Posts filed under '13th Century'

1293: Capocchio, Inferno-bound

Add comment August 15th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1293, the heretic and alchemist Capocchio was burned at the stake in Siena.

Little is known about about this man’s life, but thanks to his contemporary Dante we know a great deal about his afterlife. Capocchio appears among the “Falsifiers” or “Imposters” haunting the eighth circle of hell in Cantos XXIX and XXX of the Inferno.

We meet Capocchio butting into a conversation Dante is having with a different (also executed) shade — Capocchio crying out to support their mutual disdain for the “flighty” Sienese.

“But should you want to know who seconds you
Against the Sienese, direct your eyes to me
So that my face can give you a clear answer:
 
“See, I am the shade of Capocchio
Who falsified base metals through alchemy
And, if I read you rightly, you recall
 
“How fine an ape of nature I have been.”

This remark implies that Dante might have known Capocchio in life. Dante had a vivid destiny in mind for his maybe-acquaintance a few passages later, when

two shadows I saw, stripped and pallid,
Biting and running in the selfsame way
A hog behaves when let out of the sty.
 
One came straight at Capocchio and sank
His tusks into his scruff and, dragging him,
Scraped his stomach against the stony floor.
 
And the one left behind, the Aretine,
Shivering said, “That ghoul is Gianni Schicchi,
And he goes rabid, like that, mauling others.”

The attacker was another notorious imposter, with an artistic legacy of his own in the form of Puccini’s opera Gianni Schicchi … or both together on canvas via William-Adolphe Bouguereau.


Dante e Virgilio by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1850) has the two named characters contemplating from the background as Gianni Schicchi takes a bite out of Capocchio.

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Counterfeiting,Death Penalty,Execution,Heresy,Italy,Pelf,Public Executions

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1246: Brandur Kolbeinsson, Age of the Sturlungs beheading

Add comment April 19th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1246, Brandur Kolbeinsson suffered a summary beheading.

The chieftain of Iceland’s powerful Ásbirningar clan — it was powerful until April 19, 1246 — Brandur lost a pivotal battle during Iceland’s decades-long era of civil strife in the 13th century, the Age of the Sturlungs.

The victor, Thordr Kakali Sighvatsson, wisely offered leniency to his vanquished foes inducing many to swear oaths that helped Thoror cement his hold on the north of Iceland. But two chiefs are too many, and when Brandur was overtaken fleeing the battlefield, he was beheaded summarily. A crucifix erected in the 21st century now marks the spot.

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Beheaded,Execution,History,Iceland,No Formal Charge,Power,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1291: Sa’ad al-Dawla, grand vizier

Add comment March 5th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1291, Sa’ad al-Dawla, a Jewish physician become grand vizier, was put to summary death as his patron and protector Arghun Khan lay expiring on his deathbed.

The story has it that Sa’ad won the khan’s confidence by a successful medical consult, and then told the big guy all about the corruption of his courtiers.

This descendant of Genghis Khan* knew an able servant when he saw one and Sa’ad soon had charge of the empire’s finances — the latter not failing to exercise the patronage prerogatives of his office on behalf of his own kith and kin. For the khan, a Buddhist heir to steppe conquerors, he was an able man to make the caravans run on time and the treasuries burst with gold. The Muslim populace saw it a bit differently, as one Baghdad poet gibed:

The Jews of this our time a rank attain
To which the heavens might aspire in vain.
Their is dominion, wealth to them does cling,
To them belong both councillor and king.
O people, hear my words of counsel true
Turn Jew, for Heaven itself has turned a Jew!

(Source)

We have seen many times in these pages that upstart administrators elevated by the caprice of the sovereign — Jews or otherwise — often risk an extremely perilous situation should their master predecease them. Sa’ad had resentment in proportion to his power … and when the khan fell ill, the former redoubled while the latter vanished.

Expediently accused of poisoning the dying Arghun Khan, Sa’ad was seized in the royal camp and given over to summary execution/murder. (Less exalted Jews in Baghdad faced a less exalted riot.)

