1569: Gaspard de Coligny, in effigy

Add comment September 13th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1569, the intrepid Huguenot leader Gaspard de Coligny was hanged in Paris and gibbeted at Montfaucon. Luckily for him, Coligny as these events unfolded was miles away from the executioner, at the head of a large armed host.

One of the towering figures of France’s bloody Wars of Religion, Coligny (English Wikipedia entry | French) hailed from one of the most illustrious families of the realm; his father was a Marshal of France; as a young man at court in the 1540s he had been fast friends with the Duke of Guise, the staunch Catholic who was eventually the target of the botched Huguenot kidnapping in 1560 that set spark to tinder for sectarian civil war.

An admired battlefield commander, Coligny’s conversion to Protestant put a high card in the Huguenot party’s hand, one whom Catholic ultras increasingly yearned to eliminate.

Coligny frustrated that aspiration over and over. Just in 1569, he had escaped from a Catholic battlefield victory that saw the capture and murder of Protestant France’s other great leader; then, he routed the Catholics at La Roche-l’Abeille; and, just days before the events in this post, repelled the Siege of Poitiers.

With sectarian hatred running high that season in Paris — and the dwindling treasury in need of the capital infusions only forfeiture can supply — the Parlement summoned Coligny to a trial it knew he would not attend, and there condemned him a traitor in absentia.

The sentence was declared, barbarously ignoring every principle of justice. It denounced him as an outlaw. It forbade him “all defence against the charges and conclusions.” It branded him as a traitor, a conspirator, the disturber of peace, the violator of treaties, the author of rebellion and the like hard names. “Therefore, the said Coligny is deprived of all honours, estates and dignities, and sentenced to be strangled upon the Place de Greve, either in person or effigy, and his body to be hung upon a gibbet at Montfaucon. His arms and effigies to be dragged at the tail of a horse through the towns and fauxbourgs, and then to be broken and destroyed by the public executioner, in token of everlasting infamy. His feudal possessions to revert to the crown, and all his property to be confiscated to the king. His children are declared ignoble villains, plebeians, detestable, infamous, incapable of holding estates, offices and goods in this kingdom … No one shall give to the said Coligny shelter, aid, comfort, food, water, fuel or fire.” And, lastly, a reward of fifty thousand crowns was put upon his head. This was offered to “any person who should deliver the admiral, live or dead, into the hands of justice, with a full pardon if he was concerned in the rebellion.”

This sentence of Tuesday the thirteenth of September was enforced immediately. Nor was the violence confined to Coligny’s escutcheons for a troop was dispatched to the Coligny estates to sack his mansion, root up his vineyard, and put the adjoining town to the torch “so effectually that hardly a trace of it was left.”

Coligny himself fought on … but the ridiculous sentence foreshadowed his real fate, right down to the horrible gibbet.


The gibbet of Montfaucon, from the Grandes Chronique de France by Jean Fouquet (c. 1460).

With both Catholics and Huguenots gathered in Paris for the tense celebration of an intersectarian royal wedding, a Catholic assassin unsuccessfully attempted the life of Coligny on August 22, 1572 — placing the entire city on edge. Fearing the prospect of the now-vigilant Huguenots achieving either escape or revenge, Catholics unleashed on the night of August 23-24 a general massacre of Protestants that will blacken the name of St. Bartholomew’s Day to the ends of recorded history. The injured Coligny was this butchery’s first and signal casualty, as we find from the historian Jacques Auguste de Thou, a witness to events as a young man in Paris —

The duke of Guise, who was put in full command of the enterprise, summoned by night several captains of the Catholic Swiss mercenaries from the five little cantons, and some commanders of French companies, and told them that it was the will of the king that, according to God’s will, they should take vengeance on the band of rebels while they had the beasts in the toils. Victory was easy and the booty great and to be obtained without danger. The signal to commence the massacre should be given by the bell of the palace, and the marks by which they should recognize each other in the darkness were a bit of white linen tied around the left arm and a white cross on the hat.

