1343: A dozen Breton nobles

Add comment November 29th, 2017 Headsman

From The Law of Treason and Treason Trials in Later Medieval France, concerning the rough handling the king deployed in an attempt to squelch the Breton War of Succession:

Not long after the executon of Olivier de Clisson a group of Breton nobles attacked Charles de Blois as he was on his way to Paris. Fourteen — among them the two Geoffroys de Malestroit, father and son, Alain de Cadillac, Jean de Montaubon, Fulk de Laval and Henri d’Avaugour — were captured and taken to Paris. Although Philippe VI formally turned the case over to the Parlement, he made sure that the court did as he wished. On 24 November 1343 he advised it that he was sending the prevot of Paris and Jean Richer, maitre de requetes de l’hotel, ‘for certain matters regarding the Breton prisoners. We instruct you accordingly,’ the king cautioned, ‘that you accept what they have to say on our behalf.’

On 29 November the accused appeared in the Parlement, confessed to their treason and were then sent back to the Chatelet without the court having passed sentence. In fact the decision in this case was taken away from the Parlement by the king. On that same day Philippe VI ordered the prevot of Paris to execute the prisoners forthwith, ‘because we condemn them as traitors’. Philippe’s determination in this matter was patent. In concluding his instructions he wrote: ‘take care that there is no slip-up if you do not want to incur our wrath’. Except for Laval and Avaugour, the Bretons were drawn and beheaded that same day; and their corpses were then drawn to the gibbet to be hanged there. These executions had the desired effect on at least some of Montfort‘s partisans: Jean, eldest son of the count of Vendome, for example, quickly made his peace with Philippe VI.

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1340: Nicholas Behuchet, Battle of Sluys naval commander

Add comment June 24th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1340, the English and French fought an early naval engagement of the Hundred Years’ War: the Battle of Sluys.

The English won the battle … and the French admiral wound up hanging from a mast.

At the outset of the Hundred Years’ War in 1337, the French bossed the Channel and inflicted devastating sea raids on the English coast. In the long war’s first major battle at sea, a French fleet in September 1338 overwhelmed an English flotilla carrying valuable English wool to the Low Countries.

Nicholas Behuchet, one of the French commanders at this earlier battle, did not hesitate to massacre his prisoners.

Thus conquering did these said mariners of the king of France in this winter take great pillage, and especially they conquered the handsome great nef called the Christophe, all charged with the goods and wool that the English were sending to Flanders, which nef had cost the English king much to build: but its crew were lost to these Normans, and were put to death.

England’s allies were in the Low Countries, so too many battles like this stood to strangle the English cause in the crib. For near two years, French privateers had leave to ravage the English coast, while French troops overran Flanders and made the English Queen Philippa* hostage.

Seeking a breakout, King Edward III requisitioned English merchant cogs — there was no standing navy at the time — into a fleet of perhaps 160 or 200 vessels, heavy with soldiers to invade Flanders.

On June 24, two days after setting out from the Orwell estuary at Ipswich, Edward’s armada boldly fell upon a larger French fleet anchored at the Flanders port of Sluys.

The medieval chronicler Froissart’s account makes for riveting reading.** This was no stately ballet of seamanship but a gory close-quarters melee: as was characteristic for the time, the “sea” battle was mostly just about coming together for the respective fleets’ marines to board one another’s ships and murder anyone on board who wasn’t worth a ransom. The French admiral Behuchet lashed his ships together across the mouth of the harbor, a sort of floating breastwork that would enable the French soldiery to shimmy up and down the entire line no matter where the English focused their attack.

To the sound of “scores of trumpets, horns and other instruments,”

Fierce fighting broke out on every side, archers and crossbowmen shooting arrows and bolts at each other pell-mell, and men-at-arms struggling and striking in hand-to-hand combat. In order to come to closer quarters, they had great iron grappling-hooks fixed to chains, and these they hurled into each others’ ships to draw them together and hold them fast while the men engaged. Many deadly blows were struck and gallant deeds performed, ships and men were battered, captured and recaptured. The great ship Christopher [a large English cog previously captured by the French and situated in the French front row -ed.] was recovered by the English at the beginning of the battle and all those on board were killed or taken prisoner …


An illustration of the Battle of Sluys from Froissart’s chronicle. Note the mast of the ship at far left: it displays the English arms quartered with the French, Edward III’s heraldic assertion of sovereignty over both realms.

