Posts filed under 'Arts and Literature'

326: Crispus and Fausta, incestuous lovers?

Add comment July 23rd, 2016 Headsman

On an uncertain date perhaps around late July of 321,* the Roman emperor Constantine the Great had his son and also his wife mysteriously put to death.

It’s mysterious because besides execution, Constantine had a damnatio memoriae passed over his former family to bury any record of their sins in Time’s obscurity. These edicts didn’t always work … but in this case, if there were any ancient who dared to record what happened, that illicit account did not survive its journey from antiquity.

But it was surely a shocking scandal in its time.

Crispus was Constantine’s first-born son and very much in the father’s favor. He was the child of a wife or concubine named Minervina. In 307, Constantine put this woman aside to make a more politically expedient marriage to Fausta, the daughter of Diocletian‘s retired-now-unretired co-emperor Maximian who with his son Maxentius held sway in Italy at that moment of the Roman Tetrarchy‘s ongoing collapse.**

Although Crispus didn’t offer his dad much in this situation by way of family alliances, Constantine kept him in his favor — by all appearances grooming him as an heir. Call it paying it forward: as a young man, Constantine himself had been in a similar position when his father Constantius dumped Constantine’s peasant mother in favor of an imperial marriage. That moment might have strangled a world-historic career before it even began, but Constantius instead chose to keep Constantine in paternal good favor.

So it went with Crispus — for a while.

In 317, Constantine, now emperor in the western part of the empire,† made Crispus Caesar; the boy ruled in Gaul and Germania for several years, thrashing barbarian tribes as he ought. Dad, meanwhile, was maneuvering towards victory over his eastern opposite number Licinius, with Crispus contributing an important naval victory in 324.

The young man (in his twenties at this time; his precise year of birth is uncertain) seemed on his way to a scintillating future.


Bronze coin from the mint of Rome depicting Crispus.

Things went pear-shaped suddenly in 326 when his father had him executed without any kind of warning that survives in the scant records available to us — and not only Crispus, but also Constantine’s own wife, that Fausta whose marriage might have threatened the boy’s status.

We don’t know why but the rumor as trafficked by the much later Byzantine historian Zosimus suggests a possible Parisina and Ugo scenario: “He put to death his son Crispus, styled Caesar, on suspicion of debauching his mother-in-law Fausta, without any regard to the ties of nature … [and] causing a bath to be heated to an extraordinary degree, he shut up Fausta in it, and a short time after took her out dead.”

It is down to conjecture what one ought to make of this nth-hand scandal-mongering; for impugning someone’s character one can hardly do better than an incest accusation. The story does appear to fit the few available facts, however, and Fausta was much closer in age to Crispus than to Constantine. It might also be noteworthy that three of Fausta’s sons went on to become Emperor and one daughter Empress but none of them ever rehabilitated mom.

Damned memory be damned, Crispus was rediscovered during the Renaissance and favored with several dramatic renditions embellishing the young man as a tragic hero, often with speculation that he was wrongly condemned to Constantine’s everlasting shame.‡ The events surrounding Crispus’s death being almost entirely obscured, writers could really go nuts with it; for example, Sir Walter Scott‘s Count Robert of Paris (set in Constantinople during the Crusades) features the story of an entirely fictitious penance built into subsequent Byzantine execution rituals by a remorseful Constantine:

But the death-blow had no sooner struck the innocent youth, than his father obtained proof of the rashness with which he had acted. He had at this period been engaged in constructing the subterranean parts of the Blacquernal palace, which his remorse appointed to contain a record of his paternal grief and contrition. At the upper part of the staircase, called the Pit of Acheron, he caused to be constructed a large chamber, still called the Hall of Judgment, for the purpose of execution. A passage through an archway in the upper wall leads from the hall to the place of misery, where the axe, or other engine, is disposed for the execution of state prisoners of consequence. Over this archway was placed a species of marble altar, surmounted by an image of the unfortunate Crispus — the materials were gold, and it bore the memorable inscription, TO MY SON, WHOM I RASHLY CONDEMNED, AND TOO HASTILY EXECUTED. When constructing this passage, Constantine made a vow, that he himself and his posterity, being reigning Emperors, would stand beside the statue of Crispus, at the time when any individual of their family should be led to execution, and before they suffered him to pass from the Hall of Judgment to the Chamber of Death, that they should themselves be personally convinced of the truth of the charge under which he suffered.

* Approximate times around the spring and summer of 326 have been proposed by various authors based on the very vague allusions of ancient sources. This author argues that we can more precisely triangulate Crispus’s fall by Constantine’s 326 journey from his new capital in the east to Rome: an imperial mint traveled with him, striking coins as it went — and some of those coins show Crispus. His presence there indicates that Crispus must have been alive as the procession reached Rome on July 21, 326, but he disappears from them immediately thereafter.

