Posts filed under '16th Century'

1565: Jean Ribault and the Huguenot colonists of Fort Caroline

1 comment October 12th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1565, the French Huguenot New World settlement plan was nipped in the bud when Spaniards executed en masse the inhabitants of Fort Caroline in present-day Jacksonville, Fla.

Jean Ribault.

During the late 16th century’s fractious French Wars of Religion, far-sighted Protestant admiral Gaspard de Coligny sponsored this like-minded colony in Florida — a sort of side bet on a satellite Protestant presence overseas, while the party in the mother country fought for its life.*

Jean Ribault (or Ribaut) was the loyal naval aide chosen to lead this colony. After an abortive attempt to plant a settlement in Charlestown, S.C., Ribault set up Fort Caroline and claimed greater Jacksonville for France.


Historical marker of Jean Ribaut/Ribault’s landing place, in Jacksonville, Fla. (cc) image from POsrUs.

French colonial projects further north enjoyed better success.

Down in Florida, both geopolitical and religious rivalry set Fort Caroline up for trouble. Ponce de Leon, questing for the Fountain of Youth, had planted the Spanish flag in Florida half a century before, and that country was none too pleased to find its continental rival jumping its claim. That it was Calvinist Frenchmen doing the usurping would prove downright intolerable to more-Catholic-than-the-Pope Spanish ruler Philip II.

The Spaniards attacked [Fort Caroline], hanged the colonists, and fastened above the heads of the corpses a placard on which was written, “Not because they were Frenchmen, but because they were heretics.” A French Catholic, de Gourgues, moved with righteous indignation, fitted out a ship and avenged this act by hanging their murderers, over whose bodies he put a similar placard, bearing the inscription, “Not because they were Spaniards, but because they were assassins.” But Coligny’s efforts failed, and he had to leave to the English race the realization of his dream of a great American Protestant state. (Source)

That great Protestant state, of course, eventually gobbled up Florida, and still owns it today.

There, it maintains Fort Matanzas National Monument, which takes its name for the Spanish term for what went down there on this date: matanzas, or slaughter.**

* It’s another country, another creed, and another century, but it reminds of the traffic between English New World settlements and England proper during the English Revolution.

** A different historical monument commemorates the failed South Carolina colony.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Cycle of Violence,Execution,France,God,Hanged,History,Known But To God,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Soldiers,Spain,Summary Executions

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1553: Prince Mustafa, heir to Suleiman the Magnificent

8 comments October 6th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1553, the capable heir apparent to Ottoman Emperor Suleiman the Magnificent was strangled at dad’s order — casualty of the the realm’s lethal harem politics.

If ’tis state thou seekest like the world-adorning sun’s array,
Lowly e’en as water rub thy face in earth’s dust every day.
Fair to see, but short enduring is this picture bright, the world;
‘Tis a proverb: Fleeting like the realm of dreams is earth’s display.
Through the needle of its eyelash never hath the heart’s thread past;
Like unto the Lord Messiah bide I half-road on the way.
Athlete of the Universe through self-reliance grows the Heart,
With the ball, the Sphere—Time, Fortune—like an apple doth it play.
Mukhlisi, thy frame was formed from but one drop, yet, wonder great!
When thou verses sing’st, thy spirit like the ocean swells, they say.

-Prince Mustafa, about himself

Suleiman’s first-born son by his first concubine, Mustafa seemed well-positioned to emerge in the Ottomans’ fratricidal succession.

The racket: when the current sultan dies, all his sons by his various concubines make a rush from their provincial outposts for the capital and fight it out, the winner killing off his half-brothers to consolidate his rule.

This disorderly ascension made, while dad still lived, for fraught internal politicking among the sons for the inside track: the most prestigious positions, and the assignments closest to Istanbul. The various mothers of the contenders jockeyed just as aggressively on behalf of their various entrants in the imperial sweepstakes.

Mustafa was the capable eldest son in a kingdom at its very acme,* but to his misfortune, and the empire’s too, he found himself pitted against one of the ablest women ever to call the Ottoman harem home: Hürrem Sultan, also known as Roxelana (or Roxolana).

A Ukrainian woman kidnapped to the harem by Tartar slavers, Roxelana enchanted Suleiman and soon became his favorite. Therefore, Roxelana also became the rival, with her son and her own potential heir, to Mustafa and his mother.

As the story is told, Roxelana at length contrived to convince Suleiman that Mustafa was in cahoots with the rival Safavid Empire to supplant Suleiman on the throne; Suleiman had his firstborn summoned to his tent on campaign in Anatolia, and straightaway put to death. He’s supposed to have sat by the body in grief for days afterwards, and barely averted a revolt by his elite Janissaries, who much favored the talented Mustafa.

“This terrible tragedy exercised an effect on Ottoman affairs resembling that which the Massacre of St. Bartholomew had on the history of France,” according to The Cambridge Modern History (vol. 3). Roxelana’s unimpressive son “Prince Selim, in whose favour the crime was committed, was the first of a series of degenerate Sultans, sunk in pleasure-seeking or stricken with Imperial mania, under whose sway the Empire went to ruin.”

