Posts filed under '12th Century'

1196: William FitzOsbert, medieval rebel

Add comment April 6th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1196, William FitzOsbert was torn from church sanctuary and hanged for one of medieval London’s most famous rebellions.

The setting is an England of King Richard I, meaning an England with an absentee king levying heavy taxes on his putative home realm to bankroll his foreign adventures. In reviewing the period’s Pipe Rolls, Doris Stenton remarked that they “give the impression of a country taxed to the limit.” Certainly the laboring classes believed themselves squeezed past dry, for “more frequently than usual,” in the words of the contemporary chronicler Roger of Hoveden, “aids to no small amount were imposed upon them, and the rich men, sparing their own purses, wanted the poor to pay everything.”

Our man FitzOsbert (or Fitz Osbert) was an educated lawyer who had been on Crusade with the occulted king, a fellow distinguished in appearance by his facial hair — “Longbeard” was his nickname — and in his manner by an evident grant of charisma. A later historian judges him “sharp of wit and some deal lettered; a bold man of speech, and sad of his countenance, and took upon him greater deeds than he could wield.”

As this interesting article on FitzOsbert notes, tax collection was a communal endeavor organized in local neighborhoods and wards, where neighbors assessed one another’s means: they naturally invited class friction. Longbeard apparently had a talent for catalyzing it; according to William of Newburgh — another contemporary, and a far more hostile witness than Roger of Hoveden —

At length, by his secret labors and poisoned whispers, he revealed, in its blackest colors to the common people, the insolence of the rich men and nobles by whom they were unworthily treated; for he inflamed the needy and moderately wealthy with a desire for unbounded liberty and happiness, and allured the many, and held them fascinated, as it were, by certain delusions, so closely bound to his cause, that they depended in all things upon his will, and were prepared unhesitatingly to obey him as their director in all things whatsoever he should command.

A powerful conspiracy was therefore organized in London, by the envy of the poor against the insolence of the powerful, The number of citizens engaged in this plot is reported to have been fifty-two thousand — the names of each being, as it afterwards appeared, written down and in the possession of the originator of this nefarious scheme. A large number of iron tools, for the purpose of breaking the more strongly defended houses, lay stored up in his possession, which being afterwards discovered, furnished proofs of a most malignant conspiracy. Relying on the large number who were implicated by zeal for the poorer classes of the people, while he still kept up the plea of studying the king’s profit, he began to beard the nobles in every public assembly, alleging with powerful eloquence that much loss was occasioned to the revenue through their dishonest practices …

this man, bent upon his object, and surrounded by his rabble, pompously held on his way, convoking public meetings by his own authority, in which he arrogantly proclaimed himself the king or savior of the poor, and in lofty phrase thundered out his intention of speedily curbing the perfidy of the traitors.

The pride of his discourses is plainly shown by what I have learned of a trustworthy man, who asserted that he himself had some days before been present at a meeting convened by him, and had heard him address the people. Having taken his text or theme from the Holy Scriptures, he thus began: “With joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation” [Isaiah 12:3] — and applying this to himself, he continued, “I am the savior of the poor. Do ye, oh, poor! who have experienced the heaviness of rich men’s hands, drink from my wells the waters of the doctrine of salvation, and ye may do this joyfully; for the time of your visitation is at hand. For I will divide the waters from the waters. The people are the waters. I will divide the humble from the haughty and treacherous. I will separate the elect from the reprobate, as light from darkness.”

As FitzOsbert gained a wide following among commoners, the authorities — in this case led by the Archbishop of Canterbury/Crown Justiciar (same guy) Hubert Walter, since the vagabond king had returned to the continent and his beloved wars — feared an outbreak of civil war and moved to suppress the emerging rebel. When Hubert’s men attempted to arrest FitzOsbert, he escaped with his closest followers to St. Mary-le-Bow church. Fearing the consequences of a prolonged standoff that would permit this tribune of the people to rally an insurrectionary defense, the Archbishop gave no regard to sanctuary and “attacked with fire and smoke” this house of god until FitzOsbert was forced from its precincts. (And the steeple destroyed by fire.)

