1665: Gabriel de Beaufort-Canillac vicomte la Mothe, during the Grands Jours of Auvergne

Add comment October 23rd, 2017 Headsman

As with Peter the Great a few decades later, the budding absolutist Louis XIV experienced a scarring breakdown in law and order in his youth that at times threatened his own person.

In the French case, this was the Fronde — meaning “sling”, a weapon of choice for Parisian mobs — or rather the Frondes, successive insurrections in defense of feudal liberties launched against Louis’s mother and regent, Queen Anne that consumed the 1648-1653 span.

(Among other things, Louis’s experience during these disturbances of fleeing trouble spots in Paris, or cowering practically imprisoned behind palace walls, eventually resolved him to relocate his royal person away from the restive capital, to Versailles; his fear was more than vindicated by the fate of the 16th sovereign of his name at the hands of a different century’s Parisian enragees.)

Upon the death of his mother’s Richelieu figure (and literal Richelieu protege) Cardinal Mazarin, Louis took the state in hand in 1661 at age 22, determined to bring France to his elegant heel.

“You will assist me with your counsels when I ask for them,” he directed stunned ministers who had been accustomed to doing a good deal of the day-to-day governing themselves. “I request and order you to seal no orders except by my command, or after having discussed them with me, or at least not until a secretary brings them to you on my behalf. And you Messieurs of state, I order you not to sign anything, not even a passport, without my command; to render account to me personally each day and favour no one.”

L’etat c’est moi … he wasn’t kidding about that.

Bold reforms followed pell-mell through the 1660s and beyond: of the army, the bureaucracy, industry, the tax system. The archetype absolutist, Louis meant to gather into his Leviathan all the little redoubts of cumbersome right and privilege strewn about from France’s feudal antiquity, and above all to master the independence of his aristocrats and parlements.

One district in particular, the region of Auvergne, had in the chaotic 1650s descended into a minor dystopia ruled by avaricious and unprincipled officials gleefully abusing their control of the local judicial apparatus.

The investigations … revealed that quite a few judges lacked professional scruples and were of questionable moral character. Officers in the bailliages and senechaussees were aware of crimes but did nothing to prosecute them … registration of letters of remission could be bought “with ease.” Officers extorted money from countless victims … At the bailliage of La Tour in Auvergne, officers made arbitrary seizures of oxen belonging to peasants … seized property for “salaries and vacations,” forced minor girls to pay a price for marriage authorizations, and so on. Since all the officers in each of the lower courts were related to one another, “they all upheld one another so that it was impossible to obtain justice.”

The clergy had fallen into disarray … committed kidnappings and assaults and lent their names to laymen so that they might enjoy an ecclesiastical benefice. And this is to say nothing of such “peccadilloes” as frequenting taverns, taking the name of the Lord in vain, keeping mistresses, and fathering children. Monasteries and even convents were rife with “libertinage.” Their income was being squandered on banquets for visitors.

Gentilshommes had been using violent means to maintain their tyranny over the peasants. Forcible extortion of money was “the common offense of the gentilshommes of Auvergne,” according to Dongois, clerk of the Grands Jours. The king’s lieutenant in Bourbonnais, the marquis de Levis, was a counterfeiter who manufactured pistoles that were then circulated by his maitre d’hotel. Many gentilshommes exacted seigneurial dues beyond what they were entitled to, for watch, wine, oxen, supply and transport, and the use of seigneurial mills. They usurped such communal property as meadows, woods, and rights to gather firewood, collected money on every pretext, raised the cens without justification, and collected new dues. (Source

Practical princes see opportunity in such crises, in this case the opportunity to make common cause between the crown and the populace at the expense of of those gentilshommes. And so Louis decreed for Auvergne a Grands Jours, a sort of special visiting assize that could circumvent the incestuous area magistrates. From September 1665 to January 1666 the Grands Jours d’Auvergne processed more than 1,300 cases, meting out 692 convictions and 23 executions (although many sentences were executed in effigy). Six of those actually put to death were gentlemen.*

No noble crest attracted the inquisitors’ attentions more urgently than the ancient family of Montboissier-Beaufort-Canillac whose patriarch,

Jacques-Timoleon, marquis de Canillac, age seventy-two, accompanied by a bodyguard of valets known as his “twelve Apostles,” terrorized his fiefs and seigneuries from Clermont to Rouergue. All his close relatives were guilty of serious crimes or misdemeanors. His eldest son stole his neighbors’ animals, besieged their homes, and murdered them. His next eldest son murdered a curate. Guillaume de Beaufort-Canillac had not only extorted money but also abducted and held captive a notary who had drawn up a document against him. Gabriel de Beaufort-Canillac, vicomte de La Mothe, had attempted to murder another gentilhomme …

Charges had been mounting against the Canillacs, and especially against the old marquis, for decades without any effect. (Same source)

They would continue without effect here for the cagey patriarch, who absented himself in time to suffer only a condemnation in absentia,** but his son Gabriel, the vicomte de la Mothe, was taken by surprise as one of the Grands Jours commission’s very first acts and would distinguish himself its highest-ranking prey — on October 23rd, 1665, a mere four hours after his trial.