It was indeed a bloody and murderous battle. Sea-fights are always fiercer than fights on land, because retreat and flight are impossible. Every man is obliged to hazard his life and hope for success, relying on his own personal bravery and skill … [it] rage[d] furiously from early morning until afternoon, during which time there were many notable feats of arms and the English were hard put to it to hold their own, since they were opposed by hardened soldiers and seamen, who outnumbered them by four to one.

Edward III took an arrow or crossbow bolt to the leg — great-man historical legend has it that it was fired by Nicholas Behuchet himself — but captained his flotilla to an overwhelming victory, capturing most of the French ships and destroying the French, their Genoese allies, “and all who were with them … [they were] killed or drowned, not a single one escaping in the general slaughter.” Poetic license aside, it was a spectacular triumph for the English — and a crushing defeat for the French.†

In the 1596 play Edward III, which might have been co-written by Shakespeare, imagined the scene in the report of an escaped mariner:

Purple the sea, whose channel filled as fast
With streaming gore that from the maimed fell
As did the gushing moisture break into
The crannied cleftures of the through-shot planks.
Here flew a head dissevered from the trunk,
There mangled arms and legs were tossed aloft
As when a whirlwind takes the summer dust
And scatters it in middle of the air.
Then might ye see the reeling vessels split
And tottering sink into the ruthless flood,
Until their lofty tops were seen no more.

Let it not be said that in this instance the commander escaped the consequences of his folly. Behuchet, who insisted against advice on lashing the boats together and thereby sacrificed all maneuverability, didn’t have much room for maneuver himself when the victorious English hanged him at battle’s end from the mast of his own ship.

* Seen elsewhere in these pages successfully begging her husband’s pardon of the famed Six Burghers of Calais later in the war. Philippa was a homegrown native of the Low Countries, and her marriage to Edward III reflects the alliance between their respective regions.

** For a snappy modern gloss on the battle, check this excerpt of Dan Jones’s The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England.

It is said that no courtier dared give King Philip VI of France the horrifying news until a jester availing his station’s license for cheek informed him that “Our knights are much braver than the English.” Asked why, the fool replied, “The English do not dare jump into the sea in full armour.”

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1312: Pierre Vigier de la Rouselle, Gascon

Add comment March 31st, 2012 Headsman

“It is unjust that that which is rightly judged should result in prejudice to us and bring damage to others …”

-Edward II, letter concerning the Pierre Vigier case

One is like to reckon the phenomenon of the interminable death penalty appeal a modern construct, product of the present day’s moral confusion or juridical inefficiency.

It’s been right about 700 years exactly since Pierre Vigier was hanged in the February-April neighborhood, in the year of our Lord 1312, for his impolitic sentiments on the governance of his native province. This medieval execution went with a very modern-sounding 12 years of indeteminate appeals.

Still, it is true what they say — “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” In this foreign country, Gascony by name, they did the hanging first … and then did the appeals.

Our source here (virtually the only source short of plumbing the archives) is Joseph Kicklighter’s “English Bordeaux in conflict: the execution of Pierre Vigier de la Rousselle and its aftermath, 1312-24” from the Journal of Medieval History, no. 9 (1983).

And the source of all the judicial chaos was the bizarre situation of one king as a rival king’s vassal.

Gascony at this time was a sort of feudal leftover of the Angevin Empire whose Plantagenet descendants were still kings of England. This remaining Plantagenet patrimony* in southwestern France was a going source of conflict between the realms, the most recent of which had been expediently settled by making the English king also Duke of Gascony … and (with respect to Gascony) the French king his liege lord.


Seated French king Philip IV accepts the homage of his “vassal” Edward I.

The territory was worth the “submission”: ducal Gascony’s fertile land gave England a bounty in crops and wine. And the inevitable rivalry over sway in Gascony easily knocked on to the courts. As Barbara Tuchman put it in A Distant Mirror,

[t]he King of France still retained superior sovereignty under the formula of superioritas et resortum, which gave the inhabitants the right of appeal to the ultimate sovereign. Since his decisions were more than likely to go in their favor against their English overlord, and since the citizens, knowing this, exercised the right frequently, the situation was an endless source of conflict.

