Posts filed under '16th Century'

1527: Leonhard Kaiser, Lutheran

2 comments August 16th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1527, Lutheran evangelist Leonhard Kaiser burned for his heresy at the Bavarian (today, Austrian) city of Scharding.

Kaiser (German link) was a middle-aged vicar hailing from a comfortable Bavarian family when Luther’s reformation fired a new evangelical zeal; he relocated to Wittenberg to absorb the new doctrines and became not only Luther’s exponent, but his friend.

In 1527, however, our man returned to his native Raab to nurse his ailing father — a calculated risk but a reasonable one, since Bavaria had not been killing its heretics.

Unfortunately for Kaiser, the region had a fresh new anti-Lutheran authority, and Kaiser’s continued preaching while he was in town set him up to be made an example of. Lutheran nemesis Johann Eck personally participated in the investigation.

According to Martin Luther as Comforter: Writings on Death, Luther personally wrote Kaiser a short letter of comfort in May of 1527, exhorting him to “patiently endure with the strength of Christ” his imminent martyrdom.

The great Reformer seems to have been profoundly affected by the death of his fellow-traveler, even (says this) questioning his own ministry relative to the sacrifice of flesh made by Leonard Kaiser. “I daily expect the death of a heretic,” Luther had written a friend a few years before … yet those martyrs’ laurels were not for him.

Instead, Luther did his proselytizing with his pen, and he found in Leonhard Kaiser a powerful subject indeed.

Luther took an early martyr’s hagiography written by Michael Stifel and greatly expanded it into a tribute, Concerning Leonhard Kaiser, Burned in Bavaria For the Sake of the Gospel that remained continuously in print in the 16th century. In that volume (I have not found a public link to it available online) Luther uses the burned man’s suggestive name: Leonard, “Lion-Hearted”, and Kaiser, “King”, to exalt the martyr’s courage and ultimate triumph.

It was also about this period — 1527 to 1529 — that Luther composed the hymn A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. Based on the Bible’s Psalm 46, this enduringly popular (even with Catholics) piece has been thought (though it’s just one speculative hypothesis among several) to be Luther’s tribute to his lion-hearted friend.

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1537: Janet Douglas, Lady Glamis

Add comment July 17th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1537, a Scottish noblewoman suffered the fate decreed for her treason — in the terse entry of the judicial record, combusta.

Knocking around Glamis Castle — where Shakespeare’s great villain Macbeth got his start, as Thane of Glamis* — Janet Douglas had the going enmity of Scottish king James V on the substantial grounds that Janet’s father had held the teen-king his virtual prisoner for a few years in the 1520s. Once James got free, he proscribed the lady’s brother, the Earl of Angus (whom Janet continued to shelter when occasioned), confiscated properties, forbade Douglases from approaching his person, and all that sort of thing.

Presumably according to this same anti-Douglas animus, an abortive attempt was made in 1531 to try our Lady Glamis for poisoning her late first husband, Lord Glamis. However, the charge foundered on the refusal of her peers to participate: “the lairds of Ardoch, Braco, Fingask, Abernethy, Piferran, Lawers, Carnock, Moncreiff, Anstruther, Lord Ruthven, Lord Oliphant, and many others, were fined for absenting themselves from the jury.”

Six years later she was more successfully returned to the dock, this time on a charge of plotting to poison the king himself. There seems to remain very little detail that would trace the precise unfolding of those years and offer later interlocutors a clear interpretation; while “innocent noble railroaded” is the most conventional read — Henry VIII’s agent reported that the conviction was secured “without any substanciall ground or proyf of mattir” — this book gives it a “maybe she did, maybe she didn’t” spin. That whole embittered proscription thing cuts both ways, as motives go.

At any rate, torture induced Janet Douglas’s own 16-year-old son John to testify that she had procured a potion intended to resolve that feud, and despite reported doubts and a spirited defense, the judges found her “committit art and part of the tressonabill Conspiratioune and ymaginatioune of the slauchter and destructioune of our soverane lordis” and therefore to “be had to Castell hill of Edinburghe, and thair brynt in ane fyre to the deid as ane Traytour.” (John was reprieved of this fate, but he still had to watch.)

