Posts filed under '15th Century'

1499: Paolo Vitelli, duplicitous commander

Add comment October 1st, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1499, Florence decapitated its chief general for dereliction of command.

Paolo Vitelli, a noted condottiero whose family had taken over Citta di Castello, was hired by the post-Savonarola Florentine Republic during the Italian Wars to campaign against Florence’s traditional rival, Pisa.

“If this man had taken Pisa, nobody can deny that it would have been proper for the Florentines to keep in with him,” mused Machiavelli years later in The Prince. “For if he became the soldier of their enemies they had no means of resisting, and if they held to him they must obey him.”

The prospective kingpin made fantastic progress against the Pisans, and when news reached his Florentine patrons that Vitelli had taken a key gate in Pisa’s walls, the city smugly began drawing up wishlists of humiliations to heap upon the vanquished. But at the critical moment, “just when the whole army, and especially the youthful Florentines who had joined the camp as volunteers, were carrying all before them by their indomitable ardour, they were suddenly ordered to retreat. And Paolo Vitelli, seeing the unwillingness of the soldiers to obey, rushed among them with his brother Vitellozzo* and drove them back with blows.”

As jaws hit tables all around Florence, Pisa’s defenders were hurriedly patching the breach and retrenching. The attackers had ransacked their treasury to finance the expedition; there was nothing for a do-over. Had Vitelli quailed, or was he playing some double game? Either way, Machiavelli lamented — contemporaneously this time, in his capacity as an emissary of state — “We should have preferred defeat to inaction at so decisive a moment.”

With mingled urgency and circumspection, Florence’s leaders arranged to invite Vitteli to a war council at which he was arrested. Interrogated on September 30th, he was beheaded the very next day.

* Three years later, Paolo’s brother Vitellozzo would also achieve the pages of Executed Today … and once again did so under the sharp eyes of Machiavelli.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Florence,History,Italy,Military Crimes,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1442: Nguyen Trai

Add comment September 19th, 2018 Headsman

On this date* in 1442, Vietnamese writer, commander, and politician Nguyen Trai died for regicide.

The Confucian scholar (English Wikipedia entry | the far more detailed Vietnamese) was already a patriotic hero for taking to the hills in the successful rebellion that had expelled the occupation of the Chinese Ming dynasty some years before.

This philosopher of irregular war was famed for the very contemporary-sounding aphorism “better to conquer hearts than citadels”;** five centuries on, the great general of another era’s Vietnamese liberation struggle would credit Nguyen Trai’s “attacks on the minds, i.e. propaganda work among the enemy, persuading the enemy to surrender in many cities.”

A literal warrior-poet, Trai bequeathed the ages a corpus of beautiful musings to go with his martial axioms.

To A Friend

My fate naturally has many twists and sharp turns,
So in everything I trust in the wisdom of God.
I still have my tongue — believe me, I am able to talk,
Even though I’m still poor and, as we know, pathetic.
Never to return, the past flies too quickly and the time is short,
But, wandering in this cold room, the night is far too long.
I’ve been reading books for ten years, but I’m poor from clothes to bone
From eating only vegetables and sitting without a cushion.

But the very sharpest turn in his fate was the last one, when the Vietnamese sovereign, healthy and young and passing through the area, paid a courtesy call on the 60-something statesman — and shockingly turned up dead in the morning, thrusting the kingdom into turmoil since his heir was an infant. We have seen in these pages that inhabiting the mere vicinity of an unexpected royal death can be an extremely dangerous situation; so it was for Trai, no matter his former heroism or his poignant verse.

Perhaps his situation as the favored royal advisor had cultivated the envy of rival courtiers who suddenly found themselves in a position to vent their pique; or, maybe it was nothing but tunnel vision where the situation of being the most proximate initial suspect would transmute into an irresistibly self-reinforcing certainty. Or could this celestial household really have been involved in regicide? It’s one of the most famous mysteries in Vietnam’s history.

The man’s contemporaries came to their conclusion almost instantly. Barely six weeks after the emperor’s unexpected death, Nguyen Trai was put to death — and not only he but his wife, Nguyen Thi Lo and all their kin. It’s one of history’s most notorious incidents of the execution of nine relations — the most severe collective punishment to be found in China and Vietnam, wherein anyone closely related to an arch-traitor could be destroyed in a family extermination.

Twenty years later, Emperor Le Thanh Tong formally exonerated the man of the charge, a verdict that has been endorsed by a posterity that honors Nguyen Trai as a national hero.

* We’re translating the date from the Vietnamese lunisolar calendar, a perilous venture. I’m well outside my expertise here but sources I can find are unanimous on this date and Vietnamese calendar converters such as this one appear to agree.

** Another great Nguyen Trai-ism for guerrilla war: “Like the ocean which supports a ship but can also overturn it, so the people can support the throne or sink it.”

