1314: Jacques de Molay, last Templar Grand Master

9 comments March 18th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1314, the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar was burned in Paris.


Illustration of Jacques de Molay and Geoffroi de Charney burning on Paris’s Île de la Cité.

In a boring materialist history, Jacques de Molay was simply the head of an overrich military order whose crusading raison d’etre had become passe* with the Templars’ expulsion from the Holy Land.

Scores of trumped-up heresy charges did the work of ecclesiastical assassination for this renowned brotherhood originally founded to safeguard pilgrims in the Holy Land. (There’s a fine podcast episode on the Templars’ history here.)

This appears to be some sort of legitimate history. How droll!

Ruthless French King Philip the Fair, who owed the Templar banks a ton of cash, mounted in 1307 a, um, surprise nationalization — with the magnificently coordinated arrest of hundreds of members of the order on Friday, Oct. 13, 1307.**

This was, on the face of it, quite an infringement by the secular power upon the Church, but since Pope Clement V was Philip’s very own sock puppet — to the extent of relocating the papacy to Avignon the better to attend to his master — it was all good. Plus, of course, everyone made out with a big pile of loot.

As the interested parties jockeyed over those confiscated estates, there ensued for the once-powerful, now-proscribed order a years-long saga of torture, burnings (of lower-ranking Templars), salacious Baphomet-worship revelations, juridical maneuvering, and, finally, a compromise life-saving confession which Molay and his associate Geoffroi de Charney dramatically spurned.

The cardinals dallied with their duty until March 1314, when, on a scaffold in front of Notre Dame, Jacques de Molay, Templar Grand Master, Geoffroi de Charney, Master of Normandy, Ilugues de Peraud, Visitor of France, and Godefroi de Gonneville, Master of Aquitaine, were brought forth from the jail in which for nearly seven years they had lain, to receive the sentence agreed upon by the cardinals, in conjunction with the Archbishop of Sens and some other prelates whom they had called in. Considering the offences which the culprits had confessed and confirmed, the penance imposed was in accordance with rule—that of perpetual imprisonment. The affair was supposed to be concluded when, to the dismay of the prelates and wonderment of the assembled crowd, de Molay and Geoffroi de Charney arose. They had been guilty, they said, not of the crimes imputed to them, but of basely betraying their Order to save their own lives. It was pure and holy; the charges were fictitious and the confessions false. Hastily the cardinals delivered them to the Prevot of Paris, and retired to deliberate on this unexpected contingency, but they were saved all trouble. ‘When the news was carried to Philippe he was furious. A short consultation with his council only was required. The canons pronounced that a relapsed heretic was to be burned without a hearing; the facts were notorious and no formal judgment by the papal commission need be waited for. That same day, by sunset, a pile was erected on a small island in the Seine, the Isle des Juifs, near the palace garden. There de Molay and de Charney were slowly burned to death, refusing all offers of pardon for retraction, and bearing their torment with a composure which won for them the reputation of martyrs among the people, who reverently collected their ashes as relics.’

A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages, Vol III

Not bad, but the for a real plot twist, check the Templars’ turn — most famously in Dan Brown’s leaden bestseller The Da Vinci Code, but more entertainingly rendered as nonfiction “speculative history” in Holy Blood, Holy Grail — as mystic guardians of Christological secrets.†

Their most sensational secret: the Holy Grail.

In this reworking, the Cup of Christ is not the San Greal but the Sang Real, God’s own royal bloodline, by way (for some reason) of the French Merovingian dynasty.

The Templars and Jacques de Molay himself, this story goes, are just part of a centuries-long vanguard of Christianity’s mystical underground. Say, is that Jacques on the Shroud of Turin?

Thither this blog dares not venture, but those with the requisite inclination towards the occult will find limitless explorations of the theme for ready sale. All we ask, gentle reader, is that you kindly cut us in on the action by using our handy affiliate links.

In what may be yet another mystical just-so story, Molay is said to have foretold, as the flames consumed him, the deaths of his persecutors.

