1608: St. Thomas Garnet, protomartyr of Stonyhurst

1 comment June 23rd, 2013 Headsman

June 23, alas, was the end of the line for Jesuit Thomas Garnet, martyred on that date in 1608 for Catholic proselytizing in England.

Now accounted a saint and one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales, Garnet was the nephew of Henry Garnet, a priest executed in 1606 for complicity in the November 5, 1605 Gunpowder Plot.

Thomas, too — then about 30 years old — was arrested during this same backlash, and put to torture for evidence against uncle Henry. Thomas had been exercising his covert ministry in England since 1599, after slipping English custody once before.

As a result of the Gunpowder Plot hubbub, Thomas Garnet was among 47 Catholic clerics shipped across the English Channel to Flanders in July 1606, where they were warned that they faced execution should they ever again be caught in England.

Thomas Garnet returned, of course. He was betrayed within weeks by another priest named Rouse — whom Garnet publicly forgave while being drawn, hanged, and quartered on this date in 1608. (His faith was treasonable because he refused to swear an oath of allegiance demanded of Catholics post-5.11.)

Garnet’s remains were translated back to his Catholic school on the continent. In more tolerant times, long after Garnet’s death, this English Jesuit school finally had liberty to relocate back to England proper. While Garnet’s relics were destroyed in the French Revolution, he remains the protomartyr (the first martyr associated with a place) of the venerable Stonyhurst College, now in Lancashire.

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1600: The corpses of John and Alexander Ruthven, for the Gowrie conspiracy

2 comments November 17th, 2012 Headsman

Remember, remember, the fifth of … August?

If you didn’t get August 5 off, your jurisdiction is ignoring the Scottish parliament’s 1600 decree: “in all times and ages to come the fifth of August should be solemnly kept with prayers, preachings, and thanksgiving for the benefit, discharging all work, labour, and other occupations upon the said day.”*

They didn’t mean to keep it out of excess reverence for St. Emygdius: rather, August 5 was the date of the Gowrie conspiracy, a sketchy supposed assassination attempt on King James VI of Scotland (soon also to become King James I of England). John Ruthven, Earl of Gowrie and his brother Alexander Ruthven were both slain on the spot during that event … but not until 15 weeks later did Parliament rule that “the said bodies of the said Traitors shall be carried, upon Monday next [i.e., November 17], to the publick cross of Edinburgh: and there to be hangd, quarter’d, and drawn, in presence of the hail People: and thereafter, the heads, quarters, and carcasses, to be affix’d upon the most patent parts and places of the Burroughs of Edinburgh, Perth, Dundee and Stirling.”

Did they deserve it?

Scottish writer John Prebble considered the Gowrie conspiracy one of his realm’s best mysteries. It’s a maddeningly perplexing sequence of ambiguous (or altogether dubious) events related by interested, partisan sources.

I am murtherit!

The summary official version — and we’re skipping over such writerly red herrings as a mystery man in the turret, a still-stabled horse, and a wild fable about a pot of foreign gold — is that while staying at the Ruthven estates, James’s courtiers saw him shouting out the window, “I am murtherit! Treassoun! My Lord of Mar, help! help!”

While Lord Mar and others spent half an hour (!) trying to batter down a locked entrance to the regicidal turret, a page named John Ramsay found another staircase in, where he came upon the king and Alexander Ruthven grappling. Ramsay stabbed Ruthven about the head and neck, and Ruthven fled down Ramsay’s same staircase: there he careened headlong into more arriving royal retainers who killed him flat. Ruthven died exclaiming “Allace! I had na wyte [blame] of it!”

Meanwhile, the Lord Gowrie — quite possibly knowing nothing but that there was a commotion involving the king in his home — had rallied outside the courtyard with his own household and marched in swords drawn, passing the fresh-slain body of his little brother on the way. He must have been in an evil temper when he burst into the chamber, there to discover Ramsay and friends, and only them: the king had been locked in another room for his protection. Ramsay demanded Gowrie’s submission and the two crossed swords, with Ramsay running the elder Ruthven through, too.

(Small wonder Ramsay went on to become a royal favorite.**)

“… if it be true”

“A very wonderful story, your Majesty, if it be true,” one lord is supposed to have replied to James upon hearing this amazing tale.

Suspicion was immediately rife that this “treason” stuff was a cover for the king to take out a rival noble. The Ruthvens had often been at odds with King Jamie’s own family; John and Alexander’s own father was beheaded in 1584 for trying to kidnap the then-teenaged king, and their grandfather had helped a gang of nobles destabilize James’s mother Mary by murdering her favorite courtier David Rizzio right before her eyes. And of course, the crown would be able to seize all the “traitors'” estates, nicely flipping around a significant cash debt owed to the Ruthven clan.

Edinburgh Presbyterian ministers openly disputed the Ruthvens’ guilt, refusing to thank God for James’s “deliverance”.† James found it necessary to forcibly quash this talk, and he would insist upon the Ruthvens’ guilt all his days. But those outside the reach of Scottish royal power had looser tongues.

