1602: Charles de Gontaut, duc de Biron

On this date in 1602, Charles de Gontaut, duc de Biron, was beheaded in the Bastille for treason.

The son of a celebrated soldier* in the intractable French Wars of Religion, Charles de Gontaut (English Wikipedia page | French) was no slouch himself on the battlefield.

Henri of Navarre, in prevailing over his rivals for power in France and becoming King Henri IV, had good cause to appreciate Gontaut’s service, and even consider the man a friend.

But our Gontaut, having ascended the posts of Admiral, Marshal, Governor of Burgundy — and, of course, Duke — still coveted greater prestige. “Ambitious, arrogant, and of no great intelligence,” is this popular history’s judgment. (p. 360)

So he started conspiring with the Duke of Savoy — even as Gontaut bore the French standard in the field against this same character — for an arrangement to set himself up as an independent ruler or otherwise do something seriously deleterious to Henri’s kingdom.

The stories consistently report (pdf) that the lenient Henri was disposed to pardon his man if Gontaut would but make the show of submission implied in begging pardon, confessing his sin, vouchsafing loyalty, and all the rest of it, but out of pride and/or stupidity, Gontaut did not do it.

This fatal vanity recommended the Duc de Biron as a character study for his contemporary, English playwright George Chapman, whose The Conspiracy and Tragedy of Charles, Duke of Byron was published in London (heavily censored, at the insistence of the French ambassador) in 1608.

* Charles de Gontaut’s father, Armand de Gontaut, was also godfather to the child who would grow up to become Cardinal Richelieu.

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