Posts filed under '16th Century'

1567: Wilhelm von Grumbach, Landfrieden-breaker

Add comment April 18th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1567, Wilhelm von Grumbach was dismembered along with two of his followers in the marketplace of Gotha.

Grumbach (English Wikipedia entry | German) was the irascible German instigator of the aptly-named Grumbachsche Handel, a messy clash of rights and prerogatives at the hinge of the old feudal order and centralized princely authority.

Grumbach was a knight who’s invariably described as an “adventurer”. As a young man he fought in the Peasants War, but as he headed into middle age he became your basic penniless minor nobleman chafing at the failures and obstructed opportunities life threw at him.

The thing he could not abide losing was the disappearing right of the nobility to enter into a feud or vendetta. This scans to the modern like rank anarchy, but feuds were part of the tapestry of medieval German society, long codified in law — an obvious descendant of clan and tribal obligations out of which the muddle of feudal vassalage had formed. “The passion for liberty and rights,” says this volume, “ran amok in Germany. Churchmen, princes, burghers, and peasants all wanted their independence and readily resorted to declarations of feud to secure and defend their rights.”

The standing right for miscellaneous minor lords to start miscellaneous private wars was quite naturally one that princes were ever keen to restrict. After centuries of two-steps-forward, one-step-back efforts to deal with the feud, the 1495 Imperial Diet formally codified a ban on feuding known as the Ewiger Landfriede, or “perpetual peace”. In Poli Sci 101 terms, this is the state finally monopolizing legitimate violence.

As with dueling, however, official proscription did not end the practice. It was, indeed, Grumbach’s defeat and execution that would eventually be remembered as the decisive nail in the coffin for knightly feuds.

And so in Franconia where we lay our scene will civil blood make civil hands unclean …

Grumbach’s liege was Melchior Zobel von Giebelstadt, the Prince-Bishop of Wurzburg. (Still another confusing dimension of the political map, some princes of Germany’s many statelets were simultaneously ecclesiastical authorities. For purposes of this post, the “-Bishop” part doesn’t enter into it.)

Knights’ basic problem — the reason they were vulnerable to losing their wacky old-time rights — was poverty, and it was in money that Grumbach’s feud was rooted. Grumbach’s personal twist on this was being the sort of irascible, reckless coot who could carry a grudge so far as to get himself sawed into pieces over it.

Immediately upon assuming the Prince-Bishopric in 1544, Melchior Zobel von Giebelstadt forced Grumbach to return an unauthorized cash gift his predecessor had paid to the knight, and then stiffed said knight out of six villages whose revenues Grumbach sought by way of compensation.

He had to deal with Grumbach’s feud for the remainder of his term, which was also the remainder of his life … right up until Grumbach murdered him.

The disaffected knight hooked up with the margrave* Albert Alcibiades and started making a right mess in the middle of Europe with a 1552-54 mini-war. When Albert got thumped, Grumbach had to evacuate to France, and his holdings outside Wurzburg were plundered and/or destroyed by his foes.

So now the guy was even more aggrieved, and even more pfennigless.

He was downright vengeful about his feud at this point, although it’s noteworthy relative to that monopolization-of-violence trend that he was still the only one: in days of yore, intra-elite wars might have spawned multiple self-reproducing vendettas.

The grumpy Grumbach now hooked up with another patron,** the deposed elector of Saxony Johann Friedrich II — another dude who felt hard done by in the Holy Roman Empire.

Grumbach evened his score with Melchior von Zobel by having the Prince-Bishop killed in Wurzburg in April 1558. (In present-day Wurzburg, three Zobelsaulen markers commemorate the Prince-Bishop’s assassination, one on the very spot of the murder.)

But that still left the money, and we know Grumbach wasn’t the type to write off a debt. In 1563, he successfully invaded Wurzburg with 1,300 soldiers and at swordpoint forced from the city a concession restoring his property.

For Grumbach, it was to prove a Pyrrhic victory.

In principle, he had achieved a great vindication of the ancient right of the feud, and for the hard-pressed nobility against the realms’ many princes. If others of his station had rallied to that banner, what a whirlwind Germany would have reaped.

According to Hillay Zmora’s State and Nobility in Early Modern Germany: The Knightly Feud in Franconia, 1440-1567, however, Grumbach’s fellow-knights looked into this particular abyss and said “nein, danke.”

Grumbach was in fact hatching an extravagant scheme† to liberate the entire German nobility … from the yoke of the princes. It was a radical aristocratic utopia … nobles were not only to be protected by the [Holy Roman] emperor from the princes, but to help him subdue them once and for all and to establish an hereditary monarchy in Germany. But despite Grumbach’s best efforts to incite the Franconian nobility, they did not line up behind him. Guidied by the captain of the Franconian Circle (Kreis), Georg Ludwig von Seinsheim, who denounced Grumbach’s undertaking as ‘against God, law and the emperor’, they formally turned away from him in 1564. In the view of the majority of them, the Knighthood was to maintain its autonomy by respecting the equilibrium between emperor and princes, not by irresponsibly challenging the latter. And it was this view, reassuringly transmitted to the princes, which carried the day.