French nobles who had met Gowrie on the latter’s recent return from his continental studies, and Queen Elizabeth, who had received Gowrie warmly at court, openly doubted the official account: it was thought wildly at odds with the young man’s character. The nature of the interaction between the king and Alexander Ruthven prior to the intervention of John Ramsay depends upon the account of the king himself — that account, and no other. The other witnesses were dead. And the object of the plot seems unclear: sure, maybe Alexander Ruthven could have killed the king mano a mano, but then what? There was no indication at all of confederates (even Alexander’s brother reacted in confusion), nor coherent design for some next step like massacring James’s courtiers or toppling the government or even escaping. These were scheming aristocrats, not deranged lone assassins. And both James and Gowrie had behaved for all the world before this incident as if the unpleasantness with the father was water under the bridge.

“The assassination of the Gowries was the most indefensible act that has ever appeared on the pages of Scottish history,” avers mildy a 1912 volume of the Ruthven family papers. It was “a cunning conspiracy that has disgraced the historical record for more than three hundred years.”

The jury’s still out

Still, the hypothetical account of a royal anti-Gowrie conspiracy seems if anything even less satisfying than the official story. Most of the happenings besides what passed between Alexander and James were witnessed by others, so … the king falsely yelled “treason” counting on the handful of his guys staying in the Ruthvens’ own place to kill the Ruthvens instead of the other way around? Events played out so chaotically that this convenient outcome seems mere [mis]chance. What was the plan if John Ramsay hadn’t found the unlocked second entrance?

And yet some 350 witnesses were examined without turning up any concrete design, and three Ruthven retainers hanged on August 23 insisting upon their innocence of any treasonable intent.

One can go a lot of ways from here, and it’s hard to spin any one story that satisfyingly accounts for all the evidence. A scheme to kidnap (and extract policy change from) the king, rather than murder him? Alexander an unwilling pawn, forced into it by his brother? Or, as one English envoy supposed, a destructive spiral of events proceeding from a silly misunderstanding wherein a chance reference to the Ruthvens’ executed father led Alexander to defend the family a little too hotly and the king to start shouting in panic when he realized he was unarmed in the company of an excited, and much larger, man?‡

We’ll never really know. Light a candle for epistemological uncertainty next August 5.

Much help drawn from a two-parter review of the contradictory evidence in The Scottish Historical Review, nos. 121 and 122 (April and October 1957) by W.F. Arbuckle.

* August 5 was indeed “solemnly kept” during the reign of James, according to F.C. Eeles in “The English Thanksgiving Service for King James’ Delivery from the Gowrie Conspiracy” from the July 1911 Scottish Historical Review. As the title of that piece suggests, there was even a service promulgated (though never incorporated into the Book of Common Prayer), beseeching God that James “may bee kept as the apple of thine eye, and thy kindnesse and mercy may follow him all the dayes of his life, with abundance of all thy blessings both heavenly and earthly upon his Majesty, our gracious Queene, the Prince …”

The Prince in question was the future King Charles I, which might cause one to doubt the prayer’s efficacy.

** Ramsay would be supplanted in the royal sun come the 1620s, by George Villiers.

† Religion affords another potential motivation here, although perhaps only retrospectively. James was working a long-term project to reintroduce episcopacy — crown-appointed bishops — to control the loose canons of Scotch Presbyterianism. “No bishop, no king,” in the aphorism attributed him.

With the Gowrie plot as backdrop, James was able to force radical ministers and their tin-foil hats out of Edinburgh and obtain the consent of the rest to James’s own hand-picked bishops — the camel’s nose under the tent, if you like. (See Maurice Lee, Jr., “James VI and the Revival of Episcopacy in Scotland: 1596-1600,” Church History, 43 (1974).) The Ruthven family papers volume also sets great stock by the idea that a Catholic party was out to get Lord Gowrie.

‡ “by occasion of a picture (as is sayde) or otherwise, speech happening of Earle Gourie his father executed, the k. angrelie sayde he was a traitour. Whereat the youth showing a greived and expostulatorie countenance and happilie Scot-like woords, the k. seeing hymself alone and wythout weapon cryed, ‘Treason, Treason’. The Mr [i.e., Alexander Ruthven], abashed much to see the k. to apprehend yt so … putt his hand with earnest deprecations to staie the k. showing his countenance to them with out in that moode, immediatlie falling on his knees to entreat the k.” Ramsay did say that when he entered the room he saw Alexander’s head under James’s arm, which might be consistent with this supplicatory pose … especially given that accounts of the men’s respective physiques suggest Alexander should have had the clear advantage in an actual scrap.

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1600: Ishida Mitsunari, Konishi Yukinaga and Ankokuji Ekei for the Tokugawa Shogunate

1 comment November 6th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1600, the emergent Tokugawa Shogunate beheaded three men as rebels in Kyoto after they lost one of the pivotal battles in Japanese history.

