Most Notorious Assassins
Balthasar Gérard was the assassin of the Dutch independence leader, William I of Orange (William the Silent). He killed William I in Delft on 10 July 1584, by shooting him twice with a pistol, and was afterwards tried, convicted, and gruesomely executed.
Gérard was born in Franche-Comté (then belonging to Spain, afterwards to France). He came from a Roman Catholic family with 11 children and was a great admirer of Philip II, king of Spain and the Netherlands. He studied law at the University of Dole. On 15 March 1580, King Philip had offered a reward of 25,000 crowns to anyone who killed William the Silent, to whom he referred as a "pest on the whole of Christianity and the enemy of the human race".
After the reward offered by Philip was published, Gérard left for Luxembourg, where he learned that Juan de Jáuregui had already been preparing to attempt the assassination, but this attempt did not succeed. In March 1584 he went to Trier, where he put his plan before the regent of the Jesuits, but another Jesuit convinced him to change his original scheme and go to the prince of Parma. In Tournai, after holding counsel with a Franciscan, Father Gery, Gérard wrote a letter, a copy of which was deposited with the guardian of the convent, and the original presented personally to the Prince of Parma. In the letter Gérard wrote, in part, "The vassal ought always to prefer justice and the will of the king to his own life."
At first the prince thought him unfit but after consulting Haultepenne and others with the letter he was assigned to Christoffel d'Assonleville, who spoke with Gérard, and asked him to put this in writing, which he did on 11 April 1584. He requested absolution from the prince of Parma "as he was about to keep company for some time with heretics and atheists, and in some sort to conform himself to their customs".
For his first expenses he begged for 50 crowns, which were refused. "I will provide myself out of my own purse", Gérard told Assonleville, "and within six weeks you will hear of me." Assonleville responded: "Go forth, my son ... and if you succeed in your enterprise, the King will fulfill all his promises, and you will gain an immortal name besides." On Sunday, 8 July 1584, Gérard loitered in the courtyard of the Prinsenhof examining the premises. A halberdier asked him why he was waiting there. He excused himself by saying that in his present shabby clothing and without new shoes he was unfit to join the congregation in the church opposite. The halberdier unsuspectingly arranged a gift of 50 crowns for Gérard, from the Prince of Orange himself, who the following morning purchased a pair of pistols from a soldier, haggling the price for a long time because the soldier couldn't supply the particular chopped bullets or slugs he wanted.
On 10 July 1584, as William the Silent climbed the stairs to the second floor, he was spoken to by the Welsh captain Roger Williams, who knelt before him. William put his hand on the bowed head of the old captain, at which moment Gérard jumped out of a dark corner. He drew his weapons and fired two shots at the stadtholder. William the Silent collapsed. His sister knelt beside him, but it was too late. Asked whether he commended his soul to Christ, he answered in the affirmative. His last words were, Mon Dieu, ayez pitié de moi et de mon pauvre peuple ("My God, have mercy on me and on my poor people").
Gérard fled through a side door and ran across a narrow lane, pursued by Roger Williams. Gérard had almost reached the ramparts, from which he intended to jump into the moat. On the other side a saddled horse stood ready. A pig's bladder around his waist was intended to help keep him afloat. However, he stumbled over a heap of rubbish. A servant and a halberdier of the prince who had raced after him caught him. When called a traitor by his captors, he is said to have replied, "I am no traitor; I am a loyal servant of my lord." "Which lord?", they asked. "Of my lord and master, the king of Spain". At the same time more pages and halberdiers of the prince appeared and dragged him back to the house under a rain of fists and beatings with the butt of a sword. Hearing his assailants chatter and convinced he heard the prince was still alive, he cried "Cursed be the hand that missed!"
Trial, torture, and execution
At the house he immediately underwent a preliminary examination before the city magistrates. Upon being interrogated by the magistrates, he reportedly showed neither despair nor contrition, but rather a quiet exultation, stating: "Like David, he had slain Goliath of Gath."
At his trial, Gérard was sentenced to be brutally - even by the standards of that time - killed. The magistrates decreed that the right hand of Gérard should be burned off with a red-hot iron, that his flesh should be torn from his bones with pincers in six different places, that he should be quartered and disemboweled alive, his heart torn from his bosom and flung in his face, and that, finally, his head should be taken off.
Gérard's torture was also very brutal. On the first night of his imprisonment Gérard was hung on a pole and lashed with a whip. After that his wounds were smeared with honey and a goat was brought to lick the honey off his skin with his rough tongue. The goat however refused to touch the body of the sentenced. After this and other tortures he was left to pass the night with his hands and feet bound together, like a ball, so sleep would be difficult. During the following three days, he was repeatedly mocked and hung on a pole with his hands tied behind his back. Then a weight of 300 metric pounds (150 kg) was attached to each of his big toes for half an hour. After this half hour Gérard was fitted with shoes made of well-oiled, uncured dog skin; the shoes were two fingers shorter than his feet. In this state he was put before a fire. When the shoes warmed up, they contracted, crushing the feet inside them to stumps. When the shoes were removed, his half-broiled skin was torn off. After his feet were damaged, his armpits were branded. After that he was dressed in a shirt soaked in alcohol. Then burning bacon fat was poured over him and sharp nails were stuck between the flesh and the nails of his hands and feet. Gérard is said to have remained calm during his torture. On 14 July 1584, Gérard was executed.
Philip II gave Gérard's parents, instead of the reward of 25,000 crowns, three country estates in Lievremont, Hostal, and Dampmartin in the Franche-Comté, and the family was raised to the peerage. Philip II would later offer the estates to Philip William, Orange's son and the next Prince of Orange, provided the prince continue to pay a fixed portion of the rents to the family of his father's murderer; the notion was rejected with scorn. The estates remained with the Gérard family. The apostolic vicar Sasbout Vosmeer tried to have Gérard canonized, to which end he removed the dead man's head and showed it to church officials in Rome, but the idea was rejected.