** The History of Podcast narrates this period, with Constantine’s rise into political relevance in episode 130.

† The Tetrarchy was still tetrarching along pending Constantine’s victory over all: the system featured separate senior emperors East and West each dignified Augustus, and each Augustus had a junior fellow-emperor and heir titled Caesar. Constantine was Augustus of the West, and Crispus was a Caesar.

‡ Fausta tends to get somewhat shorter shrift than her putative lover. Crispus’s presence in the literary culture would appear to make him the namesake of the Boston American Revolution martyr Crispus Attucks. African-descended men in North America often carried Roman names, though “Crispus” was by no means a common one.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Italy,Notably Survived By,Put to the Sword,Roman Empire,Royalty,Scandal,Sex,Soldiers,Uncertain Dates,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1617: Eleonora Galigai, Marie de’ Medici favorite

1 comment July 8th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1617, Italian noblewoman Eleonora Galigai was beheaded in Paris for witchcraft.

Continuing the French crown’s glorious tradition of importing dubious Italians in the train of a Medici, Eleonora (also known as Leonora or Dianora) shipped over from Tuscany with her mistress Marie de’ Medici when the latter was dynastically married off to Henri IV. Like many in its time it was a marriage of convenience: Henri brought the kingdom — and Marie the money.


Detail view (click for the full panoramic panel) of Peter Paul Rubens‘s Coronation of Marie de’ Medici in [the Basilica of] St. Denis, part of a cycle of Marie de’ Medici paintings Rubens produced on the queen’s commission beginning in 1622.

The coronation depicted above occurred on May 13, 1610 after ten quarrelsome years of marriage, and it was noteworthy timing (some thought suspicious timing) because her husband was assassinated the very next day, leaving Marie to rule France in the stead of her eight-year-old firsborn Louis XIII.

To the boundless irritation of France’s native optimates, the import queen now bestowed an incommensurate favor on her own people, and were the French nobility to draw up their bill of particulars for us the very first name might be Eleonora Galigai’s husband.

This character, Concino Concini by name, was the quick-witted son of a Florentine notary who had hustled his way into that same nuptial entourage. Marrying Eleonora, who was one of Marie’s favorites, put him squarely in the limelight among the regal expats; indeed it was he who had the honor of informing Marie of her late husband’s murder with the cold words “L’hanno ammazzato”: they killed him.

Now (runs an English traveler’s epistle), Marie’s “Countenance came to shine so strongly upon him, that he became her only Confident and Favourite, insomuch that she made him Marquis of Ancre, one of the twelve Mareschals of France, Governor of Normandy; and conferr’d divers other Honours and Offices of Trust upon him.” He lived with his wife in splendor at the Louvre, both of them in the constant orbit of the queen whom they dominated.

Haughty, insolent, low-born, foreign, and possibly complicit in regicide, D’Ancre was widely loathed in France; certainly he had few greater enemies than the growing young king, who would already have been disposed to chafe under his mother’s regency. In Louis’s eyes, this adventurer-marquis was both emblem of his mother’s misrule and (as Marshal of France) a substantive roadblock to his own power.

At last in 1617 — not yet 15 years of age — Louis seized his own realm* by having D’Ancre ambushed crossing in front of the Louvre and murdered by palace guards. Afterwards, a crowd long hostile to the noxious favorite brutally vented its rage on his naked corpse, gleefully shouting at Eleonora those words Concino had made so notorious: l’hanno ammazzato! They were really baying for her blood, too.


17th century French engraving.

And they got it.

With France in hand and public opinion at his back — “I cannot represent to the king one thousandth part of joy of all these people who are exalting him to heaven for having delivered the earth from this miserable burden,” one toady reported; “I can’t tell you in what execration this public pest was held” — Louis’s party began purging the remaining dregs of his mother’s regency.** They soon shut up Eleonora in the Bastille, and had her charged as a sorceress.

* This coup was naturally big news in England as well; there’s evidence of a now-lost play about it within weeks of D’Ancre’s murder.

** The eminence grise himself, Cardinal Richelieu, first attained the summit of the state as a loyal aide to Marie and Concino. Briefly banished from Paris in the wake of Louis’s coup, Richelieu bided his time and won his way back into the confidence of the young king with whom he was to become so closely identified.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Nobility,Political Expedience,Power,Public Executions,Witchcraft,Women

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1453: The garrison of Poucques, Jacques de Lalaing’s cannonball killers

Add comment July 5th, 2016 Headsman

On or about this date* in 1453, the Burgundians captured the fortress of Poucques (Poeke) during the revolt of Ghent, and put its entire garrison to summary death.