The Battle of Sekigahara, on Oct. 21 of that same year, had pitted the shogunate’s founder Tokugawa Ieyasu against a coalition known as the Western Army.

This was the culmination of Japan’s bloody process of national unification.

The preceding ruler, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, had more or less unified Japan under central authority to end a century of civil war. But when Hideyoshi shuffled off leaving a five-year-old heir, a squabbling coterie of regents began elbowing for position.

The political scene eventually crystallized into one of those regents — the said Tokugawa Ieyasu — against all the others. Give yourself a gold star if you guessed that the guys who had their heads lopped off by the Tokugawa Shogunate played for the “all others” team.

Ishida Mitsunari

Ishida Mitsunari, a daimyo who served the late national unifier Hideyoshi, became the focal point of the opposition to Ieyasu.*

Mitsunari failed in a 1599 assassination bid on Ieyasu, and so the two came to outright warfare the following year — a war that Ieyasu economically won by routing Mitsunari at the Battle of Sekigahara.

That, in turn, cleared the way for Tokugawa Ieyasu eventually to take the title of shogun and found his eponymous dynasty — a dynasty whose intellectuals circled that decisive battle as the keystone in the arch.

“Evildoers and bandits were vanquished and the entire realm submitted to Lord Ieyasu, praising the establishment of peace and extolling his martial virtue. That this glorious era that he founded may continue for ten thousands upon ten thousands of generations, coeval with heaven and earth!”

Hayashi Gaho, a little on the optimistic side

Captured after Sekigahara, the “evildoer” Mitsunari was beheaded this date alongside two of his allies: a Christian convert named Konishi Yukinaga, and Ankokuji Ekei of the powerful Mori clan.

* Ishida Mitsunari wasn’t one of the regents; rather, the anti-Ieyasu regents ended up adhering to him.

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1602: Charles de Gontaut, duc de Biron

Add comment July 31st, 2011 Headsman

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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1606: Caravaggio murders Ranuccio Tomassoni

5 comments May 29th, 2011 Headsman

This site is occasionally prepared to stray outside its execution-anniversary beat to cover especially fascinating manifestations of the death penalty in history.

So for this date, we observe the anniversary not of a punishment, but of the crime itself: a capital homicide in the capital of the world that changed art forever.

NNDB summarizes Caravaggio as a “temperamental painter,” but a less generous interlocutor might prefer a descriptor like “lowlife.”

Painter, he certainly was.

Caravaggio’s pioneering realism and flair for the dramatic …


Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1598-1599. Though the young painter on the make would hardly want for models of public decapitation in 16th century Rome, the gendered intimacy with the act invites consideration of Caravaggio’s likely attendance at the execution of Beatrice Cenci.

… made him a rock star on the canvas.

Though the papacy in its dogmatic counter-reformation aspect may have viewed Caravaggio’s eye-catching chiaroscuro with suspicion, there were scudi enough to burst the coinpurse of a talent who could grace a chapel with awe-inspiring stuff like this:


Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of St. Peter, painted in 1601 for Rome’s Santa Maria del Popolo.

However many souls his stark brushwork won for the Church, Caravaggio’s reverential fare belied the creator’s own distinctly profane pastimes: gambling, boozing, brawling, and whoring around. He needed the intervention of well-placed patrons to duck prosecution on several occasions.

May 29, 1606 finds our “temperamental” antihero encountering a wealthy scoundrel by the handle of Ranuccio Tomassoni and a problem that would outstrip any political pull the artist could muster.

Allegedly, the two met to settle a paltry tennis wager, although this may have been a cover story for a rivalry over a courtesan.*

On whatever pretext, the young hotheads fell into a melee. Caravaggio won … and Tomassoni bled to death from the gash his foe dealt to his femoral artery.**

Caravaggio now had mortal blood on his hands. Homicides were treated very harshly by the authorities. Caravaggio was about to have a price put on his head, and if he were caught, that head would be summarily removed from his body and hung on a public street. Allies of Ranuccio bent on revenge were likely to be after him as well. … Caravaggio, the celebrated Italian painter, was now a notorious wanted killer. (Source)

Condemned an outlaw by Pope Paul V — himself fruit of Rome’s Borghese family, great patrons of art in their own right — Caravaggio fled the Eternal City. His brilliance went with him, perhaps even amplified by the exile.

“The fall from grace was huge,” a curator of late Caravaggio works argued. “It had a profound impact. He started expressing the psychological essence of the stories he is telling.”

The painter and killer had four years left to him — an exile spent sleeping clothed and armed, forever looking over his shoulder. But what his jangled nerves could still spare for the canvas would help launch the baroque artistic epoch and still influences us today.

Flight, fancy, and fortune took Caravaggio to Malta and to Sicily, but the year or so he spent as Naples’ visiting genius would make his artistic legacy: that city’s succeeding generations of painters took enthusiastic inspiration from Caravaggio’s Neapolitan offerings — like a Seven Works of Mercy that must have carried a very personal meaning for the hunted man.

