1492: Jan van Coppenolle

Add comment June 16th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1492 the Flemish rebel Jan van Coppenolle was beheaded at the Vrijdagmarkt in Ghent.

When the formerly doughty duchy of Burgundy faltered as an independent polity after the death of Charles the Bold in 1477, Ghent and its sister Low Countries trading cities had forced upon Charles’s heir Mary an expansive recognition of those cities’ rights.

It was known as the Great Privilege, and it was greatly dependent on the political weakness of the recognizing authority.

Mary expressed this weakness in another way as well: with her marriage to the Habsburg heir Maximilian I of Austria — tying her patrimony to the Austrian empire. Upon this marriage did the House of Habsburg found a redoubling of its already expansive holdings, for Mary herself brought the wealthy Low Countries into the fold while the couple’s son Philip married a Spanish infanta and founded the line of Habsburg Spanish monarchs.* Apt indeed was the House Habsburg motto: “Leave the waging of wars to others! But you, happy Austria, marry; for the realms which Mars awards to others, Venus transfers to you”

Mary, unfortunately, was not around to enjoy the triumph of her matrimonial arrangements, for in early 1482 a horse threw her while out on a ride, breaking her back. Philip might have had a bright future ahead, but he was only four years old.

It was Maximilian’s flex on direct power in the Low Countries — and in particular his ambition to raise taxes to fund expansionist wars — that brought to the stage our man van Coppenolle (German Wikipedia entry | Dutch). He became a preeminent popular leader of a decade-long Flemish rebellion against the future Holy Roman Emperor that verged towards a war of independence.

Briefly forced to flee to exile in France after Maximilian quelled the initial resistance in 1485, van Coppenolle returned with French backing and controlled Ghent from 1487 when the rebellion re-emerged. This second installment had some legs, especially since Maximilian was imprisoned several months by the city of Bruges, allowing van Coppenolle leave enough to even mint his own coinage, the Coppenollen … before the Habsburgs finally suppressed the risings.

* The present Spanish king, Felipe VI, is a descendant of Philip I.

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1477: Hugonet and Humbercourt, in the wreck of Burgundy

Add comment April 3rd, 2019 Headsman

Willem Hugonet and Guy van Brimeu, officials of the collapsing Burgundian polity, were executed in Ghent on this date in 1477 for their failed diplomatic intrigue.

This moment fell just weeks after Burgundy itself had received her own fatal blow, at least as far as independent political standing goes: the death in battle on January 5 of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. Charles had proven himself an energetically expansionist prince.

Charles’s dominions compassed not only Burgundy itself, but a swath of territory running up to Flanders and the Low Countries, a strip that was being squeezed by the rising powers of France to the west and Austria to the east. He had no male heir, so his 19-year-old daughter Mary succeeded him in title — but not in power. France and Austria immediately began sizing up Burgundy for dismemberment, a mission they accomplished within a few short years. And while both dynasties sought Mary’s inheritance via matrimony, more direct methods were also employed.

Before January was out, the French king Louis XI had already pressed into Picardy and Artois* with a scheming mix of armed intimidation and invocation of feudal rights — seeking Flanders and its rich trading cities like Ghent, where our executions will take place. These places, too, saw their opportunity to seek their own advantage; Burgundy had enforced its authority in Ghent at the point of the sword, bloodily crushing a revolt not 30 years before. In Flanders and Brabant, “the confirmation of the tidings of [Charles the Bold’s] death had been received with general feelings of relief and joy,” according to the Cambridge Modern History. “And throughout the Netherlands it was resolved to make the most of the opportunity.” There was no love lost between these locales and their Burgundian overlords, yet these places also feared the potential domination of Burgundy’s rivals. As a first step, the principal cities of the Low Countries immediately forced the weakened sovereign — who was personally stuck in Ghent when the dread news of her father’s fate arrived — to cede them a wide grant of privileges.

Meanwhile, Mary herself extended feelers to the neighboring empires, and it is here that our principal characters enter the story. Charles’s old chancellor, Willem Hugonet and the Picardy-born knight Guy of Brimeu, Sire of Humbercourt** — French-friendly Burgundians both reviled of Ghent — prevailed on Mary to seek what terms they could France. Returning to the Cambridge Modern History,

Louis seems to have, by private communications with Hugonet and d’Himbercourt, secured their adherence to the marriage-scheme [between Mary of Burgundy and the six-year-old French Dauphin]. At Arras, of which he took possession in March, 1477, he received a deputation from Ghent, and — playing the kind of double game which his soul loved — revealed to them the confidence reposed by Mary in the privy councillors detested by the city.

