1594: Jean Châtel, lipstabber

Add comment December 29th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1594, Catholic militant Jean Châtel was dismembered for the near-assassination of King Henri IV.

Just two days before his public butchery, the 19-year-old clothier’s son (English Wikipedia entry | French) had milled about in a crowd awaiting the Huguenot* king’s return from Picardy. As Henri entered the Hotel de Bouchage and bent over to accept the obeisance of two courtiers, Châtel sprang out of the crowd and daggered him. The blade cut Henri’s lip — a glancing blow just a few degrees distant from a history-altering one.

Châtel would cite Jesuitical inspiration, and when his instructors’ quarters were searched they yielded seditious exhortations against Protestant princes. One Guignard, who had authored the most inflammatory tracts (e.g., regretting that Henri had not been slain at the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre), was put to death on January 7; the rest of the order was expelled from Paris — as was Châtel’s family, whose home was razed and replaced with a monument against religious fanaticism.


The pyramid memorial was replaced by a succession of fountains, of which the most recent is the present-day Fontaine Cuvier.

It was of course far too much to hope that this scolding plinth could bring down the dangerous sectarian temperatures raised by a half-century of civil war. In his time Henri IV evaded numerous — some 20 or more — attempts on his life, before a different Catholic enragee, one Francois Ravaillac, successfully murdered him in 1610.

* The threat of pedantry in the comments section obliges us to allow that Henri nominally converted to Catholicism in order to take the throne and end the Wars of Religion — the occasion on which he was purported to murmur that (staunchly Catholic) Paris is worth a Mass.

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1591: Four of The Sixteen

Add comment December 4th, 2015 Headsman

When the Huguenot prince turned Henri IV of France finally mastered his realm by attending Catholic services in his capital city with the legendary words “Paris is worth a mass,” he was not merely overcoming some residual sectarian prejudice. There had been civil war in France for the best part of a century, and the bitterness of Catholic opposition to a Protestant king would eventually claim Henri’s life.

And in that conflict, Paris herself was militantly Catholic.

During the last phase of France’s devastating Wars of Religion, suitably titled the War of the Three Henrys, a Paris dominated by the staunch Catholic League held out against a joint siege by the sitting, Catholic king Henri III — who was so much the moderate sellout as to have made common cause with his cousin and heir, the Protestant Henri of Navarre (our future Henri IV).*

We have dealt elsewhere in these pages with those dramatic years, including Paris eventually falling into the hands of a despot clique of Catholic fanatics known as “The Sixteen” — who made so bold as to execute Catholic “politiques” of insufficient zeal.


An armed march of the Holy League in Paris in 1590. (Anonymous painting)

Just days after the signal hanging of jurist Barnabe Brisson in November of 1591, the city was taken back in hand by the Duke of Mayenne, a Catholic whom some radicals wished to advance to the throne.

Mayenne preferred the role of kingmaker, stabilizing the long unrest of his realm. He was horrified by the Sixteen, and on December 4 he seized four of their number — Nicolas Ameline, Barthelemy Anroux, Jean Emmenot and Jean Louchart — and had them summarily hanged at the Louvre. The Sixteen’s days were done.

Mayenne had the wisdom not to follow these exemplary executions with any provocative purges — neither of the other 12 nor other intemperate elements in town — but proclaimed a general amnesty. It was he who, over the months ahead, smoothed the way for Henri IV’s famous mass.

* The third Henri in the War of the Three Henrys was the late Duke of Guise, whom King Henri III had had assassinated. The House of Guise was characteristically an ardent Catholic party in these years, so his murder had helped sunder the allegiance of Paris to her king.

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1575: Charles du Puy-Montbrun, unequal

Add comment August 13th, 2015 Headsman

The intrepid Huguenot commander Charles du Puy-Montbrun was beheaded on this date in 1575.

We turn for this account to a 19th century history in the public domain by Henry Martyn Baird:


Whatever military advantages the Huguenots obtained in various parts of the realm were more than outweighed by the death of “the brave Montbrun.”

