1672: Not Cornelius van Baerle, tulip-fancier

Add comment August 23rd, 2016 Alexandre Dumas

For this date’s post we welcome back to Executed Today the prolific pen of Alexandre Dumas, here working on the “fictional” side of his familiar historical fiction genre.

Dumas’s novel The Black Tulip (La Tulipe Noire) begins with the very real Aug. 20, 1672 lynching of Dutch statesmen Cornelis and Johann de Witt, and from that point unfolds the story of a fictional godson, Cornelius van Baerle — whose green thumb will nurture the titular flower along with a love for the jailer’s daughter Rosa. (To the very great wrath of van Baerle’s neighbor and murderous rival gardener, Isaac Boxtel.)

Dumas has already sown both seeds when he dates his narrative via van Baerle’s will, written when the fictional main character is in danger of succumbing to the same cataclysm that swallowed up his godfather: already smitten with Rosa, he purposes to bequeath her the bulbs, whose rare product will be worth a bounty.

On this day, the 23d of August, 1672, being on the point of rendering, although innocent, my soul to God on the scaffold, I bequeath to Rosa Gryphus the only worldly goods which remain to me of all that I have possessed in this world, the rest having been confiscated; I bequeath, I say, to Rosa Gryphus three bulbs, which I am convinced must produce, in the next May, the Grand Black Tulip for which a prize of a hundred thousand guilders has been offered by the Haarlem Society, requesting that she may be paid the same sum in my stead, as my sole heiress, under the only condition of her marrying a respectable young man of about my age, who loves her, and whom she loves, and of her giving the black tulip, which will constitute a new species, the name of Rosa Barlaensis, that is to say, hers and mine combined.

So may God grant me mercy, and to her health and long life!

Cornelius van Baerle.

And having done this, van Baerle is escorted directly to the scaffold, where we pick up Dumas’s narrative courtesy of Gutenberg.org:


Chapter 12: The Execution

Cornelius had not three hundred paces to walk outside the prison to reach the foot of the scaffold. At the bottom of the staircase, the dog quietly looked at him whilst he was passing; Cornelius even fancied he saw in the eyes of the monster a certain expression as it were of compassion.

The dog perhaps knew the condemned prisoners, and only bit those who left as free men.

The shorter the way from the door of the prison to the foot of the scaffold, the more fully, of course, it was crowded with curious people.

These were the same who, not satisfied with the blood which they had shed three days before, were now craving for a new victim.

And scarcely had Cornelius made his appearance than a fierce groan ran through the whole street, spreading all over the yard, and re-echoing from the streets which led to the scaffold, and which were likewise crowded with spectators.

The scaffold indeed looked like an islet at the confluence of several rivers.

In the midst of these threats, groans, and yells, Cornelius, very likely in order not to hear them, had buried himself in his own thoughts.

And what did he think of in his last melancholy journey?

Neither of his enemies, nor of his judges, nor of his executioners.

He thought of the beautiful tulips which he would see from heaven above, at Ceylon, or Bengal, or elsewhere, when he would be able to look with pity on this earth, where John and Cornelius de Witt had been murdered for having thought too much of politics, and where Cornelius van Baerle was about to be murdered for having thought too much of tulips.

“It is only one stroke of the axe,” said the philosopher to himself, “and my beautiful dream will begin to be realised.”

Only there was still a chance, just as it had happened before to M. de Chalais, to M. de Thou, and other slovenly executed people, that the headsman might inflict more than one stroke, that is to say, more than one martyrdom, on the poor tulip-fancier.

Yet, notwithstanding all this, Van Baerle mounted the scaffold not the less resolutely, proud of having been the friend of that illustrious John, and godson of that noble Cornelius de Witt, whom the ruffians, who were now crowding to witness his own doom, had torn to pieces and burnt three days before.

He knelt down, said his prayers, and observed, not without a feeling of sincere joy, that, laying his head on the block, and keeping his eyes open, he would be able to his last moment to see the grated window of the Buytenhof.

At length the fatal moment arrived, and Cornelius placed his chin on the cold damp block. But at this moment his eyes closed involuntarily, to receive more resolutely the terrible avalanche which was about to fall on his head, and to engulf his life.

A gleam like that of lightning passed across the scaffold: it was the executioner raising his sword.

Van Baerle bade farewell to the great black tulip, certain of awaking in another world full of light and glorious tints.

Three times he felt, with a shudder, the cold current of air from the knife near his neck, but what a surprise! he felt neither pain nor shock.

He saw no change in the colour of the sky, or of the world around him.

Then suddenly Van Baerle felt gentle hands raising him, and soon stood on his feet again, although trembling a little.

He looked around him. There was some one by his side, reading a large parchment, sealed with a huge seal of red wax.

And the same sun, yellow and pale, as it behooves a Dutch sun to be, was shining in the skies; and the same grated window looked down upon him from the Buytenhof; and the same rabble, no longer yelling, but completely thunderstruck, were staring at him from the streets below.

Van Baerle began to be sensible to what was going on around him.

His Highness, William, Prince of Orange, very likely afraid that Van Baerle’s blood would turn the scale of judgment against him, had compassionately taken into consideration his good character, and the apparent proofs of his innocence.

His Highness, accordingly, had granted him his life.

Cornelius at first hoped that the pardon would be complete, and that he would be restored to his full liberty and to his flower borders at Dort.

But Cornelius was mistaken. To use an expression of Madame de Sevigne, who wrote about the same time, “there was a postscript to the letter;” and the most important part of the letter was contained in the postscript.

In this postscript, William of Orange, Stadtholder of Holland, condemned Cornelius van Baerle to imprisonment for life. He was not sufficiently guilty to suffer death, but he was too much so to be set at liberty.

Cornelius heard this clause, but, the first feeling of vexation and disappointment over, he said to himself —

“Never mind, all this is not lost yet; there is some good in this perpetual imprisonment; Rosa will be there, and also my three bulbs of the black tulip are there.”

But Cornelius forgot that the Seven Provinces had seven prisons, one for each, and that the board of the prisoner is anywhere else less expensive than at the Hague, which is a capital.

His Highness, who, as it seems, did not possess the means to feed Van Baerle at the Hague, sent him to undergo his perpetual imprisonment at the fortress of Loewestein, very near Dort, but, alas! also very far from it; for Loewestein, as the geographers tell us, is situated at the point of the islet which is formed by the confluence of the Waal and the Meuse, opposite Gorcum.


Aerial view of present-day Loewestein Castle. (cc) image from Hans Elbers

Van Baerle was sufficiently versed in the history of his country to know that the celebrated Grotius was confined in that castle after the death of Barneveldt; and that the States, in their generosity to the illustrious publicist, jurist, historian, poet, and divine, had granted to him for his daily maintenance the sum of twenty-four stivers.

“I,” said Van Baerle to himself, “I am worth much less than Grotius. They will hardly give me twelve stivers, and I shall live miserably; but never mind, at all events I shall live.”

Then suddenly a terrible thought struck him.

“Ah!” he exclaimed, “how damp and misty that part of the country is, and the soil so bad for the tulips! And then Rosa will not be at Loewestein!”

Chapter 13: What was going on all this Time in the Mind of one of the Spectators

Whilst Cornelius was engaged with his own thoughts, a coach had driven up to the scaffold. This vehicle was for the prisoner. He was invited to enter it, and he obeyed.

His last look was towards the Buytenhof. He hoped to see at the window the face of Rosa, brightening up again.

But the coach was drawn by good horses, who soon carried Van Baerle away from among the shouts which the rabble roared in honour of the most magnanimous Stadtholder, mixing with it a spice of abuse against the brothers De Witt and the godson of Cornelius, who had just now been saved from death.

This reprieve suggested to the worthy spectators remarks such as the following:—

“It’s very fortunate that we used such speed in having justice done to that great villain John, and to that little rogue Cornelius, otherwise his Highness might have snatched them from us, just as he has done this fellow.”

Among all the spectators whom Van Baerle’s execution had attracted to the Buytenhof, and whom the sudden turn of affairs had disagreeably surprised, undoubtedly the one most disappointed was a certain respectably dressed burgher, who from early morning had made such a good use of his feet and elbows that he at last was separated from the scaffold only by the file of soldiers which surrounded it.