Grumbach was outlawed by the empire and in 1566-67 was overcome with his protector Johann Friedrich at Gotha. Both men spent he remainder of their lives as imperial prisoners, with the notable difference that Johann Friedrich had the pull to live out his natural ration of days while Grumbach went straight to the dungeon for torture and thence to the scaffold in the town that had lately been his last redoubt. There, Grumbach was ripped apart — his dying eyes beheld the executioner wrench the heart out of his very chest and taunt him: “Behold, Grumbach, thy false heart!” The late knight’s rotting quartered remains got nailed up around town to broadcast the unmistakable message:

The noble right to feud was dead.

* Hereditary military commander.

** Among their other capers, Grumbach and his patron Johann Friedrich conspired with Torben Oxe‘s nephew Peder Oxe to depose the Danish king Frederick II in favor of the king’s grand-niece, Christina. (Christina will be known to Tudor-philes as the young woman who scuttled Henry VIII’s post-Anne Boleyn suit with the sharp remark, “If I had two heads, one should be at the King of England’s disposal.”) Nothing came of the plot. (Source)

† Christian Wieland writes that Grumbach deployed — unsuccessfully but still impressively — a 16th century multimedia propaganda campaign to state his case to the “common nobleman”: woodblock-illustrated printed leaflets, songs valorizing the attack on Wurzburg (sample verse: “Violence may be averted by violence / According to natural law”).

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1586: Saint Margaret Clitherow, pressed Catholic

1 comment March 25th, 2013 Courtney Thomas

(Thanks to historian Courtney Thomas for the guest post. -ed.)

On March 25, 1586 Margaret Clitherow, the wife of a York-based butcher, was subjected to one of the more obscure forms of capital punishment in early modern England: she was pressed to death, the mandated form of punishment for those who refused to enter a plea to a legal charge.*

Margaret was a victim of increasingly stringent attitudes toward recusants in the second half of Elizabeth I’s reign (1558-1603): Margaret was pressed to death just a year before the execution of Mary Queen of Scots for her role in a Catholic plot to overthrow the Elizabethan regime and two years before the 1588 Spanish Armada.

The two officials who were tasked with carrying out the sentence allegedly employed several beggars to perform the job instead and Margaret was taken to the toll-both on the bridge that straddles the river Ouse where she was stripped and had a handkerchief tied over her eyes as a blindfold. She was then placed upon a rock roughly the size of a baseball or an adult’s fist and a large panel of wood (roughly the size of a door) was put on top of her and slowly loaded with 700-800 pounds of rocks and stones.

In theory the smaller rock beneath her would break her back when the heavy rocks were piled on.

Witnesses report that she expired within about fifteen minutes. Other victims of this punishment were not typically so lucky. For example, Giles Corey, executed in Salem in 1692, had weights slowly piled on him for a period of several days (being asked daily before more weight was added if he wished to enter a plea to the charge that he was a warlock) before he expired.

Margaret was born Margaret Middleton in 1552/3, the daughter of a wax-chandler named Thomas and his wife Jane, the daughter of Richard Turner, an innkeeper. One of four children, she was born during the reign of Mary I (who has gone down in history with the unfortunate (but not entirely undeserved) appellation “Bloody” attached to her).

A bit of background on the process of the various reformations in England is necessary to understand why Margaret’s Catholic beliefs were treated so harshly.

Having broken with the Roman Catholic Church and founded the Anglican Church in the 1530s through a legislative reformation designed to assist him in securing the dissolution of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that he could wed Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII saw many of his religious policies undone by his heirs.

He was succeeded on the throne in 1547 by his son (with his third wife, Jane Seymour), Edward VI, who made England into a more recognizably Protestant state than Henry appears to have intended (while Henry was interested in reforming stances, he appears to have identified most strongly with Catholic principles and geared his reformation toward abolishing the authority of the Pope in English ecclesiastical affairs, rather than changing beliefs and practices).

Edward was, however, a short-lived king, having died in 1553 after but six years on the throne. He was succeeded by his half-sister Mary (daughter of Henry’s first wife Catherine of Aragon) who was a devout Catholic and spent much of her reign steering England back into the port of Catholicism — a task which involved martyring approximately three hundred of her subjects for their Protestant sympathies.

Mary, in turn, was succeeded by Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth was of a Protestant mindset and reinstituted the Anglican Church. Though initially reluctant to persecute people for their beliefs (she expressed herself as having no desire to “make windows into men’s souls”), political circumstances involving a plethora of plots on the part of Catholics (both real and perceived) against the Queen resulted in a hardening of attitudes.

While fines and penalties were in place for non-attendance at Church of England services, the regime also began to enforce strict penalties against those found guilty of sheltering priests and Jesuits. And it was to these laws that Margaret fell victim.


On July 1, 1571, when she was about eighteen years old, Margaret wed John Clitherow, a local York butcher and a widower with two sons. The number of children borne by Margaret to her husband is unknown; in addition to her stepsons William (1563-1636) and Thomas (d. 1604), she bore Henry (b. 1572) and Anne (1574-1622) and there is mention of other pregnancies but the details do not survive.