This daring and energetic leader, the terror of the enemy in Dauphiny, had just defeated a large body of Swiss auxiliaries, upon whom he inflicted a loss of eight or nine hundred men and eighteen ensigns, while that of the Huguenots scarcely amounted to half a dozen men.

But his brilliant success in this and other engagements had made Montbrun and his soldiers more incautious than usual.

They attacked a strong detachment of men-at-arms, and mistaking the confusion into which they threw the advance guard for a rout of the entire body, dispersed to gather the booty and offered a tempting opportunity to the Roman Catholics as they came up.

Montbrun, who, too late, discovered the danger of his troops, and endeavored to rally them, was at one time enveloped by the enemy, but would have made good his escape had there not been a broad ditch in his way. Here his horse missed its footing, and in the fall the leader’s thigh was broken.

In this pitiable plight he surrendered his sword to a Roman Catholic captain, from whom he received the assurance that his life would be spared.

The king and his mother had other views.

Henry, on receiving the grateful news of Montbrun’s capture, promptly gave orders that the prisoner be taken to Grenoble and tried by the Parliament of Dauphiny on a charge of treason.

Vain were the efforts of the Huguenots, equally vain the intercession of the Duke of Guise, who wished to have Montbrun exchanged for Besme, Coligny‘s murderer, recently fallen into Huguenot hands.

Henry and Catherine de’ Medici were determined that Montbrun should die. They urged the reluctant judges by reiterated commands; they overruled the objection that to put the prisoner to death would be to violate good faith and the laws of honorable warfare.

Catharine had not forgotten the honest Frenchman’s allusion to her “perfidious and degenerate” countrymen.

As for Henry, an insult received at Montbrun’s hands rankled in his breast and made forgiveness impossible. Some months before, the king had sent a message to him in a somewhat haughty tone, demanding the restoration of the royal baggage and certain prisoners taken by the Huguenots.

“What is this!” exclaimed the general. “The king writes to me as a king, and as if I were bound to obey him! I want him to know that that would be very well in time of peace; I should then recognize his royal claim. But in time of war, when men are armed and in the saddle, all men are equal.”

On hearing this, we are told, Henry swore that Montbrun should repent his insolence.

In his glee over the Huguenot’s mishap he recalled the prophecy and broke out with the exclamation, “Montbrun will now see whether he is my equal.”

Under these circumstances there was little chance for a Huguenot, were he never so innocent, to be acquitted by a servile parliament.

Accordingly Montbrun was condemned to be beheaded as a rebel against the king and a disturber of the public peace. The execution was hastened last natural death from the injury received should balk the malice of his relentless enemies.

A contemporary, who may even have been an eye-witness, describes the closing scene in words eloquent from their unaffected simplicity.

He was dragged, half dead, from the prison, and was carried in a chair to the place of execution, exhibiting in his affliction an assured countenance; while the Parliament of Grenoble trembled and the entire city lamented. He had been enjoined not to say a word to the people, unless he wished to have his tongue cut off.

Nevertheless he complained, in the presence of the whole parliament, of the wrong done to him, proving at great length his innocence and contemning the fury of his enemies who were attacking a man as good as dead. He showed that it was without cause that he was charged with being a rebel, since never had he had any design but to guarantee peaceable Frenchmen from the violence of strangers who abused the name and authority of the king.

His death was constant and Christian. He was a gentleman held in high esteem, inasmuch as he was neither avaricious nor rapacious, but on the contrary devoted to religion, bold, moderate, upright; yet he was too indulgent to his soldiers, whose license and excesses gained him much ill-will and many enemies in Dauphiny. His death so irritated these soldiers that they ravaged after a strange fashion the environs of Grenoble.

The death of so prominent and energetic a Huguenot captain was likely to embolden the Roman Catholic party, not only in Dauphiny but in the rest of the kingdom. In reality, it only transferred the supreme direction in warlike affairs to still more competent hands.

The young lieutenant of Montbrun, who shortly succeeded him in command, was Francois de Bonne, better known from his territorial designation as Sieur des Lesdiguieres, a future marshal of Henry the Fourth.

