Tag Archives: 17th century

Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I by Charles Spencer

However many victories we win, there will still remain the king.” (The Earl of Manchester)

Charles Spencer’s Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I is an engaging, through examination of a small, yet significant corner of history: the trial of Charles I, his execution and then the fate of the regicides when Charles II claimed the throne. The book’s in-depth account of the fates of the regicides is the focus here with the capture and trial of Charles I, and Cromwell’s growing unpopularity as lead-in material. I’ve always had a fondness and interest in the Civil War/Restoration period, and Killers of the King, with its tight focus, illuminates how the tides of history turn, so bitterly, within a few short years.  Ironically for those who signed Charles’s death warrant, many did so all too aware that “if the King were restored to anything approaching his former powers, it would be inevitable that he would seek out vengeance against the men who had defeated his forces and slain his friends and followers.” This very valid concern of retribution helped fuel the execution, and yet retribution was only delayed; with the triumphant return of Charles II, those who’d contributed to the trial and signed the death warrant were (mostly) sitting targets.

Killers of the kingDuring Charles I’s imprisonment and the trial, his arrogance was quite apparent. Modern readers have the examples of Louis XVI and the Romanovs in our heads, and so it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that this deposed king was executed, but through the author’s account, it’s clear that Charles I never quite ‘got it’ and “felt sure he was indispensable.” During his imprisonment he thought he had bargaining chips, rejected sensible advice, and repeatedly strung along his captors as they presented their demands. As time wore on, rather than softening, his captors hardened. There’s also the sense that some decisive motion had to be made concerning Charles I as many in parliament “spoke openly of pricking the unprecedented power of the army.” With Charles in custody, an ugly mood descended on the victors; the soldiers were unpaid, and Charles’s flight from Hampton Court Palace to the Isle of Wight illustrated that the situation could not continue indefinitely. The First and Second Civil Wars caused the “loss of an estimated 190,000 of the five million inhabitants of England, and 60,000 of the one million Scots. (Figures for Ireland are less easy to establish but, during the same period, warfare, plague and exile reduced the 1.4 million population of Ireland by around 600,000.) Many believed Charles had caused the suffering, and they were adamant that he would always encourage further bloodshed–for nothing would dissuade him from attempting to regain power, whatever the toll on his people.” Author Charles Spencer shows, through this methodical account,  exactly how the execution of the king, given the volatile political climate, became inevitable.

Charles consistently overestimated the strength of his hand, and the patience of his enemies, as he played Parliament. the army and the Scots off against one another. He felt sure that none of these competing forces could achieve what they wanted without his support. At the same time, he felt no qualms of conscience about his many deceits: all was being extracted from him through duress, while he was in effect a prisoner. The king believed this negated his concessions: he fully intended to go back on any promises made, once his freedom was restored. He wrote as much, repeatedly, in letters that he intended for sympathisers on the mainland. Many were intercepted.

Details of the trial of Charles I are included–along with an account of Pride’s Purge–“effectively a military coup,” in which MP’s who “could not be trusted to implement the New Model Army’s will” were denied access to Parliament, and in some cases were arrested. Yet in spite of this, some people involved in the legal case against Charles, going into the trial, still imagined that a compromise would be reached.

In due course, Charles II returned to England, and the book shows how once again the inevitable occurred, and yet this time we see that a large number of regicides, those still alive in 1660, were largely caught off guard. It’s interesting to see an almost invisible hierarchy of complicity form–with those who considered themselves less culpable (or hoping they’d be considered so) in the death of Charles I rounding up those they considered more culpable and then handing these regicides over to the new king, as if laying down tribute–“a scramble for redemption amongst Parliamentarians.”

