Posts filed under 'The Worm Turns'

1388: Three evil counselors of Richard II

Add comment May 12th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1388, James Berners, John Beauchamp, and John Salisbury were convicted by the “Merciless Parliament” of treason, and put to immediate death.

You could say that relations between the branches of government were a bit on the frayed side, since crown and parliament had civil war for political primacy. Parliament won.

It just wasn’t quite one of those all-out, kill-you-when-we’re-done wars to depose the king outright. (That would come later.) “We do not rebel or arm ourselves against the King except in order to instruct him,” one of the rebelling Lord Appellant told His Majesty.

“Instructing” Richard II meant politically isolating him and then mercilessly — hence the resulting parliament’s name — attainting his aides and allies for treason.

So all that spring, young Richard II helplessly “presided” over a parliament where his supporters were condemned on trumped-up charges.

This date was the turn for Sir John Beauchamp of Holt and Sir James Berners (or Barnes), two guys noble enough to suffer “merely” beheading, plus Sir John Salisbury, who was far enough down England’s class hierarchy that he got to endure the full drawing and quartering treatment.



Berners may have been the father of a 15th century prioress and author, Juliana Berners.

This woman wasn’t the type to keep to her cloister and meditate: Berners wrote books on her vigorous pastimes of heraldry, hunting, and hawking. Her Treatise of Fishing with an Angle remains one of the seminal books for the sport of angling.

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1474: Peter von Hagenbach, war crimes milestone

2 comments May 9th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1474, Peter von Hagenbach was tried in a remarkable judicial proceeding in the Rhine city of Breisach, found guilty, and publicly beheaded by the end of the day.

This Alsatian knight in the train of Charles the Bold had been installed by that Burgundian duke as his satrap in in the Upper Rhine, in lands that Burgundy held on lease from the Habsburgs.

He made a legendary villain of himself in the early 1470s:

His regime of arbitrariness and terror extended to murder, rape, illegal taxation and wanton confiscation of pivate property, and the victim[s] of his depredations included inhabitants of neighbouring territories as well as Swiss merchants on their way to and from the Frankfurt fair … the outrages of Hagenbach, remarkable even by the standards of the late fifteenth century, greatly contributed to forging what, until then, had been considered impossible, that is, alliances against Burgundy by all her neighbours: Austria, Berne, France, and the towns and knights of the Upper Rhine, all formerly at loggerheads with one another.

After overturning Burgundian authority in the Upper Rhine, that unique alliance aired its many grievances with Hagenbach at a unique tribunal. There, the ex-knight was prosecuted before judges drawn from the several Germanic and Swiss principalities who had allied against him.


Breisach: seems like a nice place to oppress. (cc) image from Routard5.

This unusual procedure gained a special prominence in the 20th century postwar era as historical precedent for “war crimes” prosecutions. Since that time, there’s been a going debate over just what kind of precedent it really makes.

Executed Today is pleased to welcome Prof. Gregory Gordon of the University of North Dakota law school — a rising star in international human rights law.

Gordon wrote a 2012 paper re-examining the Hagenbach case attempting to reconcile both the legal and historiographical perspectives on Peter von Hagenbach.

ET: You characterize the present-day understanding of the Hagenbach case as proceeding from Georg Schwarzenberger‘s recovery of the incident further to providing legitimizing precedent for the Nuremberg tribunals. Between 1474 and World War II, did anyone think of this case as one with a wider import for jurisprudence? (And if not, do we know anything about how Schwarzenberger unearthed it?)

GG: To the extent anyone did, from my research, it would have been historians, not jurists per se. Hagenbach was the object of a fair amount of historical scholarship but that had evolved over the years. In the initial period after the trial, Hagenbach was portrayed as the quintessential bogeyman. But over the centuries, historians began to view him in a different light. By 1945, a more nuanced view of Hagenbach had been established. I have not researched Schwarzenberger’s biography in great detail. So I’m not sure how his eureka moment arose. What is clear is that the Nuremberg trial caused him to focus on Hagenbach (my sense is that Hagenbach was fairly well known in Europe — his supposed mummified head was on display in an Upper Alsace museum, for example — but given the absence of anything resembling Nuremberg before Nuremberg, people tended to ignore the details of the Hagenbach legal proceedings).

And my sense is that Schwarzenberger had an agenda — he realized the case could help legitimize what many would claim to be illegitimate ex post facto law at Nuremberg. So he relied on the earlier historical accounts of the Hagenbach case (it seems he based his seminal Manchester Guardian article primarily on the account of French historian Prosper de Barante). And thus he created a fissure between legal scholars and contemporary historians.

Who tried Hagenbach, under what authority, and how were the different interested parties formally represented? Whose idea was all this? What can we tell of the public atmosphere surrounding the trial — was there bottom-up pressure to do this?

After the League of Constance (consisting of various regional polities fed up with Hagenbach) paid off his debt for him, Archduke Sigismund of Austria resumed control over the Upper Alsace territory mortgaged to Charles the Bold. And thus Sigismund made the decision to have Hagenbach tried by the international ad hoc tribunal (another inexplicable link in the chain: Hagenbach escaped lynch-mob justice on Easter Sunday, April 10, 1474 — only thanks to Breisach resident Friedrich Kappelar’s decision to arrest him and await instructions from Sigismund).

Diebold Schilling the Elder made this illustration of the proceedings for a chronicle in 1485.

Sigismund’s decision to convene an ad hoc international tribunal was utterly remarkable for the time. And it is not clear how or why Sigismund came up with it (although historians suggest it had something to do with the prominent position Hagenbach held as representative of the Duke of Burgundy).

Numerous representatives of sovereigns from around the region, twenty-eight in all — including sixteen knights, sat as part of this international ad hoc tribunal.

Eight of the judges were nominated by Breisach, and two by each of the other allied Alsatian and Upper Rhenanian towns [Strasbourg, Sélestat, Colmar, Basel, Thann, Kenzingen, Neuburg am Rhein, and Freiburg im Breisgau] as well as by Berne, a member of the Swiss Confederation, and Solothurn, allied with Berne.

In fact, each sovereign represented a member of the League of Constance (Berne being the only representative of the Swiss cantons).

Thomas Schutz, the chief magistrate of Ensisheim, was designated as the tribunal’s presiding judge. The nominal trial prosecutuor was the new Alsatian bailiff chosen by Sigismund to replace Hagenbach — Hermann von Eptingen. Eptingen, for his part, chose Heinrich Iselin, one of the commissioners from Basel (one of the League of Constance’s members), to present the prosecution’s case to the court. The other representative from Basel, Hans Irmy, took on Hagenbach’s representation. At some point later in the trial, Iselin resigned because, as the evidence came in, he felt the case lacked merit (and even made a motion to withdraw the charges). He was then replaced by Hildebrand Rasp. Hagenbach also requested additional attorneys and the tribunal assigned him two attorneys — one from Colmar and one from Selestat.