It was merely one of the appetizers the Burgundians had to chew off en route to devouring the main course at the Battle of Gavere, where the revolt was decisively crushed.**

While the battle itself was a footnote — sorry, slaughtered garrison! — it’s remembered for claiming the life of the Burgundian lord Jacques de Lalaing (English Wikipedia entry | French) — the Michael Jordan of 15th century tournament combat, “le chevalier sans reproche.”

About 32 at his death, the “Bon Chevalier” was a member of the prestigious (and still-extant) Order of the Golden Fleece on the strength of a remarkable 1440s ramble around European where he would theatrically stage combats with local knights and never fail to win them. Celebrity and emoluments followed in their turn.

“Above all else, he knew the business of arms,” sighs a chronicle detailing his feats, and on its evidence it would be difficult to disagree.

He achieved his fame besting great champions in Aragon, Castile, Scotland, and Flanders, then set up a pas d’armes — the Monty Python-esque open challenge/invitation to battle all comers who dared him at a set location. In Jacques’s case the challenge lasted a full year at a statue of a weeping woman from which our pugilist derived the brand the Passage of the Fountain of Tears.

These were not intended to be fatal bouts but they featured expert fighters with real weapons so life and limb certainly stood in peril; occasionally our protagonist even deliberately courted danger by suiting up in only partial armor. Some challengers managed to emerge with a satisfying draw, but none could defeat him. At his last tournament in 1452, he even jousted the young future Duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold. (There’s an enjoyable detailed recap of Jacques’s career here.)

As this warrior par excellence was simultaneously noted for the perfection of his outside-of-armor knightly conduct — fidelity, generosity, piety, swooning ladies — Jacques de Lalaing had a fair claim on his contemporaries’ admiration as the very apex of the age of chivalry.

And his own fate poignantly embodied that of his era.

Studying the Burgundian court to which our Walloon nobleman adhered when not doing his gladiator road show, Dutch historian Johan Huizinga reckoned this 15th century the “autumn of the middle ages” — a decadence flowering in decay.

“This hero-worship of the declining Middle Ages finds its literary expression in the biography of the perfect knight,” Huizinga wrote — like our Jacques de Lalaing, “that anachronistic knight-errant” of “fantastic and useless projects.”

The realities of court life or a military career offered too little opportunity for the fine make-belief of heroism and love, which filled the soul. So they had to be acted. The staging of the tournament, therefore, had to be that of romance; that is to say, the imaginary world of Arthur,† where the fancy of a fairy-tale was enhanced by the sentimentality of courtly love.

A Passage of Arms of the fifteenth century is based on a fictitious case of chivalrous adventure, connected with an artificial scene called by a romantic name, as, for instance, the Fountain of Tears or the Tree of Charlemagne. [the latter was another famous pas d’armes defended in 1443 by another Burgundian knight, Pierre de Bauffremont -ed.] … There is an unmistakable connection between these primitive forms of warlike and erotic sport and the children’s play of forfeits. One of the rules of the “Chapters” of the Fountain of Tears runs thus: he who, in a combat, is unhorsed, will during a year wear a gold bracelet, until he finds the lady who holds the key to it and who can free him, on condition that he shall serve her.

Jacques de Lalaing and his ritual delights came to a savage end at the siege of Poucques when he had the apt misfortune to be struck by a ball from a defending veuglaire. The romantic master of the lists thereby became one of the first European elites slain by a cannon: for a junction to modernity one could do a lot worse than this moment.‡

The untimely end of Jacques happens to have hit the news in recent months when the Getty Museum acquired a precious Renaissance manuscript illustration of the event by Simon Bening, never previously exhibited.

In this extraordinarily bright and detailed miniature, our courteous doomed glances upward at the citadel, forming a sharp compositional diagonal with the fatal cannonball speeding towards him … and the fiery plume belched by the chivalry-smashing device that has hurled it.


Detail view (click for the full image) of the Bening miniature.

* The precise date on which this minor siege concluded is elusive and perhaps ambiguous; I’m basing Executed Today‘s dating on the July 13, 1453 correspondence in this archive reporting that “Poucques est tombée en son pouvoir le 5 courant; qu’il a fait démanteler ce deux places fortes et livrer au dernier supplice leurs défenseurs.”

** Maybe so, but Ghent is still with us today whereas independent Burgundy would vanish within 30 years.

† The late 15th century also gives us the apotheosis of the Arthurian legend, Le Morte d’Arthur.

‡ Periodization fans should note that 1453 also marks the Ottoman capture of Constantinople.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Burgundy,Execution,France,History,Known But To God,Mature Content,No Formal Charge,Put to the Sword,Ripped from the Headlines,Soldiers,Summary Executions,The Worm Turns,Uncertain Dates,Wartime Executions

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1945: Mile Budak, Ustasha ideologue

Add comment June 7th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1945, seven former members of Croatia’s World War II Ustasha regime were hanged in Zagreb by Tito‘s postwar Yugoslav government — the morning after they had all been death-sentenced at a one-day military trial.*

Despite the presence of wartime Prime Minister Nikola Mandic (English Wikipedia entry | Croatian) in the batch, the marquee name was writer Mile Budak
(English Wikipedia entry | the far more detailed Croatian and German).