He was reportedly as arrogant and hot-tempered on the run as he had been in Rome, but Caravaggio’s art in exile also traces his desperate attempts to undo the consequences of his bad behavior.

Exploiting his apparent affinity for the sawing off of heads, Caravaggio rendered his own head in a severed state in at least two apparently penitential paintings during this vulnerable period.

This Salome with the Head of John the Baptist was made for the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta after the latter had in 1608 booted Caravaggio from that island refuge:

While David with the Head of Goliath seems to have been created shortly before Caravaggio’s own death for the pope’s art-hounding “Cardinal Nephew” Scipione Borghese, in a bid to earn a pardon. Caravaggio’s self-portrait as the dead man, and Latin inscription “humility kills pride” on the Israelite hero’s sword, suggest an attempt to effect through his creative virtuosity his own execution in effigy.

That would be, at any rate, the only execution Caravaggio ultimately had to endure. He died in the summer of 1610 under unclear — and inevitably suspicious — circumstances while attempting to return to Rome.

A few biographical books about Caravaggio …

… and some Caravaggio art books

* Ranuccio Tomassoni was the pimp and lover of a prostitute named Fillide whom Caravaggio had painted years before, and become enamored of. This Fillide was also Caravaggio’s model for Judith in the arresting painting of the Biblical heroine in mid-decapitation above.

** Possibly, if you like the love triangle angle, in a botched attempt to castrate his rival.

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1601: St. Anne Line

Add comment February 27th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in history, Anne Line was hanged for harboring Catholic priests in Elizabethan England.

There’s not too much question of her “guilt.”

I am sentenced to die for harbouring a Catholic priest, and so far I am from repenting for having so done, that I wish, with all my soul, that where I have entertained one, I could have entertained a thousand.

-Anne Line at the scaffold

She’d been disinherited from her Calvinist family for converting to Catholicism, and scratched out a living teaching and embroidering and keeping safe houses for forbidden Catholic clergy.

That house was raided in early February of 1601, and while the priest escaped, Anne Line did not.

Just one day after conviction, she hanged at Tyburn along with two priests, Roger Filcock and Mark Barkworth.

Anne Line was canonized in 1970; she’s one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales.

One of the possible interpretations (.doc) of Shakespeare’s recondite allegorical poem “The Phoenix and the Turtle” is that it’s about Anne (the phoenix) and her husband Roger Line (the turtledove; he predeceased her).

Death is now the phoenix’ nest;
And the turtle’s loyal breast
To eternity doth rest,

Leaving no posterity:–
‘Twas not their infirmity,
It was married chastity.

Truth may seem, but cannot be:
Beauty brag, but ’tis not she;
Truth and beauty buried be.

To this urn let those repair
That are either true or fair;
For these dead birds sigh a prayer.

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1603: The men of the Bye Plot, but not those of the Main Plot

1 comment December 9th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1603, priests William Watson and William Clark were executed for a dramatic (that is, harebrained) plot “to take away ‘the KINGE and all his cubbes.'”

The year was 1603, the first in the reign of James I. (However, he’d been James VI of Scotland since the tender age of 13 months, when his mother Mary, Queen of Scots had been forced to abdicate. He made himself quite a reputation for witch-hunting.)

With the death of the Protestant Queen Elizabeth and all her schismatic Anne Boleyn mojo, hard-pressed English Catholics greeted Jamie’s ascension hopeful of relief from official persecution. Although raised Protestant, both his parents had been Catholic.

Watson was one of these hopeful adherents, and hastened himself to Scotland as Queen Elizabeth lay ailing to extract from the future English monarch the soothing blandishments of good favor that future monarchs make.

When toleration was not extended to Catholics upon the new king’s elevation in late March 1603, the disenchanted Watson almost immediately embarked on a preposterous scheme to

assemble force and strengthe, and on Midsommer-day last, in the night, to come to the Parke pale at Grenewich, to enter in by the gardein with a key, that should be borowed; and when the numbers were come in, there should be a watche set at the dores of principall persons, and at the passages; and then to goe up to the KING’S loding. And when they cam to the KING, they should surprise his person, and carry him to the Tower, and they would move him for 3 things: — 1, for there pardon; 2, for tolleration of relligion; 3, for assuraunce thereof, to preferre Catholiques to places of credit, as WATZON the priest to be Lord Keper; GREY, Erle Marshall; GEORGE BROOKE, Lord Treasorer; and MARCAM, Secretary. They concluded to cutt of many of the Privy Councill, and to have made a Proclamation, purporting howe the KING had bene misled, and to have had many things reformed. They determined to have possessed the principall ports of the realme, and to have kept the KING in the Towre a quarter of a yeare.

The Bye Plot was ironically busted by other Catholics — Jesuits, as distinct from “secular clergy” (clergy not affiliated with an order) like Watson. Jesuits and secular clergy were at loggerheads in this period over tactics, church structure … more or less everything. The need to steal the thunder of whatever restore-the-Church scheme the Jesuits might be cooking up might have helped precipitate Watson into such immediate and desperate disaffection.