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Guerrillas,History,Intellectuals,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Politicians,Power,Soldiers,Treason,Vietnam,Wrongful Executions

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1402: Fang Xiaoru, of the ten agnates

Add comment July 25th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1402, the Yongle Emperor cemented his seizure of the throne by purging Confucian scholar-bureaucrat Fang Xiaoru with a legendary extermination to ten degrees of kinship.

Our numerous executions on this occasion bring us to the close of a three-year civil war that ensued the death of the Ming dynasty founder, known as the Hongwu Emperor. In this conflict, the old man’s designated successor, a grandson who took the ironic regnal moniker of Jianwen Emperor (meaning “establishing civility”), was defeated and deposed by one of the old man’s sons, a prince whose name can be transliterated as Zhu Di or Chu Ti.

The uncle was much the abler commander while the nephew was plagued by defections. In July of 1402, Zhu Di’s forces captured the capital city of Nanjing; the Jianwen emperor vanished into history’s fogs — burned to death, Zhu Di would claim, citing an unrecognizable corpse charred in the blaze that consumed the imperial palace; rumors long persisted that he had occulted himself into the mountains in a monk’s robes.

Either way, Zhu Di had occasion now to announce himself the Yongle Emperor. “Perpetual happiness,” that one means. And to make sure that everyone would real happy with the new arrangements, Boss Yongle insisted on the immediate fealty of the capital’s intelligentsia. “Those who are guilty I do not dare to pardon,” he said of the late emperor’s ex-ministers. “Those who are innocent I do not dare to execute.”

Most of those presented with these alternatives chose judiciously, as attested by the Yongle Emperor’s subsequent 22-year reign.

But our principal Fang Xiaoru was the most famous among a number of scholars to stand athwart history yelling stop.* For malcontents like Fang, the Yongle Emperor offered a compelling dissuasion in the form of the ancient “extermination of nine agnates”: the collective execution of the traitor’s entire family, compassing nine different classes of relations.

  1. The criminal himself
  2. His parents
  3. His grandparents
  4. His children (and children’s spouses)
  5. His grandchildren
  6. The criminal’s spouse
  7. The spouse’s parents
  8. The criminal’s aunts and uncles
  9. The criminal’s cousins

We don’t know how all his cousins and in-laws felt about the matter but for his own part, Fang was undaunted: “Never mind nine agnates; give me ten!” And that’s just what they did, drafting the scholar’s own pupils into the hecatomb as the tenth degree, an extremity unequaled in the history of China or academia.

All told, the ten agnates numbered 873 people, among perhaps as many as ten thousand noncompliant officials and family members purged overall. Yet still as he died, hewed apart at the waist, Fang dipped his finger in his own gore and scrawled on the floor his own last verdict on the new emperor: the single Chinese character meaning “usurper”.


An execution by “waist severing” delivers what it promises.

* Others include Huang Zicheng and Lian Zining. See “Venerating the Martyrs of the 1402 Usurpation: History and Memory in the Mid and Late Ming Dynasty” by Peter Ditmanson, T’oung Pao, Second Series, Vol. 93, Fasc. 1/3 (2007), pp. 110-158.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,Gruesome Methods,History,Innocent Bystanders,Intellectuals,Power,Treason

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1483: William Hastings, trusting too much

Add comment June 13th, 2018 Headsman

This honourable man, a good knight and a gentle; of living somewhat dissolute; plain and open to his enemy, secret to his friend, easy to beguile, as he that of good heart and courage forestudieth no perils; a loving man, and passing well-beloved; very faithful, and trusty enough — trusting too much.

Thomas More‘s assessment of William Hastings

The Baron Hastings arose this date as the trusted councillor of the Lord Protector. Before dinner, he’d had his head chopped off over a log in the Tower of London.


Lord Hastings sported this fancy badge of a handsomely endowed manticore.
Richard III, Act 3, Scene 4
by William Shakespeare

Richard III (Duke of Gloucester).
I pray you all, tell me what they deserve
That do conspire my death with devilish plots
Of damned witchcraft, and that have prevail’d
Upon my body with their hellish charms?

Lord Hastings.
The tender love I bear your grace, my lord,
Makes me most forward in this noble presence
To doom the offenders, whatsoever they be
I say, my lord, they have deserved death.

Richard III (Duke of Gloucester).
Then be your eyes the witness of this ill:
See how I am bewitch’d; behold mine arm
Is, like a blasted sapling, wither’d up:
And this is Edward’s wife, that monstrous witch,
Consorted with that harlot strumpet Shore,
That by their witchcraft thus have marked me.

Lord Hastings.
If they have done this thing, my gracious lord —

Richard III (Duke of Gloucester).
If? thou protector of this damned strumpet —
Tellest thou me of ‘ifs’? Thou art a traitor:
Off with his head! Now, by Saint Paul I swear,
I will not dine until I see the same.
Lovel and Ratcliff, look that it be done:
The rest, that love me, rise and follow me.

