Posts filed under '16th Century'

1581: Christman Genipperteinga

Add comment June 17th, 2018 Headsman

June 17 of 1581 was the alleged condemnation date — the best specific calendar date we have — for the German robber/murderer Christman Genipperteinga or Gniperdoliga, who was broken on the wheel for a reported 964 murders.


See? June 17.

A 1581 pamphlet “Erschröckliche newe Zeytung Von einem Mörder Christman genandt” is the earliest account we have of our inaptly named Christman (German Wikipedia entry | the surprisingly much more detailed English), and even this first source supplies us the seemingly outlandish body count.

Our man is supposed to have made a lair in the Rhineland wilds from which he preyed on German and French travelers, and even turned murderer of other bandits after partnering with them.

We of course lack any means to verify independently this murder toll exceeding six per month throughout the whole of his thirteen-year career; if we’re honest about it, we’re a little light on verification that this guy wasn’t a tall tale from the jump. Whether or not he really drew breath, or profited from the pre-modern propensity to overcounting bodies, his fame was certainly magnified by the burgeoning print culture … and its burgeoning fascination with crime. Joy Wiltenburg in Crime & Culture in Early Modern Germany:

It was in the 1570s that reports of robber bands multiplied, reaching a peak in the 1580s and continuing in lower numbers into the seventeenth century. Accounts of such activity were far-flung, from Moravia in the modern Czech Republic to Lucerne in Switzerland and from Wurttemberg in southwestern Germany to Bremen in the north. Although violence and malevolent magic were the most sensational aspects of the bands’ reported activities, stealing was central to their existence.

Even among these ubiquitous broadsheet outlaws, Christman Genipperteinga’s near-millennium stuck in the public imagination.

As years passed, the story has resurfaced in chronicles, histories, and popular lore running all the way down to our present era of listicle clickbait … and they’ve all somehow made this monster into an even more sinister figure than a mere nongenti sexagintuple slayer. Dubious evolutions include:

  • Genipperteinga kidnapping a woman and forcing her to become his mistress, murdering all the children they produced. (She subsequently betrays him to the authorities by arranging to leave a trail of peas to lead them to his hideout.)
  • Genipperteinga cannibalizing his victims, including his own infants.
  • And, Genipperteinga having literal supernatural powers (invisibility, congress with dwarven artificers).

For a larger-than-life criminal, a longer-than-death execution. The story goes that our Christman endured nine agonizing days on the breaking-wheel, his tormentors fortifying him with hearty drinks every day in order to prolong his sufferings.

Again, this real or fanciful detail profits by comparison to the trends in enforcement emerging to meet the social panic over crime. This was a period when Europe saw the death penalty flourish both in terms of its violent spectacle and, as Wiltenburg notes, its raw frequency:

There is some evidence that the swell in crime reports in the later decades of the sixteenth century coincided with a time of generally intense prosecution. According to figures compiled by Gerd Schwerhoff, a number of localities had especially high levels of execution in this period. Augsburg, for example, shows a distinct rise in the proportion of criminals executed in the last four decades of the sixteenth century — double or more the proportions of the preceding and following periods. Nuremberg too had a substantial rise in the last decades of the sixteenth century, with lower numbers before and much lower figures by the mid-seventeenth century. Zurich similarly executed a much higher proportion in the sixteenth century than in the fifteenth or the seventeenth, although its figures are not broken down by decade.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Gruesome Methods,History,Holy Roman Empire,Infamous,Murder,Outlaws,Public Executions,Torture,Uncertain Dates

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1503: A banderaio and an executioner

Add comment May 29th, 2018 Headsman

Courtesy of Emotions in the Heart of the City (14th-16th century), we travel to Florence during its between-Medicis republican interim* for a very emotional execution:

On the morning of 29 May 1503, outside the city’s great Gate of Justice,** a young flag-maker (banderaio) was put to death for having murdered another banderaio. In a scene that struck the throng of spectators as an outrage, the executioner had failed to cut off his head even after three blows of his sword. The sight must have been grisly, for the attending mounted captain was next forced to move in and club the flag-maker to death. The compassion of the crowd now pivoted into incandescent rage. A tumult broke out, as men and boys directed a cannonade of rocks at the executioner. There was, in addition, something oddly religious about the event, because rocks were also thrown at the men hooded in black, the members of the religious confraternity who were there to offer comfort to the unfortunate banderaio. They had to flee for their lives. The executioner was killed, and children then lugged his corpse around, worked their way back into the city, and dragged the body all the way up to the Franciscan Church of Santa Croce. Were they sending a message to Savonarola‘s great local enemies, the Franciscans? There was a possible religious subtext to this episode : some contemporaries claimed that the hangman had been punished — he was the very same man — for having first insulted and then hanged Savonarola five years previously. It goes without saying that he had died without last rites, and the dragging about of his body again touched on something religious in being subject to a ‘ceremony’ of desecration.

Although I cannot locate an online version of this document, it appears to me that a primary source for this incident is the chronicle of Simone Filipepi. This historian is a bit less famous than his little brother Alessandro Filipepi … who is inscribed in the annals of art’s history by his nickname (meaning “Little Barrel”) as Sandro Botticelli.

Tangentially, readers might also enjoy this 1625 instance of a clumsy executioner being lynched: in that case, his proposed prey actually survived the scaffold. A similar fate nearly befell notorious English hangman Jack Ketch, after his maladroit butchering of the Duke of Monmouth in 1685.

* This period prior to the restoration of the Medici was also Machiavelli’s political heyday. (He wrote his classics of statecraft after Giuliano de’ Medici subsequently recaptured Florence from the pie-eyed republicans and retired Machiavelli to countryside exile.)

** This public domain English translation of Guido Carocci‘s classic Firenze Scomparsa (Bygone Florence) illuminates some of the relevant topography.

