Today is the feast day of Santa Claus himself, St. Nicholas.
Nicholas was a real-life bishop in fourth century Asia Minor. He’s among the prelates to sign off on the Nicene Creed, Christianity’s official profession of orthodox doctrine hammered out at the emperor Constantine’s epochal Council of Nicaea.
Living as he did amid the triumph of his once-persecuted faith, Saint Nick was not called upon to offer God his own martyrdom. Our death penalty context comes from one of the stories in his hagiography — that on one occasion, returning to the seat of his diocese at Myra, Nicholas discovered that three innocent men had been condemned to imminent execution by a wicked magistrate. Hastening to the scene, he dramatically averted their beheading by seizing the executioner’s sword.
The great Russian artist Ilya Repin dramatically depicted the scene.
St. Nicholas Saves Three Innocents from Death, by Ilya Repin (1888).
Repin did not love this painting — he slinked out of its 1889 exhibition, allegedly dissatisfied with its ridigity and melodrama* — but it did express the liberal-minded artist’s distaste for capital punishment. The era we now know to be the late tsarist period in Russia saw violent (and sometimes indiscriminate) crackdowns on revolutionary terrorism following the 1881 assassination of Tsar Alexander II, to the great grief of her dissident intelligentsia. Philosopher Vladimir Solovyov called the death penalty “absolute murder”; with a like attitude, tsarist Russia’s “liberal politicians, academics and journalists repeatedly campaigned against this form of punishment.” (Source)
Around the time that Repin depicted St. Nicholas’s great act of clemency, Leo Tolstoy — who abhorred capital punishment — wrote of his youthful experience witnessing the guillotine in action in Paris, “at the moment the head and body separated and fell into the box I gasped, and realized not with my mind nor with my heart but with my whole being, that all the arguments in defence of capital punishment are wicked nonsense … [that] murder remains murder, and that this crime had been committed before my eyes.”**
Repin was forever being read and misread by the ideologues afoot in Russia, but this Tolstoyan horror at the scaffold he shared unambiguously. In a later era, by which time Repin was the established senior figure of the Russian art scene, the painter was exercised enough by Stolypin‘s wholesale use of capital punishment following Russia’s abortive 1905 revolution to issue a public denunciation of executions. But it was only ever by the hand of St. Nicholas that he had the experience of preventing one.
* See David Jackson, “The ‘Golgotha’ of Ilya Repin in Context”, Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University, Vol. 50, No. 1 (1991).
The Angevins appear to have been on the losing end of that situation, but in a 53-year reign, Fulk gave much in disproportion to what he got and was certainly known for his ruthlessness. Rather ungenerously, Richard Erdoes in AD 1000: Living on the Brink of Apocalypse decries Fulk Nerra as a “plunderer, murderer, robber, and swearer of false oaths” who “whenever he had the slightest difference with a neighbor … rushed upon his lands, ravaging, pillaging, raping, and killing.” He aggrandized Anjou, that much is certain; fearsome in battle, Fulk gave defenders of fortresses that he intended to possess to understand that only by speedy submission could they expect to escape summary execution. He had a once-trusted advisor named Hugh of Beauvais murdered before his eyes.
And on the occasion in question here, he supposedly wrought the revenge of a wronged husband when he caught his first wife making time with a goatherd. There is very little dependable primary information here; historiography dates to the 12th century and must surely be queried for embroidery if not outright fabrication.* Elisabeth was, naturally, Fulk’s spouse by way of dynastic politics and her father Bouchard I of Vendome seems to have realigned with Anjou’s rivals the lords of Blois. (Source) Who knows but that our trite and sordid story of marital infidelity does not conceal a woman potent with ambitions of her own.
Whatever went down did so dramatically: the chronicle kept by the monks of Saint-Florent says that Elisabeth was able to gather supporters and hole up against her husband at a fortress in (apt choice) Angers. If this resembles the truth in any way, one may safely suppose that Elisabeth was far from the only victim of Fulk’s passions on this occasion. The fate of the purported goatherd probably does not even bear imagining.
