1841: Marius Darmes, frustrated regicide

1 comment May 31st, 2011 Headsman

Louis-Philippe, the affable, ovate monarch of France’s bourgeoisie from 1830 until the revolutionary year of 1848, was a popular guy for radicals to take a shot at.

By one expansive reckoning, there were no fewer than 19 assassination attempts against the Pear King, and five executions of intended regicides.

This date in 1841 saw the beheading of one Ennemond Marius Darmès for attempting to gun down the French king the previous October.

There was no mystery as to the shooter’s identity; the enthusiastic regicide had overstuffed his weapon with powder, and when he took his potshot it simply blew up in his hands. “I had him!” Darmes fumed as he was being arrested. “I was sure of my aim!” The only guy he had actually injured was himself. (Source)

Though it didn’t harm the king, the alarming incident did help precipitate the fall of a precarious and self-dealing government led by Adolphe Thiers, whose most illustrious appearance in these executioners’ annals was yet thirty years away.

With Thiers out of the way and a foe more doctrinaire animating the government, the ensuing months’ investigation were dedicated to tracing a connection between Darmes and alleged co-conspirators among revolutionary Parisians … a lot increasingly disaffected by the July Monarchy’s extreme oligarchical outlook.

And in a performance familiar in our own day, the terroristic extremity provided convenient pretext upon which to shush the much wider portion of the populace dissatisfied with the state. You’re either with us or you’re against us!

These desperate assailants of the King’s life are goaded on by the more cautious and even more unprincipled party who assail his character [Louis-Philippe himself made this same claim -ed.] … It is impossible, indeed, to foresee what the secret arts of calumny and the secret daring of their bloodthirsty illuminati may not effect; but we may say, with hearty English respect, when we look out upon these dangers, “God save the King!” (London Times editorial, May 31, 1841)

Out of solidarity or pride of ownership, Darmes denied those connections all the way to the shadow of the blade: two men who went on trial for their lives with him were acquitted.

According to a report filed by the London Times‘ Paris correspondent (printed June 2, 1841),

At half-past 5 o’clock this morning he was called down from his cell to the greffe, where the fatal toilette was to be performed previous to the execution. He quietly submitted to the operation, and when it was over, he mounted with his confessor into a vehicle, commonly called ponier a salade, which is used for the conveyance of prisoners. This carriage, escorted by municipal guards, cuirassiers, and chasseurs, proceeded up the Rue de l’Ouest, Rue d’Enfer and the adjoining Boulevard, down to the Barriere St. Jacques, where the scaffold had been erected during the night. Few spectators were in attendance. At 5 o’clock all the avenues leading to the Barriere had been occupied by the military, all traffic interrupted, and the people, who had congregated near the scaffold, were driven back a considerable distance. After he had alighted from the carriage his sentence was again read to him. The clergyman then took leave of him, and he ascended the steps of the ladder with a steady pace, followed by the executioner’s aids. It was only when he reached the platform that he came within view of the people; his head was still covered with a black veil, and a white shirt enveloped his whole body down to the feet, which were bare. The executioner having placed him with his back to the guillotine, a dialogue appeared to pass between them; and, from the negative shake of the head which Darmes occasionally gave, it was supposed that the executioner had held out to him a hope of salvation if he would make revelations. The conversation occupied between three and four minutes; the aids then seized him, and having placed him with his face towards the knife removed the black veil from his eyes, and took off his shirt. The sight of the instrument of execution appeared to strike him with awe; he started, and, feeling rather unsteady of his legs, he made a stride in order to maintain his equilibrium, and then looked on with calmness, surrendered himself into the hands of the executioner, and an instant before the knife dropped he was heard to exclaim — Vive la France. The body and head were then placed in a basket, and conveyed to the cemetery of Mont-Parnasse, where they were interred in the enclosure exclusively reserved for regicides.

Our favorite part of that is that the cemetery had a special VIP section set aside for regicides. Only in France.


Francophones can enjoy this French-language report on the investigation.

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1792: Jacob Johan Anckarström, assassin of Gustav III

1 comment April 27th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1792, Jacob Johan Anckarström lost his right hand and his center head for murdering Gustav III.

Like some other nobles, this officer considered the “theater king” and enlightened despot Gustav III a, well, despot.

Times being what they were, regicide was in order, to usher in an age of constitutional liberalism.

A conspiracy of Swedish nobles surrounded the royal victim at a masquerade ball on March 16, 1792, and shot him in the back. Alas for them, the scene was immediately sealed and the attendees unmasked before the gang could get away.

Although in the confusion nobody knew whodunit among those disguised revelers, it was only a matter of time before the discarded murder weapon was identified as Anckarström’s.

(Actually, it was a much longer matter of time before it became a “murder” weapon. The king only succumbed to the infection 13 days later.)