Although the resplendent military abilities of Lesdiguieres had not yet had an opportunity for display, it was not long before the Roman Catholics discovered that they gained nothing by the exchange.

Lesdiguieres was as brave as his master in arms, and he was his master’s superior in the skill and caution with which he sketched and executed his military plans. The discipline of the Huguenot army at once exhibited marked improvement.

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1591: Barnabe Brisson, at the hands of the Sixteen

Add comment November 15th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1591, the summary execution of Barnabe Brisson and two other French doctors of law signaled the beginning of the end of France’s Wars of Religion.

After the untimely death of Henri II in a freak jousting accident, his widow Catherine de’ Medici employed three frustrating decades shuttling the late monarch’s uninspiring offspring onto the throne only to see each in his turn die young and without issue. We are by these late years on to the last of Henri II’s sons — Henri III of France.

Actually, Henri wasn’t the last: just the last left alive. He had a younger brother, Francis, Duke of Anjou, who dropped dead in 1584 of malaria and left Henri III as the only Valois male. The heir presumptive after Henri III was his Calvinist brother-in-law Henri of Navarre. Spoiler alert: by the end of this post, Henri of Navarre is going to get there as King Henri IV.

The Catholic-vs.-Huguenot Wars of Religion had raged in France for many years but the last major installment of the bloody serial was the War of the Three Henrys: the two Henris aforesaid, plus the Duke of Guise, also named Henri — the standard-bearer of Catholic zealots.

Our present-day presumption of live-and-let-live spirituality was bequeathed from the Enlightenment only after it had been hard-won by centuries previous. In France of the 1500s, the most extreme (but by no means marginal) Catholic party saw the very existence of a Huguenot faction — and the fact that more moderate Catholic politiques were prepared to tolerate and treat with them — as an existential threat to the kingdom. Catholicism in the literal universal sense was intrinsic to France itself: if she should cease to be so, what would become of her? A 1589 pamphlet extolled what

an admirable thing [it is] to view the ardor and the devotion of everyone in France, the air resounding with prayer and processions of our youth who are purified by our prayers and by the common voice which is spread throughout this kingdom; we demonstrate that the benedictions and maledictions of a people have great effects.

With such great effects at stake, the pious ought not abide any fooling around with Providence. “If your brother, your friend, and your wife all of whom you hold dear wish to strip you of your faith,” wrote Louis D’Orleans in 1588, “kill them, cut their throats and sacrifice them to God.”*

This was a faction for whom Henri of Navarre’s prospective succession was absolutely intolerable, which makes it somewhat ironic that they themselves soon turned prospect into reality.

King Henri III was a Catholic himself, of course, and this irreconcilable Catholic League was part of what you might call his base. But though initially allied, the League’s attempts to dominate the young king led Henri III to execute a daring breakout: on December 23, 1588, he summoned the Duke of Guise to confer with him at the Chateau de Blois and there had his bodyguards murder Guise on the spot.


Just two Henries now …** (Executed Today’s court painter Paul Delaroche interprets that same scene here.)

The resulting fury of the Catholic League was so great that the king soon fled Paris and made common cause with Henri of Navarre. Now the civil war was the two Henris together — and the Catholic League opposing them. We come here to our date’s principal character, Barnabe Brisson (English Wikipedia entry | French), a distinguished jurist† in the Parlement of France. While most of this chamber followed the king out of Paris, Brisson chose to remain. “The Sixteen,”‡ the council of Catholic militants who now ruled Paris with the support of a populist militia, elevated Brisson to President of the Parlement.

In 1589 the Henris besieged staunchly Catholic Paris in an attempt to bring the civil war to a close. In a classic Pyrrhic victory, the League defeated this attempt by having a priest assassinate King Henri.


… and now we’re down to the last Henri.

While this action did break the siege, and avenge the murder of Guise, it made Henri of Navarre into King Henri IV. (Told you we’d get there.) The Catholic League’s attempt to recognize the new king’s uncle, a Cardinal, as the successor went nowhere at all, and at any rate this man himself died in 1590.

