1723: Major Jean Abram Davel

2 comments April 24th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1723, Major Jean Davel was beheaded for an abortive separatist bid in Vaud.

The French-speaking Swiss Canton was at this time under the heavy-handed domination of neighboring Bern(e), part of an oligarchic arrangement of power in Switzerland that would provoke regular unrest.

Davel (German Wikipedia page), a notary turned soldier who had fought at Villmergen, identified with the underdog.

On March 31, 1723, Davel took advantage of a general absence of bailiffs gone to Berne for government sinecures, and marched 600 men to the Vaud capital of Lausanne to pitch the town on breaking away from its Teutonic overlords.

Instead, the city worthies paid him lip service just long enough to betray him.*

“I see well enough,” Davel observed, “I will be the first victim in this affair.”

Yup.

But he held firm under torture to his insistence that the revolt was his doing alone (well, his and God’s), and perhaps thereby saved others from sharing his fate.


The Execution of Major Davel, by Charles Gleyre. A very in-depth analysis of this work by Michel Thevoz titled “Painting and Ideology: A Commentary on a Painting by Charles Gleyre” is available in pdf form here.

Davel is noted for checking out with a unique scaffold speech, discoursing on a topic rarely explored on that platform: the role of music in worship.**

As concerns the praise of God, in what manner is it sung? Is there any sense of orderliness, any real music, anything whatever calculated to excite and sustain the devotion? Yet this part of divine service is one of the most considerable and the one by which is the most effectively demonstrated the lifting up of our hearts to God … Such being the importance of this part of Christian worship, I cannot too much emphasize my exhortation to you to give it a new and serious attention, in order to correct the faults of which you are at present guilty in connection with it.

In a similar vein, the 52-year-old groused at the kids these days, to wit, young divinity students in attendance who, in the immortal tradition of kids these days throughout all days,

neglect your studies for worldly pleasure. You take no pains to learn music, which is so necessary for the singing of God’s praises. The songs of the church form an essential part of divine worship, and have an infinite value in helping us to lift our hearts to God. I pray you, then, to apply yourselves with all possible zeal to your preparation for the holy ministry.

Music in worship was in the Zeitgeist, and 1723 in liturgical composition suggests the (otherwise wholly unrelated to Davel) move by Johann Sebastian Bach that very year to Leipzig. Bach took up his post there just weeks after Davel lost his head, and would spend the remaining 27 years of his life in Leipzig. But it only took him until the very next Easter to lift up his congregation’s heart to God with the Johannes-Passion.

* Better late than never, Lausanne gave Davel a statue.

** According to Percy A. Scholes, “Church Music: A Plea from the Scaffold,” The Musical Times, vol. 78, no. 1136 (Oct. 1937).

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous Last Words,History,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Separatists,Soldiers,Switzerland,Treason

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1521: The Comuneros of Castile

1 comment April 24th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1521, the day after winning the decisive battle in the Castilian War of the Communities, royalist forces beheaded its three principal leaders in Villalar.

Even while the Spanish Empire was burgeoning in the New World, its home peninsula remained a house divided.

The Iberian Kingdoms of Aragon and Castile had joined in a personal union with the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella in the late 15th century.

When the couple passed, it was not a given that their conjoined territory would become, as it did, the germ of a unified Spain.

Instead, the royal power couple’s crazy daughter was kept under lock and key while her infant son grew into the redoubtable Emperor Charles V. To exacerbate the local annoyance, Chas had continent-spanning territories, and ambitions; Spain was not his base, merely one of his provinces. (He’d grown up in Flanders. Ah, dynastic politics.)

The Emperor was only a teenager when his Castilian subjects rose against his levies, and against the paradoxical perception that the first true King of Spain was a foreign ruler.

A riot in Toledo mushroomed into a revolt, and everyone started drawing up sides. (Spanish link) Things went south when the commoner rebels started adopting an unwelcome radicalism (beyond rebelling against the king, that is), enabling the imperial rep (and future pope) Adrian of Utrecht to pull back into the royalist camp rebellious nobles increasingly fearful of expropriation at the hands of the firebrands.

After the balance of forces decided in Charles V’s favor, all that remained was to give the chop to the primary troublemakers. Juan Lopez de Padilla, Juan Bravo and Francisco Maldonado were obligingly captured after the Battle of Villalar.


The Execution of the Comuneros of Castile, by Antonio Gisbert. Segovian Juan Bravo allegedly asked to die first, so as not to witness the death of so good a knight as Padilla.

The demise of the “Caballeros Comuneros” pretty much squelched the revolt — although Padilla’s widow Maria Pacheco defended the rebel ground zero of Toledo for several months more.

The comuneros have lived on ever since as a symbol in literature and propaganda, among monarchists (for whom they are a symbol of perfidy), liberals (rather the reverse) and Castilian nationalists. Though “comuneros” was for a period an all-purpose smear against agitators in the Spanish dominions, April 23 (the date of the fateful battle) has been Castile and Leon Day, a public observance, since 1986.


This monolith in the Villalar town plaza commemorates the Comuneros. Image (c) Julio Alvarez, and used with permission.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Habsburg Realm,History,Language,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Soldiers,Spain,Treason,Wartime Executions

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