1477: Hugonet and Humbercourt, in the wreck of Burgundy

Add comment April 3rd, 2019 Headsman

Willem Hugonet and Guy van Brimeu, officials of the collapsing Burgundian polity, were executed in Ghent on this date in 1477 for their failed diplomatic intrigue.

This moment fell just weeks after Burgundy itself had received her own fatal blow, at least as far as independent political standing goes: the death in battle on January 5 of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. Charles had proven himself an energetically expansionist prince.

Charles’s dominions compassed not only Burgundy itself, but a swath of territory running up to Flanders and the Low Countries, a strip that was being squeezed by the rising powers of France to the west and Austria to the east. He had no male heir, so his 19-year-old daughter Mary succeeded him in title — but not in power. France and Austria immediately began sizing up Burgundy for dismemberment, a mission they accomplished within a few short years. And while both dynasties sought Mary’s inheritance via matrimony, more direct methods were also employed.

Before January was out, the French king Louis XI had already pressed into Picardy and Artois* with a scheming mix of armed intimidation and invocation of feudal rights — seeking Flanders and its rich trading cities like Ghent, where our executions will take place. These places, too, saw their opportunity to seek their own advantage; Burgundy had enforced its authority in Ghent at the point of the sword, bloodily crushing a revolt not 30 years before. In Flanders and Brabant, “the confirmation of the tidings of [Charles the Bold’s] death had been received with general feelings of relief and joy,” according to the Cambridge Modern History. “And throughout the Netherlands it was resolved to make the most of the opportunity.” There was no love lost between these locales and their Burgundian overlords, yet these places also feared the potential domination of Burgundy’s rivals. As a first step, the principal cities of the Low Countries immediately forced the weakened sovereign — who was personally stuck in Ghent when the dread news of her father’s fate arrived — to cede them a wide grant of privileges.

Meanwhile, Mary herself extended feelers to the neighboring empires, and it is here that our principal characters enter the story. Charles’s old chancellor, Willem Hugonet and the Picardy-born knight Guy of Brimeu, Sire of Humbercourt** — French-friendly Burgundians both reviled of Ghent — prevailed on Mary to seek what terms they could France. Returning to the Cambridge Modern History,

Louis seems to have, by private communications with Hugonet and d’Himbercourt, secured their adherence to the marriage-scheme [between Mary of Burgundy and the six-year-old French Dauphin]. At Arras, of which he took possession in March, 1477, he received a deputation from Ghent, and — playing the kind of double game which his soul loved — revealed to them the confidence reposed by Mary in the privy councillors detested by the city.

Thus, on the return of the civic deputies to Ghent, the storm broke out. The city was already in a condition of ferment; some of the partisans of the old regime had been put to death; and the agitation, which had spread to Ypres and as far as Mons, was increased by the claims put forward at Ghent on behalf of the restoration of Liegeois independence by the Bishop of Liege … distracted by her fears, Mary seems actually to have countenanced Hugonet’s final proposal that she should quit Flanders and place herself under the protection of the French King, when at the last moment Ravenstein induced her to reveal the design. He immediately informed the representative of the vier landen, and the deans of the trades of Ghent, and on the same night (March 4) Hugonet, d’Himbercourt and de Clugny were placed under arrest. A rumour having been spread that their liberation was to be attempted, and news having arrived of the resolute advance of the French forces, new disturbances followed; and Mary issued an ordinance naming a mixed commission of nobles and civic officials to try the accused with all due expedition (March 28). She afterwards interceded in favour of one or both of the lay prisoners (for de Clugny was saved by his benefit of clergy), and at a later date expressed her sympathy with the widow and orphans of d’Himbercourt, the extent of whose share in the Chancellor’s schemes remains unknown. After being subjected to torture, both were executed on April 3. They met with short shrift at the hands of their judges; but they cannot be said to have been sacrificed to a mere gust of democratic passion; and Mary and her Council, and the other Estates of the Netherlands assembled at Ghent, were with the city itself and the sister Flemish towns one and all involved in the responsibility of the deed.

