1306: Simon Fraser, William Wallace comrade in arms

Add comment September 8th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1306, Scottish patriot Simon Fraser was drawn and quartered in London.

This Norman-descended lord was one of the side-switching nobles during the wars of William Wallace, but after completing the full circuit from Wallace to Edward I and back again, he unexpectedly decided to lash himself to St. Andrew‘s cross for good.

Perhaps he could tell where the wind was blowing, and not just for his historical reputation: Fraser’s former ally, “Red” Comyn, went down the other fork in the road, submitting himself to an irresistible English invasion the better to devote his energies to his longshot horse in the confusing Scottish regnal derby.

Comyn’s reward was to be personally daggered to death at the altar of Greyfriars Church by Robert the Bruce.


The murder of John Comyn.

But no amount of royal sacrilege could arrest the popular fad for cutting a deal, and as celebrated in this History of the Frasers,

Every man of influence in the Kingdom, except Sir Simon Fraser, Sir William Wallace, and the band of patriots who comprised the garrison of Stirling, followed the example of Cumming [Comyn] … The patriots were proclaimed outlaws and their estates forfeited, and they ultimately sacrificed their noble lives in the undying service of their country. The redoubted Sir William Wallace continued most deservedly to be the idol of his countrymen for the glorious part which he took in establishing the independence of his fatherland, but “if to him be due the glory of being the first to awaken Scotland from her ignominious slumber, his efforts were nobly seconded by Sir Simon Fraser, who alone of the aristocracy was disposed to view with envy the merit which called his hero to command.”

Fraser outlived Wallace by a year, persisting in the field “bold as Caesar” which supposedly led a couple of Scottish knights imprisoned in the Tower to cockily wager their heads that the English would never corral him.*

Fraser suffered the torment of being hanged and cut down still alive for beheading, the spectacle of a double death (with the disemboweling part mercifully saved for posthumous application). His head was set on a spike on London Bridge beside Wallace’s, and his mangled trunk hung in chains under guard lest any soul sensitive to Scotch nationalism or mephitis should undertake to cut it down.

For all that he’s not even the most famous Simon Fraser to be executed by the English.

* Edward collected his prize; you can read all about it as an aside in this ballad on the execution of Fraser.

Sire Herbert of Morham, feyr knyht ant bold,
For the love of Frysel ys lyf wes ysold.
A wajour he made, so hit wes ytold,
Ys heued of to smhyte yef me him brohte in hold,
Wat so bytyde.
Sory wes he thenne,
Tho he myhte him kenne
Thourh the toun ryde.

Thenne seide ys scwyer a word anon-ryht:
“Sire, we beth dede; ne helpeth hit no wyht!”
(Thomas de Boys the scwyer wes to nome.)
“Nou Ychot oure wajour turneth ous to grome,
So Y bate!”
Y do ou to wyte,
Here heued was ofsmyte
Byfore the Tour gate.

Sir Herbert of Morham, a fair and bold knight,
For the love of Fraser his life was sold.
A wager he made, as it was told,
To have his head cut off if they captured Fraser,
Whatever betide.
Sorry was he then,
When he might see him
Ride through the town.

Then his squire spoke a word immediately:
“Sir, we’re dead; there’s no creature to help us!”
(Thomas de Bois was the squire’s name.)
“Now I know that our wager brings us to harm,
So my courage ends!”
I give you to know,
Their heads were cut off
Before the Tower gate.

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1306: Nigel de Brus, brother of the King

Add comment September 18th, 2014 Headsman

On an uncertain date in September of 1306 — sometime after the mid-September English capture of Kildrummy CastleNigel de Brus was drawn and quartered at the border town of Berwick.


The present-day ruins of Kildrummy Castle. (cc) image from Stu Smith.

As his name indicates, Nigel, Niall, or Neil — as your taste may run — was kin to Robert the Bruce, his brother in fact, and a key supporter of Robert in the latter’s fight for the Scottish crown.

Someone must have put the Bruces under that old Chinese curse about living in interesting times. Though the extremely interesting First War of Scottish Independence would indeed put Robert the Bruce on the Scottish throne, it was achieved in a period of devastation. Not only Nigel, but every single one of Robert’s brothers, died violently: three in all were executed, and a fourth slain in battle.

None of the five had reached his teens when times started getting really interesting with the shock 1286 death of Scotland’s King Alexander III, who got lost in the dark riding to Fife in bad weather and had a fatal fall down an embankment.

All three of Alexander’s children had predeceased him, so the hope of succession settled on a three-year-old* granddaughter, the Norwegian princess remembered as Margaret, Maid of Norway. Margaret now became for several years a chesspiece of diplomacy between the Scottish, Norwegian, and English courts, and was slated for marriage to the crown prince, the future King Edward II.** But we can slide right past the delicacies in all that because Margaret, too, dropped dead — in her case, at sea while en route to Scotland in 1290.† Little Margaret had never once set foot in the country she putatively ruled.