Many had shown themselves eager to see the perfidious blood of the guilty Cornelius flow, but not one had shown such a keen anxiety as the individual just alluded to.

The most furious had come to the Buytenhof at daybreak, to secure a better place; but he, outdoing even them, had passed the night at the threshold of the prison, from whence, as we have already said, he had advanced to the very foremost rank, unguibus et rostro — that is to say, coaxing some, and kicking the others.

And when the executioner had conducted the prisoner to the scaffold, the burgher, who had mounted on the stone of the pump the better to see and be seen, made to the executioner a sign which meant —

“It’s a bargain, isn’t it?”

The executioner answered by another sign, which was meant to say —

“Be quiet, it’s all right.”

This burgher was no other than Mynheer Isaac Boxtel, who since the arrest of Cornelius had come to the Hague to try if he could not get hold of the three bulbs of the black tulip.

Boxtel had at first tried to gain over Gryphus to his interest, but the jailer had not only the snarling fierceness, but likewise the fidelity, of a dog. He had therefore bristled up at Boxtel’s hatred, whom he had suspected to be a warm friend of the prisoner, making trifling inquiries to contrive with the more certainty some means of escape for him.

Thus to the very first proposals which Boxtel made to Gryphus to filch the bulbs which Cornelius van Baerle must be supposed to conceal, if not in his breast, at least in some corner of his cell, the surly jailer had only answered by kicking Mynheer Isaac out, and setting the dog at him.

The piece which the mastiff had torn from his hose did not discourage Boxtel. He came back to the charge, but this time Gryphus was in bed, feverish, and with a broken arm. He therefore was not able to admit the petitioner, who then addressed himself to Rosa, offering to buy her a head-dress of pure gold if she would get the bulbs for him. On this, the generous girl, although not yet knowing the value of the object of the robbery, which was to be so well remunerated, had directed the tempter to the executioner, as the heir of the prisoner.

In the meanwhile the sentence had been pronounced. Thus Isaac had no more time to bribe any one. He therefore clung to the idea which Rosa had suggested: he went to the executioner.

Isaac had not the least doubt that Cornelius would die with the bulbs on his heart.

But there were two things which Boxtel did not calculate upon:—

Rosa, that is to say, love;

William of Orange, that is to say, clemency.

But for Rosa and William, the calculations of the envious neighbour would have been correct.

But for William, Cornelius would have died.

But for Rosa, Cornelius would have died with his bulbs on his heart.

Mynheer Boxtel went to the headsman, to whom he gave himself out as a great friend of the condemned man; and from whom he bought all the clothes of the dead man that was to be, for one hundred guilders; rather an exorbitant sum, as he engaged to leave all the trinkets of gold and silver to the executioner.

But what was the sum of a hundred guilders to a man who was all but sure to buy with it the prize of the Haarlem Society?

It was money lent at a thousand per cent, which, as nobody will deny, was a very handsome investment.

The headsman, on the other hand, had scarcely anything to do to earn his hundred guilders. He needed only, as soon as the execution was over, to allow Mynheer Boxtel to ascend the scaffold with his servants, to remove the inanimate remains of his friend.

The thing was, moreover, quite customary among the “faithful brethren,” when one of their masters died a public death in the yard of the Buytenhof.

A fanatic like Cornelius might very easily have found another fanatic who would give a hundred guilders for his remains.

The executioner also readily acquiesced in the proposal, making only one condition — that of being paid in advance.

Boxtel, like the people who enter a show at a fair, might be disappointed, and refuse to pay on going out.

Boxtel paid in advance, and waited.

After this, the reader may imagine how excited Boxtel was; with what anxiety he watched the guards, the Recorder, and the executioner; and with what intense interest he surveyed the movements of Van Baerle. How would he place himself on the block? how would he fall? and would he not, in falling, crush those inestimable bulbs? had not he at least taken care to enclose them in a golden box — as gold is the hardest of all metals?

Every trifling delay irritated him. Why did that stupid executioner thus lose time in brandishing his sword over the head of Cornelius, instead of cutting that head off?

But when he saw the Recorder take the hand of the condemned, and raise him, whilst drawing forth the parchment from his pocket — when he heard the pardon of the Stadtholder publicly read out — then Boxtel was no more like a human being; the rage and malice of the tiger, of the hyena, and of the serpent glistened in his eyes, and vented itself in his yell and his movements. Had he been able to get at Van Baerle, he would have pounced upon him and strangled him.

And so, then, Cornelius was to live, and was to go with him to Loewestein, and thither to his prison he would take with him his bulbs; and perhaps he would even find a garden where the black tulip would flower for him.

Boxtel, quite overcome by his frenzy, fell from the stone upon some Orangemen, who, like him, were sorely vexed at the turn which affairs had taken. They, mistaking the frantic cries of Mynheer Isaac for demonstrations of joy, began to belabour him with kicks and cuffs, such as could not have been administered in better style by any prize-fighter on the other side of the Channel.

Blows were, however, nothing to him. He wanted to run after the coach which was carrying away Cornelius with his bulbs. But in his hurry he overlooked a paving-stone in his way, stumbled, lost his centre of gravity, rolled over to a distance of some yards, and only rose again, bruised and begrimed, after the whole rabble of the Hague, with their muddy feet, had passed over him.

One would think that this was enough for one day, but Mynheer Boxtel did not seem to think so, as, in addition to having his clothes torn, his back bruised, and his hands scratched, he inflicted upon himself the further punishment of tearing out his hair by handfuls, as an offering to that goddess of envy who, as mythology teaches us, wears a head-dress of serpents.

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1574: Joseph Boniface de La Mole, La Reine Margot’s lover

1 comment April 30th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1574, nobleman Joseph Boniface de La Mole was beheaded in Paris for a supposed plot against the king.

As the year would imply, La Mole was a casualty of France’s decades-long Wars of Religion.

Two years prior, in an attempt to cement an unsteady peace, the king’s sister Marguerite de Valois had been married off to the Protestant Henri of Navarre. As Paris teemed with Huguenots in town to celebrate the nuptials, the Catholic party sprang the infamous St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.

As if things weren’t awkward enough with the in-laws, Henri was now made to live at the royal court, feigning conversion to Catholicism. His relationship with Marguerite went off to a rocky start; both took other lovers.

Joseph Boniface de La Mole (English Wikipedia entry | French) was one of Marguerite’s. You’ll find this adulterous couple steaming up the screen in the 1994 film La Reine Margot, which is based on a Dumas novel of the same title.


In real life, La Mole was 27 years Marguerite’s senior.

Meanwhile, civil strife ebbed and flowed.

Desperate to escape his gilded cage, Henri in 1574 was part of a Protestant coup attempt that boldly aimed to seize the sickly King Charles IX and his mother Catherine de’ Medici at Saint-Germain.

The conspiracy failed, but its principals — including not only our Henri, but also the King’s Protestant-friendly brother the Duke of Alencon, and the Duke of Montmorency* — were too august for severe punishment. Catherine de’ Medici, whose children kept dying on her (Charles IX would do likewise in May of 1574), was desperately trying to navigate the civil war with a Valois heir in place who had enough political support to rule; going all-in with the realm’s Catholic ultras (most characteristically represented by the House of Guise, which wanted Henri beheaded for this treason) would have permanently alienated all the Huguenots.

The likes of La Mole, however, were not so safe.

He and one Annibal de Coconnas, members of the court’s Huguenot circle who “had nothing of the divinity that hedged the princes of the blood,” were seized on April 8 and interrogated for an alleged scheme to murder the sovereign — possibly at the instigation of the Guises, trying to implicate through this pair the more powerful Huguenot lords.

After the inevitable blade fell on them, Marguerite supposedly kept her former lover’s severed head in a jeweled box. But the nobleman had at least the consolation of a rich literary afterlife. Besides the Dumas novel aforementioned, the La Mole family — our man’s supposed descendants — feature prominently in Stendhal’s The Red and the Black.

