1527: Jacques de Beaune, baron de Semblançay

1 comment August 12th, 2010 Headsman

On this date* in 1527, Jacques de Beaune was hanged on the gallows of Montfaucon for peculation.

Beaune (French Wikipedia entry) was an aged man well into his 70s or 80s, and had served four kings’ treasuries, rising to become Superintendent of Finance for Francis I.

His slow-motion ruin began with France’s military involvement in Italy earlier that decade, in which capacity the French commander near Milan suffered a grievious reverse and had to abandon Lombardy.

Furious buck-passing ensued:

  • The commander blamed the defeat on a lack of pay for his Swiss mercenaries;
  • The paymaster — Beaune — blamed the lack of funds for the mercs on the Queen Mother, Louise of Savoy‘s calling in a debt

The ensuing investigation revealed this story to be true, but Beaune was obliged to retire from the court because of the Queen Mother’s fury at him.

And that might have been that, but for the further French misadventures in Italy.

In 1525, Francis himself contrived to be captured at the Battle of Pavia, elevating Louise of Savoy to regent in his absence. By the time the spendthrift king had been ransomed back, his treasury was nigh empty and Louise knew just the person to blame.

An audit of Semblancay’s accounts intended to turn up some loose ducats embarrassingly showed that the noble was actually a creditor of the king, but

on 13 January 1527, after Semblancay had returned to Paris on business, he was arrested and thrown in the Bastille … the king and his council … had been looking for ways of raising within five days 370,000 livres needed for the payment of troops. Semblancay was known to be a very rich man and the prospect of confiscating his property must have been tempting. (Source)

Semblancay was tried by a handpicked favorite of the court, with the predictable result on a somewhat nebulous embezzlement/corruption thing; a jailhouse snitch once in the great lord’s employ gave evidence against him. The doomed man, perhaps untroubled to be relieved of the infirmities of his advanced age, was supposed to have been downright chill walking through Paris to his death, and he was met with respect by a citizenry that could hardly help sympathizing with this wizened but serene victim of the royal wrath.

Poet Clement Marot** recorded the scene thus:

Lorsque Maillart, juge d’Enfer, menoit
À Monfaulcon Samblançay l’ame rendre,
À votre advis, lequel des deux tenoit
Meilleur maintien ? Pour le vous faire entendre,
Maillard sembloit homme qui mort va prendre
Et Samblançay fut si ferme vieillart
Que l’on cuydoit, pour vray, qu’il menast pendre
À Montfaulcon le lieutenant Maillart.
When Maillart, judge of Hell,
To Montfaucon led Samblançay to give up his soul,
Which of the two, in your mind,
Had the better demeanour? To enlighten you,
Maillart seemed the man whome death would take
And so sturdy an old man was Samblançay,
That one truly believed that it was he who led
Lieutenant Maillart to be hanged at Montaucon.

This case is less well-remembered today than it ought to be; to contemporaries, the hanging of France’s treasurer for corruption was an awfully noteworthy event.† (Opinions at the time seemed to be split on the justice of the matter, even though Semblancay was posthumously rehabilitated; later generations have more strongly gravitated to the understanding that he was railroaded.)

And it launched an ensuing, decade-long project of Francis’s, to squeeze wealthy financiers through the commission de la Tour Carree and thereby get in the good graces of the early modern bond markets unsettled by France’s 1520s fiscal faceplant.

There’s a nasty apparent allusion in Rabelais’s Pantagruel to this procedure:

We noticed in a great Press from twenty to twenty-five huge Gallows-birds round a great Table [bourreau, punning bureau] covered with green Cloth, staring at each other, with their Hands as long as Crane’s Legs and their Nails two Feet long at least, — for they are forbidden ever to pare them, so that they become as crooked as Bills or Boat-hooks — and just at that time was brought in a great Bunch of Grapes which they gather in that Country, from the Vine called Extraordinaire, the Grapes from which often hang on Poles. As soon as the Bunch was laid there, they put it under the Press, and there was not a Berry from which they did not squeeze Oil of Gold, insomuch that the poor Bunch was carried off so drained and stripped, that there was not a Drop of Juice or Liquor left.

Most of those Tour Carree prosecutions didn’t result in executions — “merely” confiscations of lands and titles which could be re-sold, and sentences which could be commuted for a fine. R.J. Knecht, in The Rise and Fall of Renaissance France, 1483-1610, puts the king’s profit on such confiscations into the millions of livres.

But to make those shakedowns seem a small price to pay, the threat of Semblancay’s example must have lurked in the background for targeted nobles.

(Semblancay himself had been reckless enough not to accept an initial mostly-exoneration in the inquiry that preceded his arrest and trial, since part of it required him to “repay” supposed debts to Louise of Savoy. His appeal against that part of the judgment might have set him up to be the cautionary example for everyone else.)

Guillaume de La Perrierre captured the vibe with one of his “emblems” in Le Théâtre des bons engins, number XL:


Also see emblem number LXXV.

The Beaune name would scintillate to posterity through such illustrious descendants as Renaud de Beaune (French link), a notable archbishop; and, more salaciously, Escadron Volant all-star Charlotte de Beaune Semblançay, who seduced powerful nobles at Catherine de’ Medici’s behest.

A lengthy French history of our day’s early modern moneybags can be perused here; when visiting Tours, you can revisit the days when he was in the chips by crashing at one of the many buildings he put, the Hotel de Beaune-Semblancay.

* Sentence was pronounced on Friday, Aug. 9, but a stay granted until Monday, Aug. 12 for the condemned man to pursue his appeal to the king. Some sources give Aug. 9 as the execution date, and some Aug. 11; both of these appear to be incorrect. See David Graham in An Interregnum of the Sign: The Emblematic Age in France – Essays in Honour of Daniel S.Russell.

** There’s another (translated to English) meditation Marot wrote on Semblancay here, in the first-person voice of the hanged man. Marot was a friend of the eventually-executed French linguist and translator Etienne Dolet, and his own unorthodox opinions would eventually require him to flee the realm for his life.

We do note that in this era of combative pamphleteering, the geezer who made himself a tycoon by administering the taxes wasn’t universally supported by the literary set. Roger de Collerye (cited here) hooted Jacques de Beaune into the hereafter with the verses,

Tremblez, tremblez, larrons gros & petiz!
Retirez vous, gens trop fins et subtilz!
Absentez vous bientost & prenez terre,
Gens de finances et tresoriers gentilz
Qui d’attrapper estes tant ententifz.
Sur vous surviegne tempeste & tonerre!
Craignez la court qui vous donna la guerre
Bien asprement, quant je l’ay pance,
Souvieigne vous de la mort Sant Blancey!

† It happened yet again in September 1535, to Jean Poncher. Historically, proximity to the French crown’s revenues was also proximity to the gallows.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Nobility,Pelf,Politicians,Public Executions,Scandal,Theft

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