1525: Jacques de La Palice, “lapalissade”

Add comment February 24th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1525, a French marshal’s was executed during a crucial battle of the France-vs-Habsburg Italian War, beginning a long posthuous journey to a wordplay gag.


The Battle of Pavia, by Ruprecht Heller (1529).

The Battle of Pavia is best remembered for the fate — not lethal, but much more damaging to statecraft — of King Francis I of France, who was captured on the field by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.* Francis spent two years in comfortable but discomfiting imperial custody until he agreed to the humiliating Treaty of Madrid ceding vast tracts of French territory (notably Burgundy) to Charles.**

For all that, Francis kept his head and eventually resumed his station. Jacques de La Palice (English Wikipedia entry | the much longer French) did not exit the Battle of Pavia nearly so well.

The lord of La Palice (or Lapalisse), grandson to a comrade of Joan of Arc, our man had spent a lifetime bearing French arms; he’d been personally knighted by King Charles VIII for his prowess at age 15 in his very first engagement.

The great bulk of his time ever since had been spent on various campaigns in Italy, where France remained more or less continuously at war against the Holy Roman Empire until 1559.

Fighting up and down the peninsula, La Palice earned the impressive rank of Grand Master of France, and it had nothing to do with his chess acumen. He’d actually retired to the pleasures of domesticity after being captured in 1513 at the Battle of the Spurs — so named for the panicked spurring a fleeing French cavalry gave to their horses — only to be recalled to his post in 1515.

Late in 1524 he was among the host accompanying King Francis’s march to recover France’s on-again, off-again transalpine beachhead of Milan. This objective the French achieved with scant resistance, but the expedition turned disastrous in a further advance to Pavia. There, 9,000 imperial troops were dug in to defend; unable to take the city by storm the French put it to siege, fatally overextending themselves.

Come the following February, the Habsburgs had cut Pavia off from Milan and the French encampment was weakened by defecting mercenaries. On the morning of February 24, the imperial forces mounted an attack on the French that turned into a comprehensive slaughter. La Palice was captured early on by the Habsburgs’ landsknecht mercenaries and executed by them at some point later on during the fight. Although his fate was a bit more premeditated, he was only one of many blue-blooded commanders who lost their lives on the field that dark day for France† — suspending French ambitions in Italy, if only for a few years.

The knight’s alleged feats are celebrated in a ballad known as “La chanson de la Palisse” (“The Song of La Palice”). Rather, there are dozens of versions of that ditty, dating from the 16th to the 18th century, of unknown original authorship but agglomerated by the French poet Bernard de la Monnoye into a humorous caper in the 18th century.

This poem presumably (though not certainly) began as a genuine praise song for the dead marshal, opening with this garment-rending stanza:

Hélas, La Palice est mort,
Il est mort devant Pavie ; 
Hélas, s’il n’était pas mort, 
Il ferait encore envie.

Alas, La Palice is dead, 
He died before Pavia; 
Alas, if he were not dead, 
He would still be envied.

Somewhere along the way fulsome became winsome — perhaps via deliberate spoof or maybe the well-known phenomenon of old-timey letter s written to look like f, transforming the verse into a comical tautology:

s’il n’etait pas mort, / Il ferait encore envie (“if he was not dead he would still be envied”)

s’il n’etait pas mort, / Il serait encore en vie (“if he was not dead he would still be alive”)

It’s thanks to this amusing misreading that the French tongue today enjoys the term lapalissade, meaning a laughably obvious truism — and in Monnoye’s composition the entirety of the lyrics consist of such jests; e.g.

Monsieur d’la Palisse is dead,
He died before Pavia,
A quarter of an hour before his death,
He was still alive.

He was, by a sad fate, 
wounded with a cruel hand.
It is believed, since he is dead,
that the wound was mortal.

Regretted by his soldiers,
he died worthy of envy;
And the day of his death
was the last day of his life.

He died on Friday,
the last day of his age;
If he had died on Saturday,
he would have lived more.

(That’s just an excerpt; the much longer full French verse is available at the song’s French Wikipedia page.)

* Ample unverifiable folklore attaches an event so memorable as the capture of a king; a site such as this is bound to note the one that reports that Francis might have been killed on the spot by rampaging foes but for the timely intercession of a young Spanish soldier named Pedro de Valdivia … who would go on to become the conquistador of Chile, and eventually an execution victim himself.

