1662: John Barkstead, Miles Corbet, and John Okey, renditioned regicides

2 comments April 19th, 2012 Headsman

Happy 350th death day to three English regicides renditioned from Holland.

John Barkstead, Miles Corbet and John Okey were all among the 59 judges who signed the death-warrant of King Charles I.

Like everyone else on that parchment, they were in a world of hurt when Oliver Cromwell died and Charles II returned to the throne. And like a great many of those who figured to reap the whirlwind, they sensibly fled the realm.

Had they stayed hunkered down in Germany, they might have died in their beds.

Instead, they trusted a friend … and died half-hanged, emasculated, disemboweled, and chopped to pieces on a scaffold.

It was an ugly sight from start to finish. The capture of these fugitives was a dirty business mixing treachery, diplomatic subterfuge, and dubious legality, all in the service of violent statecraft. Sort of like it was ripped from the Downing Street memo.

The author of it all was the original Downing: Sir George Downing, the namesake of London’s Downing Street, where the British Prime Minister resides.

This guy was coming into the prime of his continent- and polity-spanning career: from Puritan New England, to the West Indies, to a gig in Cromwell’s army during the English Civil War. (It was John Okey himself who hooked Downing up: Downing matriculated with Harvard University’s first graduating class thanks to Okey’s sponsorship, and it was in Okey’s regiment that Downing was retained as chaplain.)

An able diplomat for the Protectorate, Downing was able to communicate his discreet abjuration to the exiled Charles II once the handwriting was on the wall, and he therefore effected a convenient volte-face and went right to work for the new boss … even when it meant hunting down his own friends and patrons. You might say it was the zeal of the converted, but maybe it was better-expressed by Downing’s own pledge to secure the refugees with vigor “as much as if my life lay at stake in the busines.”

Sound policy, considering his history. And he couldn’t have pulled it off with an ounce less.

Officially, the Low Countries had agreed not to give refuge to regicides: in reality, regicides could rest pretty easy there. Pro-immigrant, pro-Protestant,* and jealous of their sovereignty, the Dutch had little desire to enforce such clauses at any level of government; and, thanks to a federal structure, multiple state organs each held effective veto over enforcement. Moreover, a silly legalistic fetish required that fugitivies have warrants sworn out against them — warrants that would cause regicides’ many friends and sympathizers to raise the alarm before the target could be taken, which is exactly what happened when Downing tried to get Edward Dendy arrested in Rotterdam.

Downing cogitated all manner of extra-legal options to black-bag a few of the Protectorate personnel for his Majesty’s pleasure. What he ended up with was cunning, vicious, and just barely legitimate.

Turning one of the regicides’ contacts with threats and bribery, he secured advance warning of Barkstead, Corbet, and Okey’s planned visit to Delft in early March 1662. He then waited until the very day he planned to spring his trap to procure a general arrest warrant (concealing the names of his prey) from the Estates General’s capable leader Johan de Witt, and pounced within hours — using a force of his own men and a little more payola to circumvent the inevitable reluctance of the local bailiffs.

Now that the regicides were in irons, Downing had to double down on duplicitous diplomacy by maneuvering to get them delivered to the English — and that against a growing popular resistance as their capture became known. The Delft aldermen dilated; sympathetic local worthies visited the prisoners in their cells; petitions on the Englishmen’s behalf circulated nationwide. The notion of actually marching these guys out into English hands seemed to promise a riot.

Downing spread more palm grease around, maneuvered to frustrate legal aid for the prisoners, posted his own men to watch the prisoners 24-7, and after several tense days finally made arrangements

in the dead of the night to get a boate into a litle channell which came neare behinde the prison, and at the very first dawning of the day without so much as giving any notice to the seamen I had provided … forthwith to slip them downe the backstaires … and so accordingly we did, and there was not the least notice in the Towne thereof, and before 5 in the morning the boate was without the Porto of Delft, where I delivered them to Mr. Armerer … giving him direction not to put them a shoare in any place, but to go the whole way by water to the Blackamore Frigat at Helverdsluice.

Downing was exultant.

“This is a thing the like thereof hath not been done in this country and which nobody believed was possible to be done,” he gloated in his correspondence. “And there is not a thing that hath happened these many yeares that hath occasioned so much discourse here, saying that they are now no longer a free Countrey, and that no man is now sure here.” De Witt and the Dutch Estates General, having never had any intention to actually deliver a regicide to condign punishment in England, had been embarrassingly played. Ordinary Hollanders were infuriated and ashamed at having been a party to the whole business.