* Arghun Khan’s grandfather Hulagu Khan was Genghis Khan’s grandson. Hulagu Khan has been seen in these pages, for he conquered Baghdad and executed the last Abbasid caliph in 1258.

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Iraq,Jews,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Power,Summary Executions

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1242: William de Marisco, pirate knight

Add comment July 25th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1242, the knight, outlaw, and pirate William de Marisco was drawn by a horse to Coventry and put to the pains of disemboweling and quartering — albeit only after he had already been hanged to death.


Illustration of William de Marisco’s execution by the amazing 13th century chronicler Matthew Paris.

He’d eventually be damned as a kingslayer but Marisco’s doom began with the 1235 murder of a messenger of King Henry III named Henry Clement, slain at the very gates of Westminster “to our no small dishonour and scandal of the realm.” Suspicion settled on the Mariscos, who might have been motivated by Clement’s boasting of having helped recently lay in his grave the Earl of Pembroke, a magnate and great rival to the king.*

Marisco, whose architectural legacy for us is Coonagh Castle, County Limerick in Ireland, fled the scene of the crime and took refuge on Lundy Island, a gorgeous and remote fingerbone in the westerly Bristol Channel that had once been granted to the Knights Templar.**


Lundy’s west coast.
(cc) image by P_Dean.

There, as our chronicler-illustrator Matthew Paris describes, he made his way thereafter by piracy.

Whilst these occurrences were taking place, William Marsh [“de Marisco” means “of the Marshes” -ed.], son of Geoffrey Marsh, took up his quarters on an island near Bristol, called Lundy, a place impregnable by the nature of its situation, where he lived like a pirate with a number of proscribed and wicked men, indulging in plunder and rapine, and, attended by his companions, traversed the places on the neighbouring coast, despoiling the inhabitants of their property, especially wine and other provisions. By sudden incursions lie frequently carried off vast booty from the country lying near the island, and in many ways injured the kingdom of England both by land and sea, and caused great loss to the native and foreign merchants.

William de Marisco would manage seven years on the lam, seizing victuals and booty and ransomable hostages as he could from his island fastness. He’d been dispossessed of his lands in Ireland and nursed against King Henry the personal grudge of an aggrieved nobleman.

Such injuries were known to heal over time, and amid the tangle of authority and kinship among medieval Europe’s bluebloods, today’s rebel might become tomorrow’s hand of the king. But in 1238, William cut the roads behind him and made himself permanently anathema by allegedly sending an assassin after Henry III. Matthew Paris, again, with a story that will easily bear the interpretation that Marisco’s name was put into a deranged regicide’s mouth by his torturers:

on the day after the Nativity of St. Mary, a certain learned esquire, as it is said, came to the king’s court at Woodstock, pretending that he was insane, and said to the king, “Resign to me the kingdom, which you have unjustly usurped, and so long detained from me;” he also added, that he bore the sign of royalty on his shoulder. The king’s attendants wanted to beat him and drive him away from the royal presence, but the king prevented those who were rushing on him from violence, saying, “Let the insane man rave as becomes him, for such people’s words have not the influence of truth.” In the middle of the night, however, this same man entered the king’s bedchamber window, carrying an open knife, and approached the king’s couch, but was confused at not finding him there, and immediately began to look for him in the several chambers of his residence. The king was, by God’s providence, then sleeping with the queen. But one of the queen’s maids, named Margaret Biseth, was by chance awake, and was singing psalms by the light of a candle (for she was a holy maid, and one devoted to God), and when she saw this madman searching all the private places, to kill the king, and frequently asking in a terrible voice where the king was, she was greatly alarmed, and began to utter repeated cries. At her dreadful cry the king’s attendants awoke, and leaped from their beds with all speed, and running to the spot, broke open the door, which this robber had firmly secured with a bolt, and seized the robber, and, notwithstanding his resistance, bound him fast and secured him. He, after some time, confessed that he had been sent there to kill the king, after the manner of the assassins, by William Marsh, son of Greoffrey Marsh, and he stated that others had conspired to commit the same crime.

