1546: The Fourteen of Meaux

Add comment October 7th, 2015 Headsman

If the execution of the “Fourteen of Meaux” falls far short of the massacre of the Vaudois as regards the number of its victims, its strictly judicial character makes it more instructive as an example of the treatment of heretics.

In the year 1546 the Reformers of Meaux organised themselves into a Church after the pattern of that set up by the French refugees at Strassburg eight years before. They chose as their first pastor, a wool-carder, named Pierre Leclerc, a brother of the man who was burnt at Metz.

Their number increased under his ministry, and the matter soon came to the ear of the authorities. On September 8 a sudden descent was made on the congregation, and sixty persons were arrested and sent to Paris to be tried by the Parliament. Their greatest crime was that they had celebrated the Holy Communion.

On October 4 sentence was pronounced. Fourteen were sentenced to be tortured and burned, five to be flogged and banished; ten, all women, were set free, while the remainder were to undergo graduated forms of penance. The sentences were carried out at Meaux on October 7.*

Etienne Mangin, in whose house the services had always been held, and Leclerc, were carried to the stake on hurdles, the rest on tumbrils. They had all previously undergone what was known as “extraordinary” torture, and all had refused to reveal the names of other Reformers at Meaux. At the stake six yielded so far as to confess to a priest, thereby escaping the penalty of having their tongues cut out; the others who remained firm suffered this additional barbarity, which it was the custom to inflict on those who died impenitent. The congregation at Meaux was thus broken up, but the survivors carried the evangelical seeds to other towns in France.

The “Fourteen of Meaux” were not the only victims of the year 1546. Five others had already been burned at Paris, including the scholar and printer Etienne Dolet. Others were burned in the provinces. The next year, 1547, opened with fresh executions; and on January 14 the mutilation of a statue of the Virgin was expiated by a solemn procession at Paris.

Such was the policy which Francis I began definitely to adopt towards Protestantism after the affair of the placards, and which he put into active execution during the last seven years of his life. How far was it successful? As we have seen, it drove a large number of persons into exile; and these consisted chiefly of the better-born and better-educated among the Reformers.

It intimidated many into outward conformity with the Church. It prevented all public exercise of the Reformed religion, and all open propaganda. Religious meetings were held by night or in cellars; doctrines were spread by secret house-to-house teaching, or by treatises concealed amongst the wares of pretended pedlars.

On the other hand the frequent executions helped to spread the evil they were meant to repress. The firm courage with which the victims faced death did as much as the purity of their lives to convert others to their faith. Moreover, the influence of the exiles reacted on their old homes. From Geneva to the other Swiss centres of Protestantism missionaries came to evangelise France.

The Cambridge Modern History, vol. 2

* There are some sources that aver Oct. 6, and it appears that the primary documents are not explicit on the exact date of execution. This Proceedings of the Huguenot Society collects a great deal of information about the Fourteen of Meaux and settles on Thursday, Oct. 7 (see fn 54, page 101 and fn 64, page 103) — in part because the Parlement also demanded that the heretical house be razed, with Catholic services to be held there every Thursday.

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1524: Not Jean de Poitiers, father of the mistress

Add comment February 17th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1524, the French aristocrat Jean de Poitiers, Seigneur de Saint Vallier lay his head on a chopping-block.

He kept it there for a full hour, but the headsman never swung the blade — and Jean de Poitiers walked away with a royal clemency.

This lucky Seigneur had been caught up in an English- and Habsburg-backed plot by the Constable of France to break off a chunk of France. (Said Constable fled to Charles V.)

Jean de Poitiers skated on noblesse oblige and lesser culpability, but there’s a scurrilous story that he was heard thanking God as he was led back from the scaffold for his daughter’s many charms.

Diane de Poitiers

The aforesaid beguiler, then-24-year-old Diane de Poitiers, had gone to King Francis to plead for her father’s life. Apparently she made an impression. (Or the king was planning to pardon Jean anyway.)

The implication of having gone the extra mile derives not from any particular fact known about that meeting, but from Diane’s subsequent, and rather illustrious, career as mistress to the monarch — not to Francis, but to his son Henri II.

In the 1530s, when Diane was a cougar-aged widow,* she became the mistress of the teenaged prince — and the rival of his teenaged bride, Catherine de’ Medici.

Diane was anything but the other woman in this arrangement: the brilliant, forceful personality whom Henri trusted as no other, it was Diane de Poitiers who wielded queen-like power during her lover’s reign. (They even had an H-D monogram.) She made calls in statecraft and in the royal household, and one can fancy the fury Queen Catherine conceived for having her husband’s older mistress decide how to raise the kids.