Yet even his death at Smithfield on April 6th — dragged “through the centre of the city to the elms, his flesh was demolished and spread all over the pavement and, fettered with a chain, he was hanged that same day on the elms with his associates and died” — was not his end, for the popular militant immediately ascended to the ranks of folk sainthood. William of Newburgh, again:

The extent to which this man had by his daring and mighty projects attached the minds of the wicked to himself, and how straitly he had bound the people to his interests as the pious and watchful champion of their cause, appeared even after his demise. For whereas they should have wiped out the disgrace of the conspiracy by the legal punishment of the conspirator, whom they stigmatized as impious and approved of his condemners, they sought by art to obtain for him the name and glory of a martyr. It is reported that a certain priest, his relative, had laid the chain by which be had been bound upon the person of one sick of a fever, and feigned with impudent vanity that a cure was the immediate result. This being spread abroad, the witless multitude believed that the man who had deservedly suffered had in reality died for the cause of justice and piety, and began to reverence him as a martyr: the gibbet upon which he had been hung was furtively removed by night from the place of punishment, in order that it might be honored in secret while the earth beneath it, as if consecrated by the blood of the executed man, was scraped away in handfuls by these infatuated creatures, as something consecrated to healing purposes, to the extent of a tolerably large ditch. And now the fame of this being circulated far and wide, large bands of fools, “whose number,” says Solomon, “is infinite,” and curious persons flocked to the place, to whom, doubtless, were added those who had come up out of the various provinces of England on their own proper business to London.

The idiot rabble, therefore, kept constant watch and ward over the spot; and the more honor they paid to the dead man, so much the greater crime did they impute to him by whom he had been put to death.

Hubert Walter was eventually obliged to set guards at this shrine to chase away its pilgrims and forcibly suppress the emerging cult.

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1169: Shawar, Saladin forerunner

Add comment January 18th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1169, the vizier of Egypt, name of Shawar, was put to summary death as war collapsed the Fatimid Caliphate … a death required to prepare the way for a much more august successor.

A Shia dynasty that had once stretched across North Africa and the Levant, the Fatimids by the 1160s controlled only Egypt but they did not control it decisively, as neighboring powers could readily discern.

Shawar, vizier since 1162, was the effective ruler of the empire but he’d been chased to exile in Damascus by an internal rival. Nothing daunted, Shawar successfully appealed to the Turkish governor of that city, Nur al-Din, to restore him.

A Kurdish general named Shirkuh led this successful intervention, which is notable as the entry onto history’s battlefields of Shirkuh’s nephew — the mighty Saladin.

While Shawar profited from Shirkuh and Saladin’s intervention, he had no desire for them to stay — while of course staying was the whole reason that Nur al-Din had sent them to intervene. Egypt slid into a three-way war when the Frankish Crusader King Amalric of Jerusalem invaded to check the influence of Shawar’s overstaying benefactors. Miraculously, Shawar came out of this unscathed when the rival powers fought to a stalemate and departed Egypt under truce.

Alliances shift like the sands hereabouts; by 1168 it was the Franks attacking, and overwhelming, the Egyptians, forcing a desperate Shawar to torch his own capital, Fustat. Replaying the same script from 1163 with the roles reversed, Shirkuh and Saladin were soon sent to counter the Crusaders, which their very presence accomplished: Amalric withdrew as soon as they arrived.

And this, at last, left Egypt in Shirkuh’s hands and the nimble Shawar exposed to his fate. The Fatimid caliph was induced on January 18 to consent to Shawar’s immediate execution.

Shawar’s passion also signaled the imminent death of the Fatimid Caliphate. The vizier’s post was filled subsequently by Shirkuh himself … and when Shirkuh died two months later, by Saladin.

Egypt thereafter would prove the launching-point for a scintillating career: Saladin reorganized the unstable polity and by 1171 disbanded the Fatimid state, founding in its place the Ayyubid Dynasty.* From this base of power, Saladin took over Syria when his former patron (by then rival) Nur al-Din passed away in 1174, and proceeded thence to become the preeminent conqueror of his day.

* Named for Saladin’s father.

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1012: St. Alphege, Archbishop of Canterbury

1 comment April 19th, 2016 Headsman

April 19 was the death date in 1012, and the feast date in perpetuity, of Archbishop of Canterbury and Christian saint Aelfheah (also known as Alfege or Alphege).