Consequently, Mustafa is still mourned in Turkey as a tragic turning-point; visitors pay homage to his tomb at Bursa.

Westerners had word of this fascinating palace intrigue through diplomatic correspondents who were not privy to the actual harem, and adopted the story themselves while imaginatively filling in the orientalizing details. Inevitably these imaginings have helped shape the story as it comes to us.

The scenario blending the familiar and the exotic — a European in the court of the Turk; a slave woman dominating the conqueror; fratricidal princes and the alluring seraglio — all set in the heart of the feared Muslim state proved irresistible to literary interlocutors. These made of Suleiman, Mustafa (Mustapha), and Roxelana moral fables, theater (endorsed by Samuel Pepys!), symphony

… and opera (many librettos, this by Hasse):

Not to mention, of course, more titillating fare.

* The PBS documentary Islam, The Empire of Faith does engrossing coverage of Suleiman (including his relationship with Roxelana and the execution of Mustafa) in these video segments: 3, 4, 5.

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1586: Anthony Babington and fellow plotters, Walsingham’d

4 comments September 20th, 2010 Headsman

The recently completed papal visit to England has summoned many a recollection of that country’s traumatic break from the Church. (As well as more recent embarrassments.)

While we know the schism from the comfort of retrospection, those present for its 16th century inception (and long afterward) had the task of sorting out winners and losers on blood-soaked scaffolds.

So we pause this date to note the extirpation September 20 and 21 of the Babington Plot, a half-baked scheme to re-establish the Old Faith that turned into one of history’s signature achievements of espionage.

Its namesake, young Sir Anthony Babington, was a secret Catholic with more money than sense; like many a Catholic of this time, he bristled under the rule of Elizabeth I, the daughter of the very woman who started all this English Reformation trouble.

Besotted with fellow-Catholic Mary Queen of Scots after having served as her page in his youth, Babington was easy prey for the fellow invariably described as Elizabeth’s “spymaster”Francis Walsingham.

Not one for scruples where his own security or his sovereign’s was concerned, Walsingham had long considered Mary Queen of Scots too dangerous to be left alive: every Catholic plot against Elizabeth intended to replace her on the throne with this Catholic cousin.

Trying to overcome Elizabeth’s reluctance to off fellow royalty — dangerous precedent, in these dangerous times — Walsingham entrapped Babington and a coterie of other Catholics into designing and documenting a scheme to assassinate Elizabeth and support a Spanish invasion.

And most importantly to Walsingham, they got Mary to sign off on it.

Though the design was grandiose, the real danger was pretty much nil — since Walsingham, a Renaissance reconnaissance man famous for his continent-spanning intelligence network, had penetrated the circle months before.* Walsingham let the conspiracy ripen long after he had the goods on the likes of Babington, intending to make it the instrument of Mary’s destruction. He succeeded.

Coded correspondence that Mary thought she was smuggling in and out of her cell was in fact being intercepted and decrypted.

When Babington wrote to her, alluding to his intent with “six noble gentlemen” to murder Queen Elizabeth, Mary doomed herself with a favorable reply:

The affair being thus prepared, and forces in readiness both within and without the realm, then shall it be time to set the six gentlemen to work; taking order upon the accomplishment of their design, I may be suddenly transported out of this place.

Within days, all — Mary, Babington, six gentlemen, and more — were in chains, and the commoners were being tortured into confessions and implications.**

The reckoning for Mary Queen of Scots would not arrive for some months yet.

But those of lesser breeding were dispatched with dispatch. Tried in two bunches, there were 14 in all condemned; on this date, Babington, was hanged, drawn and quartered for treason, along with accomplices John Ballard, Thomas Salisbury, Robert Barnewell, John Savage, Henry Donn and Chidiock Tichborne — the last of these leaving behind this doleful poetic adieu:

Elegy

My prime of youth is but a frost of cares,
My feast of joy is but a dish of pain,
My crop of corn is but a field of tares,
And all my good is but vain hope of gain;
The day is past, and yet I saw no sun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.
The spring is past, and yet it hath not sprung;
The fruit is dead, and yet the leaves be green,
My youth is gone and yet I am but young,
I saw the world and yet I was not seen;
My thread is cut and yet it is not spun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.
I sought my death and found it in my womb,
I looked for life and saw it was a shade,
I trod the earth and knew it was my tomb,
And now I die, and now I am but made;
My glass is full, and now my glass is run,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

-Chidiock Tichborne

(Hear this bummer of a verse read aloud here and here.)

The torture these first seven unfortunates endured as their entrails were ripped from their still-living bodies was so horrible that Elizabeth ordered the seven others awaiting execution the next day simply to be hanged to death before all the disemboweling business.†

A few books about spymaster Francis Walsingham

* Walsingham had plenty of plots to contend with, but did Elizabeth even greater service keeping tabs on the buildup of the Spanish Armada through a spy network in Italy — even using it to delay the invasion by a crucial extra year by drying up Spain’s credit line with Italian bankers. (Source, via (pdf))

Incidentally, and completely off topic: the subversive, forward-thinking philosopher Giordano Bruno — an Italian who was eventually executed by the Inquisition — has been alleged to be one in Walsingham’s employ.

