1729: Philippe Nivet, “Fanfaron”

Add comment May 31st, 2019 Headsman

On the last day of May in 1729, the French outlaw Philippe Nivet was put to death in Paris.

Although some at the time considered that the legendary bandit Cartouche (executed in 1721) was “nothing as compared to Nivet,” it is Cartouche only whom time has remembered.

Nivet — “Fanfaron” by his pseudonym — was nothing to his predecessor when it came to the romance of the road, a consideration understandably overlooked by contemporaries who had their own pocketbooks to consider. To such men, Nivet loomed very large indeed.

Commanding a sophisticated Paris-based network of highwaymen, fences, and safe houses, Nivet was slated with 38 armed robberies from 1723 to 1728, six of them resulting in fatalities — including his last.

Nivet’s final highway robbery victimized Louis David and his wife, dry-goods merchants of Amiens. In August 1728 the couple were returning home, mounted on fine horses, from the Guibray fair where they had done a large volume of business. Nivet and two accomplices joined the Davids and, posing as merchants themselves, accompanied them to a forest near Rouen. Once in the forest, these bandits slit the Davids’ throats, stole their considerable money and jewelry, and rode immediately to the home of a receiver where they broke down the couple’s jewelry to render it unrecognizable. Then, to frustrate pursuers, Nivet and his men secured new mounts from an accomplice who ran a livery stable and rode to Vernon, where they again changed transport by boarding the postal coach for Paris. (Source)

Despite his precautions, Nivet was captured by chance in Paris: bad luck for him on this specific occasion but a mischance asymptotically approaching certainty over the extent of his prolific career. Fanfaron had several months in prison informing on his band — the arrests ran to 68 — before being broken on the wheel. As with Cartouche eight years before, every window opening on the Place de Greve, and every stone of the square itself, was crowded with gawkers.

There’s a short French-language biography from that period that can be purchased online. (There’s a wee summary here.)

On this day..

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1431: Beaumont and Vivonne

Add comment May 31st, 2018 Headsman

From The Law of Treason and Treason Trials in Later Medieval France:

Little is known about the prosecution of treason during the first fifteen years of Charles VII‘s reign. A few minor cases only came before the Parlement of Poitiers. Struggling to consolidate his position against the Anglo-Burgundians, Charles VII appears to have tacitly approved of, even to have subtly encouraged, court intrigues. But when political machinations went beyond certain limits, as was the case with Louis d’Amboise, vicomte of Thouars, Andre de Beaumont, baron of La Haye, and Antoine de Vivonne, Charles VII did not hesitate to act with the full authority at his disposal. During the winter of 1429-30 Amboise, Beaumont and Vivonne plotted not only to seize Georges de La Tremoille, the most powerful lord at court, and to kill him if necessary, but also to take the king into custody. Amboise was one of Artur de Richemont‘s staunchest allies, and one does not have to look very hard to see the hand of the constable, then fallen from grace, in this conspiracy to take control of the government. Amboise, Beaumont and Vivonne were arrested in mid-November 1430, but it seems that not all the details of their treason were known to the king at that time. When Charles VII decided to take Amboise with him from Loches to Saint-Aignan, Amboise managed to send word to his intimates and advised them to ambush the royal party in order to free him. It was the king’s discovery of this communication that sealed Amboise’s fate. He, Vivonne and Beaumont were subsequently imprisoned at Poitiers. Charles VII then commissioned the presidents and lay councillors of the Parlement there, along with several members of the grand conseil, to conduct their trial. On the advice of his commissioners Charles VII himself then condemned the three traitors to death, with confiscation of their property. This procedure was a compromise between the king’s personal act of justice and condemnation by a court, and was to be a regular feature of the prosecution of treason in the reigns of Charles VII and Louis XI. On 31 May 1431 Beaumont and Vivonne were executed, but Charles VII commuted Amboise’s death sentence to a term of imprisonment ‘at our good pleasure’; and Amboise’s children were spared the penalty of complete disinheritance that would ordinarily have ensued. In not having Amboise executed Charles VII demonstrated for the first time the clemency towards members of the higher nobility that was a distinct characteristic of his rule. In 1434, at the intercession of Yolande d’Aragon and Charles d’Anjou — La Tremoille had since fallen from power and the Angevins were now in the ascendants at court — Charles VII released Amboise from prison and restored to him all of his property except for the castellanies of Chaumont, Chateau-Gontier and Amboise.