The trial was held in open air before the Breisach mayor’s residence and was attended by “a multitude” of people from Breisach and surrounding towns. It appears as if it were somewhat of a circus atmosphere.

Is there a degree to which the pre-modern characteristics of the belligerents — Burgundian duchies, Swiss cantons, the Holy Roman Empire patchwork — set a contradictory precedent for the postwar world?

Let me quote my paper:

Nothing in history leading up to that moment in 1474 would have suggested the remarkable course of action taken by Sigismund. It is tempting to see that decision as an historic anomaly that would not be repeated for centuries to come. But on closer inspection, Sigismund’s choice to hold a trial before an international court fits well within the historical narrative of that era.

It was a time of religious and political disintegration. The Holy Roman Empire was fading into irrelevance and the Catholic Church was on the verge of losing its European hegemony. It was the eve of the nation-state — a unique moment when the old collective structures were dying and the new ones had yet to be born. Given the interstitial political turbulence, the time was ripe for a plural approach to law enforcement in the cosmopolitan geographic center of Europe. Hagenbach’s inter-regional depredations, which helped forge a rare pan-Germanic consensus, provided the perfect forum to experiment with international justice during that fragmented time. The Westphalian order, already on the horizon, would foreclose any such future experiments until Nazi brutality put a chink in the Westphalian armor and inspired an unprecedented transnational justice operation in the wake of a truly global war. In that sense, although on much different scales, Breisach and Nuremberg have much in common. And should the nation-state ever manage to reassert its absolute supremacy again, Breisach will undoubtedly be on the lips of future international jurists seeking, as before, to end impunity at the expense of sovereignty.

You discuss a revisionist thesis about Hagenbach that essentially says he wasn’t a monster, and even that he was a forward-thinking but star-crossed reformer. Why do you think that we can, in fact, conclude that there’s something to the claim that Hagenbach was tyrannous or criminal? What do you consider the most credible charges, and the ones that to his judges would have distinguished Hagenbach from a run-of-the-mill brutal lord or military commander?

What evidence supports the view that the good burghers of Alsace were the victims of Sir Peter’s violence? Their treatment of the wayward knight after his arrest is most revealing in this regard.

While torture may have been commonplace in ordinary criminal inquisitions of the time, the severity of torment inflicted leads one to believe it was inspired by and directed at the kind of mass, depraved criminality of which Hagenbach has traditionally been accused. Significantly, in this regard, in addition to enduring horrific torture, he was stripped of his knighthood. Degradation of knighthood was exceedingly rare in the Middle Ages and reserved only for the most extreme and infamous crimes.

And there is other evidence to suggest Hagenbach’s culpability for atrocities. Most telling perhaps is the trial record itself.

Hans Irmy, it must be remembered, mounted a valiant and spirited defense to the very end. And yet the record does not reveal his even attempting to refute the charge that Hagenbach planned to exterminate the citizens of Breisach or that he murdered the four petitioning residents of Thann. At most, he offered the rejected defense of superior orders. Nor did Irmy (or Hagenbach, for that matter), directly deny the rape charges (merely objecting that taking women in this fashion was common practice and/or he had paid for services rendered). Rape, as opposed to murder, appears to have been Hagenbach’s preferred weapon of terror and atrocity.

And there is a plausible explanation for why Hagenbach would have wanted to murder the citizens of Breisach.

Hagenbach was aware of other towns that had plotted to kill him during the previous year and, when requesting entry to create defensive fortifications in anticipation of an attack by the League of Constance, he had already been denied admittance with his troops into Thann and Ensisheim. He was only able to gain entry into Breisach because his mercenaries were already present there. Given the animosity shown him in these other towns and the previous conspiracy to kill him, Hagenbach did not want to take any chances. Killing Breisach’s citizens would have permitted him to use the town as a defensive fortification without the risk of an uprising from its citizens.

Did Hagenbach slaughter thousands of innocent civilians in concentrated liquidation campaigns? There is no evidence to suggest he did — he was not a fifteenth century proto-Nazi. But the record suggests that he terrorized the local population by murdering civilians, raping numerous women and conspiring to commit a large-scale massacre in Breisach. It should be noted that the rape charges are the most persuasive as there are numerous examples and they were never directly refuted.

And Hagenbach’s back story further validates this view of him. He was the product of a Burgundian ducal culture that was steeped in and glorified violence — the reflection of its bellicose chief, Charles the Bold (known to his enemies as Charles the Terrible). The duchy was in almost a permanent state of war with one enemy or another during Charles’s reign. Charles the Bold’s Burgundy was in the practice of laying siege to towns and routinely killing civilians who resisted — Liege, Dinant, Neuss — all were subjected to horrific violence by Burgundian troops, and Hagenbach played a leading role in the first two. And within that violent culture, Hagenbach was Charles’s fiercest, most loyal lieutenant. In that regard, Sir Peter’s steadfast reliance on superior orders at trial speaks volumes.

And it is not to be overlooked that a criminal disposition was apparent even before Hagenbach cast his lot with Charles the Bold. The reported kidnapping of Marquard Baldeck, the Swiss banker for whom Hagenbach demanded ransom, is telling in that regard. As noted previously, Hagenbach supposedly demanded ransom from Baldeck’s family and the scheme was scuttled only when Philip the Good ordered Baldeck released without any extortion payment. Hagenbach also seems to have fabricated a murder plot against Charles the Bold, which he falsely pinned on a court rival to have him eliminated.

Add to this Hagenbach’s contempt for the emerging bourgeoisie and townspeople, as well as a deep animosity toward the Swiss, and his stewardship of the Upper Rhine represented the perfect storm. By 1474, he had indeed become the scourge of the Sundgau. In this regard, it is interesting to note Burgundy expert Richard Vaughan’s insight that, in fact, it may have been Hagenbach driving policy and tactics in Charles’s Alsatian territory, not the other way around:

Many of Hagenbach’s activities were undertaken at [Charles's] express command, though often as a result of representations made to him by Hagenbach in the first place. It is possible, for example, that Charles only agreed to sign the treaty of St. Omer on Hagenbach’s persuasion. In the duke’s letters to Hagenbach of 8 August 1470 he orders him to undertake the siege and conquest of Ortenberg castle, ‘in accordance with your memorandum (advertissement)’, which seems to imply that Charles was here acting on detailed advice to take Ortenberg sent him by Hagenbach. As to other mortgaged places, the bailiff wrote to Charles describing how he had seized possession of Landser and seeking the duke’s approval, which was given on 6 January 1474. . . . On 26 December 1470 he wrote congratulating Hagenbach on taking Ortenberg . . .”

