1415: French prisoners at the Battle of Agincourt

4 comments October 25th, 2009 dogboy

This day is called the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day and comes safe home,
Will stand o’ tiptoe when the day is named
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall see this day, and live old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbors
And say, “Tomorrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say, “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.”

…And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.

Henry V, Act 4, Scene 3

In the world of Henry V, the Battle of Agincourt is a source of bursting pride for the English, a wellspring of superiority over the French and proof of the soul of those from the Isle. In spite of the inspiring speeches, the battle has passed into history as one of the enduring examples of a well-positioned army besting a much larger force.

Were it not for the story of the triumphant underdog, Agincourt would have fallen into international obscurity with much of the Hundred Years’ War, a simmering conflict for the French throne that spanned from 1337 to 1453. The notoriety of the Hundred Years’ War comes not from its intensity but from its longevity and breadth: an international conflict that swept up hundreds of wealthy European houses, it featured the first significant post-Roman standing armies, organized cavalry, and formative nationalism in both France and England.

The interminable war centered around the English crown’s claim to succession of the French throne — a claim events had overtaken by the end of the conflict in 1453 — and had already been going off and on for nearly eighty years as we lay our scene in 1415, with King Henry V of England initiating what would be known as the Lancastrian War.

Henry’s English and Welsh forces battered the French port of Harfleur starting in August 1415, which was the first holding to fall to the invading army. Almost immediately after taking control in late September of that year, the English king made a curious decision to march across Northern France from Harfleur to Calais, approximately 100 miles away.

As he tromped northeast, French troops shadowed his movements, and Henry made several attempts to shake them. After passing through Frévent, Henry turned his men north. He crossed the last major tributary of the Canche River south of Maisoncelle, hopeful that the exhausting trip was nearly through. His scouts, however, had hairy news for their king: the French force had cut the corner and was amassing north of their position. The way was blocked.

Archer? I Hardly Knew Her!

Agincourt (now spelled Azincourt) lay across a ploughed field from Tramecourt, making for a narrow defile not suited to maximizing the French force’s advantage in numbers and heavy cavalry.

Nevertheless, that advantage was considerable, or at least has conventionally been thought so, and it was in the face of desperately dwindling supplies that Henry was forced to initiate battle. The opposing French forces, ostensibly commanded by Constable Charles d’Albret, Comte de Dreux, and Marshal Boucicaut, Jean Le Maingre, allegedly outnumbered the British by at least 2 to 1 (estimates range as high as 6 to 1*).

The English drew up longbowmen in a wedge along the woods adjacent the field (map), and it was these positions that provided the decisive turn.

When the Gallic banners advanced, the English archers moved into firing range and dug in palings they had hastily manufactured from the local forest; this made a direct assault problematic while the woods prevented a flanking maneuver. French cavalry attempted to dislodge them with a concerted assault, but the defensive postures held, and the cavalry was turned away. All the while, the hail of arrows mowed down the flower of French chivalry, whose lines crumbled in panic and disorder.

As one contemporaneous account states**:

Before, however, the general attack commenced, numbers of the French were slain and severely wounded by the English bowmen. At length the English gained on them so much, and were so close, that excepting the front line, and such as had shortened their lances, the enemy could not raise their hands against them. The division under sir Clugnet de Brabant, of eight hundred men-at-arms, who were intended to break through the English archers, were reduced to seven score, who vainly attempted it. True it is, that sir William de Saveuses, who had been also ordered on this service, quitted his troop, thinking they would follow him, to attack the English, but he was shot dead from off his horse. The others had their horses so severely handled by the archers, that, smarting from pain, they galloped on the van division and threw it into the utmost confusion, breaking the line in many places. The horses were become unmanageable, so that horses and riders were tumbling on the ground, and the whole army was thrown into disorder, and forced back on some lands that had been just sown with corn. Others, from fear of death, fled; and this caused so universal a panic in the army that great part followed the example.

A confused chain of command in the French camp (the English, of course, were personally commanded by their sovereign) facilitated the rout.

