Swiss Heroes - George Upton

Death of the Governor

Archduke Sigismund decreed that Hagenbach should be publicly tried for his offences. Among the judges appointed from Basle were Hans Irmy and Ulrich Iseli, and with them came old Hassfurter representing the city of Lucerne.

The judges assembled at Brisach, where they were welcomed by Sigismund, who had already been there for a fortnight inquiring into the case of the prisoner. Full confession had been extorted from Hagenbach by means of the rack, but there were few proofs obtainable, even of his plot against the lives and property of the citizens of Brisach. Multitudes flocked thither from Switzerland, Alsace, and the Black Forest to witness the trial of the hated Governor. Along the whole length of the Rhine from Basle to Strassburg he had not a single friend. Little mercy could be expected from his Alsatian judges, and even among the strangers invited there were many whom he had greatly wronged.

A platform had been erected in the public square for the judges and the accused; and facing it a bench was placed upon which, shunned by all, yet objects of universal interest, were seated seven headsmen, rivals for the honor of executing sentence upon the country's oppressor. Clad alike in long red cloaks, they were in their places long before the judges appeared. When these had finally assembled, Swiss, Alsatians, and Sundgauers, the accused was led thither, escorted by his guard and surrounded by surging crowds. He walked with a firm step, not heeding the taunts and jeers heaped upon him save by an occasional contemptuous glance at the people.

"Now you shall reap your reward," shrieked a woman's voice, "for plotting to sink all the women and children to the bottom of the Rhine in leaky boats!"

"Ho! you would give our possessions as booty to your mercenaries, would you?" cried a well-to-do baker, whose property was of considerable value. "It shall go ill with you for that!"

Pursued by such speeches, Hagenbach reached the market place and took his seat while the tribunal was forming. The Austrian deputy appointed Ulrich Iseli as advocate for Archduke Sigismund, while Peter von Hagenbach himself chose Irmy, whose impartial love of justice was well known to him. Thomas Schutz, the magistrate of Ensisheim, opened the proceedings. About him were ranged the twenty-six judges, among whom were included sixteen knights, though to judge by their looks the presence of these equals in rank lent the prisoner but small hope of their clemency. Slowly the trial proceeded. The advocate for the accused did his best, but the verdict of death was certain from the beginning.

A storm of applause rent the air as the magistrate of Ensisheim announced the result. The executioners, who had hitherto remained passive, almost indifferent spectators, suddenly became all attention to learn in what manner the vengeance of their countrymen was to be wrought upon Hagenbach. Meanwhile the knights present required that the condemned should be publicly stripped of the dignities of his rank. Whereupon the Imperial herald advanced and, causing the Governor to be brought before him, demanded:

"Who stands before me?"

"The knight, Sir Peter von Hagenbach," was the answer.

Thrice the herald repeated: "That is false. No knight see I here, but a miscreant and a liar. Let his sword be broken and his shield dragged in the dust at a horse's tail." Then turning to the accused, he said:

"Peter Hagenbach, your conduct has been far from knightly. It was your duty to render justice; to protect the widow and orphan; to honor the Church and its holy servants; to restrain all violence and outrage; but you have yourself committed those crimes which you should have punished in others. Having broken, therefore, the oaths which you have sworn, and forfeited the noble order of knighthood, the knights her present have ordained that you shall be deprived of its insignia. Let a true knight come hither and take from him his arms and honors."

Sir Hermann von Eptingen advanced. "Peter Hagenbach, I proclaim you unworthy knight of the holy order of Saint George, and deprive you of your sword, ring, collar, poniard, and spurs." Then seizing a gauntlet, he struck the Governor on the right cheek, saying: "I pronounce you dishonored and disarmed, and so shall you remain until your death."

Turning to the knights, he added: "Noble sirs, I have, according to your decree, deprived Peter Hagenbach of his insignia and caused him to be publicly degraded. May this punishment serve as an example to you, and may you ever live in accordance with the dignity of knighthood and the honor of your name."

At the conclusion of this scene, the composure displayed by the Governor throughout the whole trial forsook him. The scornful gleam in his eyes died out, his head sank upon his breast, and he seemed to lose all consciousness of his surroundings. But as he clearly realized the discussion concerning the mode of his death, he broke down completely groaning: "Mercy, mercy, your worships! Grant me honorable death by the sword!"

Shouts of triumph again rose from the people when they beheld the proud nobleman bowed humbly to the dust, but some of those in the front ranks were moved to pity, and many secretly shed tears. The judges unanimously agreed on death by the sword. Preparations were made at once for the execution of the sentence, which, greatly to his joy and the envy of his fellows, was intrusted to the headsman of Colmar, a short, thickset fellow, accounted an expert with the sword.

Hagenbach's Execution


Night had long since fallen and darkness covered the earth, when Peter Hagenbach was conducted to the scaffold. The judges rode in advance. Two priests walked beside the condemned man, urging him to confess his sins that his soul might not perish with his body. Torches illuminated the dismal scene. A vast crowd hemmed in the sad procession, which, passing out through the Cooper's Gate, reached an open meadow, where it halted. Hagenbach conversed earnestly with the priests for some moments, openly declared his repentance, and bequeathed to the church of Brisach his sixteen horses, his valuables, and his gold chain, for absolution from his sins. With a firm step he mounted the scaffold and, facing his judges and the people, spoke thus with manly courage:

I fear not death. Too often have I faced it on the battle-field. I regret alone the blood which mine will cause to be shed; for think not my master will permit this day to pass unavenged. Grant me your forgiveness, for Christ's and Our Lady's sake. I am not guilty of all you have charged against me, yet I humbly confess myself a sinner. Pray for me!"

He knelt and received the death stroke. The executioner of Colmar performed his duty well, but not a shout arose, not a murmur of applause was heard. Peter Hagenbach had shown he knew how to die, and his death atoned for all.