In 1574, when she was twenty one, Margaret experienced a spiritual awakening and converted to Catholicism.

While her husband did not join her in converting, members of his family also held Catholic sympathies and he was not unsupportive of her conversion, with the exception of one recorded incident when he railed against Catholics while drunk at a banquet.

Margaret soon became highly involved in northern England’s underground Catholic community. She regularly held masses in her home in the Shambles (where she assisted her husband with his business) and her son, Henry, traveled to Rheims (a Jesuit centre) to train for the priesthood. Inside her home, Margaret created a series of architectural features to facilitate the concealing of priests, including a priest hole and a hole which was cut between the attics of her house and the adjoining house which could be used by a priest to escape in the event that the house was searched.

Inevitably Margaret’s involvement with the local Catholic community drew official censure, and from 1576 onwards, John Clitherow incurred regular fines for her refusal to attend Church of England services with him. She was also imprisoned several times for her refusal to conform, serving three separate terms in York Castle as a recusant (August 1577 – February 1578; October 1580 – April 1581; March 1583 – winter 1584).

Once released, despite her efforts at concealment, on March 10, 1586 Margaret was arrested for harbouring priests (which, in 1585 had been made a capital offense). In a search of her house, a frightened child had revealed the location of a secret room containing Catholic paraphernalia and designed to shelter a priest.

After her arrest, Margaret was jailed and on March 14 she appeared at the assizes. Although she was repeatedly asked to plead, she refused a trial by jury and thereby incurred the penalty of peine forte et dure: being crushed or pressed to death. Margaret maintained that her refusal to plead was a measure to prevent her children and servants having to testify against her and also served to protect the souls of the jury which would find her guilty. It is very likely that she also wanted to protect other local recusants who had assisted her and desired to prevent the revealing of their identity, which a trial would have uncovered. However, many contemporaries simply thought her mad and wondered at her seeming indifference to her husband and children — and Margaret’s willingness to abandon them for martyrdom.

Yet, despite her imminent death, Margaret allegedly did not forget her family in her final days and reportedly sent her hat to her husband and her hose and shoes to her daughter, Anne. Some people, including her father-in-law, engaged in scurrilous mongering and postulated that Margaret’s willingness to die stemmed from guilt over an illicit encounter with her confessor, whose child she now carried. Such views, however, did not attain much popularity.

After her sentencing, she was visited by several local Protestant preachers and kin, who endeavoured in vain to persuade her to plead guilty and throw herself on the mercy of the assize justices. She also appears to have been pregnant at the time as many people urged her to publicly admit her condition and thereby obtain a stay of execution.

Margaret steadfastly refused to consider any of these things; she had embraced martyrdom. After her death, local family and friends (one of whom, John Mush, later authored a biography that remains the primary source for her life) found her corpse (buried anonymously as a criminal) and reinterred her in an unknown location in accordance with Catholic rites.

After his wife’s death, John Clitherow married for a third time and remained a convinced Protestant until his own death. The couple’s children, however, embraced their mother’s Catholic faith. Anne Clitherow was briefly imprisoned in 1593 for her refusal to attend Church of England services and eventually became a nun at the convent of St. Ursula’s in Louvain in 1598. Henry (the son who had traveled to Rheims) studied first to be a Capuchin (he joined that order in 1592) and then to become a Dominican. He died, possibly insane, without having firmly settled on an order. Margaret’s stepson, William, became a priest in 1608, and her other stepson, Thomas, a draper, was imprisoned for his recusancy. He died in Hull prison in 1604.

Margaret’s work for the English Catholic community and her martyrdom resulted in her canonization in the twentieth century. She was beatified in 1929 and canonized in October of 1970 — one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales. After her execution, somebody apparently chopped off her hand to preserve as a relic at the Bar Convent in York. Margaret’s feast day in the current Roman Catholic calendar, together with that of the other thirty-nine English martyrs, is May 4 — although in England it is celebrated on August 30.

A few books about Margaret Clitherow

* Editor’s note: the trial could not begin without a guilty/not-guilty plea, so pressing was a means of forcing a mum defendant to the bar. Brute force often succeeded in extracting the necessary plea; however, because death by pressing preceded trial or conviction, a defendant hardy enough to undergo that fate could use it as a means to skip to the “execution” without suffering the other pains of criminal conviction. In Margaret’s case, she avoided the potential implication of other furtive Catholics at trial; in Giles Corey’s case, he avoided forfeiting his property upon the inevitable witchcraft conviction, and passed his estate to his heirs instead.

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1548: Francesco Burlamacchi, Lucca republican

Add comment February 14th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1548, Francesco Burlamacchi lost his head … for a united Italy?

A humanist patrician with a soft spot for Plutarch, Burlamacchi had orchestrated a bid to break away an independent federation of Tuscan cities — Florence, Pisa, and his own city of Lucca.

The dream of the Republic and liberty lived long after Rome’s legions had ceased to tromp. It’s just that said dream got reliably tromped over whenever it threatened to materialize in reality.