‘Let us take a turn in the garden,’ said the Academician, delighted to see this chance of delivering a long and formal speech. ‘What! Is it really possible that you do not know what happened on the 30th of April, 1574?’ ‘Where?’ asked Julien, in surprise. ‘On the Place de Greve.’ Julien was so surprised that this name did not enlighten him. His curiosity, the prospect of a tragic interest, so attuned to his nature, gave him those sparkling eyes which a story-teller so loves to see in his audience. The Academician, delighted to find a virgin ear, related at full length to Julien how, on the 30th of April, 1574, the handsomest young man of his age, Boniface de La Mole, and Annibal de Coconasso, a Piedmontese gentleman, his friend, had been beheaded on the Place de Greve. ‘La Mole was the adored lover of Queen Marguerite of Navarre; and observe,’ the Academician added, ‘that Mademoiselle de La Mole is named Mathilde-Marguerite. La Mole was at the same time the favourite of the Duc d’Alencon and an intimate friend of the King of Navarre, afterwards Henri IV, the husband of his mistress. On Shrove Tuesday in this year, 1574, the Court happened to be at Saint-Germain, with the unfortunate King Charles IX, who was on his deathbed. La Mole wished to carry off the Princes, his friends, whom Queen Catherine de’ Medici was keeping as prisoners with the Court. He brought up two hundred horsemen under the walls of Saint-Germain, the Due d’Alencon took fright, and La Mole was sent to the scaffold.

In Stendhal’s novel, it is Julien’s sexual conquest of the pretty young Mathilde de La Mole that sets in motion Julien’s ruin and execution.

Joseph Boniface de La Mole’s lover fared far better than that of his fictional descendant. Henri would eventually make his escape after all, and through fortune and intrepidity made Marguerite the Queen of all France** when he decided at last that Paris was worth a Mass.

* The man in our story was the second Duke of Montmorency; his nephew, the fourth duke, was beheaded in 1632.

** The marriage was never comfortable, and Henri and Marguerite continued to live and love separately until they finally annulled the union in 1599.

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1348: The Duke of Durazzo, all in the family

Add comment January 23rd, 2014 Headsman

The Neapolitan King Robert “the Wise”* dominated Italian politics for his 34-year reign, but his death in 1343 left a disastrously disputed succession.

Robert, who hailed from the French House of Anjou, had had only two sons, and they both predeceased him. So Robert’s will designated his granddaughter Joanna as his successor, and her sister Maria as no. 2 in line should Joanna die without an heir.

But Joanna was 16 years old, and Robert had had three brothers whose lines each coveted a taste of Neapolitan for themselves. In particular, the family of Robert’s oldest brother, whose descendants had managed to establish an Angevin ruling dynasty in Hungary, arguably had a better claim that Robert himself. So in an effort to cement the Joanna-plus-Maria succession plan, Robert married Joanna off to a child of that branch, Andrew, Duke of Calabria.

Maria, for her part, had been intended for another dynastic marriage, but after Robert’s death she got abducted by the heirs to the youngest of Robert’s brothers and married off to Charles (or Carlo), Count of Gravina and Duke of Durazzo (English Wikipedia entry | Italian). This set their branch up to be a player for Robert’s patrimony, too; as one may infer from this character’s presence on this here execution blog, the play didn’t go to plan.

Dumas reckoned Charles an inveterate, and a sinister, schemer, “one of those men who to gain their end recoil at nothing; devoured by raging ambition and accustomed from his earliest years to conceal his most ardent desires beneath a mask of careless indifference, he marched ever onward, plot succeeding plot … His cheek grew pale with joy; when he hated most, he smiled; in all the emotions of his life, however strong, he was inscrutable.”

Now that we have the dramatis personae … to the action!

Nice knowin’ ya, Andrew. 1835 watercolor of his murder by Karl Briullov.

Robert was scarcely cold in his coffin when Joanna’s husband Andrew (supported by a faction within the Neapolitan court) began maneuvering for more power. Days before he was to capture a strategic hilltop in that campaign by becoming crowned in his own right in September 1345, a conspiracy of his rivals surprised Andrew on a hunting trip and murdered him — violently subduing the resisting teenager until they could strangle him to death and pitch him out a window. Joanna cowered in her bed as her shrieking husband was snuffed; the suspicion of her involvement in the plot would follow her all the 37 years she had left on this earth, although she defeated the charge when she was formally investigated.

With this stunning act, peninsular politics got almost as messy as the Angevin family tree.

Andrew’s murder, which was succeeded by no simulation of punishing any guilty parties, opened a power vacuum and simultaneously supplied all Andrew’s power-hungry kinsmen the ideal pretext for elbowing their respective ways into it. The Hungarian Angevins, led by the murdered Andrew’s big brother King Louis I swept into Naples, routing Joanna** who was forced in 1348 to flee to the pope at Avignon, maybe on the very ships that were at this very moment introducing the Black Death from Sicily to ports all over Europe.

Cousin Charles made an expedient alliance with cousin Louis and joined the fun, angling to add Naples to his own domains once the dust settled and Hungarian affairs pulled Louis away. But almost immediately after expelling Joanna, the Hungarian king turned on Charles, too. In Dumas’s dramatic rendering, he accuses Charles of complicity in Andrew’s murder and treachery against his own royal person.

Traitor! At length you are in my hands, and you shall die as you deserve; but before you are handed over to the executioner, confess with your own lips your deeds of treachery towards our royal majesty: so shall we need no other witness to condemn you to a punishment proportioned to your crimes. Between our two selves, Duke of Durazzo, tell me first why, by your infamous manoeuvring, you aided your uncle, the Cardinal of Perigord, to hinder the coronation of my brother, and so led him on, since he had no royal prerogative of his own, to his miserable end? Oh, make no attempt to deny it. Here is the letter sealed with your seal; in secret you wrote it, but it accuses you in public. Then why, after bringing us hither to avenge our brother’s death, of which you beyond all doubt were the cause,–why did you suddenly turn to the queen’s party and march against our town of Aquila, daring to raise an army against our faithful subjects? You hoped, traitor, to make use of us as a footstool to mount the throne withal, as soon as you were free from every other rival. Then you would but have awaited our departure to kill the viceroy we should have left in our place, and so seize the kingdom. But this time your foresight has been at fault. There is yet another crime worse than all the rest, a crime of high treason, which I shall remorselessly punish. You carried off the bride that our ancestor King Robert designed for me, as you knew, by his will. Answer, wretch what excuse can you make for the rape of the Princess Marie?

Charles was put to summary death upon this accusation on January 23, 1348.

As for the Princess Marie, who at this point was 18 years old and had already borne Charles five children in almost continuous succession, she wasn’t done being abducted: another nobleman, the Lord of Baux, snatched her from the Castel dell’Ovo later that same year and had four more children with her before Maria had him murdered in 1353. Then she married yet another cousin and had five more kids by him.

* Fruit of the Angevin dynasty that had dispossessed the Hohenstaufens the previous century.

** Joanna tried to shore herself up ahead of the invasion by remarrying another cousin, Louis of Taranto.

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1705: The Camisards Catinat and Ravanel

1 comment April 22nd, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1705, two men were burned at the stake and two others broken on the wheel — Camisards all, put to death in Nimes, France.

The Camisards* were French Protestants of the mountainous southern Cevennes region who make their entry into these pages because the crown in 1685 revoked the Edict of Nantes, France’s guarantee of multiconfessional toleration.

Protestants were going to be bullied into conversion — or, in many cases, flight. (London’s Spitalfields textile industry, for instance, got a welcome shot in the arm from refugee Huguenot weavers.)

In 1702, the Cevennes Protestants pushed back.

“A persecution unsurpassed in violence had lasted near a score of years,” Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in his 19th century travelogue of the region. “This was the result upon the persecuted; hanging, burning, breaking on the wheel, had been in vain; the dragoons had left their hoof-marks over all the countryside; there were men rowing in the galleys, and women pining in the prisons of the Church; and not a thought was changed in the heart of any upright Protestant.”

On July 24, 1702, the Catholic torturer-priest running this show was assassinated, and the Camisard revolt was on.

Two years of dirty neighbor-on-neighbor violence mostly petered out in 1704 with the loss of the Camisards’ two main leaders — Jean Cavalier, the brilliant peasant-turned-commander who was bought off by an army commission and a royal pension, and Roland Laporte, who was betrayed as by Judas for 200 pieces of gold.