We were taught in school that Charles II was not a vengeful monarch, and I suppose, in the big scheme of things, that statement is true. Charles II’s Declaration of Breda must have been the item that my old history teacher quoted. It’s certainly a document that hints of reconciliation except for the fine print that must have got the attention of those involved in the trial of Charles I.  Charles II didn’t exactly scour the countryside for every former Roundhead–instead the focus was on the remaining regicides. I was surprised to read how many people actually signed Charles I’s  death warrant, and that number combined with those who ran the trial added up to a fair number of people (around 80) who had to pay the price for Charles’s death. Interestingly, the identity of Charles I’s executioner became a hot topic, and on another note, it was news to me that John Milton was such a political animal. He wasn’t executed, but, symbolically, I suppose, his books were burned by a hangman at the Old Bailey. Fairfax and his wife also emerge as interesting characters here. While the regicides sometimes tried claimed acting on their consciences as a defense, Fairfax also acted on his conscience and washed his hands of the trial of Charles I. It’s notable, in terms of Charles II’s actions, that Fairfax was not punished–in spite of the fact that he was a major figure in the Parliamentary military forces. He refused to attend the trial of Charles I, but his wife was there and boldly heckled at the prosecution.

The trials of the regicides make for interesting reading, and as author Charles Spencer points out the “bar  [was] set so low for guilt for treason that even imagining the deed could lead to conviction and execution.” The scenes of the executions (hang-drawn & quartering) made for gruesome reading. Some of the regicides had blood on their hands from the Civil Wars, but nonetheless the details of the executions are difficult to read. Some went bravely and unapologetically to their deaths–others were terrified as they watched others tortured before their eyes and knew that their turn was next.

Given the subject matter, Killers of the King could have made for dry reading, but this is an engaging book and plunges the reader firmly in to the turmoil of 17th century England. Many groups and personalities emerge from the chaos of the Civil War: the Levellers, with their “strikingly modern” beliefs and the  Fifth Monarchists who believed in the  “imminent second coming” with Judgement Day falling in 1666. Match these strong beliefs married to military might against Charles I–a man who stubbornly clung to the conviction of his Divine Right and that he’d “inherited” the people of England. No wonder people died. Drawing on memoirs & eyewitness accounts, Charles Spencer has brought this slice of history to life, and at the end of the book, in the acknowledgments, the author saves a few words for the regicides themselves.

Recommend for anyone interested in reading the history of this period.

Review copy.



Filed under Non Fiction, Spencer Charles

Celebrated Crimes: The Countess de Saint-Geran by Dumas

“Possibly a more obstinate legal contest was never waged, on both sides, but especially by those who lost it.”

The Countess de Saint-Geran is one of Alexandre Dumas Celebrated Crimes series–18 essays in all, of varied length and now out of print but available used, POD, and also, as it happens, on my Kindle. A few months ago I read The Marquise de Brinvilliers and enjoyed it for its good sense of time and place through the details of trials and sicko torture. I suppose I’d expected the same sort of thing in The Countess de Saint-Geran which I selected at random from the Celebrated Crimes (written between 1839-1841). I knew nothing about the Countess de Saint-Geran before I started reading, and now after reading the story, I feel as though I only know slightly more.

Here’s the gist of the story:

The Countess of Saint-Geran and her husband had long given up the idea of ever producing an heir, and so, given the greed that overcomes people when faced with wills, inheritances, heirs and what-have-you, the Count’s sister, the Marchioness de Bouille– more-or-less expects to get the entire bundle when her brother and sister-in-law die, presumably childless. The Marchioness was originally married off to a man old enough to be her grandfather, but:

“The Marchioness de Bouille quarrelled with her old husband, the Marquis, separated from him after a scandalous divorce, and came to live at the château of Saint-Geran, quite at ease as to her brother’s marriage, seeing that in default of heirs all his property would revert to her.”

 So this is a woman with expectations.

“Such is the state of affairs when the Marquis of Saint-Maixent arrived at the château. He was young, handsome, very cunning, and very successful with women.” The Marquis of Saint-Maixent is a wastrel relative of the Count’s. He’s also a fugitive (more of that later), whose “own fortune is much impaired by his extravagance and by the exactions of the law, or rather in plain words, he had lost it all.”  He arrives at the castle and gets cosy with the Marchioness de Bouille, seeing, of course, the possibilities of a rich, single woman who will inherit everything. But the plans go down the toilet when it’s announced that the Countess, after years of marriage, is finally pregnant. At this point Saint-Maixent employs a shady midwife to dispose of the baby at birth.