Nobody could dispute the excellence of Downing’s operation. But anybody on either side of the channel who wasn’t a dyed-in-the-wool Royalist was somewhere between discomfited and revolted by it, especially as it was achieved against his own personal benefactor by a guy who had once urged Cromwell to make himself king.

Diarist Samuel Pepys (who witnessed the executions, reporting the victims “very cheerful” on that occasion) recorded the mood of the English burgher upon the news

that Sir G. Downing (like a perfidious rogue, though the action is good and of service to the King, yet he cannot with a good conscience do it) hath taken Okey, Corbet, and Barkestead … all the world takes notice of him for a most ungrateful villaine for his pains. (Pepys’s March 12 and March 17 entries for this year)


See: Ralph C.H. Catterall, “Sir George Downing and the Regicides,” The American Historical Review, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Jan., 1912)

* Dutch affinity for religious dissent and for foreigners was all of a piece with its prosperous mercantile empire. One liberal Englishman (quoted by James Walker in “The English Exiles in Holland during the Reigns of Charles II and James II,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Fourth Series, Vol. 30 (1948)) proposed that “Liberty of Conscience would be a more serious blow to Holland than all the victories yet gained.”

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1672: Cornelis and Johan de Witt lynched

7 comments August 20th, 2010 Headsman

Chapter 1. A Grateful People

On the 20th of August, 1672, the city of the Hague, always so lively, so neat, and so trim that one might believe every day to be Sunday, with its shady park, with its tall trees, spreading over its Gothic houses, with its canals like large mirrors, in which its steeples and its almost Eastern cupolas are reflected,–the city of the Hague, the capital of the Seven United Provinces, was swelling in all its arteries with a black and red stream of hurried, panting, and restless citizens, who, with their knives in their girdles, muskets on their shoulders, or sticks in their hands, were pushing on to the Buytenhof, a terrible prison, the grated windows of which are still shown, where, on the charge of attempted murder preferred against him by the surgeon Tyckelaer, Cornelius de Witt, the brother of the Grand Pensionary of Holland was confined.

the whole town was crowding towards the Buytenhof, to witness the departure of Cornelius de Witt from prison, as he was going to exile; and to see what traces the torture of the rack had left on the noble frame of the man who knew his Horace so well.

Yet all this multitude was not crowding to the Buytenhof with the innocent view of merely feasting their eyes with the spectacle; there were many who went there to play an active part in it, and to take upon themselves an office which they conceived had been badly filled,–that of the executioner.

There were, indeed, others with less hostile intentions. All that they cared for was the spectacle, always so attractive to the mob, whose instinctive pride is flattered by it,–the sight of greatness hurled down into the dust.

-Alexandre Dumas, pere, The Black Tulip

That ominous mob got its spectacle this date in 1672, lynching the Dutch Republic’s longtime de facto head of state, Johan de Witt along with his brother Cornelis/Cornelius.


A statue of Johan (standing) and Cornelis de Witt in their native Dordrecht.

The mercantile powerhouse that was the 17th century Dutch Republic was the stage for a long-running conflict between the Orange monarchists (hence the soccer uniforms) and the Republican merchant class.

With the sudden death of the young William II, Prince of Orange in 1650, leaving the (non-hereditary) executive office of stadtholder vacant, the Republicans became ascendant.

And the outstanding figure of the First Stadtholderless Period was Johan de Witt, scion of a Dordrecht merchant family powerful enough that William II had imprisoned de Witt’s own father during a power struggle.

Elevated in 1653 and at the tender age of 28 to the leadership position of Grand Pensionary, Johan de Witt’s “eloquence, sagacity and business talents” guided the Dutch ship of state for essentially the remainder of his life.

This was the apex of the Dutch Golden Age. The Dutch East India Company dominated Asian trade routes,* and the Low Countries’ culture thrived on the wealth: Rembrandt and Vermeer were at the height of their talents; Spinoza revolutionized philosophy; van Leeuwenhoek invented the microscope.

While all these guys were landing themselves in their respective canons, Johan de Witt was trying to keep the age Golden.

