Posts filed under 'Denmark'

1693: Anne Palles, the last witch executed in Denmark

Add comment April 4th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1693, fortified with a half-pot of wine provided at public expense, 74-year-old Anne Palles was beheaded and then burned as a sorceress — the last “witch” put to death in Danish history.

Palles got caught up in the usual way: an aged farmer’s wife misfortunate enough to be attached to a couple of incriminating coincidences. Nine-tenths of Denmark’s 1,000 or fewer executed witches were women, two-thirds of them over 50 years old. (Danish-language source.)

Palles was accused (Danish) by a “wise woman” who was herself trying to beat a rap for attempted murder with black magic.

Once that happened, it all started to make sense (more Danish): the sudden death of a woman her husband had once danced with; the poor production of cows passing a place where Palles had pissed.

Clap her in prison and twist her arm a little, and she’ll cop to having “given herself to the Devil, life and soul”, and rolled with an infernal familiar (a black cat: how trite) by the name of “Puus”.

Though you wouldn’t call a thousand executions a drop in the bucket, Denmark never really experienced the witches’ holocaust that occurred in some other European locales. A 1576 law* providing an automatic judicial appeal for sorcery condemnations is often credited for this happy-ish circumstance; in this case, Palles recanted her confession on appeal as torture-induced, and a divided high court in Copenhagen only confirmed the death sentence by an 11-6 vote. (Antonin Scalia writing for the majority.) Even her burning-alive sentence was moderated by the crown to beheading, followed by posthumous burning.

Everyone being a little uncomfortable with the case didn’t ultimately do Anne Palles much good. Another woman, Anne Kruse, had died in prison with her, and was posthumously burned at the stake; the woman who’d made the initial accusations was flogged … and Anne Palles had her head struck from her body and her remains burned to ashes as a witch.

But an era had passed with the cooling of those embers.

Just three years later, an outbreak of witch accusations — the “possessions of Thisted” — rocked northern Jutland. This case boomeranged on its accusers (we’ve seen that elsewhere in Scandinavia), and largely put a stop to witchcraft prosecutions … though the superstition that generated them would persist for quite some time longer.

After 1650 — and thus long before the official day of reckoning for witch-belief during ‘the possession of Thisted’ in 1696-98 — a marked drop in the numbers of witch-trials took place … and the Jutland High Court judges grew more and more sceptical. One of them, the Professor of Mathematics, Villum Lange [Danish bio], wrote to Peder Schumacher (the later Griffenfeldt) in 1670: ‘During the past few days we have had a crowd of women brought before us, accused of sorcery. We have condemned a number of them to the stake; but because they are so foolish and simple-minded we have recommended to the court that the case should first be brought before His Majesty for appeal … One of them confessed to us herself that she had talked with the devil; but whether it was melancholia or some other form of fantasy, or was the honest truth, God alone knows. To me she appeared to be a person in her second childhood.’ No wonder that rumours soon began to circulte that this High Court judge ‘was siding with the sorceresses and saying that no sorceresses existed.’ Towards the close of the century the common people were complaining that the Jutland High Court judges never condemned anyone to the stake any more, and tht was the reason for there being so many sorceresses in Jutland.

But it was only among the educated upper clases [sic] that attitudes were changing. Among ordinary folk the need for witch-trials continued to be felt far into the future, and when the authorities would no longer agree to her this type of case, people several times took the law into their own hands. In 1722 some pesants at Gronning on Salling lynched a witch by burning, and in 1800 the last murder of a witch occurred at Brigsted in the neighbourhood of Vejle.

Gustav Henningsen, “Witchcraft in Denmark”, Folklore, Vol. 93, No. 2 (1982), pp. 131-137

* The first of its kind in Europe. Two other legal ordinances from earlier in the 16th century restricted the use of torture to gain confessions and barred courts from crediting the accusations of other convicted witches, and they also helped constrain outbreaks of widespread persecutions. (Anne Palles’s case looks to have skated pretty close to the line on both of those counts.)

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,History,Milestones,Posthumous Executions,Public Executions,Torture,Witchcraft,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1520: Hemming Gadh

Add comment December 16th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1520, Hemming Gadh was beheaded at Raseborg Castle, Finland for his support of Swedish independence from Denmark.

Gadh (English Wikipedia entry | Swedish | free Swedish biography), around 70 by this time, had had a colorful, opportunistic career in Swedish politics. And religion: he was once temporarily Bishop of Linkoping, but could not win papal approval for the post and got excommunicated a few years later.

A Gadh-fly to the Danish-run Kalmar Union, he was a longtime supporter of Swedish independence agitator Sten Sture the Elder — so much so that when Sten kicked the bucket in 1503, it was Gadh who spiked the story and sent a squire disguised as the late statesman running off to Stockholm to rally his successors before the opposition could capitalize on the situation. (Sweden: The Nation’s History, by Franklin D. Scott)

Gadh was a key figure holding the Swedish party together in a decade-long interregnum until Sten Sture the Younger was up to the task.

And young Sten’s arrival was just in time, because around 1518, Gadh got captured, went over to the Unionist party, and helped it capture Stockholm … precipitating an infamous bloodbath.