However and whenever it is that Elisabeth came to her end, Fulk had another wife by 1006, and it was this second woman who bore the count his heir.
And Anjou grew and prospered for its lord’s grasping ferocity. His biographer, Bernard Bachrach, likened Fulk’s energy and ambition to that of his younger contemporary, the Duke of Normandy — the man who eventually attained the English throne as William the Conqueror. Fulk was also known as “the great builder” for the welter of castles, churches, and other buildings that he threw up to exalt (and to dominate) his growing estates.
Perhaps to relieve the burden upon his conscience such triumphant statecraft necessarily implied, he also made multiple pilgrimages to Jerusalem — difficult and dangerous journeys. It was on his return from one of those sojourns that he died in Metz in 1040; Fulk was buried in the environs of one of those many buildings he underwrote, the (still-extant) abbey of Beaulieu-les-Loches.
* See Elisabeth M.C. van Houts’s review of Bachrach in The International History Review, Aug. 1994.
When the Huguenot prince turned Henri IV of France finally mastered his realm by attending Catholic services in his capital city with the legendary words “Paris is worth a mass,” he was not merely overcoming some residual sectarian prejudice. There had been civil war in France for the best part of a century, and the bitterness of Catholic opposition to a Protestant king would eventually claim Henri’s life.
During the last phase of France’s devastating Wars of Religion, suitably titled the War of the Three Henrys, a Paris dominated by the staunch Catholic League held out against a joint siege by the sitting, Catholic king Henri III — who was so much the moderate sellout as to have made common cause with his cousin and heir, the Protestant Henri of Navarre (our future Henri IV).*
We have dealt elsewhere in these pages with those dramatic years, including Paris eventually falling into the hands of a despot clique of Catholic fanatics known as “The Sixteen” — who made so bold as to execute Catholic “politiques” of insufficient zeal.
An armed march of the Holy League in Paris in 1590. (Anonymous painting)
Just days after the signal hanging of jurist Barnabe Brisson in November of 1591, the city was taken back in hand by the Duke of Mayenne, a Catholic whom some radicals wished to advance to the throne.
Mayenne preferred the role of kingmaker, stabilizing the long unrest of his realm. He was horrified by the Sixteen, and on December 4 he seized four of their number — Nicolas Ameline, Barthelemy Anroux, Jean Emmenot and Jean Louchart — and had them summarily hanged at the Louvre. The Sixteen’s days were done.
Mayenne had the wisdom not to follow these exemplary executions with any provocative purges — neither of the other 12 nor other intemperate elements in town — but proclaimed a general amnesty. It was he who, over the months ahead, smoothed the way for Henri IV’s famous mass.
* The third Henri in the War of the Three Henrys was the late Duke of Guise, whom King Henri III had had assassinated. The House of Guise was characteristically an ardent Catholic party in these years, so his murder had helped sunder the allegiance of Paris to her king.
One of the bloodiest events to mar the history of that storied penal island, the “battle” began as an attempt by prisoners to break out of C and D Blocks and seize an an imminent afternoon prison ferry.
And like many prison breaks, preparations at once diligent, desperate, and ingenious were foiled by mischance … leaving only a hopeless, deadly shootout.
The revolt, which is narrated blow by blow here, began on May 2, 1946 in C Block, when two prisoners overpowered a guard. One of them, Bernard Coy — destined to die in the following days’ siege — had spent his last weeks on this earth fasting for this very moment: now, he disrobed and, with the help of a contraband bar-spreading gadget, squeezed his emaciated frame through some bars to gain access to a gallery connecting to D Block. The prisoners had the patrol patterns of the guards in the vicinity down to a “T”; the man walking this gallery was in his turn surprised and disarmed by Bernard Coy, who proceeded to lower the guard’s keys and a number of weapons to his accomplices.
Now armed, Coy was able to force his way into D Block where he released more prisoners from locked cells, including accomplices — and the eventual subjects of this day’s post — Shockley and Thompson.
So far, things couldn’t have gone much better. Only one obstacle remained: a locked door to access the yard that would take them to the Alcatraz launch and a rendezvous with their unsuspecting ride to freedom. And this, of course, is where it all went wrong.