Thus, on the return of the civic deputies to Ghent, the storm broke out. The city was already in a condition of ferment; some of the partisans of the old regime had been put to death; and the agitation, which had spread to Ypres and as far as Mons, was increased by the claims put forward at Ghent on behalf of the restoration of Liegeois independence by the Bishop of Liege … distracted by her fears, Mary seems actually to have countenanced Hugonet’s final proposal that she should quit Flanders and place herself under the protection of the French King, when at the last moment Ravenstein induced her to reveal the design. He immediately informed the representative of the vier landen, and the deans of the trades of Ghent, and on the same night (March 4) Hugonet, d’Himbercourt and de Clugny were placed under arrest. A rumour having been spread that their liberation was to be attempted, and news having arrived of the resolute advance of the French forces, new disturbances followed; and Mary issued an ordinance naming a mixed commission of nobles and civic officials to try the accused with all due expedition (March 28). She afterwards interceded in favour of one or both of the lay prisoners (for de Clugny was saved by his benefit of clergy), and at a later date expressed her sympathy with the widow and orphans of d’Himbercourt, the extent of whose share in the Chancellor’s schemes remains unknown. After being subjected to torture, both were executed on April 3. They met with short shrift at the hands of their judges; but they cannot be said to have been sacrificed to a mere gust of democratic passion; and Mary and her Council, and the other Estates of the Netherlands assembled at Ghent, were with the city itself and the sister Flemish towns one and all involved in the responsibility of the deed.

This backlash closed all avenues to French nuptials; within weeks, Mary was engaged to the Habsburg Archduke Maximilian (they wed that August) and France and Austria fell into outright war over the Burgundian patrimonies, the resolution of which boiled down to Habsburg authority in the Low Countries and French absorption of most of the rest, including Burgundy proper.

* As well as, further inland, Franche-Comte, bordering the Duchy of Burgundy itself.

** Two years before this, Guy had personally extradited the rebellious Louis of Luxembourg to France for execution.

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1654: Hieronymus Duquesnoy the Younger, sculptor

Add comment September 28th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1654, Flemish sculptor Hieronymus Duquesnoy the Younger was strangled and burned in Ghent for sodomy (sodomy in a church, no less).

As an artist, the man’s legacy is forever overshadowed by his father’s Brussels tourist essential Manneken Pis; Hieronymus (or Jerome) the Younger learned his craft from dad as a studio apprentice. (We here dismiss Hieronymus the Elder from our narrative; Hieronymus the Younger is meant by all subsequent references in this post.)

This was not to be the end of the story when it came to Hieronymus and naked young boys, but in 1621 he upped stakes for Italy and proceeded to spend the next two decades honing his craft in Mediterranean climes. Or at least, this is the necessary assumption, as very little direct evidence traces his movements in that period.

Returning to the Low Counties in the early 1640s, Duquesnoy earned a number of baroque commissions as “architecte, statuaire et sculpteur de la Cour.” (For a taste of his work: The Infant Hercules | Ganymede.)

The last of his projects was this tomb for Bishop Antonius Triest in Ghent; “he set himself up with his assistants in one of the cathedral‘s chapels, to lay out and prepare the sections of this tomb, which could have been for the master the finest jewel in a new sculptural crown, had he not come to a sad end,” according to Edmond de Busscher.


This monumental tomb would also prove the death of its sculptor. (cc) image by www.pmrmaeyaert.com — Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0.

He was arrested when 8- and 11-year-old boys accused him of molestation in the church during his work on the bishop’s shrine. Duquesnoy vigorously denied the charges and tried to call in favors from his patrons to squelch the case, but Ghent’s council decided otherwise and had him executed in the city’s Koornmarkt (Grain Market).

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1292: Johann de Wettre, medieval Europe’s first documented sodomy execution

1 comment September 8th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1292, Johann de Wettre, “a maker of small knives,” was condemned to die at Ghent for sodomy.

De Wettre was consequently (whether on September 8 or subsequently) “burned at the pillory next to St. Peter’s” in what appears to be the earliest documented execution of homosexuality in Christian Europe. Whether he was a habitual or a one-time offender, how he was detected and prosecuted, and the fate of his male partner — all of these are obscure.

One can safely suppose that de Wettre was not the first European executed for sodomy; perhaps the scanty lines we have of his death are only fortuitously preserved because he suffered his very public fate in one of Europe’s largest and most prosperous cities.

However accidental, de Wettre’s stake is a landmark for Christendom’s emerging conception of same-sex desire as not only a capital crime, but a downright existential threat.*

No matter what Leviticus might say on the subject, the late Middle Ages furnish no documented examples of official persecutions but a rich corpus of same-sex literary amour, often penned by monks — a class of men whose debauchery (real or alleged) would come to invite violent attacks in the coming centuries.

O would that I had been my own messenger
Or been that letter which your hand softly touched;
And tht I had had then the same power to feel I have now,
And that you could ot recognize me until I wanted you to.
Then I would have explored your face and spirit as you read,
That is, if I could have restrained myself long enough.
The rest we would have left to nature and the gracious gods.
For God is readier than man to grant indulgence.

Baudri of Bourgueil, the eventual bishop of Dol-en-Bretagne (via Rictor Norton)

Horace composed an ode about a certain boy
Whose face was so lovely he could easily have been a girl,
Whose hair fell in waves against his ivory neck,
Whose forehead was white as snow and his eyes black as pitch,
Whose soft cheeks were full of delicious sweetness
When they bloomed in the brightness of a blush of beauty,
His nose was perfect, his lips flame red, lovely his teeth —
An exterior formed in measure to match his mind.

