Sunday, January 2, 2011

Attempted Assassinations

Adventure, intrigue, close calls, providential deliverances, courage, mercy, persecution, martyrdom: these are some of the stories of attempted and successful assassinations of Reformed ministers and statesmen from the First and Second Reformation eras.

George Wishart (c. 1513-1546) -- The Reformer George Wishart was viewed as greatest threat of his day to the stranglehold of the Roman Catholic Church on Scotland. His arch-enemy, Cardinal David Beaton bribed a priest, Sir John Wighton (Wightman), to assassinate Wishart by mingling with the crowd attending upon his preaching in Dundee with a dagger hidden in his cloak, and lying in wait for the appropriate moment. As Wishart descended from the pulpit, he greeted his would-be assassin, "What would you do, my friend?" John Knox, Wishart's biographer, future bodyguard, and Reformer-successor, writes that Wishart's keen eye had noticed the movement of Wighton's hand for the dagger, and he clamped his own on it, apprehending the dagger himself. At this the priest fell down to his knees and confessed his murderous intention. An angry crowd converged and threatened to kill the priest. Knox related Wishart's response thus: "But Master George took him in his arms and said, 'Whosoever troubles him shall trouble me. He has hurt me in nothing, but has done great comfort both to you and me, he has let us understand what we may fear in times to come. We will watch better.' Thus he appeased both the one part and the other, and saved the life of him that sought his." Wishart was eventually arrested, and executed at the hands of Cardinal Beaton on March 1, 1546. Beaton himself was assassinated in reprisal by Wishart's supporters later that year.

William Farel (1489-1565) and Pierre Viret (1511-1571) -- William Farel, the Swiss Reformer who persuaded John Calvin to serve Geneva, and Pierre Viret, the French Reformer whose 500th birthday is this year, both survived multiple assassination attempts. Early in his career, Viret was badly wounded in Payerene when a band of Catholics attempted to kill him. A monk ran him through with a sword as Viret attempted to cross a field. His injury was severe but his body healed.

In 1535, an attempt was made to eliminate three Reformers at once: Farel, Viret and Antoine Froment (1508–1581). A servant girl, Antonia Vax, was persuaded by certain priests to poison a bowl of spinach soup. She was hired to work for Claude Bernard, at whose house all three Reformers were then lodged, in Geneva. On March 8, 1535, she placed poison in a small bone served to Viret within his soup. Farel's bowl of soup was clearer and she was afraid to place a poisoned bone in it (Émile Doumergue, Jean Calvin, Vol. 2, pp. 133-134); he apparently did not like the look of the soup in any event and requested another bowl. Froment was about to eat but was advised before partaking that his wife and children had just arrived in Geneva and so left the table with the food untouched. Viret became violently ill and suffered from the effects of the poison the rest of his life. Vax confessed after attempting to flee the city, and identified two co-conspirators but charges against the others were dropped. She was executed the following month for her crime.

At Corcelles, Farel was attacked by a group of monks, including the prior Rodolph de Benoit, who, it is reported, had a dagger in his hand. Jean Henri Merle d'Aubigné reports that "Farel escaped with difficulty."

On another occasion, Farel, Viret and John Calvin (1509-1564) were all traveling together to the famous October 1536 public disputation with Roman Catholic clergy in Lausanne, when a group of assassins laid in wait for them, but were discovered, and the plot was thwarted, all of these great Reformers were unharmed. Viret said at the closing of the debate, "We do not thirst for blood, like those who laid in wait to destroy us on our way thither. So far from seeking to punish them, we interceded on their behalf, and our only wish is that they may receive complete forgiveness."

Jean-Marc Berthoud, Pierre Viret: A Forgotten Giant of the Reformation, pp. 14-15, also writes that "in France when a Protestant mob was on the point of lynching a traitorous Roman Catholic priest Pierre Viret interposed his very life to save him from certain death."

Henry Ainsworth (1571-1622/1623) -- English Congregationalist, Biblical commentator, and the man behind the psalter of the Pilgrims, Henry Ainsworth was a man of peace, but became embroiled in conflict with the Roman Catholic Church, which he viewed as Antichrist; the Church of England, from which he withdrew, Puritans like Richard Bernard; who opposed Separatism; as well as other Congregationalists like Francis Johnson, over the nature of the office of elder. Ultimately, he died suddenly and mysteriously, in Amsterdam, where he lived and worked in exile, in late 1622 or early 1623. The story that is told varies slightly but the suspicion is that he was poisoned. Historian Daniel Neal writes: "His death was sudden, and not without suspicion of violence; for it is reported that, having found a diamond of very great value in the streets of Amsterdam, he advertised it in print, and when the owner, who was a Jew, came to demand it, he offered him any acknowledgment he would desire; but Ainsworth, though poor, would accept of nothing but a conference with some of his [rabbis] upon the prophecies of the Old Testament relating to the Messiah, which the other promised, but not having interest enough to obtain it, 'tis thought that he was poisoned." Historian Benjamin Brook writes that the conference indeed took place, and that he was poisoned by his defeated antagonists.