Five were condemned to death, but the four who hadn’t pulled the trigger were commuted to exile instead. Exile for regicide? Maybe that’s making you wonder why they all thought it was such an oppressive regime they all lived under.

Jacob Johan Anckarström could give them the answer. He was said to have met his beheading joyfully, which would only be natural after he’d been flogged in chains in three different parts of the city over the preceding three days.*

For readers of Swedish (or exploiters of online translation), there’s much more about Jacob and his dastardly plot here and here.

Appropriately, given the murder’s stagey venue, the Anckarstrom assassination was great performance art material in the 19th century. Verdi based Un Ballo in Maschera on it, although he’s given the principals a generic love-triangle relationship — and because of mid-19th century censorship, the iteration of it below is set in colonial Boston with “Anckarstrom” sporting the very New England name “Rennato”.

Although this particular plot didn’t achieve the revolutionary thing its authors intended, it didn’t have the opposite effect either. The king’s teenage son Gustav IV Adolf succeeded the throne, with an unsurprising hatred of Jacobinism. But in the tumult of the Napoleonic Wars (that also cost Sweden its dominion over Finland), Gustav IV was deposed and a liberal constitution adopted.

* He wasn’t handled with kid gloves in prison, either, but you can take in the scene over the libation of your choice at the present-day cafe that occupies Anckarstrom’s onetime dungeon. The joint is named for another Swedish political martyr, Sten Sture.

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1199: Pierre Basile, marksman

3 comments April 6th, 2010 Jonathan Shipley

(Thanks to Jonathan Shipley of A Writer’s Desk for the guest post. -ed.)

If you kill a king, expect swift retribution.

Expect avengers.

Expect to not live long after you deal the final fatal blow to a royal personage.

A boy, Pierre Basile, was executed on this date in 1199 for shooting King Richard the Lionhearted* with an arrow expelled from his crossbow.

The wound wasn’t fatal to Richard I; the gangrene was. (French page) Although the king pardoned the boy for the shot before dying, Richard’s right hand man, French Provencal warrior Mercadier, would hear none of it. After the king’s death, Mercadier stormed Chateau de Chalus-Chabrol, defended weakly by Basile, then flayed him alive before hanging him.

Little is known of the boy defender. Also known as Bertran de Gurdun and John Sabroz (the various names suggest we’ll never know his real name), Basile was one of only two knights defending the castle against the king’s siege.

This castle protected the southern approach to Limoges and was betwixt routes from Paris and Spain and the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. The English army openly mocked its defenses as the siege continued. The ramparts were cobbled together with makeshift armor. A shield was constructed out of a frying pan.

Knowing the castle would fall sooner than later, the English were lax in their siege, though eager for the riches inside. (Supposedly within the castle walls was a treasure trove of Roman gold.)

Richard I, as feudal overlord, claimed it for himself and no boy knights were going to get in his way. The king had been in the area suppressing a revolt by Viscount Aimar V of Limoges. The viscount’s forces had been decimated by the king’s army. The riches for the win lay in the castle and Basile stood atop it.

It was early evening, March 25, 1199, when Richard walked around the castle perimeter without his chainmail on. Arrows had been shot from the ramparts by Basile but were paid little attention. The king applauded when one arrow was aimed at him. The next arrow fired struck the king in the left shoulder near the neck.


Richard the Lionhearted, mortally wounded.

The king returned to the privacy of his tent to pull it out. He couldn’t. The surgeon Hoveden, Mercadier’s personal physician, was summoned. He removed the arrow, but not swiftly, or cleanly. Gangrene quickly set in. The king asked for the crossbowman. The boy, Basile, appeared before the stricken king, expecting to be executed on the spot. The boy spoke first, saying he had tried to kill Richard because the king had killed the boy’s father and two brothers.

“Live on,” the king replied, “and by my bounty behold the light of day.”

He ordered the boy set free and, further, sent him away with 100 shillings. Deliriously jubilant at the king’s decision, the boy quickly returned to the castle.

On April 6, in the arms of his mother, Richard I died. His remains were buried at the foot of the tower from which Basile shot the arrow.

And with the king died his chivalry towards Basile.

Mercadier, who had entered the king’s service in 1184 and fought in battles in Berry and Brittany, Flanders and Normandy, brought the castle’s defenders to a swift and punishing death.

Hanging the defenders, he took the boy and flayed him first — that is, he removed the boy’s skin while he was still alive. Then Pierre Basile was hung, and his body consigned in an unmarked grave.

* Last seen in these parts slaughtering Muslims on Crusade.

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1685: Dame Alice Lisle, first victim of the Bloody Assizes

3 comments September 2nd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1685, an infamous judicial bloodbath claimed its first and most controversial victim.

Dame Alice (or Alicia) Lisle (or Lyle) was beheaded in Winchester for harboring fugitives from the Battle of Sedgemoor, where pretender and fellow execution-fodder Monmouth was defeated.


