1536: Sebastiano de Montecuccoli, poisoner of the heir?

Add comment October 7th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1536, Italian nobleman Sebastiano de Montecuccoli was torn apart at the Place de la Grenette in Lyons for poisoning the dauphin Francis, heir to the French throne.

Sebastiano de Montecuccoli was a knight from Ferrara who had arrived in France in the train of the Catherine de’ Medici when she was married off to the no. 2 French prince Henri. He was fast friends with the royal princes, but his proximity to the family horribly turned against him when the 18-year-old Francis played a game of tennis, then caught ill and dropped dead. The last thing poor Francis had done was ask Montecuccoli for a glass of water.

In an era of forensics-by-guesswork, a sudden and unexplained death inevitably drew suspicions of poison — all the more so in a France gone security bonkers in the wake of the Affair of the Placards.

So just was in that glass of “water,” eh?

Sebastiano, upon his arrest, was found to possess a tome of poisons. This was a common enough interest among his class. (Catherine de’ Medici also had an interest in poison.) Nevertheless, it was great material for tunnel-vision investigators, and the young Italian soon provided a corroborating self-incrimination under torture: Sebastiano had offed the crown prince on orders from France’s longtime rival Charles V, who also just happened to be fighting a war with France over the duchy of Milan at that very moment.

Sebastiano attempted to recant this confession once he was off the rack, but to no avail. Many 16th century contemporaries could descry the eventual consensus of posterity that Sebastiano was a naif, and not an assassin. (Francis likely died from a disease.) Less generous by far was the judgment of the Lyonnaise citizenry who fell upon and ravaged Sebastiano’s body after it had been torn apart by horses.

Thanks to the unexpected death of the heir that triggered this horrible punishment, Francis’s brother Henri advanced to the crown prince seat and eventually became Henri II of France (until Henri’s own unfortunate sporting mishap) … and that Italian bride Catherine de’ Medici became Queen of France.

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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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1574: Gabriel de Lorges, accidental regicide

5 comments June 26th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1574, Gabriel de Lorges was beheaded in Paris for treason.

Known by the time of his death as the Comte de Montgomery (English Wikipedia entry | French) — though the title was punitively stripped from the man and his heirs, causing him to spit at the scaffold, “tell my children, if they are not able to reclaim their position, I curse them from the grave” — Lorges’ treason was going Protestant and fighting for the Huguenots in the wars of religion ravaging France.

But his claim to fame, and indeed (if quite unjustly) one of the explicit charges laid against him, was a regicide that fueled those wars and helped bring down the Valois dynasty.

The ol’ lance-in-the-eye

The vigorous 40-year-old French king Henri II seemingly had the Valois in good shape and anti-Huguenot policy firmly in the saddle.

In 1559, though, the sporting monarch put his own butt in the saddle at a joust with our day’s principal, then a captain of Henri’s Scots Guards (and a Catholic).

Gabriel’s shattered lance somehow found a chink in the king’s visor and managed to tolchock the royal gulliver just beside the eye.* After a week and a half in agony, Henri succumbed to the injury.**

Henri’s sudden death was bad news for France, because the oldest† of his seven children was only 15 years old, and feeble. He died the next year.

As the widowed Italian queen Catherine de’ Medici struggled over the ensuing decades to find a stable Valois heir among her brood, the aggressively Catholic House of Guise‡ flexed its political muscle to the resentment of the Bourbons and the Huguenot lords, and pitched France towards civil war.

Our errant knight, meanwhile, although forgiven by the dying Henri II, had despairingly retired and hurled himself into study that soon converted him to the Protestant party.

Quickly distinguishing himself as perhaps the ablest Huguenot commander, Montgomery was in Paris in 1572 during an ostensible truce for interparty dynastic nuptials when the Catholic faction sprang the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre.

Though Montgomery was a specific target for assassination that day, he somehow managed to escape. He gave the Catholics fits for the two years left him, enough that the crown tried to buy him off. (Like most Protestants, he was distrustfully defiant after the horrors of St. Bartholomew’s Day.)

He was finally overcome in 1574; as Henri’s second son had just kicked the bucket without an heir, Catherine assumed the regency while a third boy was fetched from Poland, and got herself some gratifying but untoward revenge on the inadvertent author of her family’s unfolding ruin.