** Luckily for Elizabeth, the treasonous Protestants who supported her back when she was at the mercy of her Catholic half-sister Mary Tudor were better able to hold their tongues under duress.

† One of those executed on September 21, Charles Tilney, has an oblique Shakespeare connection: he’s one possible author of the play Locrine, which Shakespeare might have revised and/or staged; Locrine is in the Shakespeare Apocrypha.

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1527: Jacques de Beaune, baron de Semblançay

1 comment August 12th, 2010 Headsman

On this date* in 1527, Jacques de Beaune was hanged on the gallows of Montfaucon for peculation.

Beaune (French Wikipedia entry) was an aged man well into his 70s or 80s, and had served four kings’ treasuries, rising to become Superintendent of Finance for Francis I.

His slow-motion ruin began with France’s military involvement in Italy earlier that decade, in which capacity the French commander near Milan suffered a grievious reverse and had to abandon Lombardy.

Furious buck-passing ensued:

  • The commander blamed the defeat on a lack of pay for his Swiss mercenaries;

  • The paymaster — Beaune — blamed the lack of funds for the mercs on the Queen Mother, Louise of Savoy‘s calling in a debt

The ensuing investigation revealed this story to be true, but Beaune was obliged to retire from the court because of the Queen Mother’s fury at him.

And that might have been that, but for the further French misadventures in Italy.

In 1525, Francis himself contrived to be captured at the Battle of Pavia, elevating Louise of Savoy to regent in his absence. By the time the spendthrift king had been ransomed back, his treasury was nigh empty and Louise knew just the person to blame.

An audit of Semblancay’s accounts intended to turn up some loose ducats embarrassingly showed that the noble was actually a creditor of the king, but

on 13 January 1527, after Semblancay had returned to Paris on business, he was arrested and thrown in the Bastille … the king and his council … had been looking for ways of raising within five days 370,000 livres needed for the payment of troops. Semblancay was known to be a very rich man and the prospect of confiscating his property must have been tempting. (Source)

Semblancay was tried by a handpicked favorite of the court, with the predictable result on a somewhat nebulous embezzlement/corruption thing; a jailhouse snitch once in the great lord’s employ gave evidence against him. The doomed man, perhaps untroubled to be relieved of the infirmities of his advanced age, was supposed to have been downright chill walking through Paris to his death, and he was met with respect by a citizenry that could hardly help sympathizing with this wizened but serene victim of the royal wrath.

Poet Clement Marot** recorded the scene thus:

Lorsque Maillart, juge d’Enfer, menoit
À Monfaulcon Samblançay l’ame rendre,
À votre advis, lequel des deux tenoit
Meilleur maintien ? Pour le vous faire entendre,
Maillard sembloit homme qui mort va prendre
Et Samblançay fut si ferme vieillart
Que l’on cuydoit, pour vray, qu’il menast pendre
À Montfaulcon le lieutenant Maillart.
When Maillart, judge of Hell,
To Montfaucon led Samblançay to give up his soul,
Which of the two, in your mind,
Had the better demeanour? To enlighten you,
Maillart seemed the man whome death would take
And so sturdy an old man was Samblançay,
That one truly believed that it was he who led
Lieutenant Maillart to be hanged at Montaucon.

This case is less well-remembered today than it ought to be; to contemporaries, the hanging of France’s treasurer for corruption was an awfully noteworthy event.† (Opinions at the time seemed to be split on the justice of the matter, even though Semblancay was posthumously rehabilitated; later generations have more strongly gravitated to the understanding that he was railroaded.)

And it launched an ensuing, decade-long project of Francis’s, to squeeze wealthy financiers through the commission de la Tour Carree and thereby get in the good graces of the early modern bond markets unsettled by France’s 1520s fiscal faceplant.

There’s a nasty apparent allusion in Rabelais’s Pantagruel to this procedure:

We noticed in a great Press from twenty to twenty-five huge Gallows-birds round a great Table [bourreau, punning bureau] covered with green Cloth, staring at each other, with their Hands as long as Crane’s Legs and their Nails two Feet long at least, — for they are forbidden ever to pare them, so that they become as crooked as Bills or Boat-hooks — and just at that time was brought in a great Bunch of Grapes which they gather in that Country, from the Vine called Extraordinaire, the Grapes from which often hang on Poles. As soon as the Bunch was laid there, they put it under the Press, and there was not a Berry from which they did not squeeze Oil of Gold, insomuch that the poor Bunch was carried off so drained and stripped, that there was not a Drop of Juice or Liquor left.

Most of those Tour Carree prosecutions didn’t result in executions — “merely” confiscations of lands and titles which could be re-sold, and sentences which could be commuted for a fine. R.J. Knecht, in The Rise and Fall of Renaissance France, 1483-1610, puts the king’s profit on such confiscations into the millions of livres.