The “minister of culture with a machine gun” in the branding of his leftist literary contemporary Miroslav Krleza, Budak spent the interwar years writing hit novels valorizing the Croatian peasantry (The 1,000-page OgnjišteHearth — is the magnum opus) and also voluminous copy for far-right periodicals. Thanks to the latter activity, Budak endured an arrest, an attempted assassination, several years’ self-imposed exile to Italy, and (after his return) the murder of his wife.

Small wonder that when Germany broke off from the post-imperial Kingdom of Yugoslavia an “independent” Croatian puppet state, Budak signed up as its chief propagandist. Initially Minister of Education in 1941, he subsequently became its ambassador to Germany, and in 1943 its Foreign Minister.

He’s most notorious for the alleged aphorism “One third of the Serbs we will kill, one third expel, and the last third convert to Catholicism” — and though adherents widely dispute his authorship of any such phrase, Budak’s racial cosmology elevating Croatians (“an intersection of Slav and Gothic blood”) over their South Slav brethren was part of the intellectual scaffolding for his state’s wartime campaign of ethnic cleansing against Serbs. (It goes without saying that Jews and Roma were even more screwed.)

Judgments on the literary merit of Budak’s output appear to be driven heavily by the critic’s sympathy level with Budak’s politics. Post-independence Croatia has a robust far right that has often shown keen to rehabilitate the Ustasha, so it’s no surprise that Budak has been rediscovered as a writer and his name stapled to numerous streets in Croatia** and even to one in the Bosnian city Mostar — strictly in honor of his artistry and not the war business, mind you.

* Indeed, several — Mandic included — were only yielded up from British captivity in mid-May. (Link goes to a Croatian pdf)

** There’s one, for instance, in present-day nationalist enclave Knin — formerly the capital of the Serbian Krajina during the internecine 1990s wars. Knin’s capture and, er, ethnic reordering is the occasion celebrated on Croatia’s Victory Day holiday (August 5). It was for this operation that Croatian general Ante Gotovina was prosecuted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia; Gotovina’s eventual shock acquittal and release to a great nationalist orgy in Zagreb led Serbia to quit cooperation with the ICTY’s “selective justice”.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Croatia,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Heads of State,History,Intellectuals,Mass Executions,Politicians,Treason,War Crimes,Wartime Executions,Yugoslavia

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2011: Mehdi Farahj, photographed by Ebrahim Noroozi

1 comment May 26th, 2016 Headsman

Mehdi Farahj was hanged in Qazvin on this date in 2011 for a rape-murder spree that claimed five women’s lives.

Iranian photographer Ebrahim Noroozi shot scenes of this hanging as part of a stunning black-and-white series on public executions in Iran.

Noroozi gave an interview explaining his motivation and process — and allowing that the executions he attends “disgust me.”

Part of the Themed Set: The 2010s.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Iran,Murder,Public Executions,Rape,Serial Killers

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1650: James Graham. Earl of Montrose

Add comment May 21st, 2016 Headsman

On this day in 1650, James Graham, Earl of Montrose, was hanged in Edinburgh.

The tragic “Great Montrose” was renowned for his tactical genius on the battlefield during the civil wars that cost King Charles I both crown and head. Although Montrose would die as a royalist he first entered the lists in the 1630s’ Bishops’ War as part of the Covenanter army resisting the king’s bid to impose top-down religious governance on Scotland.

But Montrose was the moderate and post-Bisops War found himself a leading exponent of the pro-reconciliation faction, bitterly opposed by the chief of the Campbell clan, the Marquess of Argyll.

These two became the opposing poles for the ensuing civil war in Scotland, at once a local clan war and the vortex of a border-hopping conflict that sucked in Ireland and England too. Although Montrose, now King Charles’s lieutenant-general in Scotland, could kick tail in battle his faction was divided and ultimately outnumbered by the Covenanters. Montrose had to flee Scotland for exile in 1646.

The execution of Charles I opened the door for Montrose’s own untimely end, in one of those classic affairs of double-dealing. The exiled Charles II, having now inherited the claim, named Montrose his lieutenant in Scotland and dispatched his family’s longtime paladin back to native soil to try to raise an army. But even as he did so, he was negotiating with Argyll’s Covenanters, who saw a chance to make good their political and religious objectives by playing kingmaker with their former enemy.

So when Montrose landed in 1650, he found little support and was overwhelmed at the Battle of Carbisdale. After several days’ wandering he sought refuge with a former friend who he did not realize was now also on the government’s side, and was promptly arrested and given over to his enemies for execution and for posthumous indignities: his head was mounted on a pike atop Edinburgh’s Tolbooth, and his four limbs nailed to the gates of Stirling, Glasgow, Perth and Aberdeen.