A tower which now only consists of four stone walls, plain and undecorated, but which some day must have been much higher and surmounted by battlements, rises at the end of the Lungarno apposite the viale Carlo Alberto.

It is the sole remnant, the only souvenir of a number of ancient buildings which were situated in this position, and were known as the old mint (Zecca Vecchia).

Previous to the demolition of the walls the tower reared its massive proportions on the river bank in the midst of the ramparts of a dismantled fortress, near a mill race and buildings next the walls which at this point showed traces of a walled up gate.

The buildings next to the tower seemed a mixture of old and modern construction with large arched rooms, long corridors and balconies overhanging the canal from the Arno — which gave motive power to the wheels of various cloth mills.

These houses, which grouped en masse were of singular picturesqueness, completed the view of green banks and vine covered hills lining the river and were full of interesting historical associations.

A postern gate was situated here, flanked by a tower on the river bank to defend the city from a water attack; this was called the Gate of Justice, and its name calls up painful and melancholy memories. Outside the walls at the end of a meadow beyond the moat was a small low church whose facade was frescoed with sad subjects. In this meadow was placed the gallows and executionary scaffold. The Gate of Justice was generally closed for the better security of the city and was only thrown open for the passage of religious companies accompanying condemned criminals to the place of execution.

The street through which they passed to the gate was very appropriately known as Via Malcontenti, (Street of the Discontented).


Via dei Malcontenti, Florence (c. 1880) by Telemaco Signorini.

In 1346 criminals condemned to death were brought to a chapel, still in existence, next to the church of San Giuseppe in Via Malcontenti were tied to an iron ring which may still be seen in the pavement, but afterwards the little church outside the walls was built for this last grim service. [If this artifact still exists, I would be indebted to anyone who can supply a picture of it. -ed.]

The church was used as a resting place where the penitent might offer his short and final prayer before being handed over to the executioner.

The victims’ bodies remained suspended on the gallows for days in order to act as a wholesome warning to all evil disposed persons, but the Florentines, who must have their little joke even on the most solemn subjects, called these meadows which formerly belonged to the Nemi family, the paretaio of the Nemi (bird-catching place of the Nemi).

The gate of Justice was walled up during the great siege, and after that the lugubrious procession passed through the Porta alla Croce. In our times traces of this gate, partly buried in the raised soil, could still be seen previous to the destruction of the old walls and above it the hole through which every defensive missile might be hurled on attacking parties below.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Bludgeoned,Borderline "Executions",Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Executioners,Florence,History,Italy,Lynching,Public Executions

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1584: Samuel Zborowski, dangerous precedent

Add comment May 26th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1584, Samuel Zborowski was beheaded at Krakow’s Wawel Hill for treason and murder committed ten years before.

A monument to the timeless abuse of the prosecutor’s discretion, Zborowski (English Wikipedia entry | Polish) was a powerful nobleman who got into a snit when nobody of equal stature would enter the lists with him at a tournament.

Instead, his challenge was answered by a common trooper in the retinue of the castellan of Wojnice,* one Jan Teczynski. Pissed at the affront, and doubly so when his own retainer was defeated by Teczynski’s, Zborowski went right after Teczynski right there in the presence of the newly elected Polish king, Henry de Valois.** The affront of lese-majeste was compounded when Zborowski’s flailing mace mortally wounded another castellan who attempted to intervene.

The outlawed Zborowski fled to the protection of Stephen Bathory,† Voivode of Transylvania.

That might have been that, and left Zborowski to join Europe’s forgettable ranks of exiles, adventurers, and pretenders playing out the string under the patronage of some foreign prince.

But when the elective throne of mighty Poland came open soon thereafter, Zborowski’s patron decided that he liked the look of it — and he obtained the result, with the help of a dynastic marriage into Poland’s Jagiellon dynasty of illustrious memory.

Since the Zborowskis had been big supporters of Stephen Bathory, Samuel returned as well, justifiably anticipating not merely pardon but elevation. To their dismay, they found themselves frozen out … and they responded with a series of insubordinations: plotting with the invading Russians, fomenting an unwanted diplomatic crisis with freelance attacks upon the Ottomans.

In the end, our man was undone by the same violent highhandedness that had forced his flight from Poland in the first place. Zborowski’s ill treatment of the young lute composer Wojciech Dlugoraj left the latter so desperate to escape Zborowski’s court that Dlugoraj stole some treasonable correspondence between Zborowski and his brothers and sent it to Zborowski’s enemy, Jan Zamoyski.‡ Those letters indicated that Samuel was contemplating assassinating the king.

Zamoyski found, and Bathory agreed, that the most expedient way to remove this troublemaker was simply to execute the 1574 sentence, from that bludgeoned castellan. The new regime had conveniently never bothered to lift it.

Although legal, Zborowski’s execution was obviously quite irregular and it outraged many in the nobility who perceived it a potential precedent for absolutism; recrimination over the action tore apart the 1585 meeting of the Polish Sejm. (In later years, this body formally endorsed Zamoyski’s actions but only after enacting a Lex Zborowski to better govern the handling of treason cases.)


Jan Matejko‘s 19th century rendering of Samuel Zborowski en route to beheading.

* At the time an important fortified city, Wojnice or Wojnicz was ravaged by a Swedish army in the 1650s and never recovered; today, it’s a town — having only re-promoted itself from “village” status in 2007 — of fewer than four thousand souls.

** This youngest son in the French royal house had seemed to the Valois safe to make available on the transfer market for foreign sovereigns. However, his brothers’ uncanny talent for dying young without issue very soon required his return to his homeland to take up the throne of France as Henri III during that country’s Wars of Religion. There Henri proved not to be exempt from the family curse: we have previously explored the circumstances of his own violent death — which was also the end of the House of Valois — during the War of the Three Henrys.

