On this date in 1525, a French marshal was executed during a crucial battle of the France-vs-Habsburg Italian War, beginning a long posthuous journey to a wordplay gag.
The Battle of Pavia, by Ruprecht Heller (1529).
The Battle of Pavia is best remembered for the fate — not lethal, but much more damaging to statecraft — of King Francis I of France, who was captured on the field by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.* Francis spent two years in comfortable but discomfiting imperial custody until he agreed to the humiliating Treaty of Madrid ceding vast tracts of French territory (notably Burgundy) to Charles.**
The lord of La Palice (or Lapalisse), grandson to
The great bulk of his time ever since had been spent on various campaigns in Italy, where France remained more or less continuously at war against the Holy Roman Empire until 1559.
Fighting up and down the peninsula, La Palice earned the impressive rank of Grand Master of France, and it had nothing to do with his chess acumen. He’d actually retired to the pleasures of domesticity after being captured in 1513 at the Battle of the Spurs — so named for the panicked spurring a fleeing French cavalry gave to their horses — only to be recalled to his post in 1515.
Late in 1524 he was among the host accompanying King Francis’s march to recover France’s on-again, off-again transalpine beachhead of Milan. This objective the French achieved with scant resistance, but the expedition turned disastrous in a further advance to Pavia. There, 9,000 imperial troops were dug in to defend; unable to take the city by storm the French put it to siege, fatally overextending themselves.
Come the following February, the Habsburgs had cut Pavia off from Milan and the French encampment was weakened by defecting mercenaries. On the morning of February 24, the imperial forces mounted an attack on the French that turned into a comprehensive slaughter. La Palice was captured early on by the Habsburgs’ landsknecht mercenaries and executed by them at some point later on during the fight. Although his fate was a bit more premeditated, he was only one of many blue-blooded commanders who lost their lives on the field that dark day for France† — suspending French ambitions in Italy, if only for a few years.
The knight’s alleged feats are celebrated in a ballad known as “La chanson de la Palisse” (“The Song of La Palice”). Rather, there are dozens of versions of that ditty, dating from the 16th to the 18th century, of unknown original authorship but agglomerated by the French poet Bernard de la Monnoye into a humorous caper in the 18th century.
This poem presumably (though not certainly) began as a genuine praise song for the dead marshal, opening with this garment-rending stanza:
Hélas, La Palice est mort,
Il est mort devant Pavie ;
Hélas, s’il n’était pas mort,
Il ferait encore envie.
Alas, La Palice is dead,
He died before Pavia;
Alas, if he were not dead,
He would still be envied.
Somewhere along the way fulsome became winsome — perhaps via deliberate spoof or maybe the well-known phenomenon of old-timey letter s written to look like f, transforming the verse into a comical tautology:
s’il n’etait pas mort, / Il ferait encore envie (“if he was not dead he would still be envied”)
s’il n’etait pas mort, / Il serait encore en vie (“if he was not dead he would still be alive”)
It’s thanks to this amusing misreading that the French tongue today enjoys the term lapalissade, meaning a laughably obvious truism — and in Monnoye’s composition the entirety of the lyrics consist of such jests; e.g.
Monsieur d’la Palisse is dead,
He died before Pavia,
A quarter of an hour before his death,
He was still alive.
He was, by a sad fate,
wounded with a cruel hand.
It is believed, since he is dead,
that the wound was mortal.
Regretted by his soldiers,
he died worthy of envy;
And the day of his death
was the last day of his life.
He died on Friday,
the last day of his age;
If he had died on Saturday,
he would have lived more.
(That’s just an excerpt; the much longer full French verse is available at the song’s French Wikipedia page.)
* Ample unverifiable folklore attaches an event so memorable as the capture of a king; a site such as this is bound to note the one that reports that Francis might have been killed on the spot by rampaging foes but for the timely intercession of a young Spanish soldier named Pedro de Valdivia … who would go on to become the conquistador of Chile, and eventually an execution victim himself.
** Francis renounced the treaty as soon as he was released, on the accurate grounds that it was made under duress. In this betrayal of honor, he did his kingdom much the better turn than his distant predecessor John II had done when, captured by the English during the Hundred Years’ War, he dutifully set about extracting from his subjects the ruinous ransom and even returned voluntarily to English custody when he could not fulfill the terms of his parole.
On this day..
- 1918: Victor Manson Spencer, Otago Regiment deserter - 2020
- 1799: Andrea Serrao, Bishop of Potenza - 2018
- 1902: Joe Higginbotham, criminal assailant - 2017
- 1823: William North, prostrated homosexual - 2016
- 1937: Desta Damtew, Haile Selassie's son - 2015
- 1860: Khan Bahadur Khan Rohilla, Bareilly rebel - 2014
- Purim - 2013
- 1942: Five Jews in Sokal - 2012
- 1716: Lords Kenmure and Derwentwater but not Lord Nithsdale - 2011
- Daily Double: The Fifteen - 2011
- 1865: John Yates Beall, well-connected Confederate - 2010
- 1613: Ivan Susanin, a life for the tsar - 2009
- 1953: Emil August Fieldorf, Polish anti-Communist - 2008