Despite capturing a number of guards during the course of their progress, the aspiring escapees realized that they didn’t have the key for the cell house door. The escape siren went up while they were still stuck.
Having taken the trouble to come this far, the inmates did not abandon the enterprise but devolved it into futile violence, firing out of their locked-up redoubt for no better reason than that they had the guns. Patrol boats began to arrive; word soon got around the city — the gunfire was audible to Golden Gate Bridge motorists — and ordinary San Franciscans congregated near the shore to watch while “thousands of rounds of ammunition and tracer bullets split the night sky as thousands watched from hilltops and piers on both sides of the bay.” (From the San Francisco Chronicle‘s coverage; after an initial fusillade, prison officials waited until dark fell on the evening of May 2 to resume the attack.)
Marines recently hardened in the Pacific theater helped orchestrate the plan of attack: after re-taking the cell blocks — which were found, contrary to worst fears — in relative calm, the trapped escapees were driven by grenades into a corridor where troopers could fire at them. By the morning of May 4, the lifeless bodies of Coy and two others were stretched out in that hall.
From left: Clarence Carnes, Sam Shockley, and Miran Thompson.
Shockley, Thompson, and a 19-year-old Choctaw named Clarence Carnes survived to face capital charges for the two guards killed in the fray. Carnes, already serving a life sentence for murder, enjoyed the mercy of an additional life sentence in this case, owing to his youth, and to testimony that he had disobeyed the orders of his confederates to execute captured guards.* Shockley and Thompson were not so fortunate.
On this date in 1302, Norwegian nobleman Audun Hugleiksson was hanged at Nordnes in Bergen.
Hugleiksson (English Wikipedia entry | the much more detailed Norwegian) was one of the great lords of the realm in the late 13th century; as he had studied law in Paris and Bologna, he became a key figure in the reform of monumental legal reform that gives Magnus the Lawmender his nickname.
Our man enjoyed a somewhat less exalted nickname than his patron: “Hestakorn”, which refers to either oats fed to horses or a special tax being levied in the period. Either variant suggests an intriguing backstory which is regrettably lost to posterity. (Sources for this period tend regrettably sketchy, as we shall see.)
At any rate, horse-oats was at the Lawmender’s elbow as Norwegian and Icelandic laws were collected, organized, and rewritten from 1269 to 1281 — “the wisest legal mind in the land,” by contemporaries’ reckoning. He’s thought to have brought continental European legal traditions heavily to bear on the new codes.
Magnus died in 1280, leaving power to a 12-year-old son, Erik … but Hugleiksson continued as a leading man of the guardians’ council and, once Erik attained his majority, a close advisor to son as to father. He was trusted as an envoy to England to hammer out the arrangements for the ill-starred dynastic marriage of the princess Margaret.
As a monument to his prestige, Hestakorn threw up a stone castle, Hegrenes — a very rare indulgence for even the greatest lords.
But when King Erik died in 1299, Hugleiksson fell dramatically foul of his successor, Haakon V. Before the year was out, the onetime magnate had been clapped in prison; on December 2, 1302, he was put to death not with a blade, the traditional deference to his rank, but with hemp — as if he were a common thief. The date of the execution comes from the Icelandic Annals; likewise the dishonorable method.
Clearly the regime change made his fall possible. But what operatic catastrophe of high statecraft and low morals brought him to such destruction? Was he found to go in for political perfidy, peculation, pederasty, or poison? Was he rolled up by a witch-sniffer, or emulate Macbeth in his Glamis? Did his other portfolio as the taxman rub someone the wrong way? Reader, your imagination must suffice — for those inconstant sources ever so keen on where and how are not so hot on why.
Rebellion broke out among the Mapuche in 1553, led by Caupolican and his able commander Lautaro; they won some signal victories but the conflict was never decisively finished by either side. The Arauco War — encompassing many distinct rebellions and campaigns punctuated by relative calm — ran until the early 19th century.