After the end of Cromwell‘s Protectorate, and the actual restoration of Charles II, these scattered remains were gathered up and interred with reverence at St. Giles Cathedral. The present-day Dukes of Montrose are his direct descendants.

James Graham, Earl of Montrose and his execution have the still more considerable honor of a verse tribute by legendary dreadful poet William McGonagall. (Montrose himself was known to try his hand at poetry, too.)

The Execution of James Graham, Marquis of Montrose
A Historical Poem

‘Twas in the year of 1650, and on the twenty-first of May,
The city of Edinburgh was put into a state of dismay
By the noise of drums and trumpets, which on the air arose,
That the great sound attracted the notice of Montrose.

Who enquired at the Captain of the guard the cause of it,
Then the officer told him, as he thought most fit,
That the Parliament dreading an attempt might be made to rescue him,
The soldiers were called out to arms, and that had made the din.

Do I, said Montrose, continue such a terror still?
Now when these good men are about my blood to spill,
But let them look to themselves, for after I am dead,
Their wicked consciences will be in continual dread.

After partaking of a hearty breakfast, he commenced his toilet,
Which, in his greatest trouble, he seldom did forget.
And while in the act of combing his hair,
He was visited by the Clerk Register, who made him stare,

When he told him he shouldn’t be so particular with his head,
For in a few hours he would be dead;
But Montrose replied, While my head is my own I’ll dress it at my ease,
And to-morrow, when it becomes yours, treat it as you please.

He was waited upon by the Magistrates of the city,
But, alas! for him they had no pity.
He was habited in a superb cloak, ornamented with gold and silver lace;
And before the hour of execution an immense assemblage of people were round the place.

From the prison, bareheaded, in a cart, they conveyed him along the Watergate
To the place of execution on the High Street, where about thirty thousand people did wait,
Some crying and sighing, a most pitiful sight to see,
All waiting patiently to see the executioner hang Montrose, a man of high degree.

Around the place of execution, all of them were deeply affected,
But Montrose, the noble hero, seemed not the least dejected;
And when on the scaffold he had, says his biographer Wishart,
Such a grand air and majesty, which made the people start.

As the fatal hour was approaching when he had to bid the world adieu,
He told the executioner to make haste and get quickly through,
But the executioner smiled grimly, but spoke not a word,
Then he tied the Book of Montrose’s Wars round his neck with a cord.

Then he told the executioner his foes would remember him hereafter,
And he was as well pleased as if his Majesty had made him Knight of the Garter;
Then he asked to be allowed to cover his head,
But he was denied permission, yet he felt no dread.

He then asked leave to keep on his cloak,
But was also denied, which was a most grievous stroke;
Then he told the Magistrates, if they could invent any more tortures for him,
He would endure them all for the cause he suffered, and think it no sin.

On arriving at the top of the ladder with great firmness,
His heroic appearance greatly did the bystanders impress,
Then Montrose asked the executioner how long his body would be suspended,
Three hours was the answer, but Montrose was not the least offended.

Then he presented the executioner with three or four pieces of gold,
Whom he freely forgave, to his honour be it told,
And told him to throw him off as soon as he uplifted his hands,
While the executioner watched the fatal signal, and in amazement stands.

And on the noble patriot raising his hands, the executioner began to cry,
Then quickly he pulled the rope down from the gibbet on high,
And around Montrose’s neck he fixed the rope very gently,
And in an instant the great Montrose was launched into eternity.

Then the spectators expressed their disapprobation by general groan,
And they all dispersed quietly, and wended their way home
And his bitterest enemies that saw his death that day,
Their hearts were filled with sorrow and dismay.

Thus died, at the age of thirty-eight, James Graham, Marquis of Montrose,
Who was brought to a premature grave by his bitter foes;
A commander who had acquired great military glory
In a short space of time, which cannot be equalled in story.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Nobility,Power,Public Executions,Scotland,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1619: Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, laandsadvocaat

Add comment May 13th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1619, Dutch stadtholder Maurice of Orange beheaded his political and religious rival, jurist Johan van Oldenbarnevelt.

Both men had in their day been instrumental to winning the independence (de facto, if not yet de jure) that the Low Countries were already enjoying: laandsadvocaat van Oldenbarnevelt as the commanding political personality holding together the potentially fractious provinces in the 1580s and 1590s; stadtholder Maurice as the great general* of those provinces, whose sword-arm in the 1590s and 1600s more or less staked out the borders of the present-day Netherlands.