King Jamie took over Glamis Castle and hung his spurs there until his own death in 1542 … whereupon his crown passed to Mary, Queen of Scots, and the castle reverted to that young John, the new Lord Glamis.

Glamis Castle still stands, picturesquely, and legend has it that the visitor there might encounter the burned woman’s ghost haunting the place as the Grey Lady.**

* Not actually true of the historical man Macbeth.

** Not to be confused with the New York Times. Actually, there are several ghosts who go by this colorless title.

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1575: The intrepid Torii Suneemon

2 comments June 24th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1575* a Japanese soldier was crucified under the walls of his castle … and entered his country’s folklore.

Torii Suneemon was a footman of the Okudaira family late in Japan’s fratricidal Warring States Period.

The Okudaira, allies of the wars’ eventually-victorious Tokugawa clan, found themselves besieged by the Takeda. This would result in the important Battle of Nagashino.


Kurosawa’s masterpiece Kagemusha imagines the Takeda where the (real) late daimyo Shingen was succeeded after his (real) 1573 death (fictitiously) by an imposter thief posing as the great commander. In the film, the imposter is unmasked and deposed, but witnesses the climactic Battle of Nagashino … and then makes a futile charge under the Takeda banner after that side is slaughtered.

After an initial Takeda attempt to take the fortress by storm, the Takeda settled in for a brief siege — knowing the defenders to have only a few days’ supplies on hand. Enter Torii Suneemon.

Under cover of darkness on the night of the 22nd-23rd, Suneemon slipped out of the Yagyu gate and picked his way through Takeda tripwires to escape the investment … and summon help.


Torii Suneemon embarks on his mission: 19th century woodblock print of Yoshitoshi‘s “24 Accomplishments of Imperial Japan” series. The same artist also depicted that event in this triptych.

He made it on the 23rd to Tokugawa Ieyasu and Oda Nobunaga, who upon hearing his report pledged to dispatch a relief force the very next day.

Alas for him, Suneemon’s attempt to sneak back into the encircled fortress to deliver the good news was detected on the 24th, and he came as a prisoner to the Takeda commander. The Takeda prevailed upon their helpless captive to exchange his life for a signal service: approach the fortress walls and shout to the garrison that no help was on the way.

This Suneemon agreed to do.

The legends differ as to whether he walked on up to deliver this bogus bad news, or whether the Takeda lifted him up on a cross to impress upon their new agent the penalty for any funny business. Either way, Torii Suneemon had the last laugh: he immediately began hollering to the defenders that help was coming if they could just hang on a few more days.


Torii Suneemon goes off-script. Another Yoshitoshi creation, from here or from this detailed French post.

The besiegers, of course, crucified him immediately … but everyone could appreciate the doomed man’s heroism.

While the grateful Okudaira elevated his family to samurai rank, even an enemy Takeda commander who witnessed the event was so moved that he adopted the image of the defiantly crucified soldier for his battle standard.

Heck, there’s apparently even a Japanese monument in San Antonio, Texas that compares Suneemon to the Alamo defenders.

Nor was the brave soldier’s sacrifice in vain. The garrison did hold on — and their allies did relieve them, and did rout the Takeda in the resulting Battle of Nagashino. (The scenario is widely reproduced in video games nowadays).

* Some sites give this as “May 16″, but I believe the primary sources here actually indicate the 16th day of the 5th month on the traditional Japanese lunisolar calendar. This date corresponds to June 24, 1575 of the Julian calendar. (1570s conversion aid in this pdf, or use this converter).

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1555: William Hunter, reader

Add comment March 26th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1555* — crying, “away, thou false prophet!” at the priest sent to hector him in his last moments — William Hunter was burned in Brentwood, Essex for Protestantism.


Hunter at the stake, from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

Here in the last brief moment of official Catholicism under Queen Mary, our apprentice silk-weaver was caught reading the Bible for himself in the local chapel.

Called in for questioning, both Hunter and the civil authorities decided it was worth his life to dispute the doctrine of transubstantiation. Catholic pro, Hunter con, of course.


(cc) image from Bopuc.

So that was that.

A couple of years later, the very justice who had first examined Hunter received a grant to found a school. Brentwood School is still going strong in its fifth century, and on its grounds — directly adjacent, in fact, to the school’s first purpose-built room** — rests a stone for the edification of the generations of Anglican pupils who followed. It honors the young man who died to crack open a book.