Paris has evident contempt for William, but he does note that “William boldly denied all these charges, yet he did not obtain any credit, nor was he listened to; he therefore, however unadvisedly, betook himself to out-of-the-way places, and became a fugitive and an outlaw.” It is not clear to this author that outlawry is “unadvisable” vis-a-vis standing to the judgment of a king who is certain you have attempted his life; nevertheless, it is usually little better than the temporary expedient for the doomed.

On the feast of St. James, by the king’s order, the said William, with sixteen of his accomplices taken with him, was tried and condemned, and, by the king’s order, was sentenced to an ignominious death. He was, therefore, first dragged from Westminster to the Tower of London, and from thence to that instrument of punishment called a gibbet† suspended on which he breathed forth his miserable life. After he had grown stiff in death, his body was let down and disembowelled; his entrails were immediately burnt on the spot, and his wretched body divided into four parts, which were sent to the four principal cities of the kingdom, that the sight of them might strike terror into all beholders.

His sixteen accomplices were all dragged through London at the horse’s tail, and hung on gibbets. The said William, after his condemnation, when about to imdergo the sentence pronounced upon him, invoking the divine judgment to witness, boldly declared that he was entirely free and guiltless of the crime of treason imputed to him, and likewise of the murder of the aforesaid clerk Clement; he also asserted that he had betaken himself to the aforesaid island for no other reason than to avoid the king’s anger, which he had always above all things wished to pacify by submitting to any kind of trial, or by any other humiliation; but that, after he had taken refuge as a fugitive in the said island, he was obliged to prolong his miserable life by seizing on provisions wherever he could find them. He then poured out his soul in confession before God, to J. de St. Giles, one of the brethren of the Preacher order, and confessed his sins with contrition, not excusing himself and giving vent to evil words, but rather accusing himself. This discreet preacher and confessor then administered gentle comfort to him, and dismissed him in peace, persuading him that he underwent the death to which he was doomed by way of repentance. And thus, as before mentioned, horrible to relate, he endured not one, but several dreadful deaths.

Readers of Latin can peruse the transcript of the trial, which has surprisingly survived the ravages of century, in this 1895 English Historical Review article.

* Pembroke’s brother and heir was also suspected initially, but was able to clear himself; however, he was later made to take a vow no longer to protect William de Marisco, suggesting that Pembroke was at least in simpatico with the hit. Both William and Geoffrey de Marisco had been fined previously for adhering to the Pembroke side in a fight with the king.

** The Templars at best barely possessed Lundy and the Mariscos who claimed it opposed those banker-knights’ stake, successfully.

† Paris’s unfamiliar marking of the term “gibbet” is interesting here; according to dictionary.com it was during the 13th century that this word for gallows entered Middle English from French.

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Arts and Literature,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Gibbeted,Gruesome Methods,Hanged,History,Murder,Nobility,Notable for their Victims,Pirates,Public Executions,Treason

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1292: Johann de Wettre, medieval Europe’s first documented sodomy execution

1 comment September 8th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1292, Johann de Wettre, “a maker of small knives,” was condemned to die at Ghent for sodomy.

De Wettre was consequently (whether on September 8 or subsequently) “burned at the pillory next to St. Peter’s” in what appears to be the earliest documented execution of homosexuality in Christian Europe. Whether he was a habitual or a one-time offender, how he was detected and prosecuted, and the fate of his male partner — all of these are obscure.

One can safely suppose that de Wettre was not the first European executed for sodomy; perhaps the scanty lines we have of his death are only fortuitously preserved because he suffered his very public fate in one of Europe’s largest and most prosperous cities.

However accidental, de Wettre’s stake is a landmark for Christendom’s emerging conception of same-sex desire as not only a capital crime, but a downright existential threat.*

No matter what Leviticus might say on the subject, the late Middle Ages furnish no documented examples of official persecutions but a rich corpus of same-sex literary amour, often penned by monks — a class of men whose debauchery (real or alleged) would come to invite violent attacks in the coming centuries.

O would that I had been my own messenger
Or been that letter which your hand softly touched;
And tht I had had then the same power to feel I have now,
And that you could ot recognize me until I wanted you to.
Then I would have explored your face and spirit as you read,
That is, if I could have restrained myself long enough.
The rest we would have left to nature and the gracious gods.
For God is readier than man to grant indulgence.