So that’s the basic information. The Countess de Saint-Geran morphs into the criminal case about the abducted baby, the contested will, and the various claimants to the fortune.

Unfortunately The Countess de Saint-Geran lacks the clarity of the The Marquise de Brinvilliers, and this is due to several problems. In The Marquise de Brinvilliers, Dumas gave us a sense of exactly who this woman was, her appeal, her social dilemmas, and also her uncanny ability to control and manipulate people. This level of characterisation is missing from The Countess de Saint-Geran, and the main characters–wicked people acting  against the innocent, remain two-dimensional. There’s little detail beyond their names and the facts and figures of the case. We are told, for example, that the Marchioness was married off to a 70-year-old, but that the marriage ended in a scandalous divorce. A divorce in the early 17th century must have been a rare event, and that means that the Marchioness must have been a rare woman. There’s no information about who got the divorce or why. Was the Marchioness the plaintive or was her husband? I wanted to know these details as a little more information about the Marchioness would have added considerable interest to the story.  Was the Marchioness a woman who married her elderly husband with expectations that he’s die and leave her free and wealthy? If so what went wrong with that plan? Did he outlive her patience? When the Marchioness moved back to the Saint-Gerans’  chateau and expected to inherit a fortune from her brother and sister-in-law was there resentment against them that she’d be married off to some old git? Was this a woman who spent her life waiting for others to die so she’d inherit wealth and become, in essence, ‘free’?  Dumas tells us only that the Marchioness was:

married to a man who, it was said, gave her great cause for complaint, the greatest being his threescore years and ten.”

Another huge problem with The Countess de Saint Geran is that the story begins in 1639 with the “young nobleman”   the Marquis de Saint-Maixent a “consummate rascal”  arrested for a series of crimes. A large contingent of armed guards along with their innocent looking prisoner stop for the night to rest at an inn. Here the crafty Marquis pays for enough wine to get everyone drunk, manipulates an innkeeper’s daughter to help him escape, and then the Marquis dashes to the Bourbonnais castle of his relative the Count of Saint-Geran t0 seek sanctuary. Of course once there he begins scheming to get his hands on the fortune.

This earlier story of the Marquis of Saint-Maixent is never solved, never explored and yet here’s a man who is:

“accused, and indeed convicted, of coining and magic.”

“convicted of incest.”

“convicted of having strangled his wife to marry another, whose husband he had first stabbed.”

No small list of crimes, and since he was convicted there must have been a trial. No details are given here–instead Dumas gives us the Marquis in action as he escapes and heads for his unsuspecting relatives,  the Count and the Countess de Saint-Geran. The Marquis’ backstory is of considerable interest, and as it turns out is much more interesting that the Saint-Geran story, but it’s never explored even though Dumas structures his story with the initial focus on the wickedness of Saint-Maixant.

There were some additional problems in the story regarding the birth of the baby. How could a woman give birth and then be told she imagined it? Wouldn’t there be some virulent arguments there?

Much of the story bogs down in the details of the various court cases that evolve over the years. While it’s perfectly understandable why such a story would capture the imagination, it’s ultimately unsatisfying.  In spite of the occasional tendency to wander into grandstanding through the dramatic turns in events that rival the most tawdry soap opera, the story lacks life–although it was interesting to note that the lower-classes involved in the plot were assigned to torture while the upper-class instigators were handled quite differently.


Filed under Celebrated Crimes, Dumas Alexandre

Celebrated Crimes: Marquise de Brinvilliers by Alexandre Dumas

“She accused herself of incendiarism.”

Well I discovered what it means to ‘put someone to the question.’ Now I’m ready for a career in Guantanamo or in some other exotic location.

