On the scaffold, he witheringly abused the notoriously avaricious bishop Miler Magrath who had been sent to minister to him. Then …

Upon Wednesdaie the 3 of November, Bren O’Royrke was drawne to Tyborne, and there hanged, his members and bowels burned in the fire, his heart taken out, and holden up by the hangman, naming it to be the archtraytors heart, and then did he cast the same into the fire, then was the head stricken off, and his bodie quartered

-John Stowe, The Annales of England (1605) (via)

O’Rourke’s son Brian oge O’Rourke inherited his position, and his struggle, until younger brother Tadgh O’Rourke deposed him with English support. Tadgh died young in 1605 — and with him, West Breifne expired too.

* Enjoy an itemized list of the naughty O’Rourke’s many offenses against English sensibilities from page 144 of this public domain volume.

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1595: Gabriel de Espinosa, the confectioner of Madrigal

Add comment August 1st, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1595, Gabriel de Espinosa the “confectioner of Madrigal” was put to death for impersonating the late king of Portugal. Most accessible information about this queer case appears in Spanish, as are most of the links in this post.

The confectioner’s fall began in Morocco 17 years before, almost to the day. On the fourth of August 1578, the King Sebastian of Portugal — who had no child and no sibling — bravely and foolishly got himself killed crusading against the Moors and set up a succession crisis that enabled neighboring Spain to gobble up the kingdom.

As this scenario spawned multiple executions, so we have already dealt with the background in greater detail.

Its strange outgrowth was “Sebastianism”, a local variation of the widespread “king under the mountain” myth. Sebastian’s body was not recovered, and Portuguese survivors straggling back home brought confusion and rumor as to his fate.* Since the kingdom itself had followed the young king into occultation, his stunned subjects widely embraced the unlikely fancy that the prince was about to return to put things right.

“Portugal could accept defeat at the hands of the Moors, but not the loss of national independence,” Mary Elizabeth Brook wrote in “From Military Defeat to Immortality: The Birth of Sebastianism,” Luso-Brazilian Review, Winter 1964. As its people “considered Sebastian’s death to be the sole cause of national ills, they were not ready to believe that he was really dead.”

These stories compounded themselves by spawning fresh rumors of the elusive king — deep in penance for losing the battle, some said — said to be sighted here or there like Bigfoot, according to your cousin’s best friend’s groomsman who heard it from a traveler at a roadside inn. Twice in the 1580s, popular superstition elevated to royal pretender two different mystery men.

While these affairs had an accidental and ad hoc character, our Gabriel de Espinosa arising in 1594 was diligently contrived.

The Augustinian friar Miguel dos Santos, a follower of the exiled clainant to the Portuguese throne,** somehow scrounged up a Spanish pastry-maker with an uncommon felicity in languages† and took him under his wing until he could do a passable impression of the late king. This Gabriel de Espinosa was then to be paired up with a Portuguese dowager princess who had been socked away in a nunnery during the succession mess. This would have been a considerable promotion for both characters, but the process of quietly gathering support for these would-be rulers could not avoid detection.

Both the imposter and his mentor were hanged for their trouble, but the confectioner’s refusal under torture to acknowledge himself as Gabriel and his regal bearing at the noose did well by his pretense to the very last. He’s perhaps the most appealing of the Sebastianist pretenders for this reason, and is even occasionally mooted as the real deal — as in Jose Zorrilla’s romantic poem Traidor, Inconfeso y Martir, which conceives Gabriel as the actual Dom Sebastian. (The confectioner of madrigal has enjoyed frequent literary attention through the ages.)

Since it was always about something much more profound than the man himself, it’s no surprise that Sebastianism like other “sleeping king” superstitions very long outlasted the plausible lifespan of its namesake. When Portugal finally regained independence from Spain in 1640, the new King John IV had to promise to surrender his throne should Sebastian reappear: Sebastian would have been 86 years old at the time. The messianic cult even hopped the Atlantic and found a home in Brazil well into the 19th century.