This succession greatly deepened the internal tension among Paris Catholics between the uncompromising men of the Sixteen and the moderate politiques, and the latter party’s interest in finding with the legitimate king a settlement that looked increasingly inevitable. After all, were these armed commoners really going to rule Paris indefinitely?


An armed march of the Holy League in Paris in 1590. (Anonymous painting)

The situation provoked the ultras among Paris’s ruling Sixteen to more desperate measures in a vain effort to maintain control. Their faction’s own post-Guise leader among the high nobility, the Duke of Mayenne, had refused inducements to seize the crown himself or to seat a sovereign provided by the League’s Hapsburg allies. He too was visibly sliding towards an accommodation with the heretic king. (He would reach one in 1596.) In much the same camp was an establishment figure like Brisson whose staying behind in Paris during the confused situation of 1588-1589 was scarcely intended to declare that his allegiance to creed surpassed all care for order. The man was a lawyer, after all.

During Mayenne’s absence from the capital in the autumn of 1591, the Sixteen mounted a radical internal coup and attempted to purge the city’s moderates. Brisson was arrested walking to work on the morning of the 15th and subjected along with two other jurists to a sham snap trial. All three were hung by lunchtime, and per a proposal floated among the council that afternoon were the next morning fitted with denunciatory placards and displayed on gibbets at the Place de Greve.

Barnabé Brisson, a chief traitor and heretic

Claude Larcher, an instigator of treacherous politiques

Jean Tardiff, an enemy of God and of Catholic princes

Their shocking exhibition was intended to incite a “St. Barthelemy des politiques” — a St. Bartholomew’s Day-esque pogrom against the politique moderates.

But the Sixteen had badly misjudged the mood of the city. The crowd beheld the mangled corpses silently, full of horror or pity — emblematic of the turning-point France was nearing in its interminable confessional strife. Despite the Catholic League’s strength in Paris, most Parisians were losing their appetite for bloodshed. The Duke of Mayenne was back in the capital by the end of the month and underscored the coming arrangements by seizing four of the Sixteen for summary execution themselves.

Two years later, Henri IV at last took Paris in hand by making a nominal conversion to Catholicism with the legendary (alleged) remark, “Paris is worth a Mass.”§

French speakers may enjoy this 19th century pdf biography of Brisson by Alfred Giraud.

* “Du Contemnement de la mort. Discours accomode a la miserable condition de ce temps” (blockquoted section) and Replique pour le Catholique Anglois, contre le Catolique associe des Huguenots (D’Orleans quote). Both via Dalia Leonardo in “Cut off This Rotten Member”: The Rhetoric of Heresy, Sin, and Disease in the Ideology of the French Catholic League,” The Catholic Historical Review, April 2002.

** Also of interest: this 1908 silent film of the assassination of the Duc de Guise, scored by Saint-Saens.

† Brisson’s dictionary of Justinian legal terminology remained in print until 1805. He also in 1587 produced a compilation of the laws of France as Le Code du Roy Henri III.

‡ The Sixteen were delegates of Paris’s quarters, assembled by the Duke of Mayenne. For detail on the composition and internal history of The Sixteen, see J.H.M. Salmon, “The Paris Sixteen, 1584-94: The Social Analysis of a Revolutionary Movement,” The Journal of Modern History, December 1972.

§ In the end, of course, an entirely unreconciled Catholic extremist assassinated Henri IV in 1610.

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1612: Robert Crichton, Lord Sanquhar and mediocre swordsman

Add comment June 29th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1612, the Scottish noble Robert Crichton, Lord Crichton of Sanquhar, swung for revenge served very cold.

Sanquhar (alternatively, Sanquire) was a Scottish noble imported to the English court in the train of King James. Keeping up his swordsmanship in a practice bout with the fencing-master John Turner, Sanquhar had his eye put out by his opponent’s foil.

