1525: Jacques de La Palice, “lapalissade”

Add comment February 24th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1525, a French marshal’s was executed during a crucial battle of the France-vs-Habsburg Italian War, beginning a long posthuous journey to a wordplay gag.


The Battle of Pavia, by Ruprecht Heller (1529).

The Battle of Pavia is best remembered for the fate — not lethal, but much more damaging to statecraft — of King Francis I of France, who was captured on the field by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.* Francis spent two years in comfortable but discomfiting imperial custody until he agreed to the humiliating Treaty of Madrid ceding vast tracts of French territory (notably Burgundy) to Charles.**

For all that, Francis kept his head and eventually resumed his station. Jacques de La Palice (English Wikipedia entry | the much longer French) did not exit the Battle of Pavia nearly so well.

The lord of La Palice (or Lapalisse), grandson to a comrade of Joan of Arc, our man had spent a lifetime bearing French arms; he’d been personally knighted by King Charles VIII for his prowess at age 15 in his very first engagement.

The great bulk of his time ever since had been spent on various campaigns in Italy, where France remained more or less continuously at war against the Holy Roman Empire until 1559.

Fighting up and down the peninsula, La Palice earned the impressive rank of Grand Master of France, and it had nothing to do with his chess acumen. He’d actually retired to the pleasures of domesticity after being captured in 1513 at the Battle of the Spurs — so named for the panicked spurring a fleeing French cavalry gave to their horses — only to be recalled to his post in 1515.

Late in 1524 he was among the host accompanying King Francis’s march to recover France’s on-again, off-again transalpine beachhead of Milan. This objective the French achieved with scant resistance, but the expedition turned disastrous in a further advance to Pavia. There, 9,000 imperial troops were dug in to defend; unable to take the city by storm the French put it to siege, fatally overextending themselves.

Come the following February, the Habsburgs had cut Pavia off from Milan and the French encampment was weakened by defecting mercenaries. On the morning of February 24, the imperial forces mounted an attack on the French that turned into a comprehensive slaughter. La Palice was captured early on by the Habsburgs’ landsknecht mercenaries and executed by them at some point later on during the fight. Although his fate was a bit more premeditated, he was only one of many blue-blooded commanders who lost their lives on the field that dark day for France† — suspending French ambitions in Italy, if only for a few years.

The knight’s alleged feats are celebrated in a ballad known as “La chanson de la Palisse” (“The Song of La Palice”). Rather, there are dozens of versions of that ditty, dating from the 16th to the 18th century, of unknown original authorship but agglomerated by the French poet Bernard de la Monnoye into a humorous caper in the 18th century.

This poem presumably (though not certainly) began as a genuine praise song for the dead marshal, opening with this garment-rending stanza:

Hélas, La Palice est mort,
Il est mort devant Pavie ; 
Hélas, s’il n’était pas mort, 
Il ferait encore envie.

Alas, La Palice is dead, 
He died before Pavia; 
Alas, if he were not dead, 
He would still be envied.

Somewhere along the way fulsome became winsome — perhaps via deliberate spoof or maybe the well-known phenomenon of old-timey letter s written to look like f, transforming the verse into a comical tautology:

s’il n’etait pas mort, / Il ferait encore envie (“if he was not dead he would still be envied”)

s’il n’etait pas mort, / Il serait encore en vie (“if he was not dead he would still be alive”)

It’s thanks to this amusing misreading that the French tongue today enjoys the term lapalissade, meaning a laughably obvious truism — and in Monnoye’s composition the entirety of the lyrics consist of such jests; e.g.

Monsieur d’la Palisse is dead,
He died before Pavia,
A quarter of an hour before his death,
He was still alive.

He was, by a sad fate, 
wounded with a cruel hand.
It is believed, since he is dead,
that the wound was mortal.

Regretted by his soldiers,
he died worthy of envy;
And the day of his death
was the last day of his life.

He died on Friday,
the last day of his age;
If he had died on Saturday,
he would have lived more.

(That’s just an excerpt; the much longer full French verse is available at the song’s French Wikipedia page.)

* Ample unverifiable folklore attaches an event so memorable as the capture of a king; a site such as this is bound to note the one that reports that Francis might have been killed on the spot by rampaging foes but for the timely intercession of a young Spanish soldier named Pedro de Valdivia … who would go on to become the conquistador of Chile, and eventually an execution victim himself.

** Francis renounced the treaty as soon as he was released, on the accurate grounds that it was made under duress. In this betrayal of honor, he did his kingdom much the better turn than his distant predecessor John II had done when, captured by the English during the Hundred Years’ War, he dutifully set about extracting from his subjects the ruinous ransom and even returned voluntarily to English custody when he could not fulfill the terms of his parole.

† Another corpse at the Battle of Pavia was Richard de la Pole, Plantagenet pretender to the English throne ever since his brother had been executed back in 1513.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Habsburg Realm,History,Holy Roman Empire,Italy,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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476: Orestes, father of the last Roman Emperor

1 comment August 28th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 476, the father of the very last Roman emperor was put to death by a Germanic chief … a week before that last emperor was forced to abdicate his throne and the whole Roman experiment with it.