These prospectively-liberated cities existed with formal independence under the aegis of the allied Holy Roman Emperor Charles V — and were locally bullied by the Medici Duke Cosmo. That made two Caesars who would not be keen on fragmented city-states coalescing into Burlamacchi’s Republic of Tourist Hotspots; for good measure, Burlamacchi threw in some religious reform and anti-clericalism that would be sure to go down poorly with the church. (Lucca was notorious in the Vatican’s eyes as a center of heterodoxy.)

Against this likely formidable opposition, our plotter counterpoised an astonishing rolling-putsch plan.

His scheme was to march a militia, under cover of “training,” out to the environs of Pisa where he would appeal to the Pisans to throw off their Florentine shackles, then march the resulting larger troop to Florence and appeal to the Florentines to kick out the Medici. Revolution accomplished, the neighboring cities — Siena, Arezzo, Lucca itself — would naturally adhere to this new confederation.* He meant, he later told his judges, to “free all of Tuscany.”

Pretty ambitious. Or optimistic. Or … bonkers.

Once the impossible dream plot was betrayed from the inside, Duke Cosmo, as the most direct target of the intended march, wanted Burlamacchi delivered to his own hands for interrogation and punishment; the elders of Lucca could not do this without making an impolitic show of submission to their neighbor.** Charles V resolved the impasse by taking Burlamacchi to the imperial seat of northern Italy, Milan, and cutting his head off there.

During Italy’s 19th century risorgimento, the Italian writer Carlo Minutoli rediscovered Burlamacchi and popularized him as a forerunner of the new Italian nationalists. (Burlamacchi had long been forgotten as an embarrassment in the intervening centuries.)

Accordingly, with the (proto-)unification of Italy, Tuscan sculptor Ulisse Cambi was commissioned to produce a monumental statue of Francesco Burlamacchi. This would-be Aratus still keeps watch on Lucca’s Piazza San Michele.


(cc) image from alphaorionis. Note that, according to The Renaissance in the Streets, Schools, and Studies (whose chapter “Fortune’s Fool” by Mary Hewlett was invaluable to this post), the historical Burlamacchi actually never carried a sword and hated bloodshed.

* The confederated city-states model was really big in the family. Burlamacchi’s teenage — at the time of the execution — son Michele later emigrated to Geneva, in the Swiss Confederation, and converted to Calvinism.

** Lucca was declining as a power at this time, and all the more insistent about jealously guarding a maximal appearance of sovereignty. The city-state’s major project in the 16th century was throwing up city-girding defensive walls meant to preserve her independence.

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1578: Blessed John Nelson, martyr

1 comment February 3rd, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1578, John Nelson was martyred at Tyburn.

A Catholic who had popped across to Flanders to train as a priest, Nelson was captured after about a year’s ministry in December 1577.

Matters with this minor martyr proceeded according to the usual script from that point. Interrogators put it to him whether Queen Elizabeth was the proper head of the Church of England — that old chestnut. The wrong answer would be treason.

[Nelson] was brought forth to be examined before the high commissioners. Here they tendered him the oath of the queen’s supremacy, which he refused to take; and being asked, why he would not swear, he answered, because he had never heard, or read, that any lay prince could have that pre-eminence. And being farther demanded, who then was the head of the church, he answered, sincerely and boldly, that the pope’s holiness was, to whom that supreme authority in earth was due, as being Christ’s vicar, and the lawful successor of St. Peter.

Secondly, [t]hey asked him his opinion of the religion now practised in England; to which he answered, without any hesitation, that it was both schismatical and heretical. Whereupon they bid him define what schism was; he told them, it was a voluntary departure from the unity of the catholic Roman faith. Then (seeking to ensnare him) they farther urged, what is the queen then, a schismatic or no? … he answered, conditionally, if she be the setter forth [of Anglicanism], said he, and defender of this religion, now practised in England, then she is a schismatic and a heretic.

After he was cut down alive from his hanging so that he could be disemboweled and quartered, Nelson’s last words were reportedly “I forgive the queen and all the authors of my death.”

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1565: Benedetto Accolti, would-be papal assassin

Add comment January 27th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1565, three men who schemed to assassinate Pope Pius IV were put to public death at the Capitol.

Detail (click for the full painting) of Parnassus by Raphael, the Vatican’s “Raphael Rooms”. According to Jonathan Unglaub,* this figure is the then-acclaimed, today-obscure poet Bernardo Accolti, our failed assassin’s great-uncle.

Pius was a pope of the counter-reformation; it was he who brought the Council of Trent to its conclusion.

And though generally noted for his moderation (and his enthusiasm for building), he was not above striking heads from shoulders. Upon his ascension a few years prior he had dealt harshly with the nephews of his predecessor.

Accolti hailed from a prominent Florentine noble family; his father and namesake was a scheming cardinal.