† A legendary surname in the annals of horror. This Stephen Bathory was the maternal uncle of the infamous “Countess of Blood”.

‡ The gambit did indeed get the scared lutenist free from Zborowski’s control, but he had to flee to Germany for fear of Zborowski kinsmen’s vengeance.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Murder,Nobility,Notable Jurisprudence,Poland,Power,Public Executions,Soldiers,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1525: Jäcklein Rohrbach, for the Weinsberg Blood Easter

Add comment May 21st, 2018 Headsman

On the 21st or perhaps the 20th of May in 1525, the peasant rebel Jakob Rohrbach — more commonly known as Jäcklein (“Little Jack”) Rohrbach — was chained to a stake and burned alive as the nobility celebrated its victory in the German Peasants’ War.

Rohrbach was by history’s acclamation the most bloody-minded of the peasant revolutionaries — for Jakob perhaps had learned the lesson of the Jacquerie that rebels against the lords must vanquish or perish. (Jakob Rohrbach was literate.)

When the peasantry rose to shake Germany, Rohrbach was elected a leader in the environs of Weinsberg, in Baden-Wuerttemberg. It was here that Rohrbach’s band would author the rebellion’s most spectacular outrage, the Weinsberg Massacre, or Weinsberg Blood Easter — for on April 16, Easter Day, they overwhelmed the city and put its garrison to slaughter, collectively executing Count Ludwig von Helfenstein by forcing him to run a gantlet while peasants screamed their grievances at him.

“You thrust my brother into a dungeon,” one cried, “because he did not bare his head as you passed by.” “You harnessed us like oxen to the yoke,” shouted others; “you caused the hands of my father to be cut off because he killed a hare on his own field … Your horses, dogs, and huntsmen have trodden down my crops … You have wrung the last penny out of us.” (Will Durant)

As word of the blood rage went abroad, it not only horrified the respectable (Martin Luther turned his considerable vituperation upon the insurrection after hearing about it*) but split the rebellion itself between moderate and radical factions. We lack access to the peasant councils of war, but perhaps that was even intentional on Rohrbach’s part, to force the revolution towards its most extreme ends, much as French Jacobins would decapitate the king to cut off any hope of their moderate brethren making an accommodation.

If so, it failed in that objective. It would be the fragmented German polities that by dint of the danger made common cause and defeated the rebellion. For a special villain like Rohrbach, special treatment was reserved, yet his was only most exemplary among innumerable long-forgotten cruelties meted out. The lords returned stroke for stroke ten times over for every injury that Rohrbach and his kind had dealt them.

The total number of the peasants and their allies who fell either in fighting or at the hands of the executioners is estimated by Anselm in his Berner Chronik at a hundred and thirty thousand. It was certainly not less than a hundred thousand. For months after, the executioner was active in many of the affected districts. Spalatin says: “Of hanging and beheading there is no end”. Another writer has it: “It was all so that even a stone had been moved to pity, for the chastisement and vengeance of the conquering lords was great”. The executions within the jurisdiction of the Swabian League alone are stated at ten thousand. Truchses’s provost boasted of having hanged or beheaded twelve hundred with his own hand. More than fifty thousand fugitives were recorded. These, according to a Swabian League order, were all outlawed in such wise that any one who found them might slay them without fear of consequences.

The sentences and executions were conducted with true mediaeval levity. It is narrated in a contemporary chronicle that in one village in the Henneberg territory all the inhabitants had fled on the approach of the count and his men-at-arms save two tilers. The two were being led to execution when one appeared to weep bitterly, and his reply to interrogatories was that he bewailed the dwellings of the aristocracy thereabouts, for henceforth there would be no one to supply them with durable tiles. Thereupon his companion burst out laughing, because, said he, it had just occurred to him that he would not know where to place his hat after his head had been taken off. These mildly humorous remarks obtained for both of them a free pardon.

… Many places were annihilated for having taken part with the peasants, even when they had been compelled by force to do so. Fields in these districts were everywhere laid waste or left uncultivated. Enormous sums were exacted as indemnity. In many of the villages peasants previously well-to-do were ruined. There seemed no limit to the bleeding of the “common man,” under the pretence of compensation for damage done by the insurrection.

The condition of the families of the dead and of the fugitives was appalling. Numbers perished from starvation. The wives and children of the insurgents were in some cases forcibly driven from their homesteads and even from their native territory. In one of the pamphlets published in 1525 anent the events of that year, we read: “Houses are burned; fields and vineyards lie fallow; clothes and household goods are robbed or burned; cattle and sheep are taken away; the same as to horses and trappings. The prince, the gentleman, or the nobleman will have his rent and due. Eternal God, whither shall the widows and poor children go forth to seek it?”

-Ernest Belfrt Bax, The Peasants’ War in Germany

* Weinsberg is also famous for a different siege centuries previous, which ended in an altogether more humane fashion.