The final generation of Roman Emperors comprise a parade of nondescript interregnums, but the very last regnum fell to 16-year-old Romulus Augustulus whose destiny it was to seal the long fall of the (western) Roman Empire.

This youth with the apt nomen had been plopped in the purple by his dad, a Pannonian-born general named Orestes. Orestes had made his bones in the court of Attila the Hun before signing on as a free agent with Rome when the Hunnic polity collapsed after Attila’s death; he accordingly enjoyed the regard of the heavily-Germanic enlistees of Rome’s armies — a simpatico that constituted a great asset for Rome and a great danger for her sovereign. Our opportunistic general was able to turn this force against the previous emperor,* but as Gibbon notes, “having now attained the summit of his ambitious hopes,” Orestes encountered the danger of his disloyal soldiery from the opposite end of the spear.

[H]e soon discovered, before the end of the first year, that the lessons of perjury and ingratitude, which a rebel must inculcate, will be resorted to against himself; and that the precarious sovereign of Italy was only permitted to choose, whether he would be the slave, or the victim, of his Barbarian mercenaries. The dangerous alliance of these strangers had oppressed and insulted the last remains of Roman freedom and dignity. At each revolution, their pay and privileges were augmented; but their insolence increased in a still more extravagant degree; they envied the fortune of their brethren in Gaul, Spain, and Africa, whose victorious arms had acquired an independent and perpetual inheritance; and they insisted on their peremptory demand, that a third part of the lands of Italy should be immediately divided among them. Orestes, with a spirit, which, in another situation, might be entitled to our esteem, chose rather to encounter the rage of an armed multitude, than to subscribe the ruin of an innocent people. He rejected the audacious demand; and his refusal was favorable to the ambition of Odoacer; a bold Barbarian, who assured his fellow-soldiers, that, if they dared to associate under his command, they might soon extort the justice which had been denied to their dutiful petitions. From all the camps and garrisons of Italy, the confederates, actuated by the same resentment and the same hopes, impatiently flocked to the standard of this popular leader; and the unfortunate patrician, overwhelmed by the torrent, hastily retreated to the strong city of Pavia, the episcopal seat of the holy Epiphanites. Pavia was immediately besieged, the fortifications were stormed, the town was pillaged; and although the bishop might labor, with much zeal and some success, to save the property of the church, and the chastity of female captives, the tumult could only be appeased by the execution of Orestes.

As for the young puppet-emperor Romulus Augustulus himself, the conqueror who now proclaimed himself King of Italy wasn’t a vindictive man. “The life of this inoffensive youth was spared by the generous clemency of Odoacer; who dismissed him, with his whole family, from the Imperial palace, fixed his annual allowance at six thousand pieces of gold, and assigned the castle of Lucullus, in Campania, for the place of his exile or retirement.” This gesture of charity did not save Odoacer from suffering a violent death in his own turn.

* Julius Nepos has a claim on being the last Western Roman Emperor, insofar as Orestes’s revolt did not kill him but chased him to an exile where he pathetically maintained an ineffectual claim to the purple until his assassination in 480. It was only with Nepos’s death that the Western Roman Empire was formally abolished.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Execution,Heads of State,History,Italy,No Formal Charge,Notably Survived By,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Roman Empire,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1480: Cicco Simonetta

Add comment October 30th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1480, Francesco Simonetta — known as Cicco to his contemporaries — was beheaded at the Castello of Pavia.

Simonetta (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) was your basic 15th century polyglot Italian humanist, whose aptitude saw him into the service of the condottiero Francesco Sforza.

Simonetta’s honors and appointments multiplied as Sforza’s reach expanded; when Sforza died, and then Sforza’s heir was assassinated, a 7-year-old became Duke of Milan.

The late 1470s saw a bitter power struggle during the child duke’s minority for effective control of the state: on the one hand, the boy’s uncle Ludovico; on the other, the boy’s mother Bona of Savoy. Simonetta was the able minister of state for Bona, and his faction briefly prevailed and saw Ludovico into exile.

Simonetta had put several years of hustle into balancing the political factions that kept Bona — and via Bona, himself — in control. Alas for their cause, Bona was eventually induced via her lover, a natural rival of Simonetta’s, to just go and invite Ludovico to return to Milan

Simonetta looked grave, as he well might, when he heard the news. “Most illustrious duchess,” he said to Bona the next day, “do you know what will happen? My head will be cut off, and before long you will lose this state.”

And so it was.

Bad news for Francesco Simonetta, sure, but Ludovico would one day use his position to commission Da Vinci’s The Last Supper.

Simonetta’s legacy beyond peninsular politics is somewhat less august. His treatise on code-breaking, Regule ad extrahendum litteras ziferatas sine exemplo (Rules for Decrypting Coded Documents), is a tipsheet for busting elementary substitution ciphers: determine the language, look for common words, exploit the letter patterns caused by standardized word endings (like -ing and -ed in English), isolate the vowels.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Italy,Political Expedience,Politicians,Power,Torture,Treason

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