But to make those shakedowns seem a small price to pay, the threat of Semblancay’s example must have lurked in the background for targeted nobles.

(Semblancay himself had been reckless enough not to accept an initial mostly-exoneration in the inquiry that preceded his arrest and trial, since part of it required him to “repay” supposed debts to Louise of Savoy. His appeal against that part of the judgment might have set him up to be the cautionary example for everyone else.)

Guillaume de La Perrierre captured the vibe with one of his “emblems” in Le Théâtre des bons engins, number XL:


Also see emblem number LXXV.

The Beaune name would scintillate to posterity through such illustrious descendants as Renaud de Beaune (French link), a notable archbishop; and, more salaciously, Escadron Volant all-star Charlotte de Beaune Semblançay, who seduced powerful nobles at Catherine de’ Medici’s behest.

A lengthy French history of our day’s early modern moneybags can be perused here; when visiting Tours, you can revisit the days when he was in the chips by crashing at one of the many buildings he put, the Hotel de Beaune-Semblancay.

* Sentence was pronounced on Friday, Aug. 9, but a stay granted until Monday, Aug. 12 for the condemned man to pursue his appeal to the king. Some sources give Aug. 9 as the execution date, and some Aug. 11; both of these appear to be incorrect. See David Graham in An Interregnum of the Sign: The Emblematic Age in France – Essays in Honour of Daniel S.Russell.

** There’s another (translated to English) meditation Marot wrote on Semblancay here, in the first-person voice of the hanged man. Marot was a friend of the eventually-executed French linguist and translator Etienne Dolet, and his own unorthodox opinions would eventually require him to flee the realm for his life.

We do note that in this era of combative pamphleteering, the geezer who made himself a tycoon by administering the taxes wasn’t universally supported by the literary set. Roger de Collerye (cited here) hooted Jacques de Beaune into the hereafter with the verses,

Tremblez, tremblez, larrons gros & petiz!
Retirez vous, gens trop fins et subtilz!
Absentez vous bientost & prenez terre,
Gens de finances et tresoriers gentilz
Qui d’attrapper estes tant ententifz.
Sur vous surviegne tempeste & tonerre!
Craignez la court qui vous donna la guerre
Bien asprement, quant je l’ay pance,
Souvieigne vous de la mort Sant Blancey!

† It happened yet again in September 1535, to Jean Poncher. Historically, proximity to the French crown’s revenues was also proximity to the gallows.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Nobility,Pelf,Politicians,Public Executions,Scandal,Theft

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1582: Philippe Strozzi, corsair

2 comments July 27th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1582, Philippe Strozzi, the Florentine-born commander of a French naval expedition against the Spanish was summarily executed as a pirate.

The Strozzi were long one of Florence’s wealthy and powerful families, as evidenced by, say, the Strozzi Palace, or the Strozzi coat of arms on Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo.

That made the Strozzi sometime-allies, sometime-rivals* of Florence’s more famous powerbrokers, the Medici. It is in both capacities that we meet Philippe (English Wikipedia entry | Italian | French).

To cut a centuries-long story short, the Strozzi had basically come out on the wrong side of the power struggle in the 16th century.

Philippe’s father, Piero Strozzi, was the child of a Strozzi-Medici union, and Piero too married a Medici. He also fought the Medici for power and ended up in exile whereupon he gravitated to the French court of … Catherine de’ Medici. (Catherine had been educated at the home of Philippe’s grandfather, Filippo Strozzi.) Catherine then turned around and used Piero as a French Marshal, including sending him to back Tuscan city-state Siena in opposition to its (and France’s) rival, Florence.**

Your basic tangled geopolitical-genealogical web.

Bottom line, Piero’s son Philippe was born in Florence but grew up Gallic, and fought in the French army all over the continent from the time he was a teenager.

When France got involved in the War of Portuguese Succession, they put this warlike fellow aboard a boat and sent him to dispute Spanish King Philip II‘s attempt to claim the Portuguese throne and unify the Iberian peninsula.

Strozzi’s armada got its clock cleaned at the naval Battle of Ponta Delgada near the Azores, with devastating loss of life.


The Spanish galleon San Mateo, which did yeoman service at this battle.

Since Spain and France were putatively at peace, Spain treated its captives not as prisoners of war but as pirates, and proceeded to execute several hundred in Vila Franca do Campo. Strozzi didn’t even get that much ceremony, however; the day after the battle, he was mortally stabbed, then tossed into the waves.

Happily, the name and the fame of the Strozzi outlived Spanish justice. In the next century, a distant relative by the handle of Barbara Strozzi became one of the most renowned composers of Baroque vocal music. (As befits wealthy Italians of the Renaissance, the Strozzi were big on the arts; Philippe was supposed to be a fine musician himself.)