Catinat and Ravanel were Cavalier’s lieutenants; according to Alexandre Dumas, Catinat was a peasant named Abdias Maurel who picked up his nickname after serving under Marshal Catinat in the War of Spanish Succession.

The prospect of a renewed rising drew them back — a bold and terrible stroke to mount a surprise massacre and kidnap the exiled English Duke of Berwick. Catinat returned from his hidey-hole in Geneva; Ravanel came the bush where he was the last notable Camisard commander in the field.

An informer spilled the secret and the conspirators were busted in Nimes before they could spring their trap.

They faced immediate trial and condemnation — Catinat and Ravanel, along with two younger fighters named Jonquet and Villas.

After a long bout of pre-execution torture on April 21 to reveal their conspirators,**

The next day, the 22nd April, 1705, they were taken from the prison and drawn to the place of execution in two carts, being unable to walk, on account of the severe torture to which they had been subjected, and which had crushed the bones of their legs. A single pile of wood had been prepared for Catinat and Ravanel, who were to be burnt together; they were in one cart, and Villas and Jonquet, for whom two wheels had been prepared, were in the other.

The first operation was to bind Catinat and Ravanel back to back to the same stake, care being taken to place Catinat with his face to windward, so that his agony might last longer, and then the pile was lit under Ravanel.

As had been foreseen, this precaution gave great pleasure to those people who took delight in witnessing executions. The wind being rather high, blew the flames away from Catinat, so that at first the fire burnt his legs only — a circumstance which, the author of the History of the Camisards tells us, aroused Catinat’s impatience. Ravanel, however, bore everything to the end with the greatest heroism, only pausing in his singing to address words of encouragement to his companion in suffering, whom he could not see, but whose groans and curses he could hear; he would then return to his psalms, which he continued to sing until his voice was stifled in the flames. Just as he expired, Jonquet was removed from the wheel, and carried, his broken limbs dangling, to the burning pile, on which he was thrown. From the midst of the flames his voice was heard saying, “Courage, Catinat; we shall soon meet in heaven.” A few moments later, the stake, being burnt through at the base, broke, and Catinat falling into the flames, was quickly suffocated. That this accident had not been forseen and prevented by proper precautions caused great displeasure to spectators who found that the three-quarter of an hour which the spectacle had lasted was much too brief a time.

Villas lived three hours longer on his wheel, and expired without having uttered a single complaint.

A hecatomb of Camisard executions followed, fed by the denunciations of frightened or avaricious people; still others were “merely” condemned to the galleys … bringing at last a sullen peace of arms to the turbulent province.

* Here’s a 19th century public domain novel about the whole Camisard business.

** While three bore the torture quietly, Villas coughed up the name Boeton de Saint-Laurent-d’Aigozre. This man, too, was arrested and executed.

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1628: Milady de Winter, Three Musketeers villainess

1 comment August 27th, 2012 Headsman

Late this night* in 1628 was the fictional execution of The Three Musketeers antagonist Milady de Winter.

Milady de Winter, as the heroine of Agnes Maupre’s revisionist French graphic novel series (Author interview | Another (Both in French)).

This conniving minx bears the fleur-de-lis brand of a teenage crime upon her shoulder — a very naughty beauty-mark indeed — but becomes a secret agent of Cardinal Richelieu. (Richelieu is a point of friction for the Musketeers right from the start.)

This novel — which has long been in the public domain (Text at Gutenberg.org or ClassicReader.com | Free audio book at Librivox.org) — features Milady continually bedeviling the protagonist d’Artagnan. He loves her; she keeps trying to kill him. Pretty typical for these grim annals. (She also used to be Athos’s wife, years ago, until he tried to murder her. Long story.)

To skip to the end of things, Milady is portrayed as having orchestrated at Richelieu’s behest the (actual, historical) assassination of the Musketeers’ buddy the (actual, historical) Duke of Buckingham, which Milady accomplishes by seducing and manipulating his (actual, historical) assassin, John Felton. In reality, Felton was motivated by the stirring Republican sentiment that would soon generate a revolution; in Dumas, he’s a horny dupe who beholds his seductress escaping by sea even as he’s placed under arrest.

Buckingham was (actually, historically) murdered on August 23.

The fictional narrative picks up on August 25, when the escaped Milady writes to Cardinal Richelieu from the safety of Boulogne. Unbeknownst to her, her hours are numbered.

Milady proceeds the next morning to a convent in Bethune where she chances to encounter the mistress of her old foe d’Artagnan … and, by that night, to slay said mistress with poison just ahead of the arrival of the Musketeers.** But the Musketeers are able to track the escaping murderess down by the next evening. There, they subject her to a snap “trial”:

“We wish to judge you according to your crime,” said Athos; “you shall be free to defend yourself. Justify yourself if you can. M. d’Artagnan, it is for you to accuse her first.”

D’Artagnan advanced.

“Before God and before men,” said he, “I accuse this woman of having poisoned Constance Bonacieux, who died yesterday evening.”

He turned towards Porthos and Aramis.

“We bear witness to this,” said the two Musketeers, with one voice.

D’Artagnan continued: “Before God and before men, I accuse this woman of having attempted to poison me, in wine which she sent me from Villeroy, with a forged letter, as if that wine came from my friends. God preserved me, but a man named Brisemont died in my place.”

“We bear witness to this,” said Porthos and Aramis, in the same manner as before.

“Before God and before men, I accuse this woman of having urged me to the murder of the Baron de Wardes; but as no one else can attest the truth of this accusation, I attest it myself. I have done.” And d’Artagnan passed to the other side of the room with Porthos and Aramis.

“Your turn, my Lord,” said Athos.

The baron came forward.

“Before God and before men,” said he, “I accuse this woman of having caused the assassination of the Duke of Buckingham.”

“The Duke of Buckingham assassinated!” cried all present, with one voice.

“Yes,” said the baron, “assassinated. On receiving the warning letter you wrote to me, I had this woman arrested, and gave her in charge to a loyal servant. She corrupted this man; she placed the poniard in his hand; she made him kill the duke. And at this moment, perhaps, Felton is paying with his head for the crime of this fury!”

And so forth.

Then these obviously impartial judges judge her guilty, and have the executioner of Lille — whom they have thoughtfully procured in advance — chop off her head and dump her in a river.

“The executioner may kill, without being on that account an assassin,” said the man in the red cloak [i.e., the executioner himself], rapping upon his immense sword. “This is the last judge; that is all. Nachrichter, as say our neighbors, the Germans.”

Extrajudicial is as extrajudicial does. And in this case, Richelieu is just as happy to be rid of his duplicitous agent and, admiring the protagonist’s moxie, commissions d’Artagnan a lieutenant in the Musketeers. D’Artagnan is the fourth of the titular “three Musketeers”, so this denouement means that he’s finally made it … and he should stand by for duty in sequels continuing to mix-and-match Dumas’s fictional characters with actual, historical events.

Indeed, in the next volume of the series, Twenty Years After, it’s Milady’s vengeful son Mordaunt who acts as Charles I‘s executioner.

This date’s captivating femme fatale has appropriately been portrayed by a ravishing host of silver screen sirens including Lana Turner, Mylene Demongeot, Antonella Lualdi, Faye Dunaway, Rebecca de Mornay, Emmanuelle Beart, and (most recently as of this writing), Milla Jovovich.

* August 27-28, right around midnight. Dumas isn’t specific as to pre- or post-midnight.

** In the novel, it’s Madame de Chevreuse who has arranged this rendezvous of d’Artagnan with his lover — another actual, historical person whom we have met elsewhere in these pages.

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1627: Francois de Montmorency and his second, for dueling

2 comments June 22nd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1627, the Comte de Bouteville plus his cousin Des Chapelles lost their heads for fighting a duel — ultimately (because of the execution) one of the most notorious duels in French history.

Though this is the duel that everyone knows, Francois de Montmorency-Bouteville (English Wikipedia entry | French) had engaged in 22 such affairs of honor between the tender ages of 15 and 28. Like as not, he was the duellist par excellence in an age where demanding lethal satisfaction was all the rage among devil-may-care aristocratic straplings.