Meanwhile Coligny awoke and recognized from the noise that a riot was taking place. Nevertheless he remained assured of the king’s good will, being persuaded thereof either by his credulity or by Teligny, his son-in-law: he believed the populace had been stirred up by the Guises, and that quiet would be restored as soon as it was seen that soldiers of the guard, under the command of Cosseins, had been detailed to protect him and guard his property.

But when he perceived that the noise increased and that some one had fired an arquebus in the courtyard of his dwelling, then at length, conjecturing what it might be, but too late, he arose from his bed and having put on his dressing gown he said his prayers, leaning against the wall. Labonne held the key of the house, and when Cosseins commanded him, in the king’s name, to open the door he obeyed at once without fear and apprehending nothing. But scarcely had Cosseins entered when Labonne, who stood in his way, was killed with a dagger thrust. The Swiss who were in the courtyard, when they saw this, fled into the house and closed the door, piling against it tables and all the furniture they could find. It was in the first scrimmage that a Swiss was killed with a ball from an arquebus fired by one of Cosseins’ people. But finally the conspirators broke through the door and mounted the stairway, Cosseins, Attin, Corberan de Cordillac, Seigneur de Sarlabous, first captains of the regiment of the guards, Achilles Petrucci of Siena, all armed with cuirasses, and Besme the German, who had been brought up as a page in the house of Guise; for the duke of Guise was lodged at court, together with the great nobles and others who accompanied him.

After Coligny had said his prayers with Merlin the minister, he said, without any appearance of alarm, to those who were present (and almost all were surgeons, for few of them were of his retinue): “I see clearly that which they seek, and I am ready steadfastly to suffer that death which I have never feared and which for a long time past I have pictured to myself. I consider myself happy in feeling the approach of death and in being ready to die in God, by whose grace I hope for the life everlasting. I have no further need of human succor. Go then from this place, my friends, as quickly as you may, for fear lest you shall be involved in my misfortune, and that some day your wives shall curse me as the author of your loss. For me it is enough that God is here, to whose goodness I commend my soul, which is so soon to issue from my body.” After these words they ascended to an upper room, whence they sought safety in flight here and there over the roofs.

Meanwhile the conspirators, having burst through the door of the chamber, entered, and when Besme, sword in hand, had demanded of Coligny, who stood near the door, “Are you Coligny?” Coligny replied, “Yes, I am he,” with fearless countenance. “But you, young man, respect these white hairs. What is it you would do? You cannot shorten by many days this life of mine.” As he spoke, Besme gave him a sword thrust through the body, and having withdrawn his sword, another thrust in the mouth, by which his face was disfigured. So Coligny fell, killed with many thrusts. Others have written that Coligny in dying pronounced as though in anger these words: “Would that I might at least die at the hands of a soldier and not of a valet.” But Attin, one of the murderers, has reported as I have written, and added that he never saw any one less afraid in so great a peril, nor die more steadfastly.

Then the duke of Guise inquired of Besme from the courtyard if the thing were done, and when Besme answered him that it was, the duke replied that the Chevalier d’Angouleme was unable to believe it unless he saw it; and at the same time that he made the inquiry they threw the body through the window into the courtyard, disfigured as it was with blood. When the Chevalier d’Angouleme, who could scarcely believe his eyes, had wiped away with a cloth the blood which overran the face and finally had recognized him, some say that he spurned the body with his foot. However this may be, when he left the house with his followers he said: “Cheer up, my friends! Let us do thoroughly that which we have begun. The king commands it.” He frequently repeated these words, and as soon as they had caused the bell of the palace clock to ring, on every side arose the cry, “To arms!” and the people ran to the house of Coligny. After his body had been treated to all sorts of insults, they threw it into a neighboring stable, and finally cut off his head, which they sent to Rome. They also shamefully mutilated him, and dragged his body through the streets to the bank of the Seine, a thing which he had formerly almost prophesied, although he did not think of anything like this.

As some children were in the act of throwing the body into the river, it was dragged out and placed upon the gibbet of Montfaucon, where it hung by the feet in chains of iron; and then they built a fire beneath, by which he was burned without being consumed; so that he was, so to speak, tortured with all the elements, since he was killed upon the earth, thrown into the water, placed upon the fire, and finally put to hang in the air. After he had served for several days as a spectacle to gratify the hate of many and arouse the just indignation of many others, who reckoned that this fury of the people would cost the king and France many a sorrowful day, Francois de Montmorency, who was nearly related to the dead man, and still more his friend, and who moreover had escaped the danger in time, had him taken by night from the gibbet by trusty men and carried to Chantilly, where he was buried in the chapel.