Danish King Christian II evidently didn’t trust this turncoat any further than he could throw him, however, which was quite a bit further when he was cut in two. The opportunism that had served Gadh so well for so long this time cost him his head. (Swedish link.)

When in Finland, you can still see the dramatic former island keep where it all went down:


Raseborg Castle (Finnish: Raaseporin linna, Swedish: Raseborgs slott) in Ekenas.

(More information here)

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,Finland,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Religious Figures,Separatists,Sweden,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1550: Jon Arason, the last Catholic bishop of Iceland

Add comment November 7th, 2009 Headsman

At dawn this date in 1550, two sons* of Jon Arason were beheaded at Skalholt, followed by the energetic sextegenerian prelate himself — cementing Lutheranism in Iceland.

As bishop of the northern diocese of Holar and one of the most powerful pols in Iceland, Arason did what he could to maintain papal authority when the Danish King Christian III began pushing Protestantism.

Arason was a practical guy; remote from any prospect of aid, he was content to maintain a cordial balance between his diocese and the southern one of Skalholt. (The two sees were political rivals of long standing; Skalholt’s previous Catholic representative, Ogmundur, had at one point many years before our narrative excommunicated Arason and forced the latter to flee to Denmark.)

Whether driven by the prince or the bishop within,** Arason took advantage of his Protestant opposite number’s timely passing in 1548 to make a play for power in the south as well. Early returns augured well; Arason arrested the Lutheran replacement, got the Icelandic parliament to throw in with him, and captured key points in the Holar diocese, reconsecrating ecclesiastical properties as Catholic.†

But his rival Dadi Gudmundsson turned the tables on the man who was becoming the de facto ruler of the island by ambushing him at a parley. The cleric and the two sons, having been declared outlaws months before by Danish decree, were executed on that basis without trial, lest holding them for the planned hearing the following spring enable their supporters to rally. Arason’s beheading was reportedly botched.

Legally doubtful but practically effectual, the axe that (eventually) decapitated the divine did likewise to his flock. Lutheranism thereafter settled comfortably into the ascendancy: Iceland would not have another Catholic bishop for nearly four centuries, by which time its Catholic population had shrunk near the vanishing point.

Although his faith didn’t have legs on the island, Arason reads very easily as a proto-nationalist figure and political actor; he’s been well-loved by Protestant, Catholic, and irreligious posterity alike.

He also gave Icelandic a bit of vernacular on his way to shuffling off this mortal coil. When a priest named Sveinn proffered the solace, “There is a life after this one!” as the last bishop approached the block, he replied, “Veit ég það, Sveinki!”“This I know, Sveinki!”

In everyday conversation in Iceland, that phrase is still used to tease someone who has just stated the obvious.

* Although this is well into the period when Catholic clergy were supposed to be practicing celibacy, Arason’s indifference to this particular mortification of the flesh is just another bit of his charm. With his mistress Helga Sigurdardottir, he sired nine sons and daughters, marrying them into politically advantageous allegiances where possible. At least eight subsequent Lutheran bishops sprang from his seed; by the present, “virtually all Icelanders can validly claim direct descent” from Jon Arason, according to Iceland, the First New Society.

** Jon Arason was also a notable poet. Ljomur, whose attribution to Arason is speculative, can be enjoyed for free here.

† More particulars about the Icelandic political chessboard are available in this 19th century text (the pdf is easier on the eyes than the text), or in “An Icelandic Martyr: Jón Arason,” by Thomas Buck, in the Jesuit publication Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 46, No. 182 (Summer, 1957), pp. 213-222.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Artists,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,God,History,Iceland,Language,Martyrs,Milestones,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Popular Culture,Power,Religious Figures

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1294: Rane Jonsen, Marsk Stig conspirator

2 comments July 9th, 2009 Headsman

On an unknown date in 1294, the former page of the late Danish King Eric V was put to death for regicide outside Roskilde.

Rane Jonsen or Jonsson (here’s his short Danish Wikipedia page) had been present at the hunt during which the former monarch, more popularly known as “Erik Glipping”, was murdered by unknown assailants in 1286.

The convention — and the official verdict of state — have it that Jonsen contrived to admit marsk Stig Andersen Hvide and fellow conspirators to the vulnerable king’s presence for the purpose of murdering him, possibly revenging the king’s rape of Andersen’s wife. “Marsk Stig” and Rane both fled, and were condemned along with seven other men by the Danish Assembly in the spring of 1287.

Although there is little remaining primary documentation, it does seem that the guilt of these people was decided above all by political expedience. It was Stig Anderson’s opponents who got control of the government (and the regency of 12-year-old Erik Menved), conveniently declaring the guilty parties to be their own rivals, who had formerly been close to Erik Glipping.*

Our page, himself a noble, got the short end of the stick in all this; he energetically denied the story that he had stood aside to permit the murder of his liege, claiming that he fought back albeit unarmed and outnumbered.

But as an emblem of the perfidy of the king’s inner circle, you couldn’t do much better than Rane theatrically planting his sword into a table and standing aside to signify the king’s vulnerability. You can just picture that story being retold with a meaningful ahem to the boy-king Eric VI.

In fact, it was retold: wrongful conviction or no, this episode (in its official version, with Rane and Stig as evildoers) was the basis for a number of entries in the rich Danish ballad genre.