Alice Lisle Concealing Fugitives, by Edward Matthew Ward. Detailed views here.

The aged woman had evidently taken in the fugitives John Hickes and Richard Nelthorpe as a humanitarian gesture when they happened to show up at her door; despite her late husband’s part in the regicide of Charles I, Alice Lisle doesn’t seem to have been the political type.

So the fact that Lisle was charged with treason was a national (indeed, transatlantic) controversy … and the fact that she was the first of the thousand-plus rebel prisoners tried set the tone for the legal circuit this month that became remembered as the Bloody Assizes.

In an attainder later reversed under William and Mary, Lisle was convicted and condemned to burn (the sentence was commuted to beheading) by notorious hanging judge Lord Jeffreys.

Macaulay describes this infamous landmark case.

If Lady Alice knew her guests to have been concerned in the insurrection, she was undoubtedly guilty of what in strictness is a capital crime … [t]he feeling which makes the most loyal subject shrink from the thought of giving up to a shameful death the rebel who, vanquished, hunted down, and in mortal agony, begs for a morsel of bread and a cup of water, may be a weakness: but it is surely a weakness very nearly allied to virtue … no English ruler who has been thus baffled, the savage and implacable James [II] alone excepted, has had the barbarity even to think of putting a lady to a cruel and shameful death for so venial and amiable a transgression.

Odious as the law was, it was strained for the purpose of destroying Alice Lisle … [T]he witnesses prevaricated. The jury, consisting of the principal gentlemen of Hampshire, shrank from the thought of sending a fellow creature to the stake for conduct which seemed deserving rather of praise than of blame. Jeffreys was beside himself with fury … He stormed, cursed, and swore in language which no wellbred man would have used at a race or a cockfight …

The jury retired, and remained long in consultation. The judge grew impatient. He could not conceive, he said, how, in so plain a case, they should even have left the box. He sent a messenger to tell them that, if they did not instantly return, he would adjourn the court and lock them up all night. Thus put to the torture, they came, but came to say that they doubted whether the charge had been made out. Jeffreys expostulated with them vehemently, and, after another consultation, they gave a reluctant verdict of Guilty.

Lisle was the only victim of the Assizes at Winchester, but her death would preview the wholesale slaughters to follow.

Jeffreys reached Dorchester the next day and his pitiless tribunal began its work of sentencing hundreds to the various modes of English execution, or else to convict transportation — a fate more lucrative for the crown, but little less terrible to its victims.

“More than three hundred prisoners were to be tried,” Macaulay noted. “The work seemed heavy; but Jeffreys had a contrivance for making it light. He let it be understood that the only chance of obtaining pardon or respite was to plead guilty.”

For all that, the Assizes greatly injured the Stuart cause, precisely because of indiscriminately butchering the likes of Alice Lisle.

Judge Jeffreys’ reputation as a vicious, politically-motivated jurist landed him in the Tower of London by 1689, when he, er, injudiciously stuck around after James II fled the country; reportedly, Jeffreys was lucky to make it to the Tower under guard from the mob that wanted to tear him apart.

Though posterity has the luxury of on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand assessment, he remains a villain to most accounts … like the vengeful verse to his memory that prefaces this Victorian text on the Assizes.

To Tyburn thee let carrion Horses draw,
In jolting Cart, without so much as straw;
Jaded, may they lye down i’ th’ road, and tyr’d,
And (worse than one fair hanging, twice bemir’d)
May’st thou be maul’d with Pulchers Sexton’s Sermon,
‘Till thou roar out for Hemp-sake, Drive on Car-man.
Pelted and Curst i’ th’ road by every one,
E’ne to be hang’d may’st thou the Gauntlet run.
Not one good Woman who in Conscience can
Cry out,–‘Tis pitty,–Troth, a proper Man.
Stupid and dull, may’st thou rub off like Hone,
Without an open, or a smother’d groan;
May the Knot miss the place, and fitted be
To plague and torture, not deliver thee;
Be half a day in Dying thus, and then
Revive like Savage, to be hang’d agen.
In Pity now thou shalt no longer Live,
For when thus satisfy’d, I can forgive.

Yikes. Jeffreys actually succumbed to a kidney disease a few months into his captivity. Close enough.

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1836: Louis Alibaud, failed regicide

2 comments July 11th, 2009 Headsman

Early this Monday morning in 1836, Louis Alibaud — having been condemned to death by the Chamber of Peers at trial the preceding Friday and Saturday — lost his head for taking a shot at oftshotat French King Louis-Philippe.

As related by the London Times (July 6, 1836),

at half-past 6 in the afternoon of the 25th of June, 1836; the windows of the carriage were lowered, and it was passing through the gate [of the Tuileries palace] leading to the Pont Royale, when a man, who had been standing by a post in the court, raise [sic] a cane gun and discharged it against the King. By a miraculous chance the King was lowering his head to salute the National Guard under arms, and the ball passed just four lines above his head, and entered one of the angles of the carriage, settling about an inch deep in an oak beam.