Print by Flemish-German artist Frans Hogenberg depicts on the lower left the assassination attempt on Coligny of August 22, 1573, and on the right the next night’s bedroom attack upon the wounded man, with the murderers spilling his body out the window. (Click for a larger image)

(Belatedly) part of the Themed Set: Executions in Effigy.

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1563: Jean de Poltrot, assassin of the Duke of Guise

1 comment March 18th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1563, Jean de Poltrot de Méré was ripped apart in the streets of Paris for assassinating the Duke of Guise.

The opening act of the civil war between Catholics and Huguenots that would devour France in the late 16th century was but a year old at this moment, and Guise was the very man who had set off the powderkeg with a notorious massacre of Huguenots the previous March that had sent agitated confessional armies into the fields.

During the ensuing months, Guise stood at the fore of Catholic forces, opposite the Huguenot commander Conde.

Come early 1563, Guise was besieging the Huguenot-held city of Orleans when Poltrot (English Wikipedia page | French) contrived to ambush him on a nearby road. Poltrot shot Guise with a pistol* and fled; he’d be arrested a day later.

In the Wars of Religion, each previous atrocity justified the revenge that followed it; Guise’s death — and Poltrot’s confession under torture** that it was the Huguenot Admiral Coligny who directed his hand — would help to set the scene for the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre visited by Catholics on the Huguenots nine years later. (In fairness we ought also to add that this was not Guise’s first brush with Protestant assassins.) And heavily Catholic Paris was even before the Guise murder violently agitated against Huguenots. During the fighting in 1562,

Reputed Huguenots were struck down in the streets. Sometimes mock trials were held; the attackers grilled the captives on their religious beliefs and, when not satisfied with the answers, killed them on the spot. Officials who tried to intervene were themselves in danger, and edicts against violence were bitterly protested. As one anonymous memoirist described it, “The people wanted nothing less than permission to kill and exterminate the Huguenots without any form of trial; but the consequences were too dangerous.” He implied that permission might have been given, had it been possible to contain the violence.†

All this rage, when focused on the assassin of the Catholic party’s champion, was enough to tear a man limb from limb.

Poltrot’s sentence was to be publicly ripped apart by horses straining his limbs to the four points of the compass. It didn’t quite work: sinew and muscle is too dense and tough to shred by main force, even for a horse; it was only by dint of the the executioner’s helpful hacking that the beasts could dismember their prey.


Here’s a similar take in color.

Quartering by horses is a punishment so preposterously horrific that it could only belong to an age of intentional spectacle.

Indeed, Florike Egmond and Peter Mason argue‡ that until the 16th century such a theatrical execution “was a purely fictional punishment in Europe, which ever since Roman times emerged occasionally in literature, legend and folk-tales as an outrageous form of retribution for (high) treason and related offences” — such as Livy’s mythic rendering of the end given faithless ex-ally Mettius Fufetius, the supposed treatment of St. Hippolytus, and foggy distant Frankish legends

Although the concept might have existed in imaginations for centuries before, equine execution was at best a vanishingly rare event in reality; certainly when Poltrot was butchered, nobody present had ever before beheld such a sight. For Egmond and Mason, this was an innovation of his judges who “jumped the gap between fiction and historical records” in pursuit of ever “more expressive forms of punishment in order to emphasize the outrageousness of the offense.”

It was an outrage whose time had come, however, for quartering by horses was employed several times more for regicidal offenses in the ensuing decades — including for the Catholic militant who assassinated the Huguenot King Henri IV.

* This event would appear to dislodge the 1570 murder of Scotland’s Regent Moray from its popular acclamation as history’s earliest firearm assassination. As Guise lingered for six days and finally succumbed to effects of his doctor’s own bloodletting, perhaps the view is that Poltrot’s pistol only earned half-credit.