Baudri of Bourgueil, the eventual bishop of Dol-en-Bretagne (via Rictor Norton)

Horace composed an ode about a certain boy
Whose face was so lovely he could easily have been a girl,
Whose hair fell in waves against his ivory neck,
Whose forehead was white as snow and his eyes black as pitch,
Whose soft cheeks were full of delicious sweetness
When they bloomed in the brightness of a blush of beauty,
His nose was perfect, his lips flame red, lovely his teeth —
An exterior formed in measure to match his mind.

Marbodius, bishop of Rennes (via Scott Bidstrup)

Now, the Church was still issuing plenty of edicts proscribing same-sex activity around this period, so whether or not the ability of these men and many others to produce overtly homoerotic verse while still prospering within the holy orders constitutes “toleration” is a lively scholarly debate. Suffice it to say that around the 12th and 13th centuries there was a social and legal shift underway from treating sodomy predominantly as a vice for personal penance, to treating it as, well …

If a sodomite had been executed, and subsequently several times back to life, each time he should be punished even more severely if this were possible: hence those who practice this vice are seen to be enemies of God and nature, because in the sight of God such a sin is deemed graver than murder, for the reason that the murderer is seen as destroying only one human being, but the sodomite as destroying the whole human race.

-Neapolitan jurist Lucas de Penna, Commentaria in Tres Libros Codicis (c. 1360) (via Johansson and Percy)

For this diabolical new construction of homosexuality Warren Johansson coined the term “the sodomy delusion”:** “a complex of paranoid beliefs … to the effect that non-procreative sexuality in general, and sexual acts between males in particular, are contrary to the law of Nature, to the exercise of right reason, and to the will of God and that sodomy is practiced by individuals whose wills have been enslaved by demonic powers.” It was a conception that would find its way into law and popular prejudice in the centuries following our Ghent knifemaker’s immolation — and would continue thereafter, evolving across revolutions† religious, political, and economic to shape public discourse about homosexuality down to the present day.

* And also a potent political weapon. Same-sex deviance featured prominently in the charges used to destroy the Knights Templar in 1307.

** Johansson explicitly sets “the sodomy delusion” alongside “the witchcraft delusion” and “the Judeophobic delusion” as analogous phenomena.

† A piquant coincidence: Thomas Cromwell, the great Henrician minister of state, when he fell shared the scaffold with the first man executed under England’s new (in the 16th century) Buggery Act.

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Belgium,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Homosexuals,Milestones,Public Executions,Sex

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1284: Tekuder, Mongol sultan

Add comment August 10th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1284, the deposed Mongol ruler Tekuder was put to death.

The Mongols had conquered half the world on the back of steppe horses and religious toleration. Mongols variously adopted Nestorian Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam, as well as tribal shamanism; it even sponsored debates among the rival confessions. What counted in the end for the men who commanded its armies was wins and losses.

Our man Tekuder was the son of Hulagu Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan who exemplified pluralistic competence. The son of a Christian but an eventual convert to Buddhism, Hulagu Khan’s signal achievement in the religious arena was done by his sword-arm: he defeated and destroyed the Abbasid Caliphate.

In time, three of the four large khanates comprising the Mongol ascendancy would declare themselves for Islam … but in the 13th century the doctrine most likely to get you in trouble was simply to be too doctrinaire.

Hulagu’s son and heir Tekuder, though once baptized into his parents’ Christian faith, turned to Mohammed’s faith with a convert’s zeal and demanded the compliance of his military brass. He declared the Ilkhanate of Persia and Mesopotamia a Muslim sultanate, and tilted Mongol diplomacy away from the Franks and towards Mamluk Egypt.


Tekuder receives an ambassador.

This split Tekuder’s coalition between Muslims on one side, and Christians and Buddhists on the other, and “the whole of the old Mongol party of malcontents, Buddhists and Nestorians alike, rallied to”* Tekuder’s own nephew Arghun.** One may infer from this entry which man prevailed.