** Francis renounced the treaty as soon as he was released, on the accurate grounds that it was made under duress. In this betrayal of honor, he did his kingdom much the better turn than his distant predecessor John II had done when, captured by the English during the Hundred Years’ War, he dutifully set about extracting from his subjects the ruinous ransom and even returned voluntarily to English custody when he could not fulfill the terms of his parole.

† Another corpse at the Battle of Pavia was Richard de la Pole, Plantagenet pretender to the English throne ever since his brother had been executed back in 1513.

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1358: Perrin Mace, de-sanctuaried

Add comment January 25th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1358 — during the height of the great peasant rebellion known as the Jacquerie — a bourgeois named or Perrin Mace or Perrin Marc was summarily hanged in Paris.

Just the day before, January 24,* he had in broad daylight assassinated Jean Baillet, longtime treasurer to the dauphin who would become King Charles V. Mace/Marc then fled to the a church, attempting to assert the unreliable right to sanctuary.

The dauphin found the idea that a man could murder a minister of state with impunity just by winning a footrace to a church door as ridiculous as we would in modernity, so he ordered his marshal to bash in said doors and extract the assassin that very night for immediate execution come daybreak.

But this was also an attack on the prerogatives of the church, which provoked a furious response by the bishop — who had the assassin’s remained honorably interred. Still more was it an affront to the Parisian populace whose demands for reform were being frustrated by the dauphin and which accordingly was coming to support his rival Charles the Bad during a general political crisis.

Accordingly, the provost Etienne Marcel on February 22 led a popular march upon the dauphin’s palace, fronted by heralds crying out the grievance:

Pray for the soul of Perrin Mace, a bourgeois of Paris, unjustly executed!

John Baillet, the treasurer of the Regent, had borrowed in the name of the King a sum of money from Perrin Mace.

Mace demanded his money in virtue of the new edict that orders the royal officers to pay for what they buy and return what they borrow for the King, under penalty of being brought to law by their creditors.

John Baillet refused to pay, and furthermore insulted, threatened and struck Perrin Mace.

In the exercise of his right of legitimate defence, granted him by the new edict, Perrin Mace returned blow for blow, killed John Baillet and betook himself to the church of St. Mery,** a place of asylum, from where he demanded an inquest and trial.

The Duke of Normandy, now Regent, [i.e., the dauphin -ed.] immediately sent one of his courtiers, the marshal of Normandy, to the church of St. Mery, accompanied with an escort of soldiers and the executioner.

The marshal of Normandy dragged Perrin Mace from the church, and without trial Mace’s right hand was cut off and he was immediately hanged.

Pray for the soul of Perrin Mace, a bourgeois of Paris, unjustly executed.

Marcel’s protest invaded the royal palace and murdered several of his counselors in front of his eyes — “so close to the dauphin, that the royal dress was sprinkled with their blood,” as this history puts it. Charles survived the encounter but found himself virtually a prisoner and it would be months before he had the satisfaction of pacifying the city (and of seeing Etienne Marcel assassinated in his own turn).

French speakers might enjoy this detailed review of events (pdf).

* There are several January 1358 dates in circulation for these events on this here Internet. My authority for this one is the chronicle Chronique des règnes de Jean II et de Charles states in no uncertain terms that Baillet was assassinated on January 24, Mace was hauled from sanctuary that same night, and he was executed on the morning of the 25th.

** Some other sources give it as the church of Saint-Jacques-la-Boucherie, “Saint James of the Butchers” — named to distinguish it from Saint-Jacques-du-Haut-Pas elsewhere in Paris. This church, dating to the 11th or 12th century, was later rebuilt in Gothic style but pulled down during the French Revolution; only its tower, known as Saint-Jacques Tower, survives.

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1522: Vicent Peris, of the Revolt of the Brotherhood

1 comment March 3rd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1522, the leader of the Revolt of the Brotherhood came to his grief in Valencia.

Spain circa 1519-1520 was a powder keg. The rival kingdoms Aragon and Castille had of late been joined by a personal union of Ferdinand and Isabella, but now that couple was several years dead, and the scepter held by an irritating Flemish youth who had just popped in to hike everyone’s taxes so he could fund the bribe campaign necessary to become the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

These tensions triggered the Revolt of the Comuneros in Castile, whose consequent executions we have already dealt with; in Aragon, they launched the Revolt of the Brotherhoods. The “brotherhoods” in question were the germanias, urban artisan guilds. Those guilds stepped into a power vaccuum in Valencia when a 1519 plague triggered anti-Moslem riots and sent the nobles scurrying for the safety of their country estates. (Charles was busy in Germany being crowned Holy Roman Emperor.)