The assassin was immediately arrested; he was a young man, of about 25 years of age, dressed in a dark coat, cloth pantaloons, and black hat, and wearing under his chin a thick brown beard.

The disabled former infantryman, “inspired by political fanaticism and a morbid satiety of life,” mounted no defense of himself save for a defense of tyrannicide — “I had the same right to his life that Brutus had to the life of Julius Caesar!” (Source)

Naturally, this line had neither the intent nor the effect of securing clemency, and he was repeatedly cautioned by the court against pursuing it; all concerned knew precisely where matters were headed, of course, and the state had no interest in providing a public forum for sedition.

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1294: Rane Jonsen, Marsk Stig conspirator

2 comments July 9th, 2009 Headsman

On an unknown date in 1294, the former page of the late Danish King Eric V was put to death for regicide outside Roskilde.

Rane Jonsen or Jonsson (here’s his short Danish Wikipedia page) had been present at the hunt during which the former monarch, more popularly known as “Erik Glipping”, was murdered by unknown assailants in 1286.

The convention — and the official verdict of state — have it that Jonsen contrived to admit marsk Stig Andersen Hvide and fellow conspirators to the vulnerable king’s presence for the purpose of murdering him, possibly revenging the king’s rape of Andersen’s wife. “Marsk Stig” and Rane both fled, and were condemned along with seven other men by the Danish Assembly in the spring of 1287.

Although there is little remaining primary documentation, it does seem that the guilt of these people was decided above all by political expedience. It was Stig Anderson’s opponents who got control of the government (and the regency of 12-year-old Erik Menved), conveniently declaring the guilty parties to be their own rivals, who had formerly been close to Erik Glipping.*

Our page, himself a noble, got the short end of the stick in all this; he energetically denied the story that he had stood aside to permit the murder of his liege, claiming that he fought back albeit unarmed and outnumbered.

But as an emblem of the perfidy of the king’s inner circle, you couldn’t do much better than Rane theatrically planting his sword into a table and standing aside to signify the king’s vulnerability. You can just picture that story being retold with a meaningful ahem to the boy-king Eric VI.

In fact, it was retold: wrongful conviction or no, this episode (in its official version, with Rane and Stig as evildoers) was the basis for a number of entries in the rich Danish ballad genre.

Though popularly cited as medieval ballads, disputed dating places different verses anywhere from Rane Jonsen’s own time to three centuries later.** In any era, they offer some lovely exemplars of the art.

This book reproduces several; topical for this entry is an imagining of the fugitive regicide’s plight, both sad (for his hopelessness) and menacing (for his violent seizure of a bride) — disconcertingly delivered in a repetitious lullaby singsong.

Ranild bade saddle his charger gray,
‘Twas told me oft before,
“I’ll be the Algrave’s guest today,
“Tho’ friends I have no more.”

Ranild rode up to his castle gate
‘Twas told him oft before
Where ermine-clad the Algrave sate,
Tho’ friends he had no more.

“Hail noble Algrave, here I come,
‘Twas told thee oft before
“To fetch my trothplight Kirstin home,
“Tho’ friends I have no more.”

Then up and spake her mother dear,
“‘Twas told thee oft before,
“For thee is bride no longer here,
“For friends thou hast no more.”

“I’ll either with the maid return,
“‘Twas told you oft before
“Or else your house and chattels burn,
“Tho’ friends I have no more.”

“Nay set not thou the house on flame,
“‘Twas told thee oft before,
“E’en take the bride thou ‘rt come to claim,
“Tho’ friends thou hast no more.”

In mantle wrapt the gentle maid,
‘Twas told her oft before,
On Ranild’s good gray horse was laid,
Tho’ friends he had no more.

No other bridal bed had they,
‘Twas told her oft before,
Than bush, and field, and new made hay,
For friends he had no more.

“The wood has ears, the mead can see,
“‘Twas told thee oft before,
“A wretched outlaw’d pair are we,
“For friends I have no more.”

“And had you not King Erick slain,
“‘Twas told you oft before,
“We still might in the land remain,
“But friends we have no more.”

“Stay, Kirstin, stay, such words forbear,
“‘Twas told thee oft before,
“Where strangers are, take greater care,
“For friends we have no ore.”

With that he slapp’d her cheek so red,
“‘Twas told thee oft before,
“It was not I, smote Erick dead,
“Tho’ friends I have no more.”

From the same source, our day’s principal meets his end:

Report is rife in all the land
Ranild at last is caught;
He surely had never gone from Hielm,
His doom had he bethought;
A death of torture he must die,
As he has long been taught.

Ranild he stepp’d within the door,
‘Good evening’ bade the king,
And all the guard of gentlemen,
Who round him stood in ring;
“Christ! may no son of loyal Dane
“Such trouble on him bring!