[Exeunt all but HASTINGS, RATCLIFF, and LOVEL]

Lord Hastings.
Woe, woe for England! not a whit for me;
For I, too fond, might have prevented this.
Stanley did dream the boar did raze his helm;
But I disdain’d it, and did scorn to fly:
Three times to-day my foot-cloth horse did stumble,
And startled, when he look’d upon the Tower,
As loath to bear me to the slaughter-house.
O, now I want the priest that spake to me:
I now repent I told the pursuivant
As ’twere triumphing at mine enemies,
How they at Pomfret bloodily were butcher’d,
And I myself secure in grace and favour.
O Margaret, Margaret, now thy heavy curse
Is lighted on poor Hastings’ wretched head!

Sir Richard Ratcliff.
Dispatch, my lord; the duke would be at dinner:
Make a short shrift; he longs to see your head.

Lord Hastings.
O momentary grace of mortal men,
Which we more hunt for than the grace of God!
Who builds his hopes in air of your good looks,
Lives like a drunken sailor on a mast,
Ready, with every nod, to tumble down
Into the fatal bowels of the deep.

Lord Lovel.
Come, come, dispatch; ’tis bootless to exclaim.

Lord Hastings.
O bloody Richard! miserable England!
I prophesy the fearful’st time to thee
That ever wretched age hath look’d upon.
Come, lead me to the block; bear him my head.
They smile at me that shortly shall be dead.

A longtime Yorkist pillar during the Wars of the Roses, Hastings parlayed his many years of proximity to King Edward IV into still-extant architectural glories like Ashby Castle and Kirby Castle.

Of greater moment for the pivotal year of 1483 was Hastings’s bitter enmity with the Woodville family — the kin of widowed queen when Edward died suddenly in 1483. In his life, the king had checked the rivalry between Woodvilles and York magnates. But “the king’s death at once broke up the unity of the court, the peace of the country, and the fortunes of the house of York.”

Before Edward’s body went cold, both factions raced into the power vacuum: the heir was a 12-year-old who wasn’t event present in the capital when his father died. Power in the realm hinged on the actions of men like Hastings in April and May of 1483.

And Hastings made the most of his moment — to his own later grief. While the Woodvilles flexed during the first days of the regency, Hastings drug his feet, threatened to start a civil war, and successfully negotiated for the respective sides to minimize their armed retinues when they arrived for the coronation of young Edward V. He also wrote urgently to the new de facto captain of Team York, the late king’s brother, Richard of Gloucester.

Hastening to answer the call, Gloucester hijacked a too-lax royal convoy en route to London, acquiring custody of the heir, and rolled into town that May as the master of both the boy king’s person and the political situation. Edward V and his brother were the urchins destined to disappear into the Tower of London; Gloucester would eventually crown himself King Richard III. The Woodvilles fled from power and danger, to the sanctuary of an obliging cathedral.

Big win for Bill Hastings, right? He

was extremely elated at these changes to which the affairs of the world are so subject, and was in the habit of saying that hitherto nothing whatever had been done except the transferring of the government of the kingdom from two of the queen’s blood to two more powerful persons of the king’s; and this, too, effected without any slaughter, or indeed causing as much blood to be shed as would be produced by the cut of a finger. In the course, however, of a very few days after the utterance of these words, this extreme of joy of his supplanted with sorrow. (Croyland Chronicle)

The sorrow arrived like a thunderbolt at a particularly infamous royal council meeting on June 13, 1483, when Gloucester seemingly out of nowhere denounced Hastings as a traitor, along with three others. The others we set aside; they were politically insulated from membership in the pages of Executed Today. But not so Hastings, who was detailed for immediate beheading on Gloucester’s say-so, and never mind the trial.

Politics on this plane was intrinsically cutthroat; nevertheless, this shock destruction of an essential ally puts Richard in a pretty unflattering light. Was he really, as Gloucester claimed, plotting against him? Perhaps Gloucester perceived Hastings too loyal to Edward V at a moment when he was resolved upon usurpation? Had it factored, as the proclamation alleged, that Hastings took up with the late king’s remarkable mistress Jane Shore,* “one of his secret counsel in this heinous treason, with whom he lay nightly, and namely the night past before his death”? Claims and counterclaims around this black June 13 grow thick on the ground, none of them rooted in any decisive evidence.

The estimable David Crowther deals with these perilous months in Episode 187 of the History of England Podcast. The guest episode 187a in that same series explores the aforementioned mistress of William Hastings, whose humiliating public penance inspired the Walk of Shame scene in Game of Thrones.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Power,Summary Executions,Treason

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1453: Alvaro de Luna, Spanish favorite

Add comment June 2nd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1453, the man who was once the power behind Castile’s throne became its foremost cautionary metaphor.

The greatest privado — royal favorite — in Spain’s annals, Alvaro de Luna (English Wikipedia entry | the far more detailed Spanish) sprang from noble albeit illiterate stock. He came to the Castilian court in 1410 as a witty and talented young page and adroitly got his hooks into the five-year-old crown prince, the future Juan II.

