Tag Archives: october 23

1665: Gabriel de Beaufort-Canillac vicomte la Mothe, during the Grands Jours of Auvergne

As with Peter the Great a few decades later, the budding absolutist Louis XIV experienced a scarring breakdown in law and order in his youth that at times threatened his own person.

In the French case, this was the Fronde — meaning “sling”, a weapon of choice for Parisian mobs — or rather the Frondes, successive insurrections in defense of feudal liberties launched against Louis’s mother and regent, Queen Anne that consumed the 1648-1653 span.

(Among other things, Louis’s experience during these disturbances of fleeing trouble spots in Paris, or cowering practically imprisoned behind palace walls, eventually resolved him to relocate his royal person away from the restive capital, to Versailles; his fear was more than vindicated by the fate of the 16th sovereign of his name at the hands of a different century’s Parisian enragees.)

Upon the death of his mother’s Richelieu figure (and literal Richelieu protege) Cardinal Mazarin, Louis took the state in hand in 1661 at age 22, determined to bring France to his elegant heel.

“You will assist me with your counsels when I ask for them,” he directed stunned ministers who had been accustomed to doing a good deal of the day-to-day governing themselves. “I request and order you to seal no orders except by my command, or after having discussed them with me, or at least not until a secretary brings them to you on my behalf. And you Messieurs of state, I order you not to sign anything, not even a passport, without my command; to render account to me personally each day and favour no one.”

L’etat c’est moi … he wasn’t kidding about that.

Bold reforms followed pell-mell through the 1660s and beyond: of the army, the bureaucracy, industry, the tax system. The archetype absolutist, Louis meant to gather into his Leviathan all the little redoubts of cumbersome right and privilege strewn about from France’s feudal antiquity, and above all to master the independence of his aristocrats and parlements.

One district in particular, the region of Auvergne, had in the chaotic 1650s descended into a minor dystopia ruled by avaricious and unprincipled officials gleefully abusing their control of the local judicial apparatus.

The investigations … revealed that quite a few judges lacked professional scruples and were of questionable moral character. Officers in the bailliages and senechaussees were aware of crimes but did nothing to prosecute them … registration of letters of remission could be bought “with ease.” Officers extorted money from countless victims … At the bailliage of La Tour in Auvergne, officers made arbitrary seizures of oxen belonging to peasants … seized property for “salaries and vacations,” forced minor girls to pay a price for marriage authorizations, and so on. Since all the officers in each of the lower courts were related to one another, “they all upheld one another so that it was impossible to obtain justice.”

The clergy had fallen into disarray … committed kidnappings and assaults and lent their names to laymen so that they might enjoy an ecclesiastical benefice. And this is to say nothing of such “peccadilloes” as frequenting taverns, taking the name of the Lord in vain, keeping mistresses, and fathering children. Monasteries and even convents were rife with “libertinage.” Their income was being squandered on banquets for visitors.

Gentilshommes had been using violent means to maintain their tyranny over the peasants. Forcible extortion of money was “the common offense of the gentilshommes of Auvergne,” according to Dongois, clerk of the Grands Jours. The king’s lieutenant in Bourbonnais, the marquis de Levis, was a counterfeiter who manufactured pistoles that were then circulated by his maitre d’hotel. Many gentilshommes exacted seigneurial dues beyond what they were entitled to, for watch, wine, oxen, supply and transport, and the use of seigneurial mills. They usurped such communal property as meadows, woods, and rights to gather firewood, collected money on every pretext, raised the cens without justification, and collected new dues. (Source

Practical princes see opportunity in such crises, in this case the opportunity to make common cause between the crown and the populace at the expense of of those gentilshommes. And so Louis decreed for Auvergne a Grands Jours, a sort of special visiting assize that could circumvent the incestuous area magistrates. From September 1665 to January 1666 the Grands Jours d’Auvergne processed more than 1,300 cases, meting out 692 convictions and 23 executions (although many sentences were executed in effigy). Six of those actually put to death were gentlemen.*

No noble crest attracted the inquisitors’ attentions more urgently than the ancient family of Montboissier-Beaufort-Canillac whose patriarch,

