1453: Alvaro de Luna, Spanish favorite

Add comment June 2nd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1453, the man who was once the power behind Castile’s throne became its foremost cautionary metaphor.

The greatest privado — royal favorite — in Spain’s annals, Alvaro de Luna (English Wikipedia entry | the far more detailed Spanish) sprang from noble albeit illiterate stock. He came to the Castilian court in 1410 as a witty and talented young page and adroitly got his hooks into the five-year-old crown prince, the future Juan II.

Quite uncommonly for a royal favorite, Don Alvaro held his king’s affection for many decades, and even while enriching himself into the mightiest subject in the land, he energetically served his prince’s interest.

Chief among these was managing the truculent nobility who would surely have dominated the weak-willed Juan but for his capable lieutenant — who was known from 1423 ask the Constable of Castile and Count of San Esteban de Gormaz in 1423. Don Alvaro proved a consummate politico, scheming to deflect the ambitions of Juan’s rivals and to consolidate the power of the throne … which meant his own power, too. To a very great degree the favorite was the real sovereign, until he suddenly wasn’t.

“Alvaro de Luna would probably not be particularly consoled by the judgement of modern historians,” observes a wry James Boyden in The World of the Favourite** — for they “praise his efforts on behalf of Juan II for opening the way to royal absolutism in Castile, citing his own arbitrary death sentence as the clinching proof of the newfound powers of the crown.”

Don Alvaro’s downfall from his post of seemingly unassailable preeminence satisfied every literary device imaginable, beginning with poetic justice.

When Juan’s first wife, Maria of Aragon, died in 1445 — and Don Alvaro’s own hand has been suspected in that death — the Constable managed Juan’s pivot to 19-year-old Portuguese princess Isabella as the successor queen.

From her advantageous position in the king’s bed, Isabella soon began to work against Don Alvaro. She resented his intrusions into even their most intimate chambers, and she surely feared sharing the fate of her predecessor, Maria. Eventually, her arguments carried the day. Boyden once again:

It is difficult to imagine a more striking illustration of the transitory nature of earthly fortune than the spectacle of the constable’s execution in a public square of Valladolid on 2 June 1453. Certainly the event caught the imagination of contemporary poets. ‘Look then to that great Constable,’ wrote Jorge Manrique, ‘the Master whom we knew so deeply favoured by the king / And yet even of him nothing more need be said than that we saw him beheaded. / His limitless treasures, his towns and villages, his power of command / What did they bring him but tears? / What were they to him except sorrows at the leaving?’

According to Juan II, Don Alvaro’s principal crime was that he ‘has for a long time held and usurped a chief position near me and in my household and court’, and despite having been admonished about his excessive pride and effrontery ‘he has persevered in it … grasping more power to himself each day, excessively, without temperance or measure, so that there remains to me no more room to rule and administer my kingdoms personally, nor to maintain my towns in justice and truth and law …’

Not surprisingly, the constable saw matters in another light. While the king alleged usurpation of his royal authority, Don Alvaro responded with a charge of ingratitude, levelled in a tone meant to convey the sadness and resignation of a loyal servant stripped at last of his illusions. Rather than withdraw into a well-deserved retirement after forty-five years of service, he wrote,

I chose … to serve as I was in duty bound and as I felt the situation demanded; I deceived myself, for this service has been the cause of my misfortune. How bitter that I should find myself deprived of liberty who more than once have risked life and fortune to preserve your highness’s freedom! I am well aware that for my great sins I have angered God, and I will consider it a boon if I can placate his rage through these travails.

This appeal to justice was accompanied by an offer of treasure, but neither swayed the king, who was so intent upon Don Alvaro’s destruction that he would finally order his execution despite the failure of a hand-picked tribunal to render a clear sentence of death.

Although it cut no ice with his king, Alvaro de Luna’s posture of betrayed fidelity — his courage and dignity on the scaffold, ere his throat was cut and his severed head mounted on a hook — helped to salvage what might easily have become a hateful reputation among Spaniards. The annalist Pedro de Escavias recorded that Don Alvaro “struck terror into all who saw him” but “he died with a good countenance and good courage, as a knight and a faithful Christian should. May God forgive him, for he handled many great matters in the days when he enjoyed the king’s favour.” (Quoted in the out-of-print volume The Greatest Man Uncrowned: A Study of the Fall of Don Alvaro de Luna) This respectful epitaph is evident in the numerous artistic treatments around the Constable’s corpse.


Collection to Bury the Body of Alvaro de Luna, by Ramirez Ibanez Manual (1884)

Collection to Bury the Body of Alvaro de Luna, by Jose Maria Rodriguez de Losada (1867)

Burial of Alvaro de Luna, by Eduardo Cano de la Pena (19th century).

Juan’s rancor did not extend to denying his favorite an ornate tomb in Toledo Cathedral. Like all the best sovereign-favorite pairs — Richelieu comes to mind — Juan II soon followed to the grave his secret-sharer, dying in July 1454 allegedly stricken with remorse.† His daughter was Isabella of Castile, famed of Christopher Columbus sponsorship.

* There appears to be some ambiguity among sources between June 2 and June 3 whose resolution lies beyond the reach of myself and perhaps of any human. I tentatively prefer June 2 based on a preponderance of citations, and because June 3 was a Sunday.