This backlash closed all avenues to French nuptials; within weeks, Mary was engaged to the Habsburg Archduke Maximilian (they wed that August) and France and Austria fell into outright war over the Burgundian patrimonies, the resolution of which boiled down to Habsburg authority in the Low Countries and French absorption of most of the rest, including Burgundy proper.

* As well as, further inland, Franche-Comte, bordering the Duchy of Burgundy itself.

** Two years before this, Guy had personally extradited the rebellious Louis of Luxembourg to France for execution.

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1475: Louis de Luxembourg, Count of Saint-Pol

Add comment December 19th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1475, the Louis de Luxembourg, Count of Saint-Pol was beheaded.

The French King Louis XI “had need of a head such as his” because of Louis de Luxembourg’s part in the pompously self-styled League of the Public Weal. The “public weal” in question comprised civil war on behalf of feudal prerogatives that had slipped from aristocratic hands during the Hundred Years’ War.

They were led by the ruthless Duke of Burgundy Charles the Bold.

Louis de Luxembourg’s allegiance with Charles the Bold netted him, during the League’s successes, the title of Constable of France and the hand of the queen’s sister as inducements from Louis XI.

But Saint-Pol was not the type to stay bought.

Treacherously maneuvering between the Burgundian party, the royals, and the English (Luxembourg’s uncle sold Joan of Arc to the English, so they went way back) Louis eventually managed to irritate them all. He ultimately hatched a plan to assassinate Louis XI himself and fracture the French realm among a variety of great lords.

The English and French kings having acquainted each other with the comte’s underhanded schemes on their respective sides of the channel, Saint-Pol was obliged to seek Charles the Bold’s protection — but the latter had himself contracted with the French crown to hand him over if captured, and duly forwarded the traitor to the Bastille. (There’s more about Saint-Pol’s prosecution in this volume.)

Louis did his sovereign one last little injury on his way off this mortal coil: sixty additional sous were required by the executioner of Paris “for having the old sword done up, which was damaged, and had become notched whilst carrying out the sentence of justice upon Messire Louis de Luxembourg.”

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1484: Olivier le Daim, diabolical barber

1 comment May 21st, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1484, the onetime royal barber turned noble scoundrel was hanged at the terrifying Montfaucon gibbet.

Jolly grotesque “Olivier le Necker” (“Olivier the Devil”) statue in Tielt, Belgium. (cc) image from Zeisterre.

The scheming Olivier le Daim (English Wikipedia page | French), who ought to be patron saint of networking, got himself a gig as the sovereign’s coiffeur and glad-handed his way from straight razors all the way to the aristocracy. A presumably smooth-shaved Louis XI created him comte de Meulant.

Louis was an inveterate schemer known as the “Universal Spider”, and Olivier — excuse me, the comte — from his sprawling fortified manor proved an eager confederate. As Louis had a gift for infuriating the realm’s noble houses, he liked to elevate commoners into his entourage, men like our “Meulant” and Cardinal Balue whose loyalty could be relied upon since they owed their positions to the crown.

“That terrible Figaro whom Providence, the great maker of dramas, mingled so artistically in the long and bloody comedy of the reign of Louis XI,” Victor Hugo wrote of our man in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. “This barber of the king had three names. At court he was politely called Olivier le Daim (the Deer); among the people Olivier the Devil. His real name was Olivier le Mauvais.” [Meaning “the bad”, as with “Charles le Mauvais”, the king Charles the Bad — a real bastard.]

With the disintegration of Burgundy following the death of Charles the Bold, le Daim was sent to that duchy’s Belgian reaches to connive them into French hands.

In the great tradition of commoners handpicked for royal favor “the Devil” attracted plenty of resentment displaced from the king himself.

And if, according to everyone else, Oliver the Bad was a swaggering, nasty villain, he still remained loyal to Louis all the way to the latter’s deathbed. Louis recommended him to his successors’ favor, but once the Spider King was gone the put-upon lords of the realm vented their blueblooded spleens upon Olivier. (A servant of Olivier’s named Daniel also suffered the same fate.)

