1619: Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, laandsadvocaat

1 comment May 13th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1619, Dutch stadtholder Maurice of Orange beheaded his political and religious rival, jurist Johan van Oldenbarnevelt.

Both men had in their day been instrumental to winning the independence (de facto, if not yet de jure) that the Low Countries were already enjoying: laandsadvocaat van Oldenbarnevelt as the commanding political personality holding together the potentially fractious provinces in the 1580s and 1590s; stadtholder Maurice as the great general* of those provinces, whose sword-arm in the 1590s and 1600s more or less staked out the borders of the present-day Netherlands.

Thanks to their good offices, the once-desperate Dutch Revolt had triumphed in all but name, and in the 1610s paused to savor the fruits of victory during the Twelve Years’ Truce.**

Increasingly after 1600, the two developed a rivalry that was both personal, and political, and religious — for in their prominence they also became the chief exponents of the neighborhood schism, van Oldenbarnevelt championing the Remonstrants or Arminians (they remonstrated against some Calvinist doctrines) and Maurice upholding the orthodox Counter-Remonstrants or Gomarist side. The conflict was no joke; the States of Holland at van Oldenbarnevelt’s urging went so far as to hire its own mercenary army, knowing that it could not trust the national army commanded by the Counter-Remonstrant William. William secured the support of the States-General to forcibly disband this rival militia in July 1618† — and from that point until his death in 1625, William was the strongman in the Low Countries.

And van Oldenbarnevelt, well — he got the kangaroo court. See?


Detail view (click for the full image) of Satire on the trial of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, by Cornelis Saftleven (1663). Saftleven liked painting animals.

Tried by a special (dubiously legal) court comprised of enemies, the grizzled pol was condemned to death as a traitor. On May 13, the day he went to the block at the Binnenhof in The Hague, his home province the States of Holland saluted him as “a man of great business, activity, memory and wisdom — yes, extra-ordinary in every respect.”

And it added a passage from Corinthians:

Die staet siet toe dat hij niet en valle

He who stands, let him take care that he does not fall


Detail view (click for the full image) of a 17th century engraving of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt’s beheading.

Van Oldenbarnevelt’s son Reinier, lord of Groeneveld was beheaded in 1623 for conspiring to assassinate Maurice in revenge for his father’s execution.

* Maurice of Orange was recognized in his time as perhaps Europe’s greatest and most innovative commander. His introduction of infantry volley fire and highly disciplined drill regimens revolutionized the battlefield — and made the Dutch very difficult for their Spanish masters to handle.

The Indian Ocean island-nation Mauritius, discovered by Dutch explorers in 1598, was named for him.

** Posterity has the luxury of hindsight knowledge that although war would resume for the Low Countries in 1621, the peace of Westphalia would secure an independent Netherlands. However, already during the Twelve Years’ Truce the place was acting as an independent country, and some other states formally recognized it as such.

† One of van Oldenbarnevelt’s supporters was international law pioneer Hugo Grotius. Grotius was clapped in prison with van Oldenbarnevelt’s fall in 1618; he famously escaped this dungeon in 1621 by hiding in a chest of books and lived out his scribbling days in France.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Lawyers,Netherlands,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Treason

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1619: The Witches of Belvoir

3 comments March 11th, 2016 Headsman

The family of the Earl of Rutland enjoyed closure on this date in 1619* when two daughters of a notorious local sorceress were hanged at Lincoln Castle for bewitching the Rutland heirs to death.

Hotheaded enough in his youth to have joined Robert Devereux‘s ridiculous rebellion, Francis Manners had matured into a solid pillar of James I’s court by 1612 when he succeeded to the Earldom upon the passing of his brother.

Taking up his proper residence at the estate’s noble Belvoir Castle, lord and lady Manners had two noble sons and the consequent prospect of a robust progeniture to carry on the Rutland title, father to manful son onward into trackless posterity.

But witchery (as Shakespeare documented) went boldly abroad in those days. To the Rutlands’ grief it set its fell eye against the prosperity of their house.

Belvoir Castle was then “a continuall Pallace of entertainment, and a daily receptacle for all sorts both rich and poore, especially such auncient people as neighboured the same,” noted a pamphlet of the time.** “Amongst whom one Ioane [Joan] Flower, with her Daughters Margaret and Philip were not onely relieved at the first from thence, but quickly entertained as Char-women, and Margaret admitted as a continuall dweller in the Castle, looking both to the poultrey abroad and the wash-house within dores.”

Someone having detected this clan of hags pilfering from His Lordship, the Flower family was soon dismissed: a reckless show of rectitude by parents who would soon have cause to regret it.

Joan Flower, the mother, “was a monstrous malicious woman, full of oathes, curses, and imprecations irreligious … her eyes were fiery and hollow, her speech fell and envious, her demeanour strange and exotic.” Folk who knew her had come to understand — how could they not? — that her curses had the power to bend infernal servants to her spiteful will; her daughters were likewise suspected of necromantic potency all their own.

Together, they were formidable enemies when roused — and they promptly avenged their dismissal by enchanting the Rutland heir Henry, who fell ill and died in September 1613. (The rest of his family got sick on this occasion, too.) Five years later, they enspelled Henry’s younger brother Francis and sent him to an early grave too.

Under such compelling affliction, the family could not long remain ignorant of the Flowers sorceresses’ enmity, and denounced them to authorities. They were arrested around Christmas of 1618.