“But, O King Erick, noble liege,
“Remember you no more;
“The best was I of all the swains
“Your father’s livery wore;
“And you through wood and flowery mead
“In arms so often bore?”

“Full well I know thou servedst here
“For clothes and food and pay;
“And, like a vile and treacherous knave,
“My father didst betray;
“For which the stake thy carcase bears,
“If I but reign a day.”

“My hands and feet hack from my limbs,
“Tear from my head these eyes;
“With racking tortures martyr me,
“The worst you can devise;
“So much the wrong I’ve done your house
“For vengeance on me cries.”

“Thine eyes put out, that will we not,
“Nor lop thy hands or feet;
“But with a traitor’s hardest death
“The worst of traitors treat;
“And on our father’s murderer take
“Such vengeance as is meet.”

As forth from Roskilde he was led,
He wrung his hands anew,
And tears to see him go to die
Wept ladies not a few;
He turn’d him round, and bade them all
A thousand times Adieu.

They led him forth to where the rack
Stood ghastly on the plain;
“O Christ, from such a martyring death
“Protect each honest Dane!
“Had I but stay’d at Hielm this year,
“And there in safety lain!

“Now were there here one faithful friend,
“Who home for me would go,
“And would my sorrowing wife Christine,
“Her path of duty show!
“O Christ, look on my children dear!
“O comfort thou their woe!

“And you, I pray, good Christian folk,
“Who here are standing round,
“A pater noster read for me,
“That grace for me be found;
“And that this night I reach the land,
“Where heavenly joys abound.”

Marsk Stig, however, is the primary focus of these dramas; he raided shipping from his island base on Hielm (Hjelm), dying of natural causes in 1293. Some additional translated ballads about this character are available here.

But since this is poetry, take a moment to dig the original Danish,† which should be at least partially comprehensible to any English- or German-speaker.

Marsti ind aff dorren tren
med suerd i hoyre hend:
kongen sidder hannem op igien,
saa giorlig han hannem kende

>>Hor du, Ranil Ienssen!
oc vilt du verie mit liff:
jeg giffuer dig min soster
oc halff min rige in min tid.<< Det vor Ranil Iensson, han hug i borde oc balck; det vil ieg for sanden sige: hand veriet sin herre som en skalck De stack ham ind at skulder-bende, oc det stod ud aff halss; det vil ieg for sandingen sige: det vaar alt giort med falsk. De stack hannem ind at skulder oc ud aff venster side: >>Nu haffuer wi giort den gierning i dag,
all Danmarck baer for stor quide<<.

Stig burst through the door,
his sword in his right hand;
the king sat upright
and recognized him.

“Hear me, Rane Jonson!
If you defend my life
I will give you my sister
and half of my kingdom.”

Rane Jonson swung his sword
and stuck it in the table and in the wall;
in truth,
he betrayed his lord shamefully.

They stabbed him in the shoulderbone
and out through the neck;
in truth,
they did it all deceitfully.

They stabbed him in the shoulder
and out through the left side.
“Now we have done the deed today,
all Denmark bears too heavy a load”

* Discussed at length in “Killing Erik Glipping. On the Early Days of a Danish Historical Ballad” by William Layher in Song and Popular Culture, 45, 2000. Layher reports that the Norwegian government (which received the fugitives) and the Danish were still trading nastygrams over the propriety of the convictions in the early 1300s. On the instigation of the Archbishop of Lund, who supported the exiles, the Church interdicted sacraments to Denmark for several years around the turn of the century.

** See Layher again. At least one contemporaneous bard, minnesinger Meister Rumelant, is known to have composed on the famous murder.

† Extract and translation from Layher, once again.

Part of the Themed Set: The Ballad.

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1574: Gabriel de Lorges, accidental regicide

5 comments June 26th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1574, Gabriel de Lorges was beheaded in Paris for treason.

Known by the time of his death as the Comte de Montgomery (English Wikipedia entry | French) — though the title was punitively stripped from the man and his heirs, causing him to spit at the scaffold, “tell my children, if they are not able to reclaim their position, I curse them from the grave” — Lorges’ treason was going Protestant and fighting for the Huguenots in the wars of religion ravaging France.

But his claim to fame, and indeed (if quite unjustly) one of the explicit charges laid against him, was a regicide that fueled those wars and helped bring down the Valois dynasty.

The ol’ lance-in-the-eye

The vigorous 40-year-old French king Henri II seemingly had the Valois in good shape and anti-Huguenot policy firmly in the saddle.

In 1559, though, the sporting monarch put his own butt in the saddle at a joust with our day’s principal, then a captain of Henri’s Scots Guards (and a Catholic).

Gabriel’s shattered lance somehow found a chink in the king’s visor and managed to tolchock the royal gulliver just beside the eye.* After a week and a half in agony, Henri succumbed to the injury.**

Henri’s sudden death was bad news for France, because the oldest† of his seven children was only 15 years old, and feeble. He died the next year.

