1578: Nicolas Gosson, counterrevolved

Add comment October 26th, 2020 Headsman


Beheading of barrister Nicolas Gosson at Arras on October 26, 1578.

Presently in France, this town at the time was in the Spanish Low Countries during the unfolding Calvinist Dutch Revolt.

Gosson, “a man of great wealth, one of the most distinguished advocates in the Netherlands, and possessing the gift of popular eloquence to a remarkable degree, was the leader of this burgess faction” according to this public domain history. He mounted an urban coup in favor of the Orangist — one of several similar coups in the southern Low Countries, where ultras tried to force events upon less favorable terrain. “Inflamed by the harangues of Gosson, and supported by five hundred foot soldiers and fifty troopers under one Captain Ambrose, they rose against the city magistracy, whose sentiments were unequivocally for Parma, and thrust them all into prison. They then constituted a new board of fifteen, some Catholics and some Protetants, but all patriots, of whom Gosson was chief.”

The not-so-patriotic faction — the so-called “Malcontents”, noblemen and their supporters who were either repelled by Calvinist excesses or simply pleased to seek their advantage allying with Spain — turned back Gosson’s revolution within days.

Baron Capres, the great Malcontent seignior, who was stationed with his regiment in the neighbourhood … marched into the city at the head of a strong detachment, and straightway proceeded to erect a very tall gibbet in front of the Hotel de Ville. This looked practical in the eyes of the liberated and reinstated magistrates, and Gosson, Crugeot, and the rest were summoned at once before them. The advocate thought, perhaps, with a sigh, that his judges, so recently his prisoners, might have been the fruit for another gallows-tree, had he planted it when the ground was his own …

The process was rapid. A summons from Brussels was expected every hour from the general government, ordering the cases be brought before the federal tribunal, and as the Walloon provinces were not yet ready for open revolt, the order would be an inconvenient one. Hence the necessity for haste … Bertoul, Crugeot, Mordacq, with several others, were condemned in a few hours to the gibbet. They were invited to appeal, if they chose, to the council of Artois, but hearing that the court was sitting next door, so that there was no chance of a rescue in the streets, they declared themselves satisfied with the sentence. Gosson had not been tried, his case being reserved for the morrow.

Meanwhile, the short autumnal day had drawn to a cloe. A wild, stormy, rainy night then set in, but still the royalist party — citizens and soldiers intermingled — all armed to the teeth, and uttering fierce cries, while the whole scene was fitfully illuminated with the glare of flambeaux and blazing tar-barrels, kept watch in the open square around the city hall. A series of terrible Rembrandt-like night-pieces succeeded — grim, fantastic, and gory. [Pierre] Bertoul, an old man, who for years had so surely felt himself predestined to his present doom that he had kept a gibbet in his own house to accustom himself to the sight of the machine, was led forth the first, and hanged at ten in the evening. He was a good man, of perfectly blameless life, a sincere Catholic, but a warm partisan of Orange.

Valentine de Mordacq, an old soldier, came from the Hotel de Ville to the gallows at midnight. As he stood on the ladder, amid the flaming torches, he broke forth into furious execrations, wagging his long white beard to and fro, making hideous grimaces, and cursing the hard fate which, after many dangers on the battle-field and in beleaguered cities, had left him to such a death. The cord strangled his curses. Crugeot was executed at three in the morning, having obtained a few hours’ respite in order to make his preparations, which he accordingly occupied himslf in doing as tranquilly as if he had been setting forth upon an agreeable journey. He looked like a phantom, according to eye-witnesses, as he stood under the gibbet, making a most pious and Catholic address to the crowd.