Finally, it should be pointed out that Hagenbach may be responsible for atrocities in the region, even if he personally did not commit or order or was unaware of all of them. In particular, the Picard and Wallon mercenaries he hired toward the end of his reign had a well-known reputation for being unruly, violent and hostile toward the local Alsatian population. French historian Emile Paul Toutey, for example, describes Picard soldiers engaging in mass rape of Breisach’s women toward the very end of 1473. These troops may have acted on their own initiative but Hagenbach was their superior and, at the very least, he bore command responsibility. And this may also have contributed toward the writing of Hagenbach’s black legend.

Did the Hagenbach case, in your opinion, actually break new legal ground relative to what had occurred up through 1473? Does it have any analogues you’re aware of over the next century or two, prior to the advent of the Westphalian system?

In my opinion, nothing in the historical record up through 1473 suggests the possibility (certainly not the likelihood!) of what actually took place in 1474.

Eminent German historian Hermann Heimpel does note that the contemplated trial was consistent with other legal actions in late fifteenth century Swabia. What must have seemed entirely unprecedented, though, was the make-up of the court that would sit in judgment of Peter von Hagenbach. He was not to be tried by a local judge. Instead, numerous representatives of sovereigns from around the region, twenty-eight in all — including sixteen knights — would sit as part of an international ad hoc tribunal. Nothing after this, until the Versailles Treaty’s Article 227 contemplated international ad hoc tribunal trial of Kaiser Wilhelm II post-World War I (which never took place since the Dutch refused to extradite), even suggested such a procedure.

Hagenbach tried to raise a “superior orders” type of defense, claiming that Charles the Bold had ordered him to do the nasty things that were imputed to him. The dismissal of this defense does sound pretty modern, but was it mere expedience on the part of the court since it had no way to compel evidence from Charles the Bold?

That’s a great question! I don’t think so. Why? Because Hans Irmy asked for a trial continuance to contact Charles the Bold to appear before the tribunal and corroborate Hagenbach’s claims of superior orders. The tribunal flatly denied the motion for continuance. There was not even an attempt to contact the Duke of Burgundy. Like the decision to try Hagenbach before an ad hoc international tribunal, the decision to deny the motion (and flatly reject the defense) seems nothing other than ground-breaking. In short, it was an epochal precedent.

What interpretive conflicts does this case raise for you when considering it as a legal scholar, versus as a historian? How do you think people today should understand Peter von Hagenbach’s prosecution?

Again, I quote from my paper:

My piece attempts to identify and resolve certain vertical and horizontal dissonances in Hagenbach scholarship. With respect to the former, this has amounted to an exercise in historiographic and historical archeology. The recent attention lavished on the case by international criminal law (ICL) experts is informed by a cartoonish conception of the defendant — an ultra-violent, sexually depraved monster who ran amok for years along the Upper Rhine and terrorized its population. Consistent with that interpretation, the authorities who captured and tried him engaged in a righteous and visionary justice enterprise. They came out on the winning side of a Manichean struggle that gave birth to ICL and ennobled its pedigree.

Digging deeper, though, one finds a very different narrative developed initially by nineteenth century historians and embraced by most of their twentieth century confreres. They saw Hagenbach as a would-be administrative reformer whose efforts were thwarted by xenophobic subjects and a parsimonious superior. In trying to transform a fragmented archipelago of city-states into a cohesive governmental entity, Hagenbach was despised because he threatened an ingrained culture of seigneurial privilege and parochial complacency. In his efforts to redeem property put in hock by Sigismund, he likely reinforced views of Burgundy as excessively acquisitive and bent on conquest (this was exacerbated by Charles’s own efforts to accede to the imperial throne). And in levying taxes to pay for good government, Hagenbach stoked local fears of financial servitude and ruin. But in doing the Duke’s bidding, he did not have the Duke’s support. And so he was left to flounder, his undoing hastened by his admitted crass and prurient behavior. They point out that his trial, a marketplace spectacle based on torture-extracted confessions, was little more than drumhead justice. It was akin to executing Charles the Bold in effigy. Peter von Hagenbach may not have been the most adroit governor and perhaps he did manifest contempt for the rising merchant and urban classes. But, the revisionists would contend, his final deserts were not just at all.

Digging deeper still, the bottom layer of historiography consists of the journalistic rough draft and the first generations of historians that followed. It is largely consistent with the modern ICL expert view but without the larger historical perspective and legal focus. And it is more regionally tinged and archaic. This layer is at once more reliable, given its comtemporaneity or relative proximity, and less reliable, given the inherent biases of its initial chroniclers and the disproportionate influence they exerted on sixteenth through eighteenth century historians.

But my piece demonstrates that each layer is not necessarily inconsistent with the others. In fact, there are many points of convergence. And it is there that a unified, coherent narrative can be stitched together. Hagenbach was coarse and confrontational. But he was also hardworking and loyal and wanted to do right by his master. His entire career had been built on pleasing Charles the Bold. He undoubtedly meant to reform and upgrade the administration of his Alsatian fiefdom. And consequently resentment of the bailiff grew over the years as he pushed while the Alsatians pulled. Hostilities boiled over in 1473 and matters came to a head in 1474. Charles’s loyal lieutenant with a criminal past and odd sexual predilections felt increasingly boxed in and he eventually lashed out. The almost exclusive procedural focus of his defense at trial strongly supports accounts of the resulting crime spree.

It should also be noted that modern Hagenbach scholarship is characterized by a certain horizontal dissonance as well — between jurists and historians. Given the historical points of convergence just noted, however, these two schools ought to find common ground too. Certain views of the revisionist historians concerning the Hagenbach judicial proceedings are not without merit. The Breisach ad hoc tribunal may not have been a kangaroo court but it bears no resemblance to the well-oiled machine of modern international criminal justice administration. The defendant was hideously tortured for days before the trial. He was given no notice of the charges or allegations against him in advance of the hearing. He had no time to speak with a lawyer before standing in front of the judges. The proceeding itself was held on a market square in a circus atmosphere and concluded within a matter of hours. He was not able to call his most important (and only) witness to the stand – Charles the Bold. And there is no indication of a high burden of proof or that any such burden even rested with the prosecution. The Breisach Trial was certainly not the paragon of due process.