Quite uncommonly for a royal favorite, Don Alvaro held his king’s affection for many decades, and even while enriching himself into the mightiest subject in the land, he energetically served his prince’s interest.

Chief among these was managing the truculent nobility who would surely have dominated the weak-willed Juan but for his capable lieutenant — who was known from 1423 ask the Constable of Castile and Count of San Esteban de Gormaz in 1423. Don Alvaro proved a consummate politico, scheming to deflect the ambitions of Juan’s rivals and to consolidate the power of the throne … which meant his own power, too. To a very great degree the favorite was the real sovereign, until he suddenly wasn’t.

“Alvaro de Luna would probably not be particularly consoled by the judgement of modern historians,” observes a wry James Boyden in The World of the Favourite** — for they “praise his efforts on behalf of Juan II for opening the way to royal absolutism in Castile, citing his own arbitrary death sentence as the clinching proof of the newfound powers of the crown.”

Don Alvaro’s downfall from his post of seemingly unassailable preeminence satisfied every literary device imaginable, beginning with poetic justice.

When Juan’s first wife, Maria of Aragon, died in 1445 — and Don Alvaro’s own hand has been suspected in that death — the Constable managed Juan’s pivot to 19-year-old Portuguese princess Isabella as the successor queen.

From her advantageous position in the king’s bed, Isabella soon began to work against Don Alvaro. She resented his intrusions into even their most intimate chambers, and she surely feared sharing the fate of her predecessor, Maria. Eventually, her arguments carried the day. Boyden once again:

It is difficult to imagine a more striking illustration of the transitory nature of earthly fortune than the spectacle of the constable’s execution in a public square of Valladolid on 2 June 1453. Certainly the event caught the imagination of contemporary poets. ‘Look then to that great Constable,’ wrote Jorge Manrique, ‘the Master whom we knew so deeply favoured by the king / And yet even of him nothing more need be said than that we saw him beheaded. / His limitless treasures, his towns and villages, his power of command / What did they bring him but tears? / What were they to him except sorrows at the leaving?’

According to Juan II, Don Alvaro’s principal crime was that he ‘has for a long time held and usurped a chief position near me and in my household and court’, and despite having been admonished about his excessive pride and effrontery ‘he has persevered in it … grasping more power to himself each day, excessively, without temperance or measure, so that there remains to me no more room to rule and administer my kingdoms personally, nor to maintain my towns in justice and truth and law …’

Not surprisingly, the constable saw matters in another light. While the king alleged usurpation of his royal authority, Don Alvaro responded with a charge of ingratitude, levelled in a tone meant to convey the sadness and resignation of a loyal servant stripped at last of his illusions. Rather than withdraw into a well-deserved retirement after forty-five years of service, he wrote,

I chose … to serve as I was in duty bound and as I felt the situation demanded; I deceived myself, for this service has been the cause of my misfortune. How bitter that I should find myself deprived of liberty who more than once have risked life and fortune to preserve your highness’s freedom! I am well aware that for my great sins I have angered God, and I will consider it a boon if I can placate his rage through these travails.

This appeal to justice was accompanied by an offer of treasure, but neither swayed the king, who was so intent upon Don Alvaro’s destruction that he would finally order his execution despite the failure of a hand-picked tribunal to render a clear sentence of death.

Although it cut no ice with his king, Alvaro de Luna’s posture of betrayed fidelity — his courage and dignity on the scaffold, ere his throat was cut and his severed head mounted on a hook — helped to salvage what might easily have become a hateful reputation among Spaniards. The annalist Pedro de Escavias recorded that Don Alvaro “struck terror into all who saw him” but “he died with a good countenance and good courage, as a knight and a faithful Christian should. May God forgive him, for he handled many great matters in the days when he enjoyed the king’s favour.” (Quoted in the out-of-print volume The Greatest Man Uncrowned: A Study of the Fall of Don Alvaro de Luna) This respectful epitaph is evident in the numerous artistic treatments around the Constable’s corpse.


Collection to Bury the Body of Alvaro de Luna, by Ramirez Ibanez Manual (1884)

Collection to Bury the Body of Alvaro de Luna, by Jose Maria Rodriguez de Losada (1867)

Burial of Alvaro de Luna, by Eduardo Cano de la Pena (19th century).

Juan’s rancor did not extend to denying his favorite an ornate tomb in Toledo Cathedral. Like all the best sovereign-favorite pairs — Richelieu comes to mind — Juan II soon followed to the grave his secret-sharer, dying in July 1454 allegedly stricken with remorse.† His daughter was Isabella of Castile, famed of Christopher Columbus sponsorship.

* There appears to be some ambiguity among sources between June 2 and June 3 whose resolution lies beyond the reach of myself and perhaps of any human. I tentatively prefer June 2 based on a preponderance of citations, and because June 3 was a Sunday.

** There’s also a fine essay on our principal to be found in The Emergence of León-Castile c.1065-1500: Essays Presented to J.F. O’Callaghan.