When harrying Danish invaders under Thorkell the Tall put Canterbury cathedral to the sack in 1011, they seized this Anglo-Saxon cleric too in expectation of adding a VIP’s ransom to their sacrilegious pillage of candelabras and jeweled chalices.

Aelfheah turned out not to be the render-unto-Caesar type — or at least, not unto Ragnar — and stubbornly refused to raise his own ransom or to permit one to be paid for him. Seven months on into his captivity, some ill-disciplined Vikingers with their blood (and blood alcohol) up for an Easter pillage just decided to get rid of him — as detailed in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which also helpfully provides us the date:

1012. Here in this year, there came to London town Ealdorman Eadric and all the foremost councillors of the English race, ordained and lay, before Easter — that Easter Day was on the 13 April. And they were there until after Easter, until all the tax was paid — that was 8 thousand pounds.

What we have here is the unprincipled nobleman Eadric Streona — destined for an Executed Today entry of his own — celebrating Christ’s resurrection by squeezing hard-pressed Londoners for the Danegeld needed to buy off Thorkell’s rampaging army. And beside that in the ledger, a vicar declines to save his own life at the cost of incrementing his flock’s suffering. The ransom-refusing Aelfheah is a patron saint of kidnap victims; he ought to be taxpayer ombudsman, too.

Then on Saturday the raiding-army became much stirred up against the bishop, because he did not want to offer them any money, and forbade that anything might be granted in return for him. Also they were very drunk, because there was wine brought from the south. Then they seized the bishop, led him to their ‘hustings’ on the Saturday in the octave of Easter, and then pelted him there with bones and the heads of cattle; and one of them struck him on the head with the butt of an axe, so that with the blow he sank down and his holy blood fell on the earth, and sent forth his holy soul to God’s kingdom. And in the morning the bishops [of Dorchester and of London] Eadnoth and Aelfhun and the inhabitants of the town took up the holy body, and carried it to London with all honour and buried it in St. Paul’s minster, and there now [i.e., to this day] God reveals the holy martyr’s powers.

Aelfheah was canonized by Gregory VII in 1078 — and was one of the rare clerics of the Anglo-Saxon era still officially revered after the Norman conquest.* It is said that Thomas a Becket had just prayed to Aelfheah before he too attained his predecessor’s martyrdom.

The British History Podcast hasn’t reached this incident as of this post’s publication, but it should do anon. Its Vikings coverage begins with episode 176.

* A thousand years on, a church named our man marks the purported spot of his execution/murder.

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1155: Arnold of Brescia

Add comment June 4th, 2014 Headsman

At some point in the first weeks of June 1155 — nobody knows the exact date, but it precedes June 18 — the Roman authorities disposed of Arnold of Brescia.

For a decade the tongue of a fragile new Roman Republic, Arnold was a student of the cutting-edge theologian (and castrated romantic) Peter Abelard. Arnold held the temporal pretensions of the Vatican invalid, a theology sublimely according with the popular revolt that from 1143 overturned Rome’s overweening princes and even slew a pope in a melee on the Capitoline.

The Senate long forsaken was re-founded by this new Republic and an equestrian order re-founded to resume to the rights of a now-growing middle rank. The slain pope’s successor became a refugee tenant of the neighboring cities, orchestrating crusades against Turks, Moors, and Wends — but dying at Tivoli in 1153 still awaiting a prince who would restore his own person to the authority of the Eternal City.

That prince, however, had just begun to stir. The Hohenstaufen king Frederick I had concluded in the months before Pope Eugenius’s death a compact to restore the pontiff, which policy dovetailed nicely with an intent to show the German power against other wayward cites in Italy. It was Frederick’s Italian subjects, and conquests, who gave this man the distinctive name by which history recalls him: Barbarossa, or “red-beard”.

All these years — or at least, from 1145, when he surfaced in the rebellious city from past years’ exile in Zurich — Arnold of Brescia’s “eloquence thundered over the seven hills.” (Gibbon)

Blending in the same discourse the texts of Livy and St. Paul, uniting the motives of Gospel, and of classic, enthusiasm, he admonished the Romans how strangely their patience and the vices of the clergy had degenerated from the primitive times of the church and the city. He exhorted them to assert the inalienable rights of men and Christians; to restore the laws and magistrates of the republic; to respect the name of the emperor: but to confine their shepherd to the spiritual government of his flock. Nor could his spiritual government escape the censure and control of the reformer; and the inferior clergy were taught by his lessons to resist the cardinals, who had usurped a despotic command over the twenty-eight regions or parishes of Rome.