* According to Brook, two Portuguese chroniclers did in fact see Sebastian’s body identified by captured Portuguese noblemen after the battle. But the Sebastianism cult had its legs long before such reports filtered back to the homeland.

** It was in service of the this exile’s claim that the Florentine adventurer Philippe Strozzi got killed trying to capture the Azores.

† Apparently the baker was a former soldier and had also thereby acquired some skills like horsemanship that also proved handy for feigning nobility.

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1591: Arnold Cosbie, writing his own elegy

Add comment January 27th, 2016 Arnold Cosbie

The manner of the death and execution of Arnold Cosbie, for murdering the Lord Burke, who was executed at Wanswoorth town's end on the 27 of January 1591. With certain verses written by the said Cosby in the time of his imprisonment, containing matter of great effect, as well touching his life as also his penitencie before his death.

ARNOLD COSBIE’S
ultimum vale to the vain world.

An Elegy written by himself
in the Marshalsea after his condemnation.

Break heart, be mute my sorrows past compare,
Cosbie complain no more, but sit and die,
Tears are no tokens of such dreriment,
As thy true grief pours to the angry heavens,
The heavens offended with thy foul misdeeds,
O great Commander of this glorious round,
The workmanship of thine immortal hand,
Thou that doest ride upon the Cherubins,
And tunest the deeps in dreadful harmony,
Cast down thine eye upon a wretched soul,
And from thy throne of grace great Jacob’s God
Rain mercy on me miserable man,
Fallen into snares of sin and shameful death,
From thee sweet Savior, Savior of the world.
O world, vain world, unconstant, & unkind,
Why hast thou bred me, nursed me, brought me up,
To see this day of sorrow and of shame:
Cosbie complain. Captains and men of war,
With whom I wholime spent my careless days,
Days dated but to this, to end in shame,
Farewell, adieu to you and all the rest
That follow armes, and armes and life adieu,
From armes and life I pass drenched in the pit
Digged by my desperate hands, hands full of blood.
Bleed heart to think what these accursed hands
Have perpetrated, Pardon heaven and earth,
And gentle Lord misled by my amis,
Foully by me sent to this longest home,
O pardon Cosbie’s cruel mind,
His mind enraged, and gentle blood by wrath
And fury tainted and empoisoned.
Why do I kill my doleful dying heart,
With sad rehearsal of this heavy chance.
O death rock me asleep, Father of heaven
That hast sole power to pardon sins of men,
Forgive the faults and folly of my youth,
My youth misspent in waste and wantonness,
And for sweet Jesus sake forgive my soul,
Foully defiled with this above the rest,
And lastly you whose fame I have defiled,
My kin, my Countrymen, friends, and allies,
Pardon, o pardon, such as men to men
Can give, I beg for wronging you in all,
For shaming you in this my wretched end,
The fruitless crop, the meed of my desert,
My bad, my base deserves, sweet Friends forget,
Friends, countrymen, and kinsfolks all forget,
My name, my face, my fact, o blot me out,
Out of the world, put me out of your thoughts,
Or if you think, o think I never was,
Or if you think I was, think that I fell,
Before some fort, some hold in Belgia,
With this suppose beguile your sorrows friends,
Think that I fell before the Canon’s mouth,
Even in mine honors heigth that blessed day,
When in advancement of my name, I left
My countries enemy in his base reuolie:
A wretched man to talk of honors high,
Fallen so basely into the pit of shame,
The pit of death: my God, my God forgive me,
Next to my God, my country pardon me,
Whose honor I have stained and laws infringe,
And thou my sovereign Mistress and my Queen,
Bright star of England’s globe, forgive my fact,
Nor let it touch thy Royal Princely heart,
That Cosbie hath misdone so heinously.
The circle of my time is compassed,
Arrived to the point where it began.
World, country, kin, and friends farewell farewell,
Fly thou my soul to heaven the haven of bliss,
O body bear the scourge of thine amiss.


More atmospheric Elizabethan movable type:

First pamphlet: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9

Second pamphlet: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9

… and, the source of the poem: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

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1591: Elisabeth von Doberschütz, Stettin witch

Add comment December 17th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1591, Elisabeth von Doberschütz was beheaded at Stettin (Szczecin) as a witch.