As the widowed Italian queen Catherine de’ Medici struggled over the ensuing decades to find a stable Valois heir among her brood, the aggressively Catholic House of Guise‡ flexed its political muscle to the resentment of the Bourbons and the Huguenot lords, and pitched France towards civil war.

Our errant knight, meanwhile, although forgiven by the dying Henri II, had despairingly retired and hurled himself into study that soon converted him to the Protestant party.

Quickly distinguishing himself as perhaps the ablest Huguenot commander, Montgomery was in Paris in 1572 during an ostensible truce for interparty dynastic nuptials when the Catholic faction sprang the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre.

Though Montgomery was a specific target for assassination that day, he somehow managed to escape. He gave the Catholics fits for the two years left him, enough that the crown tried to buy him off. (Like most Protestants, he was distrustfully defiant after the horrors of St. Bartholomew’s Day.)

He was finally overcome in 1574; as Henri’s second son had just kicked the bucket without an heir, Catherine assumed the regency while a third boy was fetched from Poland, and got herself some gratifying but untoward revenge on the inadvertent author of her family’s unfolding ruin.

No time was lost in condemning [Montgomery] to the penalties of high treason; he was beheaded at the Greve, his body quartered, and his family degraded from their nobility. Previous to his execution, he was cruelly tortured to make him confess the existence of the late admiral‘s conspiracy, but the pain drew no such acknowledgment from him, and mangled and wounded as he was, he went to the scaffold with remarkable serenity. We have an account, given by a contemporary, of his steady attachment to his principles: “He would not confess to the Archbishop of Narbonne, who went to him in the chapel to admonish him; nor would he take or kiss the crucifix, which is usually presented to those who are being led to execution; nor in any way attend to the priest, who had been placed in the cart by his side. A cordelier thinking to draw him out of error, began to speak to him, and said that he had been abused. Looking at him steadily, he answered, ‘How! abused? and if I have been it is by those of your order: for the first person who ever handed me a Bible in French, and made me read it, was a cordelier like you; and therein I have learned the religion which I hold, which alone is the true religion, and in which, having since lived, I wish now by the grace of God to die.'”

(Some sources place Montgomery’s execution on May 27, which I believe confuses his date of death with his date of capture.)

Just like Montgomery himself, the Huguenot cause proved resistant to every policy of Catherine or the Guises; this day’s execution only screwed up the nerve of a party that had been given notice on St. Bartholomew’s Day that their lot must be to conquer or die. Since Henri II’s boys could neither, over 30 years’ time, produce an heir nor master their foes at arms, the Huguenots conquered when the throne finally passed to a Bourbon.

A public-domain biography of Gabriel de Lorges, comte de Montgomery, can be enjoyed by French-speakers here. For the English-speakers, Alexandre Dumas’ fictionalized treatment, The Two Dianas, is freely available in translation.

* French surgeon Ambroise Pare attended the dying monarch. Pare’s grim description of the king’s injuries appears in this biography of the physician, which also reports that Henri’s caregivers

secured the heads of four criminals that had been beheaded and experimented upon them with a lance in order to ascertain the probable course of the splinters.

** The fatal joust is alleged to be one of the vindicated prophecies of Nostradamus. Prophecy or no, the family had bad luck with sports; Henri came in line for the throne when his older brother dropped dead after playing tennis.

† Henri II’s immediate heir Francis II was married to Mary, Queen of Scots. After the death of her husband, she unhappily shipped back out to Scotland to contest the English throne, with unsatisfactory results.

‡ More about the House of Guise before, during and after this period from this public domain text.

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1881: The assassins of Tsar Alexander II

8 comments April 15th, 2009 Headsman

On this date* in 1881, five members of the Russian terrorist organization Narodnaya Volya were publicly hanged in St. Petersburg, where they had slain the tsar Alexander II a few weeks before.

“The People’s Will” etched in blood its place in the dangerous late 19th century ferment of Russian revolutionaries. In time they would read as the politically immature forerunners of the Bolsheviks, whose turn into terrorism was a political dead end.

But as of this date, they were at the top of their arc.

Every St. Petersburg tourist sees the place Alexander II died: the spot received a picturesque church that is now one of the city’s principal attractions.

On March 13, 1881, Narodnaya Volya assassinated the former tsar with a suicide bombing on the streets of St. Petersburg. With the death of the monarch who had emancipated the serfs, and was on the very day of his murder tinkering with plans to introduce an Assembly, liberalism arguably lost its weak purchase on Russia’s future.

The Nihilists** — who immediately sent an open letter to the new tsar demanding amnesty and a representative political body† — did not prevail in any direct sense.

Their dramatic gesture failed to ignite a social revolution or topple the autocracy, and they would find in Alexander III an implacable foe.