Despite their military status, d’Albret and Boucicaut were outranked by several of the nobles heading the lines behind them, said nobles being prone to glory-seeking freelance charges as chivalrous as they were tactically unavailing. The Constable led the front line, followed by the Duke of Bar and the Duke of d’Alençon.

After the disastrous first charge, what remained of the second line moved in to join the fray. The French peasantry was massacred during the fight, and Constable d’Albret and the Duke of d’Alençon, along with the Duke of Orleans and Duke of Barant, along with several other nobles, fell during the assault, further disorganizing the French. (The highest-ranking English casualty was the Duke of York.)

With thousands of French dead, the third line, headed by the Count of Merle and Count of Falconberg, fell away before they entered the battle. While England’s longbows dominated the field, France’s bowmen never even participated in the battle, squeezed to the back by too many bluebloods demanding the right to charge.

Only 100-200 English are thought to have died this day; the death toll for the French was in the thousands, with hundreds more taken prisoner.


Uh-oh.

It is a portion of this lot summarily executed during the battle who offer this blog an excuse to survey the battlefield.

After a successful raid on the English supply van — the signal French achievement in the battle, and one that briefly threatened to knock out the monarch himself and turn the tide — Henry got worried that his oversized contingent of French prisoners was liable to get loose and wreak havoc in his rear. He issued the expedient but decidedly unseemly order to put his captives to death.†

Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4 of this documentary, which among other things unpacks the longbow’s actual role in the victory, given that English arrows could not penetrate French knights’ plate armor.

The Battle of Agincourt has inspired innumerable interpreters, from Shakespeare to Star Trek.

Shakespeare’s classic Henry V is frequently staged, and has hit the silver screen multiply — here’s Laurence Olivier’s version of the stirring St. Crispin’s Day speech followed by the start of battle from the 1944 production addressed to the martial fervor of World War II.

There are plans to adapt Bernard Cornwell’s Agincourt to film as well.

In the nonfiction world, Lt. Col Alfred Burne’s The Agincourt War focuses on the military side of the battle while Juliet Barker’s Agincourt: The King, the Campaign, the Battle and Agincourt: Henry V and the Battle That Made England.

The year after Agincourt, Henry V claimed all of Normandy, and in subsequent years forced the French to sign the Treaty of Troyes in 1420, which established the line of succession for Henry’s heirs to unify the crowns of the adversaries. Henry’s grand plan was foiled by his untimely death just two months after the death of King Charles VI of France, which left Henry VI — then less than a year old — as the heir to both English and French thrones.

The Dauphin Charles of France, officially disinherited by Troyes but still widely supported in France, swooped in to claim power in France, but internal dissent made his rule difficult; 30 years later (and after the intervention of Joan of Arc), Charles finally expelled the English from Aquitaine, and brought all France together not under the House of Lancaster but under the House of Valois.

* Accounts are sketchy in this regard. Some modern analysis puts the values at 4:3 for the French. However, contemporaneous accounts suggest a much heavier French advantage. Of course, people are notoriously bad at crowd estimation.

** Translation by Thomas Johnes.

† Shakespeare covers this notorious massacre as well, in Act 4, Scene 6 (the next scene opens with Englishmen horrified at the order, but the matter drops as they realize they’ve won the battle)

Alarum
But, hark! what new alarum is this same?
The French have reinforced their scatter’d men:
Then every soldier kill his prisoners:
Give the word through.

Part of the Daily Double: Agincourt.

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1415: Bardolph, Hal’s friend

5 comments October 24th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1415, on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, the young English King Henry V approved the execution of his onetime boon companion Bardolph in William Shakespeare’s Henry V.

The fictional Bardolph had been the ruddy-nosed friend of Henry’s in the Henry IV plays (Part 1, Part 2), where the hard-drinking, rabble-rousing young prince is a disappointment to the father who fears his heir will never merit the throne.

By Henry V, the boy has become the ruler, and launched an audacious incursion into France during the Hundred Years’ War.

Hal’s willingness to own the rough decisions of statecraft — in this case having his friend put to death further to his win-French-hearts-and-minds policy — is part of his coming of age as Henry V.