Elisabeth (English Wikipedia entry | German), whose husband Melchior was a lesser son of a minor noble house and (since his tiny patrimony did not afford him the ease of the great aristocrat) a somewhat favored captain of the Duke of Pomerania, was accused a sorceress on the grounds that a draught she had concoted for the duchess some years before when the latter was abed following a miscarriage had rendered the lady permanently infertile. Rumors to the effect that Elisabeth’s potionmaking ran wider still completed the customary witches’ brew.

Elisabeth being a person of consequence and not some spinster midwife or family of beggars, it is typically supposed that the “real” cause of her execution can ultimately be found in rivalries among the elites: calumnies loosed abroad by Melchior’s rivals dating from the early 1580s in a (successful) campaign to separate him from a lucrative appointment to govern Neustettin. It was under Melchior’s successor in that post that Elisabeth was ultimately brought to trial.

Melchior was not caught up in the accusation. He married another woman in 1600, then faded out of history’s annals.

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1591: Four of The Sixteen

Add comment December 4th, 2015 Headsman

When the Huguenot prince turned Henri IV of France finally mastered his realm by attending Catholic services in his capital city with the legendary words “Paris is worth a mass,” he was not merely overcoming some residual sectarian prejudice. There had been civil war in France for the best part of a century, and the bitterness of Catholic opposition to a Protestant king would eventually claim Henri’s life.

And in that conflict, Paris herself was militantly Catholic.

During the last phase of France’s devastating Wars of Religion, suitably titled the War of the Three Henrys, a Paris dominated by the staunch Catholic League held out against a joint siege by the sitting, Catholic king Henri III — who was so much the moderate sellout as to have made common cause with his cousin and heir, the Protestant Henri of Navarre (our future Henri IV).*

We have dealt elsewhere in these pages with those dramatic years, including Paris eventually falling into the hands of a despot clique of Catholic fanatics known as “The Sixteen” — who made so bold as to execute Catholic “politiques” of insufficient zeal.


An armed march of the Holy League in Paris in 1590. (Anonymous painting)

Just days after the signal hanging of jurist Barnabe Brisson in November of 1591, the city was taken back in hand by the Duke of Mayenne, a Catholic whom some radicals wished to advance to the throne.

Mayenne preferred the role of kingmaker, stabilizing the long unrest of his realm. He was horrified by the Sixteen, and on December 4 he seized four of their number — Nicolas Ameline, Barthelemy Anroux, Jean Emmenot and Jean Louchart — and had them summarily hanged at the Louvre. The Sixteen’s days were done.

Mayenne had the wisdom not to follow these exemplary executions with any provocative purges — neither of the other 12 nor other intemperate elements in town — but proclaimed a general amnesty. It was he who, over the months ahead, smoothed the way for Henri IV’s famous mass.

* The third Henri in the War of the Three Henrys was the late Duke of Guise, whom King Henri III had had assassinated. The House of Guise was characteristically an ardent Catholic party in these years, so his murder had helped sunder the allegiance of Paris to her king.

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1591: Barnabe Brisson, at the hands of the Sixteen

Add comment November 15th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1591, the summary execution of Barnabe Brisson and two other French doctors of law signaled the beginning of the end of France’s Wars of Religion.

After the untimely death of Henri II in a freak jousting accident, his widow Catherine de’ Medici employed three frustrating decades shuttling the late monarch’s uninspiring offspring onto the throne only to see each in his turn die young and without issue. We are by these late years on to the last of Henri II’s sons — Henri III of France.

Actually, Henri wasn’t the last: just the last left alive. He had a younger brother, Francis, Duke of Anjou, who dropped dead in 1584 of malaria and left Henri III as the only Valois male. The heir presumptive after Henri III was his Calvinist brother-in-law Henri of Navarre. Spoiler alert: by the end of this post, Henri of Navarre is going to get there as King Henri IV.