Pope Clement, Chevalier Guillaume de Nogaret [the prosecuting inquisitor], King Philip! I summon you to the Tribunal of Heaven before the year is out!

The curse worked: none of those gentlemen lived to see 1315. Someone, somewhere, has also attributed every bum turn for the French crown since then to Molay’s anathema. There’s a legend that an onlooker at Louis XVI‘s execution dipped his handkerchief in Citizen Capet’s Sang Real and cried out, “Jacques de Molay, tu es vengé!”

* Other expeditions called “Crusades” did continue after the Templars, but Christendom’s occupation of the Holy Land was toast until Lawrence of Arabia days.

** The date of this action is a possible origin of the whole paraskevidekatriaphobia superstition, but probably not really.

† It is a fact that these guys liked sweeping their crusading conquests for supposed holy relics, like this Roman nail recently unveiled from a Templar fort that was reverentially “handled by a lot of people over a long period of time.”

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,France,God,Heresy,History,Milestones,Nobility,Pelf,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Soldiers,The Supernatural,The Worm Turns,Torture

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1793: Marie Antoinette

18 comments October 16th, 2008 Headsman

This afternoon in Paris, 1793, the French Revolution devoured the Queen.

Thirteen-year-old Madame Antoine — a year before marriage, and rebranding as Marie Antoinette. A vast gallery of her portraiture awaits here.

Among the most emblematic death penalty victims in history, Marie Antoinette — the “widow Capet,” as she was styled in egalite, after the guillotine shortened her husband — had the bad luck to personify the decadence of the ancien regime under the hegemony of the sans-culotte.

(And, of course, the good luck to be born heir to all the perks of absolutism she enjoyed for the first thirty-plus years of life. So, you know: a mixed bag.)

Those infamous excesses — and her infamous alleged bon mot, “let them eat cake” — are said to have been greatly exaggerated, nothing that everyone wasn’t doing, nothing that wasn’t understandable under the circumstances.

She had a gift, it seems, for accumulating to her personal reputation the outrage incurred by every gross and petty indulgence of the old order. And she had a popular press, the libelles, ready to embroider them salaciously.

Poor Marie.

Jacques-Louis David sketched this portrait of a haggard Marie Antoinette en route to the guillotine.

Cruel, wanton, senseless … her death was all of these, but then many others in the Terror suffered the same, as many others had under the Bourbons.

As royal dynastic pairings go, she’d been dealt a bad hand.

Her mere presence in France was fruit of the controversial policy of alliance with the Austrian Habsburgs from the Seven Years’ War, and she was trundled off with her dowry and her teenage wiles to the foreign snakepit of Versailles just as the minister advancing that policy fell. Distrusted by the French as an Austrian catspaw, castigated by her family for her inadequacies thereto, socially expected to display conspicuous regal largesse during a budget crisis not of her making, and unable for the longest time to get a successful coition from her indifferent and/or impotent husband, it must have seemed to her some days like every play was a losing one.

She struggled to gain traction at court. But she would lose much more than influence.

I was a queen, and you took away my crown; a wife, and you killed my husband; a mother, and you deprived me of my children. My blood alone remains: take it, but do not make me suffer long. (WikiQuote)

Her bearing she kept forever: in a kangaroo court with a foreordained outcome where her imperious dignity still managed to turn aside an accusation of sexual abuse her son had been cajoled into supplying; on the scaffold, when she did not neglect courtesy to the executioner whose foot she trod:

“Monsieur, je vous demande pardon. Je ne l’ai pas fait exprès.”

For much more queenliness, Marie-Antoinette.org delivers what the url promises, in quantity. If this figure or this period appeals, be sure to browse its forums.

Naturally, the doomed queen has had plenty of attention from printed word as well:

A few books about Marie Antoinette

As well as less, er, traditional media.