With no clear successor to Margaret, a free-for-all scramble for power ensued with no fewer than 14 noblemen claiming the throne for themselves. This “Great Cause” soon coalesced into John of Balliol (the claimant by primogeniture) vs. Robert the Bruce (the claimant by proximity of blood) — and the Guardians solicited the arbitration of the English King Edward I.

Having been balked of his goal of bringing Scotland into his dynastic thrall by means of the marital arrangements, Edward did not mean to miss the diplomatic opportunity and twisted the candidates’ arms to accept the suzerainty that Edward claimed over them. The disunited Scots had little choice but to do so.

(The Great Cause is covered in this episode of the History of England podcast.)

Edward ruled for Balliol, but his impositions and concomitant Scottish resistance soon brought the situation to open warfare. Incensed at a Scots-French alliance to oppose them, the English invaded in 1296‡ — forcing Balliol’s deposition (he’s known as “Toom Tabard”, or “empty coat”, for the regal insignia torn from his raiments) and provoking the celebrated resistance of William Wallace.

We know what happened to that guy, but Edward’s bloody pacification of the north came undone in 1306.

In February of that year, Robert the Bruce summoned the successor Balliol claimant, his rival John Comyn, to Greyfriars Church in Dumfries and sacrilegiously stuck a knife in him.


19th century illustration of John Comyn’s murder. Since we’re citing the handy History of England podcast, here’s the relevant episode.

In this affray the relative measures of perfidy by Bruce and by Comyn, both of whom were scheming nobles angling for the throne, are down to your choice of parties and sources. The consequences, however, can hardly be mistaken.

Bruce had himself defiantly crowned King of Scotland just weeks after imbruing his hands with Comyn’s blood, but a furious Edward I was smashing up the outclassed Scottish by springtime. The Bruce himself had to flee to hiding, and eventually to Ireland, while many of his supporters wound up hemmed in in Kildrummy Castle, commanded by our man Nigel. The English soon overwhelmed it (legend has it, as legend usually does, that the fortress was treacherously betrayed). Nigel was hauled off to Berwick for more or less immediate punishment; his fellow-commander at Kildrummy, the Earl of Athol, suffered the same in London on November 7.

One could forgive Nigel if, in the midst of having his entrails ripped out of his trunk by the executioner of Berwick, he indulged a moment’s despair for the family’s Great Cause. Robert himself was reduced to feeling out whether any English terms could be had.

But from this nadir of his fortunes, Robert the Bruce gloriously (nigh miraculously) returned to lead a successful guerrilla campaign against the English beginning in 1307, crucially aided by the death that same year of Edward I. He would sting the English repeatedly over the ensuing years before his gathering strength finally forced the English to recognize Scottish sovereignty in 1328.

* Margaret was actually just two years old at the time Alexander died. Alexander’s second wife was thought to be pregnant at the time — that turned out to be a nonstarter — so official succession didn’t settle on Margaret until she was three.

** Though this proposed union, never realized, raised the prospect of uniting English and Scottish realms, the Guardians of Scotland who called the shots while waiting for their sovereign to grow up insisted that the relevant document’s language assure that even if ruled by the same monarch Scotland would “remain separate, apart and free in itself without subjection to the English Kingdom.”

† A “False Margaret” posing as the lost Scottish queen would later turn up in Norway, and be executed for her charade.

‡ Among other things, this invasion seized the previously Scottish city of Berwick — Nigel’s eventual execution-place — for the English. Berwick changed hands repeatedly between the Scottish and the English for several hundred years before settling permanently into English possession in 1482.

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1330: Edmund of Woodstock, family man

Add comment March 19th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1330, the king’s half-brother Edmund of Woodstock lost his head for treason.

Edmund was the youngest son of Edward I. That patrimony didn’t come with a throne attached, but hey, you could do a lot worse than Earl of Kent.

You could do a lot better too, though, if you had royal blood.

According to the chronicle Vita Edwardi Secundi, Edmund (or possibly the middle brother Thomas) was intended by his father for the more august and lucrative earldom of Cornwall.* But Edward I died when Edmund and Thomas were young boys, and “his sad death prevented what would have been appropriate from being consummated.” Instead, the heir-turned-king Edward II stiffed flesh and blood to hand Cornwall to his notorious favorite, Piers Gaveston.

Edmund seemed to get over the slight and generally had the king’s back during the turbulent 1320s.

However, after fighting for his brother’s interests in France, he found himself there in Paris in 1325-26 with Edward’s French Queen Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer just as that couple set about plotting their rebellion.

Edmund joined their circle, took part in their invasion of England, and sat on the tribunal that condemned the deposed king’s new notorious favorite, Hugh Despenser, to death. As the price for his support, Isabella and Mortimer fulfilled the cash pledges Edward I had long ago made to the boy.