The Catholic-vs.-Huguenot Wars of Religion had raged in France for many years but the last major installment of the bloody serial was the War of the Three Henrys: the two Henris aforesaid, plus the Duke of Guise, also named Henri — the standard-bearer of Catholic zealots.

Our present-day presumption of live-and-let-live spirituality was bequeathed from the Enlightenment only after it had been hard-won by centuries previous. In France of the 1500s, the most extreme (but by no means marginal) Catholic party saw the very existence of a Huguenot faction — and the fact that more moderate Catholic politiques were prepared to tolerate and treat with them — as an existential threat to the kingdom. Catholicism in the literal universal sense was intrinsic to France itself: if she should cease to be so, what would become of her? A 1589 pamphlet extolled what

an admirable thing [it is] to view the ardor and the devotion of everyone in France, the air resounding with prayer and processions of our youth who are purified by our prayers and by the common voice which is spread throughout this kingdom; we demonstrate that the benedictions and maledictions of a people have great effects.

With such great effects at stake, the pious ought not abide any fooling around with Providence. “If your brother, your friend, and your wife all of whom you hold dear wish to strip you of your faith,” wrote Louis D’Orleans in 1588, “kill them, cut their throats and sacrifice them to God.”*

This was a faction for whom Henri of Navarre’s prospective succession was absolutely intolerable, which makes it somewhat ironic that they themselves soon turned prospect into reality.

King Henri III was a Catholic himself, of course, and this irreconcilable Catholic League was part of what you might call his base. But though initially allied, the League’s attempts to dominate the young king led Henri III to execute a daring breakout: on December 23, 1588, he summoned the Duke of Guise to confer with him at the Chateau de Blois and there had his bodyguards murder Guise on the spot.


Just two Henries now …** (Executed Today’s court painter Paul Delaroche interprets that same scene here.)

The resulting fury of the Catholic League was so great that the king soon fled Paris and made common cause with Henri of Navarre. Now the civil war was the two Henris together — and the Catholic League opposing them. We come here to our date’s principal character, Barnabe Brisson (English Wikipedia entry | French), a distinguished jurist† in the Parlement of France. While most of this chamber followed the king out of Paris, Brisson chose to remain. “The Sixteen,”‡ the council of Catholic militants who now ruled Paris with the support of a populist militia, elevated Brisson to President of the Parlement.

In 1589 the Henris besieged staunchly Catholic Paris in an attempt to bring the civil war to a close. In a classic Pyrrhic victory, the League defeated this attempt by having a priest assassinate King Henri.


… and now we’re down to the last Henri.

While this action did break the siege, and avenge the murder of Guise, it made Henri of Navarre into King Henri IV. (Told you we’d get there.) The Catholic League’s attempt to recognize the new king’s uncle, a Cardinal, as the successor went nowhere at all, and at any rate this man himself died in 1590.

This succession greatly deepened the internal tension among Paris Catholics between the uncompromising men of the Sixteen and the moderate politiques, and the latter party’s interest in finding with the legitimate king a settlement that looked increasingly inevitable. After all, were these armed commoners really going to rule Paris indefinitely?


An armed march of the Holy League in Paris in 1590. (Anonymous painting)

The situation provoked the ultras among Paris’s ruling Sixteen to more desperate measures in a vain effort to maintain control. Their faction’s own post-Guise leader among the high nobility, the Duke of Mayenne, had refused inducements to seize the crown himself or to seat a sovereign provided by the League’s Hapsburg allies. He too was visibly sliding towards an accommodation with the heretic king. (He would reach one in 1596.) In much the same camp was an establishment figure like Brisson whose staying behind in Paris during the confused situation of 1588-1589 was scarcely intended to declare that his allegiance to creed surpassed all care for order. The man was a lawyer, after all.

During Mayenne’s absence from the capital in the autumn of 1591, the Sixteen mounted a radical internal coup and attempted to purge the city’s moderates. Brisson was arrested walking to work on the morning of the 15th and subjected along with two other jurists to a sham snap trial. All three were hung by lunchtime, and per a proposal floated among the council that afternoon were the next morning fitted with denunciatory placards and displayed on gibbets at the Place de Greve.

