Posts filed under 'Holy Roman Empire'

1589: Hemmerlein, chief-ranger of the Margrave

2 comments July 4th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1589, Hans Volckla of Onoltzbach, alias Hemmerlein, was beheaded by Nuremberg.

In early modern Germany’s crazy quiltwork of rivalrous fiefdoms and principalities nominally confederated in the Holy Roman Empire, the free imperial city of Nuremberg and its surrounding lands stood irritatingly athwart the non-contiguous Margravate of George Frederick — who ruled Ansback to Nuremberg’s southwest, and also Brandenburg-Bayreuth to Nuremberg’s northeast.

Local rivalries in this period could easily boil over into micro-wars, and this had happened before between Nuremberg and the Margravate. In 1502, George Frederick’s grandfather* had raided the disputed village of Affalterbach causing several hundred casualties; in 1552, that long-running dispute saw the village burned to the ground.

Tensions were running high again (or still) in the late 1580s,** and the margrave’s chief ranger did not mind making provocations out in the disputed (and unpopulated) frontiers. According to Nuremberg executioner Franz Schmidt, our man Hans Volckla, alias Hemmerlein, “had been so bold as to seize the snares of the fowlers” and “took wares from the pedlars.”

Moreover, he led a little gang that shot three men fatally in 1587. Nuremberg declared him an outlaw.

Nuremberg, for its part, tried to check the poaching threat through the use of informers. We know of one man in particular, one Michael, resident of the wealthy nearby town of Furth whose sovereignty was likewise the subject of regional squabbling. (The town’s emblem is still today a three-leafed clover, said to represent (pdf) the “triple government” of Nuremberg, Ansbach, and the Prince-Bishopric of Bamberg.)

Like 20% or more of Furth’s population, Michael was Jewish — but Nuremberg didn’t mind so long as he caught poachers, which he did. George Frederick did mind: he had Michael put to death in 1596, and buried under an insolent marker reading “Michael, Nuremberg Jew, Betrayer.”

But this date our concern is Hemmerlein, and it was a serious concern of Nuremberg as well: they meant to cut off the head of a man in the train of the very tetchy next lord over. Only weeks earlier, on May 28th, Nuremberg had likewise executed a man named Hans Ramsperger as a betrayer and a spy for the Margrave, but at least that man was a Nuremberger.

Schmidt remembered that in preparation for Hemmerlein’s execution “some cannon were placed on the walls, some sharpshooters posted, and precautions taken against an attack by the Margrave’s men. Orders were also given to me, Master Franz the executioner … that I should put him to death on the bridge or elsewhere in case the Margrave’s men attacked us, so that they might not find him alive.”

In the event, there was no attack and the execution went off without incident in the early morning.

* He openly encouraged allied nobles to shake down Nuremberg merchants, according to Hillay Zmora.

** Nuremberg erected its Zeughaus armory in 1588.

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1562: Michael Lindener, poet laureate

Add comment March 7th, 2014 Headsman

The Holy Roman Empire poet laureate — self-proclaimed, at least — Michael Lindener was beheaded with a sword on this date in 1562 in Friedberg as a murderer.

Lindener (German Wikipedia entry) routinely signed himself “Poeten”, or “P[oeta].L[aureatus].” — for instance, in the preface to his vernacular satiric classics Rastbüchlein and Katzipori.

Whether Lindener really was an official poet laureate of the empire, however, is not so clear. Lindener was a bit of a hustler and in scrabbling to support himself with his pen in Nuremberg and then Augsburg in the 1550s did not shrink from forging the likes of Savonarola, Melanchthon, and Hessus. (He also worked as a proofreader and a teacher.) His honorifics might also have been fraudulent.

Lindener’s mischief was not confined to literary offenses; he led the roguish life of a Villon-esque picaro.

But while that latter author, a mere thief, escaped the fate anticipated in his “Ballad of the Hanged Man”, Lindener found that stabbing an innkeeper to death was an offense much beyond his eloquence to excuse.

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998: Crescentius the Younger

Add comment April 29th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 998, Crescentius the Younger was beheaded in Rome.

In the abject Eternal City, sacked and scattered and plucked of its glories, even the title of Roman Emperor now belonged to a line of absentee Germans — “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire,” as Voltaire would later put it. But empire enough to push around the likes of Rome.

Rivalry between imperial and anti-imperial factions will write the city’s history for centuries to come. In the late 10th century, the 28-year-old emperor Otto II died unexpectedly, elevating his three-year-old son Otto III.