At any rate, these other more respectable fathers of the church blew the whistle on the Bye Plot lest it provoke anti-Catholic pogroms, and you’d have to concur with their estimate that taking the king hostage is the sort of thing that would have prompted some blowback.

In the course of rolling up the now-exposed Bye Plot, investigators also caught wind of the parallel Main Plot, courtesy of one conspirator who was involved in both and unable to hold his tongue under torture.

The Main Plot was a sketchier affair to a similar end, allegedly among Catholic-sympathizing nobles to depose James for his cousin. As befits its title, the Main Plot implicated much bluer blood than Watson’s: Lord Cobham,* Baron Grey, and the knighted soldier Griffin Markham.

Oh, and a guy you might have heard of by the name of Walter Raleigh.

All these Main Plot gentlemen were likewise condemned to death. December 9, 1603 was the date appointed for Watson and Clark to expiate the Bye Plot in the grisly manner that commoner priests were wont to suffer in that age — they as the undercard to the beheadings of Cobham, Grey, and Markham. (Raleigh was on deck for a later date.)

The drama that unfolded on the Winchester scaffold that day was wonderfully narrated in the correspondence of Sir Dudley Carleton and well worth extracting at length.

The two priests that led the way to the execution were very bloodily handled; for they were both cut down alive; and Clarke, to whom more favour was intended, had the worse luck; for he both strove to help himself, and spake after he was cut down. They died boldly both … Their quarters were set on Winchester gates, and their heads on the first Tower of the castle.

Warrants were signed, and sent to Sir Benjamin Tichborne, on Wednesday last at night, for Markham, Grey, and Cobham, woh in this order were to take their turns … A fouler day could hardly have been picked out, or fitter for such a tragedy. Markham being brought to the scaffold, was much dismayed, and complained much of his hard hap, to be deluded with hopes and brought to that place unprepared. One might see in his face the very picture of sorrow; but he seemed not to want resolution … [and] prepared himself to the block. The sheriff, in the mean time, was secretly withdrawn … whereupon the execution was stayed, and Markham left upon the scaffold to entertain his own thoughts, which, no doubt, were as melancholy as his countenance, sad and heavy. The sheriff, at his return, told him, that since he was so ill prepared, he should yet have two hours respite, so led him from the scaffold, without giving him any more comfort, and locked him into the great hall … The lord Grey, whose turn was next, was led to the scaffold by a troop of the young courtiers … and thereupon entered into a long prayer for the king’s good estate, which held us in the rain more than half an hour; but being come to a full point, the sheriff stayed him, and said, he had received orders from the king, to change the order of the execution, and that the lord Cobham was to go before him … he had no more hope given him, than of an hour’s respite; neither could any man yet dive into the mystery of this strange proceeding.

The lord Cobham, who was now to play his part, and by his former actions promised nothing but matiere pour rire, did much cozen the world; for he came to the scaffold with good assurance, and contempt of death. … [he] would have taken a short farewel of the world, with that constancy and boldness, that we might see by him, it is an easier matter to die well than live well.

He was stayed by the sheriff, and told, that there resteth yet somewhat else to be done; for that he was to be confronted with some other of the prisoners, but named none. So as Grey and Markham being brought back to the scaffold, as they then were, but nothing acquainted with what had passed, no more than the lookers-on with what should follow, looked strange one upon the other like men beheaded, and met again in the other world. Now all the actors being together on the stage (as use is at the end of a play,) the sheriff made a short speech unto them, by way of the interrogatory of the heinousness of their offences, the justness of their trials, their lawful condemnation, and due execution there to be performed; to all which they assented; then, saith the sheriff, see the mercy of your prince, who, of himself, hath sent hither to countermand, and given you your lives. There was then no need to beg a plaudite of the audience, for it was given with such hues and cries, that it went from the castle into the town, and there began afresh, as if there had been some such like accident. And this experience was made of the difference of examples of justice and mercy; that in this last, no man could cry loud enough, ‘God save the King;’ and at the holding up of [the previously executed] Brookes’s head, when the executioner began the same cry, he was not seconded by the voice of any one man, but the sheriff. You must think, if the spectators were so glad, the actors were not sorry; for even those that went best resolved to death, were glad of life … Raleigh, you must think (who had a window opened that way), had hammers working in his head, to beat out the meaning of this strategem. His turn was to come on Monday next; but the king has pardoned him with the rest, and confined him with the two lords to the Tower of London, there to remain during pleasure.

Turns out that James wanted to do only the minimum amount of butchery necessary to establish his bona fides, and it sure seems like the mercy play proved a public relations triumph.** Raleigh was left by this reprieve languishing in the Tower for years, before his own final adventure saw him to the block after all in 1618.

Would you like some bootless speculation that Raleigh’s being caught up in this mess led him to nurture during his imprisonment a decade-long grudge against William Shakespeare and eventually murder the playwright? Of course you would.

