1665: Gabriel de Beaufort-Canillac vicomte la Mothe, during the Grands Jours of Auvergne

Add comment October 23rd, 2017 Headsman

As with Peter the Great a few decades later, the budding absolutist Louis XIV experienced a scarring breakdown in law and order in his youth that at times threatened his own person.

In the French case, this was the Fronde — meaning “sling”, a weapon of choice for Parisian mobs — or rather the Frondes, successive insurrections in defense of feudal liberties launched against Louis’s mother and regent, Queen Anne that consumed the 1648-1653 span.

(Among other things, Louis’s experience during these disturbances of fleeing trouble spots in Paris, or cowering practically imprisoned behind palace walls, eventually resolved him to relocate his royal person away from the restive capital, to Versailles; his fear was more than vindicated by the fate of the 16th sovereign of his name at the hands of a different century’s Parisian enragees.)

Upon the death of his mother’s Richelieu figure (and literal Richelieu protege) Cardinal Mazarin, Louis took the state in hand in 1661 at age 22, determined to bring France to his elegant heel.

“You will assist me with your counsels when I ask for them,” he directed stunned ministers who had been accustomed to doing a good deal of the day-to-day governing themselves. “I request and order you to seal no orders except by my command, or after having discussed them with me, or at least not until a secretary brings them to you on my behalf. And you Messieurs of state, I order you not to sign anything, not even a passport, without my command; to render account to me personally each day and favour no one.”

L’etat c’est moi … he wasn’t kidding about that.

Bold reforms followed pell-mell through the 1660s and beyond: of the army, the bureaucracy, industry, the tax system. The archetype absolutist, Louis meant to gather into his Leviathan all the little redoubts of cumbersome right and privilege strewn about from France’s feudal antiquity, and above all to master the independence of his aristocrats and parlements.

One district in particular, the region of Auvergne, had in the chaotic 1650s descended into a minor dystopia ruled by avaricious and unprincipled officials gleefully abusing their control of the local judicial apparatus.

The investigations … revealed that quite a few judges lacked professional scruples and were of questionable moral character. Officers in the bailliages and senechaussees were aware of crimes but did nothing to prosecute them … registration of letters of remission could be bought “with ease.” Officers extorted money from countless victims … At the bailliage of La Tour in Auvergne, officers made arbitrary seizures of oxen belonging to peasants … seized property for “salaries and vacations,” forced minor girls to pay a price for marriage authorizations, and so on. Since all the officers in each of the lower courts were related to one another, “they all upheld one another so that it was impossible to obtain justice.”

The clergy had fallen into disarray … committed kidnappings and assaults and lent their names to laymen so that they might enjoy an ecclesiastical benefice. And this is to say nothing of such “peccadilloes” as frequenting taverns, taking the name of the Lord in vain, keeping mistresses, and fathering children. Monasteries and even convents were rife with “libertinage.” Their income was being squandered on banquets for visitors.

Gentilshommes had been using violent means to maintain their tyranny over the peasants. Forcible extortion of money was “the common offense of the gentilshommes of Auvergne,” according to Dongois, clerk of the Grands Jours. The king’s lieutenant in Bourbonnais, the marquis de Levis, was a counterfeiter who manufactured pistoles that were then circulated by his maitre d’hotel. Many gentilshommes exacted seigneurial dues beyond what they were entitled to, for watch, wine, oxen, supply and transport, and the use of seigneurial mills. They usurped such communal property as meadows, woods, and rights to gather firewood, collected money on every pretext, raised the cens without justification, and collected new dues. (Source

Practical princes see opportunity in such crises, in this case the opportunity to make common cause between the crown and the populace at the expense of of those gentilshommes. And so Louis decreed for Auvergne a Grands Jours, a sort of special visiting assize that could circumvent the incestuous area magistrates. From September 1665 to January 1666 the Grands Jours d’Auvergne processed more than 1,300 cases, meting out 692 convictions and 23 executions (although many sentences were executed in effigy). Six of those actually put to death were gentlemen.*

No noble crest attracted the inquisitors’ attentions more urgently than the ancient family of Montboissier-Beaufort-Canillac whose patriarch,

Jacques-Timoleon, marquis de Canillac, age seventy-two, accompanied by a bodyguard of valets known as his “twelve Apostles,” terrorized his fiefs and seigneuries from Clermont to Rouergue. All his close relatives were guilty of serious crimes or misdemeanors. His eldest son stole his neighbors’ animals, besieged their homes, and murdered them. His next eldest son murdered a curate. Guillaume de Beaufort-Canillac had not only extorted money but also abducted and held captive a notary who had drawn up a document against him. Gabriel de Beaufort-Canillac, vicomte de La Mothe, had attempted to murder another gentilhomme …

Charges had been mounting against the Canillacs, and especially against the old marquis, for decades without any effect. (Same source)

They would continue without effect here for the cagey patriarch, who absented himself in time to suffer only a condemnation in absentia,** but his son Gabriel, the vicomte de la Mothe, was taken by surprise as one of the Grands Jours commission’s very first acts and would distinguish himself its highest-ranking prey — on October 23rd, 1665, a mere four hours after his trial.

