The Essex Rebellion and the Bouteville Affair

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The famous revolt of Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex, in 1601, has been

termed ‘the last honour revolt’ and interpreted as the swansong of chivalric

culture by Mervyn James.4 Essex himself was a famous soldier and a magnet

for the iron of chivalry in others. Even among the London crowd he was popular

as a paragon of chivalry, a reputation that was enhanced by cheap chivalric

romance in circulation. Some romantics expected him to lead a great

crusade. Chapman’s first instalment of Homer, that bible of honourable violence,

was dedicated to him. His body of supporters included many duellists

and showed in general a ‘strongly military orientation’, including as it did a

‘considerable representation of swordsmen with a taste for violence’. Through

Essex these men ‘made contact with the glamorous overtones of Tudor

monarchical chivalry in which the earl played a prominent part’.5

There were three great professions, Essex wrote: arms, law, and religion.

That he belonged proudly to the first in this list with all its ‘pains, dangers, and

difficulties’,6 makes him the ghostly heir of the mid-fourteenth-century writer

Geoffroi de Charny, as he was more obviously the ideological companion of

the contemporary poet and soldier Sir Philip Sidney.

The solidarity of the Essex group, James argues, was based on honour, even

on honour as it had operated in the Middle Ages, with all the competition and

latent violence, thinly cloaked in elaborate courtesy, that such a code entails.

Since this culture of honour likewise ‘points to the importance of will and the

emphasis on moral autonomy’, it leads to ‘the uneasiness of the man of honour

in relation to authority, seen as liable to cabin, crib and confine this same


4 James, ‘At a Crossroads’. Cf. idem, ‘English Politics’, and McCoy, ‘ “A Dangerous Image” ’.

5 James, ‘At a Crossroads’, 428–9.

6 Ibid., 429. 7 James, ‘English Politics’, 314.

When his revolt failed miserably, Essex at first spoke the proud and defiant

language of this culture of honour. It was, as we have already seen, the language

of Ganelon in the Song of Roland, going back to the late eleventh or

twelfth century, the language of the knight Bertelay in The Story of Merlin,

from the thirteenth century.8 Essex justified his degree of autonomous action

in the honourable pursuit of a private feud; he noted that even natural law

allowed force to repel force, after all. He had done nothing against the queen

herself, or against God. He was merely ‘the law’s traitor, and would die for it’.9

Yet almost as soon as he was condemned, Essex abandoned the language

and culture of honour utterly, and all the way to the scaffold embraced a view

which Lacy Baldwin Smith found common to those defeated in attempts to

overthrow or severely constrain the Tudor monarchy: he adopted wholehearted

submission with a sense that his revolt had been judged and defeated

by the will of the Almighty.10 He thus became a late convert to what James

calls providentialist religion, a believer in the divine purpose that could be

effected as England achieved wholeness under its queen. Honour was hers to

distribute, not his to win in showy independence; even those as chivalrous and

great-hearted as he could not act as autonomous agents. His only success was

posthumous. Later writers portrayed Essex as almost saintly, a victim of the

pedantic snares of the law and of jealous enemies, a true chivalric and

Protestant hero in the service of his country.

James’s argument is powerful and fascinating. Even without entering into

all its implications, students of medieval chivalry may take the Essex revolt of

1601 as a significant signpost. It points away from ideas whose societal effects

we have studied; it points toward basic transformations of those ideas by the

early seventeenth century.

Our French incident, taking place a quarter of a century later, shows fascinating

similarities. The Bouteville affair of 1627 began with a duel and ended with

two French noblemen going to the scaffold.11 Not only did the Comte de

Bouteville and his cousin the Comte des Chapelles fight in violation of the royal

prohibition against duelling (a law on the books since 1602), they chose to

thumb their nose at such regulation by conducting their fight in the Place

Royale, the largest square in the capital and one with clear royalist associations.

This was the twenty-second duel the twenty-eight-year-old Bouteville had

fought in defence of his honour, but fighting in the Place Royale (rather than in

some remote alley or rural lane) showed a deliberate defiance of the laws.

300 Epilogue

8 Brault, ed., tr., Chanson de Roland, laisse 273; Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 339–41; Sommer,

ed., Vulgate Version, II, 310–13.

9 James, ‘At a Crossroads’, 455. 10 Smith, Treason.

11 Billacois, Le Duel, 247–75.

In the flood of argument and petition that reached Louis XIII and Cardinal

Richelieu on behalf of the young noblemen before their execution, the line of

defence taken by their fellow nobles is highly revealing. The two had done

nothing against the king or the state, these appeals stated. There had been no

fracture of the essential and honourable man-to-man bond uniting king and

nobleman. The two duellists had simply violated an edict (a distinction recalling

Essex’s claim that he was merely ‘the law’s traitor’, not a traitor to his sovereign).

Surely, their essential noble service as warriors ready for the king’s

service ought to count for more than breaking of such regulations. The effort

was unsuccessful. This time the pardon so frequently sought and so regularly

obtained was not forthcoming.

After their deaths the two men were highly praised by all (including the

royal administration, with one eye on their influential families and friends);

some even managed to portray them as ideal Christians undergoing a species

of martyrdom. During his trial des Chapelles had told his judges that he was

willing to shed his blood, if that sacrifice was necessary for the king to establish

his kingdom. Yet he added that he did know that ‘in antiquity [he means

the Middle Ages] men had fought and that kings of France had tolerated it up

to the present’.12

This trial and the somewhat mystified statement of the condemned des

Chapelles will remind us of a trial that took place in Paris three hundred years

earlier. In 1323 Jourdain de l’Isle Jourdain, lord of Casaubon, a notorious violator

of the peace, was finally brought to justice after he had killed two men

under royal safeguard and then murdered the unfortunate royal serjeant sent

to arrest him. On his way to the gallows (denied the nobler death by beheading

allowed the men of 1627), Jourdain confessed repeatedly that he deserved

death for his many misdeeds; but in each case he added, with a puzzlement like

that of des Chapelles, his quasi-defence based on old custom: ‘but it was in

war’. Though there was no movement to consider Jourdain anything like a

martyr, he carried cherished relics on his body as he went to his death, including

what he believed to be a piece of the true cross.13

12 ‘Ledit sieur dit que . . . si’l faut que le Roy establisse son royaume par le sang, il se sacrifie.

Mais qu’il est vrai que . . . dans l’antiquité on se battoit, et que cela a duré jusques à maintenant et

les Roys de France l’ont toleré’: ibid., 274–5.

13 Langlois and Lanhers, Confessions et jugements, 37–9, print the confession; cf. Cutler, Law of

Treason, 46, 144–5, and Kicklighter, ‘Nobility of English Gascony’. Kicklighter notes that his executioners

clad Jordain in a robe bearing the papal arms to mock the papal efforts for a pardon.