On the other hand, this was the late Middle Ages — centuries removed from our modern notions of due process. Torture was part of standard pre-trial procedure at that time. And the trial itself seems relatively fair for that era. Hagenbach was represented by a zealous advocate in Hans Irmy and he was given two additional lawyers of his choice. There is as well a flip side to the “public spectacle” aspect of his trial — transparency. Hagenbach could have been summarily condemned in front of a secretive Star Chamber but his trial was held in public (and that was consistent with local custom). He was able to confront witnesses called against him. He had twenty-eight finders of fact (compared to twelve in the modern jury system). And Charles the Bold, his sole designated witness, was not allowed to testify because the defense of superior orders was rejected ab initio. As well, the proceedings lasted from early in the morning until late at night — which could equate to two or three modern court days. There seems to have been significant deliberation among the twenty-eight judges suggesting that a consensus was cobbled together after carefully sifting through the evidence. In an age of witch-hunts, trials by ordeal, the Star Chamber, and the Inquisition, this was an exceedingly fair trial.

And in many ways it seems inappropriate to use twenty-first century ICL terminology to analyze a fifteenth century judicial proceeding. But if that terminology is used, this piece has demonstrated that the Breisach Trial has many of the hallmarks of a modern international atrocity adjudication. As a threshold matter, regardless of anything else, it is the first recorded case in history to reject the defense of superior orders. In itself, that distinction invests the trial with universal historic importance in the development of atrocity law.

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1561: Cardinal Carlo Carafa, papal nephew

1 comment March 4th, 2012 Headsman

On this date* in 1561, the once-powerful Cardinal Carlo Carafa was put to death by strangulation in Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo — victim of deadly Vatican politics.

Fruit of a powerful Neapolitan noble house — it was a Carafa who stuck fig leafs on Michelangelo nudes — Carlo Carafa went out on campaign in the dynastic wars chewing up the peninsula in the 16th century. In some outlandish vindictive pique, he elevated an offense from a Spaniard into not only a reason to switch sides to the French, but a reason to do stuff like massacre Spaniards in a captured hospital. Class act all the way.

When the boy’s (similarly pro-French) Carafa clansman ascended St. Peter‘s throne as Pope Paul IV in 1555, Carlo Carafa beat his sword into a galero as the Catholic Church’s newest cardinal-nephew.**

In this capacity, he had the whip hand in Vatican foreign policy in the late 1550′s … until the growing reports of his reprobate lifestyle led Paul IV to demote him. Virulently anti-Protestant, the obnoxiously upright Paul had been preoccupied intensifying the Inquisition. He took personal umbrage once convinced of his relative’s unworthiness: “He had planned to make his reign the period of great reforms,” writes Kenneth Meyer Setton. “The corruption of Cardinal Carlo Carafa had made a travesty of his efforts.”

These travesties included rumors of the love that dare not speak its name. Poet Joachim du Bellay, according to Who’s Who in Gay and Lesbian History, made sport of ecclesiastical buggery in Les Regrets:

now you should mourn
handsome Ascanio himself, Ascanio, O pity!
Ascanio, whom Carafa loved more than his own eyes:
Ascanio, whose face was handsomer
than that of the Trojan cupbearer, who pours for the gods

(Carafa had a plentiful menu of heterosexual scandals attributed, too. And other good stuff like starting an idiotic war of choice — with Spain, of course — that despoiled Church coffers and reversed the Vatican’s strategic interests.)

In such a state of disgrace — and more importantly, having been stymied in their anti-Spanish foreign policy — the Carafa house and faction was in line for something more serious than public humiliation when the disappointed octogenarian pontiff passed away later in 1559.

Upon the succession of a rival Medici pope, Pius IV, Carlo Carafa was hailed before a kangaroo court with his brother and partner-in-dissipation Giovanni on a rap sheet with every real and imagined indiscretion of their wild years.† Carlo was strangled and Giovanni Carafa beheaded.

Despite the nephews’ undoubted viciousness, their executions were basically about power and policy.

And though they had also screwed up policy, the next pope decided to look forward-backward, not backward-backward. In 1567, Pius V posthumously rehabilitated the naughty dead Carlo; today, you’ll find his now-vindicated remains interred at the family chapel in Rome’s Santa Maria sopra Minerva cathedral.

“The people wish to be deceived; let them be deceived.”

-Carafa

* Seems like the best-sourced date, albeit uncertain — as discussed in this biography.

** Cardinal-nephews are the etymological source of the word nepotism.

† Carafa’s defense attorney was the noble Marc’ Antonio Borghese, father of a then-prepubescent kid named Camillo who would grow up to be Pope Paul V.

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1940: Nikolai Yezhov, terror namesake

5 comments February 4th, 2012 Headsman

In the terrible years of the Yezhovshchina, I spent seventeen months in lines outside the prison in Leningrad [queuing to deliver food to or get news of imprisoned loved ones: in her case, her son Lev]. One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there):
‘And can you describe this?’
And I said: ‘I can.’
Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.

-Poet Anna Akhmatova

On this date in 1940, the first name in Stalin’s terror got his just desserts.

Well. The first name after Stalin’s own, a point energetically made by Nikolai Yezhov’s daughter* in her fruitless post-Soviet attempts to rehabilitate the man.

But clearing a fellow’s name is a tough task when that name is the mother tongue’s very metonym for political persecution: the Soviet Union’s mind-bending late-1930s witch hunt for internal enemies, known as the Yezhovshchina.

From late 1936, when he eliminated his predecessor Genrikh Yagoda (later executed, of course), until his own fall from power in at the end of 1938, Yezhov presided over the apex of Stalinist terror, averaging hundreds of political killings daily — perhaps north of 600,000 for the two-year period, plus a like number disappeared into the Gulag’s freezers. (Just browse this here site’s ’1937′ tag for a taste.)

Departments and regions received quotas for executions as if they were tractor factories. Security officials well understood that their own heads would be next on the block for any perceived shortcoming; Yezhov had thousands of them arrested, too. (pdf)**

We are launching a major attack on the Enemy; let there be no resentment if we bump someone with an elbow. Better that ten innocent people should suffer than one spy get away. When you chop wood, chips fly.

-Yezhov

The “Bloody Dwarf” — surely there is some of Yezhov in the Master and Margarita character Azazello, the Satan/Stalin figure’s murderous and diminutive attendant — rode this tiger unto his own destruction.


Stalin and other Soviet VIPs with (front right) Nikolai Yezhov.

The same photo ‘updated’ after Yezhov’s fall. (For a similarly chilling photographic disappearance, see Vladimir Clementis.)