The whole of the following day was devoted to the trial of Gosson. He was condemned at nightfall, and heard by appeal before the superior court directly afterwards. At midnight of the 25th of October 1578, he was condemned to lose his head, the execution to take place without delay. The city guards and the infantry under Capres still bivouacked upon the square; the howling storm still continued, but the glare of fagots and torches made the place as light as day. The ancient advocate, with haggard eye and features distorted by wrath, walking between the sheriff and a Franciscan monk, advanced through the long lane of halberdiers, in the grand hall of the Town House, and thence emerged upon the scaffold erected before the door. He shook his fists with rage at the released magistrates, so lately his prisoners, exclaiming that to his miplaced mercy it was owing that his head, instead of their own, was to be placed upon the block. He bitterly reproached the citizens for their cowardice in shrinking from dealing a blow for their fatherland, and in behalf of one who had so faithfully srved them. The clerk of the court then read the sentence amid silence so profound that every syllable he uttered, and every sigh and ejaculation of the victim, were distinctly heard in the most remote corner of the square. Gosson then, exclaiming that he was murdered without cause, knelt upon the scaffold. His head fell while an angry imprection was still upon hi lips.

This municipal revolution and counter-revolution, obscure though they seem, were in reality of very grave importance. This was the last blow struck for freedom in the Walloon country. The failure of the movement made that scission of the Netherlands certain, which has endured till our days.

A few months afterward, Malcontents, Catholics, and pro-Spain types sealed their alliance (maybe at breaks in their negotiations clapping shoulders as they reminisced about cutting down old Nicolas Gosson) with a pact called the Union of Arras.

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1578: Jacob Hessels, “to the gallows, to the gallows!”

Add comment October 4th, 2019 Headsman

Flanders magistrate Jacob Hessels (Dutch link, as are most that follow) was hanged on this date in 1578.

He was a feared hanging judge — the story about him is that he would drift to sleep at the bench and awake with a start exclaiming, “to the gallows, to the gallows!” — who by profession and disposition was ideally suited for the so-called “Council of Blood” that would be seated in 1567 to help the Spanish Duke of Alba suppress the emerging revolt of the Low Countries against Habsburg sovereignty.


In this 1616 engraving by Simon Frisius, the cadaverous Duke of Alba presides over his Council of Troubles or Council of Blood.

He’s credited in particular with drafting the infamous sentence against Counts Egmont and Hoorn, but these were only highlights among a prolific career that earned him the hatred of the parties that chafed under imperial domination.

This was bad news for Hessels when one of those parties, Calvinists, mounted a coup d’etat that took control of Ghent in late 1577. We have in these pages previously encountered this period, in the form of the Calvinists’ persecution of Catholic monks; they also in the course of things imprisoned a number of secular officials associated with Habsburg/Catholic rule. Most of these would in time be ransomed unharmed; however, one of the principal leaders of the short-lived Calvinist Republic was Francois van Ryhove, who considered Hessels and another captive state’s attorney named Visch to be personal enemies and resolved upon their destruction.

Without color of any law or juridical proceeding, according to this Dutch-language history,

On October 4, 1578, he took the two prisoners out of their dungeon and had them carried outside of the gate in an armed carriage. Not far from town, the carriage stopped at Ryhove’s order, the prisoners were made to climb down, and Ryhove announced that they would be hung on a nearby tree immediately. He then mocked the old Hessels in a shameful way, and he went so far as to mistreat him viciously by grabbing his beard and pulling out a fistful of gray hair, which he put on his hat like a feather as an insignia of his revenge! His companions followed the mocking example of their unworthy leader; then the two unfortunates were hung to the tree.

Hessels and Visch, but especially the former, undoubtedly deserved death, and if that punishment had been imposed on them as a result of a legal judgment, few would have complained. But now they fell as the victims of a shameful, personal vengeance. Ryhove, the head of the Ghent party of revolution, the friend of Orange, had killed them without trial and his crime remained unpunished, for the prince had not power enough to make him feel his displeasure. Was it a miracle that the malcontents were crying out for revenge, that they were using the horrific crime committed by that one man as a pretext to also justify on their part to such atrocities against the Protestants, and that the angry Gentenaars in their turn again took revenge by assaulting the Catholic priests and looting the monasteries?

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1578: Kort Kamphues, outlaw judge

Add comment December 9th, 2014 Headsman

Most judges are content to inflict their atrocities with a gavel, but on this date in 1578, a magistrate turned freebooter named Kort Kamphues was beheaded at Bevergern.