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1996: Four militants, ahead of the Khobar Towers bombing

Add comment May 31st, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1996, Saudi Arabia beheaded four Muslim militants for a car bomb attack on the Office of Program Management for the Saudi Arabian National Guard (OPM-SANG) military facility at Riyadh, killing five U.S. nationals and two Indians. All four prisoners were Sunni veterans of the Afghan War against the USSR, but they were beheaded in great haste, the Saudis having refused U.S. investigators permission to interview them.

The Kingdom’s Interior Ministry remarked at the time that the executions ought to assure that “such repulsive acts would not be repeated.”

This fanciful aspiration was conclusively nullified 25 days later when a huge truck bomb blew apart an apartment complex being used by the U.S. military, killing 19 U.S. Air Force servicemen along with a Saudi: the Khobar Towers bombing,* a bin Laden operation which might have opened an opportunity to prosecute the terrorist back before 9/11 was a twinkling in his salt-and-pepper beard, had the U.S. FBI not expediently attributed Khobar Towers to Iran-backed Shia militants.

* The 1996 truck bombing is not to be confused with the 2004 Khobar massacre.

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1509: Four Dominicans for the Jetzer affair

Add comment May 31st, 2016 Voltaire

(Thanks for today’s guest post to anti-clerical Enlightenment polemicist Voltaire, whose intervention in (and caustic commentary upon) death penalty cases in his own day we have several times featured. The events described arise from the Dominican order‘s Aquinas-derived dissent from the view, predominant theologically as well as popularly, of the Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception. The Immaculate Conception would later become settled doctrine in the Church. -ed.)

It is well known that the Cordeliers or Franciscans and the Jacobins or Dominicans have detested each other ever since they were founded. They were divided on several points of theology as well as being financial rivals. Their chief quarrel turned on the state of Mary before her birth. The Franciscans argued that Mary had not sinned in her mother’s womb, while the Dominicans were of the opposite opinion. There never was, perhaps, a more ridiculous question, and yet it was this very matter which made these two religious orders quite irreconcilable.

A Franciscan, preaching at Frankfurt in 1503 on the immaculate conception of Mary, happened to see a Dominican called Vigan come into his church. “I thank the Holy Virgin,” he exclaimed “for not having permitted me to belong to a sect which dishonours her and her son.” Vigan eplied that this was a falsehood. The Franciscan then came down from the pulpit, carrying an iron crucifix, and struck the Dominican such a violent blow that he almost killed him, after which he went on to finish his sermon on the Virgin.*

The Dominicans held a meeting to plan their revenge, and, in the hope of heaping greater humiliation on the Franciscans, they resolved to perform miracles. After several fruitless attempts they finally found a favourable opportunity in Berne.

One of their monks was confessor to a simple-minded young tailor named Jetzer, who was particularly devoted to the Virgin Mary and to Saint Barbara. This imbecile seemed to them to be an excellent subject for miracles. His confessor convinced him that the Virgin and Saint Barbara expressly commanded him to become a Dominican and to give all his money to the order. Jetzer obeyed and too the habit. When his vocation had been well tested, four Dominicans, whose names appear in the subsequent trial, disguised themselves on several occasions as best they could, one as an angel, another as a soul in purgatory, a third as the Virgin Mary and the fourth as Saint Barbara. At the end of these apparitions, which it would be too tedious to describe in detail, the Virgin finally revealed to Jetzer that she was born in original sin; that she would have been damned if her son, who was not yet on this earth, had not taken care to regenerate her immediately after she was born; that the Franciscans were impious and had grievously offended her son by claiming that his mother had been conceived without mortal sin, and that she charged him to announce this to all the servants of God and Mary in Berne.

Jetzer did not fail to do this. Mary appeared again, accompanied by two robust and vigorous angels. She thanked him and said that she had come to imprint upon him the holy stigmata of her son as proof of his mission and as a reward. The two angels tied Jetzer up and the Virgin drove nails into his hands and feet. The next day Brother Jetzer was exhibited on the altar for all to see, freshly bleeding from the heavenly favours he had received. The devout flocked to kiss his wounds. He performed as many miracles as he wanted, but the apparitions still continued. Finally Jetzer recognised the voice of the sub-prior beneath the mask he wore. He cried out and threatened to reveal everything. He followed the sub-prior into his cell, where he found his confessor and the two angels, who were entertaining some girls.