The charge against him was one of murder, under what was then considered extenuating circumstances. During the civil war [i.e., the Fronde] he had been commiss[i]oned by the great Conde to raise some regiments of cavalry, and had handed over some six thousand francs of the sum entrusted to him for this purpose, to his friend, D’Orsonette, who would neither furnish the troops nor refund the money. Conde, naturally enough, reproached the vicomte, who thereupon left his service, full of rancor against D’Orsonette. The quarrel grew fiercer as time passed on, until on an evil day the disputants met, each accompanied by a body of servants. M. de la Mothe’s party was the most numerous. D’Orsonette and one of his men were wounded, and his falconer was slain. The facts were incontrovertible. A striking example was deemed essential, and despite the entreaties of his family, and a short delay occasioned by an effort to traverse the jurisdiction of the court, the accused was sentenced to death and executed within a month from the commencement of the assize. It affords a significant illustration of the condition of Auvergne to note that the prosecutor in this case and all his witnesses were far more guilty than the prisoner. The prosecutor was accused by his own father of having murdered his own brother, of being a parricide in intention, and of a hundred other crimes. The next principal witness had been condemned for perjury, and was an acknowledged forger. The others were either outlaws or convicts at the galleys. Against M. de la Mothe no other crime was alleged, and he was generally regarded as the most innocent member of his family. Public opinion held that he suffered for having joined the losing side in the civil war, and for bearing a powerful and deeply-hated name. (A different source)

* A full and colorful account of the affair awaits the Francophone reader in Esprit Flechier’s Memoirs de Flechier sur les Grands-Jours d’Auvergne en 1665 (alternate link).

** It would be the second time in his rapacious career that Canillac pere was executed in effigy.

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1662: A shipwrecked Turk in Dutch Pennsylvania

Add comment October 19th, 2017 Headsman

Well known as is the Dutch heritage of New York City — the former New Amsterdam — fewer realize that the Low Countries’ writ in the New World for a brief time ran far down what is today styled the Mid-Atlantic coast, all the way to the lower Delaware River separating present-day New Jersey and Pennsylvania. “New Netherland” had swiped it just a few years before the events in this post from “New Sweden”.

Before it all went over to the Anglosphere the aspirant imperial rival got a few executions in on these distant shores — as we see in this narrative sited in what is now Delaware County, Pennsylvania. It comes to us from the Proceedings of the Delaware County Historical Society, Volume 1, January 1902 via this Delaware County History blog:

UNDER HOLLAND’S RULE – When the next important criminal trial, which has been presented to us in official documents, presents itself, the flag of Sweden had been supplanted by the standard of their High Mightiness of Holland and while the case did not in its incidents come within the present commonwealth of Pennsylvania, yet the criminal proceedings were held within the territory which was subsequently known as Pena’s three lower counties.

In 1661 Alexander D’Hinojassa was acting governor of that portion of the present state of Delaware extending from the southern bank of the Cristiana River to Cape Henlopen, he asserting that the City of Amsterdam, by reason of its purchase from the Dutch West Indies Company, had acquired absolute jurisdiction over the territory before designated, hence he stoutly refused to recognize the authority of Governor Stuyvesant in anywise within those boundaries. D’Hinojassa was a rash, impetuous, headstrong man and in would brook no interference on the part of any one with his prerogatives, the particular case to which I am now referring are unusually interesting. A vessel had been wrecked on the coast near the present breakwater and one of the sailors, a Turk, reached the shore where he was taken prisoner by a party of Indians, who sold their captive to Peter Alrichs. Peter among other things was a slave dealer and was chiefly instrumental in fitting out the ship Glide which brought the first cargo of slaves from Africa to the shores of the Delaware.

The unfortunate Turk was sold by Peter to an English planter in Maryland. Subsequently the Turk and four other slaves escaped to Delaware, but, were pursued and captured. While they were being conveyed in a boat to New Castle, when near Bombay Hook, the Turk made a desperate fight for Liberty and during the struggle and before he could be subdued he wounded two Englishmen seriously and a third slightly.