And this, of course, is why he was nominated for condign punishment in Louis XIII’s struggling anti-dueling campaign. One might say he nominated himself.

Dueling, a mano-a-mano vindication of feuds between fops, was an archaic holdover of Burgundian clan violence turned preposterous baroque ritual of conspicuous consociation.

It was also incredibly epidemic in France at this period.

During the reign of Louis’s predecessor Henri IV, 7,000 to 8,000 people are reported to have died in duels, which works out to the suspect rate of one per day for the entire period. Then again, France did have an excess supply of noble progeny whose violent impulses were no longer preoccupied by fratricidal religious warfare.*

Henri IV had tried to ban dueling, even in 1610 executing for lese majeste a couple members of his own guard who defied the ban. Just weeks later, and for no reason connected to dueling, Henri was assassinated. Then-nine-year-old heir Louis XIII was in no position at the time to follow up his father’s policy, and the naughty sport continued to flourish.

“Duels had become so common among the French nobility that the streets of Paris usually served as the field of combat,” according to the Mercure Francois. And as Richard Herr described in his “Honor versus Absolutism: Richelieu’s Fight against Dueling” (The Journal of Modern History, September 1955; this is also the source of all other quotes in this post), they often arose over utterly trivial “slights.”**

Typical was a duel in Lent of 1626 in which Bouteville [i.e., the subject of our post] with two seconds engaged the Comte de Thorigny and his two seconds. The fight was over a dispute between Thorigny and the Marquis de Chalais, who was in prison accused of treason. Bouteville was merely defending the honor of a friend. All six spent the night before the engagement in an inn outside Paris, and in the course of a fairly amicable conversation, they expressed regret that being good friends, they were going to kill each other over another gentleman’s quarrel. But they agreed that they had gone too far to be able to abandon the project without loss of honor. The next day Bouteville killed Thorigny after the latter’s sword broke.

By the 1620s, Louis was old enough to make another run at this intractable elite-on-elite crime wave, and did so with the full encouragement of his famous consigliere Cardinal Richelieu. Depriving the aristocracy of this weird extra-judicial prerogative fit right into the latter’s going campaign to centralize the French state and bring its quarrelsome lords to heel.

What with all those duels he liked to fight, Francois de Montmorency-Bouteville was a great test case. Fighting a public duel in January 1627 — at which his second was slain — made Bouteville a target, and he fled to the Netherlands for safety.

Our fugitive figured he’d send word that a pardon would be appreciated, and everything would blow over like it always did. But Louis was determined to disabuse this type of any privilege to commit public mayhem, and refused to grant Bouteville his absolution.

Honor offended — his default state, to judge by his career — Bouteville vowed angrily to “fight in Paris and in the Place Royale!” This he did on May 12, 1627, slipping back into France for the express purpose of dueling Guy Harcourt, the Marquis de Beuvron. And Bouteville disdained a private fight for the occasion, insisting, as he had declared, on a daytime melee where everyone could see it at the grand new Place Royale (today, Places des Vosges).


At least the setting was operatic. (cc) image from Christophe Alary.

Bouteville and Beuvron fought to a bloodless stalemate and agreed to call it a draw. But Bouteville’s second Des Chapelles mortally wounded Beuvron’s second.

Everyone fled, and while Beuvron made it out of the country, Montmorency and Des Chapelles were nabbed, and condemned to death by the Parlement of Paris for violating Louis’s royal edict against duels.

From the king’s standpoint, this was just about the most egregious possible arrangement of factors.

  • The guy was a serial offender, and he was already a fugitive for his last duel.
  • The fight had produced a fatality.
  • Worst, the whole scene — sneaking back into Paris, fighting openly within the potential view of the sovereign — had been overtly staged to scorn the royal ban.

If Louis intended his decree to mean anything at all, he had to come down hard on this one. “It is a question of cutting the throat of duels or of your majesty’s edicts,” Richelieu summarized.

But as clear-cut as were the case indicia, this was still a hard one for Louis, and even for the usually-ruthless Richelieu. Bouteville was a well-born noble, with powerful friends and family who were also close to the king, and they besieged the royal person with petitions for mercy. A sorrowing but firm Louis had to personally refuse mercy to Bouteville’s tearful wife. “Their loss affects me as much as it does you,” he said. “But my conscience prevents my pardoning them.”

Although the poor wife couldn’t make any headway for clemency, she had the better of Bouteville’s swordsmanship off the field of honor. The doomed duke bequeathed one last rapier thrust to posterity by leaving his widow-to-be pregnant with a posthumous son who eventually generalled French armies to any number of routs of the Dutch in the late 17th century.

And while Richelieu’s memoirs would depict this instance of executive implacability as a decisive turn, Herr argues that it was nothing but a brief interruption. The pernicious hobby was back in all its glory within a couple of years, an evil that even Richelieu could never master. France’s aspired-to absolutism could not reach that ancient and intimate noble right save in the very most exemplary case.

In Dumas’s Three Musketeers, set in 1620s France, D’Artagnan is charged by his father in the opening pages to “[n]ever fear quarrels … Fight on all occasions. Fight the more for duels being forbidden, since consequently there is twice as much courage in fighting.” And indeed, it is by blundering into silly duels (e.g., the “offense” caused by bumping into Porthos while hurrying down the stairs, the latter of whom considers D’Artagnan’s apology discourteously perfunctory) that D’Artagnan becomes the fourth of their cadre … because Richelieu’s men arrive to break up the illegal D’Artagnan-vs.-Musketeer melees, and D’Artagnan joins with his “foes” to defend, all for one and one for all, their privilege as gentlemen to slaughter one another.

The dueling phenomenon faded significantly under Louis XIV, but still not completely: Voltaire almost fought a duel in 1726; the artist Manet dueled a critic in 1870; and YouTube will favor the viewer with a number of 20th century professors and litterateurs settling long-forgotten affairs of honor — like disputes over wartime collaboration after World War II — in ceremonial swordfights. Dueling pistol shooting (at human silhouettes) was even an event at the 1906 Olympics.†

And elsewhere in Germany, Russia, and everywhere Europe touched, duelling persisted into the 19th and even the 20th and even the 21st centuries.

* Also worth noting relative to the casualty numbers: each side’s seconds also fought, so it wasn’t strictly a one-on-one affair. A move for taking seconds out of the fight eventually prevailed, long before the end (if there has been a real end) of dueling, but in 1627 that time was not yet come.

** Across the Channel at this time, Francis Bacon was making much the same complaint against English duels.

† This event was an “Intercalated Games” falling between the natural 1904 and 1908 Olympiads. It’s an outlier historical experiment during the modern Olympics’ uncertain early years, and though it was officially sanctioned at the time and winners walked away with proper medals, the International Olympic Committee no longer recognizes the Intercalated Games as an official Olympics.

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1628: John Felton, assassin of the Duke of Buckingham

2 comments October 28th, 2011 Headsman

The rack, or question, to extort a confession from criminals, is a practice of a different nature: this being only used to compel a man to put himself upon his trial; that being a species of trial in itself. And the trial by rack is utterly unknown to the law of England; though once when the dukes of Exeter and Suffolk, and other ministers of Henry VI, had laid a design to introduce the civil law into this kingdom as the rule of government, for a beginning thereof they erected a rack for torture; which was called in derision the duke of Exeter’s daughter, and still remains in the tower of London: where it was occasionally used as an engine of state, not of law, more than once in the reign of queen Elizabeth but when, upon the assassination of Villiers duke of Buckingham by Felton, it was proposed in the privy council to put the assassin to the rack, in order to discover his accomplices; the judges, being consulted, declared unanimously, to their own honour and the honour of the English law, that no such proceeding was allowable by the laws of England.

William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, vol. iv (via Harper’s)

Although the jurisprudence of 17th century England with its proscription of legal torture* still stacks up favorably next to that of Berkeley law professors, it certainly did not stand in the way of assassin John Felton‘s execution on this date in 1628.

Felton, an army officer passed over for promotion, stabbed to death nobby royal favorite George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham at Portsmouth — a private grievance fused to a widespread public one. Reams of laudatory verse churned out in the two months between crime and punishment suggest the popular opprobrium for the duke.**

Or you, late tongue-ty’d judges of the land,
Passe sentence on his act, whose valiant hand
Wrencht off your muzzels, and infranchiz’d all
Your shakl’d consciences from one man’s thrall?
But O! his countrie! what can you verdict on?
If guiltie; ’tis of your redemption.