Thanks to their good offices, the once-desperate Dutch Revolt had triumphed in all but name, and in the 1610s paused to savor the fruits of victory during the Twelve Years’ Truce.**

Increasingly after 1600, the two developed a rivalry that was both personal, and political, and religious — for in their prominence they also became the chief exponents of the neighborhood schism, van Oldenbarnevelt championing the Remonstrants or Arminians (they remonstrated against some Calvinist doctrines) and Maurice upholding the orthodox Counter-Remonstrants or Gomarist side. The conflict was no joke; the States of Holland at van Oldenbarnevelt’s urging went so far as to hire its own mercenary army, knowing that it could not trust the national army commanded by the Counter-Remonstrant William. William secured the support of the States-General to forcibly disband this rival militia in July 1618† — and from that point until his death in 1625, William was the strongman in the Low Countries.

And van Oldenbarnevelt, well — he got the kangaroo court. See?


Detail view (click for the full image) of Satire on the trial of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, by Cornelis Saftleven (1663). Saftleven liked painting animals.

Tried by a special (dubiously legal) court comprised of enemies, the grizzled pol was condemned to death as a traitor. On May 13, the day he went to the block at the Binnenhof in The Hague, his home province the States of Holland saluted him as “a man of great business, activity, memory and wisdom — yes, extra-ordinary in every respect.”

And it added a passage from Corinthians:

Die staet siet toe dat hij niet en valle

He who stands, let him take care that he does not fall


Detail view (click for the full image) of a 17th century engraving of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt’s beheading.

Van Oldenbarnevelt’s son Reinier, lord of Groeneveld was beheaded in 1623 for conspiring to assassinate Maurice in revenge for his father’s execution.

* Maurice of Orange was recognized in his time as perhaps Europe’s greatest and most innovative commander. His introduction of infantry volley fire and highly disciplined drill regimens revolutionized the battlefield — and made the Dutch very difficult for their Spanish masters to handle.

The Indian Ocean island-nation Mauritius, discovered by Dutch explorers in 1598, was named for him.

** Posterity has the luxury of hindsight knowledge that although war would resume for the Low Countries in 1621, the peace of Westphalia would secure an independent Netherlands. However, already during the Twelve Years’ Truce the place was acting as an independent country, and some other states formally recognized it as such.

† One of van Oldenbarnevelt’s supporters was international law pioneer Hugo Grotius. Grotius was clapped in prison with van Oldenbarnevelt’s fall in 1618; he famously escaped this dungeon in 1621 by hiding in a chest of books and lived out his scribbling days in France.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Lawyers,Netherlands,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Treason

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316 BCE: Olympias, mother of Alexander the Great

Add comment April 17th, 2016 Headsman

On an unknown date about the spring of 316 BCE, Alexander the Great’s snake-worshipping mother Olympias surrendered to the siege of the former regent’s ambitious son — whereupon she was put to summary death.

The Epirote princess married Philip II of Macedon. Though Philip had put her aside for a younger queen, Olympias adroitly maneuvered her brilliant son* Alexander to the throne from which he conquered Babylonia and Persia, and history is not confident that she stopped short of regicide to secure Alexander’s precedence.

Olympias was famed for her snake-handlin: Plutarch says that Philip’s interest in her waned when he beheld “a serpent … lying stretched out by the side of Olympias as she slept,” which led him to fear “that she was the partner of a superior being.” Sigmund Freud, eat your heart out.

Sired by the gods or no, Olympias’s son certainly outstripped his father — but once Alexander’s coruscating star burned itself out, Olympias had another kind of snakepit to contend with: the conqueror’s former generals jockeying for preeminence in their engorged empire.

The patina of dynastic legitimacy Olympias maintained as Alexander’s kin was not sufficient to prevent the situation collapsing into war; indeed, we have met this this civil strife previously in these pages, when Olympias had the upper hand in a battle in 317 BCE and ordered the execution of Alexander’s mentally disabled half-brother. Olympias gets her share of stick as old time Macedonia’s deadly ophiomormous femme fatale, but this was cruelty with a purpose: the addled king was the catspaw in whose name her foe Cassander (as his father Antipater before him) claimed power as “regent”.

Cassander, a mate of Alexander dating back to their Aristotle study group days, was not captured in this affair, nor was he driven from the field by it. Soon thereafter he turned the tables and trapped Olympias in Pydna, where she was obliged to surrender to his discretion. That same logic of murder in statecraft turned now against the queen. First century (BCE) Greek historian Diodorus Siculus:

Although Cassander had shut Olympias into Pydna in Macedonia, he was not able to assault the walls because of the winter storms, but by encamping about the city, throwing up a palisade from sea to sea, and blockading the port, he prevented any who might wish to aid the queen from doing so. And as supplies were rapidly exhausted, he created such famine among those within that they were completely incapacitated. In truth, they were brought to such extreme need that they gave each soldier five choenices of grain per month, sawed up wood and fed the sawdust to the imprisoned elephants, and slaughtered the pack animals and horses for food. While the situation of the city was so serious and while Olympias was still clinging to hopes of rescue from outside, the elephants died from lack of nourishment, the horsemen that were not in the ranks and did not receive any food whatever nearly all perished, and no small number of the soldiers also met the same fate. Some of the non-Greeks, their natural needs overcoming their scruples, found flesh to eat by collecting the bodies of the dead. Since the city was being quickly filled with corpses, those in charge of the queen’s company, though they buried some of the bodies, threw others over the city wall. The sight of these was horrible, and their stench was unbearable, not merely to ladies who were of the queen’s court and addicted to luxury, but also to those of the soldiers who were habituated to hardship.