In the confusion which followed, he sprang overboard and succeeded in reaching the shore but he was shortly recaptured and taken to New Castle where he was heavily ironed and imprisoned. D’Hinojassa refused when the application was made to him to deliver the prisoner to the English claimant but declared that as the Turk had committed a crime within the jurisdiction of the City Colony, he must be held on that charge. He thereupon ordered him to be arraigned before Van Sweeringham, who sat as the judge at the trial.

The prisoner, practically ignorant of the language in which he was called to make his defense was convicted of having resisted and wounded his captors. Although the laws of Holland applicable to the colonies provided that in criminal cases where the punishment was capital five judges must actually preside at the trial, the miserable Turk notwithstanding that violation of law was sentenced to be hanged.

On Sunday, October 19, 1662, the sentence was carried into execution. The Turk was hanged at Lewes, his head being afterwards “cut off and placed on a post or stake at Hare Mill.” This incident is also memorable because it is the first case of capital punishment in the Delaware River settlements.

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1660: Mary Dyer, Quaker

Add comment June 1st, 2017 Headsman

Mary Dyer was hanged in Boston on this date in 1660 — the most famous of that city’s four “Quaker martyrs”.

Monument in Boston to Mary Dyer as “witness for religious freedom”. (cc) image by Andrea Schwartz.

By the time of her last ordeal, Dyer already had a quarter century-old reputation for religious misbehavior in the New World.

She’d ditched England with her husband in 1635, part of that decade’s great outmigration of Puritan dissidents — “A Comely Grave Woman, and of a goodly Personage, and one of a good Report, having a husband of an Estate, fearing the Lord, and a Mother of Children,” according to an admiring account. Opinions varied: the colony’s governor found her “very censorious and troublesome, (she being of a very proud spirit, and much addicted to revelations).”

She brought with her a proclivity for the heretical: in Massachusetts, where the Puritan majority delivered the persecuting, Mary quickly fell foul of right-thinking folk by backing Anne Hutchinson in a theological controversy.* When Hutchinson was convicted by a church trial and banished, Mary Dyer cinematically walked hand-in-hand with her out of church. On top of everything else, she was known to have stillborne a deformed monstrosity (“a woman, a fish, a bird, & a beast all woven together”) which was the kind of thing these people understood as deadly serious.

Mary and her husband went to exile with Hutchinson, and were among the first English settlers of Rhode Island, before returning to spend most of the 1650s back in England. There, Mary Dyer converted to one of the new entrants to the Commonwealth’s welter of novel sects, Quakerism.

This new faith’s emphasis on egalitarian personal religious experience ungoverned by ordained clergymen met an instant ban once Massachusetts caught wind of it, with a statute imposing mutilated tongues and trips to the pillory for expounding the outlaw doctrine. To these would be added the threat of the gallows for repeat offenders with the temerity to return from banishment … and Mary Dyer is only the most famous of four Quakers who actually suffered this penalty.


The Heart of N-England Rent at the Blasphemies of the Present Generation: Boston Rev. John Norton‘s 1659 anti-Quaker tract advocates their execution.

Dyer’s defiance of the law was straightforward, keeping with the bold tradition of martyrdom in witness. Jailed in Boston in 1657, her husband (who had not yet followed his wife’s conversion) managed to arrange her release; she returned in 1659 to visit other imprisoned Quakers and they were all banished for their trouble. Shortly after, she returned to Boston with William Robinson and Marmaduke Stevenson: these were the first two Quakers put to death by the Puritans, but Mary Dyer was spared at the foot of the gallows and again expelled, finding temporary refuge in Rhode Island.

Edward Burrough’s A Declaration of the Sad and Great Persecution and Martyrdom of the People of God, called Quakers, in New-England, for the Worshipping of God, which also catalogues the many brutal punishments inflicted on Quakers up until 1661, preserves an account of Mary’s final return to Boston in May 1660 and her immediate arrest for same: it was enough for her to acknowledge her identity to reinstate her former sentence.

“I came in Obedience to the Will of God the last General Court, desiring you to Repeal your unrighteous Lawes of Banishment upon pain of Death; and that same is my work now, and earnest Request,” she told the court that doomed her. “If ye refused to Repeal them, the Lord will send others of his Servants to Witness against them.”

The very next day, she was drummed — to prevent her preaching — on a mile-long walk a gallows on Boston Common. This time there was no reprieve waiting: only immortality.

* This controversy drove the short-term governor Henry Vane back to England, and martyrdom during the interregnum.

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1661: Murad Bakhsh, son of the Taj Mahal builder

Add comment December 14th, 2016 Headsman

Mughal prince Murad Bakhsh, the youngest son of Taj Mahal builder Shah Jahan, was executed on December 14, 1661.*


There’s blood in the stones … (cc) image from Vil Sandi.

Despite writing into stone a love to transcend time, Shah Jahan had the monarchy’s eternal managerial challenge: succession.