His attitudes and allegiances appear ambiguous during the unsteady years of Isabella and Mortimer. Whatever his acquiescence — whatever his payoff — he had little real affection for the new master and mistress of the realm.


Edmund’s end in 1330 touches a sensitive historical controversy.

Of a sudden, the Earl of Kent became convinced that his brother Edward II was being held at Corfe Castle and resolved to liberate him. He attempted to pass a letter to the captive king — a letter that proved quite enough to incriminate him when it was intercepted by Roger Mortimer. (Mortimer might have baited him into writing it in the first place.)

Worships and reverence, with a brother’s liegeance and subjection. Sir knight, worshipful and dear brother, if you please, I pray heartily that you are of good comfort, for I shall ordain for you, that you shall soon come out of prison, and be delivered of that disease in which you find yourself. Your lordship should know that I have the assent of almost all the great lords of England, with all their apparel, that is to say with armour, and with treasure without limit, in order to maintain and help you in your quarrel so you shall be king again as you were before, and that they all – prelates, earls and barons – have sworn to me upon a book.

What’s really queer about this isn’t so much the volte-face on whether Edward ought to rule: it was the fact that Kent had actually attended Edward II’s funeral in 1327.

How could Edmund think a guy he saw buried would read his letter three years later? Was the funeral a sham? Did Edward survive his (conventionally accepted) 1327 death/murder in captivity? Edward II blogger Kathryn Warner, who calls Edmund “a brave man who tried to do the right thing”, thinks so. She makes the case in a four-part series on the Earl of Kent’s conspiracy here:

Fortunately for your humble narrator, mere headsmen are not called upon to adjudicate such controversies. Our job is just to cut whose head we’re told. Although in Edmund’s case, even that couldn’t go to plan: the poor guy was parked outside the walls of Winchester for the whole day of March 19th before someone could finally be found to give him the chop. It was a condemned prisoner who obtained his own release by turning executioner. (Source)

Later that same year of 1330, Edmund’s 17-year-old nephew Edward III — in whose name the usurpers Isabella and Mortimer ruled — mounted a palace coup to take his reign into his own hands.

With that turn of fortune, Mortimer found himself in the executioner’s clutches, and Edmund was posthumously rehabilitated. Edmund’s daughter Princess Joan — the “Fair Maid of Kent”, and in Froissart’s estimation, “the most beautiful woman in all the realm of England, and the most loving” — married Hundred Years War hero Edward, the Black Prince. Among the children Joan bore Edward was the eventual King Richard II.

* Infinitely more lucrative: the Earldom of Kent was a newly re-created title that had last been used 50 years before. It came initially with no estates or income at all.

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1295: Thomas Turbeville, undercover knight

Add comment October 8th, 2013 Headsman

As related by Bartholomew Cotton’s Historia Anglia:


A certain knight, Thomas Turbevile by name, who had been taken by the French at the siege of Rheims, and detained in prison by the said King of France, came over to England with traitorous designs, and said that he had escaped from the prison of the said King of France; whereupon, he was kindly received by our lord the King of England, and much honoured. But after he had remained some little time in the Court of our lord the King of England aforesaid, he attempted to send a certain letter to the King of France; whereupon, his messenger carried the same to our lord the King of England, and gave him a full and open account of the treachery of his employer. The traitor, suspecting this, took to flight, but was taken shortly after. The tenor of his treasonable letter was as follows:

“To the noble Baron and Lord Provost of Paris, sweet Sire, at the Wood of Viciens, his liege man at his hands, greeting. Dear Sire, know that I am come to the Court of the King of England, sound and hearty; and I found the King at London, and he asked much news of me, of which I told him the best that I knew; and know, that I found the land of Wales in peace, wherefore I did not dare to deliver unto Morgan the thing which you well wot of. And know that the King has fully granted peace and truce; but be you careful and well advised to take no truce, if the same be not to your great advantage; and know that if you make no truce, great advantage will accrue unto you, and this you may say to the high Lord. And know that I found Sir John Fitz-Thomas at the King’s Court, for the purpose of treating of peace between him and the Earl of Nichole as to the Earldom of Ulvester [Ulster]; but I do not yet know how the business will turn out, as this letter was written the day after that the Cardinals had been answered; wherefore I did not dare touch at all upon the business that concerns you. And know that there is little watch kept on the sea-coast towards the South; and know that the Isle of Wycht is without garrison; and know that the King is sending into Almaine [Germany] two earls, two bishops, and two barons, to speak to, and counsel with, the King of Almaine as to this war. And know that the King is sending into Gascoigne twenty ships laden with wheat and oats, and with other provisions, and a large amount of money; and Sir Edmund, the King’s brother, will go thither, and the Earl of Nichole, Sir Hugh le Despenser,* the Earl of Warwyk, and many other good folks; and this you may tell to the high Lord. And know that we think that we have enough to do against those of Scotland; and if those of Scotland rise against the King of England, the Welsh will rise also. And this I have well contrived, and Morgan has fully covenanted with me to that effect. Wherefore I counsel you forthwith to send great persons into Scotland; for if you can enter therein, you will have gained it for ever. And if you will that I should go thither, send word to the King of Scotland, that he find for me and all my people at their charges honourably; but be you well advised whether you will that I should go thither or not; for I think that I shall act more for your advantage by waiting at the King’s Court, to espy and learn by enquiry such news as may be for you; for all that I can learn by enquiry I will let you know. And send to me Perot, who was my keeper in the prison where I was; for to him I shall say such things as I shall know from henceforth, and by him I will send you the matters that I fully ascertain. And for the sake of God, I pray you that you will remember and be advised of the promises that you made me on behalf of the high Lord, that is to say, one hundred livres of land to me and to my heirs. And for the sake of God, I pray you on behalf of my children, that they may have no want so long as they are in your keeping, in meat or in drink, or in other sustenance. And for the sake of God, I pray you that you be advised how I may be paid here; for I have nothing, as I have lost all, as well on this side as on the other; and nothing have I from you, except your great loyalty, in which I greatly trust. Confide fearlessly in the bearer of this letter, and shew him courtesy. And know that I am in great fear and in great dread; for some folks entertain suspicion against me, because that I have said that I have escaped from prison. Inform me as to your wishes in all things. Unto God [I commend you], and may he have you in his keeping.”

The said Thomas was seized on the Saturday next before the Feast of Saint Michael [29 September], and taken to the Tower of London; and on the Saturday next after the Feast of Saint Faith [6 October] he had his trial, and departed in manner underwritten:

He came from the Tower, mounted on a poor hack, in a coat of ray [a striped coat], and shod with white shoes, his head being covered with a hood, and his feet tied beneath the horse’s belly, and his hands tied before him: and around him were riding six torturers attired in the form of the devil, one of whom held his rein, and the hangman his halter, for the horse which bore him had them both upon it: and in such manner was he led from the Tower through London to Westminster, and was condemned on the dais in the Great Hall there; and Sir Roger Brabazun pronounced judgment upon him, that he should be drawn and hanged, and that he should hang so long as anything should be left whole of him; and he was drawn on a fresh ox-hide from Westminster to the Conduit of London, and then back to the gallows; and there is he hung by a chain of iron, and will hang, so long as anything of him may remain.

* Father of the more famous Hugh Despenser, lover of Edward II.

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1301: False Margaret, Norwegian pretender

Add comment July 20th, 2012 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

This is the feast date for the early Christian martyr Saint Margaret the Virgin of Antioch (only one of many saints named Margaret).

Margaret might in principle be of interest to this site as the patroness of the falsely accused, and one of the saints who spoke to Joan of Arc, but her star has fallen quite a bit since its medieval heyday on the celestial all-star team; considering the doubtful historicity of this bog-standard Diocletian martyr, the Catholic Church has dropped some of her celebrations.

So instead we’ll turn to a namesake of Margaret’s — well, namesake once removed.

We don’t know the date or even the season in 1301 when the so-called False Margaret and her husband were executed for fraud and treason: he by beheading, and she by burning at the stake.

The pair had made an audacious grab for the Norwegian throne the previous year. The story was told in detail in a nineteenth-century Icelandic history.

The False Margaret (whose true name has been lost to history, as has that of her husband) claimed to be Princess Margaret, known as the Maid of Norway, who was supposed to have died a decade before. How she got the idea to do this is a mystery. It seems unlikely that she came up with the plan on her own, but if she didn’t, then who set her up?

The actual Maid of Norway was the daughter of Eric II of Norway and a mom also named Margaret, this Margaret the daughter of Alexander III of Scotland. Said couple’s marriage treaty specified that if Alexander died without sons, and his daughter had children by Eric, those children would succeed to the throne of Scotland.

This is precisely what happened: Alexander died in 1286 without a legitimate son to succeed him, leaving his kingdom to the three-year-old Norwegian princess.

Technically speaking, the Maid of Norway was Queen of Scots from 1286 until her death. But since she was never crowned and never set foot on Scottish soil, some lists of Scottish monarchs do not include her name. She remained in Norway for the next several years and a selected group of guardians tried to maintain control of the country for her.

On, for the laughter, harps he pressed,
The feast’s right royal quarter; —
But west the ship fared, ever west
With Eric’s little daughter

-From “King Haakon’s Banquet Hall”, by Henrik Ibsen (pdf link)

Eric set about arranging a marriage for his daughter, eventually settling on the future Edward II of England, who was then Prince of Wales. Margaret set off for Scotland in 1290, with the plan that the English wedding would be arranged once she arrived.

Alas, the Maid of Norway never saw Scotland.