Having only relatively recently broken free of Spain, the small country was an up-and-comer on the horns of a serious security dilemma: its leading commercial position put it into maritime competition with England, while its continental location made it vulnerable to the enormous army of the neighboring continental hegemon, France. Ultimately, even with its trade wealth, it did not have the resources to keep up with both of western Europe’s leading powers.

For a generation, de Witt’s statecraft kept the men of the Low Countries out of that predicament, while his brother Cornelis chipped in with a couple of timely naval victories. (Actually authored by Michiel de Ruyter, but Cornelis rode shotgun.)

In 1654, Johan brought the First Anglo-Dutch War to a close, making with Oliver Cromwell a secret pact he was only too happy to enforce never to allow William II’s son, the eventual William III, to be named stadtholder. Reason being: William III was the grandson of the Stuart king Cromwell beheaded, Charles I, and thus a potential claimant to the English throne. Both Protestant Republics had a distinct interest in keeping this monarchist well away from power. (Both would be sorely disappointed.)

A decade and a Stuart Restoration later, de Witt maintained (mostly) Dutch dominance of the seas in the Second Anglo-Dutch War, then held off France (with the help of a timely alliance with the recent adversary, England) in the War of Devolution.

In each case, he kept at least one of England or France on the sideline, or in his own camp.

But the Third Anglo-Dutch War was the charm — as it was also the Franco-Dutch War, and therefore 1672 was Rampjaar: disaster year. While the Dutch were aces on the waves, a massive French invasion easily overwhelmed them on terra firma.

Detail view (click for the full image) of a grisly painting of the mutilated de Witt brothers strung up at The Hague. It’s attributed to Jan de Baen, who in better times took Johan de Witt’s portrait.

De Witt’s never-beloved mercantile oligarchy speedily collapsed with the military reverses, and the now all-grown-up William III was there to pick up the pieces to popular acclaim. Arrested for treason, Cornelis sustained torture without confessing, but when Johan visited him in prison — and William III incriminatingly withdrew the cavalry protecting the brothers — the mob quenched its fury with the de Witts’ blood.

every one of the miscreants, emboldened by his [Johan’s] fall, wanted to fire his gun at him, or strike him with blows of the sledge-hammer, or stab him with a knife or swords, every one wanted to draw a drop of blood from the fallen hero, and tear off a shred from his garments.

And after having mangled, and torn, and completely stripped the two brothers, the mob dragged their naked and bloody bodies to an extemporised gibbet, where amateur executioners hung them up by the feet.

Then came the most dastardly scoundrels of all, who not having dared to strike the living flesh, cut the dead in pieces, and then went about the town selling small slices of the bodies of John and Cornelius at ten sous a piece.

-Dumas

The word “ungrateful” comes to mind.

De Witt stood altogether on a lower plane than Cromwell. We regard him rather as a man of rare and singular talent, than as one of the chosen great ones of the earth, which Cromwell was. He stands far above the common run of men; and he was head and shoulders above nearly all the notable men of his time. He would have been greater if the movement of his limbs had been less burdened with the Dutch governing apparatus … He is not one whom the world can ever greatly admire or love.

History of the administration of John De Witt, grand pensionary of Holland, a Google books freebie.

(Here’s another, and here’s a 17th century volume de Witt himself coauthored.)

The rise of William III came with the decline of that Dutch Golden Age: the country fended off the immediate military threat, but it increasingly slipped behind its larger neighbors. Costly as was the Franco-Dutch War, it is a step on the path towards the present-day Europe, and this gives us enough excuse to notice that the Eurovision lead-in tune is actually from a Te Deum composed to mark its end.

But William’s own ascent to this wealthy sovereignty was just the beginning for him. Sixteen years later, the House of Orange’s champion vindicated Cromwell’s trepidation about him and gained a far more satisfactory position from which to do battle with his Gallic rival Louis XIV by stunningly overthrowing the Stuart dynasty and becoming King of England in the Glorious Revolution.**

* The Dutch remained the sole western contact of closed Japan until 1854, which is why Japan’s eventual period of scientific advancement became known as ‘Dutch Learning’.

** Albion did not forget the de Witts, either: according to this 1785 cant dictionary, the term “dewitted” had a 17th-18th century run in English to denote — well, exactly what happened to Cornelis and Johan.

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