This ought not have surprised him. Jahan himself had been a third son, who took his own power by rebellion and clinched it by fratricide. And through the empress to whom Jahan would dedicate the Taj, Mumtaz Mahal, Shah Jahan had four sons who all thought they like their illustrious dad deserved the helm of the wealthy Mughal state.

In descending order of age, those rivalrous brothers were: Dara Shikoh,** Shuja, Aurangzeb, and our man Muhammad Murad Bakhsh. As we open the scene, each governs a portion of the father’s empire; by the end of this post, Aurangzeb will be emperor — his reign to span nearly a half-century — and his brothers will be all be dead.

The oldest boys had the first go, with Dara Shikoh’s power as the officially designated regent of the incapacitated Jahan challenged quickly by Shuja, who was governor of Bengal. Shuja decared himself emperor and marched on Dara Shikoh, who turned little brother aside.

The two were soon forced to come to terms with one another as the younger brothers, Aurangzeb and Murad, had combined their own forces — and the youth had their say in May 1658, smashing Dara Shikoh at the Battle of Samugarh. Murad is credited in this watershed battle with a decisive charge, personally slaying the enemy second-in-command using a composite bow. This fight made Aurangzeb emperor; Dara fled for Afghanistan but was caught and killed a few months later. (Shah Jahan, still living, was confined comfortably but sorrowfully by Aurangzeb.) In January of 1659, Aurangzeb put down Shuja’s challenge at the Batte of Khajwa.

Having wagered the Peacock Throne in battle twice for the honor of supplanting his elders, Aurangzeb had a more expedient solution to sweep away his last potential rival.

On arriving at Muttra (Mathura) Aurangzeb threw off the veil that he had worn with Murad. That brave but savage Prince was arrested while suffering from the effects of a carouse, and sent in all secrecy, a prisoner, to Dehli, where he was confined in the Salimgarh, a fort near the palace.

Murad would be put to death a couple of years later via the instrument of a murder charge supplied by the family of a courtier whom Murad had previously killed.

* The equivalent date on the Julian calendar, December 4, is also sometimes reported.

** The name means “as magnificent as Darius,” which is the sort of conceit destined to set a body up for disappointment.

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1661: Maeyken de Smet, Olsene witch

Add comment February 12th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1661, 62-year-old Maeyken de Smet was strangled and burned in Olsene

Implicated a sorceress by the last “witch” they tortured during the witch trials of Olsene-Dentergem in the early 1660s, Maeyken had little likelihood of resisting her own bout with enhanced interrogation and duly settled upon a vast register of infernally aided mischief plus 23 more humans to accuse.

On the advice of five witchcraft lawyers, Maeyken De Smet was sentenced to burning at the stake and the confiscation of all of her property. Because she had concluded a written contract with the devil, which she had signed with her own blood; had renounced God, Our Lady and all of the saints; had had sex with the devil several times; had attended several meetings of witches and their devils; had bewitched people and cows with a grey powder; and had contaminated flax with flee-beetles and trees with pernicious insects, she was strangled at the stake on a scaffold on the gallows-field and then burnt to ashes. All of her goods were confiscated. The trial had lasted eighteen days and had cost 301 pounds, 8 Schellings and 10 groats. (Six Centuries of Criminal Law: History of Criminal Law in the Southern Netherlands and Belgium)

The hecatomb this situation would seem to portend did not quite come to pass, as many of the other accused mounted vigorous defenses — often successfully exploiting judicial mechanisms to tie up the juggernaut long enough that they could get out of its way. (One even successfully used a hunger strike to avoid execution.) This particular witch hunt fizzled out by the end of 1662.

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1668: Two men and a woman, too early for Samuel Pepys

1 comment October 23rd, 2015 Headsman

The L.P. Hartley saw about the past as a foreign country might roll a few eyes at the neighborhood history department, but one cannot dispute that the march of time has fundamentally altered many particulars of our everyday life.

Public executions are among the phenomena that ancestor generations once reckoned a routine fixture of the world, but for most of us are little but the stuff of fantastic nightmares. It requires an act of conscious imagination to project oneself into a world where expiring convicts propped up on breaking-wheels are just a part of the scenery — as in this absurd episode from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

This date’s entry arrives courtesy of the pen of intrepid 17th century English diarist Samuel Pepys, whose faithful daily journals frequently record the public deaths occurring here and there like so many matinees.** Pepys at one level is a very accessible figure as he hustles through bourgeois banalities; that people are strung up and butchered around him and the fact rates nothing but a stray subordinate clause rudely injects that foreign past into his narrative.