This was more than fine by the salty Valencia townsfolk, who much detested the overweening aristocracy.

[G]entlemen (caballeros) were regarded with the greatest hostility by the masses of the people. Argensola and Sandoval relate a story which places this hostility in a conspicuous light. One day, as a gentleman passed through a certain street, a woman called upon her son to look at him, and mark his appearance carefully. The child inquired the reason. The mother replied, “In order that when you become a man you may be able to say that you had seen a gentleman; for long before that time the whole race shall have disappeared, and been as completedly destroyed as the Templars were. (Source)

A “Council of Thirteen” — one representative from each of Valencia’s principal guilds — took over the city’s government.


La pau de les Germanies (The Peace of the Germanias) by Marcelino de Unceta.

Vicente Peris (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish), a firebrand weaver, soon came to be the first among this leading baker’s dozen. He enjoyed some military successes in 1521, and took advantage of them wherever possible to impose forced conversions, property expropriation, or summary execution on any Muslims he could lay hands upon.

No surprise but this alarming situation drove the hated caballeros into organized counterattack, just as the Valencian factions started breaking apart over how far to push the revolution. After they were thrashed at the Battle of Oriola in August 1521, they didn’t have to worry about that question any more.

Peris was caught slipping back into now-royalist-controlled Valencia on February 18, 1522, apparently hoping to stir up his old comrades in arms once more, and caught only after a running street battle that night that ended with him being smoked out of his house as it was burned around him.

As addenda to his execution this date, that house was entirely razed and the ground salted over, with a decree that nothing should ever be built there again. Peris’s descendants were anathematized as traitors to the fourth generation.

* The island of Mallorca followed Valencia’s lead in revolt, and by 1523, followed its unhappy fate as well.

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1548: Francesco Burlamacchi, Lucca republican

Add comment February 14th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1548, Francesco Burlamacchi lost his head … for a united Italy?

A humanist patrician with a soft spot for Plutarch, Burlamacchi had orchestrated a bid to break away an independent federation of Tuscan cities — Florence, Pisa, and his own city of Lucca.

The dream of the Republic and liberty lived long after Rome’s legions had ceased to tromp. It’s just that said dream got reliably tromped over whenever it threatened to materialize in reality.

These prospectively-liberated cities existed with formal independence under the aegis of the allied Holy Roman Emperor Charles V — and were locally bullied by the Medici Duke Cosmo. That made two Caesars who would not be keen on fragmented city-states coalescing into Burlamacchi’s Republic of Tourist Hotspots; for good measure, Burlamacchi threw in some religious reform and anti-clericalism that would be sure to go down poorly with the church. (Lucca was notorious in the Vatican’s eyes as a center of heterodoxy.)

Against this likely formidable opposition, our plotter counterpoised an astonishing rolling-putsch plan.

His scheme was to march a militia, under cover of “training,” out to the environs of Pisa where he would appeal to the Pisans to throw off their Florentine shackles, then march the resulting larger troop to Florence and appeal to the Florentines to kick out the Medici. Revolution accomplished, the neighboring cities — Siena, Arezzo, Lucca itself — would naturally adhere to this new confederation.* He meant, he later told his judges, to “free all of Tuscany.”

Pretty ambitious. Or optimistic. Or … bonkers.

Once the impossible dream plot was betrayed from the inside, Duke Cosmo, as the most direct target of the intended march, wanted Burlamacchi delivered to his own hands for interrogation and punishment; the elders of Lucca could not do this without making an impolitic show of submission to their neighbor.** Charles V resolved the impasse by taking Burlamacchi to the imperial seat of northern Italy, Milan, and cutting his head off there.

During Italy’s 19th century risorgimento, the Italian writer Carlo Minutoli rediscovered Burlamacchi and popularized him as a forerunner of the new Italian nationalists. (Burlamacchi had long been forgotten as an embarrassment in the intervening centuries.)

Accordingly, with the (proto-)unification of Italy, Tuscan sculptor Ulisse Cambi was commissioned to produce a monumental statue of Francesco Burlamacchi. This would-be Aratus still keeps watch on Lucca’s Piazza San Michele.


(cc) image from alphaorionis. Note that, according to The Renaissance in the Streets, Schools, and Studies (whose chapter “Fortune’s Fool” by Mary Hewlett was invaluable to this post), the historical Burlamacchi actually never carried a sword and hated bloodshed.