WILLIAM HUNTER. MARTYR. Committed to the Flames March 26th MDLV.
Christian Reader, learn from his example to value the privilege of an open Bible. And be careful to maintain it.

An elm tree planted at that spot came to be known as the Martyrs Elm.


1847 illustration of Brentwood School and the Martyrs Elm.

* This is the date per Foxe’s Book of Martyrs; others give March 27. The memorial stone carries the day for our purposes in view of contradictory sourcing.

** The legend that Brentwood School was founded as the justice’s penance for dooming Hunter seems to be unfounded.

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1561: Cardinal Carlo Carafa, papal nephew

1 comment March 4th, 2012 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Carafa

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

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

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

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1524: Not Jean de Poitiers, father of the mistress

Add comment February 17th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1524, the French aristocrat Jean de Poitiers, Seigneur de Saint Vallier lay his head on a chopping-block.

He kept it there for a full hour, but the headsman never swung the blade — and Jean de Poitiers walked away with a royal clemency.

This lucky Seigneur had been caught up in an English- and Habsburg-backed plot by the Constable of France to break off a chunk of France. (Said Constable fled to Charles V.)

Jean de Poitiers skated on noblesse oblige and lesser culpability, but there’s a scurrilous story that he was heard thanking God as he was led back from the scaffold for his daughter’s many charms.

Diane de Poitiers

The aforesaid beguiler, then-24-year-old Diane de Poitiers, had gone to King Francis to plead for her father’s life. Apparently she made an impression. (Or the king was planning to pardon Jean anyway.)

The implication of having gone the extra mile derives not from any particular fact known about that meeting, but from Diane’s subsequent, and rather illustrious, career as mistress to the monarch — not to Francis, but to his son Henri II.

In the 1530s, when Diane was a cougar-aged widow,* she became the mistress of the teenaged prince — and the rival of his teenaged bride, Catherine de’ Medici.

Diane was anything but the other woman in this arrangement: the brilliant, forceful personality whom Henri trusted as no other, it was Diane de Poitiers who wielded queen-like power during her lover’s reign. (They even had an H-D monogram.) She made calls in statecraft and in the royal household, and one can fancy the fury Queen Catherine conceived for having her husband’s older mistress decide how to raise the kids.

Diane’s career ought to have ended in a state funeral, but the hale and hearty Henri suffered a freak jousting accident in 1559 that reordered female influence in the Valois dynasty. Catherine wouldn’t even let Diane near the deathbed of the king as he painfully expired — and the queen exiled the former royal favorite to a distant estate as soon as possible.

* Diane de Poitiers was on either end of May-December arrangements in her time, and the monument that she put up for her much-older husband Louis de Breze can be seen at the cathedral in Rouen.

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1555: John Hooper

Add comment February 9th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1555, English Calvinist John Hooper fell victim to Mary Tudor’s abortive bid for Catholic restoration.

A onetime monk on the receiving end of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Hooper got the evangelical bug by reading Zwingli and became more un-Catholic than the anti-pope.

That meant that in quasi-Catholic Anglican England, he had to hot-foot it over to the continent a couple of times to keep out of trouble.

Even when more aggressive reformers took the lead after Henry VIII died, Hooper proved a gadfly; he’s noted for setting off the decades-long “vestments controversy” with his denunciation of the “Aaronic” ceremonial garb donned by priests.

(Hooper himself had to work out a compromise just to be ordained in garb sufficiently modest to satisfy his conscience.)

He survived the fall of his patron Edward Seymour, but the death of Edward VI and the ensuing succession of the Catholic Queen Mary Tudor was Hooper’s demise. Historians may debate whether “Bloody Mary” really deserves her unkind nickname, but had she left a proto-Puritan loose cannon like Hooper unmolested, she would have indeed been a little lamb.

Hooper — naturally — took solace from the Word, “as St. Paul that loved the policy, laws, order, and wisdom of the Romans, yet disliked very much the vice and naughtiness of Nero, unto whom he submitted, and willingly brought into servitude both his body and goods, and rebelled not, though Nero was a naughty emperor, for his office sake, which was the ordinance of God.”

