1574: Gabriel de Lorges, accidental regicide

5 comments June 26th, 2009 Headsman

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

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

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

The ol’ lance-in-the-eye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1979: Two former dictators of Ghana with four of their aides

3 comments June 26th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1979, the putschist government of Ghana shot former military rulers Frederick William Kwasi Akuffo and Akwasi Amankwaa Afrifa along with four others at the Teshie Military Range for corruption.

Twenty-two years before, Ghana had become the first black sub-Saharan former colony to gain independence, but after a 1966 coup it had staggered through political and economic chaos. Six different men had been head of state in that span, three of them deposed by coups. By 1979, General Fred Akuffo‘s government was the target of explosive anger.

Enter Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings, who had actually failed in a coup attempt in May and was in line for execution himself before his mates toppled the government on June 4.

Seeking to stabilize the situation — and, Rawlings himself has said, riding the tiger of popular fury — the new government served up a few high-profile morsels on charges of pilfering the treasury in order to forestall a general slaughter of senior officers by the armed forces’ lower ranks.

There was no alternative. We had to contain it within the military so it didn’t spill into the civil front — if it had it would have been terrible.

We had no choice but to sacrifice the most senior ones — the commanders.

Another former head of state, Gen. Ignatius Kutu Acheamphong, had been shot earlier in the month; on this date, Akuffo and Gen. Akwasi Afrifa, one of the original 1966 plotters who had ruled Ghana in 1969-70, followed him. Afrifa, ironically, had written to Acheamphong worrying that political upheaval and military discipline could find them … well, where it eventually found them:

I feel greatly disturbed about the future after the government … In order to discourage the military from staging coups in the future, how about if they line all of us up and shot us one by one? I do not certainly want to be arrested, given some sort of trial and shot.

All these shootings had an unseemly character of haste and summary justice; charges against the four senior ministers* shot along with the former rulers have struck an especially sour note. Rawlings has claimed that he only wanted the two former heads of state shot and tried unsuccessfully to stop the other four executions.

I attempted to prevent it and sent an officer but the firing squad shot the officers before their commander could give the order … you must understand our country was in a state of rage then, not different from what Russia was when it had its revolution.

I was a partial hostage to that situation. I had no force. The authority that I enjoyed was my moral authority with the people. Their action (the execution of the senior officers by the boys) was to curtail the anger of the nation.

Rawlings would hand power over to a civilian government, which he then overthrew again in 1981 — looking like this:

He would run Ghana for the next two decades, the last eight years after winning elections. Rawlings’ legacy is much up for debate, but to many he cuts the figure of a benevolent dictator (how many former strongmen have fan pages?) whose human rights abuses were mild in the scheme of things and helped usher in a relatively prosperous and democratic Ghana that stands a very far cry from the country he took over in 1979.

Rawlings himself has graduated to a sort of global elder statesman — for instance, he recently called for fair elections in Zimbabwe. And he has not been hesitant to justify his political actions, as in this interesting BBC interview from 2005 — in which, pressed on the executions of the former state ministers, he concedes:

There were some of them who probably deserved it. Pardon me for putting it that way. There were some of them who did not — very brilliant, beautiful officers. But we had no choice but to make that sacrifice.

The bodies of all the officers executed in June of 1979 were exhumed for “fitting burial” under Rawlings’ successor in 2001.

* One of the aides held the Ghanaian high jump record at the time of his death, a mark not surpassed until 1996.

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