While this injury was the source of the tragedy that ensued for both men, it is said — perhaps it’s just literary license — that it was the illustrious French king Henri IV who turned the situation deadly with a passing remark when Sanquhar subsequently visited Henri’s duel-mad realm to the effect that it was a wonder that the author of such a horrible wound still lived. Already down one organ for his trouble, Sanquhar was stung to discover emasculation stacked on his woes; even though it was several years after* the duel, Sanquhar began plotting to vindicate eye and honor alike.

If this is so, it is not altogether clear to us that hiring a dependent to shoot the offending duellist unawares in a tavern quite comports with an offended dignity, but that’s chivalry for you. (Actually, the fact that Turner was not himself a gentleman made it socially problematic for Sanquhar to engage him in a proper affair of honor, per the queer codex of early modern masculinity.)

His Lordship had leaned on at least three underlings while engineering his belated revenge, and one of these wisely turned crown’s evidence against the rest of the quartet and hung the lot of his confederates. The headline case was of course the prosecution of the Baron Sanquhar handled personally by the king’s Solicitor-General, one Francis Bacon.

At trial on June 27 — 47 days after the murder; two days before the execution — Sanquhar mounted a better defense for his honor than for his neck.

After this loss of my eye and with the great hazard of the loss of life, I must confess that I ever kept a grudge of my soul against Turner, but had no purpose to take so high a revenge; yet in the course of my revenge I considered not my wrongs upon terms of Christianity — for then I should have sought for other satisfaction — but, being trained up in the courts of princes and in arms, I stood upon the terms of honour, and thence befell this act of dishonour, whereby I have offended — first, God; second, my prince; third, my native country; fourth, this country; fifth, the party murdered; sixth, his wife; seventh, posterity; eighth, Carlisle, now to be executed;** and lastly, ninth, my own soul, and I am now to die for my offence.

But, my lords, besides my own offence, which in its nature needs no aggravation, divers scandalous reports are given out which blemish my reputation, which is more dear to me than my life: first, that I made show of reconciliation with Turner, the which, I protest, is utterly untrue, for what I have formerly said I do again assure your good lordships, that ever after my hurt received I kept a grudge in my soul against him, and never made the least pretence of reconciliation with him. Yet this, my lords, I will say, that if he would have confessed and sworn he did it not of purpose, and withal would have foresworn arms, I would have pardoned him; for, my lords, I considered that it must be done either of set purpose or ignorantly. If the first, I had no occasion to pardon him; if the last, that is no excuse in a master, and therefore for revenge of such a wrong I thought him unworthy to bear arms.

Shorter Lord Sanquhar: I confess.

Needing not so much to contest the case at the bar as to narrate its intended moral, Bacon speculated that Sanquhar must have come by his egregious “affections of dwelling in malice, rather out of Italy … than out of any part of this island, England, or Scotland.” While this murder was not a duel, it sprang from a palpably similar place — and duels, just then taking on their recognizable ritual form, were furiously opposed by the state. Sanquhar had resided in Italy, but more than that, the term was code for the fencing experts who brought from the continent codes duello and mannerly rapiers and the prospect of destructive private vendettas. This was more than premeditated homicide; it was an arrogation of the king’s own prerogatives of justice and order.

“What the law abhorred was not cold-blooded premeditated duelling as such, but the attitudes manifested by that practice,” writes Jeremy Horder.† “The calculating duellist is an ‘isolent’ person acting with ‘arrogancy and rebellion’ in casting off the yoke of obedience, as if he had the power to set his own laws above those of the common law.”

Angling for a promotion to Attorney General (he would get it in 1613), Bacon also made a point to lavish praise on his Scotch-born sovereign for another lesson the trial was meant to underscore to his English subjects: “his majesty hath shewed himself God’s true lieutenant, and that he is no respecter of persons; but the English, Scottish, nobleman, fencer, are to him alike in respect of justice.”

Nobleman and subalterns alike died on different gallows this date: Lord Crichton of Sanquhar hanged before Westminster Hall, while his two assassin-henchmen dangled on gallows at Fleet Street.

* Sources propose various dates from 1604 to 1607 for the eye-foiling; Bacon in arraigning Sanquhar remarks that “it is now five years” since that happened.