On October 23, 1668, Pepys worked the day’s hanging right into an industrious calendar of business and social calls. (He attended Tyburn in the company of a surgeon, which made it a possible business trip for his companion.) Like the rest of us, Pepys wound up so pinched for time that he ran late and ended up missing the execution full stop, but he didn’t let the snafu perturb his day one bit.

Up, and plasterers at work and painters about my house. Commissioner Middleton and I to St. James’s, where with the rest of our company we attended on our usual business the Duke of York. Thence I to White Hall, to my Lord Sandwich’s, where I find my Lord within, but busy, private; and so I staid a little talking with the young gentlemen: and so away with Mr. Pierce, the surgeon, towards Tyburne, to see the people executed; but come too late, it being done; two men and a woman hanged, and so back again and to my coachmaker’s, and there did come a little nearer agreement for the coach, and so to Duck Lane, and there my bookseller’s, and saw his moher, but elle is so big-bellied that elle is not worth seeing. So home, and there all alone to dinner, my wife and W. Hewer being gone to Deptford to see her mother, and so I to the office all the afternoon.

After which Pepys turns as if to the our guilty-pleasure TMZ bookmark, and begins gossiping about the bawdy shenanigans of the royal court.

* Of course, the question depends on place as well as time; public executions are still routine in a few locales today — such as Saudi Arabia and Iran.

** Viz., the regicides as a successful sequel to the Charles I show:

I went out to Charing Cross, to see Major-General Harrison hanged, drawn, and quartered; which was done there, he looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition … Thus it was my chance to see the King beheaded at White Hall, and to see the first blood shed in revenge for the blood of the King at Charing Cross.

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1660: Jan Quisthout van der Linde condemned to drown in New Amsterdam

Add comment June 17th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1660, in the Netherlands’ little settlement on the tip of Manhattan Island, New Amsterdam, Jan Quisthout van der Linde was sentenced “to be taken to the place of execution and there stripped of his arms, his sword to be broken at his feet, and he to be then tied in a sack and cast into the river and drowned until dead.”

We do not have an indication of the date this sentence was carried out, if it were not immediate.

It was an unusual execution for an unnatural crime: Quisthout had been found guilty of sodomizing his servant.

New Amsterdam is here just four years away from its seizure by the English, who rechristened it New York;* dour, peg-legged Calvinist Peter Stuyvesant had been hustling for 13 years to put the tenuous little settlement on some sort of sustainable, defensible footing even as its neighbor English colonies in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island grew to dwarf little Manhattan.

Stuyvesant was a crusty boss.** He’d been crestfallen on arrival to his new assignment to find New Amsterdam a rough-edged melting pot city with livestock roaming the streets, a slurry of languages (and religions), and dockside brawls spilling out of seedy taverns.†


The “Castello Plan” map from 1660 shows the germ of Manhattan’s present-day layout. The defensive wall spanning the island on the right gives us Wall Street.

His horror was practical as well as moral: the little colony, a few hundred souls when he took over and perhaps 1,500 when the English finally deposed him, was in danger on all sides and the cash-strapped West India Company was both slow and miserly in response to Stuyvesant’s desperate pleas for men and material. But the horror was also moral. Stuyvesant enforced a whole slew of unpopular injunctions against drunkenness, fisticuffs, and fouling public streets with refuse, and actually had to be reined in by the West India Company board when he got so overbearing as to try shouldering out Jews and prying into the devotional habits of suspected Quakers.

A paragon of rectitude like Stuyvesant was in no way about to turn a blind eye to casual Atlantic-world buggery.

Even his lax predecessor had come down hard on a previous sodomy case, viewing that sin as an existential threat to their depraved port: “such a man is not worthy to associate with mankind and the crime on account of its heinousness may not be tolerated or suffered, in order that the wrath of God may not descend upon us as it did upon Sodom.”

The crime that we might see here with modern eyes, rape, was in no way foremost to Stuyvesant et al. The boy, an Amsterdam orphan named Hendrick Harmensen, stayed out of the drowning-sack — but he was whipped for same-sex contact and ordered “sent to some other place by the first opportunity” even though that very sentence acknowledged that it was Quisthout who had “committed by force the above crime” on the lad.


View of Dutch Manhattan … and its gallows.

* In honor of the then-Duke of York, the future King James II.

** Try a web search on “Peter Stuyvesant martinet” to see what we mean.

† And slavery.

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1662: Sir Henry Vane, Commonwealth parliamentarian

8 comments June 14th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1662, Parliamentarian Sir Henry Vane the Younger was beheaded on Tower Hill for his service of Oliver Cromwell‘s Protectorate.

Adopting Puritan beliefs to the irritation of his politically connected father,* Vane emigrated to that sect’s Massachusetts colony and was elected governor at the ripe old age of 23, backed by the faction forming around religious dissident Anne Hutchinson.