** Poltrot would later retract the claim, when not under torture.

† Barbara Diefendorf, “Prologue to a Massacre: Popular Unrest in Paris, 1557-1572,” The American Historical Review, Dec. 1985.

‡ “Domestic and Exotic Cruelties: Extravagance and Punishment,” The Irish Review, Autumn 1999

§ The chronicler Matthew Paris records a thirteenth century would-be regicide condemned “to be torn limb from limb by horses, at Coventry, a terrible example, and lamentable sight to all who dared to plot such crimes. In the first place, he was dragged asunder, then beheaded, and his body divided into three parts; each part was then dragged through one of the principal cities of England, and was afterwards hung on a gibbet used for robbers.”

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1560: Baron de Castelnau, for the Amboise Conspiracy

Add comment March 29th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1560 the second Baron de Castelnau, Jean Boileau, was beheaded as a Huguenot traitor. His was one of the opening casualties of France’s devastating Wars of Religion.

We find Castelnau’s end before war began, when the Huguenot party — although it had been pressed sorely enough for martyr-making in the years of the Reformation — was perhaps not yet quite steeled for the measure of purposeful violence it would require to conquer state power. After the events in this post, the great Huguenot leader Gaspard de Coligny would remonstrate at a royal Council of Notables protesting the loyalty of the realm’s Protestant subjects. Two years later, he was commanding rebels in the field; a decade later, he would be murdered in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.

“Rashly designed and feebly executed,”* the plan of these 1560 pre-rebellion Huguenots was to tilt France’s religious policy by muscling out the top Catholic.

If it were possible to imagine such a gambit it was amidst the flux following King Henri II‘s sudden death at the jousts in 1559. his sickly 15-year-old heir Francis was dominated by the staunchly Catholic Duke of Guise; policy accordingly trended away from religious accommodation for the Calvinist Huguenot minority.

Considering the new king’s youth and Guise’s prestige, here was the potential to lock in for decades to come a situation intolerable to France’s Protestants. (In actual fact, Francis had not long to live himself and the country soon fell into civil war … but the characters in this post did not have the benefit of hindsight.)

So the muscling-out plan was born: the Amboise conspiracy. Named for the castle where the attempt was unsuccessfully executed, this plot aimed to seize the Duke of Guise by main force and begin forcing a more satisfactory policy direction on the malleable sovereign.

This scheme became very widely known among Protestant nobles and even bourgeois, who variously signed on or demurred; no surprise, someone in the ever-widening circle of confidantes eventually leaked it to the court. Guise quietly made ready the castle at Amboise to repel the putsch, and when the attempt was made in mid-March it was not the Catholics but the attacking Huguenots who were surprised and routed. Over 1,000 men involved in the attempt were slaughtered in the ensuing days — by the rope, the sword, or the waters of the Loire. Its chief architect, La Renaudie, was killed in the skirmishes but his corpse was still posthumously mutilated.


Castelnau’s beheading is foregrounded

The Lord Castelnau’s detail for the conspiracy was to seize the nearby Chateau Noizay. He did so only to discover himself in a most embarrassing position when his comrades were crushed. The Guise-allied young Duke of Nemours persuaded Castelnau to surrender under safe conduct:

“Lay down your arms then,” said Nemours, “and if you wish to address the king as becomes a faithful subject, I promise you, upon my faith, to enable you to speak to the king and to bring you back in safety.”

Castelnau, in consequence, surrendered the castle of Noizai to the Duke of Nemours, who took an oath and signed it, that no harm should happen to him or his followers. They went together to Amboise, where the unfortunate baron found that the promise which had been made him was not binding, for the Duke of Nemours had exceeded his orders.

Castelnau’s bravery did not forsake him on the scaffold, where he died a martyr to his religion; the Duke of Nemours felt very indignant at the circumstance, as he had given his signature, which tormented him probably much more than it would have done if his word alone had been passed. (Source)

This traitorous conspiracy — and the ferocity of its destruction — helped to initiate the ensuing years‘ tit-for-tat confessional violence that plunged France headlong into the Wars of Religion (and got Guise himself assassinated in 1563). “A morbid desire to witness the shedding of blood seized upon society,” one historian wrote. “D’Aubigne the eminent historian of the French Reformation, was an eye-witness of such incidents, and though but ten years of age, swore like young Hannibal before his father, to devote his life to vengeance of such atrocities.”