* The confederated city-states model was really big in the family. Burlamacchi’s teenage — at the time of the execution — son Michele later emigrated to Geneva, in the Swiss Confederation, and converted to Calvinism.

** Lucca was declining as a power at this time, and all the more insistent about jealously guarding a maximal appearance of sovereignty. The city-state’s major project in the 16th century was throwing up city-girding defensive walls meant to preserve her independence.

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1554: David van der Leyen and Levina Ghyselius, Anabaptist martyrs

Add comment February 14th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1554, Anabaptists David van der Leyen and Levina Ghyselius were burned at the stake in Ghent.*

Looks like it hurt.


In the year 1554, there was imprisoned at Ghent, in Flanders, for following Christ and living according to God’s commandments, a young brother named David, who, when examined, freely confessed his faith. Being asked what he thought of the sacrament, David said, that he considered it nothing else than idolatry. Then a priest said to him, “Friend, you err greatly, that you so readily confess your faith, for it will cost you your life, if you do not change your mind in time.” Thereupon David sweetly replied, “I am ready to shed my blood for the name of Christ, even though it should be here in this place; for God is my salvation, who will keep me, and preserve me from all evil.” The priest said, “It will not be as good as though you were put to death secretly here in this place; but you will be burnt publicly at the stake, for an everlasting reproach.” He was then brought into the court, where he was condemned to death, and his sentence was read, namely, that he had fallen from the true faith into heresy, and was therefore, according to the imperial edict, sentenced to be strangled and burned. David said, “No one will ever be able to prove by the Scriptures, that the faith for which I must now die is heresy.”

There was also sentenced to death with him a woman named Levina, who rather forsook, not only her six dear children, but also her temporal life, than her dear Lord and Bridegroom Jesus Christ. Arriving on the scaffold, David attempted to kneel down in order to offer up his prayer to God, but he was prevented, and they were immediately driven away to the stakes, standing at which, David said to Levina, “Rejoice, dear sister; for what we suffer here is not to be compared with the eternal good that awaits us.” (Rom. 8:18) When about to offer up their sacrifice, both exclaimed, “Father, into thy hands do we commend our spirits.” A little bag of gunpowder was tied to each of them, whereupon they were strangled and burned. But there happened a manifest miracle of God; for though they were completely burned, and the fire was as good as extinguished, David was seen to move his head, so that the people exclaimed, “He still lives.” The executioner seized the fork, and thrust it three times into his bowels, so that the blood flowed out; yet even after this he was still seen to move, hence, the executioner threw a chain around his neck, and bound him to the stake, and thus broke his neck.

Thus these two valiantly fought their way through, firmly trusting in God, who did not let them be confounded, since they had firmly built their building upon the only foundation; wherefore they shall never perish, but abide forever.

Martyrs Mirror

* The very birthplace of the then-sitting Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V.

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1409: Jean de Montagu

Add comment October 17th, 2009 Headsman

Six hundred years ago today, onetime royal favorite Jean de Montagu* was, at the instigation of his powerful noble rival, beheaded in Paris and his body hung up at Montfaucon.

Montagu (French link) was the 50-something scion of an ennobled notary — or else the illegitimate produce of King Charles V, whose ennobled notary had been induced to claim him. Regardless his blood, the lad made himself quite wealthy with a virtuous cycle of administrative acumen and political connection, winning a variety of honorary posts and riches aplenty he did not shy from displaying. Typical “New Money” type.

Sadly for Montagu, this cycle crested during the reign of Charles VI, also known as Charles the Mad for his bouts of illucidity.

“History,” wrote Barbara Tuchman, “never more cruelly demonstrated the vulnerability of a nation to the person of its chief of state than in the affliction of France beginning [with Charles’ first spell of insanity] in 1392.”

Charles the Mad’s erratic tenure would help bring French fortunes to the low ebb from which Joan of Arc would retrieve them.

Montagu’s period sob story was that his wealth earned him the enmity of nasty Duke of Burgundy John the Fearless,** who induced King Charles during one of the latter’s episodes to affix on Montagu responsibility for the crown’s financial shortfalls. Our day’s victim was arrested on October 7, 1409, tortured into a confession, and beheaded in Paris October 17.

Montagu’s surviving family had the verdict reversed within three years, which would have been a better deal for them had the family’s main branch not been wiped out three years after that at the Battle of Agincourt.