Arghun enjoyed a successful seven-year reign with an incidental appearance in the Marco Polo saga: Arghun appealed to his great-uncle Kublai Khan to send him a wife, and Marco Polo was a part of the party that escorted that woman to Persia in 1291-1293.

Marco Polo would proceed back home to Venice after this voyage, laden with Spice Road riches after a quarter-century’s absence.

Arghun Khan of Persia, Kublai’s great-nephew, had in 1286 lost his favourite wife the Khatun Bulughan; and, mourning her sorely, took steps to fulfil her dying injunction that her place should be filled only by a lady of her own kin, the Mongol Tribe of Bayaut. Ambassadors were despatched to the Court of Kaan-baligh to seek such a bride. The message was courteously received, and the choice fell on the lady Kokachin, a maiden of 17, “moult bele dame et avenant.” The overland road from Peking to Tabriz was not only of portentous length for such a tender charge, but was imperiled by war, so the envoys desired to return by sea. Tartars in general were strangers to all navigation; and the envoys, much taken with the Venetians, and eager to profit by their experience, especially as Marco had just then returned from his Indian mission, begged the Kaan as a favour to send the three Firinghis in their company. He consented with reluctance, but, having done so, fitted the party out nobly for the voyage, charging the Polos with friendly messages for the potentates of Europe, including the King of England. They appear to have sailed from the port of Zayton (as the Westerns called T’swan-chau or Chin-cheu in Fo-kien) in the beginning of 1292. It was an ill-starred voyage, involving long detentions on the coast of Sumatra, and in the South of India, to which, however, we are indebted for some of the best chapters in the book; and two years or upwards passed before they arrived at their destination in Persia. The three hardy Venetians survived all perils, and so did the lady, who had come to look on them with filial regard; but two of the three envoys, and a vast proportion of the suite, had perished by the way. Arghun Khan too had been dead even before they quitted China; his brother Kaikhatu reigned in his stead; and his son Ghazan succeeded to the lady’s hand. We are told by one who knew both the princes well that Arghun was one of the handsomest men of his time, whilst Ghazan was, among all his host, one of the most insignificant in appearance. But in other respects the lady’s change was for the better. Ghazan had some of the highest qualities of a soldier, a legislator and a king, adorned by many and varied accomplishments; though his reign was too short for the full development of his fame.

-The Travels of Marco Polo

* Quote from The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia.

** We have met Arghun Khan in passing in these pages, as the executioner of Georgian prince Demetre II, the Self-Sacrificer.

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Borderline "Executions",Execution,God,Heads of State,History,Iran,Mongol Empire,Notably Survived By,Persia,Power,Summary Executions

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1290: Alv Erlingsson, the Last Viking

Add comment April 23rd, 2015 Headsman

Around the spring of 1290, bad-boy Norwegian nobleman Alv Erlingsson was broken on the wheel by a Danish sheriff.

Sometimes remembered as the “last Viking”, Erlinggson (English Wikipedia entry | Norwegian) wasn’t only one of the great lords of the Norse kingdom: he was a prolific pirate.

The 1280s saw Norway warring with the rising German merchant cities, the latter soon allied with Denmark.

Alv Erlingsson made his sea-dog bones in this conflict, terrorizing Hanseatic League fleets and eventually raiding the Danish coast as well. His “Viking” reputation proceeds not only from this mastery of the waves but from his willingness to direct it even against his own king and country.

Although he was a senior enough official to be dispatched as an envoy to the English king in 1286,* a falling-out with King Eric‘s brother Haakon led Erlingsson to actually attack Oslo the following year.** His marauders put it to the torch and murdered the garrison commander — after which Erlingsson was a robber baron in the fullest sense of both words.

He set up as a freebooter operating out of Riga and preying by land and sea on whomever he could lay a sword on: the Teutonic Knights fretted the “harmful wolves led by the Count of Tønsberg.” This too is a part of his Viking image: King Eric and the Hanse made peace soon enough so that everyone could resume getting rich on trade. Erlingsson didn’t, or couldn’t, make that arrangement and so made his way taking plunder from the fringes of proper civilization. From the standpoint of posterity he looks positively anachronistic.