Matthew Poole (1624-1679) -- After having been ejected from his pulpit for nonconformity in 1662, English Puritan minister Matthew Poole devoted the rest of his life to Biblical studies, publishing the Latin Synopsis Criticorum (Synopsis of Interpreters) on the whole Bible and an English Annotations on the Bible through Isaiah 58 before his death. He was living in London when fear gripped the city after Titus Oakes proclaimed the existence of a Popish Plot to assassinate King Charles II in 1678. The following year a deposition by Oates identified a hit list of targets intended for assassination and Matthew Poole's name was on it, which was not a surprise given that he had written two notable books on Roman Catholic apologetics. Although the plot was later discredited and Oates was ultimately convicted of perjury, Poole himself gave credence to the plot after overhearing men plotting to kill him. George Godfrey Cunningham relates the account thus:

Soon after, he was spending an evening at Mr Alderman Ashurst's, and was returning home with a Mr Chorley, who had gone with him for the sake of company; when coming near the narrow passage which leads from Clerkenwell to St John's court, they saw two men standing at the entrance; one of whom, as Mr Poole approached, said to the other, "there he is;" upon which the other replied, "let him alone, there is somebody with him." As soon as they were passed, Mr Poole asked his friend if he had heard what passed between the two men; and, upon his answering that he had, "Well," replied Mr Poole, "I had been murdered tonight had you not been with me."

This event prompted him to relocate to Amsterdam where he in fact died soon after on October 12, 1679. The suddenness of his death led to the supposition, which has never been confirmed, that he was poisoned.

Samuel Maresius (1599-1673) -- French Huguenot theologian Samuel Des Marets (Maresius) would go on to become professor at the Academy of Sedan (1625), pastor at Maastricht (1632), pastor and professor at Bois-le-Duc (1636), and at Groningen (1643), but early in his career, soon after becoming pastor at Lyons in 1620, he wrote to lady who had apostatized from the faith, a letter which provoked a Jesuit priest to hire an assassin who stabbed him in the chest. His injury was severe but he went on to recover and become a major theologian of the post-Reformation era.

William of Orange (1533-1584) -- William I, the Silent, Prince of Orange, was the leader of the Dutch Revolt, a resistance movement opposed to the Spanish religious and political tyranny and oppression, a revolt which sparked the Eighty Years' War and led to Dutch Independence. William became a Calvinist in 1573. Soon after the July 22, 1581 Act of Abjuration, which was the Dutch Declaration of Independence, a Spanish Roman Catholic named Juan de Jáuregui responded to the call by King Philip II of Spain to assassinate William (the supposed reward was to be 80,000 ducats and the habit of the Order of Santiago) by shooting William in Antwerp on March 18, 1572. The pistol malfunctioned, but the bullet pierced William's neck, exiting near the left jaw bone. Jáuregui was killed on the spot, but William survived the serious injury thanks to the care of his wife Charlotte, who died herself less than two months later.

The second attempt on his life was successful. On July 10, 1584, the French Roman Catholic Balthasar Gérard (also in response to Philip's call) shot William fatally at close range at his home in Delft. Gérard was arrested, tried, convicted and executed for his crime. William's last reported words were: "Mon Dieu, ayez pitié de mon âme; mon Dieu, ayez pitié de ce pauvre peuple" ("My God, have pity on my soul; my God, have pity on this poor people").

Stephen Bocskay (1557-1606) -- Stephen Bocskay, Prince of Transylvania, was the Protestant Hungarian nobleman who led an anti-Hapsburg uprising in defense of the religious and constitutional liberties of Hungarians both in Transylvania and Royal Hungary. After concluding successful peace treaties, such as the Peace of Vienna (June 1606) and the Peace of Zsitvatorok (November 1606), Bocskay was poisoned on December 29, 1606, by his chancellor Mihály Káthay, who was then himself killed by an angry mob of Bocskay's supporters.

1 comment:

  1. That was so interesting. I read it a few days ago but forgot to comment. Thanks for posting it.