The monks, now that they were unmasked, had only one course open to them, which was to poison Jetzer. They sprinkled a communion wafer with some corrosive which had such a foul taste that Jetzer could not swallow it. He fled from the church crying out against the sacrilegious poisoners. The trial lasted for two years and came before the bishop of Lausanne because at that time laymen were not allowed to judge monks. The bishop sided with the Dominicans. He decided that the apparitions were real and that Jetzer was an imposter; he was even so cruel as to sentence the poor man to torture. But later the Dominicans imprudently degraded Jetzer, stripping him of his monk’s habit. This meant that Jetzer was now a layman again and his case could therefore be heard by the Council of Berne. As a consequence of his testimony the long catalogue of crimes was confirmed. When the ecclesiastical judges were called in from Rome, they were compelled to deliver up the criminals to the secular authorities. The guilty were burnt at the Marsilly gate on 31 May 1509. Records of the trial are now in the archives of Berne and have been printed on several occasions.


The fourteenth panel (click for the full glorious graphic novel) of a woodcut series illustrating the progress of the hoax. (Via).

* The Dominican Wigand Wirt, who denounced the Immaculate Conception so vociferously that he was summoned to Rome in 1507 to answer for it.

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1915: Kassim Ismail Mansoor, purveyor of coffee and treason

Add comment May 31st, 2015 Headsman

A century ago today, an Indian Muslim named Kassim Ismail Mansoor was hanged by the British in Singapore as a traitor.

The treason in question concerned the dramatic mutiny some months previous of Singapore’s 5th Light Infantry — Muslims who had feared that they would be dispatched to World War I’s European charnel house. (Ironically, the British brass had no such intent: they already considered these troops too unreliable, for some reason.)

Many of the mutineers were shot en masse by summary court-martial.

Our man Mansoor was not a fighter but a civilian coffee-shop proprietor. Having come into the confidence of some of his countrymen enough to know the mutinous thrust of their grievances, he made bold put in writing an appeal to the Rangoon consul of the Ottoman Empire — Britain’s wartime enemy — for the intervention of Turkish warships that could pick up their disaffected Muslim brethren and turn together against the British. Unfortunately for Mansor, that missive fell into British hands.

A 1937 retrospective series in the Straits Times on the distinguished career of Mansoor’s defense counsel, Sir Vincent Devereux Knowles, dives into the case here: 1, 2. Knowles, it says, knew his task was quite hopeless.

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2000: Robert Earl Carter, exonerating Anthony Graves

1 comment May 31st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 2000, Robert Earl Carter was executed in Texas for slaughtering six people at the home of his Somerville ex, after the latter filed a child support suit against him.

The ex herself, Lisa Davis, wasn’t home at the time. But Carter’s stabbing-and-shooting rampage slew Davis’s mother Bobbie, Bobbie’s 16-year-old daughter Nicole, Robert and Lisa’s son Jason (the subject of the support suit), and three other small children that shared the residence. After murdering them, Carter set the house on fire: the burns he suffered to his own face and arms in the process helped connect him to the crime.

Pressed by interrogators, Carter at first admitted only that he was present with someone else who carried out the murders. Over time, he broke down and admitted to the slayings himself.

But Carter’s supposed other party also became a character fixed in the story that investigators were looking to tell — and that party’s identity became fixed on a casual acquaintance whom Carter eventually accused: Anthony Graves.

No forensic evidence implicated Graves, but Carter provided damning testimony at Graves’s 1994 trial. On that occasion, Carter claimed to have shot the teenage daughter Nicole, while Graves committed the rest of the murders, testimony that sent Anthony Graves to death row as well. (Graves’s brother Arthur Curry testified that Graves had been at home sleeping.)

But Carter changed his story again after both men were convicted.

As he prepared for his execution, Carter was keen to clear Anthony Graves before he left this mortal coil. Weeks earlier, he provided a sworn 85-page statement insisting that “Anthony Graves did not have any part in the murders and was not present before, during or after I committed the multiple murders at the Davis home.”