** Luther wrote a Blood Easter of his own in Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants.

they are starting a rebellion, and violently robbing and plundering monasteries and castles which are not theirs, by which they have a second time deserved death in body and soul, if only as highwaymen and murderers. Besides, any man against whom it can be proved that he is a maker of sedition is outside the law of God and Empire, so that the first who can slay him is doing right and well. For if a man is an open rebel every man is his judge and executioner, just as when a fire starts, the first to put it out is the best man. For rebellion is not simple murder, but is like a great fire, which attacks and lays waste a whole land. Thus rebellion brings with it a land full of murder and bloodshed, makes widows and orphans, and turns everything upside down, like the greatest disaster. Therefore let everyone who can, smite, slay and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful or devilish than a rebel. It is just as when one must kill a mad dog; if you do not strike him, he will strike you, and a whole land with you

a prince and lord must remember in this case that he is God’s minister and the servant of his wrath (Romans XIII), to whom the sword is committed for use upon such fellows, and that he sins as greatly against God, if he does not punish and protect and does not fulfil the duties of his office, as does one to whom the sword has not been committed when he commits a murder. If he can punish and does not — even though the punishment consist in the taking of life and the shedding of blood — then he is guilty of all the murder and all the evil which these fellows commit, because, by willful neglect of the divine command, he permits them to practice their wickedness, though he can prevent it, and is in duty bound to do so. Here, then, there is no time for sleeping; no place for patience or mercy. It is the time of the sword, not the day of grace.

hey may die without worry and go to the scaffold with a good conscience, who are found exercising their office of the sword. They may leave to the devil the kingdom of the world, and take in exchange the everlasting kingdom. Strange times, these, when a prince can win heaven with bloodshed, better than other men with prayer!

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Holy Roman Empire,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1533: The witch of Schiltach

Add comment April 21st, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1533, a German woman, nameless to posterity, was burnt as a witch in the town of Schiltach.


Engraving of Schiltach from 1643, a century after the events in this post. (From Wikimedia Commons)

Top: Der Teufel von Schiltach (1930), by Eduard Trautwein. Bottom: Der Teufel von schiltach (1926), by Karl Eyth

This Black Forest idyll had been ravaged by fire on Maundy Thursday, the 10th of April.

We have seen many times in these pages how frightful was the scourge of fire for early modern cities, and the haste by which it was liable to be attributed to a malevolent plot.

In this case, common superstition soon acclaimed the fire an arson by the hand of an unpopular former maid of Schiltach’s mayor, who had recently been dismissed under a cloud of suspected diabolism. (This summary in German of the German book Der Teufel von Schiltach delves into the particulars.)

One problem: upon her dismissal, she had returned to her native Oberndorf. Not being in Schiltach at all during the events in question seemed like a pretty good alibi.

But since witchery was contributing means and motive, why not opportunity as well? Everyone knew that witches could fly. She was proximate, if not spatially then conceptually, to a disaster, and this was reason enough.

The luckless woman was retrieved from Oberndorf to answer the tortures of her disgruntled ex-boss, and consigned to the stake … and, as the images accompanying this post will attest, to local legend.


1533 woodcut illustration (click for larger version with German narrative text) about the Schiltach witch. (From Wikimedia Commons)

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arson,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Known But To God,Public Executions,Torture,Witchcraft,Women

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1525: Jakob Wehe, rebel priest

Add comment April 5th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1525 the radical priest Hans Jakob Wehe was beheaded.

Wehe led a muster of 3,000 Bavarian peasants which briefly seized the town of Lepheim, during Germany’s bloody Peasants War, ere it was routed by the Swabian League.

On the 5th of April towards evening, they [Wehe and some other captives] were taken to a flowery meadow lying between Leipheim and Budesheim to be executed. As Master Jakob was led forward to the block, Truchsess turned to him with the words: “Sir paster, it had been well for thee and us hadst thou preached God’s word, as it beseemeth, and not rebellion.” “Noble sir,” answered the preacher, “ye do me wrong. I have not preached rebellion, but God’s word.” “I am otherwise informed,” observed Truchsess, as his chaplain stepped forward to receive the confession of the condemned man. Wehe turned to those around, stating that he had already confessed to his Maker and commended his soul to Him. To his fellow-sufferers he observed: “Be of good cheer, brethren, we shall yet meet each other to-day in Paradise, for when our eyes seem to close, they are really first opening.” After having prayed aloud, concluding with the words: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” he laid himself on the block, and in another moment his head fell in the long grass.

The preacher of Günzburg, who had also taken part in the movement, and an old soldier of fortune, who had joined the rebels, were brought forward in their turn to submit to the same fate, when the old soldier, turning to Truchsess, observed: “Doth it not seem to thee a little late in the day, noble lord, for one to lose one’s head?” This humorous observation saved the lives of himself and the preacher. The latter was carried about with the troops in a cage, until he had bought his freedom with eighty gulden. He lost, however, the right of preaching and of riding on horseback!

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Gallows Humor,Germany,History,Last Minute Reprieve,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Power,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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1590: George Schweiger, tough love

Add comment April 2nd, 2018 Headsman

In the usual telling the father welcomes back the prodigal son by slaying the fatted calf … not the son himself. This, uh, alternate version comes from the diary of Nuremberg executioner Franz Schmidt.

April 2nd [1590]. George Schweiger of Falckendorf near Nerzogaurach, a thief who, in his youth, together with his brother, first stole 40 florins from his own father. Later, when his father sent him to settle a debt, he kept the money and gambled with it; lastly, discovering that his father had a treasure buried in a barn behind the house, he stole 60 florins of it. He had a lawful wife, but left her and attached himself to two whores, promising marriage to both. Beheaded with the sword as a favour.*

His father let him lie in prison here, and desired and insisted that justice should be done, in spite of the fact that he had recovered his money.

(Emphasis added.)

* i.e., he was sentenced to hanging as a common thief, but was given the quicker and more honorable execution of beheading as a mercy.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Pelf,Public Executions,Theft

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1592: The Uglich Bell

Add comment April 1st, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1592, the bell of Uglich had its “tongue” cut out, then was sent to Siberian exile — the crowning indignity of the collective punishment visited on that Volga River town for the murder of Tsarevich Dmitri.

Eight years on from the death of the ferocious and epoch-making Ivan the Terrible, Russia was under the rule of the boyar Boris Godunov, governing in the stead of his brother-in-law, etiolated Ivan heir Tsar Feodor.*

Although rival interpretations exist,** the conventional understanding of events we shall detail here is that Godunov turned assassin in order to maintain his hold on power and, eventually, achieve the tsardom for himself.