A century-plus after events in this post, when France revoked the Edict of Nantes and resumed official harassment of Huguenots, the Baron Castelnau of that time (our Jean Boileau’s great-grandson) was clapped in a dungeon. His son and heir Charles escaped to England where the family continues to this day — the Boileau Baronets.

* Cambridge Modern History, vol. 14.

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1567: The Michelade of Nimes

Add comment September 30th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1567, Huguenots in revolt in Nimes put to death dozens of Catholics in a courtyard butchery to climax a massacre remembered as La Michelade (English Wikipedia entry | the much more detailed French)

This name of sinister memory derives from one of the church calendar’s great autumnal feast, Michaelmas — and the sword-arm of its titular archangel would have been required to keep the peace between the rival religionists in the Languedoc.

Nimes went heavily for the Protestants, with the region’s royal governors unable to restrain the conquest of Catholic neighborhoods and churches by the predominant Huguenots through the 1560s: “the very wind which blew upon Nimes breathed heresy,” in the words of Dumas.

The years running up to our events of 1567 feature one of the numerous rancorous truces pocking France’s intractable Wars of Religion: this one is known as the “Armed Peace”, which gives you an idea where everyone’s heads were at. And in Nimes, the heresy in the wind was not such as to prevent the restoration of Catholic authorities to control of the civic institutions — to the undoubted irritation of the Huguenot grandees who endured the indignity of displacement alongside the sure knowledge of the popular weight that supported them.

This ripening conflict appropriately came to fruition via a vegetable market at a city fair on Michaelmas — September 29, 1567 — where an altercation turned into a sectarian riot and soon transformed into a municipal Protestant insurrection.

Huguenots still maintaining the preponderance of force in Nimes, they perpetrated the expected outrages during the excitement: sacking the cathedral, murdering some particularly hated Catholics. But the overall organization of the Huguenots and the organized participation of the city’s Huguenot elites suggests a good deal of advance orchestration, and perhaps coordination with the Huguenot attempt to kidnap the king just days before.

In the disturbance, Nimes’s first consul Guy Rochette — Catholic, naturally — sought refuge in the palace of Bishop Bernard d’Elbene; a Huguenot captain forced the door and arrested them, confiscating from Rochette the keys to the city. Though the bishop managed to escape, other prominent Catholics were systematically detained, too. According to Allan Tulchin’s That Men Would Praise the Lord: The Triumph of Protestantism in Nimes, 1530-1570, “[i]t seems clear that the Protestant leadership intended to conduct a general roundup of Catholic lay and clerical leadership. Protestant forces targeted at least half of the sixteen men who had served as consul between 1564 and 1567 … of the nine Catholic members of the presidial, only two did not appear among the victims.”

Captive Catholics were detained in several buildings around the city, notably in the city hall. It is not known to what extent the kill lists to cull from these unfortunates were preordained and to what extent they were improvised in the moment, but on the night of September 30, summons for specific victims went out, and Protestant squads complied by dragging them out of the city hall basement or wherever else they were held to the courtyard of the bishop’s palace. This would be the makeshift abattoir.

In the narration of Dumas,

when night came the large number of prisoners so imprudently taken began to be felt as an encumbrance by the insurgent chiefs, who therefore resolved to take advantage of the darkness to get rid of them without causing too much excitement in the city. They were therefore gathered together from the various houses in which they had been confined, and were brought to a large hall in the Hotel de Ville, capable of containing from four to five hundred persons, and which was soon full. An irregular tribunal arrogating to itself powers of life and death was formed, and a clerk was appointed to register its decrees. A list of all the prisoners was given him, a cross placed before a name indicating that its bearer was condemned to death, and, list in hand, he went from group to group calling out the names distinguished by the fatal sign. Those thus sorted out were then conducted to a spot which had been chosen beforehand as the place of execution.

This was the palace courtyard in the middle of which yawned a well twenty-four feet in circumference and fifty deep. The fanatics thus found a grave ready-digged as it were to their hand, and to save time, made use of it.