The torture in the book Celebrated Crimes: The Marquise de Brinvilliers takes place in the 17th Century, the time of these particular crimes committed by this cold-blooded aristocratic serial killer. I’d intended to read the Celebrated Crime series (18 essays in 8 volumes) by Dumas for some time. They are currently out-of-print, but they are available used, through Project Gutenberg and print-on-demand. I read my version on my Kindle (free).

Reading Celebrated Crimes: The Marquise de Brinvilliers reminds me once again what a damn entertaining writer Dumas is. Here he takes the facts of the mysterious Brinvilliers case and brings to life this tale of adultery, greed, and murder. The book reads with the gusto and zest of a tabloid tale, and yet this is all fact. Dumas dug into the court documents (and the detailed observations of the torture) when writing this tale, and then added his own sometimes flamboyant elaborations. Consequently this reads like fiction, but it isn’t.

The book begins in the year 1665 with the arrest of the young, dashing Chevalier Gaudin de Sainte-Croix. Carried off to the Bastille, Sainte-Croix’s murky background includes various tales of his origins, but at the time of his arrest he was Captain of the Tracy regiment. About 5 years earlier, Sainte-Croix met the Marquis de Brinvilliers, the maitre-de-camp of the Normandy Regiment:

“Their age was much the same, and so was their manner of life: their virtues and their vices were similar, and thus it happened that a mere acquaintance grew into a friendship, and on his return from the field the marquis introduced Sainte-Croix to his wife, and he became an intimate of the house.”

This, as it turns out, was a big mistake….

When Sainte-Croix became the lover of Madame de Brinvilliers, she was 28 years old. The Marquise, whose name was Marie-Madeleine, was a wealthy woman and she had expectations of becoming even wealthier. Her father was M. de Dreux d’Aubray, civil lieutenant at the Chatelet de Paris, and the Marquise also had a sister (a nun) and two brothers. Here’s a rather colourful slightly dramatic passage from Dumas describing the Marquise:

“At the age of twenty-eight the Marquise was at the height of her beauty; her figure was small but perfectly proportioned; her rounded face was charmingly pretty; her features, so regular that no emotion seemed to alter their beauty suggested the lines of a statue miraculously endowed with life; it was easy enough to mistake for the repose of a happy conscience the cold, cruel calm which served as a mask to cover remorse.”

The Marquise soon left her husband and began consorting publicly with Sainte-Croix. Her behaviour was ignored by her husband who “merrily pursued the road to ruin,” but her father “procured a warrant for the arrest of Sainte-Croix” (I’m not sure on what grounds). And it’s at this point that Sainte-Croix was carted off to the Bastille and thrown into the same cell as “the Italian Exili.” Dumas relates this ominous meeting with a strong sense of drama. Sainte-Croix howls “like the roaring of a wild beast,” and he first sees Exili as some sort of “supernatural being.” But hyperbole aside, Exili, according to the text, had been kicked out of Rome “charged with many poisonings.” I can’t help but wonder who Exili really was. The name Exili, is that a real name or could it be a derivative of Exile?

Exili is an “artist in poisons, comparable to the Medici or the Borgias. For him murder was a fine art, and he had reduced it to fixed and rigid rule.” A great cellmate in other words for the lover of a married woman. The next thing you know both Sainte-Croix and Exili are free and running around Paris with undetectable poisons.

This really is a great tale, and I had to keep reminding myself that this stuff was true. Basically Sainte-Croix and the Marquise de Brinvilliers start bumping people off with an assortment of poison potions. Of course, not everything is smooth sailing. The murderous lovers have to experiment and how better to experiment than with the sick and impoverished. The Marquise, playing the Lady Bountiful role, visits the ill….

Dumas doesn’t spare details here while at times he also seems to wallow in the histrionics, the sheer deviousness and cackling evil of this murderous pair. The contents of the closet of Sainte-Croix are listed with meticulous detail, for example, as are experiments with poisons on animals, details of the trial and torture of the valet Lachausee and the torture of the Marquise de Brinvilliers.