A large collection of Hooper’s writings (including the foregoing) is available at this Google books freebie.

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1579: Thomas Sherwood, Catholic martyr

Add comment February 7th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1579, young Catholic layman Thomas Sherwood was hanged at Tyburn, cut down while still alive, disemboweled, and quartered.

This casualty of the Elizabethan era’s dangerous struggle for the soul of Britain had popped across to the continent to begin his studies under the church’s auspices.

He had not yet completed them when, on a return trip, a Protestant recognized him and got him locked up in the Tower, where Sherwood was tortured for information about the whereabouts of the underground Catholic Mass — but “he was brave beyond his years, no racking, no cross-examination could make him name any one.”

Sherwood had the distinction during his confinement of being one of the last earthly creatures to receive the (attempted) aid of octogenarian fellow-Catholic William Roper, Sir Thomas More‘s son-in-law and first biographer. (Roper’s attempts to send money to the imprisoned Sherwood were intercepted, however.)

Sherwood’s brother recalled of the martyr,

He was of small learning, scarcely understanding the Latin tongue, but had much read books of controversies and devotion, and had used much to converse among Catholic priests, and by reason thereof, having a good wit and judgment, and withal being very devout and religious, he was able to give good counsel, as he did to many of the more ignorant sort, being much esteemed for his virtuous life and humble and modest behaviour: besides God did give a special grace in his [conversation] , whereby together with his good example of life, he much moved and edified others. He was a man of little stature of body, yet of a healthful and good constitution, and very temperate in his diet.

After his first racking in the Tower (which was said to be rigorous), being visited by a Catholic gentlewoman, he showed himself of that joyful and comfortable spirit as she was astonished thereat. As also his keeper with compassion giving him warning that he was to be racked again, he was so little moved therewith, as merrily and with a cheerful countenance he said these words: ‘ I am very little, and you are very tall; you may hide me in your great hose and so they shall not find me; ‘ which the keeper did afterwards report to divers, much marvelling at his great fortitude and courage. He was about the age of twenty-seven years when he was martyred.

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1537: “Silken Thomas” FitzGerald, Earl of Kildare

Add comment February 3rd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1537, an Irish lord and his five uncles were hanged and beheaded at Tyburn for revolting against Henry VIII: the last act in an entire cycle of executions.

The Rumored Execution

Thomas FitzGerald‘s father, the king’s Lord-Deputy of Ireland, had been summoned to London to answer the complaints of his rivals and there committed to the Tower.

Said rivals then cunningly circulated reports that dad had been beheaded, inducing the hot-headed (and finely-appareled) heir Thomas to renounce his allegiance and rebel with a dramatic retinue of 140 silk-bedizened gentlemen.

The Summary Execution

The Earl of Kildare hadn’t really been executed at all: he just died of shock and grief upon reading the reports of what his son had got up to in his absence.

Stuff like, besieging Dublin Castle where he hunted down the fleeing Archbishop (a longtime enemy of the Kildares) and had him instantly put to death.

(This might have been more pardonable had he at least managed to take Dublin Castle.)

The Maynooth Pardon
(Euphemism for Execution)

Instead, Silken Tom holed up in Maynooth Castle where he soon found himself on the receiving end of a siege.


Maynooth Castle in its present, romantically ruined state. (cc) image from Bart Busschots.

Thomas and his silk went off to find some allies to relieve it, hoping to play a Catholic-resentment card against Henry VIII’s rift with Rome.

But the local response was desultory and while the new Earl of Kildare was busy beating the bushes, the English took the castle — issuing to its garrison the “Maynooth Pardon”, the ironical sobriquet for executing most of the lot.

Silken Thomas’s Execution

His rebellion having been all downhill since the big silken resignation, Thomas was eventually induced by promises of safekeeping to surrender himself to the royal mercy.

But said mercy was not forthcoming, and he endured a year-plus locked up in something less than his trademark finery — “I have had neither hosen, doublet, nor shoes, nor shirt but one; nor any other garment but a single frieze gown … so I have gone wolward, and barefoot and barelegged,” he complained in a letter — until, attainted by the Irish Parliament, he was executed with his kinsmen.