** The man who actually shot John Turner.

† “The Duel and the English Law of Homicide,” Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, Autumn 1992.

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1574: Joseph Boniface de La Mole, La Reine Margot’s lover

1 comment April 30th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1574, nobleman Joseph Boniface de La Mole was beheaded in Paris for a supposed plot against the king.

As the year would imply, La Mole was a casualty of France’s decades-long Wars of Religion.

Two years prior, in an attempt to cement an unsteady peace, the king’s sister Marguerite de Valois had been married off to the Protestant Henri of Navarre. As Paris teemed with Huguenots in town to celebrate the nuptials, the Catholic party sprang the infamous St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.

As if things weren’t awkward enough with the in-laws, Henri was now made to live at the royal court, feigning conversion to Catholicism. His relationship with Marguerite went off to a rocky start; both took other lovers.

Joseph Boniface de La Mole (English Wikipedia entry | French) was one of Marguerite’s. You’ll find this adulterous couple steaming up the screen in the 1994 film La Reine Margot, which is based on a Dumas novel of the same title.


In real life, La Mole was 27 years Marguerite’s senior.

Meanwhile, civil strife ebbed and flowed.

Desperate to escape his gilded cage, Henri in 1574 was part of a Protestant coup attempt that boldly aimed to seize the sickly King Charles IX and his mother Catherine de’ Medici at Saint-Germain.

The conspiracy failed, but its principals — including not only our Henri, but also the King’s Protestant-friendly brother the Duke of Alencon, and the Duke of Montmorency* — were too august for severe punishment. Catherine de’ Medici, whose children kept dying on her (Charles IX would do likewise in May of 1574), was desperately trying to navigate the civil war with a Valois heir in place who had enough political support to rule; going all-in with the realm’s Catholic ultras (most characteristically represented by the House of Guise, which wanted Henri beheaded for this treason) would have permanently alienated all the Huguenots.

The likes of La Mole, however, were not so safe.

He and one Annibal de Coconnas, members of the court’s Huguenot circle who “had nothing of the divinity that hedged the princes of the blood,” were seized on April 8 and interrogated for an alleged scheme to murder the sovereign — possibly at the instigation of the Guises, trying to implicate through this pair the more powerful Huguenot lords.

After the inevitable blade fell on them, Marguerite supposedly kept her former lover’s severed head in a jeweled box. But the nobleman had at least the consolation of a rich literary afterlife. Besides the Dumas novel aforementioned, the La Mole family — our man’s supposed descendants — feature prominently in Stendhal’s The Red and the Black.

‘Let us take a turn in the garden,’ said the Academician, delighted to see this chance of delivering a long and formal speech. ‘What! Is it really possible that you do not know what happened on the 30th of April, 1574?’ ‘Where?’ asked Julien, in surprise. ‘On the Place de Greve.’ Julien was so surprised that this name did not enlighten him. His curiosity, the prospect of a tragic interest, so attuned to his nature, gave him those sparkling eyes which a story-teller so loves to see in his audience. The Academician, delighted to find a virgin ear, related at full length to Julien how, on the 30th of April, 1574, the handsomest young man of his age, Boniface de La Mole, and Annibal de Coconasso, a Piedmontese gentleman, his friend, had been beheaded on the Place de Greve. ‘La Mole was the adored lover of Queen Marguerite of Navarre; and observe,’ the Academician added, ‘that Mademoiselle de La Mole is named Mathilde-Marguerite. La Mole was at the same time the favourite of the Duc d’Alencon and an intimate friend of the King of Navarre, afterwards Henri IV, the husband of his mistress. On Shrove Tuesday in this year, 1574, the Court happened to be at Saint-Germain, with the unfortunate King Charles IX, who was on his deathbed. La Mole wished to carry off the Princes, his friends, whom Queen Catherine de’ Medici was keeping as prisoners with the Court. He brought up two hundred horsemen under the walls of Saint-Germain, the Due d’Alencon took fright, and La Mole was sent to the scaffold.

In Stendhal’s novel, it is Julien’s sexual conquest of the pretty young Mathilde de La Mole that sets in motion Julien’s ruin and execution.