Just a few months before his July 1553 death, Prince-Bishop Franz von Waldeck set Kamphues up for his interesting career arc by appointing him Stadtrichter of Coesfeld.

Kamphues’s overbearing presumptions on the perquisites of that sinecure, coming on more than one occasion to physical violence, led other city leaders to petition unsuccessfully for his removal in 1569.

But his attempt in 1572 to assemble a mercenary army on the pretext of getting involved in Spain’s war in the Netherlands led to a definitive break with Coesfeld — which tried to arrest him, and then outlawed him when he escaped with his armed posse into the Westphalian countryside.

For several years, Kamphues and gang marauded merrily until a clumsy bid to frighten a new Coesfeld magistrate led to an arson attack on the city. Kort Kamphues was captured on June 19, 1578, and tortured into confessing to arson, banditry, and breaching the peace — gaining a permanent place in folklore at the small expense of his head.

The Kamphues Dagger, a beautiful 14th century artifact later documented in the Coesfeld treasury, is supposed on sketchy evidence to have been captured from this brigand.


A replica of the Kamphues Dagger, at the city museum in Walkenbrückentor. (cc) image from Günter Seggebäing.

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1578: Thee Bruges Minnenbroder

2 comments July 26th, 2013 Headsman

During the Dutch Revolt — a proto-nationalist conflict pitting the Low Countries against the Habsburg Empire, overlaid with a religious conflict pitting Calvinist against Catholic — the Low Countries principals came to an expedient arrangement to lay off fighting with one another in order to concentrate on controlling their respective internal revolts.

As we’ve previously discussed, this truce helped set up now-unmolested local religious majorities to do some internal purging.

Whereas Calvinist Ghent went after some Catholic monks on accusations of homosexuality, Catholic Bruges (today in Belgium) … went after some not-Catholic-enough monks on accusations of homosexuality.

The results, as described in Same-Sex Desire in the English Renaissance: A Sourcebook of Texts, 1470-1650, were depressingly similar.

In [illustrator Franz] Hogenberg‘s Scenes an engraving dated May 18, 1578, shows a lengthy procession of monks being marched out of a monastery in Bruges under armed guard. The title and verses explain that two Franciscans of Calvinist leanings were whipped and then interrogated (probably on account of their Protestantism). But they revealed that many in their order were tained by sodomy (Sodomi). The other monks admitted this (under torture?), and “they were all taken prisoners and led away to the gate for their godlessness.” Presumably depicting a result of this … [is] Execution for Sodomitical Godlessness in the City of Bruges … Three monks are about to be burned in a public square while two are being beaten. Underneath, the verses state, “in well-known Bruges in Flanders three Franciscans (Minnenbroder) have been burned. Also two others were well beaten with switches and two had to be banished. For they were young and inexperienced and had been seduced by the old ones, so that they unjustly practiced sodomy (unzuchtt) upon their bodies.” Though the circumstances of the monks’ trial are as yet unclear, such sentences were carried out by secular authorities. Minnenbroder (Franciscans) may be a satiric pun on the word minne (which had come to mean debauchery), suggesting “brothers in lust” as opposed to brotherly love. Hogenberg connects sodomy with “godlessness,” as was common.

… The investigations, convictions, and punitive displays in these monastic cases [in Bruges and in Ghent] had special topicality for inclusion because they not only afforded titillations of sexual scandal, censure, and public punishment, but also added alleged religious transgression and appealed to Protestant-Catholic rivalries of the time. Although Hogenberg’s sodomites are ecclesiastics, his engravings indicate how these public spectacles were managed, while also providing us one contemporary view of the attitudes attendant crowds displayed.

Detail view (click for the full images) of Hogenberg prints from this British Museum collection. Also see this slightly different version of the arrest print.

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1578: Blessed John Nelson, martyr

2 comments February 3rd, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1578, John Nelson was martyred at Tyburn.

A Catholic who had popped across to Flanders to train as a priest, Nelson was captured after about a year’s ministry in December 1577.

