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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1314: Tour de Nesle Affair adulterers

7 comments April 19th, 2010 Headsman

Think you want to fall in love with a princess?

On this date in 1314, the French crown dissuaded the fantasy by butchering two Norman knights who had sheathed their swords where they oughtn’t.

In the Tour de Nesle affair (English Wikipedia page | French), French princess Isabella — then Queen of England, where she is known as Isabella of France or any number of less-flattering sobriquets — noticed that some purses she had once given her brothers’ wives as gifts were being sported by a couple of (evidently metrosexual) dudes in the court.

Let their fate be a warning against regifting.

In short order, the purse-toting knights Philippe and Gauthier d’Aunay or d’Aulnay (both links are in French) were arrested for tapping, respectively: Margaret of Burgundy (the wife of the king’s eldest son, Louis, soon to become Louis X); and, Blanche of Burgundy (the wife of the king’s third son, Charles, the future king Charles IV).*

“The pious confidence of the middle age, which did not mistrust the immuring of a great lady along with her knights in the precincts of a castle, of a narrow tower — the vassalage which imposed on young men as a feudal duty the sweetest cares, was a dangerous trial for human nature, when the ties of religion were weakened.”

Jules Michelet

Under torture, the knights copped to the cuckoldry, supposed to have been conducted in the Tour de Nesle, a since-destroyed guard tower on the Seine.**


Detail view (click to see larger image) of the dilapidated Tour de Nesle, as sketched in the 17th century by Jacques Callot. The tower was destroyed in 1665.

The knights suffered horrific deaths:

“deux jeunes et biaux chevaliers furents roués vifs, écorchés vifs , émasculés, épendus de plomb soufré en ébullition, puis décapités, traînés à travers rues, et pendus au gibet y pourrissant durant des semaines. Leurs sexes, instruments du crime, sont jetés aux chiens. Jamais corps n’auront autant souffert.”

In fine: flayed, broken on the wheel, burned with hot lead and sulfur, genitals thrown to the dogs, and then decapitated for ignominious gibbeting on Montfaucon.

The women fared only a little better. Neither faced execution, and in fact both would technically become Queens of France. But they “reigned” as such from prison.

Margaret of Burgundy was clapped in a tower in a room exposed to the elements while her estranged husband became king. She succumbed (or possibly was murdered outright to clear the way for a new wife) in 1315.

Blanche of Burgundy was still in wedlock and still locked up in Chateau-Gaillard when her husband ascended the throne early in 1322; the marriage was annulled a few months later, and Blanche lived out her last few years at a nunnery.

Isabella’s role in all of this as the goody-two-shoes informer upon the adulterers looks particularly ironic with benefit of hindsight. In another 12 years’ time, this Queen of England and an adulterous lover combined to overthrow the King of England.

But maybe not so ironic after all, if one takes her for a power-thirsty “she-wolf”.

This Tour de Nesle scandal also happened to cast doubt on the paternity of Margaret’s only daughter Joan, which mitigated against Joan (and potentially in favor of Isabella’s new son, Edward) for eventual claim to the throne of France. Since this potential succession was not evidently imminent, and Isabella had three brothers in the prime of life, this seems a farfetched motivation for tattling. But one is drawn to the question of inheritance since happenstance soon put the royal succession into dispute — a misfortune that helped lead to the Hundred Years’ War when that son, grown up to be Edward III of England, did indeed press his French claims at swordpoint.

(The Tour de Nesle scandal is generally thought now to have been legitimate, on the grounds that the ruling family would not have inflicted such an injury to its own legitimacy without very good cause. However, according to Alison Weir, at least one chronicle blamed the affair on a frame-up by hated royal advisor — and eventual Executed Today client — Enguerrand de Marigny.)

Neither Isabella nor Joan ever ruled France. Joan, however, was an ancestor of Henri IV.

* The wife of the middle son, Philip, was also accused of knowing about the affairs, but her strong defense and her husband’s backing got her off.

** Spectacular embroideries enhanced the legend in later generations, into tales of a royal succubus making her rendezvous in the tower by night, then having her lovers hurled off it at dawn. Alexandre Dumas spun a melodrama from this material, though Frederic Gaillardet accused him of plagiarism. (Dumas gives his side of the story at excrutiating length in his memoirs.) La Tour de Nesle was later made into a movie.