Whether that means Hal’s maturation into regal dignity or the corruption of his humanity by power is up to the reader.

KING

How now Fluellen, cam’st thou from the Bridge?

FLUELLEN

I, so please your Maiestie: The Duke of Exeter
ha’s very gallantly maintain’d the Pridge; the French is
gone off, looke you, and there is gallant and most praue
passages: marry, th’ athuersarie was haue possession of
the Pridge, but he is enforced to retyre, and the Duke of
Exeter is Master of the Pridge: I can tell your Maiestie,
the Duke is a praue man

KING

What men haue you lost, Fluellen?

FLUELLEN

The perdition of th’ athuersarie hath beene very
great, reasonnable great: marry for my part, I thinke the
Duke hath lost neuer a man, but one that is like to be executed
for robbing a Church, one Bardolph, if your Maiestie
know the man: his face is all bubukles and whelkes,
and knobs, and flames a fire, and his lippes blowes at his
nose, and it is like a coale of fire, sometimes plew, and
sometimes red, but his nose is executed, and his fire’s
out

KING

Wee would haue all such offendors so cut off:
and we giue expresse charge, that in our Marches through
the Countrey, there be nothing compell’d from the Villages;
nothing taken, but pay’d for: none of the French
vpbrayded or abused in disdainefull Language; for when
Leuitie and Crueltie play for a Kingdome, the gentler
Gamester is the soonest winner.

This is Laurence Olivier’s 1944 version of the scene, with the commoner Bardolph well off-camera:

… and Kenneth Branagh’s more pathos-laden 1989 interpretation, with the king wavering a moment as he locks eyes with his doomed subject, and flashing back to bygone scenes of conviviality before delivering his troop the stern lesson of his friend’s strangling:

Although Bardolph himself and his prior relationship with his sovereign are fiction, the action of the scene actually proceeds from reality. Shakespeare has (as is his wont) cribbed Holinshed, who relates that Henry’s army was under strict orders not to pillage the countryside, and observed that discipline to a man —

except one, which was, that a souldiour tooke a pix out of a church, for which he was apprehended, and the king not once remooved [i.e., he halted] till the box was restored, and the offendor strangled. The people of the countries thereabout, hearing of such zeale in him, to the maintenance of justice, ministered to his armie victuals, and other necessaries, although by open proclamation so to doo they were prohibited.*

* As quoted in the very apt 1992 “Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth and the Law of War” by Theodor Meron, American Journal of International Law, vol. 86, no. 1.

Part of the Daily Double: Agincourt.

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1942: The village of Lidice, for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich

18 comments June 10th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1942, the Germans visited upon the Czechoslovakian village of Lidice one of the most notorious butcheries of World War II: the physical destruction of the town, and the execution of most of the adult population, in revenge for the assassination of Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich.

Heydrich had power of life and death in Nazi-occupied Bohemia and Moravia, and did not scruple to use it.

“The Hangman of Prague” was no mere functionary, but a Nazi grand wizard from way back, who’d had a hand in the Third Reich’s most terrifying greatest hits — the Night of the Long Knives, Kristallnacht. Just four months before this date, Heydrich had chaired the Wannsee Conference.* (Watch Kenneth Branagh as Heydrich ride herd over a gaggle of bureaucrats to get the Final Solution up and running in Conspiracy.) Hitler called him his “man with the iron heart.”

So he was a natural target for the Czechoslovakian army-in-exile and their British handlers, made more so by his lordly disdain for common-sense security safeguards.

Zipping along a predictable route in an open car, he was a sitting duck for a hit squad, who gave the Nazi bastard a mortal shrapnel wound from a grenade that had him lingering painfully at death’s door for several days before he finally died of blood poisoning.

The 1964 Czechoslovakian film Atentat (“Assassination”) chronicles the plot to kill Heydrich and its aftermath.

For this effrontery, Czechoslovakians would pay a dreadful price.

Naturally, the Nazis mercilessly hunted down and slaughtered those with any connection to the plot.

But the Reich also exacted collective reprisals to make plain that the entire “protectorate” could be considered hostage against such plots in the future.