** There’s also a fine essay on our principal to be found in The Emergence of León-Castile c.1065-1500: Essays Presented to J.F. O’Callaghan.

† However, Juan’s knowledge of his own failing health and a desire to disencumber his successors of this overmighty minister have also been suggested as reasons for Don Alvaro’s destruction. The favorite treads a very treacherous road indeed.

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1568: Leonor de Cisneros, chastised wife

Add comment September 26th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1568, Leonor de Cisneros was burned as a heretic in Valladolid — nine years late, by her reckoning.

Leonor de Cisneros (English Wikipedia entry | a token Spanish Wikipedia entry | the much more detailed German) and her much older husband Antonio Herrezuelo* were among the first converts to the Lutheran circle in Valladolid funded by Don Carlos de Seso. The Inquisition got its hands on these wrongthinkers in the late 1550s and the result was an auto de fe on October 8, 1559 at which King Philip personally witnessed the Christlike suffering of Don Carlos and 12 of his adherents.

However, while 13 died, dozens of others succumbed to the Inquisition’s pressure to recant, and live. Leonor de Cisneros was one of them.

The monstrous spectacle of the auto de fe featured an elaborate symbolic language encoded for the spectators in the ritual sanbenitos in which the accused were made to parade, such as the example pictured at right.** Different patterns denoted which heretics were bound for the stake, and which had reconciled to a wary Church … and it is said that when Antonio, en route to his pyre draped in illustrations of hellfire to represent his fatal obduracy, beheld his wife in the colors of a penitent, he savagely reproached her cowardice.

Obviously shaken, Leonor returned to her prison with a prayer in her soul and a flea in her ear. Soon enough she had relapsed into her heresy, and this time no punishment or exhortation could move her — knowing as she well did that in her stubbornness she solicited her martyrdom.

* Leonor was born in the mid-1530s, so would have married and converted to Protestantism around the age of 18. Antonio was born about 1513.

** Source: this public-domain volume on the notorious Inquisitor Torquemada.

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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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1847: Manuel Antonio Ay, Caste War harbinger

Add comment July 26th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1847, the execution of Maya leader Manuel Antonio Ay in Valladolid kicked off the Yucatan’s decades-long Caste War.

Under Spanish administration, Mexico had a dizzying 16-tiered racial caste hierarchy.

The casta system was officially abolished when Mexico attained independence in 1821, but for Amerindians the newfound equality was more aspirational than real. It’s just that now they were looking up at Mexican-born criollo elites instead of Iberia-born peninsulares.

Either caste’s powers that be had long found found the Maya especially contumacious subjects; a Yucatan Mayan stronghold had, indeed, been the very last unconquered indigenous realm of the Americas to fall to Europeans — as late as 1697.

In 1846, a heavily Maya Yucatecan peasantry, strained by the economic extractions the Mexican state was imposing for its disastrous war with the United States, began rising against the overweening local gentry.

The progress and organization of these disturbances varied, but it’s the execution of our man, the 27-year-old chief of the village Chichimila, that traditionally marks turning-point galvanizing a full-scale rebellion. On July 18, as armed Maya regiments gathered in nearby Tihosuco, Valladolid’s authorities seized Miguel Antonio Ay for planning a rebellion. He had in his possession a letter from Bonifacio Novelo, a major Maya chief who would become one of the Caste War’s leading figures in the years to come — indeed, Terry Rugeley says in Yucatan’s Maya Peasantry and the Origins of the Caste War that Ay served for his persecutors as “a temporary substitute for Novelo, whom officials feared and hated more than any Maya.”

They’d never lay hands on Novelo, but his substitute was executed in the town square of Valladolid, and the body returned to exhibit in Chichimila in a futile attempt to cow resistance: Ay had, instead, become the first martyr of the coming war. Three days later, the gathering Maya army sacked the village of Tepich, beheading the colonel who commanded its defenses — the onset of generations of general war that persisted into the 20th century.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Martyrs,Mexico,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1814: Mariano Matamoros, Mexican revolutionary

Add comment February 3rd, 2014 Headsman

Two hundred years ago today, the Mexican revolutionary Mariano Matamoros was shot by the Spanish at Valladolid.

A Catholic priest (defrocked for the occasion of his execution) who had previously gone to prison for his nationalist sympathies, Matamoros joined the revolutionary army of fellow-clergyman Jose Maria Morelos as the Mexican War of Independence blossomed.

Matamoros proved to have the knack for martial leadership and was a lieutenant general and Morelos’s second-in-command within months.

The Spanish captured him in early January 1814 after the revolutionaries’ failed attempt to take Valladolid. His foes could not be moved to exchange him on any terms.

Though Morelos too would suffer this fate in time, their cause eventually prevailed. Post-independence, the martyred Matamoros became a Mexican national hero. He’s interred today at Mexico City’s iconic El Angel monumental column.

He’s the namesake of several locations, including the border city of Matamoros. (Longtime readers of this site might recall the 1913 Mexican Revolution execution in Matamoros that we’ve previously profiled.) One of Mexico City’s airports also bears the Matamoros name.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Martyrs,Mexico,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Shot,Soldiers,Spain,Treason,Wartime Executions

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