Part of the Themed Set: Belles Epoque.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Austria,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,France,Guillotine,Habsburg Realm,History,Martyrs,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Royalty,Scandal,The Worm Turns,Treason,Women

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1794: Maximilien Robespierre, Saint-Just and the Jacobin leadership

31 comments July 28th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1794, the curtain — and the blade — fell on the Terror.

Maximilien Robespierre, who had breakfasted the previous day as master of France, was guillotined this evening with his chief lieutenants and partisans.

His fall came as sudden and inevitable as his rise had been unpredictable.

Five years before, Robespierre was an unprosperous Arras attorney of fashionably liberal philosophies, and you wouldn’t have given a sou for the prospects of his being remembered five minutes after he died. Yet it would come that his inseparable lieutenant Saint-Just would remark with understatement, “The words we have spoken will never be forgotten on earth.”

The historic convocation of the Estates-General thrust him onto the political stage where he would make the dread name that follows him, starting off in the Revolution’s inception as a far-left deputy. He took a notable early stand against the death penalty, with several arguments that are quite familiar by our day:

The first obligation of a legislator is to form and preserve public morals, the source of all freedom, source of all social happiness. When in running to a particular goal he turns away from this general and essential goal he commits the most vulgar and dire of errors. The king must thus present to the people the purest model of justice and reason. If in place of this powerful, calm and moderate severity that should characterize it they place anger and vengeance; if they spill human blood that they could spare and that they have no right to spread; if they spread out before the people cruel scenes and cadavers wounded by torture, it then alters in the hearts of citizens the ideas of the just and the unjust; they plant the seed in the midst of society of ferocious prejudices that will produce others in their turn. Man is no longer for man so sacred an object: we have a less grand idea of his dignity when public authority puts his life at risk. The idea of murder inspires less fear when the law itself gives the example and the spectacle. The horror of crime is diminished when it is punished by another crime. Do not confuse the effectiveness of a penalty with the excess of severity: the one is absolutely opposed to the other. Everything seconds moderate laws; everything conspires against cruel laws.

For Robespierre, it was an abomination for the nation to deal out death within its community, but his Rousseauan elevation of the collective and abstract People made extirpating existential threats to the community itself an altogether different matter.

The future tyrant’s anti-death penalty case for executing the deposed Louis XVI, flowing directly from those principles, makes interesting reading and is excerpted at length (all emphases added) here for its topicality:

When a nation has been forced to resort to the right of insurrection it returns to a state of nature as regards its tyrant. How can the latter invoke the social compact? He has annihilated it. The nation can preserve it still, if it thinks fit, in whatever concerns the interrelations of its citizens: but the effect of tyranny and insurrection is to break it entirely as regards the tyrant; it is to throw them into mutual war; the tribunals, the judiciary procedures, are made for the members of the city. … The right to punish the tyrant and that to dethrone him are the same thing. The one does not admit of different forms from the other. The tyrant’s trial is insurrection; his judgment is the fall of his power; his penalty, whatever the liberty of the people demands.

Peoples do not judge like judiciary courts. They pass no sentences; they hurl the thunderbolt. They do not condemn kings: they thrust them back into oblivion; and this justice is not inferior to that of courts. If they arm themselves against their oppressors for their own safety, why should they be bound to adopt a mode of punishing them which would be a new danger to themselves?

As for me, I abhor the penalty of death so lavish in your laws, and I have neither love nor hatred for Louis. Crimes only I hate. I have asked the Assembly, which you still call Constituent, for the abolition of the death penalty, and it is not my fault if the first principles of reason seem to it moral and political heresies. But if you never bethought yourselves to invoke them in favor of so many unfortunates whose offenses are less their own than those of the government, by what fatality do you remember them only to plead the cause of the greatest of all criminals? You ask an exception to the death penalty for him alone against whom it can be legitimate! Yes, the penalty of death generally is a crime, and for that reason alone, according to the indestructible principles of nature, it can be justified only in cases when it is necessary for the safety of individuals or the social body. Public safety never demands it against ordinary offenses, because society can always guard against them by other means and make the offender powerless to harm it. But a dethroned king in the bosom of a revolution which is anything but cemented by laws, a king whose name suffices to draw the scourge of war on the agitated nation, neither prison nor exile can render his existence immaterial to the public welfare: and this cruel exception to ordinary laws which justice approves can be imputed only to the nature of his crimes.