Anti-imperial Romans moved to capitalize on the turmoil, and Crescentius the Younger (his dad had the same name) raised himself up as the master of the city.

He was fruit of the the Crescentii family,* who attained their first rank in Roman politics a century before thanks to the propitious concubinage of a woman named Theodora and “her equally infamous daughters Marozia and Theodora, [who] filled the See of Peter with their paramours, their sons, and grandsons, who surpassed each other in vileness and wickedness of every kind.” (Johann Heinrich Kurtz) The fulminations of scribes against these libidinous, Machiavellian women** would eventually suggest to the history discipline one of its all-time best periodizations, the pornocracy. Sticks and stones, love: their lineage cast a long shadow on the Tiber throughout the 10th century.

Our guy Crescentius took the title Patricius Romanorum and bossed the town for a number of years in the late 980s and early 990s. There wasn’t much the Holy Romans and their boy-emperor could do about the scion of pornocrats.

But by 996, Otto III was all grown up to age 16, and marched down the Italic boot to set things straight in the Caput Mundi.

Temporarily cowed, Crescentius had to accept the appointment of Otto’s guy, Pope Gregory V, who then generously begged off an intended sentence of banishment for Crescentius, in the interests of comity.

Crescentius thanked the new pope, once Otto left town, by running Gregory out of Rome and setting up his own antipope and himself once more as big man on Campo Vecchio. Rome could not hope to match blows with the Germans, so the big idea here for Crescentius was to deliver his city to Byzantine protection; to this end, his antipope was Greek. Constantinople, however, was by this time much too weak in Italy for Crescentius to entertain realistic hope of success.

This in turn led Otto to re-invade in 997-998, and re-depose Crescentius, who retreated to the Castel Sant’Angelo. While Crescentius holed up there, his antipope was blinded, mutilated, and degraded out of the clergy, driven backward on an ass (literally ass-backward!) through the streets to the derision of the mob.† Certain of his control, the emperor set about restoring his authority while the friendless Patricius Romanorum and his followers cooled their heels in their dead-end fortress for two months.

Exactly how Crescentius came to die is sunken into the Tiber’s murky waters: was he lured from his redoubt by promise of royal clemency, or did he crawl to Otto to beg it? More probable is that the nigh-impregnable edifice was simply reduced over time until the Germans nigh-impregnated it; one version of the upstart’s end has him summarily executed on the battlements, his body thrown down into the moat below only to be dredged up and hung upside down on Monte Mario.

* Here’s an attempted family tree (pdf). They would evolve into the Crescenzi.

** Gibbon speculated that this period of female domination of the papacy might have lived on in popular memory as the medieval legend of Pope Joan.

† But not executed, more’s the pity for me.

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1567: Wilhelm von Grumbach, Landfrieden-breaker

1 comment April 18th, 2013 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Grumbach, it was to prove a Pyrrhic victory.

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

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

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

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

The noble right to feud was dead.

* Hereditary military commander.

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

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

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1655: Henry Manning, Protectorate spy

Add comment December 15th, 2011 Headsman

“There certainly can be no doubt,” wrote a Venetian diplomat late in the rule of Oliver Cromwell, “that Charles [II] is betrayed by some of those who stand about him, otherwise it would be impossible for Cromwell to find out the secret plans he meditates.”

And indeed, on this date* in 1655, just such a one was shot by the exiled royalists as a Protectorate spy.

Henry Manning, the son of a royalist colonel who died fighting for Charles’s late beheaded father, had impeccable credentials for the Stuarts. The alleged English king was now parked on the continent, trying to conjure up some route back to the throne.

So when the pedigreed Manning turned up at exile camp, packing “a considerable sum of money” he was willing to give to the cause, he was welcomed with open arms.

Too open.

While royalist courtiers blabbed, Manning was filing enciphered reports for Cromwell’s spy chief (and the source of that considerable sum of money) John Thurloe. And these reports disclosed royalist collaborators in England who were rounded up in great numbers in 1655 — a year in which Cromwell dissolved parliament and resorted to direct military rule, growing correspondingly more worried about plots against his person.

It seems that Cromwell’s intelligence men lacked a certain subtlety, however. After an English traveler illicitly met with Charles on the continent during the dead of night, and was picked up for questioning when he returned to the island, the Stuart men naturally reasoned that only the small handful of people involved in that meeting could have been the mole. Manning was done for as soon as his apartments were searched.