The charge against him was one of murder, under what was then considered extenuating circumstances. During the civil war [i.e., the Fronde] he had been commiss[i]oned by the great Conde to raise some regiments of cavalry, and had handed over some six thousand francs of the sum entrusted to him for this purpose, to his friend, D’Orsonette, who would neither furnish the troops nor refund the money. Conde, naturally enough, reproached the vicomte, who thereupon left his service, full of rancor against D’Orsonette. The quarrel grew fiercer as time passed on, until on an evil day the disputants met, each accompanied by a body of servants. M. de la Mothe’s party was the most numerous. D’Orsonette and one of his men were wounded, and his falconer was slain. The facts were incontrovertible. A striking example was deemed essential, and despite the entreaties of his family, and a short delay occasioned by an effort to traverse the jurisdiction of the court, the accused was sentenced to death and executed within a month from the commencement of the assize. It affords a significant illustration of the condition of Auvergne to note that the prosecutor in this case and all his witnesses were far more guilty than the prisoner. The prosecutor was accused by his own father of having murdered his own brother, of being a parricide in intention, and of a hundred other crimes. The next principal witness had been condemned for perjury, and was an acknowledged forger. The others were either outlaws or convicts at the galleys. Against M. de la Mothe no other crime was alleged, and he was generally regarded as the most innocent member of his family. Public opinion held that he suffered for having joined the losing side in the civil war, and for bearing a powerful and deeply-hated name. (A different source)

* A full and colorful account of the affair awaits the Francophone reader in Esprit Flechier’s Memoirs de Flechier sur les Grands-Jours d’Auvergne en 1665 (alternate link).

** It would be the second time in his rapacious career that Canillac pere was executed in effigy.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Murder,Nobility,Pelf,Public Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1358: Guillaume Cale, leader of the Jacquerie

June 10th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1358, 14th-century France’s most serious peasant uprising was crushed when its capable commander was lured into his enemies’ power and torturously put to death in Clermont.

The Jacquerie (English Wikipedia entry | French) sprang from the fertile farmlands north of Paris. It had a hundred fathers, no one of them self-evidently the decisive cause but many in debatable combinations and proportions conspiring to render a perfect storm of catastrophe for the despised villeins who sweated out their masters’ chivalrous living.

The Calamitous 14th Century, historian Barbara Tuchman subtitled her popular work on this period: France was buffeted by famine, the Black Death, and attendant social and economic shocks; the Hundred Years’ War opened, laying the countryside waste at the hands of crossing armies, and then marauding mercenaries during the downtime between battles, and then “friendly” forces pillaging for sustenance and pressing peasants into uncompensated labor. In 1356, the English captured France’s King John II at the Battle of Poitiers, opening a yawning gap in the country’s political authority and undermining the mounted nobility’s military prestige vis-a-vis the (smaller) yeoman army that had routed it.

We do not seem to have a certain record of what match was set to this tinderbox — the most suggestive proximate cause is a fresh tax for fortifying noble citadels in the area — but the conflagration singed the gentry’s beard. Froissart, who wrote a few years after the fact and from a distinctly hostile standpoint, captured the aristocracy’s view of rising:

[C]ertain people of the common villages, without any head or ruler, assembled together in Beauvoisin. In the beginning they passed not a hundred in number they said how the noblemen of the realm of France, knights and squires, shamed the realm, and that it should be a great wealth to destroy them all: and each of them said it was true, and said all with one voice: “Shame have he that cloth not his power to destroy all the gentlemen of the realm!”

Thus they gathered together without any other counsel, and without any armour saving with staves and knives, and so went to the house of a knight dwelling thereby, and brake up his house and slew the knight and the lady and all his children great and small and brent his house. … And so they did to divers other castles and good houses; and they multiplied so that they were a six thousand, and ever as they went forward they increased, for such like as they were fell ever to them, so that every gentleman fled from them and took their wives and children with them, and fled ten or twenty leagues off to be in surety, and left their house void and their goods therein. These mischievous people thus assembled without captain or armour robbed, brent and slew all gentlemen that they could lay hands on, and forced and ravished ladies and damosels, and did such shameful deeds that no human creature ought to think on any such, and he that did most mischief was most praised with them and greatest master. I dare not write the horrible deeds that they did to ladies and damosels; among other they slew a knight and after did put him on a broach and roasted him at the fire in the sight of the lady his wife and his children; and after the lady had been enforced and ravished with a ten or twelve, they made her perforce to eat of her husband and after made her to die an evil death and all her children.