He served for less than a year before the anti-Hutchinson side took the office from him and he, Vane, sailed for the mother country — but even in his short tenure the young gentleman left a mark in New England sufficient for a statue in the Boston Public Library:

  • He was “an instrument in the hand of God for procuring” Rhode Island from Indians;
  • He signed the legislation creating the “New College” eventually to become Harvard;
  • And, he launched the Pequot War

Back in Old England, the Young Vane’s energy served the Roundheads well during the English Civil War. Though never a soldier, he rose to the Republicans’ statum of political leadership, and moved the money and legislation that loosed Cromwell’s armies.

Vane served on the Parliament’s wartime military counsel, the Committee of Safety and — after Vane himself played a crucial diplomatic role bringing the Scots into the fight** — on its successor body, the Committee of Both Kingdoms. Vane’s experience in the New World also gave him a bent for religious liberty that was unusually staunch for his time, and made him a key figure of the church “Independents”, one of the Interregnum’s dominant factions.

John Milton, the great literary champion of the Commonwealth, celebrated Vane in verse (1652):

VANE, young in years, but in sage counsel old,
Than whom a better senator ne’er held
The helm of Rome, when gowns, not arms, repelled
he fierce Epirot and the African bold,
Whether to settle peace, or to unfold
The drift of hollow states hard to be spelled;
Then to advise how war may best, upheld,
Move by her two main nerves, iron and gold,
In all her equipage; besides, to know;
Both spiritual power and civil, what each means,
What severs each, thou hast learned, which few have done.
he bounds of either sword to thee we owe:
Therefore on thy firm hand Religion leans
In peace, and reckons thee her eldest son.

Vane’s sage counsel — and what he would later describe as “my tenderness of blood”† — made him unwilling to participate in the execution of King Charles: it was as a spectator and not an M.P. that he watched Parliament try the deposed sovereign. But whatever his scruples on regicide he remained an enthusiastic legate of the state and wheeler-dealer of the Rump Parliament.

This parliament had an active‡ four-year run. Few were more active in it than Vane, one of its leading figures until the very day Oliver Cromwell forcibly dissolved the body — an act, Vane protested, “against morality and common sense,” prompting the exasperated Lord Protector to sputter, “Sir Harry Vane, sir Harry Vane — the Lord deliver me from sir Harry Vane!” Vane, aware that the increasingly disaffected army might strike Parliament at any time, had before Cromwell’s intervention been attempting to enact electoral legislation whose intended correction of misrepresentative parliamentary allotments anticipated the Great Reform Act by 180 years.

After April 20 1653, Vane’s political career was essentially done bar a momentary recrudescence when the old Rump Parliament was briefly retrieved from mothballs after Cromwell’s death. He diverted himself with the retired statesman’s traditional amusement, the creation of manifestos.

He might have been better served to resume his association with the colonies. When the Stuarts returned in 1660, and notwithstanding our man’s distaste for the regicide, Vane was exempted by name from the amnesty of the Indemnity and Oblivion Act.

His was a close case; the “Convention Parliament” tasked with re-inviting the exiled king initially sought, and Charles granted, clemency for Vane. But the successor “Cavalier Parliament”, more ultra-royalist than its antecedent, decided it had not had done with Sir Henry Vane the Younger, who had not allowed house arrest to deter him from continuing to pop off on the political primacy of Parliament and the validity of the late beheaded ex-king’s overthrow. In his pamphlet “The People’s Case Stated”, Vane avers,

The Coercive, or, Executive Power is placed in one Person, under the Name and Style of a King, to be put forth not by his own, single, personal command, but by the signification of his Will and Pleasure, as the Will of the whole State, in and by his Courts and Justice, and stated publick Councils and Judicatures, agreed on for that purpose, between him and his People, in their Parliamentary Assemblies.

The Will of the whole State, thus signified, the law itself prefers before the personal Will of the King, in distinction from the law, and makes the one binding, the other not.

This idea had legs, even though Charles I (“a subject and a sovereign are clean different things”) had given his head to reject it. The Cavalier Parliament made him answer charges of treason “for compassing the death of King Charles the 2nd, and intending to change the kingly government of this nation”: like most such cases, the verdict was ordained by the charge, no matter how eloquently Vane sustained himself.

He was granted the gentleman’s favor of beheading rather than the drawing-and-quartering torture that true regicides endured.

Rightly anticipating that the Will of the King would not permit him to address the crowd from the scaffold — a battery of drummers and trumpeters repeatedly interrupted his intended address, and finally the sheriff tore the notes from Vane’s hands§ — Vane had wisely given to friends some copies of the speech he intended to deliver. They saw it posthumously published.