The absentee pope excommunicated Arnold in 1148. It was to no effect until Barbarossa’s legions neared the city.

As King Frederick approached, Pope Adrian IV* applied a deft turn of the screw by laying Rome itself under an interdict, depriving his quarrelsome flock of both spiritual balm and pilgrim revenue and at long last forcing the heresiarch’s ejection.

Arnold was seized in Tuscany and delivered to the Roman curia for punishment; the record of when or where this occurred is lost, but it is specified in the particular that his corpse was reduced to ashes that were scattered to the Tiber — proof against the prospect of a plebeian graveside shrine.

On June 18 even as his soldiers tamed Rome’s resisting republicans, Barbarossa accepted the crown of the Holy Roman Empire from the hands of Pope Adrian in St. Peter’s Basilica.**

Though Arnold had vanished into the Tiber’s silt, the thirst of his former flock for spiritual succor beyond that which the worldly Vicar of Christ could offer did not die so easily. Succeeding movements — indeed, perhaps, one continuous movement — took up Arnold’s objection to the clergy’s worldly emoluments and his summons to plain virtue. There are the Arnoldists to start with, but a bare few years after Arnold’s death emerge Peter Waldo of the heretical Waldensians, as well as the Cathars in southern France; a generation on finds St. Francis of Assisi, giving way to 13th and 14th centuries thick with oft-suppressed popular reform currents — the Beguines, the Apostolic Brethren, even the Fraticelli who criticized other followers of the aforementioned St. Francis for having already abandoned the poverty of his order.

Later Protestants would claim all these, and Arnold too (Arnold reportedly opposed infant baptism), as their forebears, which is why we have the nice Colosseum’s-shadow picture above from Foxe’s Martyrs’ Mirror. Just how literally one should take that lineage might be a matter of debate, but there is little doubt that Arnold of Brescia’s critique maintained its potency into that era and keeps it still in the modern age — one reason that the incinerated firebrand could still make a powerful subject for a risorgimento writer like Giovannini Battista Niccolini 700 years later.

* Born Nicholas Breakspear, Adrian remains to this day the only English pope ever.

** Popes and Holy Roman Emperors were most usually rivals rather than allies in peninsular politics; indeed, the Roman Republic had issued its own summons to Frederick’s predecessor to come to its aid — and rule Rome with its support — to humble the pretensions of the papacy. Arguably, Barbarossa missed a trick by not availing that potential alliance and instead exalting the pontifex maximus in the manner of his coronation: Barbarossa probably thought so himself often enough during his running rivalry over the ensuing generation with Pope Alexander III.

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1136: Gwenllian, the Welsh warrior woman

1 comment February 22nd, 2013 Headsman

On an uncertain date perhaps around February 1136, the Welsh princess Gwenllian (or Gwenlhian, or Gwenliana) lost a battle to a Norman lord, who had her summarily beheaded.

This execution occurred in the aftermath of the Norman conquest. Having taken England, those invaders had made inroads into its western neighbor, even temporarily occupying much of the country.

But Welsh lords pushed the Normans back, and we find those Normans at this moment in disarray over an internal succession crisis — a period known as “The Anarchy”.

Map of medieval Wales.

Seeing the opportunity, Wales’s constituent principalities rose in a “Great Revolt”.

Gwenllian, that hottie from history, was daughter of the ruler of Gwynedd, married in a political match to the ruler of Deheubarth.

While these two men in Gwenllian’s life met up with one another to plot their next moves, Norman raids on Deheubarth forced Gwenllian to lead a force into the field to fight them.

It was a sight “like the queen of the Amazons, and a second Penthesilea,” writes the chronicler. “Morgan, one of her sons, whom she had arrogantly brought with her in that expedition, was slain, and the other, Malgo, taken prisoner; and she, with many of her followers, was put to death.”

That was a bummer for Gwenllian — doomed to haunt the castle under whose walls she fought her fatal battle — but not only her, as her bereaved proceeded to mount a furious counterattackwith a vast destruction of churches, towns, growing crops, and cattle, the burning of castles and other fortified places, and the slaughter, dispersion, and sale into foreign parts, of innumerable men, both rich and poor.”