Felton’s victim, the Duke of Buckingham — portrayed in 1625 by Rubens.

Villiers, “handsomest-bodied” scion of the minor gentry, had parlayed his comeliness into power as the favorite (and possibly the lover) of King James I. He had, as Alexandre Dumas put it in The Three Musketeers (in which adventure Buckingham is an important character) “lived one of those fabulous existences which survive, in the course of centuries, to astonish posterity.”†

Buckingham latched himself to the king’s 20-something son and heir Charles I and became a dominant influence in foreign policy as well as wildly unpopular in England. He raised Protestant hackles with Machiavellian statecraft like angling for a Spanish queen and aiding the French against the Huguenots, and since he exercised a share of the royal power he vigorously upheld the rights of the crown as against those of the commons. An opponent once compared him to Sejanus.

Indeed, Buckingham helped the youthful Charles, king since March of 1625, set the tetchy tone for his relationship with Parliament that would define his rule and ultimately cost the monarch his own head. When Parliament demanded Buckingham “be removed from intermeddling with the great affairs of State” as a condition for coughing up any more money, Charles haughtily dissolved Parliament rather than give up his favorite.

That forced the king into sketchy expedients like the “forced loan” and, when the money disputes continued after Buckingham’s death, the king’s eventual legislature-free Personal Rule that set up the Civil War.

So one can see how the sudden 1628 murder of this resented courtier, to whom was imputed every fault and abuse of Charles himself, would have been celebrated. “Honest Jack” — the assassin’s widely-honored nickname — was likewise credited with every perceived virtue of the Parliamentarian party. Juridically, the man was doomed — but in the popular eye,

[t]he passage of Felton to London, after the assassination, seemed a triumph. Now pitied, and now blessed, mothers held up their children to behold the saviour of the country; and an old woman exclaimed, as Felton passed her, with a scriptural allusion to his short stature, and the mightiness of Buckingham, “God bless thee, little David!” Felton was nearly sainted before he reached the metropolis. His health was the reigning toast among the republicans.

In fact, the man who had recently tutored future literary giant (and future Cromwellian agent) John Milton was sentenced by the Star Chamber have an ear cut off for drinking Felton’s health. (The sentence was remitted thanks to some pull with Archbishop William Laud.)

While he’s sometimes described — or dismissed — as merely a disgruntled careerist, the assassin’s own ideological commitment ought not be downplayed. Whatever Felton’s personal pique, the assassination was unambiguously political: our killer had returned from war wounded and melancholy and proceeded to marinate in the era’s anti-monarchical currents. In time, Felton came to understand — surely in concert with many of his countrymen now forgotten by time — that there was a greater good to be served by the sin of murder.

He had left behind in his trunk a few propositions that underscored his state of mind: “There is no alliance nearer to any one than his country” and “No law is more sacred than the safety and welfare of the commonwealth.” He justified himself at trial in similar terms, and did so without desiring to escape the extremities of the law that his crime demanded.

Felton had really expected to be killed in the act of the assassination himself. To that end, he had left a note pinned in his hat that is as good an elegy for him as any a republican ballad. “That man is cowardly and base and deserveth not the name of a gentleman that is not willing to sacrifice his life for the honor of his God, his king, and his country. Let no man commend me for doing it, but rather discommend themselves as to the cause of it, for if God had not taken away our hearts for our sins, he would not have gone so long unpunished.”

While Felton played his part in the generations-long struggle to subordinate king to parliament, the most immediate beneficiary of this affair was not so much the Commons as it was the noble rival who usurped the late Buckingham’s power — the Earl of Strafford.

* Certain though we are of the human rights commitment of Felton’s prosecutors, the man himself made sure of it by dint of a deft bit of interrogatory jujitsu. Menaced with the prospect of torture, he cheerfully resigned himself to it — “Yet this I must tell you by the way,” he added. “That if I be put upon the rack, I will accuse you, my Lord of Dorset, and none but yourself.”

That’s the way to convince judges not to torture you.

** An entirely less negative remembrance commemorates Buckingham and “accursed” Felton at the Portsmouth Cathedral.

† Felton also appears in The Three Musketeers, committing the murder of Buckingham at the instigation of the seductive fictional villain Milady de Winter just days before the musketeers execute Milady herself.

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1672: Cornelis and Johan de Witt lynched

7 comments August 20th, 2010 Headsman

Chapter 1. A Grateful People

On the 20th of August, 1672, the city of the Hague, always so lively, so neat, and so trim that one might believe every day to be Sunday, with its shady park, with its tall trees, spreading over its Gothic houses, with its canals like large mirrors, in which its steeples and its almost Eastern cupolas are reflected,–the city of the Hague, the capital of the Seven United Provinces, was swelling in all its arteries with a black and red stream of hurried, panting, and restless citizens, who, with their knives in their girdles, muskets on their shoulders, or sticks in their hands, were pushing on to the Buytenhof, a terrible prison, the grated windows of which are still shown, where, on the charge of attempted murder preferred against him by the surgeon Tyckelaer, Cornelius de Witt, the brother of the Grand Pensionary of Holland was confined.

the whole town was crowding towards the Buytenhof, to witness the departure of Cornelius de Witt from prison, as he was going to exile; and to see what traces the torture of the rack had left on the noble frame of the man who knew his Horace so well.

Yet all this multitude was not crowding to the Buytenhof with the innocent view of merely feasting their eyes with the spectacle; there were many who went there to play an active part in it, and to take upon themselves an office which they conceived had been badly filled,–that of the executioner.

There were, indeed, others with less hostile intentions. All that they cared for was the spectacle, always so attractive to the mob, whose instinctive pride is flattered by it,–the sight of greatness hurled down into the dust.

-Alexandre Dumas, pere, The Black Tulip

That ominous mob got its spectacle this date in 1672, lynching the Dutch Republic’s longtime de facto head of state, Johan de Witt along with his brother Cornelis/Cornelius.


A statue of Johan (standing) and Cornelis de Witt in their native Dordrecht.

The mercantile powerhouse that was the 17th century Dutch Republic was the stage for a long-running conflict between the Orange monarchists (hence the soccer uniforms) and the Republican merchant class.

With the sudden death of the young William II, Prince of Orange in 1650, leaving the (non-hereditary) executive office of stadtholder vacant, the Republicans became ascendant.

And the outstanding figure of the First Stadtholderless Period was Johan de Witt, scion of a Dordrecht merchant family powerful enough that William II had imprisoned de Witt’s own father during a power struggle.

Elevated in 1653 and at the tender age of 28 to the leadership position of Grand Pensionary, Johan de Witt’s “eloquence, sagacity and business talents” guided the Dutch ship of state for essentially the remainder of his life.

This was the apex of the Dutch Golden Age. The Dutch East India Company dominated Asian trade routes,* and the Low Countries’ culture thrived on the wealth: Rembrandt and Vermeer were at the height of their talents; Spinoza revolutionized philosophy; van Leeuwenhoek invented the microscope.

While all these guys were landing themselves in their respective canons, Johan de Witt was trying to keep the age Golden.

Having only relatively recently broken free of Spain, the small country was an up-and-comer on the horns of a serious security dilemma: its leading commercial position put it into maritime competition with England, while its continental location made it vulnerable to the enormous army of the neighboring continental hegemon, France. Ultimately, even with its trade wealth, it did not have the resources to keep up with both of western Europe’s leading powers.

For a generation, de Witt’s statecraft kept the men of the Low Countries out of that predicament, while his brother Cornelis chipped in with a couple of timely naval victories. (Actually authored by Michiel de Ruyter, but Cornelis rode shotgun.)

In 1654, Johan brought the First Anglo-Dutch War to a close, making with Oliver Cromwell a secret pact he was only too happy to enforce never to allow William II’s son, the eventual William III, to be named stadtholder. Reason being: William III was the grandson of the Stuart king Cromwell beheaded, Charles I, and thus a potential claimant to the English throne. Both Protestant Republics had a distinct interest in keeping this monarchist well away from power. (Both would be sorely disappointed.)