For the wider benefit of posterity, the beheaded lord also left a fair collection of endowed building projects in his lands in Marcoussis, including (French links all): the usual village church; a Celestine monastery; and a picturesque castle unfortunately devastated during the French Revolution but once resembling this:


Atmospheric old sketch from here; others here.

* Not to be confused with his (likewise beheaded) contemporary across the channel, John Montagu, Earl of Salisbury.

** John the Fearless had most recently been seen engineering the infamous murder of the king’s brother, and surviving by dint of his ransom potential the hecatomb of the last crusade.

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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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1548: Gonzalo Pizarro and Francisco de Carvajal

2 comments April 10th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1548, the Spanish crown cemented its authority over the territory of the former Incan Empire by beheading its rebellious conquistador authorities.

Gonzalo Pizarro (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) had served in the force that late elder half-brother Francisco used to destroy the Incas. The poor bloke was always second banana in the conquistador game; when he wasn’t being one-upped by his flesh and blood, he was bailing on the expedition that “discovered” and navigated the Amazon River. (Francisco de Orellana earned those honors instead.)

No, Gonzalo had a more prosaic specialty: killing.

While big bro went off to pacify more territory, Gonzalo along with siblings Hernando and Juan, the Baldwin brothers of New World conquest, chilled in the former Incan capital Cusco and sparked a rebellion in the 1530’s with their iron-fisted rule.

Appointed Governor of Quito in 1541 — he forced the appointment with some exemplary hangings — Gonzalo was just the sort to get a burr in his saddle when the Emperor Charles V promulgated the New Laws requiring slightly less crappy treatment of the natives.

And that was a low bar to clear indeed.

Although the following passage is not particular to Gonzalo Pizarro, gadfly monk Bartolome de las Casas described (perhaps exaggeratedly, but still) the previous Spanish depredations in “Perusia”:

[T]he Spaniards, without the least provocation on their part, as soon as they entred [sic] upon these Territories, did burn at the Stake their most Potent Caciq Ataliba, Prince of the whole Country, after they had extorted from him above Two Millions of Gold, and possessed themselves of his Province, without the least Opposition … As also some few days after, the Ruler of the Province of Quitonia, who was burnt, without any Cause given, or Crime laid to his Charge … and in like manner, burnt the Feet of Alvidis, the greatest of all the Quitonian Lords, and rackt him with other Torments to Extract from him a discovery of Ataliba’s Treasure, whereof as appear’d after, he was totally ignorant …

[T]hese Eyes of mine the Spaniards for no other reason, but only to gratifie their bloody mindedness, cut off the Hands, Noses, and Ears, both of Indians and Indianesses, and that in so many places and parts, that it would be too prolix and tedious to relate them. Nay, I have seen the Spaniards let loose their Dogs upon the Indians to bait and tear them in pieces, and such a Number of Villages burnt by them as cannot well be discover’d: Farther this is a certain Truth, that they snatched Babes from the Mothers Embraces, and taking hold of their Arms threw them away as far as they would from them: (a pretty kind of barr-tossing Recreation.) They committed many other Cruelties, which shook me with Terror at the very sight of them, and would take up too much time in the Relation …

More urgent than “recreation,” Pizarro (and many of the New World’s new landholding elite) were miffed that meddlesome European bleeding hearts types were going to cut into their profit margins.

Pizarro revolted, enlisting the brilliant officer Francisco de Carvajal, a longtime fixture of the Old World battlefield. Now an octogenarian, he had lost neither vigor in command, nor cruelty in conquest. (He played bad cop to Gonzalo’s good cop.) The two killed the guy sent to impose the emperor’s decree.

This uprising forced the next Spanish viceroy to repeal the hated New Laws in order to win political support against Pizarro and Carvajal — a happy outcome for Pizarro’s base, but not for the conquistador himself.

Pedro de la Gasca’s adroit diplomacy caused the entire rebel force to desert before the fight at the “Battle” of Jaquijahuana in Sacsayhuaman.

The two principals were quickly arraigned. Carvajal, at his age, could be wry about being singled out for punishment: “very merciful is the Lord President; for, if the victory had been ours, there would have fallen on this spot nine hundred men.”

Carvajal was hanged and Pizarro beheaded, both of them winding up on pikestaffs at the gates of the city Francisco Pizarro had founded — Lima.

Their partnership — and the arc of Spanish exploits in the New World — is covered in this Google Books freebie.

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