Under interrogation, Manning gave up everything he knew, trying desperately to save his skin by offers of turning double-agent and exploiting his relationship with the Protectorate for the royalists’ benefit.** As late as December 14 the captured spy — hearing “sad rumours of a sudden end intended me, nay, to-morrow morning” — addressed a letter to royal aide Edward Nicholas, “humbly crav[ing] you would once more try his most gratious Majesty.”

His Majesty’s concern, however, was of fading into ridiculousness and irrelevance, and the play here was to make an example of treachery. Without apparent legal sanction — the word of the shadow king Charles was law enough here, and his German hosts were content to look the other way — Manning was pistoled to death in a woods outside of Cologne, and the fact made known abroad.

Everyone who’s had a look at Henry Manning agrees that the guy was a small and abject man, easy prey for these great ministers of state. But then, when Thurloe himself was arrested for treason upon the monarchy’s eventual restoration, he procured his own parole by spilling his secrets to King Charles.

* The Gregorian date, per the Holy Roman Empire where Manning was shot — not the Julian date still in use in England. Note as well that the 15th is the most readily inferred date from the available evidence, particularly Manning’s letter of the 14th, but that the event itself does not appear to have been affirmatively recorded on this (or any) specific date by contemporaries. There’s little room for variance, as correspondents are commenting on the death of Manning by the end of December.

** “The end and aim of spying in all its five varieties is knowledge of the enemy; and this knowledge can only be derived, in the first instance, from the converted spy. Hence it is essential that the converted spy be treated with the utmost liberality.” –Sun Tzu

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1393: John of Nepomuk, Bohemian rhapsody

2 comments March 20th, 2011 Headsman

This is the date in 1393 when the Catholic patron saint of Bohemia, John of Nepomuk (or John Nepomucene) was tossed from Prague’s Charles Bridge into the Vltava River to drown at the order of the Holy Roman Emperor Wenceslaus.

Baroque statue of John Nepomuk on the Charles Bridge from which he was hurled. (cc) image from Jaguar Julie

A relief detail ((cc) image from Charles Hoffman) on this statue depicts the moment of Nepomuk’s martyrdom.

This Wenceslaus — not be confused with the good King Wenceslaus of song — had a tetchy relationship with powers ecclesiastical and temporal.

But although Wenceslaus did martyr a fellow by the handle of John of Pomuk or Nepomuk, the latter makes this blog because of political tension centuries afterward. Despite the date of his corporeal death, John of Nepomuk is really a counter-reformation saint.

Between the late 14th century and Catholic Austria’s bloody 17th century triumph over Czech nationalism the historical Nepomucene parted company pretty definitively.

The real John of Nepomuk was the General Vicar of the local archbishop, John of Jenstein (or Jenzenstein), whose skirmishes with Wenceslaus over the boundaries of royal authority caused historian Albert Wratislaw to draw a Thomas a Becket comparison.*

In the event, the latest manifestation of that disputatious relationship — the king’s attempt to seize some monastic revenues — caused Wenceslaus to completely fly off the handle and arrest several of the archbishop’s advisors, among whom was our sainted martyr.

Wenceslaus personally oversaw their torture and ordered their drowning, but someone talked him out of the execution part. The king at that point had a sort of mini-Guantanamo Bay situation: he had in hand several people whom he had arrested arbitrarily and tortured, whose release would only further embarrass his own royal self. He therefore prevailed upon them to trade their silence for their liberty.

The other arrestees counted their blessings and accepted this expedient exchange. John of Nepomuk, perhaps because he was already tortured near to the point of death, refused. He was consequently “dragged through the streets to the bridge, there his hands were tied behind him, a piece of wood was thrust into his mouth, his feet were tied to his head in the form of a wheel, and he was thrown into the river.”*

The Nepomucene’s legend really grew after his death: in its most splendidly devotional form, as the proto-martyr for the seal of the confessional, which he supposedly kept as the queen’s confessor when Wenceslaus suspected her of infidelity. (An ironic inversion to say the least, since it was actually John’s more timorous co-accused who distinguished themselves with their silence.)

This is a much more edifying martyrdom altogether, so little wonder that the sourcing on John of Pomuk over the succeeding centuries is a hot mess; later scholars would actually speculate as to whether there might not have been two priests of this name who were both martyred by Wenceslaus, so dissimilar were the legends.

Nepomuk’s elevation to legend, and thereafter to the patron saint of Bohemia, would come in part thanks to a great Czech religious reformer who arose at the end of Wenceslaus’s reign — Jan Hus.