Our fellow Galvarino was elevated to folk hero status by the Spanish in the very first period of rebellion when he was captured in battle at Lagunillas. Instead of cutting off his head, the Europeans chopped off his hands — then sent him (with a number of like mutilated prisoners) back to his people. The intent was to make a terrifying example, but Galvarino made the example his own: brandishing the bloodied stumps and oratorical fury to match, he incited his comrades to further resistance.
At the Battle of Millarapue on this date in 1557, hours before his execution, the Spanish beheld him urging on the Mapuche:
My Brothers, why have you stopped attacking these Christians, seeing the manifest damage that from the day which they entered our kingdom until today they have done and are doing? And they still will do to you what you see that they have done and they are doing? And still they will do to you what you see that they have done to me, cut your hands off, if you are not diligent in making the most of wreaking destruction on these so injurious people for us and or or our children and women!
But by evening, the Spanish carried the day — and once again had Galvarino in their custody.
“The poet Ercilla, impressed by the Indian’s valor, made every effort to keep him from being executed, arguing that he had seen Galvarino changing sides and joining the Spanish troops,” writes Guillermo I. Castillo-Feliu in Culture and Customs of Chile. “Galvarino, displaying his mutilated arms, until then covered by a shawl, refused Ercilla’s offer to commute his death sentence and said that he only wished that he could tear his enemies apart with his teeth.”
They put him to death straightaway. Accounts of the execution method range from hanging to impalement to being thrown to dogs.
On this date in 1986, during the opening months of a guerrilla war that would last until 1992, a 70-man detachment of Suriname soldiers raided the village of Moiwana, home of the rebel leader Ronnie Brunswijk, and massacred dozens of people.
Drawing made c. 1990 by an eight-year-old refugee of Moiwana. Image from Richard Price’s “The Killings in Suriname”, Cultural Anthropology, November 1995.
Sealing the roads, the team went house to house for four hours, torching houses and slaughtering any of the Ndyuka civilians who couldn’t escape into the surrounding jungle.
“Everyone was shot — the unarmed women, pregnant women, a baby barely seven months old,” goes the account in Memre Moiwana, a publication of the NGO Moiwana ’86. “No distinctions were made.” Some were mowed down with automatic weapons; others slashed to death with machetes. At least 38 people died, though various sources posit estimates running to upwards of 50.
In the weeks following, nearby Ndjuka villages in eastern Suriname shared a like fate, often bombarded by helicopters and finished off with bulldozers while death squads hunted suspected guerrillas. The U.S. State Department reported 244 Ndyuka people killed that December. A United Nations investigator entering the area months later reported that “no human being or living creature was seen apart from starving dogs in [one such town] Albina. The jungle vegetation had taken over the destroyed buildings.”
A police inspector named Herman Eddy Gooding who had the temerity to investigate these massacres while the guerrilla war was still ongoing was found mysteriously shot dead in 1990. (See Rainforest Warriors: Human Rights on Trial) In 2005, however, survivors of Moiwana won a suit against the army of Suriname before the Inter American Court of Human Rights.
In this period from approximately 726 to 842, the empire was rent by a conflict between iconophiles or iconodules — proponents of the use and adoration of religious imagery in Christian worship — and iconoclasts — who abhorred same as a form of sacrilegious idolatry.
This was deadly serious stuff in the way that only Byzantine sectarian conflict could be, but the controversy was not strictly about defining the Biblical injunction on graven images. As the excellent History of Byzantium podcast explains in its iconoclasm episode,* it likely manifests “an empire-wide reaction to the trauma of defeat” — battlefield defeat by the rising armies of Islam, and with it a shaken confidence in the favor of God. (Islam’s hard line against idolatry surely can’t be coincidental.)
But in posterity we are reduced to these muddy qualifiers because as the winning party in the dispute, iconodules wrote the history. That’s no moralistic stab: iconoclasts, too, burned the enemy’s tracts when they had the opportunity; had they prevailed in the end, they would have blurred out the background, motivations, and achievements of their rivals as readily as the iconodules did and leave those who followed to read between the lines of a partisan history. Indeed, Bissera Pentcheva’s recent Icons and Power: The Mother of God in Byzantium even contends that the legendary centrality of icons to Byzantine religiosity was an invention of the post-iconoclastic era, with events like the Marian icon’s saving Constantinople during the Avar siege of 626 backfilled to replace the original story about Marian relics working the divine intervention.