Though popularly cited as medieval ballads, disputed dating places different verses anywhere from Rane Jonsen’s own time to three centuries later.** In any era, they offer some lovely exemplars of the art.

This book reproduces several; topical for this entry is an imagining of the fugitive regicide’s plight, both sad (for his hopelessness) and menacing (for his violent seizure of a bride) — disconcertingly delivered in a repetitious lullaby singsong.

Ranild bade saddle his charger gray,
‘Twas told me oft before,
“I’ll be the Algrave’s guest today,
“Tho’ friends I have no more.”

Ranild rode up to his castle gate
‘Twas told him oft before
Where ermine-clad the Algrave sate,
Tho’ friends he had no more.

“Hail noble Algrave, here I come,
‘Twas told thee oft before
“To fetch my trothplight Kirstin home,
“Tho’ friends I have no more.”

Then up and spake her mother dear,
“‘Twas told thee oft before,
“For thee is bride no longer here,
“For friends thou hast no more.”

“I’ll either with the maid return,
“‘Twas told you oft before
“Or else your house and chattels burn,
“Tho’ friends I have no more.”

“Nay set not thou the house on flame,
“‘Twas told thee oft before,
“E’en take the bride thou ‘rt come to claim,
“Tho’ friends thou hast no more.”

In mantle wrapt the gentle maid,
‘Twas told her oft before,
On Ranild’s good gray horse was laid,
Tho’ friends he had no more.

No other bridal bed had they,
‘Twas told her oft before,
Than bush, and field, and new made hay,
For friends he had no more.

“The wood has ears, the mead can see,
“‘Twas told thee oft before,
“A wretched outlaw’d pair are we,
“For friends I have no more.”

“And had you not King Erick slain,
“‘Twas told you oft before,
“We still might in the land remain,
“But friends we have no more.”

“Stay, Kirstin, stay, such words forbear,
“‘Twas told thee oft before,
“Where strangers are, take greater care,
“For friends we have no ore.”

With that he slapp’d her cheek so red,
“‘Twas told thee oft before,
“It was not I, smote Erick dead,
“Tho’ friends I have no more.”

From the same source, our day’s principal meets his end:

Report is rife in all the land
Ranild at last is caught;
He surely had never gone from Hielm,
His doom had he bethought;
A death of torture he must die,
As he has long been taught.

Ranild he stepp’d within the door,
‘Good evening’ bade the king,
And all the guard of gentlemen,
Who round him stood in ring;
“Christ! may no son of loyal Dane
“Such trouble on him bring!

“But, O King Erick, noble liege,
“Remember you no more;
“The best was I of all the swains
“Your father’s livery wore;
“And you through wood and flowery mead
“In arms so often bore?”

“Full well I know thou servedst here
“For clothes and food and pay;
“And, like a vile and treacherous knave,
“My father didst betray;
“For which the stake thy carcase bears,
“If I but reign a day.”

“My hands and feet hack from my limbs,
“Tear from my head these eyes;
“With racking tortures martyr me,
“The worst you can devise;
“So much the wrong I’ve done your house
“For vengeance on me cries.”

“Thine eyes put out, that will we not,
“Nor lop thy hands or feet;
“But with a traitor’s hardest death
“The worst of traitors treat;
“And on our father’s murderer take
“Such vengeance as is meet.”

As forth from Roskilde he was led,
He wrung his hands anew,
And tears to see him go to die
Wept ladies not a few;
He turn’d him round, and bade them all
A thousand times Adieu.

They led him forth to where the rack
Stood ghastly on the plain;
“O Christ, from such a martyring death
“Protect each honest Dane!
“Had I but stay’d at Hielm this year,
“And there in safety lain!

“Now were there here one faithful friend,
“Who home for me would go,
“And would my sorrowing wife Christine,
“Her path of duty show!
“O Christ, look on my children dear!
“O comfort thou their woe!

“And you, I pray, good Christian folk,
“Who here are standing round,
“A pater noster read for me,
“That grace for me be found;
“And that this night I reach the land,
“Where heavenly joys abound.”

Marsk Stig, however, is the primary focus of these dramas; he raided shipping from his island base on Hielm (Hjelm), dying of natural causes in 1293. Some additional translated ballads about this character are available here.

But since this is poetry, take a moment to dig the original Danish,† which should be at least partially comprehensible to any English- or German-speaker.

Marsti ind aff dorren tren
med suerd i hoyre hend:
kongen sidder hannem op igien,
saa giorlig han hannem kende

>>Hor du, Ranil Ienssen!
oc vilt du verie mit liff:
jeg giffuer dig min soster
oc halff min rige in min tid.<< Det vor Ranil Iensson, han hug i borde oc balck; det vil ieg for sanden sige: hand veriet sin herre som en skalck De stack ham ind at skulder-bende, oc det stod ud aff halss; det vil ieg for sandingen sige: det vaar alt giort med falsk. De stack hannem ind at skulder oc ud aff venster side: >>Nu haffuer wi giort den gierning i dag,
all Danmarck baer for stor quide<<.

Stig burst through the door,
his sword in his right hand;
the king sat upright
and recognized him.

“Hear me, Rane Jonson!
If you defend my life
I will give you my sister
and half of my kingdom.”

