1312: Piers Gaveston

3 comments June 19th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1312, Edward II’s dearest friend Piers Gaveston was “executed” by the English nobility that had long despised him.

The “notorious royal favourite” had initially been welcomed by Edward I around 1300 as a royal companion for the crown prince.

By the end of Longshanks’ life, the old king was so irate at their relationship (the prince had had the temerity to request a title and castles for Gaveston) that Gaveston was booted out of the country.

(But at least he wasn’t defenestrated, the fate of the fictional Gaveston stand-in “Phillip” in Braveheart.)

Ah, the gay-baiting.

The younger Edward immediately recalled his friend when death came for Longshanks, and Gaveston was resented both by English peers and the young Queen Isabella for the favor the new king held him in.

The purported homosexual relationship between Edward II and Piers Gaveston is commonly believed* though ultimately speculative, reading between the lines of chroniclers who are sometimes bitterly hostile towards these two. “The King loved an evil male sorcerer more than he did his wife,” for instance, is a bit of propaganda — we obviously don’t believe the “sorcery” bit — and even that’s not completely explicit.

There’s a strong circumstantial interpretation to made, but since the particulars of Edward’s behavior with his favorite behind drawn tapestries are permanently unavailable to us, it will suffice us to say that this interpretation has conditioned the “Piers Gaveston” who comes to us in later centuries as a widely-credited cultural artifact.

Whether as calumny or commendation, homosexuality is the first thing everyone “knows” about Piers Gaveston, the emblem of his life and the doomed reign of his sovereign. We meet him from the other side of Stonewall, even when we meet him in Renaissance poetry or Renaissance drama.

The historical, flesh-and-blood Piers — and there’s a very thorough biography of him here** — was certainly defined by more than gay identity, real or imputed.

The personal resentment he inspired in the likes of Lancaster and Beauchamp was political, mapped onto the timeless power struggle between nobles and crown, and within the nobility itself.

The king trusted Gaveston, who was himself just the son of a knight, with plum royal assignments like governing Ireland, and Gaveston executed them effectively; with an immoderate confidence in his own considerable talents, the favorite was not above tweaking his rivals with derisive nicknames.

The Lancaster faction progressively got the upper hand on Edward and Gaveston, and with civil war brewing, they captured the hated Gascon at Scarborough Castle while Edward scrambled unavailingly to raise an army of his own.

He was held privately for nine days before Lancaster — “a sulky, quarrelsome, and vindictive man … quick to resort to violence,” by Alison Weir’s reckoning — decided he had to go. Gaveston was beheaded without color of law at Blacklow Hill near Warwick. A monument to his memory still stands there today.

Thou executioner of foule bloodie rage,
To act the will of lame decrepit age.

The grief-stricken monarch would serve his revenge upon the Earl of Lancaster ten years’ cold, beheading him for treason in 1322 upon the verdict of the man who had by then slid into Gaveston’s place in the king’s favor, Hugh Despenser.

* Not universally accepted, however.

** Bonus: Nineteen things you never knew about Piers Gaveston.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Famous,History,Homosexuals,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Put to the Sword,The Worm Turns

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1781: John Donellan, Esq.

1 comment April 2nd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1781, John Donellan was hanged for murdering his brother-in-law to secure an inheritance.

JOHN DONELLAN had been a captain in the army, and was the son of Colonel Donellan. He certainly distinguished himself as a good soldier, for not only had he been much wounded in the service, but, if his own account may be credited, he was singularly instrumental in the taking of Mazulapatam. … In June, 1777, he married Miss Boughton; and on Friday, 30th of March, 1781, he was tried at the assizes at Warwick for the wilful murder of Sir Theodosius Edward Allesley Boughton, Bart., his brother-in-law.

… Sir Theodosius was twenty years old on the 3rd of August past. On his coming of age he would have been entitled to above two thousand pounds a year, and in the event of his dying a minor the greater part of his fortune was to descend to his sister, the wife of Mr Donellan. It was known in the family on the evening of Tuesday, the 26th that Sir Theodosius was to take his physic the next morning. … As he was taking it he observed that it smelled and tasted very nauseous; upon which [his mother, Lady Boughton] said: “I think it smells very strongly like bitter almonds.” He then remarked that he thought he should not be able to keep the medicine upon his stomach.