Given the facts behind the case of the Marquise de Brinvilliers, it’s not too surprising that she became the subject of a number of books. I’ve been curious to read a bit more for some time, and then recently she appeared offstage in the Hoffman novella Mademoiselle de Scuderi. I have a soft spot for Dumas after discovering just what an entertaining writer he is some years ago, and in Celebrated Crimes, he applies his talent for creating historical adventures towards this case of  the 17th century murderess. The author’s imagination runs a little wild at times when it comes to the concept of evil, and he compares Madame de Brinvilliers to Locusta and Messalina at one point while stressing that her face offered no clue to the evil within.

The story takes a dramatic and even more fascinating turn when the Marquise is finally arrested. Dumas had access to the Marquise’s confession, and indeed this document becomes a seminal part of her trial–whether or not her confession–intended to be read upon her death–could be admissible as evidence. Legal precedents are included in the trial. Dumas details quite a bit of the legalities here and I found it all quite fascinating. It’s peculiar how the 17th century court fussed and agonized over admitting the confession as evidence when they had no ethical or legal problem torturing those associated with the case to get confessions.

There’s also some fascinating up-close glimpses of the Marquise following the trial and the torture. And here we get a look at some of her patterns of thought. While some officials are so moved by their own arguments that they break down, Madame de Brinvilliers stays calm and collected. Acting with grace and dignity, nonetheless shards of her innermost thoughts appear with some interestingly twisted logic.

What I particular enjoyed so much is the 19th century perspective of Dumas. If this were written today for example, we’d probably have the story written with an emphasis on the crimes as the result of the Marquise being a female with limited rights. I assume she had an arranged marriage, and then again her father did try to squash her relationship with Sainte-Croix. Dumas, firmly in the 19th century, does not see the Marquise de Brinvilliers as a victim of her sex, and he portrays her as a fascinating yet evil woman. With an absence of the normal moral restrictions that govern behaviour, she doesn’t hesitate to commit the most heinous crimes without an ounce of pity for the agony of her victims:

“The Marquise had often said that there are means to get rid of people one dislikes, and they can easily be put an end to in a bowl of soup.”


Filed under Celebrated Crimes, Dumas Alexandre

A glimpse of Peter the Great from Henri Troyat

I came across a section in Henri Troyat’s bio Peter the Great today, and it gave me such a good laugh, I decided to include it here.

 In 1698, Peter the Great sailed to England for “advanced studies in shipbuilding.” Once in England, the Tsar and his entourage moved to a house near the shipyards that was owned by John Evelyn. Three months later, John Evelyn went back to his house and was “horrified” by what he saw:

“The doors and windows had been taken down and burned, the hangings had been torn down or soiled with vomit and spit, precious parquet floorboards were smashed to pieces, masterpieces of painting were riddled with bullets (every portrait having served as a target), and flowerbeds were trampled as if a regiment had camped in the garden.”

I wonder if the neighbours complained?


Filed under Troyat Henri

Mademoiselle de Scuderi by E.T.A Hoffmann

It’s odd how reading patterns interconnect. I just finished Hoffmann’s Mademoiselle de Scuderi and then began reading a book about the life and work of Lermontov. And there in one of the chapters, I read about Lermontov reading Hoffmann.

After finishing Mademoiselle de Scuderi, I find myself wondering what Lermontov thought of it….

This is the first book I’ve read by Hoffmann, a German Romantic author (and other things) whose works frequently used elements of horror and the supernatural.  I read somewhere or another that the story is supposed to be one of his best. That admitted, I’ll add that I wasn’t crazy about the story, but more of that later.