This other, heretical John became woven into the emerging Bohemian national sense; he still remains there today. When the Catholic authorities beat back a Protestant and nationalist revolt in 1620 and imposed Catholicism from above,** Saint John of Nepomuk, martyr, was ready at hand for propagandists of the new order. At least, the legendary, confessional-keeping Nepomuk was ready … because this was not a job for the random cleric-bureaucrat who’d been done to death in some forgotten dispute over rent.

For three hundred years two holy men have been rivals for the reverence of the Cech people. One of them, Saint John Nepomuk, was exalted by the Jesuits, who after the battle of the White Hill in 1620 sought to win back the Cechs to the Roman obedience. … His rival for the position of national hero has been Jan Hus, who, during the reign and under the favour of that same king Wenceslas, led the revolt of the Cechs against the ecclesiastical domination of Rome and the secular domination of Germany, and was martyred as a heretic and rebel at the council of Constance in 1415. From that date until the extinction of the independent Bohemian state by the forces of the Empire and the Counter-Reformation in 1620, Hus was publicly honoured by his fellow-countrymen as the champion of national and religious liberty. From 1620 to 1918 his rival was exalted in his place …†

John of Nepomuk today is depicted in statuary on the Charles Bridge (the spot on the bridge where he was thrown over is also marked with a plaque) and is well-represented throughout Catholic central and eastern Europe. Owing to his patronage portfolios of bridges and flood victims, you might also find the Nepomucene in many a topical posting throughout the world — like the very spot of Christianity’s European triumph, Rome’s Milvian Bridge.

(Somewhat less gloriously, the promulgation of this saint’s name and fame mean it also attaches to John Nepomuk Schrank, a Bavarian immigrant to the U.S. who attempted in 1912 to assassinate former president cum presidential candidate yet again Theodore Roosevelt.)

* Wratislaw, “John of Jenstein, Archbishop of Prague, 1378-1397,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Vol. 7 (1878), pp. 30-57. Wratislaw wrote a now-public-domain book about St. John available here.

** Bohemia’s Catholicization is perhaps the classic case in early modern Europe of the Reformation being rolled back from above and from afar. The recent (and none too affordable) book Converting Bohemia: Force and Persuasion in the Catholic Reformation takes a nuanced survey of Bohemia’s transformation from a Protestant to a Catholic bastion … and as the title suggests, finds many of the Catholic components home-grown.

† R.R. Betts, “Jan Hus,” History, Volume 24, Issue 94 (September 1939), pp. 97–112.

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1268: Conradin of Swabia

3 comments October 29th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1268, 16-year-old boy-king Conradin was beheaded in Naples with his best friend.

This short-lived son of German king Conrad IV inherited his call on the purple at the age of 26. 26 months.

While the infant king worked on his ABC’s in Swabia, different regents tried to keep his Sicily and Jerusalem thrones warm in the far-flung empire.

Knowing an opportunity when he saw it, Conradin’s uncle and “regent” Manfred usurped him in Sicily, tipping over the first domino in a peninsular political chain that would fell both relatives. With Manfred’s accession, the rival power of the papacy now faced an active military strongman at its doorstep — and it, in turn, sponsored French noble Charles of Anjou to oppose, and eventually overthrow, Manfred.

By the time all this played out, Conradin was, if not exactly a seasoned man of the world, at least old enough to hear his voice cracking and start noticing girls. By the standards of medieval Europe, that was plenty old enough to press his injured rights in battle.

Accordingly, Conradin — Corradino, to the Italians — led Hohenstaufen boots down the boot to reclaim Sicily. No dice.

His captor’s attitude was summed up in the sentiment, Conradi vita, Caroli mors — “Conrad’s life is Charles’s death,” somewhat doubtfully ascribed to the counsel of Pope Clement IV — so when you think about it, it was no more than self-defense to cut short that vita. And his buddy’s, too, since the scaffold was already hired for the day.


Conradin of Swabia and Frederick of Baden Being Informed of Their Execution in Prison in Naples, by Goethe buddy Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein. Did either try the Sicilian Defence?

He turns to clasp with longing arms his friend,
And turning, sees the fatal blow descend,
Then presses with his lips the severed head,
Last greeting of the dying to the dead.
One quivering flash, a shock that is not pain,
And those he parted death unites again.
So perished Conradin, but legends tell
That as the trenchant blade descending fell,
An eagle, that, unseen by human eyes,
Had poised aloft, down swooping from the skies,
For one short instant hovered o’er the slain,
And dyed his pinions with a crimson stain,
Then wildly shrieked, and upward soaring sped
To witness for the blood unjustly shed.