As spring came on and their want increased from day to day, many of the soldiers gathered together and appealed to Olympias to let them go because of the lack of supplies. Since she could neither issue any food at all nor break the siege, she permitted them to withdraw. Cassander, after welcoming all the deserters and treating them in most friendly fashion, sent them to the various cities; for he hoped that when the Macedonians learned from them how weak Olympias was, they would despair of her cause. And he was not mistaken in his surmise about what would happen: those who had resolved to fight on the side of the besieged forces changed their minds and went over to Cassander; and the only men in Macedonia to preserve their loyalty were Aristonoüs and Monimus, of whom Aristonoüs was ruler of Amphipolis and Monimus of Pella. But Olympias, when she saw that most of her friends had gone over to Cassander and that those who remained were not strong enough to come to her aid, attempted to launch a quinquereme and by this means to save herself and her friends. When, however, a deserter brought news of this attempt to the enemy and Cassander sailed up and took the ship, Olympias, recognizing that her situation was beyond hope, sent envoys to treat of terms. When Cassander gave his opinion that she must put all her interests into his hands, she with difficulty persuaded him to grant the single exception that he guarantee her personal safety. As soon as he had gained possession of the city, he sent men to take over Pella and Amphipolis. Now Monimus, the ruler of Pella, on hearing the fate of Olympias, surrendered his city; but Aristonoüs at first was minded to cling to his position … [until] Olympias wrote to him demanding his loyalty and ordering him to surrender, he perceived that it was necessary to do as ordered and delivered the city to Cassander, receiving pledges for his own safety.

Cassander, seeing that Aristonoüs was respected because of the preferment he had received from Alexander, and being anxious to put out of the way any who were able to lead a revolt, caused his death through the agency of the kinsfolk of Cratevas. He also urged the relatives of those whom Olympias had slain to accuse the aforesaid woman in the general assembly of the Macedonians. They did as he had ordered; and, although Olympias was not present and had none to speak in her defence, the Macedonians condemned her to death. Cassander, however, sent some of his friends to Olympias advising her to escape secretly, promising to provide a ship for her and to carry her to Athens. He acted thus, not for the purpose of securing her safety, but in order that she, condemning herself to exile and meeting death on the voyage, might seem to have met a punishment that was deserved; for he was acting with caution both because of her rank and because of the fickleness of the Macedonians. As Olympias, however, refused to flee but on the contrary was ready to be judged before all the Macedonians, Cassander, fearing that the crowd might change its mind if it heard the queen defend herself and was reminded of all the benefits conferred on the entire nation by Alexander and Philip, sent to her two hundred soldiers who were best fitted for such a task, ordering them to slay her as soon as possible. They, accordingly, broke into the royal house, but when they beheld Olympias, overawed by her exalted rank, they withdrew with their task unfulfilled. But the relatives of her victims, wishing to curry favour with Cassander as well as to avenge their dead, murdered the queen, who uttered no ignoble or womanish plea.

Such was the end of Olympias, who had attained to the highest dignity of the women of her day, having been daughter of Neoptolemus, king of the Epirotes, sister of the Alexander who made a campaign into Italy, and also wife of Philip, who was the mightiest of all who down to this time had ruled in Europe, and mother of Alexander, whose deeds were the greatest and most glorious.

Cassander would emerge from all this mess in a sturdy enough position to declare himself king. His sons, however, were unable to sustain the family in power and this particular general proved merely the precursor of a different general‘s more successful post-Alexander dynasty.

A monumental tomb recently discovered in the Kasta burial mound at Amphipolis — said to beggar the gorgeous Vergina tomb in scale and grandeur — has been speculatively associated with Olympias and/or Alexander. (“Hopefully” might be the better word, since the bare hint of such a link would be a boon for the tourism sector.) The site is still being excavated, and is not yet open to the public.

* Legend holds that Olympias gave birth to Alexander on the same day Herostratus torched the Temple of Artemis.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Execution,Greece,History,No Formal Charge,Power,Royalty,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates,Wartime Executions,Women

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1781: Diego Corrientes Mateos, Spanish social bandit

Add comment March 30th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1781, the Spanish social bandit Diego Corrientes Mateos was hanged and quartered in Seville.