For centuries afterwards, Welsh armies took the field crying “Revenge for Gwenllian!” The field where the battle was fought is named in her honor, as is a spring there that’s reputed to have welled up at the spot where her head fell. She’s even been speculatively — maybe a bit hopefully — identified as a possible author of the Mabinogion, a Welsh literary classic, but she’s definitely the subject of a bardic lullaby

Sleep, Gwenllian, my heart’s delight
Sleep on through shivering spear and brand,
An apple rosy red within thy baby hand;
Thy pillowed cheeks a pair of roses bright,
Thy heart as happy day and night!
Mid all our woe, O vision rare!
Sweet little princess cradled there,
Thy apple in thy hand thy all of earthly care.
Thy brethren battle with the foe,
Thy sire’s red strokes around him sweep,
Whilst thou, his bonny babe, art smiling through thy sleep
All Gwalia shudders at the Norman blow!
What are the angels whispering low
Of thy father now
Bright babe, asleep upon my knee,
How many a Queen of high degree
Would cast away her crown to slumber thus like thee!

There’s obvious, as-yet-unrealized commercial potential here in this sacrificial princess (though she’s not to be confused with Gwenllian of Wales). Word is that a silver screen treatment of the Gwenllian legend is circulating in Hollywood studios looking to duplicate the success of Braveheart.

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1199: Pierre Basile, marksman

3 comments April 6th, 2010 Jonathan Shipley

(Thanks to Jonathan Shipley of A Writer’s Desk for the guest post. -ed.)

If you kill a king, expect swift retribution.

Expect avengers.

Expect to not live long after you deal the final fatal blow to a royal personage.

A boy, Pierre Basile, was executed on this date in 1199 for shooting King Richard the Lionhearted* with an arrow expelled from his crossbow.

The wound wasn’t fatal to Richard I; the gangrene was. (French page) Although the king pardoned the boy for the shot before dying, Richard’s right hand man, French Provencal warrior Mercadier, would hear none of it. After the king’s death, Mercadier stormed Chateau de Chalus-Chabrol, defended weakly by Basile, then flayed him alive before hanging him.

Little is known of the boy defender. Also known as Bertran de Gurdun and John Sabroz (the various names suggest we’ll never know his real name), Basile was one of only two knights defending the castle against the king’s siege.

This castle protected the southern approach to Limoges and was betwixt routes from Paris and Spain and the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. The English army openly mocked its defenses as the siege continued. The ramparts were cobbled together with makeshift armor. A shield was constructed out of a frying pan.

Knowing the castle would fall sooner than later, the English were lax in their siege, though eager for the riches inside. (Supposedly within the castle walls was a treasure trove of Roman gold.)

Richard I, as feudal overlord, claimed it for himself and no boy knights were going to get in his way. The king had been in the area suppressing a revolt by Viscount Aimar V of Limoges. The viscount’s forces had been decimated by the king’s army. The riches for the win lay in the castle and Basile stood atop it.

It was early evening, March 25, 1199, when Richard walked around the castle perimeter without his chainmail on. Arrows had been shot from the ramparts by Basile but were paid little attention. The king applauded when one arrow was aimed at him. The next arrow fired struck the king in the left shoulder near the neck.


Richard the Lionhearted, mortally wounded.

The king returned to the privacy of his tent to pull it out. He couldn’t. The surgeon Hoveden, Mercadier’s personal physician, was summoned. He removed the arrow, but not swiftly, or cleanly. Gangrene quickly set in. The king asked for the crossbowman. The boy, Basile, appeared before the stricken king, expecting to be executed on the spot. The boy spoke first, saying he had tried to kill Richard because the king had killed the boy’s father and two brothers.

“Live on,” the king replied, “and by my bounty behold the light of day.”

He ordered the boy set free and, further, sent him away with 100 shillings. Deliriously jubilant at the king’s decision, the boy quickly returned to the castle.

On April 6, in the arms of his mother, Richard I died. His remains were buried at the foot of the tower from which Basile shot the arrow.

And with the king died his chivalry towards Basile.

Mercadier, who had entered the king’s service in 1184 and fought in battles in Berry and Brittany, Flanders and Normandy, brought the castle’s defenders to a swift and punishing death.