† However, Juan’s knowledge of his own failing health and a desire to disencumber his successors of this overmighty minister have also been suggested as reasons for Don Alvaro’s destruction. The favorite treads a very treacherous road indeed.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Spain

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1431: Beaumont and Vivonne

Add comment May 31st, 2018 Headsman

From The Law of Treason and Treason Trials in Later Medieval France:

Little is known about the prosecution of treason during the first fifteen years of Charles VII‘s reign. A few minor cases only came before the Parlement of Poitiers. Struggling to consolidate his position against the Anglo-Burgundians, Charles VII appears to have tacitly approved of, even to have subtly encouraged, court intrigues. But when political machinations went beyond certain limits, as was the case with Louis d’Amboise, vicomte of Thouars, Andre de Beaumont, baron of La Haye, and Antoine de Vivonne, Charles VII did not hesitate to act with the full authority at his disposal. During the winter of 1429-30 Amboise, Beaumont and Vivonne plotted not only to seize Georges de La Tremoille, the most powerful lord at court, and to kill him if necessary, but also to take the king into custody. Amboise was one of Artur de Richemont‘s staunchest allies, and one does not have to look very hard to see the hand of the constable, then fallen from grace, in this conspiracy to take control of the government. Amboise, Beaumont and Vivonne were arrested in mid-November 1430, but it seems that not all the details of their treason were known to the king at that time. When Charles VII decided to take Amboise with him from Loches to Saint-Aignan, Amboise managed to send word to his intimates and advised them to ambush the royal party in order to free him. It was the king’s discovery of this communication that sealed Amboise’s fate. He, Vivonne and Beaumont were subsequently imprisoned at Poitiers. Charles VII then commissioned the presidents and lay councillors of the Parlement there, along with several members of the grand conseil, to conduct their trial. On the advice of his commissioners Charles VII himself then condemned the three traitors to death, with confiscation of their property. This procedure was a compromise between the king’s personal act of justice and condemnation by a court, and was to be a regular feature of the prosecution of treason in the reigns of Charles VII and Louis XI. On 31 May 1431 Beaumont and Vivonne were executed, but Charles VII commuted Amboise’s death sentence to a term of imprisonment ‘at our good pleasure’; and Amboise’s children were spared the penalty of complete disinheritance that would ordinarily have ensued. In not having Amboise executed Charles VII demonstrated for the first time the clemency towards members of the higher nobility that was a distinct characteristic of his rule. In 1434, at the intercession of Yolande d’Aragon and Charles d’Anjou — La Tremoille had since fallen from power and the Angevins were now in the ascendants at court — Charles VII released Amboise from prison and restored to him all of his property except for the castellanies of Chaumont, Chateau-Gontier and Amboise.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Nobility,Pardons and Clemencies,Public Executions,Treason

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1425: Murdoch Stewart, Duke of Albany

Add comment May 25th, 2018 Headsman

On or about this date in 1425, Murdoch Stewart, Duke of Albany, climbed the Heading Hill.

Murdoch’s dad Robert Stewart was the (second) son of King Robert II, the very first monarch of the Stewart line*

That made the Dukes of Albany pere et fils a pair of vipers in a pit full of them: violent, covetous lords scrabbling ruthlessly after power. Few scrabbled with less ruth than the Albanies.

Robert Stewart had seized effective control of the government in an intra-family coup in 1389, so even though his older brother succeeded as King James I, it was the kid brother who ruled and this made for some extremely awkward years.

And he did not exercise the office with a kinsman’s love. If anything, he had an idea to supplant his brother. In 1402, the Duke of Albany even seized his own nephew — and potential royal heir — the Duke of Rothesay** and murdered him in custody. The frightened king soon sent his youngest kid, the future King James II, out of the country to keep him away from the relatives. James was promptly kidnapped by the English, and Albany — succeeding to titular power as the Regent when his feeble brother died — gleefully refused to pay the ransom while he bossed Scotland from 1406 until his death in 1420. James spent 18 years refining his poetry at the English court.

In another timeline — the one intended by Albany, no doubt — this is all prologue to his own offspring gaining the crown. It didn’t quite work out that way.

Albany’s death in 1420 passed his title to his son, our man Murdoch Stewart — who was already at the ripe old age of 58.† But the Albany run as permanent Regent was nearing the end of the line and political pressure soon forced Murdoch to sign off on the ransom of the occluded King James. His return in effect put two rival sovereigns in the realm, where both could not long abide together.

An English rout of French and Scottish troops on the continent at the Battle of Verneuil would prove ruinous to Murdoch as well, for Murdoch’s brother the Earl of Buchan was slain in the process. With him died Murdoch’s own political security, and the king crushed his cousin with dispatch.