In the world of more demonstrable historical consequences, the failure of these plots and continuing frustration with Catholics’ lot under a new boss who seemed a lot like the old led two years later to the ne plus ultra of English sectarian terrorism, Guy Fawkes‘s Gunpowder Plot to blow King James and his court straight to kingdom come.

* Cobham was a descendant of John Oldcastle and is supposed to have forced Shakespeare to redact the family name in his Henry V plays — giving us, instead, the character of Falstaff.

** One is obliged to notice Carleton’s disquieting footnote indicating that the entire affair was staged so well that someone almost actually lost his head:

… there was another cross adventure; for John Gib could not get so near the scaffold, that he could speak to the sheriff, but was thrust out amongst the boys, and was fain to call out to sir James Hayes, or else Markham might have lost his neck.


Topical sourcing: Mark Nicholls, “Treason’s Reward: The Punishment of Conspirators in the Bye Plot of 1603” The Historical Journal, Vol. 38, No. 4 (Dec., 1995).

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1608: Jean Duval, for plotting against Champlain

2 comments August 2nd, 2010 Headsman

On or about this date in 1608, explorer Samuel de Champlain judged guilty and had executed for plotting his own murder a Norman locksmith among his host of men establishing the Quebec settlement.

Though there were previous European forts on the site, Quebec City had been formally founded by Champlain just a month earlier, on July 3, and we here join the exposition of the public-domain Pioneers of France in the New World.

Hanging judge: Samuel de Champlain monument in Ottawa. Creative Commons image from dugspr.

They were pioneers of an advancing host, — advancing, it is true, with feeble and uncertain progress, — priests, soldiers, peasants, feudal scutcheons, royal insignia: not the Middle Age, but engendered of it by the stronger life of modern centralization, sharply stamped with a parental likeness, heir to parental weakness and parental force.

In a few weeks a pile of wooden buildings rose on the brink of the St. Lawrence, on or near the site of the market-place of the Lower Town of Quebec. The pencil of Champlain, always regardless of proportion and perspective, has preserved its likeness. A strong wooden wall, surmounted by a gallery loopholed for musketry, enclosed three buildings, containing quarters for himself and his men, together with a courtyard, from one side of which rose a tall dove-cot, like a belfry. A moat surrounded the whole, and two or three small cannon were planted on salient platforms towards the river. There was a large storehouse near at hand, and a part of the adjacent ground was laid out as a garden.

In this garden Champlain was one morning directing his laborers, when Tetu, his pilot, approached him with an anxious countenance, and muttered a request to speak with him in private. Champlain assenting, they withdrew to the neighboring woods, when the pilot disburdened himself of his secret. One Antoine Natel, a locksmith, smitten by conscience or fear, had revealed to him a conspiracy to murder his commander and deliver Quebec into the hands of the Basques and Spaniards then at Tadoussac. Another locksmith, named Duval, was author of the plot, and, with the aid of three accomplices, had befooled or frightened nearly all the company into taking part in it. Each was assured that he should make his fortune, and all were mutually pledged to poniard the first betrayer of the secret. The critical point of their enterprise was the killing of Champlain. Some were for strangling him, some for raising a false alarm in the night and shooting him as he came out from his quarters.

Having heard the pilot’s story, Champlain, remaining in the woods, desired his informant to find Antoine Natel, and bring him to the spot. Natel soon appeared, trembling with excitement and fear, and a close examination left no doubt of the truth of his statement. A small vessel, built by [Francois] Pontgrave at Tadoussac, had lately arrived, and orders were now given that it should anchor close at hand. On board was a young man in whom confidence could be placed. Champlain sent him two bottles of wine, with a direction to tell the four ringleaders that they had been given him by his Basque friends at Tadoussac, and to invite them to share the good cheer. They came aboard in the evening, and were seized and secured. “Voyla donc mes galants bien estonnez,” writes Champlain.

It was ten o’clock, and most of the men on shore were asleep. They were wakened suddenly, and told of the discovery of the plot and the arrest of the ringleaders. Pardon was then promised them, and they were dismissed again to their beds, greatly relieved; for they had lived in trepidation, each fearing the other. Duval’s body, swinging from a gibbet, gave wholesome warning to those he had seduced; and his head was displayed on a pike, from the highest roof of the buildings, food for birds and a lesson in sedition. His three accomplices were carried by Pontgrave to France, where they made their atonement in the galleys.

More about Champlain in this podcast, by the author of Champlain’s Dream: the Visionary Adventurer Who Made a New World in Canada.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Canada,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,Pelf,Public Executions,Quebec,Treason,Uncertain Dates

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1603: Not Tommaso Campanella

Add comment January 8th, 2010 Headsman

The wise were forced to live as the mad were accustomed, in order to shun death, such that the greatest lunatic now possesses the royal burdens. The wise now lived alone with their wisdom, behind closed doors, applauding only in public the others’ mad and twisted caprices.

-Tommaso Campanella

On this date in 1603, freaky-deaky Dominican philosopher Tommaso Campanella drew a life sentence — avoiding execution by dint of a painfully convincing performance of insanity.