* The Strozzi-Medici conflict frames the action in the play Lorenzaccio, in which the titular Brutus-like character mulls assassinating the Medici dictator in order to restore the Republic, only to find no such restoration in the offing once he actually does the deed; the father and grandfather of our day’s protagonists are both principal characters.

** That didn’t work. Strozzi was trounced at the Battle of Marciano, which signaled the permanent demise of the ancient city-state‘s independence.

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1570: Ivan Viskovaty among hundreds on Red Square during the Oprichnina

4 comments July 25th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1570, Russian tsar Ivan IV GroznyIvan the Terrible — carried out one of his most infamous and horrible atrocities with hundreds executed on Red Square.

Ivan the Terrible, by Viktor Vasnetsov. (Cropped image; click for the full painting.)

We find ourselves in 1570 almost a quarter-century into the reign of this complicated, frightening figure. It is the oprichnina, the bloodiest spell of Ivan’s authority: years of torture, purges, and political violence vividly symbolized by the tsar’s black-clad personal Gestapo, the oprichniki.

“Children of darkness,” the exiled noble Kurbsky called these dreadful Praetorians. “Hundreds and thousands of times worse than hangmen.”

A dangerous time to draw breath, but a particularly dangerous time for any boyar, men of the feudal nobility whom Ivan set his iron hand to mastering. This, after all, was the historical task of monarchs at this time, and it was everywhere accomplished with bloodshed.

For Ivan, having come of age an orphan at the mercy of rival boyars, it was a vengeful personal obsession.

Already stung by the defection — and subsequent nasty correspondence — of one such noble, Andrei Kurbsky, Ivan was downright paranoid about disloyalty during the long-running Livonian War against Muscovy’s western neighbors, Poland, Lithuania and Sweden.

Ivan became ever readier to equate dissent with treason and to ascribe his military reverses to conspiracies on the part of his aristocratic commanders, rather than to the shortcomings of his war-machine in general. A vicious circle thus emerged – of military failures; suspected treachery; the suspects’ fear of condemnation and liquidation, and flight abroad.*


The innocent have nothing to fear!

Taking it into his head that the ancient, rival city of Novgorod — one of the cradles of Russian civilization — was scheming to deliver itself to the newly-formed Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Ivan led an army there that in early 1570 massacred thousands of Novgorodians.**

He wasn’t done yet.

Returning to Moscow with his blood up, Ivan subjected his numerous Novgorodian prisoners to a savage regimen meant to uncover the extent of their nefarious doings. And it wasn’t long before the locals (who were, after all, just as suspect in Ivan’s eyes) got swept up in it, too. Politically-motivated magistrates with torture-induced confessions and denunciations did the dreadful things they always do.

This date in 1570 turned out to be the affair’s crowning carnival of barbarism.

“The Russian capital had seen many horrors in its time,” wrote Soviet-era historian A.A. Zimin (cited in this biography of Ivan IV). “But what happened in Moscow on 25 July, in all its cruelty and sadistic refinement, outdid all that had gone before and can perhaps be explained only by the cruel temperament and the sick imagination of Ivan the Terrible.”

Ivan Viskovaty (English Wikipedia link | French) had been one of Russia’s leading men on foreign affairs for a generation, as well as a longstanding ally of the tsar.

Nevertheless, he would be the first and most prominent victim on Red Square this date. Viskovaty’s rival Andrei Shchelkalov, who succeeded Viskovaty as the foreign affairs minister, neatly stitched up the senior diplomat for being in on the Novgorod “plot” as well as more exotic schemes to hand over southern cities to Turkey and the Khanate.

Historian Nikolai Karamzin related the scene (quoted here):

On July 25, in the middle of the market-place, eighteen scaffolds were erected, a number of instruments of torture were fixed in position, a large stack of wood was lighted, and over it an enormous cauldron of water was placed. Seeing these terrible preparations, the people hurried away and hid themselves wherever they could, abandoning their opened shops, their goods and their money. Soon the place was void but for the band of opritchniks gathered round the gibbets, and the blazing fire. Then was heard the sound of drums: the Tsar appeared on horseback, accompanied by his dutiful son, the boyards, some princes, and quite a legion of hangmen. Behind these came some hundreds of the condemned, many like spectres; others torn, bleeding, and so feeble they scarce could walk. Ivan halted near the scaffolds and looked around, then at once commanded the opritchniks to find where the people were and drag them into the light of day. In his impatience he even himself ran about here and there, calling the Muscovites to come forward and see the spectacle he had prepared for them, promising all who came safety and pardon. The inhabitants, fearing to disobey, crept out of their hiding-place, and, trembling with fright, stood round the scaffold. Some having climbed on to the walls, and even showing themselves on the roofs, Ivan shouted: “People, ye are about to witness executions and a massacre, but these are traitors whom I thus punish. Answer me: Is this just?” And on all sides the people shouted approval. “Long live our glorious King! Down with traitors! Goiesi, Goida!”