Call it Viking or piratical, romantic or loathsome — it caught up with him quickly in 1290 when he was captured on the Danish coast. Now despite his high birth he had no clout of his own and no diplomatic protection to shield him from revenge against the devastation he had visited upon those lands.

Information on this amazing character is not as widely available as one might hope; there’s a useful biographical sketch of him by Gabriele Campbell here (already cited in this post). The same blogger also has a follow-up post unpacking the games of thrones taking place in the same milieu.

* England and Norway were on a friendly footing, and the countries were maneuvering towards terms for Norwegian-Scots Princess Margaret to come to the Scottish throne.

** Erlingsson’s successful 1287 attack on Oslo led directly to the initial construction (in the 1290s) of Akershus Fortress, to shore up that city’s defenses. This medieval castle still guards the port to this day; it also hosted the execution of Vidkun Quisling and several other condemned traitors after World War II.

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Denmark,Early Middle Ages,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Nobility,Norway,Outlaws,Pirates,Public Executions,Soldiers,Uncertain Dates

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1204: Alexios V, precipitated Byzantine emperor

Add comment December 25th, 2014 Headsman

Around this time in the year 1205, the fleeting Byzantine emperor Alexios V Doukas was put to a dramatic death in Constantinople’s Forum of Theodosius by being hurled from the top of the ancient Column of Theodosius.

Nicknamed “Mourtzouphlos” for his prominent brow, Alexios obtained his Pyrrhic purple by being the only elite with wit and courage in Constantinople during the horror of the its sack by a Venetian Crusader army.

Vanity, vanity, all is vanity! Hands in mailed gauntlets and silk gloves grasping after glory and treasure were our Emperor Eyebrow’s rise and his fall.

The prime desideratum was the prime desideratum, Jerusalem. In a monument to bad management, a Crusader army of 12,000 was mustered to Venice in 1202 for a flotilla suitable to thrice its number. Venice had taken on an enormous contract to assemble this fleet and since the soldiers who showed up could in no way pay what the Serene Republic had been promised, Venice simply repossessed the army to make good its debt by means of pillage.

First, it sacked Venice’s Dalmatian rival Zadar. Then, having picked up the exiled nephew of the reigning Byzantine emperor — the uncle had overthrown the father to get the job — the Crusader-mercenaries made for Constantinople, become now shameless Praetorians by dint of young Alexios’s assurance of all the liberalities the East’s treasuries could bear.

Constantinople in 1202 was the jewel of Christendom. Its mighty walls had preserved the city inviolate since antiquity — a city of half a million souls reposing in the splendors of the Roman world, augmented by eight more centuries’ imperial surplus.

A morsel so ripe needs but one unguarded moment for some ruffian to pluck it. The Crusaders’ attack so happened to catch Constantinople, at long last, at such a moment. The city was lightly defended and unable to summon more aid — while under the direction of an emperor, Alexios III, who had been cruel and profligate in the enjoyment of his power but vacillated fatally when he was required to defend it.

In a matter of days in July of 1203, Alexios’s rule collapsed, and the emperor himself fled, when the Crusaders besieged Constantiople. These Crusaders of course installed their scheming moppet as Emperor Alexios IV, actually co-emperor with his father who despite having been brutally blinded by his brother was liberated and acclaimed by the populace.

The ensuing months make painful reading — and surely much worse than that to experience at first hand. The new emperors feuded with each other despite their kinship. They also had to squeeze every revenue they could for the Crusader army, which stubbornly refused to depart as its leader, the nonagenarian Doge of Venice, schemed to establish lasting Venetian authority in Byzantium. Irritated residents, enduring the continued presence of a Crusader army that thought it was supposed to be going to Jerusalem all along, rioted and fought with one another.

(For a ready summary of this situation and the entire buildup of the Fourth Crusade, grab episode 15 of Lars Brownworth’s outstanding 12 Byzantine Rulers podcast.)