-Tribute in purple poetry by William John Rous (Here’s a more prose-y review of Conradin’s campaign and demise)

This upward-soaring, crimson-pinioned raptor saw off the Hohenstaufen dynasty of the Holy Roman Empire.

In the unstable years that followed, as rival princes and factions jockeyed for influence, there’d be some serious nostalgia for the bygone Hohenstaufens. But there is opportunity as well as peril in change, and though it may be that this fractious realm was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire, it emerged from its interregnum with its first Habsburg ruler — of many.

What’s left of Corradino di Svevia (and Frederick of Baden) lies entombed at a Neapolitan church, watched over by a monumental 19th century marble sculpture of the youth.

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1285: Tile Kolup, pretender

2 comments July 7th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1285, a pretender to the Holy Roman Empire* throne was burned at the stake in Wetzlar, Germany.

Kolup (English Wikipedia page | German) found room to perpetrate his fraud via the “King in the mountain” legend.

This myth of a past hero who sleeps out of sight, awaiting the opportune moment for return, has a wide cultural currency; King Arthur would be the readiest example for most Anglos.

In Germany from the 13th century, a similar myth attached to Emperor Frederick I “Barbarossa”, who had suddenly drowned during the Third Crusade in 1190 after reigning as Holy Roman Emperor for nearly 40 years. It’s a myth with enough resonance for this poem by 19th century German romantic Friedrich Rückert:

The ancient Barbarossa,
Frederich, the Kaiser great,
Within the castle-cavern
Sits in enchanted state.

He did not die; but ever
Waits in the chamber deep,
Where hidden under the castle
He sat himself to sleep.

The splendor of the Empire
He took with him away,
And back to earth will bring it
When dawns the promised day.

The chair is ivory purest
Whereof he makes his bed;
The table is of marble
Whereon he props his head.

His beard, not flax, but burning
With fierce and fiery glow
Right through the marble table
Beneath his chair does grow.

He nods in dreams and winketh
With dull, half-open eyes,
And once an age he beckons
A page that standeth by.

He bids the boy in slumber:
“O dwarf, go up this hour,
And see if still the ravens
Are flying round the tower.

“And if the ancient ravens
Still wheel above us here,
Then must I sleep enchanted
For many a hundred year.”

(To say nothing of the resonance for the Nazis who codenamed their invasion of the Soviet Union Barbarossa.)

Anyway, by the time we lay our scene late in the 13th century, when the Hohenstaufen line has tragically vanished, a version of this myth — the “Emperor of Peace” (German link) — has attached itself to Barbarossa’s grandson, Frederick II. Like Frederick I, he was a great and long-lived consolidator of the Empire; unfortunately, he’s been dead since 1250. Or has he?!

Tile Kolup appears in 1284 claiming to be this Frederick, who would have been going on 90 years old at this time. The good citizens of Cologne are his first audience, and he totally bombs with them; only their conviction that he’s more madman than usurper gets him run out of town with only a taunting.

But he finds a more receptive crowd in Neuss, and for a time keeps a court there and issues documents on Frederick II’s authority. Rudolph I, King of the Romans and butt of reindeer jokes, eventually nabs him in nearby Wetzlar and tortures him into admitting his imposture.

There are some succinct German biographies of this falsche Friedrich here and here.

* “This agglomeration which was called and which still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.” -Voltaire. (And the coffee talk lady.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Heresy,History,Holy Roman Empire,Power,Pretenders to the Throne,Public Executions,Torture,Treason

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1532: Solomon Molcho

2 comments December 13th, 2009 Jonathan Shipley

(Thanks to Jonathan Shipley of A Writer’s Desk for the guest post. -ed.)

Solomon Molcho, a Portuguese mystic, burned at the stake on this date in 1532 for apostasy.

Solomon Molcho’s Shel Silverstein-esque stylized signature. You can see his robe in Prague, or here.

He was in Regensberg, Germany with Jewish messianic adventurer David Reubeni meeting with Emperor Charles V hoping to persuade the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire to arm Marranos (Sephardic Jews forced to adopt Christianity) against the Turkish onslaught.

Charles imprisoned them both, turning them over to the Inquisition in Mantau, Italy. Reubeni died in prison, possibly poisoned. Molcho, who chose at the stake not to return to Christianity, burned.

