Posts filed under 'Iceland'

1246: Brandur Kolbeinsson, Age of the Sturlungs beheading

Add comment April 19th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1246, Brandur Kolbeinsson suffered a summary beheading.

The chieftain of Iceland’s powerful Ásbirningar clan — it was powerful until April 19, 1246 — Brandur lost a pivotal battle during Iceland’s decades-long era of civil strife in the 13th century, the Age of the Sturlungs.

The victor, Thordr Kakali Sighvatsson, wisely offered leniency to his vanquished foes inducing many to swear oaths that helped Thoror cement his hold on the north of Iceland. But two chiefs are too many, and when Brandur was overtaken fleeing the battlefield, he was beheaded summarily. A crucifix erected in the 21st century now marks the spot.

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Beheaded,Execution,History,Iceland,No Formal Charge,Power,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1830: Agnes Magnusdottir and Fridrik Sigurdsson, Iceland’s last executions

Add comment January 12th, 2017 Headsman

Iceland last used the death penalty on January 12, 1830 with the beheading of farm servants Agnes Magnusdottir and Fridrik Sigurdsson.

Only threadbare details survive to posterity about their crime: one night in 1828, Agnes roused a neighboring farm to give the alarm that Natan Ketilsson’s farmhouse, where she worked, was afire. Neighbors were able to quench the blaze quickly enough to realize that Ketilsson himself had not died because he was trapped in the flame — but because he had been stabbed to death, along with another man known as a criminal, Petur Jonsson.

Agnes, 33, and teenager Fridrik were arrested for murder and eventually beheaded on a desolate hill on the frozen northern coast where a mossed-over stone still silently marks the spot.*


(cc) photo taken by Jennifer Boyer on the walking path to be found at the site of crime.

Why were these men killed? The trial record attributes it to Fridrik’s “hatred of Natan, and a desire to steal,” which are answers that ask their own questions. If the stones remember, they aren’t telling and in the scantiness of documentation the job has fallen to literature instead, for there is something to be said for an mysterious double murder in the ashes of a half-burned farm and the novelty of a woman being the very last human to have her head chopped off in Iceland. (On execution day, Fridrik went first.)

Agnes was Natan’s lover, but the farmer had a reputation for womanizing and, so all suspect, eyes for Fridrik’s young girlfriend;** the inference of a jealous domestic psychodrama cast on the fringe of the Arctic Sea, of chilly twilit tables gathering furtive eyes above with wandering hands below, seems hard to resist. One of Natan’s other paramours was the poet Skald-Rosa, who addressed an anguished quatrain to Agnes in the weeks after the murder, helping to fix the latter’s place in national lore as the wicked moving spirit behind the whole disaster.

Don’t be surprised by the sorrow in my eyes
Nor at the bitter pangs of pain that I feel:
For you have stolen with your scheming he who gave my life meaning,
And thrown your life to the Devil to deal.

And then there was the strange coda, while verdicts were sent to Denmark for confirmation,† of the condemned simply living and working among the community waiting to execute them. Nineteenth century rural Iceland was a little short on jail cells and surplus provisions.

After studying on an exchange program in Iceland, Australian Hannah Kent found this speculative environment a rich source for her well-received first novel, Burial Rites. (There’s a lengthy and interesting podcast interview with her by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation here.)

Kent’s drama has made headway in Hollywood, with Jennifer Lawrence said to be keen on playing the tragic lead; if it someday does hit the silver screen, however, it won’t even be the first on its subject matter — witness the 1995 film Agnes.


As of this writing, the full movie can also be searched on YouTube…

The criminals Fridrik Sigurdsson and Agnes Magnusdottir were today moved out of custody to the place of execution, and following them to the execution site were the priests Reverend Tomasson and Reverend Thorvardur Jonsson, an assistant priest. The criminals had wished that the latter two help them prepare for their deaths. After the priest Johann Tomasson completed a speech of admonition to the convict Fridrik Sigurdsson, Fridrik’s head was taken off with one blow of the axe. The farmer Gudmundur Ketilsson,‡ who had been ordered to be executioner, committed the work that he had been asked to do with dexterity and fearlessness. The criminal Agnes Magnusdottir, who, while this was taking place, had been kept at a remote station where she could not see the site of execution, was then fetched. After the Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jonsson had appropriately prepared her for death, the same executioner cut off her head, and with the same craftsmanship as before. The lifeless heads were then set upon two stakes at the site of execution, and their bodies put in two coffins of untreated boards, and buried before the men were dismissed. While the deed took place, and there until it was finished, everything was appropriately quiet and well-ordered, and it was concluded by a short address by Reverend Magnus Arnason to those that were there.

Actum ut supra.

B. Blondal, R. Olsen, A. Arnason
(From the Magistrate’s Book of Hunavatn District, 1830 — as quoted in the epilogue of Kent’s Burial Rites)

* The milestone murderers, or at least their heads, rest in Tjörn.

** This young woman, Sigridur Gudmundsdottir, was condemned to death with the other two but got to keep her head in the end.

† Iceland did not become independent of Denmark until 1944.

‡ The victim’s brother was the executioner.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,History,Iceland,Milestones,Murder,Public Executions,Women

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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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