As Yezhov had once displaced and killed his mentor Yagoda, so Yezhov’s own nominal underling Beria would displace Yezhov.

Power in the NKVD shifted towards Beria over the course of 1938 until Yezhov’s own resignation that November. The former boss was quietly arrested the next April and barely troubled his skilled torturers before copping to the usual litany of official self-denunciations: corruption, economic sabotage and “wrecking”, treasonable collaboration with the Germans, plus a bisexual personal life. (That last one was true.)

Bound for historical infamy, Yezhov salvaged a shred of dignity in the last, when he was “tried” a few hours before death and renounced those confessions — albeit from the twisted standpoint of a man still unquestioningly committed to the man and the system that had destroyed him.

It is better to die, but to leave this earth as an honorable man and to tell nothing but the truth at the trial. At the preliminary investigation I said that I was not a spy, that I was not a terrorist, but they didn’t believe me and applied to me the strongest beating. During the 25 years of my party work I have fought honorably against enemies and have exterminated them. I have committed crimes for which I might well be executed … But those crimes which are imputed to me by the indictment in my case I did not commit …

My fate is obvious. My life, naturally, will not be spared since I myself have contributed to this at my preliminary investigation. I ask only one thing: shoot me quietly, without tortures …Tell Stalin that I shall die with his name on my lips.

And indeed, Yezhov knew from plenty of personal experience how this script ended. It was called the Yezhovshchina for a reason.

The judges pretended to deliberate for half an hour. Ezhov fainted at the verdict, then scrawled a petition for mecy; it was read out over the telephone to the Kremlin and rejected. Ezhov was taken in the dead of night to a slaughterhouse he himself had built near the Lubianka. Dragged screaming to a special room with a sloping cement floor and a log-lined wall, he was shot by the NKVD’s chief executioner, Vasili Blokhin. Beria gave Stalin a list of 346 of Ezhov’s associates to be shot. Sixty of them were NKVD officers, another fifty were relatives and sexual partners. (From Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him

* Natalia Khayutina is actually Yezhov’s adoptive daughter. Her birth parents were killed … in the Yezhovschina.

** “I purged 14,000 chekists,” Yezhov later said. “But my guilt lies in the fact that I did not purge enough of them.”

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1938: Yakov Peters, Siege of Sidney Street survivor

1 comment April 25th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1938, a Soviet purge claimed (among others*) Yakov (Jacob) Peters, former Cheka executioner and once the subject of a headline-grabbing trial in England.

Peters was a trusted (and ruthless) operator in the Soviet internal police from the start of the Revolution: he helped interrogate Lenin‘s would-be assassin Fanya Kaplan in 1918.

And he was the guy Trotsky had on speed-dial when Cheka founder Felix Dzerzhinsky was arrested by the Left SRs during their abortive 1918 uprising against their erstwhile revolutionary allies, the Bolsheviks.**

Dzerzhinsky was disarmed and locked in a room. his assistant, M.I. Latsis, was captured in the Cheka Lubianka headquarters. “No point in taking him anywhere, put this scum against the wall!” shouted a sailor, but one of the leaders, Alexandrovich, intervened, saying, “There is no need to kill, comrades; arrest him, but do not kill.” Dzerzhinsky’s assistant Yakov Peters was urgently summoned by Trotsky, who ordered him to crush the uprising by attacking the Left Eser headquarters. Alexandrovich was caught at a railway station, and Latsis, whom he had saved from execution, personally shot him. Mass executions in Cheka prisons followed. (Source)

Like a lot of old Bolsheviks, Peters’s early service to the cause didn’t age too well. He ran afoul of some bureaucratic intrigue or point of party discipline or other and caught a bullet in 1938. (Khrushchev rehabilitated him.)

For anyone in England watching the fate of this distant apparatchik, the proximity to bloodbaths would have had a familiar hue.

Peters was one of a gang of Latvian revolutionaries who came to cinematic public attention in London when, in the course of being rounded up for a December 1910 murder, they engaged the police in a stupendous East End firefight on January 2, 1911 — the Siege of Sidney Street. (It’s also known as the Battle of Stepney.)

Armed like soldiery, the Latvians easily outgunned the bobbies who had them hemmed into a cul-de-sac, and they fired on John Law with ruthless effect. This necessitated a call to the Scots Guard — whose deployment was okayed by Home Secretary Winston Churchill, the latter captured on film that day awkwardly milling about the scene of the urban combat.


(Translated directly to the city’s cinemas as soon as that same evening, Churchill’s image came in for public catcalls owing to his support for a relatively open immigration policy for eastern Europeans.)

This incident was a landmark in crime, policing, media — recognizably modern in its trappings of nefarious immigrant terrorists, politicized state funerals for policemen, and of course, the live-on-the-scenes camera work.

Since Britain was a ready hand with the noose at this time, one might think an execution would have been just the denouement.

However, responsibility for the policememen slain in the affray had been officially assigned to a different gang member, George Gardstein — who was killed when the besieged house burned down — and there was little usable evidence against those who were finally put on trial for the gang’s various crimes. Most of the witnesses were dead, fled, or completely unreliable, so the surviving Latvians all walked.

(Since the identity of one of the first guys to start shooting when the police rang always remained murky, there are some theories — such as in this out-of-print book — that Peters himself had been one of the gunmen on-site, and/or that he could be identified with the absconded and never-captured gang leader “Peter the Painter”.)

Whatever the exact measure of blood on Yakov Peters’s hands from Sidney Street, there would be a lot more where it came from.

While Peters went off to his different fate in revolutionary Russia, the dramatic scene he left behind has naturally attracted continuing retrospective attention in England. The testimony of witnesses, who also recollect the shootout’s anti-immigrant fallout, is preserved in this BBC Witness radio program:

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And, on this BBC Four television special:

* e.g., Russian Civil War officer Nikolay Gikalo and Romanian Jewish revolutionary Leon Lichtblau.

** And in favor of resuming Russia’s ruinous involvement in World War I!

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1672: Cornelis and Johan de Witt lynched

6 comments August 20th, 2010 Headsman

Chapter 1. A Grateful People

On the 20th of August, 1672, the city of the Hague, always so lively, so neat, and so trim that one might believe every day to be Sunday, with its shady park, with its tall trees, spreading over its Gothic houses, with its canals like large mirrors, in which its steeples and its almost Eastern cupolas are reflected,–the city of the Hague, the capital of the Seven United Provinces, was swelling in all its arteries with a black and red stream of hurried, panting, and restless citizens, who, with their knives in their girdles, muskets on their shoulders, or sticks in their hands, were pushing on to the Buytenhof, a terrible prison, the grated windows of which are still shown, where, on the charge of attempted murder preferred against him by the surgeon Tyckelaer, Cornelius de Witt, the brother of the Grand Pensionary of Holland was confined.

the whole town was crowding towards the Buytenhof, to witness the departure of Cornelius de Witt from prison, as he was going to exile; and to see what traces the torture of the rack had left on the noble frame of the man who knew his Horace so well.