A decade and a Stuart Restoration later, de Witt maintained (mostly) Dutch dominance of the seas in the Second Anglo-Dutch War, then held off France (with the help of a timely alliance with the recent adversary, England) in the War of Devolution.

In each case, he kept at least one of England or France on the sideline, or in his own camp.

But the Third Anglo-Dutch War was the charm — as it was also the Franco-Dutch War, and therefore 1672 was Rampjaar: disaster year. While the Dutch were aces on the waves, a massive French invasion easily overwhelmed them on terra firma.

Detail view (click for the full image) of a grisly painting of the mutilated de Witt brothers strung up at The Hague. It’s attributed to Jan de Baen, who in better times took Johan de Witt’s portrait.

De Witt’s never-beloved mercantile oligarchy speedily collapsed with the military reverses, and the now all-grown-up William III was there to pick up the pieces to popular acclaim. Arrested for treason, Cornelis sustained torture without confessing, but when Johan visited him in prison — and William III incriminatingly withdrew the cavalry protecting the brothers — the mob quenched its fury with the de Witts’ blood.

every one of the miscreants, emboldened by his [Johan’s] fall, wanted to fire his gun at him, or strike him with blows of the sledge-hammer, or stab him with a knife or swords, every one wanted to draw a drop of blood from the fallen hero, and tear off a shred from his garments.

And after having mangled, and torn, and completely stripped the two brothers, the mob dragged their naked and bloody bodies to an extemporised gibbet, where amateur executioners hung them up by the feet.

Then came the most dastardly scoundrels of all, who not having dared to strike the living flesh, cut the dead in pieces, and then went about the town selling small slices of the bodies of John and Cornelius at ten sous a piece.

-Dumas

The word “ungrateful” comes to mind.

De Witt stood altogether on a lower plane than Cromwell. We regard him rather as a man of rare and singular talent, than as one of the chosen great ones of the earth, which Cromwell was. He stands far above the common run of men; and he was head and shoulders above nearly all the notable men of his time. He would have been greater if the movement of his limbs had been less burdened with the Dutch governing apparatus … He is not one whom the world can ever greatly admire or love.

-History of the administration of John De Witt, grand pensionary of Holland, a Google books freebie.

(Here’s another, and here’s a 17th century volume de Witt himself coauthored.)

The rise of William III came with the decline of that Dutch Golden Age: the country fended off the immediate military threat, but it increasingly slipped behind its larger neighbors. Costly as was the Franco-Dutch War, it is a step on the path towards the present-day Europe, and this gives us enough excuse to notice that the Eurovision lead-in tune is actually from a Te Deum composed to mark its end.

But William’s own ascent to this wealthy sovereignty was just the beginning for him. Sixteen years later, the House of Orange’s champion vindicated Cromwell’s trepidation about him and gained a far more satisfactory position from which to do battle with his Gallic rival Louis XIV by stunningly overthrowing the Stuart dynasty and becoming King of England in the Glorious Revolution.**

* The Dutch remained the sole western contact of closed Japan until 1854, which is why Japan’s eventual period of scientific advancement became known as ‘Dutch Learning’.

** Albion did not forget the de Witts, either: according to this 1785 cant dictionary, the term “dewitted” had a 17th-18th century run in English to denote — well, exactly what happened to Cornelis and Johan.

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1676: Marie-Madeleine-Marguerite d’Aubray, Marquise de Brinvilliers

2 comments July 16th, 2010 Headsman

This date’s story is amply but succinctly conveyed by the public-domain entry in the 19th century tome Biography, or Third Division of the “English Encyclopedia”.

(Paragraph breaks have been added for readability.)


Brinvilliers, Marie Marguerite, Marquise de (English Wikipedia entry | French) who obtained infamy as a poisoner in the time of Louis XIV, was a daughter of the Dreux d’Aubrai, a lieutenant civil, or judge having a certain limited jurisdiction, at whose hands she received a careful education.

In 1651, whilst still very young, she became the wife of the Marquis de Brinvilliers, with whom she resided at her father’s house, in Paris. Her husband, who was the colonel of the Regiment de Normandie, entertained at his house a young officer of cavalry of the Regiment de Tracy, named Gaudin de Sainte-Croix, a native of Montauban, and the illegitimate member of an illustrious family. He was unprincipled enough to encourage the unlawful passion which the marchioness conceived for him; and her father, in consequence, procured in 1663 a lettre de cachet against Sainte-Croix, who underwent a year’s incarceration in the Bastille.

During his confinement he learned from a fellow-prisoner, an Italian named Exili, the art of preparing subtle poisons; a secret which, upon his enlargement, he communicated to his mistress, who determined to poison her father and the other members of her family. Having first wantonly essayed her art upon the patients of the Hotel-Dieu, she proceeded, with the aid of a servant named Jean Amelin, or La Chaussee, to take the lives of her father, her two brothers, and her sister.

This feat she accomplished gradually between the years 1666 and 1670. More than once she poisoned her husband; but Sainte-Croix, whose prudence shrank from the obligation of marrying the terrible widow, each time preserved the life of the Marquis by the administration of an antidote.

Sainte-Croix died suddenly in July, 1672, in the act, it is said, of compounding a subtle poison, against the effects of which he was left unprotected by the accidental fracture of a glass mask which he wore as a defence against the fumes of his deadly drugs.*

As no relative came forward to claim his property, it was taken possession of by the public authorities, who, instead of complying with the written instructions of Sainte-Croix,** dated May 25th, 1672, that a particular casket should be delivered to Madame de Brinvilliers, examined it, together with above thirty letters which he had received from her. There was also found a promise on her part to pay Sainte-Croix a sum of 30,000 libres, bearing the date of June 20th, 1670, eight days after the poisoning of the “lieutenant civil,” her father. The casket proved to be full of packets of various poisons, to each of which was affixed a label indicating the peculiar effects it was calculated to produce.

The Marchioness, fatally compromised by these and other circumstances, sought safety in flight, repairing first to England, then to Germany, and finally to Liege, where she was apprehended.

Being taken to Paris, she denied her guilt; but after her condemnation made a confession, in which, and in a kind of autobiography, she charged herself with more and greater horrors than had seemed possible to rumour or suspicion.


The Marquise de Brinvilliers, shortly before her execution, by Charles LeBrun

She was executed at seven o’clock on the evening of the 16th of July, 1676, being first beheaded and afterwards burnt. As her application and use of poison, which went by the name of poudre de succession, seemed to be growing prevalent, Louis XIV instituted a special court for the investigation and punishment of this species of crime.


This tale, uniting the attractions of bodice-ripper, true crime, and costume drama, has been adapted to stage and literature numerous times.

Alexandre Dumas pere, a true aficionado of historical crime and scandal, turned it into a much lengthier piece, from which we morbidly excerpt his description of the water torture the criminal endured prior to beheading — beginning with the sentence of the court.


“That by the finding of the court, d’Aubray de Brinvilliers is convicted of causing the death by poison of Maitre Dreux d’Aubray, her father, and of the two Maitres d’Aubray, her brothers, one a civil lieutenant, the other a councillor to the Parliament, also of attempting the life of Therese d’Aubray, her sister; in punishment whereof the court has condemned and does condemn the said d’Aubray de Brinvilliers to make the rightful atonement before the great gate of the church of Paris, whither she shall be conveyed in a tumbril, barefoot, a rope on her neck, holding in her hands a burning torch two pounds in weight; and there on her knees she shall say and declare that maliciously, with desire for revenge and seeking their goods, she did poison her father, cause to be poisoned her two brothers, and attempt the life of her sister, whereof she doth repent, asking pardon of God, of the king, and of the judges; and when this is done, she shall be conveyed and carried in the same tumbril to the Place de Greve of this town, there to have her head cut off on a scaffold to be set up for the purpose at that place; afterwards her body to be burnt and the ashes scattered; and first she is to be subjected to the question ordinary and extraordinary, that she may reveal the names of her accomplices. She is declared to be deprived of all successions from her said father, brothers, and sister, from the date of the several crimes; and all her goods are confiscated to the proper persons; and the sum of 4000 livres shall be paid out of her estate to the king, and 400 livres to the Church for prayers to be said on behalf of the poisoned persons; and all the costs shall be paid, including those of Amelin called Lachaussee. In Parliament, 16th July 1676.