Special transports of Jews marked “Attentat auf Heydrich” were shipped to the camps, and 152 were executed on the day Heydrich succumbed. But then, the Nazis were brutalizing Jews anyway. Something more headline-grabbing would be needed.

Enter Lidice.

After gaudy funerals for the slain Reichsprotektor, the Reich settled upon the small town of Lidice north of Prague — trumping up a few connections to resistance to “justify” collective punishment.

On this date, German troops stormed it, summarily executed all the men and boys** old enough to bear arms and a fair number of women, deported the others, and then physically destroyed and buried the town.

Lidice was intended as a demonstration — boldly published to the world as proof against a repeat,† it became the byword of Nazi cruelty towards subject nations. Though not by quantitative standards the greatest crime of the occupation, not even the greatest crime in reprisal for Heydrich, its three syllables distill all the evil of Hitler’s conquest for Czechoslovakia.

Lidice did live, and does yet, as an emblem par excellence those terrible years.

Less alive: Heydrich’s right-hand man Karl Hermann Frank, who was hanged in Prague after the war for engineering this monstrous crime. Those survivors of Lidice able to make the trip enjoyed priority seating.

* Heydrich’s aide at the Wannsee Conference, and taker of cleaned-up minutes, was Mr. Banality of Evil himself, Adolf Eichmann.

** Only three men of Lidice survived the destruction: two who were in England at that time, and one who was imprisoned in Prague for killing his son. The sentence for this crime, it turned out, was life.

† An effective proof — the calculated wholesale slaughter apparently did cool both the conquered populace and the enemies of Germany on enthusiasm for further assassinations.

On this day..

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Unspecified Year: Justine Moritz, Frankenstein family servant

5 comments June 23rd, 2008 Headsman

Around this date in the unspecified 18th-century year of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the titular family’s servant is put to death for the murder of their youngest child, William.

In the novel, smarty-pants university student Victor Frankenstein has created (and immediately rejected) his famous monster. Not long after, he receives a letter (dated May 12, “17–“) from his father informing him of the murder of his youngest brother.

About five in the morning I discovered my lovely boy, whom the night before I had seen blooming and active in health, stretched on the grass livid and motionless; the print of the murder’s finger was on his neck.

Covering the 600-plus kilometers home to Geneva, Victor becomes convinced that his creation is the culprit.* But upon reaching his destination, he finds that circumstantial evidence has accused the family’s blameless (and ironically named) servant, Justine.

He’s back just in time to watch, in horror, as she’s convicted — impotent (or at least that’s what he tells himself) to help her with his fantastical truth, and despairingly watching her friends abandon her to her fate.

Justine has grown up with Victor and the others, so the entire Frankenstein family remains convinced of the servant’s innocence, though they’re practically alone in Geneva in that belief.

A woodcut illustration of Justine in prison, by Lynd Ward — as seen here.

Shelley includes an interesting passage in which Justine (having already been convicted) is battered by her priest into falsely confessing to the crime. Though clearly anti-clerical in intent, it’s also a moment with remarkable current resonance given the prevalence of false confessions in modern wrongful conviction scenarios:

“I did confess, but I confessed a lie. I confessed, that I might obtain absolution; but now that falsehood lies heavier at my heart than all my other sins. The God of heaven forgive me! Ever since I was condemned, my confessor has besieged me; he threatened and menaced, until I almost began to think that I was the monster that he said I was. He threatened excommunication and hell fire in my last moments if I continued obdurate. Dear lady, I had none to support me; all looked on me as a wretch doomed to ignominy and perdition. What could I do? In an evil hour I subscribed to a lie; and now only am I truly miserable.”

The poor woman’s fate is sealed either way — and in her parting conversation with Victor and his future wife Elizabeth, we find Justine more at peace than the monster’s creator:

“I do not fear to die,” [Justine] said; “that pang is past. God raises my weakness and gives me courage to endure the worst. I leave a sad and bitter world; and if you remember me and think of me as of one unjustly condemned, I am resigned to the fate awaiting me. Learn from me, dear lady, to submit in patience to the will of heaven!”