Yet all this multitude was not crowding to the Buytenhof with the innocent view of merely feasting their eyes with the spectacle; there were many who went there to play an active part in it, and to take upon themselves an office which they conceived had been badly filled,–that of the executioner.

There were, indeed, others with less hostile intentions. All that they cared for was the spectacle, always so attractive to the mob, whose instinctive pride is flattered by it,–the sight of greatness hurled down into the dust.

-Alexandre Dumas, pere, The Black Tulip

That ominous mob got its spectacle this date in 1672, lynching the Dutch Republic’s longtime de facto head of state, Johan de Witt along with his brother Cornelis/Cornelius.


A statue of Johan (standing) and Cornelis de Witt in their native Dordrecht.

The mercantile powerhouse that was the 17th century Dutch Republic was the stage for a long-running conflict between the Orange monarchists (hence the soccer uniforms) and the Republican merchant class.

With the sudden death of the young William II, Prince of Orange in 1650, leaving the (non-hereditary) executive office of stadtholder vacant, the Republicans became ascendant.

And the outstanding figure of the First Stadtholderless Period was Johan de Witt, scion of a Dordrecht merchant family powerful enough that William II had imprisoned de Witt’s own father during a power struggle.

Elevated in 1653 and at the tender age of 28 to the leadership position of Grand Pensionary, Johan de Witt’s “eloquence, sagacity and business talents” guided the Dutch ship of state for essentially the remainder of his life.

This was the apex of the Dutch Golden Age. The Dutch East India Company dominated Asian trade routes,* and the Low Countries’ culture thrived on the wealth: Rembrandt and Vermeer were at the height of their talents; Spinoza revolutionized philosophy; van Leeuwenhoek invented the microscope.

While all these guys were landing themselves in their respective canons, Johan de Witt was trying to keep the age Golden.

Having only relatively recently broken free of Spain, the small country was an up-and-comer on the horns of a serious security dilemma: its leading commercial position put it into maritime competition with England, while its continental location made it vulnerable to the enormous army of the neighboring continental hegemon, France. Ultimately, even with its trade wealth, it did not have the resources to keep up with both of western Europe’s leading powers.

For a generation, de Witt’s statecraft kept the men of the Low Countries out of that predicament, while his brother Cornelis chipped in with a couple of timely naval victories. (Actually authored by Michiel de Ruyter, but Cornelis rode shotgun.)

In 1654, Johan brought the First Anglo-Dutch War to a close, making with Oliver Cromwell a secret pact he was only too happy to enforce never to allow William II’s son, the eventual William III, to be named stadtholder. Reason being: William III was the grandson of the Stuart king Cromwell beheaded, Charles I, and thus a potential claimant to the English throne. Both Protestant Republics had a distinct interest in keeping this monarchist well away from power. (Both would be sorely disappointed.)

A decade and a Stuart Restoration later, de Witt maintained (mostly) Dutch dominance of the seas in the Second Anglo-Dutch War, then held off France (with the help of a timely alliance with the recent adversary, England) in the War of Devolution.

In each case, he kept at least one of England or France on the sideline, or in his own camp.

But the Third Anglo-Dutch War was the charm — as it was also the Franco-Dutch War, and therefore 1672 was Rampjaar: disaster year. While the Dutch were aces on the waves, a massive French invasion easily overwhelmed them on terra firma.

Detail view (click for the full image) of a grisly painting of the mutilated de Witt brothers strung up at The Hague. It’s attributed to Jan de Baen, who in better times took Johan de Witt’s portrait.

De Witt’s never-beloved mercantile oligarchy speedily collapsed with the military reverses, and the now all-grown-up William III was there to pick up the pieces to popular acclaim. Arrested for treason, Cornelis sustained torture without confessing, but when Johan visited him in prison — and William III incriminatingly withdrew the cavalry protecting the brothers — the mob quenched its fury with the de Witts’ blood.

every one of the miscreants, emboldened by his [Johan's] fall, wanted to fire his gun at him, or strike him with blows of the sledge-hammer, or stab him with a knife or swords, every one wanted to draw a drop of blood from the fallen hero, and tear off a shred from his garments.

And after having mangled, and torn, and completely stripped the two brothers, the mob dragged their naked and bloody bodies to an extemporised gibbet, where amateur executioners hung them up by the feet.

Then came the most dastardly scoundrels of all, who not having dared to strike the living flesh, cut the dead in pieces, and then went about the town selling small slices of the bodies of John and Cornelius at ten sous a piece.

-Dumas

The word “ungrateful” comes to mind.

De Witt stood altogether on a lower plane than Cromwell. We regard him rather as a man of rare and singular talent, than as one of the chosen great ones of the earth, which Cromwell was. He stands far above the common run of men; and he was head and shoulders above nearly all the notable men of his time. He would have been greater if the movement of his limbs had been less burdened with the Dutch governing apparatus … He is not one whom the world can ever greatly admire or love.

-History of the administration of John De Witt, grand pensionary of Holland, a Google books freebie.

(Here’s another, and here’s a 17th century volume de Witt himself coauthored.)

The rise of William III came with the decline of that Dutch Golden Age: the country fended off the immediate military threat, but it increasingly slipped behind its larger neighbors. Costly as was the Franco-Dutch War, it is a step on the path towards the present-day Europe, and this gives us enough excuse to notice that the Eurovision lead-in tune is actually from a Te Deum composed to mark its end.

But William’s own ascent to this wealthy sovereignty was just the beginning for him. Sixteen years later, the House of Orange’s champion vindicated Cromwell’s trepidation about him and gained a far more satisfactory position from which to do battle with his Gallic rival Louis XIV by stunningly overthrowing the Stuart dynasty and becoming King of England in the Glorious Revolution.**

* The Dutch remained the sole western contact of closed Japan until 1854, which is why Japan’s eventual period of scientific advancement became known as ‘Dutch Learning’.

** Albion did not forget the de Witts, either: according to this 1785 cant dictionary, the term “dewitted” had a 17th-18th century run in English to denote — well, exactly what happened to Cornelis and Johan.

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1872: Jose Balta, former President of Peru

1 comment July 26th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1872, four days after he was deposed as President of Peru, Jose Balta was summarily shot by the would-be dictatorship of Tomas Gutierrez.