Rane Jonson swung his sword
and stuck it in the table and in the wall;
in truth,
he betrayed his lord shamefully.

They stabbed him in the shoulderbone
and out through the neck;
in truth,
they did it all deceitfully.

They stabbed him in the shoulder
and out through the left side.
“Now we have done the deed today,
all Denmark bears too heavy a load”

* Discussed at length in “Killing Erik Glipping. On the Early Days of a Danish Historical Ballad” by William Layher in Song and Popular Culture, 45, 2000. Layher reports that the Norwegian government (which received the fugitives) and the Danish were still trading nastygrams over the propriety of the convictions in the early 1300s. On the instigation of the Archbishop of Lund, who supported the exiles, the Church interdicted sacraments to Denmark for several years around the turn of the century.

** See Layher again. At least one contemporaneous bard, minnesinger Meister Rumelant, is known to have composed on the famous murder.

† Extract and translation from Layher, once again.

Part of the Themed Set: The Ballad.

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Arts and Literature,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Infamous,Murder,Nobility,Notable for their Victims,Public Executions,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1772: Johann Friedrich Struensee, the doctor who ran Denmark

2 comments April 28th, 2009 dogboy

The 1700s were a time of radical reform, and as the Enlightenment reached the shores of Denmark, it suddenly became possible to be a professed atheist and not lose your head. That is, of course, as long as you didn’t also try to usurp the crown, undermine the aristocracy, and agitate the commoners while you were at it.

Such was the course that ended the rise of Johann Friedrich Struensee on this date in 1772. His friend and sometime cohort Enevold Brandt (Danish Wikipedia entry) was put on the block on the same day.

Struensee was born in 1738 in present day Germany and educated in Prussia, a doctor by trade and a budding Enlightenment political writer by practice. He seemed an unlikely character to involve himself in the court of King Christian VII of both Denmark and Norway, but Struensee was a vain and social man who managed to befriend the right people at the right time.

The first was Brandt. The second was Count Schack Karl Rantzau. A lawyer and Supreme Court justice, Brandt was a court favorite* and planted Struensee’s name as a capable doctor: young, kind, and competent, he would make a perfect personal physician for a king known for being a bit off: Christian was likely schizophrenic. Rantzau, meanwhile, was Count of the Holy Roman Empire, exiled from Copenhagen some 15 years before he met young Struensee, and eager to get back into politics.

In June 1768, Struensee took a post as the king’s traveling physician in England, and he immediately attached to Christian’s loneliness. The regent was interested in literature, philosophy, and music, and Struensee obliged him with patient regard for his charge, for which he was duly rewarded with access to a social life much more fulfilling than in Prussia. As a traveling physician, though, Struensee’s post had a finite span, and he lobbied hard to become a member of the Danish court.

With some help from others in the king’s court, Struensee managed to retain a permanent post, and his clamber up the nearest cliff to power began.

The young doctor, it seems, had a talent for playing two sides for personal gain. It started with the king, who had immense trust in Struensee and began to confide almost everything. Struensee was tactful with this information, adhering to an early form of patient-doctor privilege that endeared him to Christian. The other side was Queen Mathilde, Princess of Wales, by all accounts a beautiful woman who was not happy in Denmark and even less happy to be married to a mad and deteriorating king.

Mathilde initially disliked Struensee — or, at the very least, was indifferent to his actions. But near the end of 1769, the queen finally admitted Struensee into her chambers, and their relationship took off. He ably gamed Mathilde by convincing her that she was the kingdom’s future; Christian, meanwhile, remained ill, and Struensee remained a steady presence in his life. Come spring, Crown Prince Frederick VI also came under Struensee’s care, and as smallpox ravaged Copenhagen, the doctor pressed for inoculation. The king and queen assented, Frederick survived the epidemic, and Struensee garnered himself an official advisorship. It’s also suspected that, while Struensee and Mathilde watched over Frederick as he recovered from the inoculation,** their love affair began.

With a taste of power, Struensee pressed King Christian VII for cabinet changes — which he got — and was named Privy Councilor before 1770 was out. Now the principal advisor to the king, Struensee was able to advance his Enlightenment agenda, notably freedom of the press, the abolition of torture, limiting the death penalty, changing the rules of appointments, numbering the houses in Copenhagen, lighting the streets, and, perhaps in anticipation, removing penalties against those who produced illegitimate children. He was a bold visionary, but he also intoxicated by his growing power … and his programme obviously gored many an ox.

Struensee ascended still further early in 1771 when the king became practically unfit to rule. He was mentally faltering, and Struensee was all but running the show, and more.

In early July, the queen gave birth to a daughter who was widely assumed to be Struensee’s child. Days later, and just three years after being introduced to King Christian VII, Johann Friedrich Struensee effectively appointed himself Privy Cabinet Minister with dictatorial authority through one of King Christian’s edicts. Struensee’s orders would now have the force of law, and, as Christian’s proclamation noted, “They shall be immediately obeyed.”


Enevold Brandt (top), not to be confused with Brandt, the Big Lebowski lackey (bottom).

Struensee spent the next six months turning the European aristocracy inside-out and foisting an aggressive set of cabinet orders on the Danish people — over 1,000, by some counts. Having ridden on the coattails of a queen and king, he now pushed them aside. He moved the court to Schleswig-Holstein, in Prussia, and pleasingly enjoyed both the prerogatives of aristocracy and a middle class contempt for them.