Young Benedetto, clearly, could scheme a little himself, since he roped several buddies (Italian link) into a plot to murder the pontiff. In December 1564, they presented themselves at a papal audience, but apparently got cold feet. One of their number, a Cavalier Pelliccione, ratted the lot of them out before they could muster their nerve a second time: the good cavalier might have been motivated by having possession of treasonably pre-written letters to be sent to various dignitaries upon the pope’s violent deposition.

Pelliccione accordingly skated with a pardon, but two co-conspirators were sent to the galleys for life.

Benedetto Accolti, Antonio Canossa, and Taddeo Manfredi were dragged to the Capitol on January 27 and put to the gruesome public butchery — “like cows” — of the mazzolatura.

There are several resources that claim the plot was among Catholic ultras who found Pius a little on the heretical side. This Italian encyclopedia entry attributes to the astrologically-inclined Accolti a more nutty-prophetic ambition of a “papa angelico” who would unify Christendom.

Maybe he should have just exercised a little patience. Pius IV died in December 1565.

* Jonathan Unglaub, “Bernardo Accolti, Raphael’s ‘Parnassus’ and a New Portrait by Andrea del Sarto,” The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 149, No. 1246, Art in Italy (Jan., 2007).

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1535: Six Protestants for the Affair of the Placards

Add comment January 21st, 2013 Headsman

The Affair of the Placards was the September 11 of the early French Reformation when the overnight posting of anti-Catholic placards sent the polity off the rails, claimed six victims on this date in 1535.

The formerly indulgent Renaissance-king Francis I was obliged by this late-1534 effusion of propagandizing to dissociate violently from heretical tolerance.

And maybe that would have been that. But the first placard incident was repeated by a follow-up posting on the night of Jan. 12-13 of an anti-sacramental pamphlet by Antoine Marcourt — the anthrax mailings to the hijacked planes, as it were — charging (French) that the Catholic “Mass has plunged half the world into an abyss of public idolatry.”

Francis flipped out. He closed bookstores and suppressed publishing. “One does not argue with heretics,” the Sorbonne agreed. What, do you want the terrorists to win?

So on this date in 1535, a grand Catholic procession — representing all the city’s guilds, all its religious orders, all its holy relics, and all its princes of the blood, with Francis himself modestly carrying a penitential taper to absolve his capital — wound through the city, punctuated by the torching of six accused Protestants.

At the ensuing feast, the king announced his intention to destroy heresy.

The procession of January 1535, with the inclusion of the sacrament, the number of holy objects transported, and the involvement of so many notables, was unprecedented. The elaborate character of the ritual is a good indication of the seriousness with which the authorities viewed this most recent evidence of the inclusion of heresy into French territory. The posting of the placards was regarded as a pollution of the king’s realm, the perceived danger being that the disease contaminating and “infecting some of his subjects” would multiply, undermining the very constitution of the social body … An attack upon the holy sacrament, according to the logic of the symbolism employed in the procession, presents a direct threat to the sacral character of the community, to the nation’s well-being, and hence amounts to an oblique attack on the person of the sovereign. Given the close association established between the sacrament and the monarch, it is no wonder that those implicated in the affair of the placards were regarded as being guilty not only of heresy but also of lese-majeste. (Source)

And maybe early modern France had a point with that weird old sacred-monarch stuff. The very same date two and a half centuries later saw a Parisian mob which had clearly lost any sense of the sacral sovereign behead the king himself.

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1600: The corpses of John and Alexander Ruthven, for the Gowrie conspiracy

2 comments November 17th, 2012 Headsman

Remember, remember, the fifth of … August?

If you didn’t get August 5 off, your jurisdiction is ignoring the Scottish parliament’s 1600 decree: “in all times and ages to come the fifth of August should be solemnly kept with prayers, preachings, and thanksgiving for the benefit, discharging all work, labour, and other occupations upon the said day.”*

They didn’t mean to keep it out of excess reverence for St. Emygdius: rather, August 5 was the date of the Gowrie conspiracy, a sketchy supposed assassination attempt on King James VI of Scotland (soon also to become King James I of England). John Ruthven, Earl of Gowrie and his brother Alexander Ruthven were both slain on the spot during that event … but not until 15 weeks later did Parliament rule that “the said bodies of the said Traitors shall be carried, upon Monday next [i.e., November 17], to the publick cross of Edinburgh: and there to be hangd, quarter’d, and drawn, in presence of the hail People: and thereafter, the heads, quarters, and carcasses, to be affix’d upon the most patent parts and places of the Burroughs of Edinburgh, Perth, Dundee and Stirling.”

Did they deserve it?

Scottish writer John Prebble considered the Gowrie conspiracy one of his realm’s best mysteries. It’s a maddeningly perplexing sequence of ambiguous (or altogether dubious) events related by interested, partisan sources.

I am murtherit!

The summary official version — and we’re skipping over such writerly red herrings as a mystery man in the turret, a still-stabled horse, and a wild fable about a pot of foreign gold — is that while staying at the Ruthven estates, James’s courtiers saw him shouting out the window, “I am murtherit! Treassoun! My Lord of Mar, help! help!”