A robber who plied the roads from Portugal to his native Seville, Corrientes (English Wikpedia entry | Spanish) was said to be of farmworker stock himself. His consequent good treatment of the rural common folk enabled him to operate with great freedom and situated him as a Robin Hood character; folklore has consequently inflated the valor of his exploits and the bile of Sheriff of Nottinghamesque pursuers like the lieutenant governor of Seville. For example, surprising his adversary on one occasion, Corrientes is supposed to have remarked, “I have learned that you boast you will be able to capture me.”

“Yes, and hang you,” shot back Francisco de Bruna.

“Then I must spare your life so you can fulfill your promise,” the sporting Corrietes allowed. (The reader will discern that Francisco de Bruna soon made good his threat.)

By the 19th century, he’d become a positive fixture of romantic and nationalist literature.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Dismembered,Execution,Famous,Hanged,History,Outlaws,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Spain,Theft

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Unspecified date: Mariotto Mignarelli, proto-Romeo

Add comment March 21st, 2016 Headsman

On a never-specified date in 15th century Siena, the tragic lover Mariotto Mignarelli was beheaded in Masuccio Salernitano‘s story Mariotto and Ganozza — the apparent wellspring (via an English interlocutor) for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Masuccio’s tale is itself an Italian Renaissance gloss on an old Ovid story; its outline will be instantly recognizable to devotees of the Capulets and Montagues. But instead of dueling suicides, Masuccio ends one of the star-crossed lovers with an executioner’s blade.

In Mariotto and Ganozza, which can be enjoyed for free in the original Italian here or here, the young lovers secretly wed only to find “that wicked and hostile fortune reversed all their present and future desires.”


These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder …

“Fortune’s” inscrutable hand turns out to be that of Mariotto himself, who gets into a fight with some other nobleman and, slaying him, must flee into exile. Posterity must excuse Mariotto/Romeo his hotheadedness, for were he not the type to wreck his own life by murdering a guy in a street fight he also wouldn’t be the type to pursue forbidden tragic romance. That’s art.


Fortune’s fool …

“How great was the supreme grief of the two most wretched lovers, so lately wed, and how bitter their tears at the thought of what they believed to be their endless separation, he alone who has been pricked by such wounds can truly tell.” (Translation source.)

“So deep and bitter it was, that at their last parting, they seemed for a long while to have died in each other’s arms.”

It next comes to pass that Gianozza’s father, ignorant of her secret marriage to the town fugitive, arranges a match for her. This development leads our Juliet figure to seek out the aid of the friar who has secretly wed them in a scheme that is precisely Shakespearean.

The friar “made up a certain water with certain concoctions of various powders that, when the draught was ready and she had drunk it, it would not only make her sleep for three days, but seem to be really dead.” With this potion they stage Gianozza’s death; then, the friar secretly steals her hibernating “corpse” from its tomb, revives her, and packs her off to find her beloved.

He, of course, has separately received word of Gianozza’s death — and (also of course) the courier that had been dispatched pre-death elixir to clue him into the plan has been waylaid by pirates and left his essential plot spoilers at the bottom of the sea.

Disconsolate, Mariotto returns to Siena with the unproductive object of mooning over Gianozza’s grave and “weep[ing] as if their lives were ended.” Don’t worry, he has a backup plan! “If by misfortune he was recognized, he thought he would gladly be condemned as a murderer, knowing that she was already dead whom he loved more than himself and who loved him with equal love.”

This works as well as you expect, albeit with less panache than Shakespeare’s crypt climax: Mariotto gets caught in a transport of the macabre trying to break into Gianozza’s sepulcher, and is recognized as a condemned outlaw.

Before dawn, all Siena was full of the news, which reached the ears of the Court, who ordered the mayor to go and arrest him and quickly do that which the laws and the State commanded.

So, a prisoner in fetters, Mariotto was led to the palace of the mayor. When he was flogged, without needing long tortures, he faithfully confessed the cause of his desperate return. Though all alike had the greatest pity for him, and amongst the women he was bitterly wept for and thought the only perfect lover in the world, and each of them would have willingly redeemed him with her own life, yet he was at once condemned by the law to be beheaded. When the time arrived, without his friends or parents being able to aid him, the sentence was carried out.

Three days later, Gianozza — having reached Mariotto’s former refuge of exile and there learned of his misapprehension — turns up in Siena again only to discover that she is too late. Rather than stabbing herself to death right then and there as the Bard’s heroine would do, she shuts herself up in a convent “with intense grief and tears of blood and little food and no sleep, continually calling for her dear Mariotto, [and] in a very short time ended her wretched days.”

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Fictional,Italy,Murder,Myths,Nobility,Popular Culture,Sex,Torture,Uncertain Dates

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