Barnabé Brisson, a chief traitor and heretic

Claude Larcher, an instigator of treacherous politiques

Jean Tardiff, an enemy of God and of Catholic princes

Their shocking exhibition was intended to incite a “St. Barthelemy des politiques” — a St. Bartholomew’s Day-esque pogrom against the politique moderates.

But the Sixteen had badly misjudged the mood of the city. The crowd beheld the mangled corpses silently, full of horror or pity — emblematic of the turning-point France was nearing in its interminable confessional strife. Despite the Catholic League’s strength in Paris, most Parisians were losing their appetite for bloodshed. The Duke of Mayenne was back in the capital by the end of the month and underscored the coming arrangements by seizing four of the Sixteen for summary execution themselves.

Two years later, Henri IV at last took Paris in hand by making a nominal conversion to Catholicism with the legendary (alleged) remark, “Paris is worth a Mass.”§

French speakers may enjoy this 19th century pdf biography of Brisson by Alfred Giraud.

* “Du Contemnement de la mort. Discours accomode a la miserable condition de ce temps” (blockquoted section) and Replique pour le Catholique Anglois, contre le Catolique associe des Huguenots (D’Orleans quote). Both via Dalia Leonardo in “Cut off This Rotten Member”: The Rhetoric of Heresy, Sin, and Disease in the Ideology of the French Catholic League,” The Catholic Historical Review, April 2002.

** Also of interest: this 1908 silent film of the assassination of the Duc de Guise, scored by Saint-Saens.

† Brisson’s dictionary of Justinian legal terminology remained in print until 1805. He also in 1587 produced a compilation of the laws of France as Le Code du Roy Henri III.

‡ The Sixteen were delegates of Paris’s quarters, assembled by the Duke of Mayenne. For detail on the composition and internal history of The Sixteen, see J.H.M. Salmon, “The Paris Sixteen, 1584-94: The Social Analysis of a Revolutionary Movement,” The Journal of Modern History, December 1972.

§ In the end, of course, an entirely unreconciled Catholic extremist assassinated Henri IV in 1610.

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1593: Gabriel Wolff, Nuremberg adventurer

1 comment October 11th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1593, Nuremberg executioner Franz Schmidt beheaded one of that city’s finest con artists.

Gabriel Wolff, a burgher’s son, had gone on a picaresque swindling bender through central Europe and all the way to Constantinople, posing as a V.I.P. in various courts for fun and profit.

As Schmidt recounted it, Wolff first “called himself George Windholz, Secretary to the Elector at Berlin, also took the name of Ernst Haller and Joachim Furnberger, borrowed 1,500 ducats from a councillor here in Nuremberg by means of a forged letter in the Elector’s name and under the seal of the Margrave John George in Berlin; was arrested at Regensburg and delivered over to Nuremberg.”

And this was far from all.

The inveterate trickster had made off with 1,400 crowns from the Duke of Parma in the Netherlands and fled to Ottoman Turkey. He had had a misadventure with an Italian abbess, netting a silver clock for his trouble; conned a Knight of St. John out of his mount; and ensconced himself as the Habsburg emperor’s personal attendant in Prague, where he perpetrated “many other frauds, causing false seals of gentlemen to be cut, wrote many forged documents and was conversant with seven languages; carrying on this for twenty-four years.” In his time he got the best of “a councilor at Danzig, the count of Ottingen, his lord at Constance, two merchants at Danzig, a Dutch master,” and similar worthies crisscrossing Europe from Lisbon to Crete to Krakow to London and seemingly every point worth mentioning in between.

As Schmidt’s biographer observes, it’s more than likely that the crowd under the scaffold beheld Wolff with admiration as much as opprobrium, for this native son’s silver tongue and brass balls had enabled him to spend a lifetime in material luxury, hobnobbing with the masters of Europe — and certainly ensured him an afterlife in pleasurable folklore he could scarcely have conjured had he spent his days respectably haggling for a better price on the ell. Frankly, we in drab modernity could ourselves do with a Gabriel Wolff book.

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