Diane’s career ought to have ended in a state funeral, but the hale and hearty Henri suffered a freak jousting accident in 1559 that reordered female influence in the Valois dynasty. Catherine wouldn’t even let Diane near the deathbed of the king as he painfully expired — and the queen exiled the former royal favorite to a distant estate as soon as possible.

* Diane de Poitiers was on either end of May-December arrangements in her time, and the monument that she put up for her much-older husband Louis de Breze can be seen at the cathedral in Rouen.

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1527: Jacques de Beaune, baron de Semblançay

1 comment August 12th, 2010 Headsman

On this date* in 1527, Jacques de Beaune was hanged on the gallows of Montfaucon for peculation.

Beaune (French Wikipedia entry) was an aged man well into his 70s or 80s, and had served four kings’ treasuries, rising to become Superintendent of Finance for Francis I.

His slow-motion ruin began with France’s military involvement in Italy earlier that decade, in which capacity the French commander near Milan suffered a grievious reverse and had to abandon Lombardy.

Furious buck-passing ensued:

  • The commander blamed the defeat on a lack of pay for his Swiss mercenaries;
  • The paymaster — Beaune — blamed the lack of funds for the mercs on the Queen Mother, Louise of Savoy‘s calling in a debt

The ensuing investigation revealed this story to be true, but Beaune was obliged to retire from the court because of the Queen Mother’s fury at him.

And that might have been that, but for the further French misadventures in Italy.

In 1525, Francis himself contrived to be captured at the Battle of Pavia, elevating Louise of Savoy to regent in his absence. By the time the spendthrift king had been ransomed back, his treasury was nigh empty and Louise knew just the person to blame.

An audit of Semblancay’s accounts intended to turn up some loose ducats embarrassingly showed that the noble was actually a creditor of the king, but

on 13 January 1527, after Semblancay had returned to Paris on business, he was arrested and thrown in the Bastille … the king and his council … had been looking for ways of raising within five days 370,000 livres needed for the payment of troops. Semblancay was known to be a very rich man and the prospect of confiscating his property must have been tempting. (Source)

Semblancay was tried by a handpicked favorite of the court, with the predictable result on a somewhat nebulous embezzlement/corruption thing; a jailhouse snitch once in the great lord’s employ gave evidence against him. The doomed man, perhaps untroubled to be relieved of the infirmities of his advanced age, was supposed to have been downright chill walking through Paris to his death, and he was met with respect by a citizenry that could hardly help sympathizing with this wizened but serene victim of the royal wrath.

Poet Clement Marot** recorded the scene thus:

Lorsque Maillart, juge d’Enfer, menoit
À Monfaulcon Samblançay l’ame rendre,
À votre advis, lequel des deux tenoit
Meilleur maintien ? Pour le vous faire entendre,
Maillard sembloit homme qui mort va prendre
Et Samblançay fut si ferme vieillart
Que l’on cuydoit, pour vray, qu’il menast pendre
À Montfaulcon le lieutenant Maillart.
When Maillart, judge of Hell,
To Montfaucon led Samblançay to give up his soul,
Which of the two, in your mind,
Had the better demeanour? To enlighten you,
Maillart seemed the man whome death would take
And so sturdy an old man was Samblançay,
That one truly believed that it was he who led
Lieutenant Maillart to be hanged at Montaucon.

This case is less well-remembered today than it ought to be; to contemporaries, the hanging of France’s treasurer for corruption was an awfully noteworthy event.† (Opinions at the time seemed to be split on the justice of the matter, even though Semblancay was posthumously rehabilitated; later generations have more strongly gravitated to the understanding that he was railroaded.)

And it launched an ensuing, decade-long project of Francis’s, to squeeze wealthy financiers through the commission de la Tour Carree and thereby get in the good graces of the early modern bond markets unsettled by France’s 1520s fiscal faceplant.

There’s a nasty apparent allusion in Rabelais’s Pantagruel to this procedure:

We noticed in a great Press from twenty to twenty-five huge Gallows-birds round a great Table [bourreau, punning bureau] covered with green Cloth, staring at each other, with their Hands as long as Crane’s Legs and their Nails two Feet long at least, — for they are forbidden ever to pare them, so that they become as crooked as Bills or Boat-hooks — and just at that time was brought in a great Bunch of Grapes which they gather in that Country, from the Vine called Extraordinaire, the Grapes from which often hang on Poles. As soon as the Bunch was laid there, they put it under the Press, and there was not a Berry from which they did not squeeze Oil of Gold, insomuch that the poor Bunch was carried off so drained and stripped, that there was not a Drop of Juice or Liquor left.

