Your RDA of Irony

Sons of Obituary

This was a great day for decapitations.

On this day in 1794, Maximilian Robespierre unwillingly ended the Reign of Terror.  For a homicidal fanatic, he was embarrassingly liberal.  What kind of tyrant would allow himself to be voted out of office–especially when he knew the nature of the retirement plan.  The fact that he rose to power is the actual mystery.  For a French leader, he couldn’t have been less French:  he was both virtuous and completely charmless.  (But he did dress well.)  Perhaps the other Revolutionary leaders were willing to delegate all the paperwork to the diligent, drab Robespierre; the man seemed to enjoy being on committees.  You know the type; starting as a recording secretary on the prom decorations committee and ending up the teen Stalin of the student council.

In September 1793, France was at war with Europe.  Beheading Louis XVI tended to upset the other monarchs.  Furthermore, the country was erupting with royalist insurrections.  Paris was for the Republic but the rest of France seemed less enthusiastic.  To ensure the security of France, the government organized the Committee of Public Safety, and guess who headed it?  Before the Revolution, Robespierre had served as a judge; he had resigned, however, because he did not like imposing capital punishment.  Either he had changed his attitude or was infatuated with Dr. Guillotin’s new machine.

The Reign of Terror lasted nine months.  The number of dead can only be estimated, anywhere from 16,000 to 40,000.  (The French lack the Germans’ precision.)  Many of the victims were Royalists; with a “de” in your name you were halfway to the guillotine.  However, others simply failed to live up to the Jacobins’ standards; so they didn’t live at all.  In the climate of the Terror, an accusation was tantamount to a death sentence.  

Even impeccable revolutionaries now went to the guillotine if they were so unpatriotic as to disagree with Robespierre.   If George Danton could be condemned, no one was safe.  Intent on surviving, the members of the French Assembly decided that Robespierre had to go.  Being virtuous and charmless, he had few allies and no popular following.  He proved easy to oust, and he received the same justice that he meted out. 

With him ended the Reign of Terror and his Republic of Virtue.  France would resume its normal style of politics:  five years of  corruption, followed by 15 years of charisma, followed by two centuries of corruption, cynicism–and good healthcare.    


Decapitation #2

On this day in 1540, Thomas Cromwell was beheaded.  It is gratifying when bad things happen to bad people.  Ironically, the ruthless politician was condemned for one of the few times when he was not thoroughly reprehensible.  Cromwell had connived the condemnation and death of Thomas More.  Technically, disagreeing with the King could be construed as treason; building a case based on rhetorical quibbles, Cromwell destroyed More.  Henry VIII was impressed with this peasant-stock lawyer and Cromwell rose in the bureaucratic firmament. 

Ever obliging to the King’s desires, Cromwell then arranged a quick end to Henry’s second marriage.  Anne Boleyn was an ambitious shrew but being obnoxious was not a capital crime.  Cheating on the King was, and Cromwell had five men–including the queen’s brother– seized and tortured until one of them confessed to orgies with Mrs. Tudor.  All five were condemned to death and so was Anne Boleyn.  For his crimes, Cromwell became the King’s chief minister. 

Unfortunately, in that capacity Cromwell started acting like a statesman instead of a hatchetman.  Envisioning an alliance of the Protestant princes of Europe, Cromwell encouraged the marriage of Henry to Anne of Cleves, a duchess of northern Germany.  Henry agreed–until he saw Anne.  Diplomacy made a marriage unavoidable, but Henry was furious and you know whom he blamed.  Cromwell was a dead man, but Henry–in his sociopathic way–had a code of honor.  He did not want to feel like an ingrate for Cromwell’s past services.  So he first elevated the minister to an earldom–and then had Cromwell condemned to death. 

But good toadies are hard to find, and Henry began to miss Cromwell.  As a hint of apology, King allowed the Cromwell family to have some estates and granted the title of baron to his late minister’s son.  The fourth Baron Cromwell (the great-great grandson of Thomas) would fight for Charles I and be elevated to the Earldom of Ardglass.  Of course, the war did not end well for King Charles,  and the Earl of Ardglass had to make peace with the Parliamentary forces.    He got off with a fine;  having the last name of Cromwell did no harm.  Apparently Cousin Oliver had some influence.

  1. Michele says:

    When I was nine, my family spent two weeks at a Canadian hotel called the Manoir Richelieu, where I was startled to see huge, heroic paintings of the late Cardinal as well as the royals and, I believe, Robespierre. They were displayed prominently throughout the hotel. The Manoir Richelieu lives on. Not sure about the paintings.

    • Eugene Finerman says:

      Dear Michele,

      I am surprised that Robespierre’s portrait would be found anywhere in Canada. The French there, under the supervision of Holy Mother Church, were opposed to the French Revolution. Even Napoleon was regarded as too liberal. Of course, the English were reassured to know that Quebec preferred them to the French Revolutionaries.


      p.s. For more of the more pedantics about les Canadiens:

  2. Peg Pruitt says:

    Ah, Eugene! You certainly know how to get ahead.

  3. Maura says:

    I, being of Irish lineage, always reads the NY Times Obits. For us Irish, who so enjoy wakes, the Times Obit page is more rewarding than reading the Travel section, the Real Estate section and the Sports section; on most days of the Bush reign the Obits for were more ‘alive’ than the Politics section.
    Thank you for providing the additional Obituaries to add to my reading pleasure.

    • Eugene Finerman says:

      Dear Maura,

      I suspect that one of the first signs of middle age is reading obituaries. I do. In fact, it is one of the first pages of our newspaper that my wife and I read each morning. We scan the columns to see if we know any of the corpses.

      But I recently experienced a worse example of ghoulishness. A classmate of mine from high school is involved in organizing our 40th reunion. He telephoned to drum up attendance. His idea of starting a conversation was “Did you know that 15 of our classmates are dead?” No, I didn’t but I can’t claim to be surprised. The condition is called “mortality” and there is a lot of that going around.


  4. Eugene Finerman says:

    Judging from the portrait by Holbein, Thomas Cromwell looked like Leo McKern. In fact, Cromwell probably looked worse. Portraits tended to be flattering.


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