Campanella had some problematically heterodox notions about the sun (namely, that it was going to consume the earth) and everything under it, and had had a recent scrape with the Inquisition.

What really got him in trouble was trucking with a Calabrian conspiracy to overthrow Spanish domination, apparently a product of the monk’s millenarian anticipation of a sort of proto-communist revolution.

Campanella was a strange guy, but this was quite a far-out plot.

As Joan Kelly-Gadol writes in this fine tome,

This took place, let it be noted, after he had written two works advocating a Papal monarchy for Italy and the world and two works promoting the interests of the Spanish Empire also in Italy and throughout the world.

Past performance is no guarantee of future returns. Once the conspiracy was betrayed,

Campanella was imprisoned … in the Castel Nuovo, one of the principal fortresses in which the Spaniards maintained a military garrison. He was arraigned before the civil tribunal for rebellion and before the ecclesiastical tribunal for heresy. His “examination” which began in January 1600 was gruesome. He claimed innocence in his first interrogation before the civil tribunal, was thrown into a dungeon, actually a cleft in the bedrock of the Castle, to remain there for seven days. Then followed torture. He “confessed,” admitting that he preached about the coming political upheaval but denying that he was part of a conspiracy to bring it about …

His desperation at this point can be gauged by the fact that by April of 1600 he began to feign madness. The ecclesiastical action against him began now, and he persisted in this attitude of insanity through three interrogations, including an hour of torture … On the fourth and fifth of June 1601, he was subjected to the cruel torture of “the vigil” to test whether his insanity was genuine. This was the usual torture of the rope, suspending the body of the victim by his tied hands over a blade which cut into his flesh whenever he yielded to the strain of holding himself in the air; but the vigil refined this cruelty by continuing it for forty hours. Campanella endured the ordeal without breaking.

And it wasn’t just a feat of toughness to beat the torturer at his own game, impressive as it is on those terms alone: Campanella pulled off a genius gambit exploiting the Inquisition’s own legal machinery to duck the separate capital charges he faced in civil and ecclesiastical court.

Joseph Scalzo’s “Campanella, Foucault, and Madness in Late-Sixteenth Century Italy”,* an academic paper that reads like a thriller, narrates Campanella’s “dangerous competition” with his persecutors.

In fine: on Easter Sunday 1600,** as he was approaching conviction and condemnation in his state trial for treason, Campanella began his insanity ploy, successfully forcing a delay in that case and initiating his separate church trial for heresy.

Then, by remaining stubbornly committed to what most of his examiners believed was a charade, Campanella won … by forcing them to inflict that juridically determinative 40-hour “vigil” torture.

the jurisprudence of the time accorded torture so much force, such as to annul all other proofs and “to purge circumstantial evidence”; if the torture had been vigorous and unusual. The accused came, all the more to avail himself of the result obtained, according to the scholarship of the criminologists most in vogue. Thus, Campanella had judicially to be regarded as insane, although everyone was persuaded that he probably simulated insanity. The consequence, in the tribunal of the Holy Office, was not indifferent: He was a “relapsed heretic,” and even if repentant, he would have been disgraced and consigned to the secular court of justice, which would have executed him; being mad, he could no longer suffer condemnation, and in the circumstance in which he might already have been condemned, he would have been spared the death penalty, to reason and repent.

(this is Scalzo’s quotation of Luigi Amabile, an Italian who wrote the book on Campanella; I have been unable to find the Amabile original online.)

Home free.

Having reached this judicial safe haven, Campanella soon — in fact, according to the man who tortured him, literally on the walk from the vigil back to his cell — resumed a recognizable rationality.

He’d languish in prison until 1626 (a few years after he got out, he had to flee to France), but he made the most of it. Campanella wrote his magnum opus, the utopian City of the Sun, while awaiting his sentence in 1602. A number of other works on a wide array of subjects — science, philosophy, theology, political governance (he returned to giving the Spanish empire supportive advice), a vigorous defense of Galileo — were also composed during his 27 years under lock and key.

Campanella’s visionary anticipation of radical egalitarianism would, like Thomas More‘s, help shape the utopian literary genre. But Campanella’s take, while still a theocratic one, lent itself to distinctly more subversive interpretation.†

For example, this Brezhnev-era Soviet essay‡ (unearthed and translated by Executed Today friend and sometime guest-blogger Sonechka) decants the Dominican’s heretical notions into Marxist orthodoxy.

How many times were the communists denounced by their enemies for this “commonality of wives”! Scientific communism, certainly, is not responsible for the figments of a monk like Campanella. But it is instructive to penetrate his logic. It is not commodification or dehumanization that hides behind Campanella’s “commonality of wives”. The women of the “City of Sun” have the same rights as men … The “commonality of women” is equivalent to the “commonality of men” on the basis of mutual equality. That is why, though [we are] decisively rejecting this type of family-free communism, it is necessary to consider who stands on the higher moral grounds — Campanella’s woman, alien to deceit and pretense, or a false bourgeois woman, whose lot in life is adultery and legalized prostitution.