Although some sources place Murdoch Stewart’s execution on the 24th, we’ll follow the narrative of Patrick Fraser Tytler’s History of Scotland, Volume 3:

Murdoch, the late governor, with Lord Alexander Stewart, his youngest son, were suddenly arrested, and immediately afterwards twenty-six of the principal nobles and barons shared the same fate. Amongst these were Archibald Earl of Douglas, William Douglas Earl of Angus, George Dunbar Earl of March, William Hay of Errol, constable of Scotland, Scrimgeour, constable of Dundee, Alexander Lindesay, Adam Hepburn of Hailes, Thomas Hay of Yester Herbert Maxwell of Caerlaverock, Alexander Ramsay of Dalhousie, Alan Otterburn, secretary of the Duke of Albany, Sir John Montgomery, Sir John Stewart of Dundonald, commonly called the Red Stewart, and thirteen others. During the course of the same year, and a short time previous to this energetic measure, the king had imprisoned Walter, the eldest son of Albany, along with the Earl of Lennox, and Sir Robert Graham, a man of a dark, fierce, and vindictive disposition, who from that moment vowed the most determined revenge, which he lived to execute in the murder of his sovereign. The heir of Albany was shut up in the strong castle of the Bass, belonging to Sir Robert Lauder, a firm friend of the king, whilst Graham and Lennox were committed to Dunbar, and the Duke of Albany himself, confined in the first instance in the castle of St Andrews, and afterwards transferred to that of Caerlaverock. At the same moment the king took possession of the castles of Falkland, and of the fortified palace of Doune, the favourite residence of Albany. Here he found Isabella, the wife of Albany, a daughter of the Earl of Lennox, whom he immediately committed to the castle of Tantallan; and with a success and a rapidity which can only be accounted for by the supposition of the utmost vigour in the execution of his plans, and a strong military power to overawe all opposition, he possessed himself of the strongest fortresses in the country; and after adjourning the parliament, to meet within the space of two months at Stirling, upon the 18th of May, he proceeded to adopt measures for inflicting a speedy and dreadful revenge upon the most powerful of his opponents.

In the palace of Stirling, on the 24th of May, a court was held with great pomp and solemnity for the trial of Walter Stewart, the eldest son of the Duke of Albany. The king, sitting on his throne, clothed with the robes and insignia of majesty, with the sceptre in his hand, and wearing the royal crown, presided as supreme judge of his people. The loss of all record of this trial is peculiarly to be regretted, as the proceeding would have thrown important light upon a most interesting, but unfortunately, most obscure portion of our history. We know only from an ancient chronicle that the heir of Albany was tried for robbery, “de roboria.” The jury was composed of twenty-one of the principal nobles and barons, and it is a remarkable circumstance, that amongst their names which have been preserved, are to be found seven of the twenty-six barons whom the king had seized and imprisoned two months before at Perth, when he arrested Albany and his sons. Amongst these seven, were the three most powerful lords in the body of the Scottish aristocracy — the Earls of Douglas, March, and Angus; the rest were Sir John de Montgomery, Gilbert Hay of Errol the constable, Sir Herbert Herries of Terregles, and Sir Robert Cuningham of Kilmaurs. Others who sat upon this jury we know to have been the assured friends of the king, and members of his privy council. These were, Alexander Stewart, Earl of Mar, Sir John Forrester of Corstorfin, Sir Thomas Somerville of Carnwath, and Sir Alexander Levingston of Callendar. It is probably that the seven jurymen above mentioned were persons attached to the party of Albany, and that the intention of the king, in their imprisonment, was to compel them to renounce all idea of supporting him, and to abandon him to his fate. In this result, whatever were the means adopted for its accomplishment, the king succeeded. The trial of Walter Stewart occupied a single day. He was found guilty, and condemned to death. His fate excited a deep feeling of sympathy and compassion in the breasts of the people; for the noble figure and dignified manners of the eldest son of Albany were peculiarly calculated to make him friends amongst the lower classes of the community.

On the following day, Albany himself, with his second son, Alexander, and his father-in-law, the Earl of Lennox, were tried before the same jury. What were the crimes alleged against the Earl of Lennox and Alexander Stewart, it is now impossible to determine; but it may be conjectured, on strong grounds, that the usurpation of the government and the assumption of supreme authority, during the captivity of the king, offences amounting to high treason, constituted the principal charge against Duke Murdoch. His father undoubtedly succeeded to the regency by the determination of the three Estates assembled in parliament, but there is no evidence that any such solemn decision was passed which sanctioned the high station assumed by the son, and if so, every single act of his government was an act of treason, upon which the jury could have no difficulty in pronouncing their verdict. Albany was accordingly found guilty; the same sentence was pronounced upon his son, Alexander Stewart; the Earl of Lennox was next condemned; and these three noble persons were publicly executed on that fatal eminence, before the castle of Stirling, known by the name of the Heading Hill. As the condemnation of Walter Stewart had excited unwonted commiseration amongst the people, the spectacle now afforded was calculated to raise that feeling to a still higher pitch of distress and pity. Albany and his two sons were men of almost gigantic stature, and of so noble a presence, that it was impossible to look upon them without an involuntary feeling of admiration; whilst the venerable appearance and white hairs of Lennox, who had reached his eightieth year, inspired a sentiment of tenderness and pity, which, even if they admitted the justice of the sentence, was apt to raise in the bosom of the spectators a disposition to condemn the rapid and unrelenting severity with which it was carried into execution. Even in their days of pride and usurpation, the family of Albany had been the favourites of the people. Its founder, the regent, courted popularity, and although a usurper, and stained with murders, seems in a great measure to have gained his end. It is impossible, indeed, to reconcile the high eulogium of Fordun and Winton with the dark actions of his life; but it is evident, from the tone of these historians, that the severity of James did not carry along with it the feelings of the people. Yet, looking at the state of things in Scotland, it is easy to understand the object of the king. It was his intention to exhibit to a nation, long accustomed to regard the laws with contempt, and the royal authority as a name of empty menace, a memorable example of stern and inflexible justice, and to convince them that a great change had already taken place in the executive part of the government.