The mother-witch soon died in prison under God’s own torture, for she

called for Bread and Butter, and wished it might never goe through her if she were guilty of that whereupon shee was examined; so mumbling it in her mouth, never spake more wordes after that, but fell downe and dyed as shee was carryed to Lincolne Gaole, with a horrible excruciation of soule and body.

As though more evidence were needed, both of Joan’s daughters also admitted turning their occult powers against the little heirs, part of a horrific pattern of infernal connivance:

  • that the late mother kept a feline familiar named Rutterkin, and Joan malevolently stroked the cat with a glove stolen from Henry while uttering incantations that the boy might never thrive
  • that similar treatment was meted out using Rutterkin and a glove discarded by Francis
  • that Margaret kept two evil familiars whom she profanely suckled — “the white sucked under her left breast, and the blacke spotted within the inward parts of her secrets”
  • that Philip “heard her mother often curse the Earle and his Lady, and thereupon would boyle feathers and blood together, using many Devillish speeches and strange gestures”
  • that Margaret “saith, That her mother, and shee, and her sister agreed together to bewitch the Earle and his Lady, that they might have no more children”

While the mother was beyond the reach of the law, both daughters were duly condemned for murder on the evidence of their own confessions, and “executed accordingly, about the 11 of March, to the terror of all the beholders, and example of such dissolute and abominable Creatures.”

Even so, their horrid magic outlived them. The Earl and the Duchess were never again able to conceive; their only surviving child was a daughter, Katherine, who would carry the rich inheritance that should have been her brothers’ into a marriage with King James’s favorite.†


“Two sons, both which dyed in their infancy by wicked practise & sorcerye”: Inscription on a Manners family memorial at Bottesford. (cc) image by J. Hannan-Briggs.

* 1618 by the local reckoning, since the new year at this time began on March 25. It’s 1619 as we would see it retrospectively in view of a January 1 calendar rollover.

** The wonderful discoverie of the witchcrafts of Margaret and Phillip Flower, daughters of Ioan Flower neere Bever Castle: executed at Lincolne, March 11, 1618

† Some scurrilous wags of the present day have suggested that said favorite cunningly poisoned off the brothers himself so that he could get his hands on Katherine’s huge tracts of land.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions,The Supernatural,Torture,Witchcraft,Women

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1619: Lucilio Vanini, aka Giulio Cesare

3 comments February 9th, 2010 Headsman

On this date* in 1619, Italian freethinker Lucilio Vanini was adorned with a placard reading ‘Ateiste et blasphemateur du nom de Dieu’ and taken to Toulouse’s Place du Salin where he had his blasphemous tongue cut out,** then was strangled and burned at the stake.

You can think of Vanini as a sort of Giordano Bruno mini-me — a bit less intellectually distinguished, a bit less famous, but doing the same peripatetic, pantheistic act before orthodoxy ran him down.

Ordained a priest (like Bruno), Vanini’s 34 years were spent perambulating (like Bruno): France, Switzerland, the Low Countries, even England, where he briefly auditioned Anglicanism.

Alas, (like Bruno) the libertine monk’s occult philosophy had no real home; he fled Paris for Toulouse (the place Bruno earned his doctorate), and was there charged with blasphemy.

Vanini veiled his dangerous speculations in nominally pietistic cant, but he probably could have done better misdirection than a title like De Admirandis Naturae Reginae Deaeque Mortalium Arcanis (Of the Marvelous Secrets of the Queen and Goddess Nature — available in Latin from Google books).

Vanini was bold enough to suggest an equivalency between human and animal souls, and reckon both mortal. Though his works purported to prove the existence of God, and he even made to his accusers a version of the “first cause” argument, they thought (probably rightly) he wasn’t being serious.

They also thought (again, probably rightly) Vanini and his aristocratic patrons were debauched; Vanini’s execution kicked off a dangerous crisis for hedonists in France and elsewhere in the 1620s.

There’s much more about Vanini in French here, and in English in this chapter of the public-domain The Skeptics of the Italian Renaissance.

* Some sources report Feb. 19. The source of this discrepancy isn’t clear to me; the then-10-day gap between the Julian and Gregorian calendars is an obvious suspect, but as this execution took place in Catholic France, the modern Gregorian calendar had been adopted decades before.

In any event, primary documentation appears to me to support the 9th.

” le samedi neuvième du mois de février … fut donné arrêt au rapport de M. de Catel, conseiller au parlement, par lequel il [Vanini] fut condamné à être traîné sur une claie, droit à l’Eglise Saint-Etienne, où il serait dépouillé en chemise, tenant un flambeau ardent en main, la hart [la corde avec laquelle on étranglait les criminels.] au col, et, tout à genoux devant la grande porte de la dite église, demanderait pardon à Dieu, au roi, à la justice, et de là … serait conduit à la place du Salin où, assis sur un poteau, la langue lui serait coupée, puis serait étranglé, son corps brûlé et réduit en cendres; ce qui fut exécuté le même jour.”

** “Before putting fire to the stake, Vanini was ordered to put forth his sacrilegious tongue for the knife. He refused; it was necessary to employ pincers to draw it forth, and when the executioner’s instrument seized and cut it off never was heard a more horrible cry. One might have thought that he heard the bellowing of an ox which was being slaughtered.” (Source) This account of the magistrate Gramont has to be considered in view of his interest in showing the condemned inadequate to his jaunty resolve, “Let us go, let us go joyfully to die, as becomes a philosopher.”

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,France,Freethinkers,God,Heresy,Intellectuals,Public Executions,Torture

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