Molcho’s life ended in flame but started in the warm bosom of the high echelons of Portuguese society. Born Christian to Marrano parents around 1500, Molcho held the post of royal secretary in the high court of Portuguese justice.

That is, until Reubeni visited Portugal on a political mission.

Enamored with Reubeni, who claimed to be a prince descended from the tribe of Reuben, and who had gained favor with Pope Clement VII, Molcho wanted to join Reubeni in the adventurer’s travels. Reubeni refused. Molcho circumcised himself in hopes of gaining Reubeni’s favor. It was all for naught, and so Reubeni emigrated to Turkey.

Soon Molcho was wandering through the Land of Israel, a preacher who predicted the Messianic Kingdom would come in 1540. He, too, gained favor with Pope Clement VII and, after studying the Kabbalah, predicted natural disasters like a flood in Rome in 1530 and an earthquake in Portugal in 1531. After those predictions, and dabbling in strange experiments, Molcho claimed himself to be a precursor to the coming Messiah, if not the Messiah himself.

This troubled many. Now traveling with Reubeni — one a Kabbalist mystical messianic preacher, the other a peripatetic Jewish dwarf — they sermonized, and allied themselves, where they could.

But not with the emperor.

Molcho, in the provincial capital of Mantua, south of Lake Garda in the Po plain, was given one last opportunity to convert back to Catholicism. Asking instead for a martyr’s death, Molcho got it.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Germany,God,Habsburg Realm,History,Holy Roman Empire,Italy,Jews,Martyrs,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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1726: The Gypsy outlaws of Hesse-Darmstadt

Add comment November 14th, 2009 Headsman

On November 14 and 15, 1726, more than 20 Gypsy outlaws of Hesse-Darmstadt were executed en masse.

Detail view (click for full image) of the execution of the Gypsies at Giessen.

Gypsies in Europe still suffer ample discrimination today, so it’s little surprise to find early modern Europe thick with anti-Gypsy legislation.

No surprise, Angus Fraser writes in The Gypsies, this sort of thing

did in the end produce enormous changes in the life of the Gypsies in Europe. To survive, they had to adapt; they also had to make the most of the loopholes in a system which expressly sought, by denying them food and shelter, to make honest living impossible. Some found a degree of security in inaccessible waste-lands and forests. Some exploited differences in jurisdiction and the spasmodic nature of the authorities’ activity, by making a home in frontier regions … Many broke up into small groups when it was necessary to avoid attention; conversely, others gathered into larger bands to facilitate self-protection … sometimes resorting to violence. Certain Gypsy brigands gained notoriety in eighteenth-century Germany, large tracts of which were overrun with robber companies of mixed and varying origins. Some of these had a strong Gypsy element: numbering perhaps 50 or 100, armed and defiant, they stole for their sustenance and skirmished with the soldier-police sent to confine them.

“The poor Gypsies,” one poor Gypsy lamented to a contemporary German author,* “also want to have the right to live.”

Like the Gypsies’ other necessities, that right went as far as they themselves could secure it … and when secured by brigandage, it eventually brought down an overwhelming response.

The German author in question, J.B. Weissenbruch, relates the tale of a particularly notorious pack of Gypsy outlaws under the leadership of rough characters names of Antoine la Grave, aka “der Grosse Galantho” or “the Great Gallant”, and Johannes la Fortun, aka “Hemperla”.

These were no romantic Johnny Depp-esque Gypsies, at least according to Weissenbruch. Besides “their disposition to wandering, to idleness, to theft, to polygamy, or rather promiscuous license” — well, okay, sort of romantic — these went toe to toe with soldiery dispatched to corral them and had the chops to “take military possession” of a village for the purpose of exacting some corporal revenge.

We know where this ends up.

Though the Great Gallant escaped punishment,† Hemperla and 20-plus of his band (different sources quote slightly different figures) enjoyed the pleasures of the thumbscrew and the Spanish boot to secure confessions necessary to license their sentences. Some were hanged, others (including women) beheaded, and Hemperla and a few comrades were broken on the wheel.

* Cited here; regrettably, I have not been able to locate a browsable original of the Weissenbruch text.

** Same story in yet another Google books freebie.

This German book says his rank got him off the hook, but he lost his head just the same in 1733.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Germany,Gruesome Methods,Hanged,History,Holy Roman Empire,Mass Executions,Outlaws,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Theft,Torture,Women

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