Jacques-Timoleon, marquis de Canillac, age seventy-two, accompanied by a bodyguard of valets known as his “twelve Apostles,” terrorized his fiefs and seigneuries from Clermont to Rouergue. All his close relatives were guilty of serious crimes or misdemeanors. His eldest son stole his neighbors’ animals, besieged their homes, and murdered them. His next eldest son murdered a curate. Guillaume de Beaufort-Canillac had not only extorted money but also abducted and held captive a notary who had drawn up a document against him. Gabriel de Beaufort-Canillac, vicomte de La Mothe, had attempted to murder another gentilhomme …

Charges had been mounting against the Canillacs, and especially against the old marquis, for decades without any effect. (Same source)

They would continue without effect here for the cagey patriarch, who absented himself in time to suffer only a condemnation in absentia,** but his son Gabriel, the vicomte de la Mothe, was taken by surprise as one of the Grands Jours commission’s very first acts and would distinguish himself its highest-ranking prey — on October 23rd, 1665, a mere four hours after his trial.

The charge against him was one of murder, under what was then considered extenuating circumstances. During the civil war [i.e., the Fronde] he had been commiss[i]oned by the great Conde to raise some regiments of cavalry, and had handed over some six thousand francs of the sum entrusted to him for this purpose, to his friend, D’Orsonette, who would neither furnish the troops nor refund the money. Conde, naturally enough, reproached the vicomte, who thereupon left his service, full of rancor against D’Orsonette. The quarrel grew fiercer as time passed on, until on an evil day the disputants met, each accompanied by a body of servants. M. de la Mothe’s party was the most numerous. D’Orsonette and one of his men were wounded, and his falconer was slain. The facts were incontrovertible. A striking example was deemed essential, and despite the entreaties of his family, and a short delay occasioned by an effort to traverse the jurisdiction of the court, the accused was sentenced to death and executed within a month from the commencement of the assize. It affords a significant illustration of the condition of Auvergne to note that the prosecutor in this case and all his witnesses were far more guilty than the prisoner. The prosecutor was accused by his own father of having murdered his own brother, of being a parricide in intention, and of a hundred other crimes. The next principal witness had been condemned for perjury, and was an acknowledged forger. The others were either outlaws or convicts at the galleys. Against M. de la Mothe no other crime was alleged, and he was generally regarded as the most innocent member of his family. Public opinion held that he suffered for having joined the losing side in the civil war, and for bearing a powerful and deeply-hated name. (A different source)

* A full and colorful account of the affair awaits the Francophone reader in Esprit Flechier’s Memoirs de Flechier sur les Grands-Jours d’Auvergne en 1665 (alternate link).

** It would be the second time in his rapacious career that Canillac pere was executed in effigy.

1828: Charles French, York printer

On this date in 1828, a young printer’s assistant morally corrupted by the theater went to the gallows at York, Upper Canada (soon to become Toronto, Ontario).

After boozing it up at a performance of Tom and Jerry, or, Life in London* at Frank’s Hotel, 21-year-old Charles French fell into a drunken row with Edward Knowlan or Nowlan and shot him dead, in a case that occasioned a local moral panic about the dangerous carousing nurtured by the nightlife in the small frontier town.

Frank’s Hotel, York’s very first theatrical venue, was “neither under order nor restraint,” French’s respectable parents pleaded in their unsuccessful clemency missive. It was “the haunt of the gay and dissolute, the idle and the profligate, the ruffian and woman of bad fame, those who show in the light of the moon were there — and from its temptations few parents or masters could restrain the youth.” (Source) Theater troupes were banned from York stages for five years after the French affair.

French’s defense had likewise attempted to raise doubts about his mental competency, and although this worked as well as it usually did in a 19th century courtroom there was no small sentiment for French’s reprieve: (K)nowlan was a notorious goon, and the circumstances of the fray seemed muddled enough to bring the shooter’s degree of calculation into question. Two alleged accomplices, acquitted in separate trials, swore that Knowlan had menaced French before French shot him.

The close clemency call carried a sharp political undertone. French was an understudy of the reform publisher William Lyon Mackenzie and his victim a Tory brawler who dealt out bruises in the service of Upper Canada’s “Family Compact” ruling clique. That his petition for mercy was rejected by Lt. Gov. Peregrine Maitland eventually became one of the (lesser) briefs against the Family Compact advanced a decade later during the Upper Canada Rebellion.