During this conversation I [Victor] had retired to a corner of the prison room, where I could conceal the horrid anguish that possessed me. Despair! Who dared talk of that? The poor victim, who on the morrow was to pass the awful boundary between life and death, felt not, as I did, such deep and bitter agony.

“In these last moments I feel the sincerest gratitude towards those who think of me with kindness. How sweet is the affection of others to such a wretch as I am! It removes more than half my misfortune, and I feel as if I could die in peace now that my innocence is acknowledged by you, dear lady, and your cousin.”

Thus the poor sufferer tried to comfort others and herself. She indeed gained the resignation she desired. But I, the true murderer, felt the never-dying worm alive in my bosom, which allowed of no hope or consolation. Elizabeth also wept and was unhappy, but hers also was the misery of innocence, which, like a cloud that passes over the fair moon, for a while hides but cannot tarnish its brightness. Anguish and despair had penetrated into the core of my heart; I bore a hell within me which nothing could extinguish. We stayed several hours with Justine, and it was with great difficulty that Elizabeth could tear herself away. “I wish,” cried she, “that I were to die with you; I cannot live in this world of misery.”

Justine assumed an air of cheerfulness, while she with difficulty repressed her bitter tears. She embraced Elizabeth and said in a voice of half-suppressed emotion, “Farewell, sweet lady, dearest Elizabeth, my beloved and only friend; may heaven, in its bounty, bless and preserve you; may this be the last misfortune that you will ever suffer! Live, and be happy, and make others so.”

And on the morrow** Justine died. Elizabeth’s heart-rending eloquence failed to move the judges from their settled conviction in the criminality of the saintly sufferer. My passionate and indignant appeals were lost upon them. And when I received their cold answers and heard the harsh, unfeeling reasoning of these men, my purposed avowal died away on my lips. Thus I might proclaim myself a madman, but not revoke the sentence passed upon my wretched victim. She perished on the scaffold as a murderess!

Shelley gives us quite the gentle picture of the Frankenstein family, in which Victor is practically the only exponent of vengeance after the dreadful crime. Even the father’s initial letter home, written in the immediate shock after discovering the boy’s body, summons his son to come

not brooding thoughts of vengeance against the assassin, but with feelings of peace and gentleness, that will heal, instead of festering, the wounds of our minds.

After the hanging, dad again endeavors to keep Victor from wasting himself on rage … which it seems that Victor would have readily assented to had he not carried his secret burden of guilt:

“Do you think, Victor,” said he, “that I do not suffer also? No one could love a child more than I loved your brother” — tears came into his eyes as he spoke — “but is it not a duty to the survivors that we should refrain from augmenting their unhappiness by an appearance of immoderate grief? It is also a duty owed to yourself, for excessive sorrow prevents improvement or enjoyment, or even the discharge of daily usefulness, without which no man is fit for society.”

This advice, although good, was totally inapplicable to my case; I should have been the first to hide my grief and console my friends if remorse had not mingled its bitterness, and terror its alarm, with my other sensations.

Frankenstein is available free at Project Gutenberg. Of course, it has been adapted many times into other cultural artifacts; these are somewhat famous for their infidelity to the original work, and Justine tends to get short shrift in most (although she’s hanged in quite an over-the-top spectacle in the 1994 Kenneth Branagh vehicle Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (review here)).

If Justine is usually pulled from the story, Hollywood has found a role for the scaffold elsewhere. Where Shelley has Victor haunting “charnel houses” and the like, the seminal and oft-imitated 1931 Boris Karloff film makes a point to include a hanged criminal for some of the creature’s parts — although “the brain is useless”:

But a criminal brain finds its way into the monster just the same, an explanation of its behavior completely antithetical to Mary Shelley’s:

* He’s right, of course — the creature later admits it — but you could certainly quibble with Victor’s methodology:

Nothing in human shape could have destroyed the fair child. HE was the murderer! I could not doubt it. The mere presence of the idea was an irresistible proof of the fact.

** The precise date is never disclosed, but the events are roughly dated by Victor’s subsequent narration, “it was about the middle of the month of August, nearly two months after the death of Justine, that miserable epoch from which I dated all my woe.”

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