Balta (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) made his name as a soldier, an ironic background for a martyr to constitutional government.

As a colonel, Balta in 1867 led a revolt against President Mariano Ignacio Prado in Chiclayo (mirrored by a similar revolt by Gen. Pedro Diez Canseco Corbacho in Arequipa). The resistance forced Prado’s resignation, and Balta won the ensuing 1868 election.

(Notably, it was under Balta’s administration that unprincipled American railroad speculator Henry Meiggs got his prolific track-building operations going in Peru. Basically, the government took all the capital it raised on its guano-export contract — appropriate source — and plowed it into Meiggs’ well-hyped railroads, whose returns rarely justified the outlay to construct them. Wealthy and influential at his zenith, this adventurer was widely considered culpable for the disastrous state of the Peruvian economy by the time of his 1877 death, since in the interim the guano market had crashed and Peru found itself buried in debt it would ultimately default on. Oh, and: reason Meiggs was in Peru? He had to flee California after perpetrating a real estate scheme.)

Back to Balta. The soldier-President was adamant about an orderly departure from office (with a handover to an opposition party*) when his term came up in 1872, but others around him were less keen on constitutional precedents when there was power to be kept or lost.

On July 22, 1872, War Minister Tomas Gutierrez and his brother, Col. Silvestre Gutierrez, arrested the president. Tomas Gutierrez proclaimed himself dictator.

He was surely expecting a more appropriately cowed reaction from the country than he got: the President-elect got away on a warship, whose crew declared for him; the Peruvian Congress passed a resolution outlawing the Gutierrez coup; and the public reaction against him was chilly enough that someone gunned down Silvestre Gutierrez in a railway station on July 26.

News of this turn for the worse reached brother Marcelino, who had (ex-)President Balta in his charge at Callao … and Marcelino had Jose Balta immediately shot. This event meets the definition of an execution better by its circumstances than by its ceremony, since there was none of the latter; Balta was simply blasted while lying sick in bed, perhaps even still asleep, and not with the least sense of occasion.

And by no standard did it meet the usurpers’ definition of utility.

Neither of the remaining two Gutierrezes would outlive Jose Balta by so much as a day, and news of Balta’s murder only helped fan the incipient uprising: both were killed by mobs as the would-be dictatorial party collapsed in the hours ahead. All three of Tomas, Silvestre and Marcelino wound up on lampposts in Lima (and then burned to ashes in a public square) as recompense for their four days’ sovereignty.

As one report given out in North America recounted it:

The events of the past week will forever be remembered in Peruvian history. The spectacle of a Constitutional President deposed and imprisoned by a military usurper; of a Congress dispersed at the point of the bayonet, after the members, irrespective of partisan feeling, had united in signing a solemn protest, declaring the new officers of the so-called Government criminals and outlaws; of an entire country gathering together its strength to repel the attack made upon its liberties and legal rights; of the rising of the people when their indignation could no longer be restrained on the news of the cowardly assassination of Balta by the Dictator; of the triumph of moral force and justice over bayonets and a bastard cause; of the terrible vengeance of the populace on their tyrants; of the final re-establishment of peace, order and good government. This wonderful series of events has been witnessed by Lima in the space of five days. The Peruvian people have nobly vindicated their name and their national honor; the country is now on a firmer basis, and presents greater hopes for prolonged tranquility, prosperity and progress than it has for many years past.

(Not exactly. The economy, as mentioned, crashed in the 1870s, and there was a successful coup in 1879.)

* The guy set to succeed Balta was Manuel Pardo — not to be confused with Mariano Prado, whom Balta had supplanted.

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1943: Eight from the Krasnodar Trials

1 comment July 18th, 2010 Headsman

On July 18, 1943, eight Soviet citizens who were among 11 tried for collaboration with the recently expelled German occupiers were hanged before tens of thousands in the main square Krasnodar.

The proceedings from July 14-17 were the first major, open war crimes tribunals of World War II … which, of course, was still ongoing at this point.

But the previous winter, the Soviet Union had turned the tide by winning the Battle of Stalingrad, which victory presaged the liberation of the nearby north Caucasus city where we lay our scene.

The Russians proceeded to put the murderous Nazi occupation on trial, but did so not by trying Germans or their allies — but by trying eleven Soviet citizens for collaboration. Indeed, until the end of the war, thousands of Russians were prosecuted for crimes of collaboration, but only a relative handful of Germans for actually authoring those crimes.

These eleven were mostly* men who had served the Sonderkommando 10a (part of Einsatzgruppe D) in “guarding Gestapo buildings that held arrested Soviet citizens, executing arrests, going on military searches and expeditions against the partisans and peaceful Soviet citizens, [and] exterminating Soviet citizens by hanging, mass shootings, and use of poison gases.”

That “Soviet citizen” stuff, technically accurate, soft-pedaled the Einsatzgruppe‘s predictable primary target: local Jewry.

Sonderkommando 10a arrived in the town of Krasnodar when it fell to the Germans on August 12, 1942. On August 21 and 22, all the Jews were ordered to report for transfer to a certain neighborhood in the city. They were taken to the Pervomaisk woods, where they were shot. Many of the city’s Jews did not obey the order, but they, too, were eventually caught and shot. According to a Soviet committee of inquiry report, the number of civilians — women, old people, and children — murdered in Krasnodar was in excess of 13,000. Almost all were Jews. (Source)

This in a city that was occupied for only six months.

Under any description of the victims, these depredations were plenty to condemn collaborators with even the vaguest of associations. Only a few of the men had specific acts charged against them; evidence establishing frightful Nazi atrocities in the region (not hard to find) plus confessions to having worked for the Nazis (not hard to wring out) forged a sufficient evidentiary chain without getting lost in the weeds of such minutiae as: was the collaboration really voluntary? did these collaborators themselves actually carry out war crimes? was that confession actually reliable? (good luck with that one.)

In this military tribunal, the public prosecutor had a free hand for grandstanding, the defense had almost no scope of action, and (the USSR being an old hand at the show trial game) the accused knew their own part to play with craven self-denunciations and pleas for the “mercy” of being sent to the most dangerous part of the front. This made great headlines in Pravda and Izvestia (and update memos straight to the Kremlin) about Nazi bestiality,** and great copy with inquisitorial slam dunks like,

Today Soviet law will mete out justice to the traitors, fascist hirelings, and boot-lickers now in the prisoners’ dock. Tomorrow the court of history, the court of freedom-loving nations of the world, will pronounce its inexorable verdict on the bloodthirsty rulers of Hitlerite Germany and all its associates — on the enemies of mankind who have plunged the world into the welter of the present war. Not one of them will escape stern retribution! Blood for blood, death for death!