Joseph Boniface de La Mole’s lover fared far better than that of his fictional descendant. Henri would eventually make his escape after all, and through fortune and intrepidity made Marguerite the Queen of all France** when he decided at last that Paris was worth a Mass.

* The man in our story was the second Duke of Montmorency; his nephew, the fourth duke, was beheaded in 1632.

** The marriage was never comfortable, and Henri and Marguerite continued to live and love separately until they finally annulled the union in 1599.

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1602: Charles de Gontaut, duc de Biron

Add comment July 31st, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1602, Charles de Gontaut, duc de Biron, was beheaded in the Bastille for treason.

The son of a celebrated soldier* in the intractable French Wars of Religion, Charles de Gontaut (English Wikipedia page | French) was no slouch himself on the battlefield.

Henri of Navarre, in prevailing over his rivals for power in France and becoming King Henri IV, had good cause to appreciate Gontaut’s service, and even consider the man a friend.

But our Gontaut, having ascended the posts of Admiral, Marshal, Governor of Burgundy — and, of course, Duke — still coveted greater prestige. “Ambitious, arrogant, and of no great intelligence,” is this popular history’s judgment. (p. 360)

So he started conspiring with the Duke of Savoy — even as Gontaut bore the French standard in the field against this same character — for an arrangement to set himself up as an independent ruler or otherwise do something seriously deleterious to Henri’s kingdom.

The stories consistently report (pdf) that the lenient Henri was disposed to pardon his man if Gontaut would but make the show of submission implied in begging pardon, confessing his sin, vouchsafing loyalty, and all the rest of it, but out of pride and/or stupidity, Gontaut did not do it.

This fatal vanity recommended the Duc de Biron as a character study for his contemporary, English playwright George Chapman, whose The Conspiracy and Tragedy of Charles, Duke of Byron was published in London (heavily censored, at the insistence of the French ambassador) in 1608.

* Charles de Gontaut’s father, Armand de Gontaut, was also godfather to the child who would grow up to become Cardinal Richelieu.

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1593: Pierre Barrière, undeterringly

1 comment August 31st, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1593, a would-be assassin of France’s King Henri IV was broken on the wheel.

An Orleans boatman turned Catholic League soldier in France’s internecine Catholic-Huguenot wars, he was among the numerous Catholics who looked askance at victorious Huguenot Henri IV‘s expeditious conversion to Catholicism.

In the months while Henri IV still held Paris under siege, the Jesuit father Jacques Commolet had called for his assassination from the pulpit. The Bourbon’s (nominal) switch to Catholicism with the words “Paris is worth a mass” had not persuaded hard-core Catholic partisans of the king’s sincerity.

Henri was a practical guy. And with civil slaughter afoot for most of the late 16th century, he took a dim view to loose talk about assassinations, especially his.

The safety of the king’s person was a paramount consideration of magistrates during this period. Thirty years of political assassinations during which the rule of law proved largely ineffective in bringing the guilty to justice had ultimately left a fundamental law of France, the inviolability of the king’s person, subverted. Magistrates … focused their attention on re-establishing the enforcement of this law …

Pierre Barriere was nabbed for planning to subvert that inviolability — arrested August 27, tried August 30, horribly broken on the wheel August 31.

Henri would keep the throne 17 more years, laying the basis for French absolutism. But continual assassination bids — nearly 20 documented — would pursue him throughout his reign … until one finally got him.

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1610: Francois Ravaillac, because Paris was worth more than a mass

7 comments May 27th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1610, the fanatical Catholic who assassinated Henri IV of France was ripped apart on the Place de Greve.

The road to this man’s calvary begins long before his infamous crime, even long before the birth of his illustrious victim.

The Protestant Reformation — so richly represented in the executioner’s annals — had fractured France in the 16th century.

After decades of voluptuously indecisive Catholic-versus-Hugeunot slaughter, matters had finally been settled by the man upon whom French absolutism would erect its (ill-fated) edifice.