Struensee was, to say the least, not a favorite abroad;† that he and his friends dominated the king and queen did not sit well with Danish commoners. Even Brandt was becoming disaffected, writing in a letter asking for either a larger salary or a resignation from the court:

No despot ever arrogated such power as yourself, or exercised it in such a way. The King’s pages and domestics tremble at the slightest occurrence: all are seized with terror. They talk, they eat, they drink, but they tremble as they do so. Fear has seized on all who surround the minister, even on the Queen…

But Brandt stayed on, and as 1771 drew to a close, Copenhagen became hostile territory for the royal family and their favorite doctor.

After the season’s first masquarade ball, on 16 January 1772, the Queen Dowager — Christian’s step-mother — Juliana Marie exposed Struensee’s affair and had Struensee, Brandt, the queen,‡ and many other Struensee accomplices arrested, ostensibly by order of the king.

Struensee was charged with lèse-majesté, a crime against the crown, for his affair with the queen; though he initially denied the charges — and though Mathilde did her best to shield him from harm — he was found guilty. Brandt was charged with the same crime for allegedly assaulting the king after being himself threatened with a flogging for impertinence (he even had a nip at Christian’s finger). Brandt’s punishment was the same. Each had his right hand chopped off, then was beheaded, drawn, and quatertered.

The queen, meanwhile, went into exile in France. Juliana Marie effectively ruled the kingdom through her son for over a decade, rolling back many of Struensee’s reforms and reverting power back to the aristocracy. This also turned out to be unpopular (the Danes and Norwegians are fickle people), and Mathilde’s son Frederick VI was able to regain power for his father in 1784, eventually moving to liberal reforms more in line with his erstwhile physician’s ideals.

Struensee’s epic rise and fall have spawned a variety of writings since his death. A memoir appeared just months after his execution which detailed his final months. He was also the subject of the Per Olov Enquist novel The Royal Physician’s Visit, which examines his life from multiple perspectives. Queen Mathilde’s life was put to ballet by Peter Maxwell Davies. And for a more contemporary cultural artifact, there’s the 2012 film A Royal Affair.

* Brandt was a court favorite, but after attempting to destroy the position of another minister, he was briefly expelled from Copenhagen, shortly after Struensee accepted his post.

** These inoculations predated “safe” inoculations by non-fatal, related disease strains such as cowpox. Frederick would have been made ill through the small pox strain Variola Minor, which had a mortality rate of about 1%. By contrast, Variola Major was fatal in about 30% of cases.

† While Struensee seems to have been book smart, his feel for international politics was limited, and his standing abroad would have unraveled had it ever raveled in the first place. He repeatedly upset the Russians, and Mathilde’s relatives were not pleased with him. Had he not been downed by public sentiment, it seems likely he would have fallen victim to one of his many royal detractors abroad.

‡ In a curious twist, Rantzau was the queen’s arrestor, and one of the principal conspirators in the dowager’s plot was a cabinet minister Struensee was responsible for ejecting very early in his career.

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1517: Torben Oxe

3 comments November 29th, 2008 dogboy

It was November 29, 1517, when the last Roman Catholic king of Denmark, the ambitious and possibly manic-depressive monarch Christian II, enforced the execution of a man whom he trusted for years. Torben Oxe was beheaded at St. Gertrude’s Hospital Cemetery for crimes against the throne.

Oxe was a subsidiary character during the tenure of one of the more intriguing Western European monarchs, and his hasty — and largely unsubstantiated — condemnation was a critical indicator in the governance of King Christian II.

Christian II of Denmark

Christian took the throne during a time of great disquiet in Scandanavia. His father, Hans of Denmark, fought for more than 30 years to restore the union across Norway, Sweden, and Denmark while harshly opposing the Hanseatic League. His efforts bore fruit in 1483 when Norway and Denmark came together to appoint him ruler of those two lands; 14 years later, he conquered Sweden and claimed kingship.

But his dominion over Sweden was short-lived: struggles to regain independent territory in Northern Germany resulted in a resounding defeat, and Sweden gave its new king the pink slip in 1501. Hans was eventually reinstated as an absentee ruler, awarded the title of king in 1509 but not allowed into Stockholm, nor re-crowned. His takeover was exclusively economic.

It was during this time that Christian stepped into his political future.

He took control of Norway as viceroy in 1506, and his rule was less than appreciated by the wealthy. The nobles in Norway maintained a sort of Privy Council called the Rigsraadet, which Christian was unwilling to cede any more power to than he felt was necessary.* Christian was known as a brutal man among the nobles even as he tried to cultivate a connection to the common people.

It was this connection that led to the downfall of Oxe. During his time in Norway, Viceroy Christian took a mistress named Dyveke Sigbritsdatter, a Norweigan peasant of Dutch descent.

At the death of Christian’s father early in 1513, the viceroy became King of Denmark and Norway and immediately set to bringing Sweden under heel. His father had made similar efforts which were supported by Eric Trolle, who was initially appointed regent to Sweden after Sten Sture (the elder) passed away; unfortunately for Christian II, in 1511, Sten Sture (the younger) convinced the high council to rescind its earlier appointment in his favor.