It was during such a conflict, when the rival factions of the Gascon capital of Bordeaux had the city in virtual anarchy as they jockeyed for power under the nominal lordship of English king Edward II, that the onetime royal castellan Pierre Vigier de la Rouselle apparently dumped on one of the new officials in conversation with a couple of informants.

The municipal government arrested Vigier and had him hanged — quickly, before Vigier’s inevitable attempted appeal to Parlement could save him.

(This all went down just a couple months before Edward II suffered a Gascon humiliation closer to home, when the Gascon nobleman Piers Gaveston, Edward’s dear friend and suspected lover, was executed by rival English lords.)**

Vigier’s aggrieved sons did pursue the appeal (it is they who provide posterity the circumstances of Pierre’s condemnation, so handle the story with care: one latter-day hypothesis is that Vigier was an outright rebel against the new appointees). Inevitably, the French backed their claim, allowing them undercut Edward’s ducal authority.


Productive relationship.

From there, the matter sank into an intractable mire of feudal Europe’s overlapping political authorities and factional rivalries. Parlement decreed some penalties. King Philip remitted some of them as a diplomatic gesture. The sons renewed their complaint. Bordeaux authorities tried to put the matter to bed by persecuting Vigier’s persecutors, only to be slapped down by an indignant King Edward. Persons were seized only to be ordered released, and estates likewise. Just as there was no single unambiguous authority to adjudicate it, there was no single wrongdoer to investigate, no single injury to repair (besides the matter of honor, there was the dead man’s property, and the fact that he was buried in unconsecrated ground), and no single arrangement of interested parties between the Vigier sons on the one side and the Plantagenet king on the other.

Edward seems to have taken particular affront at this imposition on his routine authority, and one must bear in mind that at this stage even the concept of sovereignty as we think of it today was simply not on the map. In some ways, the French appeals policy was pioneering it.

But as the suit bumped up and down or got kicked down the road by a Parlement that was probably enjoying its sport, Edward tried to dispose of it through such expedients as harassing its supporters and attempting to bankrupt the Vigiers. All this, naturally, just got rolled into the messy ol’ case.

Kicklighter:

Only time itself finally ended the appeal … in March 1324, King Charles IV announced the indefinite postponement of all ducal litigation at the Parlement of Paris becase of a mounting Anglo-French crisis which would soon lead to the brief War of Saint-Sardos. But even during the war, the court continued to deal with some aspects of the case; and the appeal was still under judgment when the Anglo-French feudal relationship was resumed with the accession of Edward III to the English throne.† It seems likely … Parlement had dropped the case by the 1330’s … in all probability, the Vigier case had lost the critical importance with which the king-duke and his officials had regarded it for so long. One might, with some justification, wonder why the appeal had ever enjoyed such attention.‡


In 1337, King Philip VI of France attempted to seize Gascony. In response, Edward III declared himself (not without at least some theoretical validity) the rightful King of France. The ensuing hostilities proved to be the opening act of the Hundred Years’ War.

“It was not the dynastic question that brought about the war,” wrote the historian T.F. Tout. “The fundamental difference between the two countries lay in the impossible position of Edward in Gascony.”

* Here’s a lovely free book about the preceding century’s backstory of English rule in Gascony.

** Potentially topical to this digressive connection: Edward’s loyal aide in Bordeaux, a gentleman by the name of Arnaud Caillau, may have been a cousin of Piers Gaveston. Edward certainly had a supportive Gascon faction that his own resentful alleged vassals were frequently keen to harass; maybe the whole Vigier intervention just struck a little too close to home.

† The reader will recall that Edward III’s route to power involved his French mother and her lover invading England and overthrowing Edward II. So there was a good deal of more interesting politics going on around this time than Pierre Vigier’s endless procedural appeal.

‡ Lest we misrepresent Kicklighter, he does go on to attempt to explain this hypothetical wonder as “a certain indication of the limited power of the English in Gascony.” I prefer my own stopping-point.