No time was lost in condemning [Montgomery] to the penalties of high treason; he was beheaded at the Greve, his body quartered, and his family degraded from their nobility. Previous to his execution, he was cruelly tortured to make him confess the existence of the late admiral‘s conspiracy, but the pain drew no such acknowledgment from him, and mangled and wounded as he was, he went to the scaffold with remarkable serenity. We have an account, given by a contemporary, of his steady attachment to his principles: “He would not confess to the Archbishop of Narbonne, who went to him in the chapel to admonish him; nor would he take or kiss the crucifix, which is usually presented to those who are being led to execution; nor in any way attend to the priest, who had been placed in the cart by his side. A cordelier thinking to draw him out of error, began to speak to him, and said that he had been abused. Looking at him steadily, he answered, ‘How! abused? and if I have been it is by those of your order: for the first person who ever handed me a Bible in French, and made me read it, was a cordelier like you; and therein I have learned the religion which I hold, which alone is the true religion, and in which, having since lived, I wish now by the grace of God to die.'”

(Some sources place Montgomery’s execution on May 27, which I believe confuses his date of death with his date of capture.)

Just like Montgomery himself, the Huguenot cause proved resistant to every policy of Catherine or the Guises; this day’s execution only screwed up the nerve of a party that had been given notice on St. Bartholomew’s Day that their lot must be to conquer or die. Since Henri II’s boys could neither, over 30 years’ time, produce an heir nor master their foes at arms, the Huguenots conquered when the throne finally passed to a Bourbon.

A public-domain biography of Gabriel de Lorges, comte de Montgomery, can be enjoyed by French-speakers here. For the English-speakers, Alexandre Dumas’ fictionalized treatment, The Two Dianas, is freely available in translation.

* French surgeon Ambroise Pare attended the dying monarch. Pare’s grim description of the king’s injuries appears in this biography of the physician, which also reports that Henri’s caregivers

secured the heads of four criminals that had been beheaded and experimented upon them with a lance in order to ascertain the probable course of the splinters.

** The fatal joust is alleged to be one of the vindicated prophecies of Nostradamus. Prophecy or no, the family had bad luck with sports; Henri came in line for the throne when his older brother dropped dead after playing tennis.

† Henri II’s immediate heir Francis II was married to Mary, Queen of Scots. After the death of her husband, she unhappily shipped back out to Scotland to contest the English throne, with unsatisfactory results.

‡ More about the House of Guise before, during and after this period from this public domain text.

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1559: Anne du Bourg

2 comments December 23rd, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1559, Protestant parliamentarian Anne du Bourg was publicly strung up and burned for his uncompromising defense of Calvinism.

All France burned, figuratively, with the Protestant Reformation — and literally, with Henri II‘s ruthless reaction against it. But that flame tempered and honed the Huguenots’ steel.

With the dissolute crowned head before him to attend a seating of Parlement considering the matter of the heretics’ suppression, Anne du Bourg delivered himself of a rebuke of “more courage than prudence” (Batiffol and Bodley):

While men are conducted to the stake for the sole crime of praying for their prince, a shameful license encourages and multiplies blasphemies, perjuries, debaucheries, and adulteries. (Martyn)

Incensed, the king had du Bourg and others of the “moderate” party arrested in Parlement and drug to the dungeon. And though his compatriots were satisfied to recant what imperiled them, du Bourg remained obdurate and even provocative, smuggling a pamphlet against the monarch out of prison.

Henri would not make good his vow to see du Bourg burnt, having been slain by a freak jousting accident. But it little availed du Bourg inasmuch as Henri’s untimely demise put the Catholic faction even more firmly in the saddle. The agitation of Protestants for du Bourg’s release went for naught, and the sharp-tongued minister of state had occasion to speak to posterity from the scaffold. “My friends, I am not here as a thief or a martyr, but for the evangelium.”

“His one speech did more harm to the Catholic Church than a hundred ministers could have done.”
-Eyewitness Florimond de Roemond, quoted in The Cambridge Modern History

The religious conflict that made an end of du Bourg soon exploded into civil war. Many more, like du Bourg, would find their triumph in death — until, after three bloody decades, a Protestant prince accepted triumph in apostasy by deciding that “Paris is worth a Mass.”

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Disfavored Minorities,Famous Last Words,France,God,Hanged,Heresy,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Mature Content,Politicians,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Treason

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