All were convicted; three drew long prison sentences and eight hanging, and since the tribunal permitted no appeal, those sentences were executed the day after the court finished its business.

The period quotes, and much of the information about this otherwise somewhat inaccessible trial, comes from Ilya Bourtman’s 2008 article for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, “‘Blood for Blood, Death for Death’: The Soviet Military Tribunal in Krasnodar, 1943.”


It may have been a first, but one need hardly add that it was hardly the last such prosecution.

Several others war crimes show trials took place in other Soviet cities over the next few months, and these would obviously continue after the war.

Long, long after the war.

* The one exception was a 60-year-old former kulak who had illicitly escaped the deportation prescribed for this class in the 1930s. His “collaboration” consisted of having been a doorman whom a German soldier asked a question of.

** e.g., “Death to Hitler’s Butchers and Their Vile Accomplices”

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1312: Piers Gaveston

3 comments June 19th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1312, Edward II’s dearest friend Piers Gaveston was “executed” by the English nobility that had long despised him.

The “notorious royal favourite” had initially been welcomed by Edward I around 1300 as a royal companion for the crown prince.

By the end of Longshanks’ life, the old king was so irate at their relationship (the prince had had the temerity to request a title and castles for Gaveston) that Gaveston was booted out of the country.

(But at least he wasn’t defenestrated, the fate of the fictional Gaveston stand-in “Phillip” in Braveheart.)

Ah, the gay-baiting.

The younger Edward immediately recalled his friend when death came for Longshanks, and Gaveston was resented both by English peers and the young Queen Isabella for the favor the new king held him in.

The purported homosexual relationship between Edward II and Peirs Gaveston is generally believed* though ultimately speculative, reading between the lines of chroniclers who are sometimes bitterly hostile towards these two. “The King loved an evil male sorcerer more than he did his wife,” for instance, is a bit of propaganda — we obviously don’t believe the “sorcery” bit — and even that’s not completely explicit.

There’s a strong circumstantial interpretation to made, but since the particulars of Edward’s behavior with his favorite behind drawn tapestries are permanently unavailable to us, it will suffice us to say that this interpretation has conditioned the “Piers Gaveston” who comes to us in later centuries as a widely-credited cultural artifact.

Whether as calumny or commendation, homosexuality is the first thing everyone “knows” about Piers Gaveston, the emblem of his life and the doomed reign of his sovereign. We meet him from the other side of Stonewall, even when we meet him in Renaissance poetry or Renaissance drama.

The historical, flesh-and-blood Piers — and there’s a very thorough biography of him here** — was certainly defined by more than gay identity, real or imputed.

The personal resentment he inspired in the likes of Lancaster and Beauchamp was political, mapped onto the timeless power struggle between nobles and crown, and within the nobility itself.

The king trusted Gaveston, who was himself just the son of a knight, with plum royal assignments like governing Ireland, and Gaveston executed them effectively; with an immoderate confidence in his own considerable talents, the favorite was not above tweaking his rivals with derisive nicknames.

The Lancaster faction progressively got the upper hand on Edward and Gaveston, and with civil war brewing, they captured the hated Gascon at Scarborough Castle while Edward scrambled unavailingly to raise an army of his own.

He was held privately for nine days before Lancaster — “a sulky, quarrelsome, and vindictive man … quick to resort to violence,” by Alison Weir’s reckoning — decided he had to go. Gaveston was beheaded without color of law at Blacklow Hill near Warwick. A monument to his memory still stands there today.

Thou executioner of foule bloodie rage,
To act the will of lame decrepit age.

The grief-stricken monarch would serve his revenge upon the Earl of Lancaster ten years’ cold, beheading him for treason in 1322 upon the verdict of the man who had by then slid into Gaveston’s place in the king’s favor, Hugh Despenser.

* Not universally accepted, however.

** Bonus: Nineteen things you never knew about Piers Gaveston.

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1525: Count Ludwig von Helfenstein

1 comment April 16th, 2010 Melabesq

At the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth centuries, conditions for peasants in what is now southern and central Germany were in decline. The cost of goods continued to increase while the ruling aristocracy, who owned the land rented by peasants to grow crops, declined to reduce rents or raise wages

In addition, the territorial sovereigns attempted to increase their income to accommodate the increase in prices by levying additional taxes and tithes on, and increase other obligations owed by, the peasants and serfs under their control.

Simultaneously, changes in the economic market due to increased international trade and industry affected the structure of society, putting into conflict the interests of the aristocracy and the growing merchant class, and giving rise to burghers and industrial workers. Growing awareness of the Reformation and changes in commerce and the social structure also put ecclesiastical society and its lifestyle into conflict with secular interests.

In 1524, a petition known as the Twelve Articles of the Black Forest was presented to the Holy Roman Emperor.

The majority of the Twelve Articles asked for relief from economic hardships, such as the cattle tithes and death tax, and for the preservation of “common” land for use by the peasants. The Emperor ignored the petition, which then became the definitive set of grievances of the lower class. The movement quickly splintered into three factions: Catholics who resisted any challenge to the Church’s supremacy; burghers and princes seeking autonomy from the Church through reforms proposed by Luther; and the lower classes.

Violence soon errupted, as these factions took up arms to preserve, or better, their way of life in an uprising known as the Peasant’s War (1524-1525).

Not surprisingly, sources differ on why the conflict came to a head when it did: the Catholic church blamed the revolting Lutherans; the peasants blamed the aristocracy; and the aristocrats blamed the church. Regardless of the reason, Count von Helfenstein was not in a favorable position.

Count Ludwig von Helfenstein fought against the peasants during this conflict. Occupying the town of Weinsberg on the orders of the Archduke, von Helfenstein freely slew peasants either when discovered in small bands or when they sought admission to the town.

On April 16, in revenge for these killings, an attack led by Florian Geyer and Jacklein Rohrbach (German link) and under the command of George Metzler captured the town and von Helfenstein.

Many aristocrats and knights were killed outright during the fight. Von Helfenstein, however, was forced by vengeful peasants to run (while his wife and child watched) a double gantlet of men with spears drawn.


Helfenstein is led to his messy fate, while his kneeling wife entreats in vain, in this 1844 painting by Gustav Metz. (More, in German.)

Like most peasant revolts, however, it got its licks in and then got crushed. The princes, connected to the Empire, were able to amass greater control over other nobility, while feudalism’s decline was accelerated in favor of commercialism and trade.

(See The Peasants War in Germany, 1525-152, by Ernest Belfort Bax for a florid description of Helfenstein’s end.)

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