In September or October of 1290, en route, she died suddenly somewhere in the vicinity of the Orkney Islands, which were then Norwegian territory. She was only seven years old.

Her death set off a crisis in Scotland as more than a dozen heirs competed for the vacant throne, and this eventually lead to the Wars of Scottish Independence.

But did little Margaret really die?

In 1300, a woman arrived in Bergen, Norway on a German ship, claiming to be the lost princess. She said she had not died but had in fact been “sold” by one of her female attendants and sent to Germany, and had married there. By this time, Eric II had died without male issue and his brother, Haakon V, had become King of Norway.

In spite of the fact that (a) the Maid of Norway’s body had been returned to Norway and was identified by her father and (b) the False Margaret appeared to be about 40 years old when the Maid would have been 17, the False Margaret’s claims drew considerable popular support.

Why? A theory was put forth by the 19th-century Scottish historian John Hill Burton:

The announcement of so portentous an event [meaning the Maid’s death], through indistinct rumors, naturally caused men to talk and doubt. There was none of the solemn detail that might be expected to attend on a royal death, even though less heavily laden with a perplexing future. We are not told of any who were present, of the disease or its progress, of the spot where she died, or the place where she was buried. The time of death is only inferred … The whole affair has left on Scandinavian history a shadow of doubt, in the possibility that the child might have been spirited away by some one of those so deeply interested in her disappearance, and consequently, that it may be an open question whether the royal line of the Alexanders really came to an end…

It should be emphasized that there is no evidence of any conspiracy surrounding the Maid’s death and no evidence of her survival past 1290. Her own father, who had no apparent reason to lie, viewed the body and identified it as his daughter.

But people will talk, and believe what they want, and so the False Margaret found support for her wild story.

Ironically, even if she had been the real Maid of Norway, the False Margaret was not a serious rival to her uncle Haakon; her sex would have prevented her from ruling. But, as the Norwegian historian Peter Andreas Munch noted,

Her pretensions … might, nevertheless, have been extremely distasteful to him, and probably not altogether free from danger in the future, if, as was not at all unlikely, they should be made use of by the party of nobles who were discontented with his absolute government. This party would willingly have thrust him from the throne … but before they could hope to do so they must have a pretender to the crown of the old royal stock to set up opposition to him. [ … ] And for this purpose there would have been none more suitable than Margaret, if she could be conjured from the dead again.

This woman had to be dealt with. There was no getting around it.

Since the False Margaret and her husband were not executed until 1301, a year after their arrival in Norway, it seems likely that there must have been some official investigation into her claims. If so, the records of this have been lost. What seditious nobles might have hoped to gain through her has likewise slipped into a speculative fog. But False Margaret was clearly a matter of highest statecraft at the time: the executions were delayed until King Haakon could personally come to Bergen to see them carried out.

Embarrassingly, the False Margaret’s cause did not die with her. Her supporters actually erected a church to our friend Saint Margaret near the place of her execution. (The church is no longer extant.)

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1318: John Deydras, aka John of Powderham

Add comment June 5th, 2012 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On some day in June 1318, a cat and a one-eared man called John Deydras or Dydras, also known as John of Powderham, were hung in Oxford for challenging the right of Edward II to rule; indeed, John had claimed he was Edward II himself.

It had all started earlier that year when he walked into the King’s Hall in Oxford and announced before everyone that he was the rightful king of England. It was true that he resembled King Edward’s father, Edward I, except that he was missing an ear.

According to Powderham, when he was a baby and playing in the castle yard, a pig bit his ear off. His nanny, fearing the wrath of his royal parents, substituted him for a changeling. Now he was back and wanted to claim his kingdom. He even offered to fight King Edward in single combat for the right to rule.

Historian Helen Castor records the incident in her book She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth:

Edward’s first response was to laugh. He welcomed the pretender, the Chronicle of Lanercost records, with a derisive cry of “Welcome, my brother!” But for the queen, struggling to maintain her husband’s dignity (and, with it, her own), and acutely conscious of the threatening consequences of Edward’s failings, jokes did not come so easily. Proud Isabella was “unspeakably annoyed.”

Proud Isabella had a reason for being so displeased, for her husband was nothing like his father, who had been an accomplished soldier and a good king. Indeed, Edward was widely despised not only for his inept leadership but his unseemly relationships with other men.

After his arrest, Deydras confessed that the story had been a lie. He blamed his pet cat, a servant of the devil, for putting him up to it.

Modern readers can only conclude that the man was crazy. Royal pretenders had remarkably short lifespans, and to become one was effectively to commit suicide. (And at the urgings of a cat! Cats are not, after all, noted for their political acumen.)

Deydras’s contemporaries probably also knew he was mad, and Edward wanted to keep him as a court jester, but according to well-established precedent he was hung — and the cat too.