With this view, another dreadful exhibition followed the execution of the family of Albany. James Stewart, the youngest son of this unfortunate person, was the only member of the family who had avoided the arrest of the king, and escaped to the Highlands. Driven to despair, by the ruin which threatened his house, he collected a band of armed freebooters, and, assisted by Finlay, Bishop of Lismore, and Argyle, his father’s chaplain, attacked the burgh of Dumbarton, with a fury which nothing could resist. The king’s uncle, Sir John of Dundonald, called the Red Stewart, was slain, the town sacked and given to the flames, and thirty men murdered, after which the son of Albany returned to his fastnesses in the north. But so hot was the pursuit which was instituted by the royal vengeance, that he, and the ecclesiastical bandit who accompanied him, were dislodged from their retreats, and compelled to fly to Ireland. Five of his accomplices, however, were seized, and their execution, which immediately succeeded that of Albany, was unpardonably cruel and disgusting. They were torn to pieces by wild horses, after which their warm and quivering limbs were suspended upon gibbets; a terrible warning to the people of the punishment which awaited those, who imagined that the fidelity which impelled them to execute the commands of their feudal lord, was superior to the ties which bound them to obey the laws of the country.

* Destined in time to suffer one of the annals’ most illustrious beheading.

** Fun aristocratic title fact: “Duke of Rothesay” is a still-extant title held by the British heir apparent (so, as of writing, Prince Charles).

† He’d spent more than a decade in English custody himself, after being captured in battle; he’s referenced in the opening lines of Shakespeare’s Henry the Fourth, Part 1 using another title companion to that of the Duke of Albany, the Earl of Fife.

Ten thousand bold Scots, two and twenty knights,
Balk’d in their own blood did Sir Walter see
On Holmedon’s plains. Of prisoners, Hotspur took
Mordake the Earl of Fife, and eldest son
To beaten Douglas; and the Earl of Athol,
Of Murray, Angus, and Menteith:
And is not this an honourable spoil?
A gallant prize? ha, cousin, is it not?

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,Nobility,Power,Public Executions,Scotland,Treason

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1489: Hans Waldmann, mayor of Zurich

Add comment April 6th, 2018 Headsman

An equestrian monument to Hans Waldmann at Zurich’s the Münsterhof plaza reminds of that onetime mayor’s beheading on this date in 1489.


(cc) image from Roland zh.

His city’s most outstanding personality of the age, Waldmann (English Wikipedia entry | the far more detailed German) sprang from merchant stock. He’d soared to the top in his Swiss city-state via his gift for military command, which stood Zurich in good stead during the Burgundian Wars.

Despite his war heroism, the peasantry of Zurich’s rural proximities soon grew to hate Waldmann as the spear tip of the urban oligarchy. Notoriously, he ordered the destruction of peasants’ dogs to preserve the hunting privilege for the powerful.

On the first of April, a revolt toppled Waldmann’s authority. He was arrested on a diverse slate of accusations including treason, peculation, and sexual corruption.

For the four days intervening, he endured “ceaseless torture, hanging, and stretching,” but the mayor retained enough vigor to walk “manly” and “proud” (in the words of a Bernese observer) to his scaffold.


Waldmann’s Farewell, by Johann Caspar Bosshardt (1847).

Detail view (click for the full-page illustration) of Hans Waldmann’s beheading, from the Lucerne Chronicle (1513).

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Politicians,Public Executions,Soldiers,Switzerland,Torture,Wrongful Executions

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1423: William Taylor, Lollard

Add comment March 2nd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1423 the Lollard theologian William Taylor was burned at Smithfield.

We have only fleeting glimpses of this excommunicate priest but the Oxford master made a scintillating entrance to the historical record by preaching a Wycliffite sermon for Advent of 1406 — which stirred a hornet’s nest and saw him excommunicated by the Lollard-quashing Archbishop Thomas Arundel. This denunciation of clerical privilege survived to our digital age as a single, damaged manuscript, and was published in 1993.