Even in his last statement on this date, Carter went out of his way to exonerate his supposed accomplice. “I’m sorry for all the pain I’ve caused your family,” Carter said from the gurney in his last moments, addressing the execution witnesses from his victims’ family. “It was me and me alone. Anthony Graves had nothing to do with it. I lied on him in court.”

Anthony Graves had been on death row for six years at this point. With Carter’s retraction it had become discomfitingly apparent that there was practically nothing to associate him with that horrific night in Somerville … butit would still be another decade more before he was officially exonerated and released.

After an appeals court ordered a new trial, a different prosecutor’s investigation of the case turned up just how scanty the case against him was.

“After months of investigation and talking to every witness who’s ever been involved in this case, and people who’ve never been talked to before, after looking under every rock we could find, we found not one piece of credible evidence that links Anthony Graves to the commission of this capital murder,” announced former Harris County prosecutor Kelly Siegler in a statement officially exonerating Graves. “This is not a case where the evidence went south with time or witnesses passed away or we just couldn’t make the case any more. He is an innocent man.” Siegler had been hired as a special prosecutor, and would have been the one to re-try Anthony Graves.

That happened in 2010, by which point Graves at age 45 had spent 18 years in prison, 12 of them on death row.

Today, Anthony Graves — you can find him on twitter at @AnthonyCGraves — is an activist and motivational speaker. He’s been outspoken especially on the torture inflicted by long-term solitary confinement, which he also endured during his years in prison.

Graves’s original prosecutor Charles Sebesta — against whom Graves has sought disciplinary action — maintains a site of his own with a page casting doubt on Anthony Graves’s innocence. (It’s also a minor monument to the “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks.)

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1793: Ezra Mead, “in one of these fits of insanity”

2 comments May 31st, 2013 Headsman

The July 13, 1793 Wyndham (Conn.) Herald quotes the last dying words of Ezra Mead, hanged May 31 at Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

I, Ezra Mead, aged forty years, was born at Stamford in the State of Connecticut, of honest and credible parents, with whom I lived until I was about ten years of age; when I was bound as an apprentice to learn the Cooper’s trade. After having served the time of my apprenticeship, I went to Fish Kill and married my wife Catherine Rogers; since which time I have been in several parts of the World working at my trade, in order to get something in an honest way by my industry for the support of my wife and children, who resided in the town of Fish Kill. Having returned to my family, I resided with them, but being afflicted by a certain neighbor of mine, in words and actions, was driven by turns to drinking to excess; and in one of these fits of insanity, I committed the crime for which I suffer. But I declare to the world, that I was not willfully guilty of the crime aforesaid; at that present moment I might have suspected he had injured me, but not being master of my reason, have been guilty of what I never intended to have done, as appeared in the course of my trial. And I do further declare that I never have been guilty of any other crime deserving such punishment, as has been represented or reported by many evil minded persons since my imprisonment. And that I forgive all mankind, and hope the Lord and they will forgive me, and that they will take warning by my untimely end. Farewell. Ezra Mead.

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1928: Frederick Browne and Pat Kennedy, hanged by a microscope

4 comments May 31st, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1928, Frederick Browne and William Henry “Pat” Kennedy hanged simultaneously (but at different prisons: Pentonville and Wandsworth, respectively) for murdering an Essex policeman.

Police constable George Gutteridge was found dead in September 1927 on a byway near Howe Green, dressed in his full police regalia, shot four times in the face while apparently in the process of writing up a miscreant motorist.


Frederick Browne (top) and Pat Kennedy.

Two of the shots had been through each of Gutteridge’s eyes, conceivably in deference to the ancient superstition that dead men’s eyes preserve the last image they beheld in life. If that was the reasoning, Frederick Browne, the triggerman, was living in the wrong century.

The “Gutteridge murder” investigation — a national sensation from the time the constable’s mutilated body was discovered — took several months to hone in on suspects Browne and Kennedy, known car thieves with some history of violence. But the real break in the case was, well, a case: a cartridge case from a .455 Webley recovered at the crime scene. It would be the most eloquent witness against Browne and Kennedy.