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1326: Hugh Despenser the Younger, King Edward II’s lover?

8 comments November 24th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1326, the power behind Edward II’s throne — and the presumed lover in his bed — was hanged, drawn and quartered and pointedly emasculated in a grisly public execution as the Queen and her lover took control of England.

(Wince.)

The younger Despenser, being carved up in an illustration from Froissart.

Poor King Edward — that’s the swishy princeling gay-baited in Braveheart — would suffer a horrid demise of his own a few weeks later. He’s the one most conveniently read as a gay martyr.

Hugh Despenser the Younger (or Hugh le Despenser) has his fans, but he’s much more likely to be taken for a villain.

An upstart knight who unexpectedly lucked into a jackpot inheritance when his wife’s brother died at Bannockburn — that’s the rumble Robert the Bruce starts at the end of Braveheart — Hugh the younger parlayed his newfound position of feudal magnate into the still better gig of royal favorite.

That job was open because its occupants had a distressing tendency to get dead, a fate obviously ordained for Hugh Despenser as well.

But whereas Edward’s childhood pal Piers Gaveston, the murdered former fave, aroused mostly personal pique among rival nobles, Hugh Despenser meant to use his favor to rule.

Despenser exploited his position to build up his wealth and control the king; with his father (you’ll never guess that he went by “the elder”), he became the de facto if never the de jure ruler of the realm.

At one point, his rivals in the nobility turned the tables and got him exiled. Hugh became a pirate in the English Channel while he maneuvered his way back onto dry land in his customary most-favored-consigliere position.

So although the British barons who wanted Despenser’s head were undoubtedly a distasteful lot themselves, and certainly capable of all manner of depravity in pursuit of their own crass self-interest, it doesn’t take a backwards view of human sexuality to get why Hugh Despenser would raise an early 14th century Briton’s hackles.

But you have to give England this: its politics back then were a damn sight more interesting than you get today. Anyone who uses the term “bloodsport” for the modern electoral charade ought to cross cutlasses with the likes of the dread pirate Despenser.

And it gets better. Meaning, for Hugh Despenser the Younger, worse. Much.

Queen Isabella — that’s Sophie Marceau’s hot-for-barbarian imported princess in Braveheart — became estranged from her Hugh-lovin’ husband,* and established herself back in France with her lover Roger Mortimer.

Then, the lovebirds invaded England.

Edward and Hugh were so unpopular at this point that “their” nobles who should have repelled the incursion went in a landslide for the invading adulterers.

Hugh Despenser’s father had already been hanged for his trouble by the time The Younger was taken; the latter tried to cheat the executioner by refusing all food and drink for days, truly a spartan image of desperate self-mortification in a rough day and age.

When you get a load of the death his royal captors had worked out for him — and which they were obliged to deliver to their starving captive hurriedly in Hereford rather than more ceremoniously back in London — you can understand why. After a perfunctory trial that same morning, they tore the former favorite apart.

Froissart’s rendering:

When the feast was over sir Hugh, who was not beloved in those parts, was brought before the queen and knights assembled; the charges were read to him – to which he made no reply; the barons and knights then passed the following sentence on him: first, that he should be drawn on a hurdle, attended by trumpets and clarions, through all the streets in the city of Hereford, and then conducted to the market-place, where all the people were assembled; at that place he was to be bound on a high scaffold, in order that he might be more easily seen by the people. First, his privates were cut off, because he was deemed a heretic, and guilty of unnatural practices, even with the king, whose affections he had alienated from the queen by his wicked suggestions. His private parts were cast into a large fire kindled close to him; Afterwards, his heart was thrown into the same fire, because it had been false and traitorous, since he had by his treasonable counsels so advised the king, as to bring shame and mischief on the land, and had caused some of the greatest lords to be beheaded, by whom the kingdom ought to have been supported and defended; and had so seduced the king, that he could not or would not see the queen, or his eldest son, who was to be their future sovereign, both of whom had, to preserve their lives, been forced to quit the kingdom. The other parts of sir Hugh thus disposed of, his head was cut off and sent to London.**

It’s reported that Isabella and Mortimer feasted and made merry as they beheld this hideous spectacle. Now that’s bloodsport politics.