* The period’s several Tom and Jerry plays — no overt relationship is known between them and the 20th century Tom and Jerry cartoons — derived from Pierce Egan‘s smash hit Life in London, or, the day and night scenes of Jerry Hawthorn, esq., and his elegant friend Corinthian Tom in their rambles and sprees through the metropolis. The title characters capture vignettes around the city, naturally not excluding the condemned hold at Newgate, which they tour with their friend Bob Logic on the pretext of consoling one of Logic’s old friends.

An opportunity presented itself to our TRIO to visit the Condemned Yard in Newgate. “It was a mournful sight,” Logic observed to the Corinthian; “but as it was the intention of Jerry not to neglect visiting any place that might afford him information during his stay in London, he had been induced to make the proposition to Hawthorn; yet, he was free to confess, it was more especially on his own account, as he was compelled to attend, and companions would, therefore, prove very agreeable to his feelings upon such a melancholy occasion.” “We will accompany you, Bob,” replied Tom and Jerry.

The Plate represents the Morning of Execution, and the malefactors having their irons knocked off previous to their ascending the fatal platform that launches them into eternity. The Yeoman of the Halter [i.e., the hangman — at the time of Egan’s writing this would have been John Foxton] is in waiting to put the ropes about them. The Clergyman is also seen administering consolation to these unfortunate persons in such an awful moment; and the Sheriffs are likewise in attendance to conduct the culprits to the place of execution, to perform the most painful part of their duty, in witnessing the offended laws of their country put in force. It is a truly afflicting scene; and neither the pen nor the PENCIL, however directed by talent, can do it adequate justice, or convey a description of the “harrowed feelings” of the few spectators that are admitted into the Condemned Yard upon such an occasion. The tolling of the bell, too, which breaks in upon the very soul of the already agonized malefactor, announcing to him that he has but a few minutes to live, adds a terrific solemnity to the proceedings: —

Hear it not, Duncan, for ’tis a knell
That summons thee to heav’n or to hell.

The Condemned Yard is long, but narrow, and contains a great number of cells, one above another, forming three stories in height. Each cell measures nine feet in length, and six in width. [Compare with Dickens’s description -ed.] Every indulgence is allowed to those prisoners immediately the “death-warrant” arrives at Newgate, ordering them to prepare for execution. They are then allowed to remain in the Large Room (which the Plate represents), in order that the Clergyman may attend upon them as often as they desire it, and who, generally, previous to the morning on which they are to suffer, sits up praying with them the whole of the night. It is really astonishing, upon most of these occasions, to witness the resignation and fortitude with which these unhappy men conduct themselves: many of the most hardened and desperate offenders, from the kindness, attention, and soothing conduct of the Rev. Mr. Cotton, who is indefatigable in administering consolation to their troubled minds, have become the most sincere penitents; nay more, several prisoners, who have received a free pardon after having been ordered for execution, have since publicly declared that they should never again be in such a fit state to meet eternity. The criminal on the left side of the Plate, lifting up his hands in the attitude of prayer with the Clergyman, was once a character of considerable note at the West End of the Town, and from his vivacity, then designated “Lively Jem!” He soon ran through a fine fortune; and, to keep up his extravagances, he plunged into those destructive habits which ultimately brought him into this ignominious situation. Lively Jem, like most others, saw his error too late to repair it. He had not strength of mind sufficient to bear with the reverses of fortune; to fall from splendour to poverty was too much for his feelings; and, to avoid the jests and sneers of his once dashing acquaintance, under the appellation of “poor fellow!” and being excluded from their company, he thus violently terminated his thoughtless career. Jem had been at college with the Oxonian, and as his last request, lie had sent a message to Logic to attend upon him on this mournful occasion, in order to be the bearer of some important circumstances respecting himself to a female, to whom he had been very much attached, and who had also never been absent from him except this fatal morning. Logic was too much of a man to neglect another in the hour of misfortune; and it was to fulfil the request of a dying unfortunate acquaintance, that he came, accompanied by Corinthian Tom and Jerry, to the condemned Yard of Newgate.