Boris Godunov’s 1598 coronation, from the Mussorgsky opera Boris Godunov.

Not yet the tsar himself at this point, Godunov’s problem was that he exercised power only through Feodor … and that heirless sovereign had a (much) younger brother, our victim Tsarevich Dmitri, who in the fullness of time might easily come to supplant both Feodor and Godunov. Boris Godunov had hidden this moppet and his mum away in Uglich, where the child had his own court as Russia’s last appanage prince. The English diplomat Gil(l)es Fletcher† never met Dmitry but his 1591 Of the Russe Commonwealth caught the peril of the situation, with a bit of foreshadowing.

Besides the emperor that now is who hath no child (neither is like ever to have for ought that may be conjectured of his body and the barenness of his wife after so many years’ marriage),‡ there is but one more, viz., a child of six or seven years old in whom resteth all the hope of the succession and the posterity of that house

[The child] is kept in a remote place from the Moscow under the tuition of his mother and her kindred of the house of the Nagois, yet not safe (as I have heard) from attempts of making away by practice of some that aspire to the succession if this emperor die without any issue. The nurse that tasted before him of certain meat (as I have heard) died presently. That he is natural son to Ivan Vasil’evich the Russe people warrant it by the father’s quality that beginneth to appear already in his tender years. He is delighted (they say) to see sheep and other cattle killed and to look on their throats while they are bleeding (which commonly children are afraid to behold), and to beat geese and hens with a staff till he see them lie dead.

The court rumors about Dmitry’s danger were onto something. On May 15, 1591, the eight-year-old princeling was found dead. He’d been stabbed in the neck.

Dmitry’s mother had the local prelates ring the cathedral bell summoning townsfolk to the commons to announce the murder and accuse Boris Godunov’s agents of perpetrating it. Outrage and panic soon whipped people into a mob that rampaged through Uglich, lynching 15 people — including one of Dmitry’s playmates as well as Moscow’s dyak, Mikhail Bityagovsky.


18th century icon of the Tsarevich Dmitry “Uglichsky” (click for larger image) shows his murder (left), and the cathedral bell being sounded to instigate summary justice (right). At the base of the cathedral, Mikhail Bityagovsky tries to batter down the door to silence the alarm.

Dangerous to bystanders, this mob was impotent against the Russian state. Boris Godunov dispatched a delegation that whitewashed Dmitry’s murder and ruthlessly punished Uglich; some 200 are reported to have been put to death for the disturbances.

The bell itself received the crowning punishment on the first of April in 1592, as the literal physical instigator of the riot: hurled from its tower, it was flogged on the public square and mutilated by having its “tongue” (the clapper) torn out. Then it was sent into exile in Tobolsk, where it remained until the 19th century. It hangs today at Uglich’s Church of St. Dmitry on Blood, although — as detailed in the bell’s Russian Wikipedia page — there is some debate about its authenticity.

As for “Saint Dmitry”, his story was just beginning and the canonization wasn’t the half of it.

When Tsar Feodor died in 1598 and Boris Godunov seized the throne outright, Russia entered her “Time of Troubles” — fifteen terrible years of civil war, invasion, and contested succession that ended with the seating of the Romanov dynasty. The Time of Troubles was characterized by, among other things, several imposters claiming to be this very murdered Prince Dmitry and therefore the rightful tsar. False Dmitrys were so ubiquitous during this interregnum that they have their own pretender regnal numbering, but all were failures in the contest for power: False Dmitri I, False Dmitri II, and False Dmitry III each came to violent and sordid ends.

* Ivan the Terrible had a perfectly cromulent heir being groomed for power in the form of one Tsarevich Ivan, but the volatile tsar had struck him during an argument in 1581 and accidentally killed him — which brought the unprepared Feodor into the succession and set up the catastrophic events of this post, as well as this incredible Ilya Repin painting:


Detail view (click for the full image) of Repin’s rendering of the horrified Ivan the Terrible clutching his mortally wounded son.

** The other principal version (Russian link) is that Dmitry suffered an epileptic fit while playing a game with knives, and accidentally stabbed himself. Many Uglichans gave this story to the official investigation (more Russian) that ensued the prince’s death, but their testimony is hard to depend upon since the Godunov-affiliated authorities conducting the investigation (like Patriarch Job, whom Godunov had made metropolitan of Moscow) preferred that version and presumably made sure that they received it. After Godunov’s death the official story reassigned responsibility to him — although this again was driven by the political imperatives of that moment. Some historians down the years have given credence to the “accident” hypothesis.

† That’s Giles Fletcher the elder, who is not to be confused with his son, the poet Giles Fletcher the Younger.

‡ Feodor had only a single daughter, Feodosia, born in 1592 (she died in 1594). As of the time of Dmitry’s murder, Feodor was 33 years old and completely childless.

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1549: Thomas Seymour, more wit than judgment

Add comment March 20th, 2018 Headsman

Having been elevated to the shadow of the throne by one sibling, Thomas Seymour on this date in 1549 was seen to the block by another sibling.

The brother of Henry VIII’s favorite queen, Jane Seymour, our Thomas was when that burly king kicked the bucket beautifully positioned for a share of power, being named to the regency council that would govern for his nephew, nine-year-old heir Edward VI.

What dreams may come!

But Thomas Seymour would find like many a Tudor courtier before and after him, that around the throne it thunders.

His vaunting ambitions were blocked by the oldest ogre of all, big brother: Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, who surpassed our Thomas in ability and seniority alike, was the man who rose to the top of the regency and as Lord Protector exercised sovereignty in the child-king’s name. “As the Duke was elder in Years, so was he more staid in Behaviour,” one history has it, observing that Thomas Seymour “was fierce in Courage, courtly in Fashion, in Personage stately, in Voice magnificent, but somewhat empty of Matter.”