Iconoclasts plastering over an icon.
The iconoclastic era opens in the late 720s; according to the (iconodule, naturally) saint and historian Nicephorous, its immediate trigger was the devastating 726 eruption of the Greek island Thera (Santorini) — and affrighted by the apparent divine wrath, “the impious emperor Leo [III] started making pronouncements about the removal of the holy and venerable icons.” He’s alleged to have taken down a particularly revered icon of Christ on Constantinople’s Chalke Gate.
Nevertheless, it is difficult to get a firm fix on what specific anti-icon policies Leo promulgated, if indeed there were any at all. (The Greek term for “pronouncements” could be understood simply as “comments” instead of “edicts”.) It is Leo’s son Constantine V, succeeding the purple in 741, who clearly brings an overt imperial turn against icons, for “He cannot be depicted. For what is depicted in one person, and he who circumscribes that person has plainly circumscribed the divine nature which is incapable of being circumscribed.” Constantine convened an ecumenical council that ruled for his anti-icon position and set about removing images from churches.
Against this campaign was ranged the bulk of the clergy — church vs. state is another possible and difficult-to-measure dimension of the whole dispute, although Constantine’s ability to win the acquiescence of hundreds of bishops must complicate this interpretation.
The great champion of and martyr for the iconodule position in this time was St. Stephen the Younger. That’s “younger” vis-a-vis the original St. Stephen, Christianity’s protomartyr.
As befits that exalted company, this monk and hermit was credited by his adherents with a supernatural power in the iconoclasm debate.
A man blind from his birth visits the saint with suppliant outcry for relief. “If you hast faith in God,” he replies, “if thou art a worshipper of His image, thou shalt behold the light and the beauty of hidden things.” Scarcely had the words gone forth, when the blind man rejoiced in beholding light. A woman brings to him her son “grievously vexed with a devil,” and a distressing scene is described. Stephen bids a disciple to apply the sign of the Cross to the whole afflicted body. The saint calls upon God with many tears. Finally he delivers the boy safe to his mother, when the image of Christ has been adored. An infirm soldier comes with entreaty for relief. The saint bids him adore the images of Christ and His Mother, and immediately he is restored. The soldier afterwards repudiates image-worship before the Emperor, who at once promotes him to the rank of centurion. Leaving the imperial presence he would mount his horse; the horse rears, throws him to the ground, and tramples him to death. Such is the life of the younger Stephen as related with awe-struck delight in Greek and Roman martyrologies. (Source)
And so forth.
The emperor is alleged by the hagiographies to have sought Stephen’s destruction for many years, being continually frustrated even to the point where Stephen’s torturers in prison seemed unable to finish him off. “Will no one rid me of this monk?” Constantine cries, anticipating Thomas a Becket by a good four centuries. His soldiers finally clubbed to death the obdurate cleric on November 28, 764. (For a critique of Stephen’s hagiography, including a death date that proves questionable (no surprise), see this pdf.)
But not for the first time, an imperial innovation in theology failed to outlast the patronage of its sovereign. After Constantine’s death, Empress Irene** restored the iconodules to favor† — and set the stage for a great flowering of Orthodox icons in the centuries to come.
* Also see Episode 75, delving into Constantine’s iconoclasm.
** The fact that the extant remnant of the Roman Empire had no emperor — merely a woman ruler — formed part of the rationale for the western church crowning Charlemagne “Holy Roman Emperor”. This slap in the face to Constantinople could occur because a papacy long deferential to Byzantium had at last broken with the East in the mid-8th century … in part, over iconoclasm.
† Emperor Leo V restored official iconoclasm in 813 for another 29-year run as imperial policy before the movement’s final defeat.
For many generations from the 14th to 17th centuries, new Ottoman heirs maintained themselves by the cruel practice of preventive fratricide.
