1804: Louis-Antoine-Henri de Bourbon-Condé, duc d’Enghien

3 comments March 21st, 2009 Headsman

It was worse than a crime, it was a blunder on this date in 1804.

Napoleon shocked, just shocked, his admirers and more especially his foes by having a royal relative ventilated at Vincennes for the trifling offense of plotting against his life.

The particular allegations against him may have been formulated with greater haste than precision, but the duc d’Enghien actually had been taking English coin to overthrow Republican France for the past decade, and nonchalantly avowed as much at his drumhead tribunal.


The Duke awaiting execution in the predawn gloom in the moat of the Chateau de Vincennes. The pathos of the accompanying dog is mandatory for this scene, as in this Harold Piffard illustration. This spot is now marked with a monument.

After surviving one too many assassination attempts, Napoleon was in the market for someone to make an example of, and the Bourbon scion, hanging about the French frontiers conniving with the English, certainly qualified.

The dispatch of his military commission, which rammed through a conviction the night of the 20th and arranged the fusillade immediately thereafter, raised self-righteous hackles among rival monarchs who had little enough compunction of their own about politically expeditious regicide.

Conventional disdain for the shooting (as with this (pdf) from the Fourth Estate), reached far and wide, and appears in Tolstoy’s War and Peace as a subject for (spurious) gossip in the Russian salons.

The group about Mortemart immediately began discussing the murder of the Duc d’Enghien. The vicomte said that the Duc d’Enghien had perished by his own magnanimity, and that there were particular reasons for Bonaparte’s hatred of him.

The vicomte told his tale very neatly. It was an anecdote, then current, to the effect that the Duc d’Enghien had gone secretly to Paris to visit Mademoiselle George; that at her house he came upon Bonaparte, who also enjoyed the famous actress’ favors, and that in his presence Napoleon happened to fall into one of the fainting fits to which he was subject, and was thus at the duc’s mercy. The latter spared him, and this magnanimity Bonaparte subsequently repaid by death.

Pierre Bezukhov, the novel’s spirit-questing Russian noble then in the thrall of the Little Corporal, has the rashness to defend d’Enghien’s execution.

“The execution of the Duc d’Enghien,” declared Monsieur Pierre, “was a political necessity, and it seems to me that Napoleon showed greatness of soul by not fearing to take on himself the whole responsibility of that deed.”

Though that defense went over like a lead balloon with the partygoers (and with Tolstoy), others have ventured to stand in the breach for the Corsican, who assuredly attracts far more opprobrium as a commoner shooting a royal traitor than he would have had their bloodlines been reversed. Bonaparte enthusiasts, like those of the Napoleon podcast, are particularly susceptible to such impolitic sentiment.

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But Louis-Antoine-Henri normally gets better sympathy than that, as he did with the like of Chateaubriand, who resigned his Napoleonic commission in outrage.

And his death — far more notable than anything he did in life — is supposed to have occasioned the quip, “C’est pire qu’un crime, c’est une faute”: “it is worse than a crime, it is a blunder.” (Or, “it is worse than a crime, it is a mistake.”) Often attributed to Talleyrand, it was more likely uttered by his machiavellian mirror image, Joseph Fouche.

(See here for more on the phrase’s lineage. Talleyrand was so strongly in support of d’Enghien’s death that he is sometimes accused of steamrolling Napoleon on the subject. The wily minister destroyed some evidence and effected a timely volte-face when Bonaparte fell.)

The First Consul — he would crown himself Emperor later in 1804 — never had use for any such soft-pedaling, and unapologetically avowed the Duke’s execution literally to the end of his life.

Dying in exile on St. Helena years later, it is said, Napoleon read a calumny upon the d’Enghien shooting in the English press and promptly hauled out his already-completed will to insert in his own hand his lasting justification for the affair.

I caused the Duc d’Enghien to be arrested and tried, because that step was essential to the safety, interest, and honour of the French people, when the Count d’Artois* was maintaining, by his own confession, sixty assassins at Paris. Under similar circumstances, I should act in the same way.

* The Comte d’Artois was, at the time of Napoleon’s writing, the heir presumptive to the restored Bourbon monarchy — and he did indeed succeed in 1824 as Charles X. In 1804, the future king was in exile in Britain funding hits on Bonaparte and kindred counterrevolutionary stuff. For adherents of the much-disputed theory that Napoleon was poisoned in his island captivity, d’Artois figures as a possible instigator of the murder.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,France,History,Innocent Bystanders,Nobility,Notable for their Victims,Notably Survived By,Power,Royalty,Shot,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1822: Four Sergeants of La Rochelle

2 comments September 21st, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1822, four sergeants from La Rochelle were guillotined at the Place de Greve with “Vive la liberte! on their lips for plotting to overthrow the restored Bourbon monarchy.

In the Restoration following Napoleon, the cautious gouty brother of the Revolution’s most famous guillotinee came to the throne as Louis XVIII.

And in a right-wing reaction following a royal assassination, Louis found himself in the anomalous position of having a government more monarchist than he himself. Though not renowned for his sagacity, the sovereign had the wit to see that completely reversing the Revolution was a nonstarter. His ultra-royalist deputies, however, wanted nothing less than the full restoration of an absolute monarchy.