It is with regret that I utter this fatal truth. But Louis must die, because the country must live.

“Pity is treason.”

Months later, as head of the Committee of Public Safety — the Orwellian name harkens to the body’s power to judge who lay inside the community and who, lying outside, made war upon it — he would find an inexhaustible fifth column of kindred threats to the Revolution.

But Revolutionary France really was in a war for its survival, against external and internal foes alike. The monarchist for whom crime multiplied upon crime every day after the Tennis Court Oath has the easiest time of this period, for every step brings a new monstrosity. And it is well enough to call Robespierre illiberal, to shudder at his prim and icy persona.

But if the French Revolution’s liberte, egalite, fraternite is a legacy for celebration — as it is to much of the west, and much of the world — one must grapple with the place of this man and his methods.

Merely because they are the paths not taken, one hardly seems entitled to assume that at that tumultuous moment the rule of a constitutional monarchy heir to all the monstrosity of the ancien regime, the government of the Girondins who had launched the nearly fatal war against Austria, or that of Danton‘s haute bourgeoisie would necessarily have delivered France to a better place, or even a different one.

For a Dickens, Robespierre’s Terror is simply the appalling wrong turn of a high-minded movement. For Trotsky, “the Incorruptible”* is the admirable sword of France’s bourgeois revolution who effects the needful task of annihilating the feudal nobility, who presses fearlessly forward seeing that the only alternative is the slide into Bonaparte. Between the two lie many readings of the man.

Whether an aberration, a visionary, or a necessity, he waded a sea of blood for his frightening twins Virtue and Terror.

The fall of 9 Thermidor preceded Robespierre’s execution by a full — and very eventful — day. Arrested by the Convention, he was promptly liberated by his base in the Paris Commune which came within a whisker of overthrowing the Convention at that very moment. Instead, a frantic few hours of marshaling the armed power of the Revolution’s rival claimants to leadership ensued ending in a fray which saw the Robespierrists overpowered.

Robespierre was shot through the jaw in the process of signing an appeal to arms — some say a botched suicide, but a wound from the invading national guard is more generally believed; at any rate, the bloodied document with his signature begun “R-o-” is one of the age’s most arresting historical artifacts.

Horrifically injured, he lay most of the following day exposed for public derision before he was hauled with his party to the guillotine, re-erected in the Place de la Revolution for this most memorable execution. In Carlyle’s florid (and free) narration:

Robespierre lay in an anteroom of the Convention hall, while his Prison-escort was getting ready; the mangled jaw bound up rudely with bloody linen: a spectacle to men. He lies stretched on a table, a deal box his pillow; the sheath of the pistol is still clenched convulsively in his hand. Men bully him, insult him: his eyes still indicate intelligence; he speaks no word. … -O reader, can thy hard heart hold out against that? His trousers were nankeen; the stockings had fallen down over the ankles. He spake no more word in this world.

Fouquier had but to identify; his Prisoners being already Out of Law.** At four in the afternoon, never before were the streets of Paris seen so crowded. From the Palais de Justice to the Place de la Revolution … it is one dense stirring mass; all windows crammed; the very roofs and ridge-tiles budding forth human Curiosity, in strange gladness. … All eyes are on Robespierre’s Tumbril, where he, his jaw bound in dirty linen, with his half-dead Brother, and half-dead Henriot, lie shattered; their “seventeen hours” of agony about to end. The Gendarmes point their swords at him, to show the people which is he. A woman springs on the Tumbril; clutching the side of it with one hand; waving the other Sibyl-like; and exclaims: “The death of thee gladdens my very heart, m’enivre de joie;” Robespierre opened his eyes; “Scelerat, go down to Hell, with the curses of all wives and mothers!” — At the foot of the scaffold, they stretched him on the ground till his turn came. Lifted aloft, his eyes again opened; caught the bloody axe. Samson wrenched the coat off him; wrenched the dirty linen from his jaw: the jaw fell powerless, there burst from him a cry; — hideous to hear and see. Samson, thou canst not be too quick!

