1789: Francois Bordier, Harlequin

Add comment August 21st, 2017 Headsman

On this date in the pregnant year of 1789, the former boulevard actor Francois Bordier hanged for a bit of revolutionary overexuberance.

He’d gained his fame in the 1780s for his portrayals of both Harlequin (on stage) and a besotted gambler (in Parisian society); “police records bulge with accounts of his gambling debts and spats with actresses.”

The summer of 1789, after the Bastille was stormed in Paris, was in the countryside la Grande Peur, the Great Fear: bread shortages and political upheaval put many a manor to the sack.

One such facility was Rouen’s Hotel de l’Intendance, assailed on August 3 by a mob led by Bordier, along with another fellow named Jourdain. Jourdain would perish at the gallows with Bordier but then as now the actor was all anyone wanted to talk about. The horror or heroism of Bordier moved purple pamphlets by the kiloquire, and even put Bordier on the other side of the playbill as a character in the next season’s pantomimes.*

At the news of the imprisonment of their harlequin, rumours were heard in Paris that thirty thousand Parisians, with Saint-Huruge at their head, would march to the rescue; but the authorities at Rouen, nothing daunted by the threat, put the two ringleaders on their trial. Both were condemned to death, and in spite of the intercession of Bailly and Lafayette on behalf of Bordier, both were hanged at Rouen on August 21.

Source

His preserved head can still be gawked at the musée Flaubert et d’Histoire de la Médecine.

* See Political Actors: Representative Bodies and Theatricality in the Age of the French Revolution by Executed Today interviewee Paul Friedland. Bordier, Friedland observes elsewhere, “personified the mixing of theatrical and political forms, the profane and the sacred, that so suddenly upset the established order in 1789. And post-mortem characterizations of Bordier reflected that peculiar combination of amusement and horror that politico-theatrical hybrids seemed to inspire.”

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1356: Four friends of Charles the Bad

Add comment April 5th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1356, the French King John II — John the Good, to history — avenged himself on his cousin and rival, Charles the Bad.

This affair embroils us in the French dynastic turmoil that spawned the Hundred Years’ War: five months after the nastiness in this post, King John was an English prisoner following the catastrophic Battle of Poitiers. It’s a good job he got his revenge in when he had the chance.

The fight — in its largest sense — was all about the throne of France, the poisonous fruit of the dynasty-wrecking Tour de Nesle affair of royal adultery decades before. That affair destroyed two princesses who could have become queens, and with it the potential of legitimate heirs for their husbands. With the family tree’s next generation barren, succession passed from brother to brother until the last brother died.

So now who’s big man in France?

Awkwardly, the last king’s nearest male relative also happened to be the king of France’s rival — his nephew, Edward III of England.

France barred Edward with a quickness, on the grounds that Edward was related via a female line. That put the patrimony in the hands of John the Good’s father, a previously un-royal cousin known as Philip the Fortunate. Less fortunately, this succession also conferred upon the new Valois line Edward’s rival claim and the associated interminable violent conflict.

Besides these two, there was yet another cousin who aspired to the French scepter: our guy Charles the Bad, King of the Pyrenees-hugging realm of Navarre. This guy’s mother had her legitimacy cast in doubt by the whole Tour de Nesle adultery thing years ago, and her woman bits had ruled her out of ruling France — but not Navarre. (No Salic Law in Navarre: a digression beyond this post.)

So Charles, her son and heir in Navarre, was at least as close to the Capetian dynasty as were his cousins — and maybe closer. He was also “one of the most complex characters of the 14th century,” in the judgment of Barbara Tuchman (A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century). “A small, slight youth with glistening eyes and a voluble flow of words, he was volatile, intelligent, charming, violent, cunning as a fox, ambitious as Lucifer, and more truly than Byron ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know.’

“His only constant was hate.”

And Charles sure hated King John. Was it the political rivalry? The daughter John had foisted on him as a bride? The territory John nicked from Navarre to confer on John’s favorite as Constable of France?* Yes.

Charles had subtlety in his bag of clubs, and brutal directness too. In 1354, he revenged at least one slight by having his brother murder the aforementioned Constable — also a favorite and childhood friend** of King John — in a tavern ambush.

(There’s an audio introduction to Charles the Bad complete with hammy re-enactment of the homicide in episode 110 of the History of England podcast. What follows below leads off episode 111.)

Too weak politically at that moment to repay Charles in his own coin, John had to sullenly consent to a putative reconciliation … but he was only biding his time. Charles compounded the enmity by his scheming on-again, off-again negotiations with the English, hoping to leverage the war between those powers to his own advantage.