Here a bottle was delivered to Lady Boughton containing the genuine draught, which she was desired to smell, and inform the Court whether it smelled like the medicine Sir Theodosius took. She answered in the negative. She was then desired to smell another containing the draught, with the addition of laurel-water, which she said had a smell very much like that of the medicine she gave to Sir Theodosius. … Two minutes after Sir Theodosius had taken the draught he struggled very much. It appeared to her as if it was to keep the draught down. He made a prodigious rattling in his stomach, and guggling …

She saw Mr Donellan less than five minutes after. … he asked her where the physic bottle was; on which she showed him two draughts; when he took up one of the bottles and said, “Is this it?” she answered, “Yes.” He then rinsed it, and emptied it into some dirty water that was in a washhand-basin; and on his doing so she said: “What are you at? You should not meddle with the bottles.” Upon that he snatched up the other bottle and rinsed it …

We omit the forensic testimony presented to confirm that the victim was indeed poisoned.

As well as the latter-day observer can tell, we have a guilty — and fairly clumsy — poisoner after his brother-in-law’s boodle.

We’ll never know the answer, but the Newgate author hints at other family members who might have had the same means, motive and opportunity … like Donellan’s wife:

[Lady Boughton] soon afterwards went into the parlour, where she found Mr and Mrs Donellan; and the former told his wife that her mother had been pleased to take notice of his washing the bottles, and that he did not know what he should have done if he had not thought of saying that he had put the water into them to put his finger to it to taste.

Lady Boughton’s just full of evidence! Don’t suppose she could have had anything to gain, hmm? Let’s ask a jailhouse snitch:

John Darbyshire deposed that he had been a prisoner in Warwick jail for debt, and that Mr Donellan and he had had a bed in the same room for a month or five weeks. He remembered to have had a conversation with him about Sir Theodosius being poisoned. On his asking him whether the body was poisoned or not, he said there was no doubt of it. The witness said: “For God’s sake, Captain, who could do it?” He answered it was amongst themselves; he had no hand in it. The witness asked whom he meant by themselves. He said: “Sir Theodosius himself, Lady Boughton, the footman and the apothecary.” The witness replied, “Sure, Sir Theodosius could not do it himself!” He said he did not think he did — he could not believe he would. The witness answered: “The apothecary could hardly do it — he would lose a good patient; the footman could have no interest in it; and it is unnatural to suppose that Lady Boughton would do it.” The Captain said how covetous Lady Boughton was: she had received an anonymous letter the day after Sir Theodosius’s death charging her plump with poisoning him; that she called him and read it to him, and trembled. She desired he would not let his wife know of that letter, and asked him if he would give up his right to the personal estate, and to some estates of about two hundred pounds a year belonging to the family. The conversation was about a month after the Captain came into the jail. At other times he said that it was impossible he could do a thing that never was in his power.

Stranger things have happened, but it sounds like a weak attempt to set mom up; it sounded weak to the jury, too.

At seven o’clock on the next day, the 2nd of April, 1781, he was carried to the place of execution at Warwick, in a mourning-coach, followed by a hearse and the sheriff officers in deep mourning. As he went on he frequently put his head out of the coach, desiring the prayers of the people around him.

On his arrival at the fatal spot he alighted from the coach and, ascending a few steps of the ladder, prayed for a considerable time, and then joined in the usual service with the greatest appearance of devotion; he next, in an audible tone of voice, addressed the spectators to this effect: that as he was then going to appear before God, to Whom all deceit was known, he solemnly declared that he was innocent of the crime for which he was to suffer; that he had drawn up a vindication of himself, which he hoped the world would believe, for it was of more consequence to him to speak truth than falsehood, and he had no doubt but that time would reveal the many mysteries that had arisen in his trial.

After praying fervently some time he let his handkerchief fall — a signal agreed upon between him and the executioner — and was launched into eternity. When the body had hung the usual time it was put into a black coffin and conveyed to the town hall to be dissected.

Part of the Themed Set: Selections from the Newgate Calendar.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Pelf,Public Executions

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