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1323: Jourdain de l’Isle-Jourdain, Gascon rascal

Add comment May 7th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1323, Jourdain de l’Isle-Jourdain, lord of Casaubon, was “stripped naked, drawn on a hurdle from the Chatelet to the gibbet, and hanged there.” (Source)

This robber-baron‘s offense had been nothing less than the years-long defiance of his every actual and potential liege — consequence of the wide scope of action available to feudal nobles before the ascendance of absolutism.

Jourdain was the younger son of a lord, but managed to inherit a good chunk of land and marry into more of it … giving him power well beyond his merely nominal aristocratic rank.

Jourdain’s stomping ground was Gascony in the southwest of France, which in this period was a contested fringe of English and French authority* and so was under little true authority at all.

An unscrupulous operator could have a field day — or in Jourdain’s case, a field decade or two.

Joseph Klicklighter, “The Nobility of English Gascony: the case of Jourdain de l’Isle” in the Journal of Medieval History 13 (1987), pp. 327-342 documents Jourdain de l’Isle-Jourdain’s run of rapine in the “chaos and lawlessness” of 14th century Gascony.

He would occupy lands to extract official concessions, rip off the sailors and merchants crossing his territory, play English and French power off against one other (not neglecting to drag in the Avignonese pope John XXII, who had our crooked noble’s back as his kinsman), even rape, murder, and plunder outright. When forced to fight a judicial duel that turned out inconclusively, he peevishly razed a castle of his opponent.

“For years,” Klicklighter notes, “Jourdain de l’Isle was able to … pursue his wars and crimes and to flaunt ducal [English] and French authorities alike.”

Mind, he was hardly the only Gascon noble amok, but he seems to have been the most offensively undiplomatic of the lot. When the new French King Charles IV** sent armed envoys to summon him (along with other lords) to Paris, Jourdain had the envoys beheaded.

At last someone prevailed upon our man to make the trip, and despite arriving “in grand array and with great arrogance,” the French clapped him in prison with what we can only assume was relief. The Pope’s frantic appeals on Jourdain’s behalf didn’t do him any good: in fact, our man was hanged in a garment derisively sporting the papal insignia.

Though this date’s execution put an end to one man’s depravities, the violence attributable to his contumacious native region was just getting started. Fourteen years later, the next French monarch, Philip VI, went to put an end to this foolishness by definitively reclaiming Gascony for France … and triggered the Hundred Years War.

* Formally, Gascony was an English fief of the French crown. Functionally, that meant that whenever the English seneschal issued an edict, the local lords could ignore it by appealing to Parlement.

** Charles IV was the last ruler of the House of Capet … thanks in part to the dynasty-destroying Tour de Nesle scandal.

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1346: Simon Pouillet

1 comment July 1st, 2010 Headsman

From the Grandes Chroniques de France:

En celuy an, le samedi premier jour de juillet, fu fait à Paris une horrible justice, — né onques mais n’avoit esté faite semblable au royaume de France. Combien que nous lisons que l’empereur Henri en fist une autèle, et en Angleterre aussi, une autre fois en avint une autre semblable, toutes voies à Paris onques mais n’avoit esté telle , — d’un bourgois de Compiègne appellé Symon Pouilliet, assez riche, qui fu jugié à mort et mené aux halles de Paris; et fu estendu et lié sur un estal de bois, ainsi comme la char en la boucherie, et fu ylec copé et desmembré, premièrement les bras, puis les cuisses et après le chief ; et après pendu au gibet commun où l’en pent les larrons. Et tout pour ce qu’il avoit dit, si comme l’en luy imposoit, que le droit du royaume de France appartenoit mieux à Edouart, roy d’Angleterre, que à Phelippe de Valois. De laquelle mort tout honteuse, France pot bien dire la parole de Jhésucrist qui disoit : « Ci sont les commencemens des douleurs, » si comme il sera monstré par après.

The gist of the bolded bit:

a wealthy Compiègne bourgeois called Simon Pouilliet was broken and dismembered in Paris, and gibbeted on the common gallows. And all for saying that the right of the kingdom of France belonged more to Edward, king of England, that to Philippe of Valois.*

Come and see the violence inherent in the system!

There was cause, however, for the House of Valois to be oversensitive to Pouillet’s treasonable take on royal genealogy: it was at least plausibly true.

Edward’s interest in actualizing his nominal claim to the French throne had by this point precipitated the opening dynastic skirmishes of what would eventually (a hundred-plus years later) become remembered as the Hundred Years’ War.