He was a constant thorn in King John’s side, and the latter had problem enough with the English invasions and the struggle he had to gin up tax revenue to oppose them. The apparent last straw: Charles buddied up to John’s son the Dauphin and tried to engineer a coup d’etat against John. John settled on a vengeful stroke to put both the King of Navarre and the crown prince in their places, a party-fouling scene to beggar Game of Thrones in Froissart’s description:

The king of France, on Tuesday the 5th of April, which was the Tuesday after midlent Sunday, set out early, completely armed, from Mainville, attended by about one hundred lances. There were with him his son the earl of Anjou, his brother the duke of Orleans, the lord John d’Artois, earl of Eu, the lord Charles his brother, cousins-german to the king, the earl of Tancarville, sir Arnold d’Andreghen, marshal of France, and many other barons and knights. They rode straight for the castle of Rouen, by a back way, without passing through the town, and on entering found, in the hall of the castle, Charles, duke of Normandy, Charles king of Navarre, John earl of Harcourt, the lords de Preaux, de Clerc, de Graville, and some others seated at dinner. The king immediately ordered them all, except the dauphin, to be arrested, as also sir William and sir Louis de Harcourt, brothers to the earl, the lord Fricquet de Friquart, the lord de Tournebeu, the lord Maubué de Mamesnars, two squires called Oliver Doublet and John de Vaubatu, and many others. He had them shut up in different rooms in the castle; and his reason for so doing was, that, since the reconciliation made on occasion of the death of the constable of France, the king of Navarre had conspired and done many things contrary to the honour of the king, and the good of his realm: the earl of Harcourt had also used many injurious expressions in the castle of Vaudreuil, when an assembly was holden there to grant a subsidy to the king of France against the said king, in order to prevent, as much as lay in his power, the subsidy from being agreed to. The king, after this, sat down to dinner, and afterwards, mounting his horse, rode, attended by all his company, to a field behind the castle, called the Field of Pardon.

The king then ordered the earl of Harcourt, the lord of Graville, the lord Maubué and Oliver Doublet to be brought thither in two carts: their heads were cut off,† and their bodies dragged to the gibbet at Rouen, where they were hung, and their heads placed upon the gibbet. In the course of that day and the morrow, the king set at liberty all the other prisoners, except three: Charles king of Navarre, who was conducted to prison in the Louvre at Paris, and afterwards to the Châtelet: some of the king’s council were appointed as a guard over him. Fricquet and Vaubatu were also confined in the Châtelet. Philip of Navarre, however, kept possession of several castles which the king his brother had in Normandy, and, when the king of France sent him orders to surrender them, refused to obey, but in conjunction with the lord Godfrey de Harcourt and other enemies of France, raised forces in the country of Coutantin, which they defended against the king’s troops.

* The post was vacant because the previous Constable had been executed.

** And distant kin, but who isn’t?

† By a convenient prisoner dragooned into the duty, who required many more hacks at the bone than there were heads to sever.

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1535: Guillaume Husson, colporteur

Add comment August 30th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1535, the Protestant Guillaume Husson was burned for heresy.

The year before, Protestants had outraged the capital with a placarding campaign; maybe inspired by or in league with them, Husson turned up in early 1535 in Rouen and proceeded to flood the place with heretical tracts. Husson was identified by his hotelier and turned over to authorities before he could proceed to wreak his freaky doctrines on the next city.

The spectacle of public execution at this time followed a ceremonial script, although it was one that Protestants like Husson were going to rewrite with their behavior.

In an hours-long process, the condemned was first forced to perform amende honorable before a church, begging pardon of God with a rope about his neck and a heavy candle in his hands. For some offenses, this ritual penance could comprise the entirety of the punishment; for an execution, it was just the first act.

Its effect depended, of course, on the compliance of offenders who could usually be counted on to play the only part that held out hope of social redemption and everlasting salvation.

But as a Protestant, Husson wasn’t in a very compliant mood: he owed no plea to God for distributing correct religion, and he certainly rejected the Pope’s right to demand it of him. So Husson refused to perform the amende honorable, and even refused to hold the candle.

Catholic authorities would face in the years ahead the novel challenge of stage-managing many executions of reformers, ready to welcome execution, unreconciled with the Church, as their holy martyrdom. They would need strategies to deal with these obstinates. On Aug. 30, 1535, that strategy was “more violence”: for besmirching the ceremony, Husson had his tongue punitively torn from his mouth.* (Mutilation at this point could also sometimes be a formal part of the sentence.)

