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1591: Barnabe Brisson, at the hands of the Sixteen

November 15th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1591, the summary execution of Barnabe Brisson and two other French doctors of law signaled the beginning of the end of France’s Wars of Religion.

After the untimely death of Henri II in a freak jousting accident, his widow Catherine de’ Medici employed three frustrating decades shuttling the late monarch’s uninspiring offspring onto the throne only to see each in his turn die young and without issue. We are by these late years on to the last of Henri II’s sons — Henri III of France.

Actually, Henri wasn’t the last: just the last left alive. He had a younger brother, Francis, Duke of Anjou, who dropped dead in 1584 of malaria and left Henri III as the only Valois male. The heir presumptive after Henri III was his Calvinist brother-in-law Henri of Navarre. Spoiler alert: by the end of this post, Henri of Navarre is going to get there as King Henri IV.

The Catholic-vs.-Huguenot Wars of Religion had raged in France for many years but the last major installment of the bloody serial was the War of the Three Henrys: the two Henris aforesaid, plus the Duke of Guise, also named Henri — the standard-bearer of Catholic zealots.

Our present-day presumption of live-and-let-live spirituality was bequeathed from the Enlightenment only after it had been hard-won by centuries previous. In France of the 1500s, the most extreme (but by no means marginal) Catholic party saw the very existence of a Huguenot faction — and the fact that more moderate Catholic politiques were prepared to tolerate and treat with them — as an existential threat to the kingdom. Catholicism in the literal universal sense was intrinsic to France itself: if she should cease to be so, what would become of her? A 1589 pamphlet extolled what

an admirable thing [it is] to view the ardor and the devotion of everyone in France, the air resounding with prayer and processions of our youth who are purified by our prayers and by the common voice which is spread throughout this kingdom; we demonstrate that the benedictions and maledictions of a people have great effects.

With such great effects at stake, the pious ought not abide any fooling around with Providence. “If your brother, your friend, and your wife all of whom you hold dear wish to strip you of your faith,” wrote Louis D’Orleans in 1588, “kill them, cut their throats and sacrifice them to God.”*

This was a faction for whom Henri of Navarre’s prospective succession was absolutely intolerable, which makes it somewhat ironic that they themselves soon turned prospect into reality.

King Henri III was a Catholic himself, of course, and this irreconcilable Catholic League was part of what you might call his base. But though initially allied, the League’s attempts to dominate the young king led Henri III to execute a daring breakout: on December 23, 1588, he summoned the Duke of Guise to confer with him at the Chateau de Blois and there had his bodyguards murder Guise on the spot.


Just two Henries now …** (Executed Today’s court painter Paul Delaroche interprets that same scene here.)

The resulting fury of the Catholic League was so great that the king soon fled Paris and made common cause with Henri of Navarre. Now the civil war was the two Henris together — and the Catholic League opposing them. We come here to our date’s principal character, Barnabe Brisson (English Wikipedia entry | French), a distinguished jurist† in the Parlement of France. While most of this chamber followed the king out of Paris, Brisson chose to remain. “The Sixteen,”‡ the council of Catholic militants who now ruled Paris with the support of a populist militia, elevated Brisson to President of the Parlement.

In 1589 the Henris besieged staunchly Catholic Paris in an attempt to bring the civil war to a close. In a classic Pyrrhic victory, the League defeated this attempt by having a priest assassinate King Henri.


… and now we’re down to the last Henri.

While this action did break the siege, and avenge the murder of Guise, it made Henri of Navarre into King Henri IV. (Told you we’d get there.) The Catholic League’s attempt to recognize the new king’s uncle, a Cardinal, as the successor went nowhere at all, and at any rate this man himself died in 1590.

This succession greatly deepened the internal tension among Paris Catholics between the uncompromising men of the Sixteen and the moderate politiques, and the latter party’s interest in finding with the legitimate king a settlement that looked increasingly inevitable. After all, were these armed commoners really going to rule Paris indefinitely?


An armed march of the Holy League in Paris in 1590. (Anonymous painting)

The situation provoked the ultras among Paris’s ruling Sixteen to more desperate measures in a vain effort to maintain control. Their faction’s own post-Guise leader among the high nobility, the Duke of Mayenne, had refused inducements to seize the crown himself or to seat a sovereign provided by the League’s Hapsburg allies. He too was visibly sliding towards an accommodation with the heretic king. (He would reach one in 1596.) In much the same camp was an establishment figure like Brisson whose staying behind in Paris during the confused situation of 1588-1589 was scarcely intended to declare that his allegiance to creed surpassed all care for order. The man was a lawyer, after all.

During Mayenne’s absence from the capital in the autumn of 1591, the Sixteen mounted a radical internal coup and attempted to purge the city’s moderates. Brisson was arrested walking to work on the morning of the 15th and subjected along with two other jurists to a sham snap trial. All three were hung by lunchtime, and per a proposal floated among the council that afternoon were the next morning fitted with denunciatory placards and displayed on gibbets at the Place de Greve.

Barnabé Brisson, a chief traitor and heretic

Claude Larcher, an instigator of treacherous politiques

Jean Tardiff, an enemy of God and of Catholic princes

Their shocking exhibition was intended to incite a “St. Barthelemy des politiques” — a St. Bartholomew’s Day-esque pogrom against the politique moderates.

But the Sixteen had badly misjudged the mood of the city. The crowd beheld the mangled corpses silently, full of horror or pity — emblematic of the turning-point France was nearing in its interminable confessional strife. Despite the Catholic League’s strength in Paris, most Parisians were losing their appetite for bloodshed. The Duke of Mayenne was back in the capital by the end of the month and underscored the coming arrangements by seizing four of the Sixteen for summary execution themselves.

Two years later, Henri IV at last took Paris in hand by making a nominal conversion to Catholicism with the legendary (alleged) remark, “Paris is worth a Mass.”§

French speakers may enjoy this 19th century pdf biography of Brisson by Alfred Giraud.

* “Du Contemnement de la mort. Discours accomode a la miserable condition de ce temps” (blockquoted section) and Replique pour le Catholique Anglois, contre le Catolique associe des Huguenots (D’Orleans quote). Both via Dalia Leonardo in “Cut off This Rotten Member”: The Rhetoric of Heresy, Sin, and Disease in the Ideology of the French Catholic League,” The Catholic Historical Review, April 2002.

** Also of interest: this 1908 silent film of the assassination of the Duc de Guise, scored by Saint-Saens.

† Brisson’s dictionary of Justinian legal terminology remained in print until 1805. He also in 1587 produced a compilation of the laws of France as Le Code du Roy Henri III.

‡ The Sixteen were delegates of Paris’s quarters, assembled by the Duke of Mayenne. For detail on the composition and internal history of The Sixteen, see J.H.M. Salmon, “The Paris Sixteen, 1584-94: The Social Analysis of a Revolutionary Movement,” The Journal of Modern History, December 1972.

§ In the end, of course, an entirely unreconciled Catholic extremist assassinated Henri IV in 1610.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Gibbeted,God,Hanged,History,Intellectuals,Judges,Lawyers,Politicians,Power,Summary Executions,Treason,Wartime Executions

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