Courageous, empty Thomas — whom we shall call Sudeley for the sake of his barony* and our clarity — took a more generous estimate of his own talents and the boys soon festered a sibling rivalry of uncommon consequence. Our man connived to attract the favor of young Edward, inveigling and cajoling him to exercise his kingly prerogatives to lever Somerset out and Sudeley in. This campaign found little traction among fellow regents and finally came to the desperate strait of Sudeley skulking on the grounds of Hampton Court Palace one night in January 1549 in a possible adventure to kidnap the king. Instead, it landed him in the Tower with treason charges pending after he gave away the game by shooting one of the king’s barking dogs. It would afterwards emerge that he had conspired with a corrupted official of the mint to coin him a sum sufficient to furnish the rebellious army he had allegedly already begun recruiting.

King Edward wasn’t the only underage royal to labor under Sudeley’s excessive attentions.

This chancer had married the former queen, Catherine Parr, and in early 1548 they had the young princess ElizabethAnne Boleyn‘s daughter, the future queen, who was here all of 14 years old** — living with them at Chelsea. Pushing 40, the cocksure Sudeley got far too friendly with Elizabeth, repeatedly entering her chambers early in the morning despite the reprimands of Elizabeth’s governess and playing a lot of slap and tickle. It’s ambiguous just how far this frolic went and what Elizabeth thought about it but despite Catherine Parr’s occasional participation in such romps(!) Sudeley did eventually cross his wife’s boundary for good, giving, and game. As that governess explained,

the Admiral [Sudeley] had loved the Princess but too well, and had so done for a long while … [until] the Queen [Catherine Parr], suspecting too often access of the Admiral to the lady Elizabeth’s Grace, came suddenly upon them, when they were all alone (he having her in his arms). Whereupon the Queen fell out both with the Lord Admiral and with her Grace also … And this was not long before they parted asunder their families [households].

By the time Sudeley fell, he had resumed his suit of Elizabeth, Catherine Parr having died late in 1548 from childbirth — or, as was rumored, poison. It wasn’t merely that Sudeley was on the perv; he had married Catherine Parr secretly, against the will of the council, and that he now intended the princess should succeed the queen in his bed augured a seditious intent. The regents found out about it and swiped left, and their cockblock might have been the spur for Sudeley’s desperate attempt to grab the king’s own person; certainly his efforts to wed the princess featured among the many charges laid by the bill of attainder that claimed Sudeley’s head.

Her stalker’s attentions also put Elizabeth under close questioning and had she not the sangfroid to deny resolutely any part in the man’s schemes her history, and ours, might have gone very differently. It’s not the last time that Elizabeth proved her mettle under interrogation.

As for Thomas Seymour himself, a delicate proceedings unfolded in the winter of 1549 with the Lord Protector and the King ultimately both assenting to a fatal prosecution of their kinsman, and perhaps also to a convenient magnification of his faults. For example, it was said that he went scheming literally all the way to the block, having prepared secret revengeful letters for posthumous delivery intended to set the princesses Mary and Elizabeth against his brother; this detail would lead Hugh Latimer to preach about the Lord Admiral — “a covetous man … an ambitious man … a seditious man, a contemner of common prayer”:

As touching the kind of his death, whether he be saved or no, I refer that to God only. What God can do, I can tell. I will not deny, but that he may in the twinkling of an eye save a man, and turn his heart. What he did, I cannot tell. And when a man hath two strokes with an axe, who can tell but that between two strokes he doth repent? It is very hard to judge. Well, I will not go so nigh to work; but this I will say, if they ask me what I think of his death, that he died very dangerously, irksomely, horribly.

Edward Seymour himself set his own hand to his brother’s death warrant in concert with the rest of the regency council. In a fine case study for parents who might wish to impress quarreling children with their interest in finding common purpose, Edward met the same fate inside of three years.

As for the savvy young Elizabeth, this early brush with reckless sexuality, political intrigue, and the perpetual proximity of the headsman’s axe, was perhaps an instructive event that would help to see her to her own glory. Her would-be lover had admirable qualities but she perceived well enough how they weighed as compared to his incontinence, and she quipped the definitive epitaph upon receiving news of his destruction: “This day died a man of much wit and very little judgement.”

* Sudeley Castle still stands today, and is open to tourists.

** Also crashing at the maison Sudeley in 1548: Lady Jane Grey. One of Sudeley’s numerous vain machinations was to orchestrate a Jane Grey-Edward VI marriage.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Nobility,Notably Survived By,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Treason

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1525: Cuauhtémoc, the last Aztec emperor

Add comment February 28th, 2018 Headsman

Although the primary accounts — those by conquistadors Hernán Cortés and Bernal Díaz del Castillo, and historian Francisco Lopez de Gomara* — did not explicitly record the date, February 28 is the traditionally recognized anniversary of the execution of the last Aztec emperor, Cuauhtémoc.

A monument to Cuauhtemoc in Mexico City. (Author’s photo; public domain)

Cuauhtemoc (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) was enthroned early in 1521, in a Tenochtitlan already in the train of devastation brought by the Spanish, which had over the preceding months laid low the Emperor Moctezuma II (by violence) and his brother Cuitlahuac (by smallpox, a disease that halved the city’s population within a year).

He was about 23 or 24 years old, a nobleman who must have distinguished himself in war — “a handsome man, both as regards his countenance and his figure,” in Bernal Diaz’s estimation; “a valiant man and a good warrior” by Gomara’s account.

And it would fall to him to bear his proud kingdom’s ruin.