Marbodius, bishop of Rennes (via Scott Bidstrup)

Now, the Church was still issuing plenty of edicts proscribing same-sex activity around this period, so whether or not the ability of these men and many others to produce overtly homoerotic verse while still prospering within the holy orders constitutes “toleration” is a lively scholarly debate. Suffice it to say that around the 12th and 13th centuries there was a social and legal shift underway from treating sodomy predominantly as a vice for personal penance, to treating it as, well …

If a sodomite had been executed, and subsequently several times back to life, each time he should be punished even more severely if this were possible: hence those who practice this vice are seen to be enemies of God and nature, because in the sight of God such a sin is deemed graver than murder, for the reason that the murderer is seen as destroying only one human being, but the sodomite as destroying the whole human race.

-Neapolitan jurist Lucas de Penna, Commentaria in Tres Libros Codicis (c. 1360) (via Johansson and Percy)

For this diabolical new construction of homosexuality Warren Johansson coined the term “the sodomy delusion”:** “a complex of paranoid beliefs … to the effect that non-procreative sexuality in general, and sexual acts between males in particular, are contrary to the law of Nature, to the exercise of right reason, and to the will of God and that sodomy is practiced by individuals whose wills have been enslaved by demonic powers.” It was a conception that would find its way into law and popular prejudice in the centuries following our Ghent knifemaker’s immolation — and would continue thereafter, evolving across revolutions† religious, political, and economic to shape public discourse about homosexuality down to the present day.

* And also a potent political weapon. Same-sex deviance featured prominently in the charges used to destroy the Knights Templar in 1307.

** Johansson explicitly sets “the sodomy delusion” alongside “the witchcraft delusion” and “the Judeophobic delusion” as analogous phenomena.

† A piquant coincidence: Thomas Cromwell, the great Henrician minister of state, when he fell shared the scaffold with the first man executed under England’s new (in the 16th century) Buggery Act.

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

Add comment February 14th, 2011 Headsman

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

Looks like it hurt.


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

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

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

Martyrs Mirror

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

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1578: Five sodomite monks, by Calvinist Ghent

8 comments June 28th, 2009 Headsman

On June 28, 1578, five Catholic monks were burnt to death in Ghent for homosexuality.

The five holy men being prepared for execution, in this drawing by Franz Hogenberg. (Click for larger view.)

At our scene in the Spanish-controlled Low Countries, the revolt that would become known as the Eighty Years’ War and secure Dutch independence still had about 70 of those years to run.

Stadtholder William of Orange, aka William the Silent, has his hands full with the Habsburg forces determined to crush their disobedient subjects.

Half civil war, half proto-nationalist revolution, this conflict overlaid disputes over both political and religious authority, complicated by a catastrophic Spanish bankruptcy.

Of this compelling history much beyond our scope, the piece of most moment for our unfortunate monks was a grudging agreement to chill out the sectional suppression as part of a temporary truce between the warring sides. Said “slackening of persecution inspired Reformed public worship and attempts to topple the Catholic stewpot.” (Source)

Late in 1577, a political coup in the commercial powerhouse of Ghent did just that, part of a mini-Renaissance of Calvinist city-republics that Spanish arms would truncate in the 1580’s. But here in the 1570’s, the newly elevated slate of Calvinists implemented a “Reform” agenda that included aggressive moves against Catholic authority.

On 18-22 May [1578], the Reformed launched an attack on the four mendicant monasteries. Their churches were purified and made ready for Reformed worship. On 1 June the first public preaching was organized in the Dominican and Carmelite churches. (Source, a pdf)

Rumors of homosexuality in the religious orders swept the overheated city (assuming they were not put about intentionally), and this day opened a summer’s terror that saw 14 monks burned (pdf) for the love that dare not speak its name.

Kenneth Borris translates the inscription on the Franz Hogenberg image linked above thus:

“five monks are being burned in Flanders, in the city of Ghent. Four are Franciscans (Minnenbruder*) and the fifth Augustinian. Also three have been quickly flogged with switches on the market square as they deserve, because of their outrageous sexual offenses (unzuchtt) that greatly offended the authorities. That is why the four mendicant orders have now been driven out of Ghent.”

William the Silent, made of more statesmanlike stuff than these zealots, would actually enter Ghent himself the next year to disarm the ruling clique, realizing that firebrands were driving Catholic cities back into Spanish arms.

But he could not contain the schism. Spain ultimately kept the Catholic-leaning territories that today comprise Luxembourg and Belgium (including Ghent), while the Protestant Netherlands fought onward to independence.

* “Minnenbroder,” Borris explains, “may be a satiric pun on the word minne (which had come to mean debauchery), suggesting ‘brothers in lust’ as opposed to brotherly love. Hogenberg connects sodomy with ‘godlessness,’ as was common.”

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