Sture was no friend to Christian II.

It is widely thought that the desires of Christian were eventually played out through Gustav Trolle, Eric’s son, who rose to the post of archbishop early in Christian II’s reign. Trolle threw his lot in with the Danish ruler and gained his ear, earning the promise that Trolle might rule over Sweden in Christian’s name. Trolle did everything he could to secure his place in history, demanding more autonomy for the church and, Sture claimed, attempting a backdoor coup. In 1515, Sture had Trolle imprisoned, the Catholic church condemned the Swedish government, and the Swedes and Danes squared off in a series of battles to decide its fate.

But Christian was obsessed with the expansion of his realm. He worked persistently to expand his power and reach, forming alliances that would help him gain control of what he considered the whole of Denmark. It was around this time that Christian II hitched the horse of the Holy Roman Empire to his team by marrying Isabella (Elizabeth I), granddaughter of Maximilian I.**

Which brings the story back to Torben Oxe.

Oxe was appointed Governor of Copenhagen Castle, a modest nobleman’s post that put him in close contact with the king’s court. Despite Christian’s marriage, he kept his mistress, openly housing her and her mother immediately adjacent to his residence. In summer 1517, Dyveke Sigbritsdatter fell ill and died; her mother pointed the finger at Oxe, who sent the girl a box of cherries two days earlier: apparently, Oxe was also enamored of Dyveke. Sigbrit alleged that Dyveke rebuked Oxe’s advances, and out of spite, he had murdered her.

History is awash with uncertainties, and there are plenty of those in the death of Dyveke. To begin, it’s not even clear that Dyveke was poisoned; she died suddenly and with severe stomach pain, so poisoning was assumed, but never really proven. In addition, it’s not clear whether Oxe was, indeed, courting Dyveke, as Sigbrit insisted. Last but not least, if Dyveke was murdered, there was nothing to suggest that the killer was not a member of the Rigsraad — the Privy Council in Denmark — or just someone seeking revenge on the king for one of his many cruel acts; instead of tracing these possibilities, Christian II condemned his friend Oxe on Sigbrit’s word alone.

But the farce was not complete without an equally farcical trial or two. Oxe’s post gave him a trial by the Council of the State: a dozen noblemen met, conferred, and delivered a rebuke to the king, declaring Oxe innocent of the crime. Christian was incensed at the verdict, allegedly asserting, “If I had as many kinsmen in the Rigsraad as he has, he would never have been acquitted.”

Not content with this form of justice, the king turned to the people, assembling a jury of peasants who were more than obliging in delivering the famed line, “We do not convict him, but his deeds convict him.” So, despite the pleadings of the king’s wife, Torben Oxe lost his head — and his corpse was burned for good measure.


Christian II underskriver Torben Oxes dødsdom, or Christian II Signs Torben Oxe’s Death Warrant (1874-76), by Eilif Peterssen. The queen sits at his side, imploring him not to do it.

In the great tradition of nepotism, Sigbrit was subsequently appointed chief adviser to the king and took over the role of management of the mercantile taxation system, the Sound Tolls; she was remarkably successful in these posts and formed a middle-class council which held far more sway over Christian than its “noble” counterpart, the Rigsraadet.

As he moved away from them, Christian’s rule became more and more unstable, and his desire to have Sweden almost insatiable. After a series of battles, he managed to claim the title of King of Sweden for a brief period around 1520, crowned by his friend Gustav Trolle shortly before putting on the Stockholm Bloodbath. It was this event which earned him the title in Sweden of Christian the Tyrant.

Peder Oxe

As if these connections weren’t enough, Oxe’s nephew, Peder Oxe (born in 1520), who was Steward of the Realm under Frederick II, became one of the players in an attempt to restore Christian II’s daughter, Christina, to the Danish throne — long after Christian himself was out of the picture. The attempt was unsuccessful.†

Dyveke’s story, and her impact on King Christian II, has been cast in a variety of literary formats.

* The Rigsraadet was the Norweigan instantiation of the Scandanavian sort of House of Lords, with members the noblemen of the time. New members could be appointed by kings and queens, or by other members of the council, and, until the Reformation, Roman Catholic bishops also maintained posts.

** This marriage also extended the reach of the Habsburgs into Denmark, a move that would have further consequences several hundred years hence.

Christina also has the distinction of turning down a marriage proposal by Henry VIII. According to legend, her witty response to the ambassador sent to arrange the marriage was, “If I had two heads, one should be at the King of England’s disposal.”

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Murder,Nobility,Notable for their Victims,Notable Jurisprudence,Notably Survived By,Other Voices,Public Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1892: Jens Nielsen, the last in Denmark

2 comments November 8th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1892, serial arsonist Jens Nielsen was beheaded with an axe in the courtyard of Horsens prison — the last civil execution ever conducted in Denmark.

According to this Danish biography, Nielsen had incurred a long prison sentence for burning several farms in July 1883.

(He’d just returned from a fruitless stint in the New World, torching a warehouse in England on the return voyage.)

Apprehended immediately and sentenced to a long prison term, Jens confronted an age-old dilemma which was evidently noticeably acute among melancholy Danes: effecting state-assisted suicide on the scaffold.