The unfortunate Catholics, led thither in groups, were either stabbed with daggers or mutilated with axes, and the bodies thrown down the well. Guy-Rochette was one of the first to be dragged up. For himself he asked neither mercy nor favour, but he begged that the life of his young brother might be spared, whose only crime was the bond of blood which united them; but the assassins, paying no heed to his prayers, struck down both man and boy and flung them into the well. The corpse of the vicar-general, who had been killed the day before, was in its turn dragged thither by a rope and added to the others. All night the massacre went on, the crimsoned water rising in the well as corpse after corpse was thrown in, till, at break of day, it overflowed, one hundred and twenty bodies being then hidden in its depths.

Dumas is indulging poetic exaggeration of the scene, and later estimations of the number of victims range well below 120 — but Tulchin quotes a leather worker who saw the courtyard on the following day and described it as “all covered with blood and the water of the well all red.” Even “merely” twenty or thirty victims slashed to death would have been a gory work.

In the days following, Huguenots would cement their control of Nimes with the systematic pillage of churches and (after a six-week siege) the capture of the city’s royal garrison. There was no general massacre after the Michelade; in the main, Catholics were forced into submission or exile instead of the grave.

But the effusion, combined with Huguenot attacks further north, helped to trigger the (very brief) “Second War” within the Wars of Religion which gave way after a short truce to the much bloodier “Third War” of 1568-1570 … whose peace would be broken by a Catholic sectarian massacre much better remembered to history than the Michelade.

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1762: Francois Rochette and the Grenier brothes, the last Huguenot martyrs in France

Add comment February 19th, 2013 Headsman

In September 1761, a man named Francois Rochette was detained in Toulouse, France, having been arrested traversing the nearby countryside on suspicion of being one of that area’s robbers.

Rochette was not a robber.

He was much, much worse: a Huguenot minister.

Interrogation soon made the situation clear. Technically, his heretical calling could subject Rochette to the death penalty, but the authorities weren’t going to be unreasonable about this — and “as Rochette was not surprised in the exercise of his function, he might easily have escaped by concealing his profession. Those, who interrogated him went even so far as to point out to him this means of acquittal.”

Every legal regime needs a bit of discretion, a bit of look-the-other-wayism, lest the letter of the law excite a judicial slaughter that public sentiment could never support.

Francois Rochette wasn’t interested in signing himself off a clerk or a cloth-merchant and being on his cagey way. He would not elide his calling: would not abet an other-way look.

Rochette’s obstinately overt Protestantism and the prospect of juridical proceedings against him put the whole city on edge. Catholics and Huguenots armed themselves, bracing for a horrid St. Bartholomew’s Day replay. Three brothers named Grenier hastened to Toulouse to aid their fellow-Huguenots, and were arrested; miraculously, the feared citywide bloodbath never quite materialized.

But now Francois Rochette and his Grenier backers would stand trial, in an environment where authorities were disposed to view their offense as one not merely of wrongthink but of stirring up a civic disturbance and endangering the city itself. They were accordingly condemned to death by a now-stringent court for their literally dangerous heresy on February 18, 1762.

That night, the Huguenots’ last on earth, inevitably featured a visitation of Catholic priests come to save their souls.

“It is for your salvation,” said they, “that we are here.” The answer of one of the prisoners was, “If you were at Geneva, ready to die in your bed (for no one is slain there on account of his religion), would you be pleased if four ministers came, under the pretence of zeal, to persecute you until your last breath? Do not, then unto others that which you would not wish to be done unto yourselves.”

This is from the public-domain History of the Protestants of France, to whom we turn the fatal narration.

On the 19th of February, at two o’clock in the afternoon, the mournful procession started on its way. Rochette was, according to the terms of the sentence, bare-headed, bare-footed, with a halter hung about his neck, from which, before and behind, labels were suspended, with these words, Minister of the pretended Reformed religion.

When the array passed before the church of Saint Etienne, an attempt was made to force him, in pursuance of the terms of the Parliament’s condemnation, to kneel with a torch of yellow wax in his hand, and to ask pardon of God, the king, and justice, for all his crimes and misdeeds.