Although the Kildare title disappeared for a time, Thomas FitzGerald’s young but hunted half-brother escaped to the continent, bounced all over Europe for a decade, picked up an education, fought the Turks, and returned to receive his family’s peerage re-granted so he could practice alchemy in his castle as “the Wizard Earl”.

When next in Kildare Town, stand a drink or two for these hearty bygone Geraldines at the Silken Thomas pub.

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1536: The Münster Rebellion leaders

3 comments January 22nd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1536, Bernhard Krechting, Bernhard Knipperdolling, and Jan van Leiden were chained to stakes in the Münster public square, tortured with flesh-ripping tongs for more than an hour, killed with daggers thrust into their hearts, and their remains hoisted in cages in the city cathedral as a warning against any kindred misbehavior in the future.


Detail view (click for the full image) of Jan van Leiden et al being put to death in Münster. In the background, the Lambertuskirche spire shows the three cages in which the victims’ remains were gibbeted.

And the point was taken: the appalling deaths of these men also marked the death of early Anabaptism’s pretensions to secular political power.

These three unfortunates were the top surviving leaders of the Münster Rebellion, a revolution that turned that city into an Anabaptist commune for more than a year.

Just a few years before, southern Germany had been shaken by an apocalyptic peasant rebellion led by Thomas Muntzer, a sort of proto-Anabaptist.*

Though northern Germany was spared that particular maelstrom, that same religious tension and social discontent soon blew a hyperborean wind.

In the early 1530s, “Melchiorites” — Anabaptist followers of radical preacher Melchior Hoffman — proliferated rapidly among workers of the long-prosperous but now-waning Hanseatic territories in northern Germany and the Low Countries.

And these converts did not intend the meek example of evangelical martyrdom. They meant to rule.

In 1535, Democratic-Anabaptist types stormed the Amsterdam city hall; in a separate action, others seized and fortified a Friesland monastery before being overrun. An allied movement, less theologically distinct, won temporary control of Lübeck in 1533, before being expelled by force of arms.

Only in Münster did the Anabaptists realize the full flower of their project, albeit for a very brief period of time. Winning power over the course of the year 1533 by dint of internal politicking, energetic recruitment, and fortuitous imperial distraction, Münster Anabaptists booted out the 1% and started turning the place into a visionary “New Jerusalem.”

Among those visions, the most notorious was polygamy (pdf), introduced by Jan van Leiden when he inherited leadership after the charismatic firebrand Jan Matthys died in a sortie against a siege in April 1534. The story has it that van Leiden wanted to marry Matthys’s attractive widow Divara, though whether motivated by considerations of the loins or legitimacy is up to the reader’s good conscience.

There’s quite a controversial historiography surrounding their polygamous turn: while contemporary enemies were pleased to ascribe it to libertine devilries, German Communist intellectual Karl Kautsky vociferously defended the Münster Anabaptists — arguing that they resorted to polygamy for social stability when the gender disparity in the city had fallen past 3:1 owing to the vicissitudes of war.

And war, as Kautsky noted, was the commune of Münster’s essential condition, just like that of Paris.

Community of goods was the basis of the whole Baptist movement. For its sake the great fight was waged at Münster. It was not, however, the chief factor in determining the character of the Münster Baptist government, that factor being the siege. The town was a great war-camp; the demands of war took precedence of all other matters, and sentiments of freedom and equality were active only in so far as they were compatible with military dictatorship.

After a year and more under siege, Munster finally succumbed to Prince-Bishop Franz von Waldeck.

Jan van Leiden, by this time dignified the “King of Jerusalem”, was taken along with two of his chief aides and designated for this superlative punishment (many others less exalted faced less exalted executions, too).


For decades after the execution, the Anabaptists’ remains rotted publicly in cages on the tower of St. Lambert’s — like these still displayed there to this day. (cc) image from Rüdiger Wölk, Münster.

For Anabaptists as a whole this catastrophe commenced a long period of persecution and reckoning. But from such travails would the movement leave its mark. Indeed, it was also in January 1536 that a young Dutch priest named Menno Simons accepted adult baptism … and began a religious career that would make him the founding namesake of the Mennonites.

Dan Carlin’s “Hardcore History” podcast treats the Münster rebellion here.

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