These cases must have once been fairly frequent because Denmark, by an ordinance of December 18, 1767, deliberately abandoned the death penalty in cases where “melancholy and other dismal persons [committed murder] for the exclusive purpose of losing their lives.” The background for the provision was, in the words of Orste, “the thinking that was then current among the unenlightened that by murdering another person and thereby being sentenced to death, one might still attain salvation, whereas if one were to take one’s own life, one would be plunged into eternal damnation.”

The ordinance was ineffective in one case, at least, that of Jens Nielsen, who was born in 1862 and spent a most unhappy and unfortunate childhood. In 1884 he was sentenced to 16 years of hard labor for theft and arson. The following year he tried to kill a prison guard. He was tried, sentenced to death and received a commutation to life. He was then placed in solitary confinement. A year later he tried again to kill a guard, “realizing that he could not stand solitary confinement, did not have the nerve to commit suicide and wanted to force his execution.” He was again tried, sentenced to death and the sentence commuted. In 1892, having remained in solitary confinement all that time, he tried again to kill a guard. This time he got his wish, was sentenced to death and executed. (Source.)

He even managed to crack wise, “Thank you!” to the mayor who wished him God’s help on the way to the scaffold — envoy of the powers both temporal and ethereal that would finally loose his shackles.

Denmark’s death penalty law lingered into the 1930’s, but even the occasional death sentences were no longer carried out. Apart from a brief revival after World War II to punish war crimes committed the Nazi occupation, nobody has been put to death in Denmark in — as of today — 116 years.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arson,Attempted Murder,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,Gallows Humor,Milestones,Notable Jurisprudence,Pardons and Clemencies

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1402: False Olaf

2 comments September 28th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1402, a Prussian commoner was put to death on the road between Falsterbo and Skanor in Sweden for masquerading as the long-dead King Olaf IV.

The real Oluf IV Haakonsson — or Olav, or Olaf — had inherited the crowns of Denmark and Norway and a claim to that of Sweden’s but died at the age of 17 in 1387. His mother, Margaret I (or Margrethe I), the real power behind the teenager, ruled outright upon her son’s death.

She proved an able hand and far-sighted ruler, cautiously welding Denmark, Sweden and Norway into the Kalmar Union that would hold until the 16th century. They called her “the Semiramis of the North,” centuries before Catherine the Great nicked the nickname.

But her son’s youthful demise had set persistent rumors abroad — that he was poisoned, for instance, and more to the point for our purposes, that he wasn’t dead at all.

So when his spitting image was recognized, and hailed as the prince of the realm … well, back in the day, equally audacious identity theft was attempted for much smaller stakes than a throne.

Anyway, “Olaf” got some robes befitting Olaf’s station and banged out some letters to Margaret demanding his kingdom back, and Margaret said, come on down.

That goes to show how far looks will take you in life.

Unfortunately for Olaf, his regal jawline wasn’t capable of enunciating Danish speech … so the jig was up as soon as he got to Margaret. One hopes he got a good ride out of his brief masquerade, because he was burned to ashes — possibly after being broken on the wheel — along with those presumptuous letters.

The date of False Olaf’s death comes from Horace Marryat’s 19th century Scandinavian travelogues, One Year in Sweden; including a visit to the isle of Gotland and A Residence in Jutland, the Danish Isles, and Copenhagen (both free reads at Google Books). In both volumes, Marryat identifies the date as the morning before Michaelmas.

The traditional last day of the harvest season celebrated on September 29, Michaelmas was once a four-star holiday on the medieval calendar.

There’s a fair amount of commentary online saying that an “Old Michaelmas” used to be celebrated on October 10 or 11. But that looks to this writer like an interesting inversion stemming ultimately from the celebration’s fall into obscurity as the entity once known as Christendom has become more secular and less agrarian — although it’s admittedly nothing to do with the fate of False Olaf, or Semiramis for that matter.

In 1752, when England finally switched to the Gregorian Calendar, the switch took place in early September.*

For logistical pragmatism (the harvest wasn’t going to come in 11 days earlier just because the calendar changed), the then-imminent Michaelmas got pushed back 11 days to October 10. October 10 then became known as “Old Michaelmas,” no longer Michaelmas by the church calendar but the 365-day interval from when it used to be celebrated, and more importantly, the real end of the harvest season.**

In the next century, the difference between Julian and Gregorian calendars would have advanced to 12 days, placing Old Michaelmas on the 11th; by this present day, it’d be 13 days in principle, but the original meaning of the holiday and the host of cultural traditions associated with it have fallen away … so “Old Michaelmas” is a footnote still pinned to October 10th or 11th, and moderns rediscovering it suppose from the name that it’s the former date of the feast.

* People inclined to think of their death dates as foreordained in heaven’s celestial notebook protested the switch: “give us back our 11 days!” This reform, incidentally, also moved the official beginning of the New Year to January 1 from Michaelmas’ springtime “Quarter Day” counterpart, March 25; winter dates from years prior are often written with both years, e.g. 1738/9. “Old Lady Day“, April 6, is still the beginning of the fiscal year in England, and Thomas Hardy uses its traditional contractual character in Tess of the D’Urbervilles (Aside: Tess’s hanged real-life inspiration) when the title character takes a farm job running through that date:

Tess was so wrapt up in this fanciful dream that she seemed not to know how the season was advancing; that the days had lengthened, that Lady-Day was at hand, and would soon be followed by Old Lady-Day, the end of her term …

At length it was the eve of Old Lady-Day, and the agricultural world was in a fever of mobility such as only occurs at that particular date of the year. It is a day of fulfilment; agreements for outdoor service during the ensuing year, entered into at Candlemas, are to be now carried out. The labourers — or “work-folk”, as they used to call themselves immemorially till the other word was introduced from without — who wish to remain no longer in old places are removing to the new farms.