The new Prime Minister cracked down hard on the Liberal opposition. Here’s the scene as described by The Cambridge Modern History, a Google Books freebie:

The Chief Minister [Villele] had the merit of keeping constantly in mind the fact that his friends owed their power to the forces of reaction and alarm, aroused in the country by the dagger of an assassin who had mortally wounded a member of the royal family. To keep this fear awake, in order to establish his authority, was his first care. In this he succeeded. The Liberals, finding themselves compelled to prudence, organized themselves into secret societies; and the Republcians, imitating the Neapolitans, actually formed in 1821 the Charbonnerie francaise, which avowedly aimed at giving back “to the French nation the free exercise of the right to choose its sovereign.” In order to give battle to the ancien regime and its Bourbon protectors, they recruited their soldiers and captains without hesitation from among the officers, commissioned and non-commissioned, of the old Imperial army. Villele showed particular skill in the discovery, exaggeration, and signal punishment of these conspiracies … With a magistracy obedient to its orders, the Ministry devoted itself assiduously to representing isolated movements no sooner known than crushed, as forming part of a permanent conspiracy organized by the Liberals, not only against the monarchy, but against society itself.

Les quatre sergents de La Rochelle — by the names of Bories, Goubin, Pommier and Raoulx — comprised perhaps the most egregious such case.

Driven underground (the link is French) like the rest of the Liberal opposition, they had joined the charbonnerie, a loose network modeled on Naples’ carbonari. (Lower-level officers were prime recruits for the dissidents, since their career prospects were truncated by aristocratic privilege in the upper brass.)

It was never clear that their subversiveness extended to anything beyond their affiliation with a criminalized ideology, and they kept their own peace to protect other associates in the charbonnerie. Guillotining them on this basis conformed neatly to the principles of, say, an Ann Coulter: “We need to execute [these] people … in order to physically intimidate liberals, by making them realize that they can be killed, too. Otherwise, they will turn out to be outright traitors.”

Back to The Cambridge Modern History:

It seemed that the Ministers were eager to multiply these trials and executions. Since certain deputies of the Liberal Opposition, Lafayette* among others, and D’Argenson, had openly associated themselves with these enterprises, which otherwise were devoid of danger, this supplied a fair pretext for exhibiting them publicly as criminals. The indictment with the King’s Procurator, Marchangy, formulated, in order to obtain the condemnation of the four sergeants of La Rochelle, left no doubt as to the intentions of the Government. Its chief aim was to terrorise the French people “by this vast conspiracy against social order, against the families of citizens, which threatened to plunge them once more into all the horrors of anarchy.” While keeping up the appearance of saving society, Villele gained forthwith the power to govern it in accordance with the wishes of his friends. The threat of anarchy, exploited by the judges in his service, allowed him to organise a despotism.

The public execution reportedly had its onlookers appalled, (more French) and as word of the young men’s heroic deaths got around, they elbowed into the vast host of (somebody’s) martyrs. (In Balzac’s Human Comedy, the courtesan Aquilina is said to have been involved with one of the four sergeants; in her appearances after the executions, she always commemorates him by wearing something red.) The Lantern Tower in their garrison’s city — depicted below in a 1927 Paul Signac painting — was renamed in their honor, Tour de Quatre Sergents.

* Lafayette always seemed to be somebody’s dangerous element. It’s a wonder he never got himself into this blog.

Part of the Themed Set: Counterrevolution.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Activists,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,France,Guillotine,History,Martyrs,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Soldiers,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1766: Jean-François de la Barre, freethinker martyr

3 comments July 1st, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1766, a 20-year-old French chevalier’s freethinking proclivities got him beheaded and burned for impiety in one of Bourbon France’s most notorious episodes of religious chauvanism.

Check that date again. This is 69 years after the British Isles’ last execution for blasphemy; Voltaire was alive, and already in his dotage — and the fact that young Chevalier de la Barre was reading him was proclaimed as evidence. Such a benighted proceeding with the French Revolution on the horizon calls Dickens to mind:

it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness

The luckless youth and a couple of friends had pissed off a local judge, which got ugly for them when the unexplained vandalism of a town crucifix availed the opportunity for the magistrate to wield a sledgehammer against a fly.

De la Barre’s volume of Voltaire was tossed onto the pyre with him. That Enlightenment colossus made a measured posthumous effort at having the boy rehabilitated* — primarily for the benefit of his more judicious friend, who had fled the country and required his death sentence in absentia be lifted in order to inherit the family estate — but the verdict was not set aside until the French Revolution, a few months after the end of the Terror.

France’s overall secular trajectory since has rendered this date a sort of national freethinkers’ holiday, Chevalier de la Barre Day. A statue of its namesake stands in Paris’ Montmarte:

* Voltaire’s writings on the case in the original French are collected by the Association Le Chevalier de la Barre here.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,France,Freethinkers,God,History,Innocent Bystanders,Martyrs,Nobility,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Popular Culture,Posthumous Exonerations,Public Executions,Torture,Wrongful Executions

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