Enforced at varying levels of systematicity, the destruction of the men best positioned to assert a claim of bloodline legitimacy against the new sultan might arguably have been one of the bulwarks of the empire’s prosperity. It insulated the Sultanate from protracted succession crises, civil war, and political fragmentation. With each generation’s passing, power coalesced into one man.
The sagacity, if not the humanity, of Bayezid’s action was underscored in 1402 when Bayezid was captured in battle by the Timurids and the ensuing 11-year “Ottoman Interregnum” saw the empire strained near to breaking as brother fought brother for succession until Mehmed I emerged victorious in 1413. Having attained power by killing off three siblings, he got the nickname “Mehmed Kirisci” — “Bowstring Mehmed”, after the implement by which the mighty were strangled out of the Turkish game of thrones.
And whoever of my children manages to reach the throne, it is fitting that he should kill his brothers, for the sake of the order of the world. Most of the ulema permit that. Let them act on that. (Source)
In Mehmed the Conqueror’s day, the child “managing to reach the throne” was the winner among the sons, who were posted to various regional outposts to earn their spurs in governance, in a scramble back to the Porte upon word of the old man’s death. This meant that in life, the boys were in a constant struggle for the privilege of central assignments and to nurture their own palace networks who when the day came could provide speedy notification of the impending succession and smooth recognition of a claim by the state apparatus. “The first son to reach the capital and win recognition by the court and the imperial troops became the new ruler,” Donald Quataert writes. “This was not a very pretty method; nonetheless it did promote the accession of experienced, well-connected, and capable individuals to the throne, persons who had been able to win support from the power brokers of the system.” The sitting sultans naturally put their own thumbs on the scale, too.
We are arriving, ever so circuitously, to the date’s honorees, and as one might suppose they were princes of the blood.
Come 1512, we find Mehmed the Conqueror’s son Bayezid II forcibly deposed by his son Selim. All those incentives favoring experienced, well-connected and capable individuals could also induce such a figure to take his advantage when it presented itself rather than awaiting the mischance of racing messengers. In Selim’s case, the father openly favored a different brother, Ahmet, so Selim and Ahmet were at each other’s throats (and dad’s too) well before Bayezid departed the scene.
Long story short, Selim got the kingmaking Janissaries on his side and lodged himself in the palace but his brother fought on against him. Selim would have to secure his power in 1512-1513 by an unusually thorough purge that set him up to earn the nickname “Selim the Grim”.*
Selim had seven brothers, five of whom were fortunate enough to predecease their father, and these seven brothers had collectively fathered nine sons of their own. Selim had quite a number possible rivals to dispose of.
In the months after his conquest of power, Selim wintered in Bursa, where he had interred five of his young nephews. (The other four nephews were all Ahmet’s sons, and still at large.) Some bout of fresh resistance by Ahmet induced Selim, on November 27, 1512, to do the grim thing:
The eldest of them, Osman, son of Prince Alemshah, was twenty years old; the youngest, Mahomet, son of Prince Schehinshah, was only seven. Selim sent Janissaries to apprehend them, and they were shut up by his orders in one apartment of the palace. On the next morning, the Sultan’s mutes entered to put them to death. A fearful scene ensued, which Selim witnessed from an adjoining chamber. The youngest of the captive princes fell on their knees before the grim executioners, and with tears and childish prayers and promises begged hard for mercy. The little Prince Mahomet implored that his uncle would spare him, and offered to serve him all the days of his life for an aspre (the lowest of all coins) a day. The elder of the victims, Prince Osman, who knew that there was no hope of mercy, rushed fiercely upon the murderers, and fought hard for a time against them. One of the mutes was struck dead, and another had his arm broken. Selim ordered his personal attendants to run in and assist in the execution; and at length the unhappy princes were overpowered by numbers, and strangled. Their bodies were deposited with all display of royal pomp near the sepulchre of Amurath II. (Source)
Six months later, Ahmet — defeated and in his own turn throttled with a bowstring — joined them in the same tomb.
* All told, Selim the Grim ordered something like 30,000 executions in his eight-year reign.