The now-familiar science of forensic ballistics was, though not quite brand new, still an occult art in Anglo courts of law. Just days before Gutteridge’s murder, Sacco and Vanzetti had been executed in the United States based in part on ballistics studies. That gun-barrel research had been continued in the post-conviction appeals and clemency investigation, and provided one of the clinching pieces of evidence against the anarchists, but it was also ferociously contested.

In Great Britain, it was the Gutteridge case that put this field on the map for the general public — courtesy of professional gunsmith and ballistics investigator Robert Churchill.

Churchill used microscope analysis of the recovered casing to match the bullet not only to a .455 Webley, but to the .455 Webley recovered from Browne’s car: to that gun, and no other.

Post-Browne and Kennedy, murderers given to gunplay became very well advised to dispose of weapons once they’d been used: this case served notice that individual handguns left a sort of fingerprint on the rounds they discharged, and could thereby incriminate their owners months or years after the fact.

This conclusion was not universally embraced, perhaps owing in part to the role of ballistics in the controversial Sacco and Vanzetti affair: according to Basil Thomson, George Bernard Shaw wrote to Browne’s family during the trial to express his skepticism, complaining of the crown’s “manufactured evidence.” In 1932, the renowned barrister Patrick Hastings successfully repelled Robert Churchill’s firearms evidence at the high-profile murder trial of Elvira Barney.

But the reason Churchill was on the stand on that occasion was because his damning testimony in 1928, explaining where a small fault in the Webley’s breech block had scarred the bullet as it launched, not only sufficed to hang Browne and Kennedy* — “hanged by a microscope”, in the words of The Sunday Dispatch — but also launched a star career for Churchill personally, and made the bones of firearm ballistics for modern criminal trials.

* More precisely, the forensic testimony hanged Browne — who stuck with a flat denial, which the ballistics associated with his own gun refuted. Kennedy lacked the wit to shut his mouth and in the course of trying to spin his story to throw all the blame onto Browne also just by the by confessed to his own involvement.

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1841: Marius Darmes, frustrated regicide

1 comment May 31st, 2011 Headsman

Louis-Philippe, the affable, ovate monarch of France’s bourgeoisie from 1830 until the revolutionary year of 1848, was a popular guy for radicals to take a shot at.

By one expansive reckoning, there were no fewer than 19 assassination attempts against the Pear King, and five executions of intended regicides.

This date in 1841 saw the beheading of one Ennemond Marius Darmès for attempting to gun down the French king the previous October.

There was no mystery as to the shooter’s identity; the enthusiastic regicide had overstuffed his weapon with powder, and when he took his potshot it simply blew up in his hands. “I had him!” Darmes fumed as he was being arrested. “I was sure of my aim!” The only guy he had actually injured was himself. (Source)

Though it didn’t harm the king, the alarming incident did help precipitate the fall of a precarious and self-dealing government led by Adolphe Thiers, whose most illustrious appearance in these executioners’ annals was yet thirty years away.

With Thiers out of the way and a foe more doctrinaire animating the government, the ensuing months’ investigation were dedicated to tracing a connection between Darmes and alleged co-conspirators among revolutionary Parisians … a lot increasingly disaffected by the July Monarchy’s extreme oligarchical outlook.

And in a performance familiar in our own day, the terroristic extremity provided convenient pretext upon which to shush the much wider portion of the populace dissatisfied with the state. You’re either with us or you’re against us!

These desperate assailants of the King’s life are goaded on by the more cautious and even more unprincipled party who assail his character [Louis-Philippe himself made this same claim -ed.] … It is impossible, indeed, to foresee what the secret arts of calumny and the secret daring of their bloodthirsty illuminati may not effect; but we may say, with hearty English respect, when we look out upon these dangers, “God save the King!” (London Times editorial, May 31, 1841)

Out of solidarity or pride of ownership, Darmes denied those connections all the way to the shadow of the blade: two men who went on trial for their lives with him were acquitted.

