1621: Rodrigo Calderon, ambitious

Add comment October 21st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1621, Spain’s once-powerful Marquis of the Seven Churches fell as far as tragedy can drop a man.

Still to this day a Spanish emblem of the perils of ambition, Rodrigo Calderon hailed from the minor nobility in the rebellious Low Countries breaking away from Hapsburg rule.

Displaced to Spain, Calderon had a meteoric rise as the trusted henchman of the Duke of Lerma — who was himself the trusted (some say over-trusted) favorite of the Spanish King Philip III from the moment the latter came to the throne at age 20 in 1598. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

Calderon’s who became perhaps Spain’s most powerful figure, and surely its most resented. By Philip’s own decree, nothing came to the royal quill but through his valido Lerma. Lerma dominated access to Philip and to a great extent, Calderon dominated access to Lerma. Both men prospered accordingly.

Calderon cut an operatic character — he’s one of those characters awaiting a suitably coruscating literary treatment, although Bulwer-Lytton gave it a shot — of zealotry mixed with greed. His family was the aristocratic equivalent of “new money”; his father had not been born to the nobility at all, and Calderon hustled to climb so high as he did. He did not mean to forego the emoluments of office, like the flattering Rubens portrait that illustrates this post.*

Inevitably, such a figure attracted the resentment of other courtiers, and not only courtiers.

Calderon almost fell in 1607 for extracting bribes far in excess of what acceptable corruption permitted. But he had by then the open enmity of the queen herself. It’s testimony to Lerma’s power that his patronage sufficed for Calderon to maintain his station in the face of such a powerful foe.

Queen Margaret died in 1611. The cause was complications from childbirth, but rumors, like this anonymous pamphlet, hinted at other hands in her death.

moved by the outcries of the people and the advice of wise and virtuous persons … felt obliged to confront the ill intentions of those who without doubt have caused her death. Her goal was to serve our Lord by promoting justice in the distribution of favors, appointments of good ministers, and the elimination of bribes, simonies, the sale of offices, and the promotion of unworthy and inept persons.

While not daring such an accusation, a friar preaching Margaret’s funeral sermon directly to Philip made bold that

a king has two wives, the queen and the community … the offspring of the first marrriage should be children. The offspring of the second marriage should be prudent laws, the appointment of good ministers, mercies to those who deserve them, the punishment of criminals, audiences to all your subjects, dedication to affairs of state, and the consolation of the afflicted. To repay God for the abundant offspring from the first marriage Your Majesty has to comply with your duties towards your second wife. (Both quotes via Kingship and Favoritism in the Spain of Philip III.)

Nothing troubled, Calderon had become a marquis by 1614.

But the rumor mill played the long game. Calderon’s patron Lerma was displaced by his son in 1618, leaving his longtime crony vulnerable to the next turn of fortune. That turn was the 1621 death of Philip III himself and the succession of a 16-year-old son, Philip IV.

It is said that when Calderon heard the bells tolling the elder Philip’s passing he remarked, “the king is dead, and I am dead.”

Determined to rein in the perceived decadences of the last era — this period was the peak, and the very start of the decline, of Spain’s wealth and global power — the younger Philip’s Lerma figure the Duke of Olivares had Calderon arrested. Regicide and witchcraft were right there on the charge sheet, but it was the murder of a different man in 1614 allegedly killed to keep him silent about Calderon’s misdeeds that sustained the sentence. A bit more exotic than regular beheading, Calderon had his throat slashed, then was left to bleed out on the scaffold.

As Calderon had come to personify courtly corruption, the new regime anticipated a salutary effect from making an example of him. To their surprise, the pitiless and obviously politically-motivated handling of the fellow — who bore his fate with lauded stoicism — made the late grasping aristocrat the subject of no small sympathy.

Calderon’s mummy, the executioner’s gash through its neck still gruesomely visible, is still preserved in Valladolid. (Link in Spanish, but more importantly, with pictures.)

* Calderon was himself a great collector of art.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Murder,Nobility,Pelf,Politicians,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Put to the Sword,Spain,The Worm Turns

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1278: Pierre de La Brosse, “out of spite and envy”

Add comment June 30th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1278, humiliatingly dressed like a buffoon, Pierre de La Brosse was strung up at Montfaucon without benefit of trial.

De La Brosse (English Wikipedia entry | French) was a court figure of the petty nobility.

He cut his teeth — and a holy beard — as a surgeon and barber in the court of Saint Louis. When Louis died on crusade in 1270, Philip the Bold succeeded to the throne. Philip was tight with Pierre, so this seemed like great news for the chamberlain — and indeed, de La Brosse advanced rapidly with the new king’s patronage in wealth and influence.

The power of this Touraine arriviste did not fail to attract the enmity of the realm’s hereditary lords. As their grandchildren would do in Enguerrand de Marigny‘s time, they nursed their resentments and awaited only their chance.