Most of those Tour Carree prosecutions didn’t result in executions — “merely” confiscations of lands and titles which could be re-sold, and sentences which could be commuted for a fine. R.J. Knecht, in The Rise and Fall of Renaissance France, 1483-1610, puts the king’s profit on such confiscations into the millions of livres.

But to make those shakedowns seem a small price to pay, the threat of Semblancay’s example must have lurked in the background for targeted nobles.

(Semblancay himself had been reckless enough not to accept an initial mostly-exoneration in the inquiry that preceded his arrest and trial, since part of it required him to “repay” supposed debts to Louise of Savoy. His appeal against that part of the judgment might have set him up to be the cautionary example for everyone else.)

Guillaume de La Perrierre captured the vibe with one of his “emblems” in Le Théâtre des bons engins, number XL:


Also see emblem number LXXV.

The Beaune name would scintillate to posterity through such illustrious descendants as Renaud de Beaune (French link), a notable archbishop; and, more salaciously, Escadron Volant all-star Charlotte de Beaune Semblançay, who seduced powerful nobles at Catherine de’ Medici’s behest.

A lengthy French history of our day’s early modern moneybags can be perused here; when visiting Tours, you can revisit the days when he was in the chips by crashing at one of the many buildings he put, the Hotel de Beaune-Semblancay.

* Sentence was pronounced on Friday, Aug. 9, but a stay granted until Monday, Aug. 12 for the condemned man to pursue his appeal to the king. Some sources give Aug. 9 as the execution date, and some Aug. 11; both of these appear to be incorrect. See David Graham in An Interregnum of the Sign: The Emblematic Age in France – Essays in Honour of Daniel S.Russell.

** There’s another (translated to English) meditation Marot wrote on Semblancay here, in the first-person voice of the hanged man. Marot was a friend of the eventually-executed French linguist and translator Etienne Dolet, and his own unorthodox opinions would eventually require him to flee the realm for his life.

We do note that in this era of combative pamphleteering, the geezer who made himself a tycoon by administering the taxes wasn’t universally supported by the literary set. Roger de Collerye (cited here) hooted Jacques de Beaune into the hereafter with the verses,

Tremblez, tremblez, larrons gros & petiz!
Retirez vous, gens trop fins et subtilz!
Absentez vous bientost & prenez terre,
Gens de finances et tresoriers gentilz
Qui d’attrapper estes tant ententifz.
Sur vous surviegne tempeste & tonerre!
Craignez la court qui vous donna la guerre
Bien asprement, quant je l’ay pance,
Souvieigne vous de la mort Sant Blancey!

† It happened yet again in September 1535, to Jean Poncher. Historically, proximity to the French crown’s revenues was also proximity to the gallows.

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1534: Barthélemi Milon, for the Affair of the Placards

3 comments November 13th, 2009 Headsman

On this date* in 1534, a crippled shoemaker’s son went to the stake … the harbinger of many a pyre that would swallow many a French soul in the internecine struggle over religion that lay ahead.

A relatively chilled-out start to the Protestant Reformation under the tolerant King Francis I had the moderate reformers thinking go-along, get-along.

But churchbound Frenchmen and -women on Sunday, Oct. 18 in Paris and a number of towns around France found that someone had engineered the simultaneous posting of incendiary anti-Catholic placards denouncing the “idolatrous rite” of mass. In an ominous breach of security, one was even left outside the monarch’s own bedchamber.

The Affaire des Placards was a public relations master stroke by any standard … and it got Catholic France up in arms against the heretics in its midst. Overnight, every evangelical had become a terrorist.

[R]umors spread like wildfire throughout the city. Some said that the heretics were going to burn down the churches and massacre the faithful during mass; others that the Louvre would be sacked. Foreigners, especially those who spoke German, were targeted by frightened Parisians, and a Flemish merchant was lynched by a mob.

Many with the means and the prudence fled; it was this event drove John Calvin from Paris to Switzerland, there to root out heresies of his own.

Those that stayed saw several of their number burn.

Milon (didactic French link), paralyzed from the waist down, was the first. He had been found with the treasonable poster in his possession.

As the martyrology filled in the years ahead and France hurtled towards the Wars of Religion that would shape the 16th century, the Affair of the Placards in retrospect came to mark** a decisive turning point for the House of Valois towards an ultimately self-defeating violent repression of Protestantism.

This affair in the context of its time is treated in the free (and Protestant) History of the rise of the Huguenots of France.

* Some sources (this one French) give November 12 as Milon’s execution date.

** Perhaps somewhat glibly; the state’s wavering policies on the day’s religious conflict tracked the everyday vicissitudes of statecraft — competing factions in the court; competing geopolitical priorities abroad.

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