It’s not clear to me that history records the exact charge furnishing the pretext for his execution this date — this suggests abuse of his power to order executions — but it does certainly bequeath us this epitaph:

Cii gist le Diable
Baptisé le Dain
Jugé pendable
Barbier suzerain

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1474: Not the Archer of Meudon

Add comment January 30th, 2011 Headsman

On an uncertain date in January 1474, a condemned archer* escaped the noose by volunteering to endure an experimental living vivisection for kidney stones.

The authority for this incident is a single medieval chronicle with just enough context to tantalize:

In January, 1474, an archer of Meudon was condemned for many robberies, and especially for robbing the church at Meudon, to be hanged at Paris. He appealed to the Parlement which confirmed the sentence. Then the physicians and surgeons of the city represented to the king that many and divers persons were grievously molested and tormented by stone, colic, and pains in the side, with which the said archer was also much troubled, and that Monseigneur du Bouchaige (a favourite courtier mentioned by Comines) was sorely afflicted by the said maladies, and that it would be very useful to see the places where these maladies are concreted, and that this could be best done by vivisecting a human being, which could be well effected on the person of the said archer, who was also about to suffer death. Which opening and incision was accordingly done on the body of the said archer, and the place of the said maladies having been sought out and examined, his bowels were replaced and he was sewn up again. And by the king’s command the wound was well dressed, so that he was perfectly healed within a fortnight, and he received a free pardon, and some money was given him as well.

-translation from William J. Bishop’s The Early History of Surgery

Pretty cool, and possibly the earliest semi-convincingly documented case of human vivisection in Europe.

Assuming it did really go down, it seems to have made little immediate impression on contemporaries, but it was gradually recovered in centuries later — and the medical achievement really improved in retrospect.

These few lines inflated into a story, a myth of French medicine: in the first place, the unspecified ailment became identified with kidney stones; a heroic and brilliant Italian-trained French physician named Germain Colot (or Collot)** was fabricated as the genius behind the procedure; even Louis XI turns up personally to observe.


Antoine Rivoulon’s 1851 lithograph valorizes the mythical 19th century version of the Archer of Meudon’s surgery as the first kidney stone operation, undertaken by legendary surgeon Germain Colot, and in the very presence of the sovereign. The archer looks pretty chill himself, given his situation.

“Why this story has disappeared from view is almost as baffling as its origin,” observe Vivian and Christine Nutton in their fascinating survey† of the archer’s historiography. “”Patriotic’ history … has not entirely fallen out of favour.”

One major reason is not to be sought in a library but in the operating theater. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, this story could be seen as having a practical value: it provided proof that this or that procedure, whether to remove a stone from the bladder or the kidney, could be followed safely and effectively. A modern operation could thus be given historical support, which might tip the balance in deciding which of a number of competing possible courses should be followed. John Douglas’s reprinting of the relevant sections in Rousset was an avowed attempt to secure backing for his new and controversial operation for the stone. But with the advent of anesthesia and aseptic surgery, the priorities of surgeons themselves changed in choosing how to operate … There was no need to scrutinize the historical record to establish the most effective way to proceed.

* We digress to notice that the francs-archers to which our offender belonged were a peasant militia established by Charles VII: archers received tax abatements in exchange for regular practice with the bow.

Charles’s best-known military innovation was elevating raving teenager Joan of Arc to battlefield command. Since God helps those best who help themselves, Charles also evidently was cagey enough to take a warning from rival England’s devastating use of the longbow during the Hundred Years’ War. Nice idea, but by this point the archers were “havens for tax exemption … units of ill-disciplined men” — much like our marauding, but fortuitously afflicted, patient.

They were used rarely and ineffectively, and soon after making their mark in the annals of surgery, replaced entirely by foreign mercenaries.

** “Germain Colot” connected a lineage to French lithotomy by way of the historically verifiable 16th century doctor Laurent Colot. As of this writing, Laurent’s Wikipedia page still asserts the existence of this phantom ancestor.

† Nutton, Vivian and Nutton, Christine, “The Archer of Meudon: A Curious Absence of Continuity in the History of Medicine,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Volume 58, Number 4, October 2003, pp. 401-427

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1468: Charles de Melun, governor of Paris

Add comment August 22nd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1468, Charles de Melun (French link) was executed at Andelys by Louis XI on a trumped-up treason charge.