… With the younger families it was a pleasant excitement which might possibly be an advantage. The Egypt of one family was the Land of Promise to the family who saw it from a distance, till by residence there it became it turn their Egypt also; and so they changed and changed.

** Residents of the former Soviet Republics who switched to the Gregorian calendar in the 20th century still celebrate both the familiar January 1 New Year’s and “Old New Year’s” 13 days later, and the same trick with the (lesser, there) holiday of Christmas too … packing four party occasions into a three-week span.

Part of the Themed Set: Semiramis.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,20th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,Hanged,History,Known But To God,Murder,No Formal Charge,Power,Pretenders to the Throne,Prussia,Public Executions,Summary Executions,Sweden,Treason

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1002: St. Brice’s Day Massacre

6 comments November 13th, 2007 Headsman

On this date over a millennium past, according to the chronicle of John of Wallingford, King Ethelred the Unready of England conducted a massacre of Danes living in the realm.

The character of this sanguinary event — named after a fourth-century French bishop whose feast day Nov. 13 happens to be — lies half-buried in history’s shifting sands. Surely the slaughter of every Dane in a Britain then very much in the Scandinavian orbit would have been not only morally reprehensible but logistically unimaginable.

The accepted, albeit sketchy, story has it that to consolidate his own authority — or to check an actual or suspected plot against him — Ethelred ordered the surprise apprehension and summary execution of some sizable number of Danish lords and mercenaries. British historian Thomas Hodgkin characterizes it as a sort of coup d’etat.

On this date, it was the Danes who were unready for Ethelred.

But whatever its true extent or immediate object, it occurred within the context of intensifying conflict between the English crown and Scandinavian aspirants. Ethelred was to spend the better part of his life struggling — both militarily and through the ruinous tribute of Danegeld — to hold back the incursions of the Viking king Sweyn I.

The St. Brice’s Day Massacre exacerbated those tensions. Sweyn’s sister was apparently among those massacred, and — whether driven by vengeance or simply availing a pretext — Sweyn resumed harrying the English kingdom in the following years.

By 1013, Sweyn had driven Ethelred to Normandy and ruled all of England, welding together a Norse empire fringing the whole north of Europe.

But the empire — and England’s place in it — proved an historical cul-de-sac. Authority in England would be contested for another half-century, gradually sapping the crown’s strength until the Norman Conquest in 1066 swept aside Viking power and set England on a course that would redefine its history.

Update: The story of Ethelred, Normandy, and the Vikings told in Episode 3 of Lars Brownworth’s Norman Centuries podcast:

[audio:http://c4.libsyn.com/editions/58550/17915/03-richard-the-good.mp3]

The British History Podcast covers the St. Brice’s Day Massacre in episode 328.

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Entry Filed under: 11th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Denmark,Early Middle Ages,England,Execution,History,Known But To God,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Put to the Sword,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1520: Stockholm Bloodbath

7 comments November 8th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1520, four days after the Danish King Christian II gained the Swedish throne, nearly 100 prominent supporters of Swedish independence were executed en masse as a civil war’s apparent victors purged their enemies.

The Stockholm Bloodbath followed years of conflict between supporters of the Danish-dominated Kalmar Union and independence advocates under the banner of Sten Sture the Younger. With Sture’s death in battle earlier in 1520, the unionists had gained the upper hand. Stockholm, the last outpost of resistance, had held against four months’ siege before accepting a general amnesty in exchange for capitulation.

But with the city in hand, Christian — known to Swedish history as “Christian the Tyrant” — had its leaders charged for having deposed during the conflict the pro-union Archbishop Gustav Trolle, construed as an offense against the Church not in the temporal authority’s power to reprieve. Less than 24 hours after this legal maneuver was sprung, public beheadings of prelates, merchants and burgomasters were underway at Stortorget* — and Sture’s remains were exhumed and posthumously burnt at the stake.

Stortorget

It proved a Pyrrhic victory for the Danish party.

Inside of three years, Christian himself had been deposed with multiple lands and factions throughout his realm in open revolt. Gustav Vasa, whose father had been one of the Stockholm Bloodbath’s victims, would not only decisively break Denmark’s hold on Sweden but found the Vasa Dynasty under which Sweden would burgeon into one of Europe’s great powers.

*One Hans Brask survived the purge despite having endorsed the removal of Archbishop Trolle. Brask supposedly placed a note under his seal on this document saying “To this I am forced and compelled.” This cunning device gave the Swedish tongue the word Brasklapp — a secret reservation.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Denmark,Famous,God,Language,Mass Executions,Notably Survived By,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Popular Culture,Posthumous Executions,Power,Public Executions,Summary Executions,Sweden,Treason,Wartime Executions

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