The marquise heard her sentence without showing any sign of fear or weakness. When it was finished, she said to the registrar, “Will you, sir, be so kind as to read it again? I had not expected the tumbril, and I was so much struck by that that I lost the thread of what followed.”

The registrar read the sentence again. From that moment she was the property of the executioner, who approached her. She knew him by the cord he held in his hands, and extended her own, looking him over coolly from head to foot without a word. The judges then filed out, disclosing as they did so the various apparatus of the question. The marquise firmly gazed upon the racks and ghastly rings, on which so many had been stretched crying and screaming. She noticed the three buckets of water prepared for her, and turned to the registrar — for she would not address the executioner — saying, with a smile, “No doubt all this water is to drown me in? I hope you don’t suppose that a person of my size could swallow it all.” The executioner said not a word, but began taking off her cloak and all her other garments, until she was completely naked. He then led her up to the wall and made her sit on the rack of the ordinary question, two feet from the ground. There she was again asked to give the names of her accomplices, the composition of the poison and its antidote; but she made the same reply as to the doctor [namely, that she had no accomplices besides Sainte-Croix and did not know how to make the poison or its antidote], only adding, “If you do not believe me, you have my body in your hands, and you can torture me.”

The registrar signed to the executioner to do his duty. He first fastened the feet of the marquise to two rings close together fixed to a board; then making her lie down, he fastened her wrists to two other rings in the wall, distant about three feet from each other. The head was at the same height as the feet, and the body, held up on a trestle, described a half-curve, as though lying over a wheel. To increase the stretch of the limbs, the man gave two turns to a crank, which pushed the feet, at first about twelve inches from the rings, to a distance of six inches. And here we may leave our narrative to reproduce the official report.

“On the small trestle, while she was being stretched, she said several times, ‘My God! you are killing me! And I only spoke the truth.’

“The water was given: she turned and twisted, saying, ‘You are killing me!’


The torture of the Marquise de Brinvilliers. (Click for a larger image.)

“The water was again given.

“Admonished to name her accomplices, she said there was only one man, who had asked her for poison to get rid of his wife, but he was dead.

“The water was given; she moved a little, but would not say anything.

“Admonished to say why, if she had no accomplice, she had written from the Conciergerie to Penautier, begging him to do all he could for her, and to remember that his interests in this matter were the same as her own, she said that she never knew Penautier had had any understanding with Sainte-Croix about the poisons, and it would be a lie to say otherwise; but when a paper was found in Sainte-Croix’s box that concerned Penautier, she remembered how often she had seen him at the house, and thought it possible that the friendship might have included some business about the poisons; that, being in doubt on the point, she risked writing a letter as though she were sure, for by doing so she was not prejudicing her own case; for either Penautier was an accomplice of Sainte-Croix or he was not. If he was, he would suppose the marquise knew enough to accuse him, and would accordingly do his best to save her; if he was not, the letter was a letter wasted, and that was all.

“The water was again given; she turned and twisted much, but said that on this subject she had said all she possibly could; if she said anything else, it would be untrue.”

* According to Anne Somerset in The Affair of the Poisons: Murder, Infanticide, and Satanism at the Court of Louis XIV, this story of Sainte-Croix’s death by accidental exposure to his own toxins is “a myth” that developed in view of subsequent events.

“In fact,” writes Somerset, “his end was far more prosaic. He died after a long illness, having received the last rites and performed his final devotions with terrible piety.”

** Because Sainte-Croix died in debt, and his possessions were inventoried for his creditors.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Burned,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Murder,Pelf,Public Executions,Scandal,Serial Killers,Sex,Torture,Women

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1314: Tour de Nesle Affair adulterers

7 comments April 19th, 2010 Headsman

Think you want to fall in love with a princess?

On this date in 1314, the French crown dissuaded the fantasy by butchering two Norman knights who had sheathed their swords where they oughtn’t.

In the Tour de Nesle affair (English Wikipedia page | French), French princess Isabella — then Queen of England, where she is known as Isabella of France or any number of less-flattering sobriquets — noticed that some purses she had once given her brothers’ wives as gifts were being sported by a couple of (evidently metrosexual) dudes in the court.

Let their fate be a warning against regifting.

In short order, the purse-toting knights Philippe and Gauthier d’Aunay or d’Aulnay (both links are in French) were arrested for tapping, respectively: Margaret of Burgundy (the wife of the king’s eldest son, Louis, soon to become Louis X); and, Blanche of Burgundy (the wife of the king’s third son, Charles, the future king Charles IV).*

“The pious confidence of the middle age, which did not mistrust the immuring of a great lady along with her knights in the precincts of a castle, of a narrow tower — the vassalage which imposed on young men as a feudal duty the sweetest cares, was a dangerous trial for human nature, when the ties of religion were weakened.”

-Jules Michelet

Under torture, the knights copped to the cuckoldry, supposed to have been conducted in the Tour de Nesle, a since-destroyed guard tower on the Seine.**


Detail view (click to see larger image) of the dilapidated Tour de Nesle, as sketched in the 17th century by Jacques Callot. The tower was destroyed in 1665.

The knights suffered horrific deaths:

“deux jeunes et biaux chevaliers furents roués vifs, écorchés vifs , émasculés, épendus de plomb soufré en ébullition, puis décapités, traînés à travers rues, et pendus au gibet y pourrissant durant des semaines. Leurs sexes, instruments du crime, sont jetés aux chiens. Jamais corps n’auront autant souffert.”

In fine: flayed, broken on the wheel, burned with hot lead and sulfur, genitals thrown to the dogs, and then decapitated for ignominious gibbeting on Montfaucon.

The women fared only a little better. Neither faced execution, and in fact both would technically become Queens of France. But they “reigned” as such from prison.

Margaret of Burgundy was clapped in a tower in a room exposed to the elements while her estranged husband became king. She succumbed (or possibly was murdered outright to clear the way for a new wife) in 1315.

Blanche of Burgundy was still in wedlock and still locked up in Chateau-Gaillard when her husband ascended the throne early in 1322; the marriage was annulled a few months later, and Blanche lived out her last few years at a nunnery.

Isabella’s role in all of this as the goody-two-shoes informer upon the adulterers looks particularly ironic with benefit of hindsight. In another 12 years’ time, this Queen of England and an adulterous lover combined to overthrow the King of England.

But maybe not so ironic after all, if one takes her for a power-thirsty “she-wolf”.

This Tour de Nesle scandal also happened to cast doubt on the paternity of Margaret’s only daughter Joan, which mitigated against Joan (and potentially in favor of Isabella’s new son, Edward) for eventual claim to the throne of France. Since this potential succession was not evidently imminent, and Isabella had three brothers in the prime of life, this seems a farfetched motivation for tattling. But one is drawn to the question of inheritance since happenstance soon put the royal succession into dispute — a misfortune that helped lead to the Hundred Years’ War when that son, grown up to be Edward III of England, did indeed press his French claims at swordpoint.

(The Tour de Nesle scandal is generally thought now to have been legitimate, on the grounds that the ruling family would not have inflicted such an injury to its own legitimacy without very good cause. However, according to Alison Weir, at least one chronicle blamed the affair on a frame-up by hated royal advisor — and eventual Executed Today client — Enguerrand de Marigny.)

Neither Isabella nor Joan ever ruled France. Joan, however, was an ancestor of Henri IV.

* The wife of the middle son, Philip, was also accused of knowing about the affairs, but her strong defense and her husband’s backing got her off.

** Spectacular embroideries enhanced the legend in later generations, into tales of a royal succubus making her rendezvous in the tower by night, then having her lovers hurled off it at dawn. Alexandre Dumas spun a melodrama from this material, though Frederic Gaillardet accused him of plagiarism. (Dumas gives his side of the story at excrutiating length in his memoirs.) La Tour de Nesle was later made into a movie.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Flayed,France,Gibbeted,Gruesome Methods,History,Nobility,Power,Public Executions,Scandal,Sex,Torture,Treason

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