Certainly we great cause to weep if we behold the nobility, glory and cleanness of the church in Christ’s time and his apostles … for in that time the people fervently loved God and his law, and were diligent in the keeping thereof, and dreaded the hideous sins of usury, simony, whoredom, forswearing, manslaughter, and the unmeasurable filthiness of lechery …

So wonderful is our church in comparison to the time here before … shiningly arrayed and delicately fed with poor men’s goods, it lifts its voice in gladness — and great weeping. And so the voice of him that makes mirth and the voice of the weeping of the people being melded together. But the voice of the weepers, taking heed to their own wretchedness bodily and ghostly, desiring for to be relieved from bodily discomfort and to be lightened in soul by the word of God, bewail their own discomfort and others’ both. But that voice is so thin and so low that it may not be heard among the voice of those that make joy, the which, not reckoning the health of their own soul neither of others entrusted to their care, say in effect in the words of Zachary, “Blessed be God we are made rich!” and live as delicately and recklessly as though they despaired of the life to come.

We have scant evidence of him in the succeeding generation, but references in his 1420s legal difficulties to his ongoing excommunication make plain that Taylor did not reconcile: instead, he seems to have retreated to the fringes of the high church’s writ, preaching in his native Worcestershire and availing the protection of sympathetic elites during Lollardy’s apex years.

Taylor was finally run to ground in 1420 when he was forced to do penance to resolve his excommunication, and then once again made to abjure his heresies in 1421 — an occasion that might easily have been construed as his second offense and resulted in his execution.

His submissions entirely lacked sincerity, however, and each time returned to his subversive doctrines. His last arrest in February 1423 saw him “brachio seculari traditus fuerat, ac igni combustus in Smythfeld, secundo die Martii, A.D. MCCCCXXII,* et regis Henrici sexti primo,” as described in Fasciculi Zizaniorum (see “Sententia lata contra Willelmum taylor Wycclevistam” on p. 412) on a host of charges that confirm his unreconstructed Lollardy: for denouncing clerical alms; for calling on the devout to pray to God alone, sans intercessors; for insisting that “in no way does Christ wish priests of the church to rule” in the sense of any secular authority. (Translation per Lollards and Reformers: Images and Literacy in Late Medieval Religion.)

* 1423 by present reckoning, or 1422/23 as one often sees it rendered: England at the time marked the New Year on March 25.

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1405: Astorre I Manfredi, former lord of Faenza

Add comment November 28th, 2017 Headsman

Baldasar Cossa,* in Romandiola cardinalis Ecclesieque legatus pro Ecclesia romana, Astorgium Manfredum, paulo ante dominum Faventie, publice decapitari fecit.

Annales Forolivienses: ab origine urbis usque ad annum MCCCCLXXIII

On this date in 1405, the Italian nobleman/warlord Astorre I Manfredi was beheaded in his family’s on-again, off-again stomping ground of Faenza.

A clan made for an HBO series, the Manfredi had cut a colorfully scheming profile on the Renaissance scene for years, not excluding previous encounters with the executioner.

Astorre’s own calling was to retrieve with his sword in 1377 the family patrimony from which his father had been dispossessed twenty years previous. For the balance of Manfredi’s life it would be the seat of an opera buffa for a hard-working mercenary prince trying to claw his place in the peninsular crab bucket.

Manfredi’s mercenary company was destroyed in a Genoa-Venice war, with Manfredi on that occasion only barely eluding the capture and summary death that his brothers in arms suffered. He returned to Faenza to throw his brother in the dungeon for plotting a coup, then tangled with the Marquess of Ferrara who is infamous in these pages for executing his own wife and son for an incestuous affair.**

Manfredi also cultivated an ultimately lethal rivalry with groundbreaking condottiero Alberico da Barbiano, the former beheading the latter’s brother which would help to incite Alberico to a campaign against Faenza that Manfredi could not withstand. At the end of his resources, he resigned his territories to the Vatican in exchange for a pension — but this brief period in the new boss’s employ was terminated when he was found intriguing to reassert his lordship.

Rum luck for Astorre Manfredi was far from the last chapter for his house, which was only definitively relieved of its preeminence in Faenza a century later, by Cesare Borgia. The Manfredi name has graced many notable Italians even since.

* The papal legate Baldasar Cossa who orchestrated Manfredi’s decapitation is more notorious to posterity under a name he subsequently achieved: Antipope John XXIII.

** Parisina Malatesta, the wife/victim of the Marquess in this domestic tragedy, hailed from a Rimini noble house allied to the Manfredi. (Astorre Manfredi for a time was betrothed to the Malatesta lord’s sister, Gentile; likewise, Astorre initially retired to Rimini in 1404 when muscled off his home city.) For detail on the tangled and fascinating dynastic politics proximate to these families, see The Malatesta of Rimini and the Papal State.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,Italy,Mercenaries,Nobility,Papal States,Power,Public Executions,Soldiers,Treason

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