There are freely available public-domain biographies of Henry Vane here, here, and here.

* Vane’s father, Henry the Elder, was noted among other things for the damning evidence given against the Earl of Strafford by Henry the Elder’s personal notes, which were communicated to Strafford’s enemies by Henry the Younger and proved instrumental in causing Strafford’s execution. Upon attaining that Earldom, Strafford “would needs in that patent have a new creation of a barony, and was made baron of Raby, a house belonging to sir Henry Vane, and an honour he made account should belong to him too; which was an act of the most unnecessary provocation (though he contemned the man with marvellous scorn) that I have known, and I believe was the loss of his head.”

** The “Solemn League and Covenant” that in the 1640s sealed the alliance between English Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians with an (apparent) pledge to privilege Presbyterianism on the entire island, north and south. Cromwell failed to do this after the Civil War, driving Presbyterians into the arms of the royalists; then, Charles II also failed to do it after the Restoration, driving the truest believers to embrace martyrdom. It was the Solemn League and Covenant that gave these martyrs their appellation: the Covenanters.

† In a parliamentary speech that nevertheless vindicates the regicide: “If you be not now satisfied with this business, you will put a strange construction upon that action, and upon all that has been done by the generals and soldiers. If you, here, will now doubt this right to be in you, you draw the guilt upon the body of the whole nation … It will be questioned whether that was an act of justice or murder.”

“If you be minded to resort to the old government, you are not too many steps from the old family,” Vane presciently observed in this same address for the benefit of those who still pined for a return to monarchy. “They will be too hard for you, if that government be restored.

‡ One product of the Rump Parliament of interest for these pages was the Adultery Act of 1650: “in case any married woman shall … be carnally known by any man (other them her Husband) (except in Case of Ravishment) and of such offence or offences shall be convicted as aforesaid by confession or otherwise, every such Offence and Offences shall be and is hereby adjudged Felony: and every person, as well the man as the woman, offending therein, and confessing the same, or being thereof convicted by verdict upon Indictment or Presentment as aforesaid, shall suffer death as in case of Felony, without benefit of Clergy.”

§ Vane handled his executioners’ “very indecent” nastiness with such grace that Bishop Gilbert Burnet later remarked that “it was generally thought, the government had lost more than it had gained by his death.”

Indeed, Burnet wrote, this had become true of executing regicides in general.

tho’ the Regicides were at that time odious beyond all expression, and the trials and executions of the first that suffered were run to by vast crouds, and all people seemed pleased with the sight, yet the odiousness of the crime grew at last to be so much flatten’d by the frequent executions, and most of those who suffered dying with much firmness and shew of piety, justifying all they had done, not without a seeming joy for their suffering on that account, that the King was advised not to proceed farther.

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1660: Francis Hacker and Daniel Axtell, regicides

Add comment October 19th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1660, the English soldiers Francis Hacker and Daniel Axtel(l) were executed for their roles in keeping the captured King Charles I, and for eventually seeing that late king to his beheading.

Francis Hacker

No hapless grunt, Hacker was a committed Roundhead even though most of his family stayed loyal to the Stuarts. When captured by the royalists at Leicester, Hacker “was so much prized by the enemy as they offered him the command of a choice regiment of horse to serve the king.”

Hacker disdainfully turned it down.

And as the wheel of fortune turned, the king would become Hacker’s prize. It was Hacker who commanded the detail of 32 halberdiers who marched the deposed monarch into Westminster Hall on January 20, 1649 to begin a weeklong trial — and a whole new historical era of parliamentary ascendancy.

Ten days later, when Charles was led out for beheading outside the Banqueting House, it was Hacker who escorted him. Hacker might have escaped even this much participation with his own life after the restoration of Charles’s son and heir, but it came out that he had even written, with Cromwell, the order to the executioner.

(It was an order that one of his comrades that day had very presciently refused to set his own hand to; come 1660, Hercules Huncks would owe his life to this refusal.)


Detailed view (click for a larger image) of an illustration of the king’s beheading. On the right of the scaffold, character “D” sporting a natty scabbard is Francis Hacker.

It’s a funny little thing to lose your life over, because — narrowly considered — it was nothing but a bit of bureaucracy. Hacker et al had been given from above a commission for the king’s death. On the occasion of the execution they had to convey from their party to the executioner a secondary writ licensing the day’s beheading.

But monarchs asserting divine prerogative certainly do not take such a view of mere paperwork.

“When you come to the Person of the King, what do our Law Books say he is? they call it, Caput Reipublicae, salus Populi, the Leiutenant of God”

-The regicides’ judge, delivering sentence

Huncks refusing to set his hand to this death warrant, it was Cromwell himself who personally dashed it off, then handed it to Hacker, who fatally countersigned it, just before the execution proceeded.