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1312: Pierre Vigier de la Rouselle, Gascon

Add comment March 31st, 2012 Headsman

“It is unjust that that which is rightly judged should result in prejudice to us and bring damage to others …”

-Edward II, letter concerning the Pierre Vigier case

One is like to reckon the phenomenon of the interminable death penalty appeal a modern construct, product of the present day’s moral confusion or juridical inefficiency.

It’s been right about 700 years exactly since Pierre Vigier was hanged in the February-April neighborhood, in the year of our Lord 1312, for his impolitic sentiments on the governance of his native province. This medieval execution went with a very modern-sounding 12 years of indeteminate appeals.

Still, it is true what they say — “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” In this foreign country, Gascony by name, they did the hanging first … and then did the appeals.

Our source here (virtually the only source short of plumbing the archives) is Joseph Kicklighter’s “English Bordeaux in conflict: the execution of Pierre Vigier de la Rousselle and its aftermath, 1312-24” from the Journal of Medieval History, no. 9 (1983).

And the source of all the judicial chaos was the bizarre situation of one king as a rival king’s vassal.

Gascony at this time was a sort of feudal leftover of the Angevin Empire whose Plantagenet descendants were still kings of England. This remaining Plantagenet patrimony* in southwestern France was a going source of conflict between the realms, the most recent of which had been expediently settled by making the English king also Duke of Gascony … and (with respect to Gascony) the French king his liege lord.


Seated French king Philip IV accepts the homage of his “vassal” Edward I.

The territory was worth the “submission”: ducal Gascony’s fertile land gave England a bounty in crops and wine. And the inevitable rivalry over sway in Gascony easily knocked on to the courts. As Barbara Tuchman put it in A Distant Mirror,

[t]he King of France still retained superior sovereignty under the formula of superioritas et resortum, which gave the inhabitants the right of appeal to the ultimate sovereign. Since his decisions were more than likely to go in their favor against their English overlord, and since the citizens, knowing this, exercised the right frequently, the situation was an endless source of conflict.

It was during such a conflict, when the rival factions of the Gascon capital of Bordeaux had the city in virtual anarchy as they jockeyed for power under the nominal lordship of English king Edward II, that the onetime royal castellan Pierre Vigier de la Rouselle apparently dumped on one of the new officials in conversation with a couple of informants.

The municipal government arrested Vigier and had him hanged — quickly, before Vigier’s inevitable attempted appeal to Parlement could save him.

(This all went down just a couple months before Edward II suffered a Gascon humiliation closer to home, when the Gascon nobleman Piers Gaveston, Edward’s dear friend and suspected lover, was executed by rival English lords.)**

Vigier’s aggrieved sons did pursue the appeal (it is they who provide posterity the circumstances of Pierre’s condemnation, so handle the story with care: one latter-day hypothesis is that Vigier was an outright rebel against the new appointees). Inevitably, the French backed their claim, allowing them undercut Edward’s ducal authority.


Productive relationship.

From there, the matter sank into an intractable mire of feudal Europe’s overlapping political authorities and factional rivalries. Parlement decreed some penalties. King Philip remitted some of them as a diplomatic gesture. The sons renewed their complaint. Bordeaux authorities tried to put the matter to bed by persecuting Vigier’s persecutors, only to be slapped down by an indignant King Edward. Persons were seized only to be ordered released, and estates likewise. Just as there was no single unambiguous authority to adjudicate it, there was no single wrongdoer to investigate, no single injury to repair (besides the matter of honor, there was the dead man’s property, and the fact that he was buried in unconsecrated ground), and no single arrangement of interested parties between the Vigier sons on the one side and the Plantagenet king on the other.

Edward seems to have taken particular affront at this imposition on his routine authority, and one must bear in mind that at this stage even the concept of sovereignty as we think of it today was simply not on the map. In some ways, the French appeals policy was pioneering it.

But as the suit bumped up and down or got kicked down the road by a Parlement that was probably enjoying its sport, Edward tried to dispose of it through such expedients as harassing its supporters and attempting to bankrupt the Vigiers. All this, naturally, just got rolled into the messy ol’ case.

Kicklighter:

Only time itself finally ended the appeal … in March 1324, King Charles IV announced the indefinite postponement of all ducal litigation at the Parlement of Paris becase of a mounting Anglo-French crisis which would soon lead to the brief War of Saint-Sardos. But even during the war, the court continued to deal with some aspects of the case; and the appeal was still under judgment when the Anglo-French feudal relationship was resumed with the accession of Edward III to the English throne.† It seems likely … Parlement had dropped the case by the 1330’s … in all probability, the Vigier case had lost the critical importance with which the king-duke and his officials had regarded it for so long. One might, with some justification, wonder why the appeal had ever enjoyed such attention.‡


In 1337, King Philip VI of France attempted to seize Gascony. In response, Edward III declared himself (not without at least some theoretical validity) the rightful King of France. The ensuing hostilities proved to be the opening act of the Hundred Years’ War.