Hanging the defenders, he took the boy and flayed him first — that is, he removed the boy’s skin while he was still alive. Then Pierre Basile was hung, and his body consigned in an unmarked grave.

* Last seen in these parts slaughtering Muslims on Crusade.

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1187: Raynald of Chatillon, by Saladin

6 comments July 4th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1187, Saladin dealt the Crusader Kingdom a crippling blow at the Battle of Hattin — and a fatal beheading to douchebag French knight RaymondRaynald of Chatillon after the fray.

Saladin personally administered the chop.


That’s a weight off his shoulders.

Conduct so ill comporting with Saladin‘s reputation for chivalry had been earned by Raynald’s own bad behavior.

Crusaders with a view to realpolitik saw that the Kingdom of Jerusalem had to coexist with its Muslim neighbors. Raynald (or Reynald, or Renaud) just preferred killing them.

His raids against Saladin’s caravans when the Crusader state was supposed to be at peace with the Ayyubids precipitated the war that would claim his own head — and, within three months of this date, Jerusalem itself.

The Muslim commander vowed going in to slaughter the notoriously vicious Raynald if he captured him. Here he is making good the threat in the ponderous Ridley Scott epic Kingdom of Heaven:

According to the account (sourced to Wikipedia, such as it is) of Saladin house historian Imad ad-Din al-Isfahani, an eyewitness to the event,

Saladin invited the king [Guy] to sit beside him, and when Arnat [Raynald] entered in his turn, he seated him next to his king and reminded him of his misdeeds. “How many times have you sworn an oath and violated it? How many times have you signed agreements you have never respected?” Raynald answered through a translator: “Kings have always acted thus. I did nothing more.” During this time King Guy was gasping with thirst, his head dangling as though drunk, his face betraying great fright. Saladin spoke reassuring words to him, had cold water brought, and offered it to him. The king drank, then handed what remained to Raynald, who slaked his thirst in turn. The sultan then said to Guy: “You did not ask permission before giving him water. I am therefore not obliged to grant him mercy.” After pronouncing these words, the sultan smiled, mounted his horse, and rode off, leaving the captives in terror. He supervised the return of the troops, and then came back to his tent. He ordered Raynald brought there, then advanced before him, sword in hand, and struck him between the neck and the shoulder-blade. When Raynald fell, he cut off his head and dragged the body by its feet to the king, who began to tremble. Seeing him thus upset, Saladin said to him in a reassuring tone: “This man was killed only because of his maleficence and perfidy.”

The Egyptian classic El Naser Salah el Dine, whose composition and subject matter reflect its production at the acme of Nasser-led Pan-Arabism, noticeably soft-pedals this scene, with Raynald as an over-the-top boor who challenges his captor to a duel and is slain in a fair fight. (Skip to about 35:25 in the clip below to see it, but the whole thing is well worth the watching.)

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1182: Maria of Antioch

Add comment December 17th, 2008 Headsman

On an uncertain date thought to be around the end of 1182, the mother of the Byzantine emperor was strangled to death in Constantinople on her adolescent son’s authority.

In signing his mother’s death warrant, 13-year-old Alexios II signed his own … and that of his dynasty.

The progeny of a nearby Crusader principality, Maria of Antioch was dynastically married to Alexios’ dad, Manuel I.

Two realms separated by a common religion, Orthodox Byzantium’s relationship with western Crusaders was fraught at best, and it was about to get a lot testier. Maria’s Latin heritage went over like a lead balloon in the Greek empire.

When her husband died in 1180, the widow was left in a tenuous position as the unpopular regent of a child-emperor in a political snakepit.

In short order, Andronikos I Komnenos, after a lifetime of scheming, got his mitts on the throne two years after he’d been obliged to grovel in chains before Maria’s husband to be allowed a peacable retirement.

Some retirement.

Byzantine historian Niketas Choniates narrates Andronikos’s ruthless divide-and-conquer path to the purple.