Meanwhile, Hacker’s subaltern Daniel Axtell razzed Huncks for chickening out. Axtell, who seemingly would be right at home in the kit of your most hated sports club, was indicted a regicide for his gauche fan behavior during the king’s trial, several times inciting soldiers (on pain of thrashing, per testimony in 1660) to chant for the king’s condemnation, whilst bullying any onlookers who dared to shout for Charles into silence.

Hacker did not bother to mount a defense; the verdicts were foreordained by political settlement.

Axtell argued superior orders, a defense best-known to us for its unsuccessful use by Nazis at Nuremberg but one which actually boasts a long history of failing to impress:

the Parliament, thus constituted, and having made their Generals, he by their Authority did constitute and appoint me to be an Inferior Officer in the Army, serving them in the quarters of the Parliament, and under and within their power; and what I have done, my Lord, it hath been done only as a Souldier, deriving my power from the General, he had his power from the Fountain, to wit, the Lords and Commons; and, my Lord, this being done, as hath been said by several, that I was there, and had command at Westminster-hall; truly, my Lord, if the Parliament command the General, and the General the inferiour Officers, I am bound by my Commission, according to the Laws and Customs of War to be where the Regiment is; I came not thither voluntarily, but by command of the General, who had a Commission (as I said before) from the Parliament. I was no Counsellor, no Contriver, I was no Parliament-man, none of the Judges, none that Sentenced, Signed, none that had any hand in the Execution, onely that which is charged is that I was an Officer in the Army.

Sounding equally modern, the court replied:

You are to obey them in their just commands, all unjust commands are invalid. If our Superiours should command us to undue and irregular things (much more if to the committing of Treason) we are in each Case to make use of our passive not active Obedience.*

The two men were drawn from Newgate to Tyburn this date and hanged.

Axtell was quartered, the customary fate of those regicides who had been put to death all the week preceding. Hacker, however, enjoyed the favor of hanging only, and was delivered and “was, by his Majesties great favour, given entire to his Friends, and buried” — perhaps because so many of Hacker’s family had remained true to Charles.

“If I had a thousand lives, I could lay them all down for the Cause

-Axtell, at his execution

* Axtell’s trial has a good deal of detailed bickering over the superior-orders defense, but the court itself did also take pains to differentiate the things Axtell did as an officer, such as commanding troops (for which Axtell was not charged) — and his going the extra mile and surely beyond his commission to shout for the king’s death.

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1666: Andreas Koch, witch hunt skeptic

1 comment June 2nd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1666, the pastor Andreas Koch suffered the pains of standing up against witch hunts in his town of Lemgo: Koch himself was beheaded as a wizard.

Lemgo recorded a busy witch-hunt record with an estimated 250 cases in the 16th and 17th centuries. But the bulk of those cases came surprisingly late — from 1653 to 1681, the period after the Thirty Years’ War witch-smelling acme.

As we’ve seen before in these grim annals, elites were not safe from the Hexenverfolgung; this, perhaps, is the reason that even we latter-day seculars still have such a visceral reaction to the term “witch hunt”.

Great is the honor for the one bold enough to stand athwart the inquisitor’s path, for great is the danger.

Andreas Koch, a Protestant pastor of the church of St. Nicolai, was a confessor to several condemned witches of Lemgo. As his position would indicate, Koch was no firebrand: he did not deny the presence of sorcerers and diabolical power in the world. But in 1665, he made bold to express skepticism about goings-on and even preached from the pulpit caution against reckless witchcraft accusations. He had found himself unsettled by the contradictory and illogical stories in supposed witches’ confessions, and finally convinced by the vow of innocence a condemned woman named Elisabeth Tillen gave him on the way to the stake. Lemgo was putting innocent people to death on spurious charges.

This epiphany, so obvious in retrospect, was a little too far ahead of his audience.

Rev. Koch was suspended from his ministry by that October, and amid new rumors circulating that he had himself been seen at the witches’ sabbaths, was arrested and put to torture the following spring. Koch was no better able to resist the interrogators’ torments than Elisabeth Tillen and her ilk had been, and obligingly confessed to diablerie. His only mercy was to die by the sword, rather than the flame; that he died before 5 in the morning might have been a mercy for his persecutors to minimize the public attendance at a potentially embarrassing scene.

Needless to say, it is Koch who has the judgment of posterity here. A present-day walking tour of Lemgo’s historic witch-hunt sites will not fail to stop at the monument that now stands in St. Nicolai’s to its devilishly skeptical former clergyman.


Detail view (click for full image) of the memorial to Andreas Koch at his former church in Lemgo. (cc) image from M. Ehret.

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