The bottom line was that young Alexios was no more impressive in power than had been his predecessor and he had the added disability of having been installed by a foreign invader. He also discovered to his chagrin that the staggering sum of 200,000 he had so lightly promised the Venetians in exchange for his throne was double what he could actually find in the capital. When the situation unmanned him in January of 1204, he cowered in the imperial palace and sent his chamberlain to petition the Crusaders to back him in the latest exigency.

That chamberlain was our man, Alexios Mourtzouphlos.

Acting with an alacrity that might have spared Constantinople a horror had an earlier prince exercised it, Alexios instead arrested the co-emperors and spirited them off to a dungeon where they were quietly murdered.

The usurper then turned the city’s energies towards reinforcing its battered defenses and attempted to mount an attack against the Crusaders. This proved, however, much too late to spare the Second Rome its most awful tribulation.

In a matter of days in April 1204, the rude band of Latins who set out to win Jerusalem for Christ overran glorious Constantinople and put it to the sack. Tourists today who gawk at the bronze horses decorating Venice’s St. Mark’s Basilica are in fact enjoying the plunder of Byzantium. In time Constantinople would be retrieved from the Latins, but neither the city itself nor the Byzantine Empire ever fully recovered from the blow. This is also the event that made the schism between Eastern and Western confessions of Christianity permanently irretrievable.*

It was not given Alexios Mourtzouphlos to see what horrors ensued for Constantinople, never mind to get a start on finagling an imperial comeback of his own. Fleeing the sack of the city, he wound up in Thrace in the company of yet another deposed ex-emperor. But after first allowing Mourtzouphlos to marry his daughter, that old schemer had Alexios V blinded and in November 1204 abandoned him to an advancing Latin army — and its eventual death-by-precipitation — while his former in-laws fled to Corinth.

* One of Alexios IV’s promises to his Crusader buddies was to submit the Byzantine patriarchate to Papal authority — another pledge that could never have been realistically delivered.

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Byzantine Empire,Execution,Heads of State,History,Italy,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Precipitated,Public Executions,Turkey,Uncertain Dates,Venice

1246: Mikhail of Chernigov, Miracle-Worker

Add comment September 20th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1246, the Russian prince Mikhail of Chernigov was put to death by the Mongol commander Batu Khan for refusing to make an idolatrous gesture of submission.

In its time, prosperous Chernigov (or “Chernihiv” in a more Ukrainian transliteration) vied with neighboring Kiev for the the pride of place in Rus’.

But Chernigov’s time ended with Mikhail’s time, because the Mongols came crashing through the gates. The “Tatar Yoke” descended on Chernigov, and on Rus’, in the 1230s, and would not be lifted for a quarter of a millennium.

The nomadic Mongols weren’t there to commit genocide or displace the Russian civilization; they just wanted the tribute payments, thank you very much. But the local rulers the Mongols left to collect for them were selected for compliance like any good ploughman would do — and Mikhail found the yoke too disagreeable for his shoulders.

Mikhail knew full well that the Mongols were no joke. He was present at the 1223 Battle of the Kalka River, when the Rus’ principalities had caught word of a horde from the east advancing into present-day Ukraine, rode out to repel them, and lost 10,000 dead.* One of them was the previous prince of Chernigov, which is how Mikhail got the job.

Rus’ had a reprieve because this force was merely the vanguard; the Mongols had business elsewhere. Mikhail would return to the trade negotiations and regional political jockeying that made up the workaday life of a knyaz, thinking who knows what about the mysterious barbarians.

Then the Mongols returned in force.

From December 1237, they overwhelmed and sacked city after city: Ryazan, Kolomna, Moscow, and Vladimir just by March of 1238, and then dozens of cities to follow.** Some held out fiercely; some gave way quickly — but each in its turn succumbed. The “Grand Principality of Chernigov” was no more by 1239.

As the Mongols swept onwards towards Bulgaria, Poland, and Hungary,† the Mongol ruler Batu Khan (grandson of Genghis) set up a capital where the Russian princes would be made to give their ceremonial submissions. Mikhail was one of the last to do so but in 1246 to forestall the prospect of another Mongol attack, he too made the trip.

