1213: Peter of Pontefract, oracle

Add comment May 28th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1213, the hermit Peter of Pontefract (or Peter of Wakefield) was hanged by King John.

Reluctant Magna Carta signer and ridiculous Robin Hood villain, John has never been the most highly regarded sovereign. (A recent BBC poll saluted him as the 13th century’s very worst Briton.)

The papacy ranked among John’s many irritants. A 1205 dispute with Pope Innocent III over the successor to the late Archbishop of Canterbury — John wanted control of ecclesiastical appointments in his own realm, a little preview of coming attractions in English history. This dispute extended so far as Innocent’s excommunicating John, and laying England under a papal interdict prohibiting administration of any sacraments save baptism and last rites. There’s no bargaining chip quite like “do what I say or everyone goes to hell.”

John didn’t sweat the eternal damnation stuff much but in 1212 the specter of war with France — gleefully justified by Philip II on grounds of the English king’s impiety — started twisting the screws a little. Philip had already seized English holdings in Normandy; now, he was gathering force for an invasion of Albion’s own shores.

With discontent already afoot among the domestic nobility, some of whom were extending feelers to King Philip, the Yorkshire hermit Peter ran out a prophecy that John’s crown would pass to other hands by the next Ascension Day — which happened to be Thursday, May 23, 1213.

Peter’s prophecy gained no little folk following, prompting John to take him into custody.

And here a prophet, that I brought with me
From forth the streets of Pomfret, whom I found
With many hundreds treading on his heels;
To whom he sung, in rude harsh-sounding rhymes,
That, ere the next Ascension-day at noon,
Your highness should deliver up your crown.

-Shakespeare’s King John

But days before the momentous date arrived, John resolved the crisis and saved himself from potential deposition with a timely submission to the papal legate Pandulf, before whom he dramatically laid the crown and resumed it pledging an annual tribute of 1,000 marks from the throne of England to that of St. Peter.*

This was either — take your pick — a deft political masterstroke instantly neutralizing the threats to John’s throne, or else it was a craven surrender to the Vatican.

Peter of Pontefract gives us a hint of a judgment on that question.

John held Peter past the May 23 date — and then, just for good measure, past May 27, for that had been the calendar date of John’s coronation in 1199, which was also Ascension Thursday that year, and had been floated as a fallback interpretation of the prophecy — the seer had been duly discredited and, being made ridiculous, could now be made an example of.

Or had he been?

For,

the wise and the foolish alike began to see that John had prevented a literal fulfilment of the prophecy by lending himself to a figurative one. He had ‘ceased to be king’ by laying his crown at the feet of Pandulf, to take it back again on conditions which unquestionably helped to fix it, for the time at least, more securely than ever on his brow. The scapegoat of all parties was the unlucky prophet himself. Next day he and his son, who had been imprisoned with him, were tied each to a horse’s tail, dragged thus from Corfe to Wareham, and there hanged. (Source)

* John stopped paying in 1214, and Innocent left well enough alone.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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1792: Jacques Cazotte, occultist

2 comments September 25th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1792, Jacques Cazotte, a writer distinctly out of step with his times, was guillotined for treason in Paris.

The Martinique-born Cazotte (English Wikipedia entry | French) was into his 40s when he launched the writing career that earns him notice enough for this blog.

He wasn’t a liberte, egalite, fraternite kind of guy: Cazotte’s works, like Le Diable Amoureux (The Devil in Love),* were fantastical, Gothic — far from the rationalist fare of the Enlightenment.

And that wasn’t exclusively a literary posture.

Cazotte fancied himself gifted with prophecy — enthusiasts’ accounts have him prophesying the course of the Revolution — and preferred the mystical enlightenment of the illuminati to the Voltairean kind.** He viewed the onset of the French Revolution with horror.

When some scribblings to that effect were discovered in his papers, the mystical goose was cooked. The French Wikipedia entry credits his daughter with saving his life during the September Massacres … buying the 72-year-old only a few weeks of life.

Cazotte’s Le Diable Amoureux has the devil as a young man’s servant girl, endeavoring to seduce him. Here is Cesare Pugni‘s balletic rendition, Satanella, with its grand pas de deux, “Le Carnaval de Venise,” from the Kirov:

Cazotte finds his way to us, as the dark arts are wont to do, through more meandering channels as well.

Le Diable Amoureux inspired supernatural mystery The Club Dumas by Spanish author Arturo Perez-Reverte. That novel in turn was riffed by Roman Polanski for the weird 1999 flick The Ninth Gate (review), starring Johnny Depp. (Cazotte’s book is explicitly referenced in both its progeny.)

Although only tangentially related, this digression into the occult gives us leave to notice one of the many cultural ephemera of executions linked to no particularly blog-friendly date. The Club Dumas and The Ninth Gate make use of striking woodcuts of modern vintage but after a style of centuries past that help unlock the central puzzle.

Charged with esoterica, the topical-looking “hanged man” print comes clearly modeled after its tarot cousin … although the tarot version, in most instances, is hoped to be of less deadly effect upon the plot.

* Available free in the original French at Project Gutenberg.

** Voltairean rationalism had its own ways of getting in trouble. It may have been an age of ideas, but it was hardly safe to have them.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,20th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,Hanged,History,Murder,Power,Public Executions,Treason

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1850: The Bab, Prophet of Baha’i

3 comments July 9th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1850, a Persian merchant who claimed to be the Islamic messiah was shot in Tabriz for apostasy.

The Bab — the handle means “Gate”; he was born Siyyid `Alí Muhammad — started preaching as a young man in 1844 and attracted a following unwelcome to the orthodox Shi’a clergy and the powers that were.

The Bab would claim to be “that person you have been awaiting for one thousand years”: the Mahdi. And in a John the Baptist-like pose, he would also pledge to be preparing the way for another, “He whom God shall make manifest,” to follow his footsteps.

Authorities cracked down on this subversive faith and its heretical claim to have a divine messenger, hailing the Bab before a clerical tribunal that found him a blasphemer and an apostate. After dawdling a couple of years, the government finally ordered him shot … to which punishment a young disciplie submitted himself voluntarily as well.

Reputedly, the public execution by firing squad was quite a fiasco for the government, and/or a miracle for the Bab. It is said that the entire sizable regiment deployed to volley at the Bab and his devotee managed to miss everything, but to shoot through the rope that was holding the prophet suspended a few meters above the ground. In the Baha’i version, he miraculously disappears from the first execution attempt and is found later calmly conversing with a secretary in his prison cell, at which point he’s (successfully) executed a second time.

A less pious version of the story commencing from the same starting point of unmarksmanlike executioners has the Bab shot out of his rope and availing the smoke of the discharge to scramble out of the courtyard, only to be detained before he could make good an escape.

Inevitable disputes about the succession to this charismatic figure ensued his death, and several claimed to be the Bab’s Promised One. The main current of the tradition evolved into the Baha’i faith, accepting the claim of Baha’u’llah to this position. (A tiny remnant of Babism still persists who dispute Baha’u’llah’s legitimacy and still await the Promised One.)

July 9 is a major holiday for Baha’i, for whom the Bab is a revered figure.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Executions Survived,Famous,Famous Last Words,God,Heresy,History,Iran,Martyrs,Myths,Notably Survived By,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Shot,The Supernatural,Wrongful Executions

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