Rochette stepped down from the tumbril, and instead of abjuring or making a confession which his heart denied, he pronounced on his knees the following words: “I beseech God to pardon me for all my sins, and I firmly believe that they have been washed away by the blood of Jesus Christ, who has redeemed us so dearly. I have no pardon to ask of the king, whom I have ever honoured as the Lord’s annointed, and loved as the father of my native land; I have ever been a good and faithful subject, and of this I believe my judges to be convinced. I have always preached to my flock patience, obedience, and submission; and my sermons, which you possess, are summed up in these words: ‘Fear God, honour the king.’ If I have contravened the law touching religious assemblies, it was by God’s commandments I contravened them; God must be obeyed before men. As for justice and the law, I am guilty of no offence against them, and I pray God may pardon my judges.”

Every door, balcony, window, roof, and approach near to the place of execution, was covered with spectators. “Toulouse,” says Count de Gebelin, an eye-witness, who related these circumstances, “Toulouse, that city drunk with the blood of martyrs, seemed a Protestant town. People asked what was the creed of these heretics; and when they heard our martyrs speak of Jesus Christ and of his death, every one was surprised and afflicted. They were infinitely touched, also, with the lofty, yet mild bearing of the three brothers, which compelled their admiration almost as much as the inexpressible serenity of the minister, whose graceful and spiritual physiognomy, whose words full of firmness and courage, and whose youth, filled every beholder with interest, knowing, as all did, that he only died because he disdained to save his life by a lie.”

Rochette was executed first. He exhorted his companions until the end, and sang the canticle of the Protestant martyrs: This is the blessed day. “Die a Catholic,” said the executioner, moved with pity. “Judge which is the better religion,” replied Rochette, “that which persecutes, or that which is persecuted.”

The youngest of the thre brothers (he was only twenty-two years of age), hid his face in his hands to shut out this tragic scene. The two others contemplated it with calmness. As they were gentlemen, their sentence was, to be beheaded. Tyembraced each other, recommending their souls to God. The eldest offered his head to the axe first. When it came to the turn of the last, the executioner said: “You have seen your brothers die; change, lest you perish like them.” “Do thy duty,” said the martyr, and his head rolled upon the scaffold.

Count de Gebelin adds, as he concludes his recital: “Everyone present returned home in silence, in a state of consternation, and unable to persuade themselves that there could be such courage and such cruelty in the world; and I, who describe it, cannot refrain from tears of joy and sadness, as I contemplate their blessed lot, and that our church should be still capable of affording examples of piety and firmness that will compare with the most illustrious monuments of the primitive church.”

It was only days later — March 10, 1762 — that Toulouse followed up this example of piety and firmness by breaking Jean Calas on the wheel in another prosecution of a Huguenot driven by sectarian sentiment (albeit not directly for heresy, in the Calas case).

Backlash against the Calas case, led by Voltaire, helped put to the fore the long-percolating Enlightenment values of tolerance. Official persecution of Protestants slackened greatly in the years to come and never again rose to a death penalty situation; the whole policy was officially revoked in 1787.

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1569: Three Huguenot Parisians

Add comment July 1st, 2011 Headsman

France during its intractable 16th century Wars of Religion was a scary place to be on the wrong team at the wrong time — nowhere more so than Catholic Paris, for its Protestant Huguenot minority. This, after all, is the city that Henri IV had to capture by conversion, with that quotable bow to temporal expediency, “Paris is worth a mass.”*

On this date in 1569, that settlement lay decades in the future … but looming around the corner was the era’s signature atrocity, the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre.

But Paris was already on tenterhooks in the 1560s as an abortive peace gave way to another installment of armed conflict, the “third war”, and the city girded itself against Huguenots without and within.