According to a report filed by the London Times‘ Paris correspondent (printed June 2, 1841),

At half-past 5 o’clock this morning he was called down from his cell to the greffe, where the fatal toilette was to be performed previous to the execution. He quietly submitted to the operation, and when it was over, he mounted with his confessor into a vehicle, commonly called ponier a salade, which is used for the conveyance of prisoners. This carriage, escorted by municipal guards, cuirassiers, and chasseurs, proceeded up the Rue de l’Ouest, Rue d’Enfer and the adjoining Boulevard, down to the Barriere St. Jacques, where the scaffold had been erected during the night. Few spectators were in attendance. At 5 o’clock all the avenues leading to the Barriere had been occupied by the military, all traffic interrupted, and the people, who had congregated near the scaffold, were driven back a considerable distance. After he had alighted from the carriage his sentence was again read to him. The clergyman then took leave of him, and he ascended the steps of the ladder with a steady pace, followed by the executioner’s aids. It was only when he reached the platform that he came within view of the people; his head was still covered with a black veil, and a white shirt enveloped his whole body down to the feet, which were bare. The executioner having placed him with his back to the guillotine, a dialogue appeared to pass between them; and, from the negative shake of the head which Darmes occasionally gave, it was supposed that the executioner had held out to him a hope of salvation if he would make revelations. The conversation occupied between three and four minutes; the aids then seized him, and having placed him with his face towards the knife removed the black veil from his eyes, and took off his shirt. The sight of the instrument of execution appeared to strike him with awe; he started, and, feeling rather unsteady of his legs, he made a stride in order to maintain his equilibrium, and then looked on with calmness, surrendered himself into the hands of the executioner, and an instant before the knife dropped he was heard to exclaim — Vive la France. The body and head were then placed in a basket, and conveyed to the cemetery of Mont-Parnasse, where they were interred in the enclosure exclusively reserved for regicides.

Our favorite part of that is that the cemetery had a special VIP section set aside for regicides. Only in France.


Francophones can enjoy this French-language report on the investigation.

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1076: Waltheof II, Earl of Northumbria

2 comments May 31st, 2009 Headsman

On this day in 1076, William the Conqueror had Northumbrian Earl Waltheof II beheaded for treachery — the only major noble executed by the Norman king.

Waltheof in the comics! (Or see him trade up to battle-axe here.) According to Reality Fiction, Waltheof had a colorful afterlife as a literary character whose reputed exploits grew more prolific with age; he was a popular saint in the next generations. Some also consider Waltheof a possible ancestor of Robin Hood.

When the Norman Conquest brought William the Conqueror to power, the nobles didn’t know the Normans would be able to keep what they’d won … and being nobles, they started plotting.

Multiple revolts shook the northern marches where Waltheof had his domain, and the burly Northumbrian, according to skald Thorkill Skallason, was a Norman-killing machine.

Waltheof burned a hundred
Of William’s Norman warriors
As the fiery flames raged;
What a burning there was that night!

Our day’s principal made nice with the Conqueror and even got dynastically wedded to William’s niece, Judith.

But his fame as a warrior and strategically positioned estates soon had conspirators wooing him for another run at rebellion — the Revolt of the Earls, which would turn out to be the last serious resistance to the last successful invasion of Britain.

Waltheof either (accounts are radically at odds) signed on and then got cold feet, or got entrapped into it, or didn’t join but also didn’t report it when he found out, or got shopped for political reasons by his Norman bride. (Judith, suspiciously, got to keep his huge tracts of land after Waltheof lost his head for the property-confiscating offense of treason.)

Whatever the case, he was soon obliged to throw himself on the mercy of the king. He got a royal wife as his first prize for a brush with treason. His second prize was, he was decapitated.

Waltheof is supposed to have made such a delay at the scaffold with the Lord’s Prayer that the headsman got impatient and lopped off his dome after the words “Lead us not into temptation.” Devotional legend says that the severed head completed the prayer.

Thorkill Skallason remembered the last English earl still keeping it real under William’s rule.

William crossed the cold channel
and reddened the bright swords,
and now he has betrayed
noble Earl Waltheof.
It is true that killing in England
will be a long time ending;
A braver lord than Waltheof
Will never be seen on earth.

Another quarter-millennium elapsed before another English earl — Thomas Plantagenet, Earl of Lancaster — was put to death in the realm.

Waltheof’s story is told in detail in the context of The history of the Norman conquest of England, available free from Google books, and directly from the relevant primary documents here.

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Entry Filed under: 11th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous Last Words,History,Milestones,Nobility,Notably Survived By,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Treason

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