Matters with this minor martyr proceeded according to the usual script from that point. Interrogators put it to him whether Queen Elizabeth was the proper head of the Church of England — that old chestnut. The wrong answer would be treason.

[Nelson] was brought forth to be examined before the high commissioners. Here they tendered him the oath of the queen’s supremacy, which he refused to take; and being asked, why he would not swear, he answered, because he had never heard, or read, that any lay prince could have that pre-eminence. And being farther demanded, who then was the head of the church, he answered, sincerely and boldly, that the pope’s holiness was, to whom that supreme authority in earth was due, as being Christ’s vicar, and the lawful successor of St. Peter.

Secondly, [t]hey asked him his opinion of the religion now practised in England; to which he answered, without any hesitation, that it was both schismatical and heretical. Whereupon they bid him define what schism was; he told them, it was a voluntary departure from the unity of the catholic Roman faith. Then (seeking to ensnare him) they farther urged, what is the queen then, a schismatic or no? … he answered, conditionally, if she be the setter forth [of Anglicanism], said he, and defender of this religion, now practised in England, then she is a schismatic and a heretic.

After he was cut down alive from his hanging so that he could be disemboweled and quartered, Nelson’s last words were reportedly “I forgive the queen and all the authors of my death.”

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1578: Five sodomite monks, by Calvinist Ghent

8 comments June 28th, 2009 Headsman

On June 28, 1578, five Catholic monks were burnt to death in Ghent for homosexuality.

The five holy men being prepared for execution, in this drawing by Franz Hogenberg. (Click for larger view.)

At our scene in the Spanish-controlled Low Countries, the revolt that would become known as the Eighty Years’ War and secure Dutch independence still had about 70 of those years to run.

Stadtholder William of Orange, aka William the Silent, has his hands full with the Habsburg forces determined to crush their disobedient subjects.

Half civil war, half proto-nationalist revolution, this conflict overlaid disputes over both political and religious authority, complicated by a catastrophic Spanish bankruptcy.

Of this compelling history much beyond our scope, the piece of most moment for our unfortunate monks was a grudging agreement to chill out the sectional suppression as part of a temporary truce between the warring sides. Said “slackening of persecution inspired Reformed public worship and attempts to topple the Catholic stewpot.” (Source)

Late in 1577, a political coup in the commercial powerhouse of Ghent did just that, part of a mini-Renaissance of Calvinist city-republics that Spanish arms would truncate in the 1580’s. But here in the 1570’s, the newly elevated slate of Calvinists implemented a “Reform” agenda that included aggressive moves against Catholic authority.

On 18-22 May [1578], the Reformed launched an attack on the four mendicant monasteries. Their churches were purified and made ready for Reformed worship. On 1 June the first public preaching was organized in the Dominican and Carmelite churches. (Source, a pdf)

Rumors of homosexuality in the religious orders swept the overheated city (assuming they were not put about intentionally), and this day opened a summer’s terror that saw 14 monks burned (pdf) for the love that dare not speak its name.

Kenneth Borris translates the inscription on the Franz Hogenberg image linked above thus:

“five monks are being burned in Flanders, in the city of Ghent. Four are Franciscans (Minnenbruder*) and the fifth Augustinian. Also three have been quickly flogged with switches on the market square as they deserve, because of their outrageous sexual offenses (unzuchtt) that greatly offended the authorities. That is why the four mendicant orders have now been driven out of Ghent.”

William the Silent, made of more statesmanlike stuff than these zealots, would actually enter Ghent himself the next year to disarm the ruling clique, realizing that firebrands were driving Catholic cities back into Spanish arms.

But he could not contain the schism. Spain ultimately kept the Catholic-leaning territories that today comprise Luxembourg and Belgium (including Ghent), while the Protestant Netherlands fought onward to independence.

* “Minnenbroder,” Borris explains, “may be a satiric pun on the word minne (which had come to mean debauchery), suggesting ‘brothers in lust’ as opposed to brotherly love. Hogenberg connects sodomy with ‘godlessness,’ as was common.”

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