Ivan separated 180 of the prisoners from the crowd and pardoned them. Then the first Clerk of the Council unrolled a scroll and called upon the condemned to answer. The first to be brought before him was Viskovati, and to him he read out: “Ivan Mikhailovich, formerly a Counsellor of State, thou hast been found faithless to his Imperial Highness. Thou has written to the King Sigismund offering him Novgorod; there thy first crime!” He paused to strike Viskovati on the head, then continued reading: “And this thy second crime, not less heinous than thy first, O ungrateful and perfidious one! Thou hast written to the Sultan of Turkey, that he may take Astrakhan and Kazan,” whereupon he struck the condemned wretch twice, and continued: “Also thou hast called upon the Khan of the Krim Tartars to enter and devastate Russia:† this thy third crime.” Viskovati called God to witness that he was innocent, that he had always served faithfully his Tsar and his country: “My earthly judges will not recognize the truth; but the Heavenly Judge knows my innocence! Thou also, O Prince, thou wilt recognise it before that tribunal on high!” Here the executioners interrupted, gagging him. He was then suspended, head downwards, his clothes torn off, and, Maluta Skutarov, the first to dismount from his horse and lead the attack, cut off an ear, then, little by little, his body was hacked to pieces.

The next victim was the treasurer, Funikov-Kartsef, a friend of Viskovati, accused with him of the same treason, and as unjustly. He in his turn said to Ivan, “I pray God will give thee in eternity a fitting reward for thy actions here!” He was drenched with boiling and cold water alternately, until he expired after enduring the most horrible torments. Then others were hanged, strangled, tortured, cut to pieces, killed slowly, quickly, by whatever means fancy suggested. Ivan himself took a part, stabbing and slaying without dismounting from his horse. In four hours two hundred and been put to death, and then, the carnage over, the hangmen, their clothes covered with blood, and their gory, steaming knives in their hands, surrounded the Tsar and shouted huzzah. “Goida! Goida! Long live the Tsar! Ivan for ever! Goida! Goida!” and so shouting they went round the market-place that Ivan might examine the mutilated remains, the piled-up corpses, the actual evidences of the slaughter. Enough of bloodshed for the one day? Not a bit of it. Ivan, satiated for the moment with the slaughter, would gloat over the grief of the survivors. Wishing to see the unhapy wives of Funikov-Kartsef and of Viskovati, he forced a way into their apartments and made merry over their grief! The wife of Funikov-Kartsef he put to the torture, that he might have from her whatever treasures she possessed. Equally he wished to torture her fifteen-year-old daughter, who was groaning and lamenting at their ill fortune, but contented himself with handing her over to the by no means tender mercies of the Tsarevich Ivan. Taken afterwards to a convent, these unhappy beings shortly died of grief — it is said.

Thanks to this sort of wholesale purging, Ivan the Terrible became in the 20th century something of an allegorical shorthand for Joseph Stalin, whose own reign of terror was a touchier subject for direct commentary. By that same token, and capturing the multifaceted meaning of the word Grozny, (both awful and awe-inspiring) Soviet patriotic mythology co-opted Ivan and his allegedly farsighted cruelty as a state- and nation-builder.

Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible — a planned trilogy of films of which only two were completed, due to Stalin’s distaste for his greatest director’s interpretation — captures a view of Ivan IV Grozny from the shadow of wartime Stalinist Russia. (The two extant films can be seen in their entirety on YouTube, and are well worth the watching.)

The more conventional take is that, especially by his later years, the guy’s tyrannical paranoia had metastasized enough to send him plum off his rocker. In 1581, that favorite son who had accompanied Tsar Ivan to Novgorod, and to Red Square on this date, piqued his father’s rage during an argument — and in a fury, Ivan struck him dead.


Detail view (click for the full, gorgeous canvas) of Ilya Repin‘s emotional painting of Ivan the moment after he has mortally wounded his son. Incited to his own act of lunacy by the tsar’s riveting madman expression, iconographer and Old Believer Abram Balashov slashed these faces with a knife (image) in the Tretyakov Gallery in 1913.

The capable young heir’s senseless death effectively spelled the end for Russia’s Rurikid Dynasty descended from the half-mythical Norse founder of Rus’, Rurik. That argument from order and progress in favor of Ivan’s ferocity inconveniently runs up against the fact that what he actually bequeathed to the next generations of Russians was the rudderless, war-torn Time of Troubles, when rival claimants struggled for the throne.

Ivan IV is sure to remain a controversial, compelling figure for many a year to come. Released just a few months ago as of this writing, and in a time when Ivan comparisons are coming back into vogue for the ominous contemporary Russian state, Pavel Lungin’s Tsar (review) mounts a gory critique of its subject.

* Jonathan Shepard, book review in The Historical Journal, vol. 25, no. 2 (June 1982).

** Novgorod by 1570 was not as important as it had once been, but Ivan’s sack massively depopulated the city, essentially destroying its remaining strength as an independent commercial center.

† The allied Ottoman Turks and Crimean Khanate did in fact devastate Russia (and pillage Moscow) the very next year.