Samson’s work done, there bursts forth shout on shout of applause. Shout, which prolongs itself not only over Paris, but over France, but over Europe, and down to this generation. Deservedly, and also undeservedly. O unhappiest Advocate of Arras, wert thou worse than other Advocates? Stricter man, according to his Formula, to his Credo and his Cant, of probities, benevolences, pleasures-of-virtue, and such like, lived not in that age. A man fitted, in some luckier settled age, to have become one of those incorruptible barren Pattern-Figures, and have had marble-tablets and funeral-sermons. His poor landlord, the Cabinet-maker in the Rue Saint-Honore, loved him; his Brother died for him. May God be merciful to him, and to us!

Part of the Themed Set: Thermidor.

* Even his enemies agreed — sometimes adding it to the bill of particulars against him — that Robespierre lived a life of personal moderation; he lived as a boarder with a working-class family, and disdained to avail the politician’s typical harvest of political graft.

** The Convention had decreed Robespierre’s outlawry when he escaped custody; his immediate execution was, of course, akin to the logic he had once turned against the king.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,France,Guillotine,Heads of State,History,Infamous,Intellectuals,Mass Executions,Milestones,Notable Participants,Politicians,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,The Worm Turns,Treason

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1792: Nicolas Pelletier, Madame Guillotine’s first kiss

15 comments April 25th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1792 — a surprisingly late date, just nine months before the king himself would die under its blade — debuted the iconic symbol of the French Revolution, the guillotine.

Today, it turned a thief and killer named Nicolas Pelletier from thug to trivia. Much more illustrious names would follow, and anon.

Though predecessors of the grim machine had been used centuries before in Scotland, Italy and Switzerland, the guillotine ushered in a distinctly modern era of technological application to capital punishment informed by egalitarianism — prior to the French Revolution, nobles and commoners had different modes of execution — and by legal and medical expertise aimed at minimizing pain.*

In fact, the device’s namesake, physician Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, opposed the death penalty altogether; he approved scientific and “painless” execution as a stopgap measure.**

For his troubles, the humane doctor’s name became synonymous with terror, enough so that his descendants changed their handle. One wonders how the doctor judged his own legacy; certainly better for any condemned person to die on the guillotine than the breaking wheel, but the mechanical efficiency of the “French razor” and the depersonalization of the condemned in relation to the headsman and the witnesses also made possible the mass executions the French Revolution is known for.

Singular Guillotin, respectable practitioner: doomed by a satiric destiny to the strangest immortal glory that ever kept obscure mortal from his resting-place, the bosom of oblivion! … “With my machine, Messieurs, I whisk off your head (vous fais sauter la tete) in a twinkling, and you have no pain;”–whereat they all laugh. (Moniteur Newspaper, of December 1st, 1789 (in Histoire Parlementaire).) Unfortunate Doctor! For two-and-twenty years he, unguillotined, shall near nothing but guillotine, see nothing but guillotine; then dying, shall through long centuries wander, as it were, a disconsolate ghost, on the wrong side of Styx and Lethe; his name like to outlive Caesar’s.

Carlye

Whither the ethical role of the physician dedicated to life in the protocol of dishing out death? It’s a strikingly current dilemma.

Want to know more about how the guillotine was built? Want to build your own?

* Pain reduction was distinctly not the order of the day under the ancien regime. Often, quite the opposite.

** It was still another physician, Antoine Louis, who actually designed the decapitation machine; for a time, it was known as the Louisette. The working model was built from Louis’ design by a piano maker — and it may be more than coincidence that the science of constructing this mechanically complex musical instrument was also bursting with creativity on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Milestones,Murder,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Theft

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