Froissart’s Chronicle is the most notable of the age and (calumniously) the most defining one on the event; it helped establish the word “jacquerie” as a synonym for bloodthirsty insurrection that would be pinned to countless riots and risings for centuries to come. Some other chronicles suggest more deliberate and purposeful (and less maniacal) organization by these original Jacques, and the trenchant “charge against these noble traitors, who have shirked on their duties to defend the kingdom, who desire to do nothing but devour the sustenance of the commoners.” (Source)

Interestingly, and seemingly contrary to the obvious reading of a downtrodden underclass driven to desperation, more recent scholarship has pointed out that the rising broke out in the best farmland, seemingly among the wealthiest of the rural third estate — artisans, proprietors, petty bureaucrats and clergy.

Leadership fell to this day’s victim, Guillaume Cale, also known by the folksy sobriquet “Jacques Bonhomme” (Goodman, or Goodfellow). A charismatic man of some fighting experience, he was able to marshal this mob into a creature of passable military capacity.

His short appearance on our stage also suggests a character of strategic vision not the less impressive for its failure to materialize.

Cale was a well-off farmer, like the backbone of his movement, and reached out to make common cause with the nearby Parisian bourgeoisie then in rebellious possession of their own city — a far more consequential challenge to authority that was soon to meet its own violent termination.

The terrorized nobility turned to Charles the Bad, King of Navarre at that time attempting to exploit the captivity of John II to hoist himself onto the throne of France. Even though Charles was also treating with the Parisian bourgeoisie in this endeavor, as Jonathan Sumption puts it in his authoritative The Hundred Years’ War: “The opportunity to present himself as the leader of the united nobility of France was not to be missed.”

Charles handled the rebels with efficiency, if not with honor. Tuchman relates:

[Charles of Navarre] invited Cale to parley, and upon this invitation from a king, Cale’s common sense apparently deserted him. Considering himself an opponent in war to whom the laws of chivalry applied, he went to the parley without a guard, whereupon his royal and noble opponent had him seized and thrown into chains. The capture of their leader by such easy and contemptuous treachery* drained the Jacques’ confidence and hope of success. When the nobles charged, the commoners succumbed … To consummate his victory, Charles of Navarre beheaded Guillaume Cale after reportedly crowning him, in wicked mockery, King of the Jacques with a circlet of red-hot iron.

The potentially tricky Battle of Mello turned into a butchery that shattered the Jacquerie, and relieved nobles gorged themselves for weeks to come on peasant blood — no less horribly than any depredation of the Jacquerie. “Our mortal foes, the English, would not have done what the nobles then did in our homeland,” wrote another 14th century scribe, Jean de Venette. (Cited by Robert Knecht; some additional Venette commentary on the Jacquerie is here, in French.)

If Cale’s decision to risk parley seems madness in retrospect, picture his situation. Sumption says the Jacquerie’s bands were already beginning to dissipate; Cale himself was known and surely in line for execution — practically the preordained denouement of every medieval peasant uprising — if he were to throw in the towel peaceably. He had no way forward but forward, and even supposing that Cale-commanded peasant lines would have held at the battle that particular day, his forces had no military prospects beyond a few more weeks.

The Jacques needed something — an exit strategy, perhaps, with the opportunity to return to life pardoned of reprisal and guaranteed against the next onerous levy; or, a cemented part in the alliance of Navarre and the Parisian bourgeoisie. To get that something, Guillaume Cale had to throw the dice, and what better odds would he get than in a pavilion face to face with the man who might become king of France? Staying in the field at the head of his ill-armed peasant horde must have looked the more improbable gamble.

Cale’s wager failed horribly this day, but from the luxurious vantage of centuries, the movement of people in those days shows the germ of an altogether more revolutionary future. Thierry‘s history of the Third Estate (available free at Google Books):

The destruction of the Jacques was followed almost immediately by the failure of the revolution of the bourgeoisie in Paris itself. Those two movements, different as they were, of the two great classes of the commonalty, terminated simultaneously — one to revive and carry all before it when its time should come; the other to leave nothing behind it but an odious name, and sad recollections.

The Tiers Etat, displaced from the dominant position which it had prematurely won, resumed its ordinary part of patient industry, less pretentious ambition, and slow but uninterrupted progress.

Update: Nice tangential follow-up from The Naked Philologist into a fantasy literature recommendation. Also see more about those jittery nobles.

* You’re supposed to think this is okay because chivalric codes written by nobles say nobles don’t have to keep oaths to commoners. Readers still appalled at Charles the Bad’s bad faith: enjoy the Schadenfreude of his bad end.

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