But while this spelled the end for the old man’s five assassins,‡ and even the end of Narodnaya Volya as an effective organization as the 1880’s unfolded, Alexander III’s efficacious repression was a Pyrrhic victory for the Romanov dynasty.

By depending on police operations rather than political reforms, Alexander III bequeathed his doomed successor a hopelessly backward political structure … and a considerably more dangerous revolutionary foe.


Refusal of Confession (Before Execution), by Ilya Repin, 1879-1885. (Via)

Alexander II’s death in the context of the times and its effect for Russia’s fate receive diverting treatment in a BBC In Our Times broadcast

* April 15 was the date on the Gregorian calendar; per the Julian calendar still in use in Russia at the time, the date was April 3.

** A quick summary of the strains of Russian revolutionary thought of the time here.

† Despite their dramatic tyrannicide, the Nihilists’ letter was angled for the consumption of mainstream post-Enlightenment Europeans. Karl Marx noted its “cunning moderation,” and its call for freedom and civil rights commonplace in more developed countries drew considerable support in the west. The Nihilists even took care to underscore their reasonableness a couple months later by condemning the senseless assassination of American President James Garfield. (See Inside Terrorist Organizations.)

Andrei Zhelyabov, Sophia Perovskaya, Nikolai Kibalchich, Nikolai Rysakov and — though he had backed out of the plot — Timofei Mikhailov, whose noose broke twice in the attempt to hang him. A sixth condemned assassin, Gesya Gelfman, escaped hanging due to pregnancy … but she and her child both died shortly after the birth.

Perovskaya gets adulatory treatment in this 1910 New York Times retrospective (pdf) on Russian political violence and repression.

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1661: Oliver Cromwell, posthumously

26 comments January 30th, 2009 Headsman

On this anniversary date of King Charles I’s beheading, the two-years-dead corpse of the late Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell was hung in chains at Tyburn and then beheaded, along with the bodies of John Bradshaw and Henry Ireton.

The great-great-grandnephew of ruthless Tudor pol Thomas Cromwell rose higher than any English commoner, high enough to be offered the very crown he had struck off at Whitehall. Oliver Cromwell declined it in sweeping Puritan rhetoric just as if he hadn’t spent weeks agonizing over whether to take it.

“I would not seek to set up that which Providence hath destroyed and laid in the dust, and I would not build Jericho again.”

The House of Stuart never could rebuild its Jericho while the Lord Protector ran the realm* — thirteen years, writes Macaulay, “during which England was, under various names and forms, really governed by the sword. Never, before that time, or since that time, was the civil power in our country subjected to military dictation.”

“Cromwell lifting the Coffin-lid and looking at the body of Charles I”, by Hippolyte (Paul) Delaroche — a French painter with an affinity for English execution scenes. The painting is based on an apocryphal but irresistible legend, also used by Nathaniel Hawthorne in a tedious short story.

And not only England. Cromwell’s prodigious depredations in Ireland — justifiably or not — remain a source of bad blood.

The English Commonwealth foundered after Cromwell’s death, however, and restoration of the monarchy — a rock, as it turned out, on which the Puritans’ bourgeois revolution could erect its colossus — came with the price of a few examples being made.

Of course, “executing” dead guys displays about as much strength as it does sanitation, and for all Charles II‘s demonstrative vengeance, the politically circumscribed throne he resumed was very far from his father’s dream of absolutism. Between the late dictator and the new king, the future belonged to the corpse clanking around on the gibbet.

When the able Charles II followed Cromwell into the great hereafter, his brother James II promptly fumbled away the crown with his anachronistic insistence on royal authority and his impolitic adherence to Catholicism.**

In the emerging England of the century to come, the divine right would depart the Stuarts for another dynasty more amenable to the rising authority of the parliament whose sword Oliver Cromwell once wielded.

* Resources on the particulars of Cromwell’s career, the English Civil War, et al, are in plentiful supply online. This BBC documentary is a very watchable overview: part I; part II; part III; part IV.

** James II remains England’s last Catholic monarch.

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1759: The Tavora family

18 comments January 13th, 2009 Headsman

Two and a half centuries ago today, Portugal’s noble Tavora family was extirpated in Belem.

[A] scaffold eighteen feet in height was erected in the market-place of Lisbon, during the night of the 13th, round which was drawn up a cordon of military. Precisely at 7 o’clock in the morning, the old Marchioness of Tavora, as the most guilty, was brought upon the scene, her hands bound, and a rope round her neck. She was placed on a chair, and her eyes being bound, the executioner struck her head off without the previous utterance by her of any complaint. After her came the twenty-one-year-old son, Joseph Maria de Tavora. They bound him on a cross raised aloft, broke his arms and legs with iron clubs, and then strangled him with a rope. The same fate befell [Tavora son-in-law] Jeronimo de Ataide, Count of Atouguia, the young Marquis Luiz Bernard de Tavora, colonel of cavalry, his servant Blasius Joseph Romeiro, Corporal Emanuel Alvarez Fereira, valet of the Duke of Aveira, and the body-page, John Michael. Their corpses were all flattened upon wheels, which were placed on poles, and this proceeding took up so much time that fully half an hour elapsed before another execution could be proceeded with.