Although Mikhail consented to kowtow to the Mongol prince, he incensed his host by refusing to prostrate himself before heathen idols. For this he was slaughtered along with an equally faithful boyar named Fedor, their bodies cast into the wilds for animals and elements to devour.


Michael of Chernigov at the camp of Batu Khan, by Vasiliy Smirnov (1883)

For this sacrifice, they became honored as Christian saints and martyrs, with September 20 fixed as the “Feast of the Miracle-Workers of Chernigov” — a liturgical expression of Russian resistance to that Tatar Yoke. When Ivan the Terrible put the Tatars of Kazan and Astrakhan to rout in the 16th century, he also translated the Miracle-Workers’ relics from Chernigov to Moscow — a political expression of their national import.

* Or possibly several times that. Body counts from chroniclers are notoriously unreliable.

** It was to save itself from the Mongols that the mythical city of Kitezh is supposed to have sunk itself like Atlantis into Lake Svetloyar near Nizhny Novgorod.

† As well as points south.

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Bludgeoned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,God,Heads of State,History,Martyrs,Mongol Empire,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Rus',Russia

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1213: Peter of Pontefract, oracle

Add comment May 28th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1213, the hermit Peter of Pontefract (or Peter of Wakefield) was hanged by King John.

Reluctant Magna Carta signer and ridiculous Robin Hood villain, John has never been the most highly regarded sovereign. (A recent BBC poll saluted him as the 13th century’s very worst Briton.)

The papacy ranked among John’s many irritants. A 1205 dispute with Pope Innocent III over the successor to the late Archbishop of Canterbury — John wanted control of ecclesiastical appointments in his own realm, a little preview of coming attractions in English history. This dispute extended so far as Innocent’s excommunicating John, and laying England under a papal interdict prohibiting administration of any sacraments save baptism and last rites. There’s no bargaining chip quite like “do what I say or everyone goes to hell.”

John didn’t sweat the eternal damnation stuff much but in 1212 the specter of war with France — gleefully justified by Philip II on grounds of the English king’s impiety — started twisting the screws a little. Philip had already seized English holdings in Normandy; now, he was gathering force for an invasion of Albion’s own shores.

With discontent already afoot among the domestic nobility, some of whom were extending feelers to King Philip, the Yorkshire hermit Peter ran out a prophecy that John’s crown would pass to other hands by the next Ascension Day — which happened to be Thursday, May 23, 1213.

Peter’s prophecy gained no little folk following, prompting John to take him into custody.

And here a prophet, that I brought with me
From forth the streets of Pomfret, whom I found
With many hundreds treading on his heels;
To whom he sung, in rude harsh-sounding rhymes,
That, ere the next Ascension-day at noon,
Your highness should deliver up your crown.

-Shakespeare’s King John

But days before the momentous date arrived, John resolved the crisis and saved himself from potential deposition with a timely submission to the papal legate Pandulf, before whom he dramatically laid the crown and resumed it pledging an annual tribute of 1,000 marks from the throne of England to that of St. Peter.*

This was either — take your pick — a deft political masterstroke instantly neutralizing the threats to John’s throne, or else it was a craven surrender to the Vatican.

Peter of Pontefract gives us a hint of a judgment on that question.

John held Peter past the May 23 date — and then, just for good measure, past May 27, for that had been the calendar date of John’s coronation in 1199, which was also Ascension Thursday that year, and had been floated as a fallback interpretation of the prophecy — the seer had been duly discredited and, being made ridiculous, could now be made an example of.

Or had he been?

For,

the wise and the foolish alike began to see that John had prevented a literal fulfilment of the prophecy by lending himself to a figurative one. He had ‘ceased to be king’ by laying his crown at the feet of Pandulf, to take it back again on conditions which unquestionably helped to fix it, for the time at least, more securely than ever on his brow. The scapegoat of all parties was the unlucky prophet himself. Next day he and his son, who had been imprisoned with him, were tied each to a horse’s tail, dragged thus from Corfe to Wareham, and there hanged. (Source)

* John stopped paying in 1214, and Innocent left well enough alone.

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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