Having previously been welcomed to Tenochtitlan as guests, Cortes and the Spanish had fought their way out and now returned as besiegers, joined by most of the Aztecs’ resentful former subject kingdoms. They soon had Tenochtitlan in a stranglehold, undaunted by the frightening sacrifice of captured prisoners.

all in a moment the large drum of Huitzilopochtli again resounded from the summit of the temple, accompanied by all the hellish music of shell trumpets, horns, and other instruments. The sound was truly dismal and terrifying, but still more agonizing was all this to us when we looked up and beheld how the Mexicans were mercilessly sacrificing to their idols our unfortunate companions, who had been captured in Cortes’ flight across the opening.

We could plainly see the platform, with the chapel in which those cursed idols stood; how the Mexicans had adorned the heads of the Spaniards with feathers, and compelled their victims to dance round the god Huitzilopochtli; we saw how they stretched them out at full length on a large stone, ripped open their breasts with flint knives, tore out the palpitating heart, and offered it to their idols. Alas! we were forced to be spectators of all this, and how they then seized hold of the dead bodies by the legs and threw them headlong down the steps of the temple, at the bottom of which other executioners stood ready to receive them, who severed the arms, legs, and heads from the bodies, drew the skin off the faces, which were tanned with the beards still adhering to them, and produced as spectacles of mockery and derision at their feasts ; the legs, arms, and other parts of the body being cut up and devoured!

In this way the Mexicans served all the Spaniards they took prisoners; and the entrails alone were thrown to the tigers, lions, otters, and serpents, which were kept in cages. These abominable barbarities we were forced to witness with our own eyes from our very camp; and the reader may easily imagine our feelings, how excessively agonizing! the more so as we were so near our unfortunate companions without being able to assist them. Every one of us thanked God from the bottom of his soul for His great mercy in having rescued us from such a horrible death!

-Bernal Diaz

Wracked by famine after Cortes successfully cut off its food and water, Tenochtitlan succumbed that August. (The conquistadors found they could barely endure the stench of countless rotting bodies as they took control of the famished city.) When captured, Cuauhtemoc implored Cortes through tears (again according to Bernal Diaz),

I have done what I was bound to do in the defence of my metropolis, and of my subjects. My resources have now become entirely exhausted. I have succumbed to superior power, and stand a prisoner before you. Now draw the dagger which hangs at your belt, and plunge it into my bosom.

There would be no bosom-daggering. Cortes had a much worse fate in mind.

He saluted Cuauhtemoc for his intrepidity in defense, vowing to maintain the latter as the ruler of Mexico … Cortes’s ruler, to ratify the dictates of the conquerors, beginning with commanding his remaining loyalists to surrender. Cuauhtemoc obeyed, with what posterity can only guess must have been fathomless shame and sorrow.

Upon humiliation, Cortes heaped physical torture when the invaders’ ransack of their captured city turned up far less lesser quantities of material loot than they had anticipated — torture which Cuauhtemoc and a cousin-king of a loyal Aztec ally both endured heroically without augmenting the Spanish bottom line. Bernal Diaz once again:

The next thing which Cortes did was to collect all the gold, silver, and jewels that had been found in Mexico, of which, however, there was very little; for Quauhtemoctzin, it was said, had ordered all the treasures to be thrown into the lake four days previous to his capture. A great quantity had likewise been purloined by the Tlascallans, Tezcucans, Huexotzincans, Cholullans, and other auxiliary troops which had assisted us in the siege, besides what had fallen into the hands of the troops on board the brigantines.

The crown officials were positive that Quauhtemoctzin had concealed the greater part, and asserted that Cortes was very pleased that the monarch refused to say a word where it was hidden; for he would then be able to get the whole treasure into his own possession.

The officers then proposed that Quauhtemoctzin and the king of Tlacupa, his most intimate friend and cousin, should be put to the torture, in order to extort from them a confession as to what had become of the treasures: but Cortes could not make up his mind to insult so great a monarch as Quauhtemoctzin, whose territory more than trebled that of Spain, and that for mere lust after gold. Moreover, the monarch’s household assured us they had given up all the gold they possessed to the officers of the crown, which, it was well known, amounted to 380,000 pesos, the whole of which had been melted into bars; and one thing is certain, that the emperor’s and Cortes’ fifths were deducted from that sum; but the conquistadores were not at all satisfied, and considered this sum much below the real amount, and several expressed their suspicion to Alderete, the royal treasurer, that Cortes’ only reason for not wishing to put the monarch to the torture was, that he might secretly take possession of all his riches. Cortes, not willing that such a suspicion should any longer he upon him, or that he should afterwards be called to an account on this score, at last consented that both should be put to the torture.


Detail view (click for the full image) of David Alfaro Siquieros‘s monumental 1950-51 mural, The Torment of Cuauhtemoc.

Boiling hot oil was then applied to their feet; upon which they confessed that, four days prior to Quauhtemoctzin’s capture, all the gold, with the cannon, crossbows, and muskets, which we had lost in the night of sorrows, when we retreated from Mexico, besides those which had been taken in Cortes’ last defeat on the causeway, had been thrown into the lake. A number of good swimmers were then sent to dive for the treasure in the spot they pointed out, but nothing was found. Yet there was some truth in the statement; for I was myself present when Quauhtemoctzin led us to a large and deep reservoir of water, built of stone, which lay near his palace. From this reservoir we fished up a sun of gold similar to the one sent us by Motecusuma, besides many jewels and other trinkets, though all of little value. The king of Tlacupa also informed us that he had hidden all manner of valuable things in some large houses, about twelve miles from Tlacupa, and he would accompany us there to point out the spot where he had buried them.

Alvarado was then despatched thither with six soldiers, among which number I also was; but when we arrived at the spot, this king assured us he had merely invented all this in the hopes that we would have killed him in a moment of anger at our disappointment.