While Lord Mar and others spent half an hour (!) trying to batter down a locked entrance to the regicidal turret, a page named John Ramsay found another staircase in, where he came upon the king and Alexander Ruthven grappling. Ramsay stabbed Ruthven about the head and neck, and Ruthven fled down Ramsay’s same staircase: there he careened headlong into more arriving royal retainers who killed him flat. Ruthven died exclaiming “Allace! I had na wyte [blame] of it!”

Meanwhile, the Lord Gowrie — quite possibly knowing nothing but that there was a commotion involving the king in his home — had rallied outside the courtyard with his own household and marched in swords drawn, passing the fresh-slain body of his little brother on the way. He must have been in an evil temper when he burst into the chamber, there to discover Ramsay and friends, and only them: the king had been locked in another room for his protection. Ramsay demanded Gowrie’s submission and the two crossed swords, with Ramsay running the elder Ruthven through, too.

(Small wonder Ramsay went on to become a royal favorite.**)

“… if it be true”

“A very wonderful story, your Majesty, if it be true,” one lord is supposed to have replied to James upon hearing this amazing tale.

Suspicion was immediately rife that this “treason” stuff was a cover for the king to take out a rival noble. The Ruthvens had often been at odds with King Jamie’s own family; John and Alexander’s own father was beheaded in 1584 for trying to kidnap the then-teenaged king, and their grandfather had helped a gang of nobles destabilize James’s mother Mary by murdering her favorite courtier David Rizzio right before her eyes. And of course, the crown would be able to seize all the “traitors'” estates, nicely flipping around a significant cash debt owed to the Ruthven clan.

Edinburgh Presbyterian ministers openly disputed the Ruthvens’ guilt, refusing to thank God for James’s “deliverance”.† James found it necessary to forcibly quash this talk, and he would insist upon the Ruthvens’ guilt all his days. But those outside the reach of Scottish royal power had looser tongues.

French nobles who had met Gowrie on the latter’s recent return from his continental studies, and Queen Elizabeth, who had received Gowrie warmly at court, openly doubted the official account: it was thought wildly at odds with the young man’s character. The nature of the interaction between the king and Alexander Ruthven prior to the intervention of John Ramsay depends upon the account of the king himself — that account, and no other. The other witnesses were dead. And the object of the plot seems unclear: sure, maybe Alexander Ruthven could have killed the king mano a mano, but then what? There was no indication at all of confederates (even Alexander’s brother reacted in confusion), nor coherent design for some next step like massacring James’s courtiers or toppling the government or even escaping. These were scheming aristocrats, not deranged lone assassins. And both James and Gowrie had behaved for all the world before this incident as if the unpleasantness with the father was water under the bridge.

“The assassination of the Gowries was the most indefensible act that has ever appeared on the pages of Scottish history,” avers mildy a 1912 volume of the Ruthven family papers. It was “a cunning conspiracy that has disgraced the historical record for more than three hundred years.”

The jury’s still out

Still, the hypothetical account of a royal anti-Gowrie conspiracy seems if anything even less satisfying than the official story. Most of the happenings besides what passed between Alexander and James were witnessed by others, so … the king falsely yelled “treason” counting on the handful of his guys staying in the Ruthvens’ own place to kill the Ruthvens instead of the other way around? Events played out so chaotically that this convenient outcome seems mere [mis]chance. What was the plan if John Ramsay hadn’t found the unlocked second entrance?

And yet some 350 witnesses were examined without turning up any concrete design, and three Ruthven retainers hanged on August 23 insisting upon their innocence of any treasonable intent.

One can go a lot of ways from here, and it’s hard to spin any one story that satisfyingly accounts for all the evidence. A scheme to kidnap (and extract policy change from) the king, rather than murder him? Alexander an unwilling pawn, forced into it by his brother? Or, as one English envoy supposed, a destructive spiral of events proceeding from a silly misunderstanding wherein a chance reference to the Ruthvens’ executed father led Alexander to defend the family a little too hotly and the king to start shouting in panic when he realized he was unarmed in the company of an excited, and much larger, man?‡

We’ll never really know. Light a candle for epistemological uncertainty next August 5.

Much help drawn from a two-parter review of the contradictory evidence in The Scottish Historical Review, nos. 121 and 122 (April and October 1957) by W.F. Arbuckle.

* August 5 was indeed “solemnly kept” during the reign of James, according to F.C. Eeles in “The English Thanksgiving Service for King James’ Delivery from the Gowrie Conspiracy” from the July 1911 Scottish Historical Review. As the title of that piece suggests, there was even a service promulgated (though never incorporated into the Book of Common Prayer), beseeching God that James “may bee kept as the apple of thine eye, and thy kindnesse and mercy may follow him all the dayes of his life, with abundance of all thy blessings both heavenly and earthly upon his Majesty, our gracious Queene, the Prince …”

The Prince in question was the future King Charles I, which might cause one to doubt the prayer’s efficacy.

** Ramsay would be supplanted in the royal sun come the 1620s, by George Villiers.

† Religion affords another potential motivation here, although perhaps only retrospectively. James was working a long-term project to reintroduce episcopacy — crown-appointed bishops — to control the loose canons of Scotch Presbyterianism. “No bishop, no king,” in the aphorism attributed him.