And as the chronicle concludes on a note of melancholy, Simon Pouillet’s horrific butchery would be an omen of his realm’s coming sorrows.

Eight weeks later, the English sowed the battlefield of Crecy with the flower of French chivalry and established a foothold at Calais that would help sustain generations of bloodily inconclusive combat.

Then, from 1348, the Black Death ravaged Europe, bringing for its survivors the economic shock of a labor shortage, weird social movements like the flagellants, and a pervasive sense of fatalism that ate at humanity’s social bonds.

A few years after that, the French king, Philip’s successor John the Good, was actually captured by the English at the Battle of Poitiers, and ransomed as a hostage for a ruinous sum.

There’s no record whether the wind whistling through the remains of Simon Pouillet dangling on Montfaucon whispered “I told you so.”

* Pouillet had not acted on this notion — he’d merely been popping off, possibly while sauced. The absence of any actual intent on the speaker’s part, however, did not lessen the treason, as explained in The Law of Treason and Treason Trials in Later Medieval France:

The general royal position on treason by words was summed up in 1432 by Jean Barbin, king’s proctor in the Parlement of Poitiers, in the prosecution of the Fleming Hennequin Bize. ‘By word and by deed’, he began, ‘one commits the crime of lese-majesty: by deed when one makes an attempt on the person of the princeps; and by word when one speaks sinisterly of him or his acts.’ Barbin asserted furthermore that it was worse ‘to disparage by word than to injure by deed’, but he neglected to explain why.

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1343: Olivier III de Clisson, husband of the Lioness of Brittany

1 comment August 2nd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1343, a noble widow’s career in piracy got its start where such ventures more usually end: the scaffold.

Olivier III de Clisson beheaded with his knights, in an illustration of Froissart.

Olivier III de Clisson, a powerful Breton noble nominally loyal to France, had been persuaded to ally with England’s Edward III in what nobody yet realized was the opening stage of the Hundred Years’ War.

Intriguing to advance a claim to the French throne, Edward knew right where to look. “Brittany was France’s Scotland, choleric, Celtic, stony, bred to opposition and resistance, and ready to use the English in its struggles against its overlord as the Scots used the French in theirs,” Barbara Tuchman wrote. And the Breton War of Succession was just the sort of pretext for meddling.

Clisson was one of the great lords of the region, and in the feudal era where liege relationships counted more than “nationality,” his alliance would swing a considerable network of retainers to the English cause.

He was hardly the only one, according to Jonathan Sumption’s The Hundred Years War:

The duchies of Brittany and Normandy seemed to [the French king Philip VI] to be seething with rebels, led by the very noblemen who had promised to serve him till his dying day. He was shocked and puzzled.

When Clisson’s (apparent) lord Philip VI got wind of the secret deal, he invited Olivier to a joust in Paris and had him arrested. Then, as knight follows day …

In the year of grace one thousand three hundred and forth-three, on Saturday, the second day of August, Olivier, lord of Clisson, knight, prisoner in the Chatelet of Paris for several treasons and other crimes perpetrated by him against the king and the crown of France, and for alliances that he made with the king of England, enemy of the king and kingdom of France, as the said Olivier … has confessed, was by judgement of the king given at Orleans drawn from the Chatelet of Paris to Les Halles … and there on a scaffold had his head cut off. And then from there his corpses was drawn to the gibbet of Paris and there hanged on the highest level;* and his head was sent to Nantes in Brittany to be put on a lance over the Sauvetout gate [as a sign of his treason]. (Cited here.)

That’s chivalry for you.

The unexpected turn came while Clisson’s headless corpse was clanking away on the gibbet: his warlike, 40-something wife Jeanne de Clisson vowed vengeance, sold off the Clisson estates to buy a small fleet, and turned privateer, murderously ravaging French shipping along the Breton coast and reportedly personally beheading aristocrats she could get her hands on.

After more than a decade of avenging Olivier, the “Lioness of Brittany” retired triumphantly to England to remarry the sort of British toff whose preference ran towards strong women.

Her son, also named Olivier de Clisson, returned to fight in the Hundred Years War on the side of England … and eventually defected back to the French.

* Meaning, at the imposing tiered gallows of Montfaucon.

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