Hugh the younger Despenser and his life and times are covered in amazing detail by a couple of active-posting enthusiasts of this particular period who have already been linked elsewhere in this post: the aptly-named Edward II blog (dig his biography of Hugh Despenser, among many other such dramatis personae; also his account of the execution, already cited); and, Lady Despenser’s Scribery (whose entire sidebar is pretty much all about our day’s principal; for the quick tour, see her biography and posts on the “trial” and execution).

* The reason for said estrangement can be situated anywhere one likes along the personal-political spectrum; one recent historical novel speculates (upon no authority but dramatic license) that Hugh raped the queen.

** Remains reportedly discovered last year were speculatively identified as Hugh Despenser’s; the litany of injuries to the body testify to the ghastly death-ritual its owner underwent.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Gruesome Methods,Heads of State,History,Homosexuals,Infamous,Mature Content,Nobility,Pirates,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Scandal,Theft,Treason

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1323: Andrew Harclay, too chummy with the Scots

1 comment March 3rd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1323, Andrew Harclay was hanged, drawn and quartered in London for having attempted to conclude peace with Scotland.

A commoner whose abilities lifted him into the nobility, Harclay may have been northern England’s ablest military commander during ceaseless warfare between Robert the Bruce of Scotland (yes, that one) and the English King Edward II, the latter struggling to maintain the conquests of his father, Edward I “Longshanks”.

It was the defeat of a domestic enemy — Edward had no shortage of foes — that elevated Harclay into the peerage; he engineered English victory at the Battle of Boroughbridge over the rebellious Earl of Lancaster.

Campaigns against the Scots were less to the king’s liking; Robert the Bruce consistently thwarted English expeditions, establishing an ever-firmer grasp on Scotland and raiding into the frontiers — Harclay’s lands included. Settlement of the fruitless conflict was the order of the day, and it was Edward’s intransigence that withheld it. As a century-old volume on England’s political history puts it, “To such a pass had England been reduced that those who honestly desired that the farmers of Cumberland should once more till their fields in peace, saw no other means of gaining their end than by communication with the enemies of their country.”

Secretly, Harclay ventured to work out the terms of a peace with Scotland, an act outside his station which he evidently intended to present as a fait accompli. Here is the contemporaneous account from the Chronicle of Lanercost:

Wherefore, when the said Earl of Carlisle perceived that the King of England neither knew how to rule his realm nor was able to defend it against the Scots, who year by year laid it more and more waste, he feared lest at last he [the king] should lose the entire kingdom ; so he chose the less of two evils, and considered how much better it would be for the community of each realm if each king [Edward II and Robert the Bruce] should possess his own kingdom freely and peacefully without any homage, instead of so many homicides and arsons, captivities, plunderings and raidings taking place every year. Therefore on the 3rd January [1323] the said Earl of Carlisle went secretly to Robert the Bruce at Lochmaben …

Now the Earl of Carlisle made the aforesaid convention and treaty with the Scots without the knowledge and consent of the King of England and of the kingdom in parliament; nor was he more than a single individual, none of whose business it was to transact such affairs. … But after all these things had been made known for certain to the King and kingdom of England, the poor folk, middle class and farmers in the northern parts were not a little delighted that the King of Scotland should freely possess his own kingdom on such terms that they themselves might live in peace. But the king and his council were exceedingly put out (and no wonder!) because he whom the king had made an earl so lately had allied himself to the Scots, an excommunicated enemy, to the prejudice of the realm and crown, and would compel the lieges of the King of England to rebel with him against the king; wherefore they [the king and council] publicly proclaimed him as a traitor.

….

[A]lbeit he merited death according to the laws of kingdoms, his aforesaid good intention may yet have saved him in the sight of God.

Debate continues over just how treasonous — grossly so, or only “technically” — was this fatal negotiation; that it was practical cannot be gainsaid. Twelve weeks after Edward sent this key noble to the block for his unauthorized collaboration with the enemy, England herself concluded a similar truce. Although this version did not acknowledge the Bruce’s kingship, the peace it established would, ere the decade was out, lead to England legally recognizing Scotland’s independence.

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