Having thus slaughtered those whom he had been most eager to seize, Andronikos bided his time to assail others; some he delivered over to prison, some he condemned to banishment, and some he utterly destroyed in various ways. Those few who remained were anxious to go along with the majority and to reverse their former course. They changed their minds like the unstable planets and offered their necks to Andronikos to be tread underfoot, revolving around him as their axis, and so Andronikos hastened to bring about the ruin of the empress. After leveling several accusations against her, he finally charged her with treason and convened a court sympathetic to his cause with judges certain to condemn, not try, the wretched woman. The empress, who had attempted to enlist the help of her sister’s husband, Bela [III], the king of Hungary, writing him letters and tempting him with grand promises to ravage the lands around Branicevo and Belgrade, was led away to a cramped dungeon near the Monastery of Saint Diomedes. There she was grossly reviled by the guards as the butt of their jokes, and, pining with hunger and thirst, she was haunted by a vision of the executioner standing on her right where his edge would cut most surely. Andronikos’s ferocity did not abate even a whit. In the words of David, he perceived trouble and wrath and hastened to deliver her over to death, annoyed by the fact that she was still numbered among the living. Ere long he again assembled the justices who mete out injustice and whose right hand is the right hand of iniquity. He inquired as to what punishment the laws decree for traitors of cities and provinces, receiving in hand a written judgment sentencing such criminals to death, his assault against the empress went unchecked. When these lawless men raised their voices and shouted aloud as they cast their votes that this ill-starred woman must depart this life, a decree condemning her to death was immediately signed by her son, the emperor, written as though with a drop of his mother’s blood.

Elected to carry out this loathsome and unholy deed were Andronikos’s firstborn son Manuel and the sebastos George, the brother of Andronikos’s wife. Both men recoiled from their selection in disgust and contemned the emperor’s decree, declaring that they had not concurred earlier in the empress’s execution and that their hands would remain guiltless of such defilement; now, even more so, they could not endure to see her innocent body broken. This unexpected reply struck Andronikos like a thunderbolt. He continually twisted the hairs of his beard around his fingers, his eyes were filled with fire, and, shaking his head up and down, he repeatedly pitied himself and was greatly troubled that he did not have friends who delighted in blood and were eager to commit murder at the nod of his head. Holding his rage in check, like a hot-blooded horse champing at the bit or like smoke wrapping itself around a flame, he quenched his unremitting anger and postponed the execution. A few days later he condemned the ill-starred empress to a wretched death by strangulation. The sentence was carried out under the supervision of Constantine Tripsychos, who held the office of hetairarch, and the eunuch Pterygeonites … And she, who was the sweet light and a vision of beauty unto men, was buried in obscurity in the sand of the nearby shore (O Sun, who didst look down upon this defilement, and Thou, O Word of God, who art without beginning, how inscrutable is thy forbearance!). The bloodthirsty soul of Andronikos exulted at this, for with the extermination of Manuel’s family, with the imperial garden laid waste, he would reign as sole monarch over the Roman empire and hold sway with impunity.

The next year, Andronikos dispensed with the charade and had the young Alexios strangled, too.

A much worse fate awaited Andronikos himself not long after, with still less able successors to follow him … sending the Byzantine Empire into a calamitous tailspin that would see Constantinople sacked by those antagonistic western Crusaders within a generation.

Update: Maria’s German Wikipedia page pegs her execution date at August 27, 1182, citing Detlev Schwennike, Europäische Stammtafeln Band II, Tafel 177, Verlag Stargardt, Marburg, 1984.

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Entry Filed under: 12th Century,Byzantine Empire,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Notably Survived By,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Royalty,Strangled,Treason,Uncertain Dates,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1191: Muslim prisoners at Acre

Add comment August 20th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1191, Richard the Lionheart had 2,700 Muslim prisoners of Acre demonstratively executed before his opposite number Saladin, when ransom arrangements dilated.

Courtesy of Project Gutenberg, here is Guizot on this ugly prod to action from the Third Crusade

From the 1st of August, 1191, to the 9th of October, 1192, King Richard remained alone in the East as chief of the crusade and defender of Christendom. He pertains, during that period, to the history of England, and no longer to that of France. We will, however, recall a few facts to show how fruitless, for the cause of Christendom in the East, was the prolongation of his stay and what strange deeds—at one time of savage barbarism, and at another of mad pride or fantastic knight-errantry—were united in him with noble instincts and the most heroic courage. On the 20th of August, 1191, five weeks after the surrender of St. Jean d’Acre, he found that Saladin was not fulfilling with sufficient promptitude the conditions of capitulation, and, to bring him up to time, he ordered the decapitation, before the walls of the place, of, according to some, twenty-five hundred, and, according to others, five thousand, Mussulman prisoners remaining in his hands.