Mademoiselle de Scuderi (who was a real person, Madame de Scudery) is the heroine of this story set in the 17th century during the reign of Louis XIV. According to the foreword by translator Andrew Brown, there are “historical realities that formed the basis” of this tale, although Hoffmann did take some liberties with the dates of Mademoiselle de Scuderi’s novel, Clelie. The tale is set after in the aftermath of the 1677 ‘affair of the poisons’ and the subsequent trial. The ‘affair of the poisons’  is detailed along with the crimes of Madame de Brinvilliers, who with her lover and accomplice Captain Godin de Sainte-Croix,  served up poisonous “dinners from hell.”  Desgrais, an officer from the mounted police eventually captured Madame de Brinvilliers by luring her from a convent for a tryst. But the episode leaves Paris infected with paranoia–everyone is suspicious of everyone else and in spite of arrests and executions, murders continue:

“At that very time Paris was the scene of the most heinous atrocities; at that very time the diabolical inventiveness of hell was managing to come up with the easiest possible means of bringing them about.”

Louis XIV  “wishing to put a stop to this increasingly calamitous state of affairs, appointed a special tribunal” called the Chambre ardente with the “exclusive task of investigating and punishing these secret crimes.” The president of the tribunal, La Reynie in combination with Desgrais become feared men as the tribunal uncovers another nest of poisoners along with a long list of clients–some in the nobility.

Into this scene of fear and paranoia another series of crimes take place. The victims are wealthy men, commonly on their way to visit their mistresses and loaded with gifts of jewelry. Some of the victims are knocked senseless, but most are stabbed to death. It’s assumed that the murders must be the work of a brutal gang, but then one eyewitness account attributes almost supernatural powers to the robber, and “everyone’s head was filled with the sorcery, necromancy, and pacts with the devil.” There are no suspects and more guards are set on the street, but to no avail. Louis considers extending the powers of the tribunal which already resembles  “an inquisition,” but then Mademoiselle de Scuderi discourages the idea of granting the tribunal–and the people who run it–any further power.

And then late one night, a mysterious young man arrives at Mademoiselle de Scuderi’s house with a casket. Inside the casket are jewels and a letter purportedly from the gang of thieves called  ‘the invisibles’ thanking Mademoiselle de Scuderi for her friendship and for saving them from “persecution.” Mademoiselle de Scuderi is horrified to think that she is perceived to be a friend to these murderers and she refuses to wear the jewels which she considers cursed by blood. She confides in her friend, Madame de Maintenon who recognizes the exquisite jewellery to be the work of the idiosyncratic Parisian jeweller, Rene Cardillac.  

Some months later, Mademoiselle becomes unwillingly dragged into the crimes, and she decides to seek the solution….

While Mademoiselle de Scuderi is interesting (and I do enjoy reading about this period), the novella was a little disappointing. This is basically a detective story–a point that Gilbert Adair makes in his foreword. Adair states that “there cannot exist a single history of literature in which the invention of the detective story is not attributed to Edgar Allan Poe for the Murders in the Rue Morgue, which was first published in 1841.”  Mademoiselle de Scuderi was first published in 1819, and Adair notes that its depiction of a serial killer makes this a seminal novel. Seminal novels to the genre are essential for research and for those determined to track down signposts over the centuries. Adair makes a good point when he compares Mademoiselle de Scuderi to Miss Marple, for instance. Perhaps there’s a thesis there for someone who wants to examine the development of the female amateur detective. But while some novels are perhaps ‘important’ it doesn’t mean that they are necessarily that great for the common-garden variety reader like me.

I found the peripheral/background details regarding the atmosphere in Paris the most interesting part of the story. Apart from that, the man responsible for the crimes isn’t particularly difficult to identify. Plus there’s a tepid romance thrown into the stew which serves to complicate matters in a rather silly way. The plot complication that one character stands in the way of revealing the murderer because he want to protect another is preposterous and flimsy at best, and at its worst, the novella pushes at the seams and becomes a bit of a cheap hysterical melodrama :

“Inwardly torn apart, alienated from all earthly life, Mlle de Scuderi had no more desire to live in a world of hellish delusion. She accused destiny for the bitter irony with which it had granted her so many years of life to reinforce her virtue and faithfulness, only to destroy, now that she was an old woman, the beautiful image that had shed its light on her whole life.”

I am sure that there are plenty of other people who love this story. I didn’t.


Filed under Hoffmann