The state of the discourse: Catholic anti-Huguenot propaganda (click for larger image) from 1562 shows the heretics mounting a Catholic priest on the cross and shooting him. (Hey, don’t say it could never happen)

The September, 1568 Edict of Saint-Maur deprived Protestants of religious freedom, and municipal regulations confined most Huguenots to their homes — one part religious discrimination, one part pre-emptive crowd control in a city liable to pop out an anti-Huguenot pogrom at any moment. That happened in January to our day’s victims, Philippe and Richard de Gastines (father and son, respectively) and their in-law Nicolas Croquet, when a crowd attacked their home on suspicion of celebrating a Protestant Last Supper.

the seizure of the Gastines, along with several of their relatives and neighbors, took place amid widespread public disturbances … “The Huguenots were so hated by the Parisian populace that, if the king and authorities had let them have their way, there would not have been one [Huguenot] in the whole city who was not attacked.” De Thou added that crowds of people followed after the magistrates of Parlement when they left the Palais de Justice and so threatened them that they eventually pronounced a death sentence against the Gastines for a crime that would ordinarily have warranted banishment or a mere fine.**

The crowd also destroyed the subversive house. Upon the site of the former residence, the Parisian parliament erected a pyramid surmounted by a crucifix — the “Croix de Gastines”. This popular monument of religious chauvinism was maintained against a royal demand to demolish it for two-plus years, until the Marshall of France finally did so by force.†

But the Gastines were remembered by the Huguenot party, too.

The Protestant French poet Agrippa d’Aubigne, who grew up during this delirious age, retrieved the story of their martyrdom — and the somewhat incidental fact that Richard de Gastines had also been (non-capitally) convicted for a minor incident of supposed heretical evangelizing while languishing in prison — and made Gastines the eloquent exponent of Protestant fidelity in d’Aubigne’s poetical magnum opus, Les Tragiques. The relevant bit, rousing other prisoners to embrace the torments of martyrdom, is available in French here. (There’s a bit more about d’Aubigne’s martyr-making in this book.)

* And also the city where a Catholic assassin murdered that monarch.

** Barbara Diefendorf, “Prologue to a Massacre: Popular Unrest in Paris, 1557-1572,” The American Historical Review, Dec., 1985

† The Marshal literally had to shed blood to repel the throng attempting to defend the Croix. Frustrated of its public monument, the mob proceeded to sack two neighboring homes believed occupied by Protestant fellow-travelers. Both those domiciles were again of mob violence during the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. (Diefendorf)

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1565: Jean Ribault and the Huguenot colonists of Fort Caroline

1 comment October 12th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1565, the French Huguenot New World settlement plan was nipped in the bud when Spaniards executed en masse the inhabitants of Fort Caroline in present-day Jacksonville, Fla.

Jean Ribault.

During the late 16th century’s fractious French Wars of Religion, far-sighted Protestant admiral Gaspard de Coligny sponsored this like-minded colony in Florida — a sort of side bet on a satellite Protestant presence overseas, while the party in the mother country fought for its life.*

Jean Ribault (or Ribaut) was the loyal naval aide chosen to lead this colony. After an abortive attempt to plant a settlement in Charlestown, S.C., Ribault set up Fort Caroline and claimed greater Jacksonville for France.


Historical marker of Jean Ribaut/Ribault’s landing place, in Jacksonville, Fla. (cc) image from POsrUs.

French colonial projects further north enjoyed better success.

Down in Florida, both geopolitical and religious rivalry set Fort Caroline up for trouble. Ponce de Leon, questing for the Fountain of Youth, had planted the Spanish flag in Florida half a century before, and that country was none too pleased to find its continental rival jumping its claim. That it was Calvinist Frenchmen doing the usurping would prove downright intolerable to more-Catholic-than-the-Pope Spanish ruler Philip II.

The Spaniards attacked [Fort Caroline], hanged the colonists, and fastened above the heads of the corpses a placard on which was written, “Not because they were Frenchmen, but because they were heretics.” A French Catholic, de Gourgues, moved with righteous indignation, fitted out a ship and avenged this act by hanging their murderers, over whose bodies he put a similar placard, bearing the inscription, “Not because they were Spaniards, but because they were assassins.” But Coligny’s efforts failed, and he had to leave to the English race the realization of his dream of a great American Protestant state. (Source)

That great Protestant state, of course, eventually gobbled up Florida, and still owns it today.

There, it maintains Fort Matanzas National Monument, which takes its name for the Spanish term for what went down there on this date: matanzas, or slaughter.**

* It’s another country, another creed, and another century, but it reminds of the traffic between English New World settlements and England proper during the English Revolution.

** A different historical monument commemorates the failed South Carolina colony.

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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.

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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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