Following a long procession through the city to the place of execution, Husson was said (by his fellow Protestant propagandist Jean Crespin) to have died with such great firmness — thrusting his own head into the leaping flames to dramatize his embrace of the stake, and inspiring many onlookers (per Crespin) “to want to know more closely the true God of Israel.”

* David Nicholls, “The Theatre of Martyrdom in the French Reformation,” Past & Present, no. 121 (Nov. 1988)

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1431: Joan of Arc

May 30th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1431, Joan of Arc (also Jeanne d’Arc, even though d’Arc wasn’t really her name at all) was burned at the stake for heresy in the marketplace of Rouen, France.

A Joan of Arc statue in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Very much has been written and said about this strange figure, the Maid of Orleans — not quite so much larger than life as she seems otherworldly to it: in her mystical exaltation, in her unthinkable elevation from the illiterate peasantry to military command (and bizarrely effective intervention in the intractable Hundred Years’ War).

Apotheosis to the ranks of France’s national heroes is the least of it; Joan’s iconography extends well outside her homelands and well beyond the project of feudal restoration that was her short life’s concern.

Her myth has had a robust afterlife, but her accomplishments in the flesh were quite real — staggering, even. At the nadir of France’s fortunes, she convinced the French dauphin Charles VII of her divine inspiration in April 1429 and, far more aggressive (and some would say lucky) than the army’s noble commanders, immediately relieved the English siege of Orleans. By July, she had captured Reims, where Charles was crowned king.

The next year, Joan was captured by the Burgundians, who sold her to the British, who in turn subjected her to an ecclesiastical inquiry — what became a remarkable, exhaustively documented three-week interrogation, in which she deftly matched wits with academic persecutors over the reality and nature of her divine visions.

She was immediately considered a martyr by her own side — and twenty years later, when the war had finally ended, another court reversed the verdict against her — but her universal appeal and cultural ubiquity remained a long time off.*

“Dark-minded man!”
The Maid of Orleans answered, “to act well
Brings with itself an ample recompense.
I have not reared the oriflamme of death —
Now God forbid! The banner of the Lord
Is this; and, come what will, me it behooves,
Mindful of Him whose minister I am,
To spare the fallen foe: that gracious God
Sends me a messenger of mercy forth,
Sends me to save this ravaged realm of France,
To England friendly as to all the world;
Only to those an enemy, whose lust
Of sway makes them the enemies of man.”

Robert Southey

The romantic 19th century took up her standard when the trial records were uncovered — liberals cottoned to her lowly birth, conservatives to her monarchist project, all France to her proto-nationalism, all Catholics to her faith (she was elevated to sainthood in the early 20th century; May 30 is also her feast day). The Vichy government and the French Resistance both claimed her in World War II. Her gender and sexuality have invited modern attention, just as they did for her judges: she works (anachronistically, of course) as a girl-power pop feminism icon, and her masculine social role gives her queer cachet; she made a point of keeping her virginity, but may have been sexually assaulted in prison, an event that figures in Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse.

Joan stands equal to such varied identities because the mysteriously personal qualities of her story invite the observer into it, and those qualities hold precisely because of her fiery end this day. What would Joan have been in five or ten years’ time, had she escaped capture or held to her temporary renunciation of wearing men’s clothes (the head-scratching but subtly profound charge that finally doomed her)? An aging commander with the gloss off her, a partisan of some faction of the abject French court, a hostage somewhere being ransomed for gold plate or quietly poisoned off?

Her myth and its antithesis work because she came in radiance from dust, and followed her conscience — her God, her will, her destiny, or what have you — back to dust.

Though adapted many times for the screen, the definitive Joan of Arc film remains the 1928 silent treament La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, scripted largely from the original trial transcripts. The movie’s lead Maria Falconetti — and indeed the very silence of the medium — convey something of that mysterious, multifaceted meaning left to us tantalizingly suspended between the 19-year-old who stood at the stake this day and the legend that arose from her ashes.

Books about Joan of Arc

(The Mark Twain book is in the public domain and available free at Project Gutenberg in both text (part 1 | part 2) and audio (part 1 | part 2) forms.)

* Shakespeare, for instance, writing Henry VI Part I about Charles VII’s English opposite number, has Joan in a rather more negative light than a modern reader is used to seeing — as a witch and a whore. In her last battlefield appearance, she summons demons …

Enter Fiends
This speedy and quick appearance argues proof
Of your accustom’d diligence to me.
Now, ye familiar spirits, that are cull’d
Out of the powerful regions under earth,
Help me this once, that France may get the field.

… who fail to aid her although she offers them her body. Later, condemned to the stake, she cravenly tries to plead her belly by claiming that she slept with several other characters.

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