“It was not the dynastic question that brought about the war,” wrote the historian T.F. Tout. “The fundamental difference between the two countries lay in the impossible position of Edward in Gascony.”

* Here’s a lovely free book about the preceding century’s backstory of English rule in Gascony.

** Potentially topical to this digressive connection: Edward’s loyal aide in Bordeaux, a gentleman by the name of Arnaud Caillau, may have been a cousin of Piers Gaveston. Edward certainly had a supportive Gascon faction that his own resentful alleged vassals were frequently keen to harass; maybe the whole Vigier intervention just struck a little too close to home.

† The reader will recall that Edward III’s route to power involved his French mother and her lover invading England and overthrowing Edward II. So there was a good deal of more interesting politics going on around this time than Pierre Vigier’s endless procedural appeal.

‡ Lest we misrepresent Kicklighter, he does go on to attempt to explain this hypothetical wonder as “a certain indication of the limited power of the English in Gascony.” I prefer my own stopping-point.

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1312: Piers Gaveston

3 comments June 19th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1312, Edward II’s dearest friend Piers Gaveston was “executed” by the English nobility that had long despised him.

The “notorious royal favourite” had initially been welcomed by Edward I around 1300 as a royal companion for the crown prince.

By the end of Longshanks’ life, the old king was so irate at their relationship (the prince had had the temerity to request a title and castles for Gaveston) that Gaveston was booted out of the country.

(But at least he wasn’t defenestrated, the fate of the fictional Gaveston stand-in “Phillip” in Braveheart.)

Ah, the gay-baiting.

The younger Edward immediately recalled his friend when death came for Longshanks, and Gaveston was resented both by English peers and the young Queen Isabella for the favor the new king held him in.

The purported homosexual relationship between Edward II and Piers Gaveston is commonly believed* though ultimately speculative, reading between the lines of chroniclers who are sometimes bitterly hostile towards these two. “The King loved an evil male sorcerer more than he did his wife,” for instance, is a bit of propaganda — we obviously don’t believe the “sorcery” bit — and even that’s not completely explicit.

There’s a strong circumstantial interpretation to made, but since the particulars of Edward’s behavior with his favorite behind drawn tapestries are permanently unavailable to us, it will suffice us to say that this interpretation has conditioned the “Piers Gaveston” who comes to us in later centuries as a widely-credited cultural artifact.

Whether as calumny or commendation, homosexuality is the first thing everyone “knows” about Piers Gaveston, the emblem of his life and the doomed reign of his sovereign. We meet him from the other side of Stonewall, even when we meet him in Renaissance poetry or Renaissance drama.

The historical, flesh-and-blood Piers — and there’s a very thorough biography of him here** — was certainly defined by more than gay identity, real or imputed.

The personal resentment he inspired in the likes of Lancaster and Beauchamp was political, mapped onto the timeless power struggle between nobles and crown, and within the nobility itself.

The king trusted Gaveston, who was himself just the son of a knight, with plum royal assignments like governing Ireland, and Gaveston executed them effectively; with an immoderate confidence in his own considerable talents, the favorite was not above tweaking his rivals with derisive nicknames.

The Lancaster faction progressively got the upper hand on Edward and Gaveston, and with civil war brewing, they captured the hated Gascon at Scarborough Castle while Edward scrambled unavailingly to raise an army of his own.

He was held privately for nine days before Lancaster — “a sulky, quarrelsome, and vindictive man … quick to resort to violence,” by Alison Weir’s reckoning — decided he had to go. Gaveston was beheaded without color of law at Blacklow Hill near Warwick. A monument to his memory still stands there today.

Thou executioner of foule bloodie rage,
To act the will of lame decrepit age.

The grief-stricken monarch would serve his revenge upon the Earl of Lancaster ten years’ cold, beheading him for treason in 1322 upon the verdict of the man who had by then slid into Gaveston’s place in the king’s favor, Hugh Despenser.

* Not universally accepted, however.

** Bonus: Nineteen things you never knew about Piers Gaveston.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Famous,History,Homosexuals,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Put to the Sword,The Worm Turns

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1222: An apostate deacon

1 comment April 17th, 2010 Headsman

Thirteenth century England was a dicey place for theological heterodoxy.

On this date in 1222, Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton held at Oxford a provincial council that ordered for immediate execution

an apostate deacon, who for the love of a Jewess had circumcised himself. When he had been degraded he was burnt by the servants of the lord Fawkes.

The story of this nameless and foreskinless deacon — and the link includes several congruent descriptions from primary sources — is sometimes conflated with that of Robert of Reading, another Christian divine who converted in the late 13th century.

Robert’s fate — or Haggai’s, to use the new name he took — seems to be officially unknown, and might have unfolded overseas: Edward I expelled Jews from England in 1290. Nevertheless, the mixed Robert-anonymous deacon story was commemorated with a plaque at Osney Abbey.