(Diaz later added that “the suspicion was become pretty general that he [Cortes] had concealed the greater part of Quauhtemoctzin’s treasure,” and indeed some disgruntled companions — unsatisfied with the share they had been allotted for so magnificent a conquest — would come to lodge this charge against Cortes formally with Emperor Charles V.)

Cortes eventually brought both these hostages/puppet kings/torture victims along with him on a 1524-1525 expedition to Honduras, perhaps to deprive them of any opportunity to rebel in his absence.

On the evening of February 27, Cortes received a report or a rumor that the Indian kings had rebellion on their mind just the same. The timetable from this report to execution is uncertain from the records, but if it was not within 24 hours it cannot have been much longer. Diaz, a hostile-to-Cortes witness here whose narrative indicates his dismay at proceedings, describes it thus:

I have now to relate a circumstance of a very different nature, which occasioned much grief to us all. Quauhtemoctzin and other Mexican chiefs who accompanied our army had, it would appear, spoken among themselves, or secretly determined to put the whole of us to death, then march back to Mexico, and assemble the whole armed power of the country against the few remaining Spaniards, and raise an insurrection throughout the whole of New Spain. This circumstance was discovered to Cortes by two distinguished Mexican chiefs, one of whom was named Tapia, and the other Juan Velasquez. This latter personage had been Quauhtemoctzin’s captain-general during our war with Mexico, and his testimony was borne out by the investigation which Cortes made into the matter, and by the confession of several of the caziques themselves who were implicated in the conspiracy. These men fearlessly declared, that seeing how carelessly and dispiritedly we roamed about; that numbers of the men were ill from want of food; that four of our musicians, with the buffoon and five soldiers, had died of hunger; and that three other men had turned back, more willing to run the risk of reaching Mexico again than of moving forward, the thought struck them that they could not do better than fall suddenly upon us while we were crossing some river or marsh, particularly as they were upwards of 3000 in number, all armed with lances, and several of them with swords. Quauhtemoctzin did not hesitate to acknowledge that these men had spoken the truth, but added that the conspiracy did not emanate with him, and that he himself had never for a moment contemplated carrying it into effect, but had merely spoken about it with the other caziques. All the cazique of Tlacupa confessed was, his having declared to Quauhtemoctzin that it was better to die at once than daily to have death before their eyes on these fatiguing marches, and see their countrymen and relations perish with hunger.

These were sufficient proofs for Cortes, and without any further ceremony he sentenced Quauhtemoctzin and his cousin the king of Tlacupa to the gallows. Before, however, this sentence was executed, the Franciscan monks, with the assistance of Dona Marina, strove to comfort these unfortunate men, and commended their souls to God. When they were being led to the place of execution, Quauhtemoctzin turned to Cortes, and said: “Oh Malinche! I have for a long time perceived, from your false words, that you had destined me for such a death, because I did not lay violent hands on myself when you entered my city of Mexico! Why are you thus going to put me unjustly to death? God will one time ask this of you!”

The king of Tlacupa said, he could only rejoice in a death which he would be permitted to suffer with his monarch Quauhtemoctzin.

Previous to their being hung, both these unhappy caziques confessed to father Juan, who understood the Mexican language, and they begged of him to commend their souls to God. For Indians they were good Christians, and they died in the true faith, and fully believed in our holy religion.

The death of these two monarchs grieved me excessively, for I had known them in all their glory, and on our march they honoured me with their friendship, and showed me many little attentions; for instance, they would often order their servants to go in quest of fodder for my horse; besides which, they were innocent of the guilt imputed to them, and it was the opinion of all who accompanied this expedition that they were put to death unjustly.

But I will leave this miserable subject, and return to our march, on which we henceforth observed the utmost vigilance, for we greatly feared the Mexicans might rise up in arms against us, after they had thus beheld their monarch ignominiously hung by the neck from a tree. But hunger, fatigue, and sickness weighed heavier upon their minds than the misfortune of Quauhtemoctzin.


Detail view (click for the full image) of the “rebel” kings hanged from a tree.

Gomara and, of course, Cortes characterize the accusations against the Indian kings as true and the proceedings against them lawful. From the footnotes in this same Bernal Diaz volume, we have this from the later Jesuit historian and ethnographer Juan de Torquemada, who was fluent in Nahuatl:

I find it differently represented in a history written in the Mexican language, and which I believe to be perfectly correct. While Cortes (the Mexican author says) was quartered in a certain township, the Mexican chiefs one evening began to discourse among themselves about the recent hardships they had suffered, and Cohuanacotzin said to Quauhtemoctzin, to Tetlepanquetzaltzin, and to other distinguished Mexicans, ‘Thus you see, gentlemen, from kings we are become slaves, and we suffer ourselves to be led about by Cortes and this handful of Christians. If we were other people than we are, and would break through the promise we have made these Spaniards, we could play them a pretty trick here, and revenge ourselves upon them for all they have done to us, and the ill-treatment my cousin Quauhtemoctzin has suffered at their hands.’ To this the Mexican monarch replied, ‘I beg of you Cohuanacotzin to drop this subject, lest some one should overhear us, and imagine we were in earnest.’ It appears (continues Torquemada) that they were indeed overheard, for the whole of this discourse was reported to Cortes by a low-minded Mexican of the lower classes.

By law, Mexican flags fly at half-staff in his honor on February 28.

* These texts are cited throughout the post, but for ease of reference … Bernal Diaz: Memoirs of the Conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo, vol. 1, vol. 2 | Gomara: The Pleasant Historie of the Conquest of the West India; now called New Spaine | Cortes: History of New Spain, which is a Spanish text as I could not locate an English translation. However, even the Anglophone is liable to appreciate (from p. 225) the illustrations of Indian material culture observed by the Spaniards.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Heads of State,History,Hostages,Martyrs,Mexico,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Royalty,Soldiers,Spain,Summary Executions,Torture,Wrongful Executions

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