Other outstandingly gory images of this day’s business are here.

After the page Miguel or Michael, the executioner took the old Francis d’Assis de Tavora, bound him on a St. Andrew’s cross, gave him three blows on the chest with an iron rod that resounded to a distance, shattered his arms and legs, and then gave him his coup de grace through the heart. The executioner’s men then, amidst wild shrieks, shattered the arms, legs, and thighs of the ninth victim, the old Duke of Aveiro, while still alive, then killed him by a blow on the chest, and threw him into the blazing fire. Finally, the tenth delinquent, the valet Anton Alvarez Fereira, brother of the above-mentioned Emanuel, was conducted before the corpses of the nine who had been previously executed, each one being shown to him; he was then bound to a stake, round which was placed a heap of wood, and this being set fire to, was raked together until he was completely consumed* … When the execution was over, the scaffold, together with all the dead bodies, was set on fire and burnt to ashes, which were thrown into the Tagus.

Oh, and one last thing:

[T]he palaces of the high nobility who had been executed were pulled to pieces and levelled to the ground, and salt strewed on the places where they had stood, as a sign that they should never be built up again.

Yikes.


This stone marker was placed on the site of the razed palace of Jose Mascarenhas, the Duke of Aveiro. “On this infamous land,” it announces, “nothing may be built for all time.” Copyrighted image courtesy of Ludgero Paninho.

Seems someone got the idea that the Tavoras tried to kill (and more problematically, failed to kill) Portuguese king Joseph I.

Circumstantial, torture-adduced evidence put the scheming Marchioness Eleonora de Tavora and clan behind an apparent assassination attempt, wherein a couple of assailants had shot at the king’s unmarked carriage as it returned on a little-used road from a rendezvous with his mistress. (One of the circumstances was that the mistress was a Tavora, which put the accused in a position to know the king’s secret travel plans. Others argue the gunmen might have just been common highwaymen who had no idea they were setting upon the royal person.)

Whatever the facts of the matter, obscure behind a quarter-millennium, its attribution to the Tavoras and the spectacular revenge thereupon visited was effected by the king’s competent and ruthless minister, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, the future Marquis de Pombal.


A monumental plinth surmounted by Pombal dominates the present-day Lisbon plaza named for him.

His able handling of the recent Lisbon earthquake had cemented his position as the throne’s right-hand man in a trend of centralizing absolutism not much appreciated by the old aristocracy (nor by the hidebound clerical orders, which explains why the aforesaid gory account of the execution ground comes from a German anti-Jesuit polemic).

And he would not miss the opportunity an attack on the king’s person gave him to sweep away his opponents.

The peers of the realm were summoned to witness their fellow blue-bloods so nauseatingly dispatched, and the Jesuits — “reported to have inflamed the Tavora family to their [the Jesuits’] desired pitch … in revenge for what had justly been done to them in South America”** — were forthwith suppressed.

(Functionally a progressive secular dictator — or an enlightened despot, to use a more 18th-century description — Pombal would eventually push political conflict with Rome so near the brink of outright schism that the Catholic Encyclopedia’s entry on Melo characterizes it as “a sort of disguised Anglicanism,” adding that “many of the evils from which the Church now suffers are a legacy from him.” His ascendancy is the “Pombaline Terror” in Catholic annals.)

Melo/Pombal exercised the power of the state for the rest of Joseph’s life, but the king’s daughter and successor Maria I dismissed him — though she did not take punitive action against Pombal for his persecutions, as his enemies demanded.

* Also doomed to burning alive was one Joseph Policarpo, who was able to escape the mass arrest a few weeks before and fled the kingdom. He was executed by effigy.

** This comment is from the letters of Christopher Hervey, an Englishman abroad in Portugal at the time of the execution whose 100+ pages’ worth of correspondence include live-at-the-scene reporting and English translations of the public pronouncements against the supposed culprits. As to the South American roots of Pombal’s conflict with the Jesuits, the order had resisted Pombal’s early schemes to reorganize and rationalize Portugal’s New World holdings in order to make the country a more competitive colonial power. Jesuit resistance to giving up the order’s control of education, and its humanitarian efforts to protect Indians, had been seen as contributing to an Indian rebellion that broke out in Jesuit-controlled territory — even to the point that Jesuits themselves were suspected of arming Indians in an effort to carve out church-controlled states. Hervey’s version has the Jesuits behind the plot in order to eliminate Pombal’s threat to their power. Others share this opinion … and Pombal, obviously, was keen to have his rivals inculpated for lese majeste in the public mind.

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