The only effect of this massacre was, that during Richard’s first campaign after Philip’s departure for France, Saladin put to the sword all the Christians taken in battle or caught straggling, and ordered their bodies to be left without burial, as those of the garrison of St. Jean d’Acre had been. Some months afterwards Richard conceived the idea of putting an end to the struggle between Christendom and Islamry, which he was not succeeding in terminating by war, by a marriage. He had a sister, Joan of England, widow of William II., king of Sicily; and Saladin had a brother, Malek-Adhel, a valiant warrior, respected by the Christians. Richard had proposals made to Saladin to unite them in marriage and set them to reign together over the Christians and Mussulmans in the kingdom of Jerusalem. The only result of the negotiation was to give Saladin time for repairing the fortifications of Jerusalem, and to bring down upon King Richard and his sister, on the part of the Christian bishops, the fiercest threats of the fulminations of the Church. With the exception of this ridiculous incident, Richard’s life, during the whole course of this year, was nothing but a series of great or small battles, desperately contested, against Saladin. When Richard had obtained a success, he pursued it in a haughty, passionate spirit; when he suffered a check, he offered Saladin peace, but always on condition of surrendering Jerusalem to the Christians, and Saladin always answered, “Jerusalem never was yours, and we may not without sin give it up to you; for it is the place where the mysteries of our religion were accomplished, and the last one of my soldiers will perish before the Mussulmans renounce conquests made in the name of Mahomet.”

Good thing that Jerusalem issue has since been cleared up.

The BBC treated the scenario — complete with the resultant loss of the last chunk of the supposed True Cross — in a chunk of its 90-minute documentary on the Third Crusade:

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Entry Filed under: 12th Century,Ayyubid Empire,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Crusader Kingdom,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Hostages,Israel,Mass Executions,Mature Content,No Formal Charge,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,Political Expedience,Public Executions,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1142: Yue Fei, paragon of loyalty

1 comment January 27th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1142, the great Chinese general Yue Fei was executed by the Song dynasty he had loyally served.

Loyalty is what Yue Fei is known for, so unbendable that going on nine centuries later it can still work as shorthand for understanding the daily paper.

Yue fought for the Song Dynasty against the neighboring Jin Dynasty. He was a disciplined commander, an honorable and well-studied man — the very Confucian ideal.

The tale about him — the reason he is so well-recalled as a model of patriotism — is that his counterattack after the Jin overran the northern half of the Song realms was so effective that it threatened to repel the invaders. On the cusp of conquering the old northern capital, Kaifeng, he was supposed to have been ordered to lift the siege and return — an order Yue obeyed for the safety of his kingdom, even though it meant fatally confiding himself to his enemy‘s power.

The story’s dramatics are to be doubted; he seems in fact to have been recalled (with other officers) after the battle and duly cashiered into a civilian post months before dying. Much of Yue Fei’s biography is recorded by undependable sources such as a fantastical biography written decades after his death, and a historical novel dating to centuries later. Even his death — whether execution or simple murder, and the means by which it was effected — is not reliably reported.

But his place in the firmament of Chinese heroes is well beyond dispute. Yue Fei was rehabilitated not long after his death, and a shrine built (still on public display to this day) with statues of his persecutors, often abused by visitors, carved kneeling in supplication.

Yue Fei’s mausoleum in Hangzhou.

And just as Yue Fei is a pinnacle of honor and loyalty, those who struck him down remain contemporary emblems of infamy. It is said that the Song minister Qin Hui, pressed for his reasons for ordering Yue’s execution, responded to the effect that “Though it isn’t sure whether there is something that he did to betray the dynasty, maybe there is.” As a result, the phrase maybe there is or it could be true denotes trumped-up charges in Chinese. In a more toothsome vein, the traitors who slew the general are also supposed to have given Chinese cuisine the fried-dough dish youtiao.

Update: The Yue Fei legend gets a skeptical inquiry in view of the political situation on the ground here.

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Entry Filed under: 12th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",China,Famous,Language,Myths,Popular Culture,Power,Soldiers,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions


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