With the Gowrie plot as backdrop, James was able to force radical ministers and their tin-foil hats out of Edinburgh and obtain the consent of the rest to James’s own hand-picked bishops — the camel’s nose under the tent, if you like. (See Maurice Lee, Jr., “James VI and the Revival of Episcopacy in Scotland: 1596-1600,” Church History, 43 (1974).) The Ruthven family papers volume also sets great stock by the idea that a Catholic party was out to get Lord Gowrie.

‡ “by occasion of a picture (as is sayde) or otherwise, speech happening of Earle Gourie his father executed, the k. angrelie sayde he was a traitour. Whereat the youth showing a greived and expostulatorie countenance and happilie Scot-like woords, the k. seeing hymself alone and wythout weapon cryed, ‘Treason, Treason’. The Mr [i.e., Alexander Ruthven], abashed much to see the k. to apprehend yt so … putt his hand with earnest deprecations to staie the k. showing his countenance to them with out in that moode, immediatlie falling on his knees to entreat the k.” Ramsay did say that when he entered the room he saw Alexander’s head under James’s arm, which might be consistent with this supplicatory pose … especially given that accounts of the men’s respective physiques suggest Alexander should have had the clear advantage in an actual scrap.

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1569: Vladimir of Staritsa, royal cousin

Add comment October 9th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1569, Vladimir of Staritsa was forced by Ivan the Terrible’s goons to drink poison.

Vladimir was Ivan’s (barely) younger cousin, both of them grandsons of Russia’s state-building Ivan the Great.

Ivan the Terrible, of course, was the heir to the throne, an inheritance he received at the tender age of three when his father died unexpectedly — leading to Ivan’s famously miserable childhood of being kicked around by the boyars.

The dreadful relationship thereby fostered between throne and nobles came to a crossroads in 1553, when Ivan the Terrible appeared to be on his deathbed. The fading tsar tried to get those boyars to swear loyalty to Ivan’s infant son. Most of the boyars openly preferred the adult Vladimir of Staritsa.

This dramatic encounter is a pivotal episode in Sergei Eisenstein’s classic film Ivan the Terrible.

Instead of dying, Ivan surprisingly recovered. Awkward!

Vladimir actually survived this episode, and he himself may not even have been actively trying to claim the throne: the boyars hated Ivan plenty without his seditious assistance.

And for a while it look like any ill feelings were water under the bridge. Vladimir swore loyalty to Ivan upon the latter’s recovery, fought military campaigns alongside Ivan, and was even depended upon by Ivan as a guarantor of peace among Ivan’s own several potentially rivalrous sons.*

But that was the 1550s.

As the 1560s unfolded, Ivan grew increasingly mistrustful of his boyars’ loyalty.** According to this volume, an elevation of Vladimir to the throne was the object of at least one plot during those years. As Ivan’s only male cousin, he was a natural successor should Ivan be deposed, and therefore a natural focal point for Ivan’s enemies.

When Ivan eventually gave rein to his paranoia and unleashed the bloody purges of the oprichnina, Vladimir inevitably succumbed to it. Ivan decreed his death and forced him to administer the sentence by his own hand with a draught of poison, even going so far as to extirpate Vladimir’s wife and children, too.†

In a twist of the cruel irony Russian history is so susceptible to, Ivan the Terrible’s homicidal suspicion of his relations helped to doom Ivan’s own Rurik dynasty: after Ivan accidentally killed his own son and heir in a fit of pique, the succession which might have found a backup option in Vladimir and his offspring instead utterly collapsed — plunging Russia into the “Time of Troubles” out of which one of those former boyar families, the Romanovs, emerged with the throne after all.

* See Sergei Bogatyrev, “Reinventing the Russian Monarchy in the 1550s: Ivan the Terrible, the Dynasty, and the Church”, The Slavonic and East European Review, Apr. 2007. (pdf here)

** Ivan’s nasty turn after 1560 might trace to the untimely death of his wife Anastasia Romanovna, whom Ivan suspected might have been poisoned by those hated boyars.

† One daughter Maria Vladimirovna of Staritsa, survived.

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1570: Rev. John Kello, the Parson of Spott

Add comment October 4th, 2012 Headsman

This date in 1570 marked the remarkable Edinburgh hanging of a preacher for murdering his wife.

It’s one of Twelve Scots Trials featured in William Roughead‘s public-domain true-crime tome of that title

“The time,” muses our correspondent, “was the year of grace 1570.”

Calvinism had triumphed, and the cause of Queen Mary and the ‘Auld Faith’ was lost. That unhappy lady was safely in Elizabeth’s parlour, the gallant Kirkcaldy still kept the flag of his Royal mistress flying on the castle of Edinburgh, and the ambition of her ambiguous brother, the ‘Good Regent,’ had lately been abridged by the bullet of Bothwellhaugh at Linlithgow. The scene was the hill parish of Spott, on the eastern slope of the Lammermuirs, near the coast town of Dunbar … celebrated, too, as being the scene of the last witch-burnings in Scotland, for so late as October 1705, only two years before the Union, the minutes of the Kirk Session significantly record: ‘Many witches burnt on the top of Spott Loan.’