The execution stemmed from a civil war fought by crown against nobles struggling to preserve their feudal rights — and specifically, a 1465 battle won by the nobles’ intrepid standard-bearer Charles the Bold. Louis was grumpy at his governor of Paris for not relieving him in time, and when the wheel of courtly politics turned sufficiently, that incident supplied enough suspicion to destroy Melun.

Hear now of Melun from The History of the Bastile, and of Its Principal Captives.

The war, caused by the League of the Public Good, which restored liberty and fortune to Chabannes, deprived his enemy, the count de Melun, not only of both, but of life also. When we are told that Melun was so addicted to pleasure, luxury and sloth, as to have acquired the name of the Sardanapalus of his times, we can form no very flattering estimate of his character. Yet he stood high in the good graces of Louis XI, and participated largely in the spoils of Chabannes. In his capacity of governor of Paris and the Bastile, he was also entrusted with the custody of that nobleman. It was not till after the battle of Montlheri that Louis began to suspect him. The monarch had, indeed, some excuse for suspicion. Melun had at least been criminally negligent, in a post which demanded the utmost vigilance. He had prevented a sally from the city during the battle, which might have turned the scale in the king’s favour, and he had been ignorant of, or winked at, a correspondence carried on with the chiefs of the League by some of the disaffected citizens. These indications of treachery were strengthened by two circumstances; some of the cannon of the Bastile had been spiked, and the gates of the fortress, on the side next the country, had been left open while the besiegers were making an attack. The escape of Chabannes might also afford a reason for doubting his keeper’s fidelity. Louis, however, was, at this moment, too closely pressed by his numerous enemies to enter into an investigation of the subject; and he, therefore, only dismissed the governor.


The Battle of Montlhery

Melun retired to his estates, and imagined that the storm was blown over. He was mistaken. As soon as Louis had disembarrassed himself, he instituted a rigid enquiry into the conduct of his disgraced favourite. One of the most active in pushing it on was a man who was indebted to the count for his rise in life; the cardinal Balue, of whom further mention is about to be made. The result of the enquiry was, a charge of having maintained a secret correspondence with the heads of the League, especially with the duke of Britanny. Melun was in consequence arrested, and conveyed to Chateau Galliard, in Normandy, by the provost Tristan l’Hermite, of infamous memory.*

The trial was commenced without delay, and, as he refused to confess to any crime, he was put to the torture. With respect to his correspondence with the chiefs of the League, he avowed it, but pleaded that it had the king’s sanction. It is probable that this was really the case. Many motives might have induced the king to allow of his officer corresponding with the enemy. But Louis had now resolved upon the destruction of Melun; and, as he never scrupled at falsehood when he had any point to gain by it, he denied that he had given the permission. By adding that he had long had cause to be dissatisfied with the prisoner, he gave a broad hint as to what kind of verdict he desired.** The judges, as in duty bound, pronounced Melun guilty, and he was consigned to the scaffold. His execution took place in 1468. Of his confiscated property, a considerable portion was bestowed on Charbannes.

It is said, that the executioner having only wounded him at the first stroke, Melun raised his head from the block, and declared, that he had not deserved death, but that, since the king willed it, he was satisfied. If this be true, we must own that tame submission to the injustice of a despot was never more strikingly displayed.

Had Melun lived but a little longer, he might have triumphed in the downfall and punishment of his ungrateful enemy, the cardinal, which took place in 1469 … The cardinal, and his his friend and agent William d’Harancourt, bishop of Verdun, were in close correspondence with his enemies.†

Though Melun generally goes down as a guy who caught a bum rap — probably even Louis XI thought so, given the subsequent fall of Melun’s rivals — this 19th century history of France observes that such consideration turns on noblesse oblige, for while “such crime on the part of a burgess was considered worthy of death, nobles practised breach of faith as a pastime, and a lucrative one, until it was rendered a serious matter by sending the guilty to the scaffold.”

* For instance, in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tristan l’Hermite is the man dispatched by Louis XI to seize Esmeralda from the cathedral for hanging.

** According to The Law of Treason and Treason Trials in Later Medieval France, Louis XI actually testified at Melun’s trial. Talk about a star witness.

† More about Balue’s disgrace here.

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