King Philip’s marriage in 1274 to Marie of Brabant* gave them that chance.

His influence eclipsed by the new bride, de La Brosse developed a dangerous rivalry with the royal consort. When Philip’s firstborn son by his previous marriage and the heir to the French throne died suspiciously in 1276, Pierre de La Brosse allegedly made bold to suggest that the new queen herself might have poisoned the youth off.**

Philip “investigated” this by sending emissaries to consult a clairvoyant who, knowing she was speaking to representatives of the royal family, gave a judiciously positive appraisal of the queen, leaving de La Brosse on very tenuous footing indeed. The barons cut that footing out from under their foe a few months later when they produced documents, likely forged, implicating de La Brosse in a treasonable arrangement with the Spanish crown. De La Brosse was imprisoned for six months and condemned without a regular judicial proceeding: he has the unenviable distinction of being the first victim of an extraordinary royal commission in France. That commission destroyed the evidence (or “evidence”) in the case, but to judge from the positive appraisal de La Brosse enjoyed from chroniclers the popular sentiment for his innocence was widespread.

Pierre de La Brosse is among the several French royal counselors who are sometimes apocryphally said to have built the Montfaucon gallows only to hang upon them. The last word on him (and the more interesting trivia) belongs to Dante, who stationed the man in Purgatory as one who was unjustly slain but without opportunity to cleanse his soul with a last repentance.

I saw the soul
cleft from its body out of spite and envy —
not, so it said, because it had been guilty —
I mean Pier de la Brosse,
and may the Lady of Brabant
while she’s still in this world, watch
her ways—or end among a sadder flock

* Not to be confused with the Bavarian princess of that name who was put to death for adultery.

** Another way to interpret this: poisoning suspicions that were afoot generally came to be ascribed specifically to de La Brosse.

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Power,Public Executions,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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317 B.C.E.: Philip III Arrhidaeus, who succeeded Alexander the Great

1 comment December 25th, 2010 Headsman

It was perhaps on this date in 317 that the half-brother and successor of Alexander the Great was put to death, just another casualty as the conqueror’s vast empire fragmented.

The half-witted Philip III Arrhidaeus (or Arridaeus) didn’t exactly seem like he was born to rule — or maybe he was and that was just the problem. Plutarch juicily speculated that the boy was muddled intentionally by the snake-worshiping wife of Macedonian conqueror Philip II, Olympias. Olympias was the mother of a kid named Alexander whom she was trying to advance to the throne ahead of his half-siblings; Angelina Jolie made an apt choice to depict her at her ruthless harem-politicking best.

Arrhidaeus was the son of Philip by a courtesan named Philinna, a woman of low birth. His deficiency in understanding was the consequence of a distemper, in which neither nature nor accident had any share. For it is said, there was something amiable and great in him, when a boy; which Olympias perceiving, gave him potions that disturbed his brain.

Plutarch

Philip III Arrhidaeus is one of the main characters of this historical novel.

Whatever potions Olympias did or did not administer, she did in fact put her kid in line to follow Philip; that boy vindicated the succession by rolling his phalanxes over vulnerable potentates from Hellas to India. You might have heard of the guy.

The problem for Macedon as for Arrhidaeus came after Alexander the Great’s brilliant career closed with his unexpected, youthful death.

The stupendous empire had no obvious heir, and different factions of Alexander’s military backed different candidates. Long story short, the Arrhidaeus succeeded as the titular, but powerless, king, under a succession of regents who were prone to untimely deaths.

“Merely” titular kingship is a pretty powerful post in itself, though, and Arrhidaeus’s wife Eurydice began maneuvering to gain a wider sphere of action from her now-allied, now-enemy regents, who were themselves fighting one another. In 317, Eurydice backed the wrong horse, and she and the hubby were put to death after capture by his rival, who was at the time allied with Olympias.

Alexander’s empire was fracturing, and would soon come completely apart (one of Alexander’s generals founded the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt, which ended with Cleopatra‘s asp). It was a dangerous environment for everyone within a pikestaff of power, which meant that at least Arrhidaeus and Eurydice could take solace from the next world when the very same fate befell Olympias herself.

(More posthumous consolation: the Rimae Ariadaeus lunar crater is named for this short-lived figurehead.)


The funerary tumulus at Vergina, one of Greece’s most spellbinding archaeological treasures, features an in situ tomb whose occupant — though grandly claimed to be the more impressive Philip II — might, in fact, be Philip III. The contents of this tomb have been the subjected of spirited academic, and even nationalist, disputation, on which topics this blog is blessedly destitute of authority.


Royal Macedonian Tomb, Vergina. (cc) image from Templar1307 (whose user ID alludes to another blog-worthy incident).

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,Greece,Heads of State,History,Macedonia,No Formal Charge,Power,Royalty,Summary Executions

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