In the sixteenth century a strange fatality attached to the incumbency of this quiet rural parish … Robert Galbraith, parson of Spott … was murdered in 1543 by one John Carkettle, a burgess of Edinburgh. The next rector, John Hamilton … [became] the Archbishop Hamilton of Queen Mary’s reign. He was taken prisoner at the capture of Dumbarton Castle in 1571, and was hanged at Stirling for complicity in the assassination of the Regent Moray … The fate of the archbishop’s successor in the manse of Spott, the first minister of the new and purified Kirk, forms the subject of the present study.

Young Kello presumably fancied Spott a station on his own cursus honorum towards archbishoprics and assassinated regents; he found himself irksomely constrained by the cheapness of the parish wage (which drove him into speculative debt) and by his “amiable but plebeian consort” Margaret Thomson.

“Thir wer the glistering promises whairwith Sathan, efter his accustomed maner, eludit my senses,” Kello’s eventual confession would sigh. Specifically, Sathan suggested he lose the wife and upgrade to a socially-advantageous match with a lord’s daughter.

On September 24, 1570, Kello came upon his spouse defenseless in prayer, and strangled her with a towel.

“In the verie death,” he admits, “she could not beleive I bure hir ony evill will, bot was glaid, as sche than said, to depairt, gif hir death could doe me ather vantage or pleasoure.”

“Verily,” Roughead adds, “it is difficult to write with patience of the Reverend John.”

Reverend John strung up his infinitely self-sacrificing wife to make it look like she’d done herself to death, went out, preached — it was Sunday — and returned home with some guests, ever-so-casually coming upon the poor woman’s dangling body to great surprise and chagrin in the presence of witnesses.

And this ruse worked, at first. Kello began entertaining sympathy calls from neighbors; it’s unremarked in the existing documentation, but it’s conceivable that the body of the presumed suicide might even have been mutilated or dishonored as was the style at the time.

Overacting the part a bit, Kello sought out the counsel of a brother-minister by the name of Andrew Simpson over the question of the probable disposition of his self-murdering wife’s soul. This Rev. Simpson had tended Kello during a sickness prior to Kello’s wife’s passing, when the Parson of Spott had Sathan’s cogitations in mind. And apparently, Kello related at that time a strange dream that Simpson would on the subsequent visit turn into a supernatural Colombo moment, reciting back that past phantasm plus Simpson’s interpretation of it that it denoted the dreamer’s blood guilt.

This gave the heretofore icily hypocritical Reverend John such a case of the heebie-jeebies that he proceeded to Edinburgh to turn himself in.

And so, on October 4, he preached his last sermon — this one from the scaffold, enjoining advice of timeless utility:

Measoure not the treuth of Godis word altogether be the lyvis of sic as are apointed pastouris ower you, for thei beir the self same fleshe of corruptioune that ye doe, and the moir godlie the charge is whairunto thai are called, the readier the Enemie to draw thame bak from Godis obedience.

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1561: Sehzade Beyazit, inevitably

Add comment September 25th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1561, the Persian Shah abandoned Ottoman prince Sehzade Beyazit to the vengeance of his “magnificent” father.

A late and sad casualty of Istanbul’s pivotal family tragedy, Beyazit was actually a son of Suleiman the Magnificent‘s favorite wife, the freed Ukrainian slave Hurrem Sultan or Roxelana.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t the first son.

After Roxelana engineered the execution of heir apparent Mustafa on spurious grounds, Beyazit and his brother Selim were the last princes standing.

The natural rivalry between the two for eventual power was surely colored by the clear portent Mustafa’s execution had sent that the succession game was rigged for Selim. After several years of growing estrangement, Beyazit finally revolted outright only to be defeated in battle by Selim in 1559.

The loser found refuge in Persia, but only long enough for the Safavids to negotiate the price of his surrender to the hands of Suleiman … whose executioner went on the road to the Persian city of Qazvin to strangle not only Sehzade Beyazit but his four sons, too.

Extirpating the treasonable branch of the family tree cleared the succession for Selim, whose eight-year turn in power would be remembered as moment the hitherto-all-vanquishing Ottomans began their long, slow slide to Sick Man of Europe status. Particularly given that coda, Suleiman’s own

long reign is flawed by tragedy more subtle than the hubris which had overcome his ancestor Bayezit the Thunderbolt; more consequential than the gilded misery reserved for later sultans. The higher men rose in the empire, the closer they got to the bowstring; and the reign of Suleyman seems in retrospect coiled round with a silken garotte …

When the Austrian ambassador took leave of Suleyman in his old age, it was scarcely a living being he described, but a sort of metaphor of empire, rotting and majestic, fat, made up, and suffering from an ulcerous leg.

There’s more about this misfortunate lesser son in Turkish here, and a Turkish poem he wrote beseeching his father’s forgiveness here.

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