Ultimately, this wild man not only got the high moral ground: he got to die in bed. Once in a while, we get a happy(ish) ending.

So although it actually has nothing to do with Tommaso, “La Campanella”“Little Bell”, a Paganini violin concerto — allows us here at this blog (in common with our day’s hero) an atypically soothing* denouement.

* Joseph Scalzo, “Campanella, Foucault, and Madness in Late-Sixteenth Century Italy”, The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Autumn, 1990)

** Campanella’s Easter 1600 madness was initiated only a few weeks after fellow intellectual omnivore Giordano Bruno was burned for heresy up the road in Rome. Strictly coincidence.

† Since so much of Campanella’s work was produced while the author was under duress — fighting capital charges, applying for clemency and release — it remains disputable just which parts of it can be taken to represent his real beliefs.

‡ L. Vorob’ev. “Utopija i dejstvitelnost”. (“Utopia and Reality”) in Utopicheskij roman XVI-XVII vekov (Utopian Novel of XVI-XVII century); Series “Biblioteka vsemirnoj literatury”, Khudozhestevnnaja literature, Moscow, 1971, p. 19.

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1609: Vicente Turixi, King of the Moriscos

Add comment December 18th, 2009 Headsman

La Expulsión de los Moriscos, by Vincenzo Carducci (Vicente Carducho).

Having taken the trouble over the preceding century to eliminate (or force underground) its substantial Muslim population by forcibly converting it to Christianity, Spain in the early 1600s bethought itself to complete the operation upon its recently minted fellow-Christians by ejecting these Moriscos from Spain altogether.

When the edict for this radical act of expulsion first came down in the heavily Morisco area of Valencia, some of its victims reportedly embraced the prospect of deportation to a land where their dress, language, and religion were no longer forbidden.

Others were less sanguine.

Armed resistance broke out in two wilderness fastnesses, the mountainous Vall de Laguar (Spanish link) and — as narrated by Henry Charles Lea in his freely available The Moriscos of Spain; their conversion and expulsion

the Muela de Cortes (Spanish link), an almost inexpugnable spot, being a deep valley surrounded by precipitous heights, of which the passes were easily defensible. The Moriscoes of that region … were in a state of excitement and were readily persuaded to rise by an outlaw named Pablillo Ubcar. They elected as king Vicente Turixi, who sent a proclamation through the sierra for all to join him under pain of treason. From their strongholds they made raids on the surrounding country, gathering cattle and provisions, burning villages, and desecrating churches.

[Ethnic cleansing coordinator Don Agustin] Mexia, absorbed in the work of embarkation and fearing to interrupt it, for awhile paid no attention to these movements … who could readily be reduced when the time came.

His provisions were justified … those of the Muela de Cortes … lost heart when they heard of the defeat of those of Aguar, and were disappointed as to the appearance of the Moor Alfatami on his green horse, whom tradition reported to be concealed under the mountain since the days of King Jayme … It was agreed that they [the rebels, surrendering] should be safe in person and property, provided they would go to embark within three days.

The rapacious soldiery, who had promised themselves abundant plunder, in their disappointment threw off all discipline; they sacked the village of Royaya, outraged the women and seized numbers of children as slaves. Only three thousand Moriscoes were brought to the port of embarkation, the rest having scattered and taken to the mountains to escape the fury of the soldiers.

These, estimated at two thousand in number, for several years gave infinite trouble, killing all the Christians they met and committing constant depredations. At one time the Governor of Jativa induced many of them to come down, but finding that they were to be enslaved they fled back to the mountains.

A reward was offered for King Turixi, dead or alive; he was tracked to a cave, captured, and brought to the city, when he was sentenced to have hands and ears cut off, to be drawn, torn with pincers, hanged and quartered; but at the execution, December 18th, the cutting of hands and ears was omitted. He had been confessed twice and reconciled twice, and died as a good Christian, making a most edifying end, for we are told that he had been a liberal almsgiver and devoted to the Virgin and the religious Orders.

The miserable remnants were hunted down gradually, the viceroy paying twenty ducats a head for them as galley-slaves.

The armed resistance in Valencia — where Moriscos were most numerous, and the expulsion was first decreed — was actually much less than had been feared, which gave the Spanish authorities all the encouragement they would need to enforce it elsewhere, too.

“Seeing that the whole body of our nation is tainted and corrupt, he applies to it the cautery that burns rather than the salve that soothes; and thus, by prudence, sagacity, care and the fear he inspires, he has borne on his mighty shoulders the weight of this great policy and carried it into effect, all our schemes and plots, importunities and wiles, being ineffectual to blind his Argus eyes, ever on the watch lest one of us should remain behind in concealment, and like a hidden root come in course of time to sprout and bear poisonous fruit in Spain, now cleansed, and relieved of the fear in which our vast numbers kept it.”

-Cervantes, Don Quixote

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Drawn and Quartered,Execution,God,Gruesome Methods,Guerrillas,History,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Religious Figures,Soldiers,Spain,Terrorists

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