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1501: Antonio Rinaldeschi, bad gambler

2 comments July 22nd, 2010 Headsman

This date in 1501,* the Italian city-state of Florence celebrated a “double feast”: that of St. Mary Magdalene, which marked a civic carnival every July 22; and, the hanging of sacrilegious gambler Antonio Rinaldeschi on the walls of the Bargello.

Eleven days prior, Rinaldeschi was having a bad run of wagering at The Fig Tree tavern.

Like Jesus is some people’s co-pilot, the Virgin Mary must have been Rinaldeschi’s card-counter — for, stalking out of the premises much the poorer, our doomed punter blasphemously uttered “words that are better kept silent” about her. Then, passing an image of Holy Mother at the piazza Santa Maria de Alberighi, he gathered up some nearby dung and flung it at the sacred pic.

This dry poo maybe should have just slid right off, but the Lord works in mysterious ways.

Write William Connell and Giles Constable in “Sacrilege and Redemption in Renaissance Florence: The Case of Antonio Rinaldeschi” (Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 61 (1998), and the source of most of this entry’s narrative),

a portion of it, resembling a rosette (‘quasi pareva una rosetta secha’), stuck to the Virgin’s diadem, above the nape of her neck. The dirtied image drew much attention. The archbishop came to look. Candles and votive images were brought before the fresco, which quickly became an object of popular devotion.

Someone saw something and the trail led back to the ill-tempered cardsharp within days, who tried to stab himself to death when he realized what was about to go down. He copped to the crime pretty quickly (at least one source says it was so that he could be executed in preference to being lynched), and his corpse dangling out the Bargello window decorated the other Mary’s regularly-scheduled homage of parades and horse-races.

(And, now that it was no longer needed as evidence, the miraculous ordure was cleaned off the statue.)

Florence at the dawn of the 16th century was truly a place where religion could get you killed. This was the city that had elevated severe Dominican friar Savonarola to dictator and morals enforcer in the 1490s (Savonarola especially hated gambling), then overthrew and burned him in 1498.

Our authors think there’s some evidence that the first couple years of the 1500s were a period when the populist religious fanatics who once grooved on Savonarola’s violent party pooper act were back on the march as against, say, the more out-of-touch syphilitic reckless gambling blasphemer element that was now, post-Savonarola, enjoying free run of the town. Having one of the latter excrement-ize a Marian monument is the sort of thing that would have led the Florentine Fox News: naturally, he had to be made an example of.

To help you bear that example in mind, a nine-panel painting, “The History of Antonio Rinaldeschi”, attributed to the hanged man’s contemporary Filippo Dolciati, can be seen in Firenze’s Stibbert Museum.

Madonna + manure, meanwhile, has its own art legacy … and the combination is still good for raising a ruckus to this day.


The Holy Virgin Mary, by Chris Ofili: a black Mary smeared with elephant dung.

* The primary sourcing on the chronology of the execution is sketchy enough that it’s possible Rinaldeschi was hanged on July 21, before midnight — rather than in the dark early hours of July 22.

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1572: The Martyrs of Gorkum

1 comment July 9th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1572, Dutch Calvinists fighting to break away from Spanish domination hanged 19 Catholics at Brielle.


The Martyrs of Gorkum, by Cesare Fracassini.

The heretofore abortive — and severely suppressedDutch Revolt blossomed in 1572 with the April 1 capture of Brielle by the Protestant raiders nicknamed Sea Beggars.

Dutch schoolchildren learn the occasion with the punny rhyme — bril, “glasses”, is a near-homophone for Brielle

“Op 1 april verloor Alva zijn bril”

On April 1st, the Duke of Alva lost his glasses

The mailed fist of imperial Spain in the Low Countries, the Duke of Alva (or Alba) would be forced by Calvinist gains this year onto the back foot; despite a vigorous counterattack that regained some lost territory in 1573, he was soon forced into retirement.

This was still just the opening saga of the Eighty Years’ War, but the Dutch Revolt would weave together theology and nationalism for Netherlands separatists. It already had.

So, small surprise that weeks after nicking the Duke of Alva’s glasses, Dutch rebels conquering other towns started making prisoners of Catholic clergy whose loyalties were suspiciously Habsburgish. Our day’s principals (here are their names; a batch of Franciscans taken are the largest contingent, to which various lay brothers, parish priests, and others were appended) were seized at and around Gorkum (Gorinchem).

The author of this intrepid iconoclastic incursion, William II de la Marck, was likewise the author of these Catholic martyrs’ doom once they had been removed back to Brielle. They were hanged without benefit of trial at an abandoned monastery.

Every sectarian propagandist of 16th century Europe made lurid heroes of his own side’s martyrs, and these were no exception to the pattern; we read in this Catholic source (perhaps while contemplating this devotional image) that

[i]t was on the 9th July 1572 when the execution of the pious sufferers began. On their side they had fully prepared themselves for it by confession and prayer. The executioner went so slowly to work that two hours had elapsed ere the last of the martyrs had taken his place on the gallows, and many of them still lived when morning broke. But the fury of the soldiers was not yet satisfied. They mutilated the dead bodies, cut off their noses and ears, and other limbs, and, alas, shame seems to touch the pen with which we write, bound them to their hats, and returned with these melancholy trophies in triumph into the city!