Henri IV, the first Bourbon monarch and a Huguenot, had unified the country by the sword, capped by his memorably politic conversion to Catholicism in 1593 to win over the holdout capital of Paris — the occasion of his understated declaration that “Paris is worth a mass”.

Let us tarry here to appreciate “the good king Henri” in a kaleidoscope of flattering artwork to the tune of Vive Henri IV, the monarchy’s unofficial anthem after its subject’s passing:

Did you catch that last image?

Henri’s fine gesture of sectarian triangulation and the reign of relative calm it inaugurated were naturally resented by godly partisans of both camps who either considered his conversion a betrayal or considered the king a closet Protestant.

At the crazed end of this latter spectrum, we meet our day’s principal, Francois Ravaillac.

Readers unconstrained by time may enjoy this Tolstoyan trek into the regicide’s mind and milieu, but it will suffice us to say that the modern shotgun-wielding postal clerk who just seemed like a quiet, harmless type to all his coworkers might like the cut of Ravaillac’s jib. A bit of a loner, a bit of a professional washout, with a penchant for religious visions and a passel of ill-arranged grievances … by this point in the movie, that’s about what you expect the police profiler to be reciting.*

It is only right that such a contemporary-sounding lone nut story ought to have a vigorous conspiratorial counternarrative.

There has always been a strong suspicion that behind Ravaillac’s hand was the work of the scheming Catholic Duc d’Epernon, perhaps even with the complicity of Henri’s wife Marie de’ Medici, who had conveniently been crowned as queen the day before the murder** and promptly teamed up with Epernon to cement an alliance with a traditional French rival, the ultra-Catholic Habsburgs.

Balzac, for one, had no doubt about it:

all of [her] actions were prejudicial to France … Marie de’ Medici wasted the wealth amassed by Henri IV.; she never purged herself of the charge of having known of the king’s assassination; her ‘intimate’ was d’Epernon, who did not ward off Ravaillac’s blow, and who was proved to have known the murderer personally for a long time. … [T]he victory Richelieu at last won over her (on the Day of the Dupes) was due solely to the discovery the cardinal made, and imparted to Louis XIII, of secret documents relating to the death of Henri IV.

The historical jury is out on that question, presumably for good.

If Ravaillac was a conspirator, he proved to be a damned good one, denying under repeated torture that he had any accomplices. On this date, the tortures reached their crescendo and conclusion — to the horrible delight of the Parisian mob, as reported by Alistair Horne (via The Corner):

On 27 May, still protesting that he had acted as a free agent on a divinely inspired mission, Ravaillac was put to death. Before being drawn and quartered, the lot of the regicide, on the Place de Grève scaffold he was scalded with burning sulphur, molten lead and boiling oil and resin, his flesh then torn by pincers. Then his arms and legs were attached to horses which pulled in opposite directions. One of the horses “foundered,” so a zealous chevalier offered his mount; “the animal was full of vigour and pulled away a thigh.” After an hour and a half of this horrendous cruelty, Ravaillac died, as the mob tried to prevent him receiving last rites. When he finally expired,

“…the entire populace, no matter what their rank, hurled themselves on the body with their swords, knives, sticks or anything else to hand and began beating, hacking and tearing at it. They snatched the limbs from the executioner, savagely chopping them up and dragging the pieces through the streets.”

Children made a bonfire and flung remains of Ravaillac’s body on it. According to one witness, Nicholas Pasquier, one woman actually ate some of the flesh. The executioner, supposed to have the body of the regicide reduced to ashes to complete the ritual demanded by the law, could find nothing but his shirt.

Ravaillac was the last Frenchman drawn and quartered for a century and a half — but his punishment as a regicide formed the precedent for that handed down in 1757 to Damiens.

* No need, though, as Francois wasn’t hard to catch: he stepped up to Henri’s carriage when it was caught in a traffic jam on May 14, 1610, and stabbed the king to death plain as can be. He was lucky (sort of) to avoid a lynching.

** Rubens later painted a gaudy celebration of this event.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,Execution,France,God,Gruesome Methods,History,Infamous,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Public Executions,Torture,Treason

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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.”

On this day..

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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