Whomever this date’s deacon really was, he wasn’t the only one for whom this council ordained a dreadful end for having the wrong idea about the Almighty.

And there was brought thither into the council an unbelieving youth along with two women, whom the archdeacon of the district accused of the most criminal unbelief, namely that the youth would not enter a church nor be present at the blessed sacraments, nor obey the injunctions of the Catholic Father, but had suffered himself to be crucified, and still bearing in his body the marks of the wounds had been pleased to have himself called Jesus by the aforesaid women. And one of the women, an old woman, was accused of having long been given to incantations and having by her magic arts brought the aforesaid youth to this height of madness. So both being convicted of this gross crime, were condemned to be imprisoned between two walls until they died. But the other woman, who was the youth’s sister, was let go free, for she had revealed the impious deed.

Our source thinks this means life imprisonment rather than being bricked up behind the amontillado. Whatever. It’s not every day we get to use the “immured” tag.

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1283: Dafydd ap Gruffydd, Prince of Wales

9 comments October 3rd, 2009 Jonathan Shipley

(Thanks to Jonathan Shipley of A Writer’s Desk for the guest post. -ed.)

Do not cross King Edward I.

If you cross “Longshanks,” as the regal man was called, you’re in for some serious pain. And then, eventually, you’ll die, like Dafydd ap Gruffydd did this day in 1283.

It is Dafydd, a Prince of Wales, who became the first prominent person in recorded history to have been hanged, drawn and quartered.

Yes, Dafydd’s death was particularly gruesome. Having fought alongside King Edward against Dafydd’s own brother and then returning to his brother’s side attacking King Edward’s Englishmen at Hawarden Castle, made the king rather peeved.

The English conquest of Wales: end of an era.

When Longshanks got the better of him, Dafydd was dragged through the streets of Shrewsbury attached to a horse’s tail. He was then hanged, but not enough to kill him, just enough to make it awfully uncomfortable.

More uncomfortable was the emasculation.

Perhaps more uncomfortable than being emasculated was when Dafydd was disemboweled and his entrails burned before his eyes.

Then they cut off his head, which must have been a relief.

Then they cut off his limbs.

Then they parboiled his head for later viewing.

(William Wallace met the same fate from the same king a couple of decades later.)

It wasn’t always so gruesome for Dafydd ap Gruffydd, the well-to-do Welshman. Things were going quite well there for a time -– as good as a bloody power struggle with your brother can be. Prince of Gwynedd, son of Gruffudd ap Llywelyn, grandson of the mightly Llweyln the Great, Dafydd ap Gruffydd was born in 1238 under the English King Henry III. In his teens, that wily rebel, Dafydd joined one brother (Owain Goch ap Gruffydd) to challenge another brother (Llywelyn ap Gruffydd) for power. Llwelyn won at the Battle of Bryn Derwin. In 1263 Dafydd tried again, joining King Henry against his brother. In 1274 he tried once again. This time with the new king, “Longshanks.”

Things were great. Dafydd was favored by the king. He married Lady Elizabeth Ferrers, daughter of the 5th Earl of Derby. He enjoyed a manor in Norfolk, before exchanging it for another in Northampton. Indeed, it was high society living for the Welshman.

But Wales wanted independence from England. In the spring of 1282 Dafydd, with his brother (the one he tried to defeat many times before, Llywelyn) attacked an English castle. Foolish. Compelled to help his brother yet not being prepared for all-out war, Dafydd crossed the king and the king, angered, pursued him with a vengeance. Troops marched out. Fortifications (Caernarfon Castle, Conwy Castle, Harlech Castle, etc.) were thrown up to squash any thoughts of any further Welsh rebellion, and seed the future Welsh tourist industry.

Come December of 1282, Llywelyn, Dafydd’s dear brother, was lured into a trap and killed. Dafydd became prince, for a brief and stressful span, what the pursuit of the Enligh army, and a king behind it all still fuming over being backstabbed by a Welshman.

Whenever the English caught up with him, he escaped. In April he went north to Dolbadarn Castle. In May he moved to Garth Celyn. Then to a bog. It was by Bera Mountain, in said bog, that Dafydd and his younger brother Owain were captured on June 22, 1284. Dafydd’s wife was taken prisoner, as were their seven daughters, and one niece. About a week later Edward proclaimed the last of the ‘treacherous lineage’ were now his. Dafydd’s fate was then discussed by parliament.

He was condemned to death, the first person known to have been tried and executed for what, from that time onwards, would be described as high treason against the King. And treasonous blokes don’t get off very easily when it comes to a peaceful execution. No, his entrails were burned before him for “his sacrilege in committing his crimes in the week of Christ’s passion.” His body was chopped up “for plotting the king’s death.” A gentlemen by the name of Geoffrey carried out the execution of the last native Prince of Wales. His payment? 20 shillings.

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