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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1553: Pedro de Valdivia, founder of Santiago

1 comment December 25th, 2015 Headsman

On Christmas Day of 1553, the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Valdivia, noted as the founder of Santiago, Chile,* was executed by Mapuche Indians who had captured him in battle.

Valdivia got his start in New World bloodsport in the train of the Pizarro brothers, and cashed in with mining concessions as a reward for his able service in the Pizarros’ campaign against yet another conquistador, Diego de Almagro.

Not content to wax fat on Incan silver, Valdivia secured permission to pick up Almagro’s aborted mission: the conquest of Chile. With a force of about 150 Spaniards and many times that number of native allies, he successfully crossed the Atacama desert (bypassing Andean tribes that had proven hostile to Almagro) and attained the Mapocho river valley. There he created Santiago** on February 12, 1541, and almost immediately established the Spanish colony — distinct from Peru — whose headquarters it would be.

It didn’t take long for these interlopers to incur native resistance which would long slow the imperial development of Chile. Later in 1541, an Indian attack razed Santiago, although its Spanish defenders just managed to hold on to the rubble and begin a laborious process of vigilant rebuilding.

While the future metropolis, which lies about the north-south midpoint of the present-day state, grew stone by stone, Valdivia endeavored to carry his conquest to the south. This would soon provoke the furious resistance of the Mapuche people and become the Arauco War, which simmered for decades. (Or centuries, depending on the degree of continuity one might attribute to various rebellions.)

Having seen the Spanish throw up a chain of forts in their territory the better to control new gold mines, the Mapuche counterattacked and overran the fort at Tucapel — led by a bold young commander named Lautaro, who had only recently fled from the personal service of Valdivia himself. Grievously underestimating the vigor of his foe, Valdivia set out to pacify the rebels with a mere 40 Spanish soldiers “because at that time the Indians were but lightly esteemed.” (Marmolejo; see below) Approaching an eerily empty Fort Tucapel on Christmas Day, his token force was suddenly engulfed by thousands of ambushing Mapuche and massacred to a man.

Almost to a man.

Valdivia had the misfortune of being taken alive.

The conquistador was put to death shortly after the battle. The chronicler Jeronimo de Vivar simply said that the commander Caupolican ordered him speared to death — but others went in for more frightful descriptions of an event they surely did not witness.

Alonso de Gongora Marmolejo, who like Vivar was a contemporary to the death of the governor, claimed (Spanish link) that “the Indians kindled a fire before him, and cut off his arms from the elbow to the wrist with their blades; they took care not to permit him his death, and so devoured his roasted flash before his eyes.”

As a founding figure in Chilean history, Valdivia has enjoyed frequent literary treatment, as has his impressive mistress Ines de Suarez. (Isabel Allende’s Ines of my Soul is a recent example.) It is likely that none will ever surpass in literary importance the 16th century epic of of the conquest of Chile La Araucana. Although its author, Alonso de Ercilla, did not sail for America until several years after Valdivia’s death, he — naturally — made the late conqueror one of his principal subjects.

* And the namesake of Valdivia, Chile.

** The name pays tribute to Saint James.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Chile,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Dismembered,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Put to the Sword,Soldiers,Spain,Summary Executions,Torture,Wartime Executions

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