The location where this day’s unfortunates suffered became a pilgrimage destination, and they were formally enrolled in the minor leagues of Rome’s competitive hagiography circuit in the 19th century.

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1538: Diego de Almagro, explorer of Chile

Add comment July 8th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1538, Spanish conquistador Diego de Almagro was executed* at Cuzco by his vengeful rivals, the Pizarro brothers.

Conquistadoring with the rapacious Pizarros was a good way to get rich, get dead, or possibly both.

Almagro, a soldier, got to the New World in 1514 and soon fell in with alpha male Pizarro Francisco.** He’d become an adjunct to the latter’s conquest of the Incan Empire in the 1520s and 1530s; sent to capture the Incan city of Quito, Almagro found it razed by its defenders, and he sycophantically re-founded it as San Francisco de Quito.†

Things weren’t buddy-buddy for long.

The Iberian mothership divided Spain’s putative New World possessions north and south, putting Almagro in command of the southern cone. Great news … now all he had to do was actually take control of it.

Personally financing an expedition on the expectation of fabulous riches to be seized, Almagro instead foundered in Chile’s northern valleys in a frustrating environment of natives equally hostile and impecunious. After a couple years, he gave up and returned to Peru, angrier and poorer for his trouble — and there found that he could exploit the Spanish preoccupation with intransigent Incan chief Manco Inca to nick the capital city of Cuzco for himself.

Almagro actually had the lesser Pizarros — Gonzalo and Hernando — prisoner for a while, but he bartered them away to Francisco for a hill of beans (that is, a promise not to attack), and the Pizarros took their city back by routing Almagro at the Battle of Las Salinas.

The sentence of death against as august a personage as the appointed ruler of Nueva Toledo shocked many, and it was carried out against Almagro’s own entreaties for an appeal to the crown.


Detail view of a print of Almagro’s capture and execution. (Click for the full image.)

Francisco Pizarro would redeem his want of clemency towards his former partner in his own blood: in 1541, Almagro’s son, Diego de Almagro II or el Mozo, murdered Pizarro in an attempted coup d’etat. (Almagro the Younger, too, would be executed for his trouble.)

Although he was an important conquistador who spent most of his time at points further north, Almagro is best remembered today not in Peru but in Chile — for his abortive and disappointing expedition made him that land’s first European “discoverer”.

* Either beheaded or garroted.

** Almagro also rubbed shoulders with Vasco Nunez de Balboa.

† He pulled a similar trick with Trujillo, naming it after Francisco Pizarro’s birthplace.

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1533: John Frith and Andrew Hewet, Protestants

2 comments July 4th, 2010 Headsman

Life is all about timing.

Death too.

This date in 1533 saw John Frith and Andrew Hewet burned to ashes at Smithfield for Protestantism … just a week before Henry VIII himself was excommunicated from the Catholic Church.

A Cambridge man who’d picked up some heresy in Lutheran Germany, Frith was a friend of William Tyndale and did a couple of turns in English prisons for his various transgressions of orthodoxy.

He was finally nabbed by a warrant of then-Chancellor Thomas More before he could escape to the continent, and hailed before a doctrinal court for sacramentarianism.

During his examination by the bishops, Frith stated that he could not agree with them that it was an article of faith that he must believe, under pain of damnation, that when a priest prayed during the mass, the substance of the bread and wine were changed into the actual body and blood of our Savior Jesus Christ, even though their appearance remained the same. And even if this was so, which he did not believe it was, it should not be an article of faith.

-Foxe’s Book of Martyrs

(This, uh, hypothesis remains Catholic doctrine to this day, but at least it’s no longer worth your life to dispute it.)

All the pieces were in place for this radical theology to become orthodoxy over the succeeding generation. The newly-designated Archbishop of Canterbury — still for the moment within the Catholic fold — was reformer Thomas Cranmer. Despite his sympathy for a shared evangelical cause, Cranmer passed a guilty verdict after trying to talk Frith out of his belief. In the event, however, it was the Inquisitor who was converted: Cranmer over the course of the 1530s adopted Frith’s own view. He would eventually enshrine it in the Book of Common Prayer.

All of which, of course, was made possible by Henry’s insistence on ditching his first wife in favor of Anne Boleyn, and Cranmer’s support for that action. On July 11, both the king and his pliant prelate were excommunicated by Pope Clement VII.

Still, it must be allowed that this fact scarcely gave carte blanche to Protestant reformers in England. Maybe Frith was made for the flames regardless: as timing goes, the 1530s were great for religious martyrdom.

Andrew Hewet, our poor footnote, had no part in these august affairs save the victim’s. Hewet was a tailor’s apprentice who was just caught up with an anti-heretical accusation at the wrong time. In prison, he too refused to acknowledge transubstantiation — saying, “I believe as John Frith believes.” For so believing, he burned as Frith burned.

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