Posts filed under 'Heads of State'

706: Leontios and Apsimar

Add comment February 15th, 2019 Headsman

Likely around February 706 the Byzantine emperors Leontios (Leontius) and Apsimar were executed by the man they’d deposed.

Although a very lesser member of the Roman Empire’s purple club, they had the honor of sort of sounding the death knell of the century-old dynasty founded by the mighty Heraclius.

Heraclius’s great-great-grandson Justinian II had shown himself over a ten-year reign beginning 685 a high- and a ham-handed prince; indeed, his eventual usurper had felt that wrath in 692 when Justinian threw Leontios in prison for losing a battle to the Arabs.

Later restored as strategos of Hellas, Leontios predictably rebelled almost immediately and deposed the irritating legacy case in 695. While many of Justinian’s ministers were put to death, the new boss made an unwise show of clemency by only mutilating Justinian.

(Justinian’s nose was cut off, a mercy masquerading as a grotesquerie: it was commonly meted out in lieu of execution to potential rival imperial claimants with the understanding that the visible mutilation would make it effectively impossible for that person to effectually claim power in the future. Leontios was destined to experience this “mercy” firsthand.)

Our first usurper marks the start of a tumultuous era known as the Twenty Years’ Anarchy wherein seven different emperors ruled in the course of a single generation — so of course he did not have the perquisites of power very long. (The History of Byzantium podcast covers this period in episodes 65 and 66.)

In 698, after the Arabs conquered Carthage — permanently ending the Roman presence in Africa, which dated to the Roman Republic — an admiral named Apsimar claimed the throne for himself. Perhaps it was a pre-emptive lest he be blamed for the Carthage debacle: like Leontios, he first set his foot upon the dais thanks to a failure in the field. For whatever reason it worked with an ease that speaks to the scant legitimacy that Leontios had established among his subjects. Apsimar — Tiberius III, if you please — went as easy on Leontios as had Leontios on his own predecessor, condemning him only to nasal mutilation and monastic imprisonment.

Apsimar had a bit more success and a bit more longevity, but only a bit — for in the early 700s, the embittered and vengeful Justinian cinematically managed to escape his overseers, strangle two assassins sent to hunt him down, and sail through a deadly storm* on the Black Sea to catch on with the Bulgars.

There, mutilated face and all, he raised an army to take back Constantinople. This he duly achieved by dint of an ill-guarded water channel to re-enthrone the dynasty of Heraclius, then hauled both of the interregnum rulers before him and smugly propped up his feet upon their backs. Justinian got a golden prosthetic nose and imperial power; the now-ex-kings got publicly beheaded in an amphitheater known as the Kynegion.

Justinian’s improbable political second act lasted just six years more, until he was overthrown in 711 for the second and final time. This usurper had the good sense to kill him.

* In fear of his life during the storm, one of Justinian’s companions allegedly called on him to placate God by promising his enemies mercy. “If I spare a single one of them, may God drown me here,” replied the once and future emperor.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Beheaded,Byzantine Empire,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,Power,Public Executions,Soldiers,The Worm Turns,Treason,Turkey,Uncertain Dates

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1831: Vicente Guerrero, former President of Mexico

2 comments February 14th, 2019 Headsman

Vicente Guerrero, late the president of Mexico, was executed on this date in 1831.

He was once a rebel soldier under Jose Maria Morelos in the Mexican War of Independence against Spain.

The Afro-Mestizo Guerrero (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) cinched that conflict by successfully appealing to his royalist opposite number, Agustin de Iturbide, to switch sides. Their combined forces rode into Mexico City together in September 1821 but the conservative Iturbide and the liberal Guerrero soon parted ways.

Iturbide was elevated to emperor of Mexico; Guerrero by 1823 had returned to the field to rebel against the strongman. When Iturbide was deposed (and eventually executed), Guerrero became one of the ruling triumvirs and a national political figure. He contested the 19281828 presidential election which he lost at the ballot box but won in the ensuing street battles — an affair that featured the intervention on Guerrero’s side of Santa Anna.

He was quick about abolishing slavery and he had to be, for this mixed-race populist was deposed by his conservative vice president within months — beginning another round of civil conflict that was dishonorably resolved when an Italian sea captain arranged with the Mexico City government to lure him aboard and arrest him. For this gambit Judas received 50,000 pesos and Guerrero a summary court-martial and a firing squad at Cuilapam.

The cruel treatment of Guerrero requires an explanation. Bravo had been defeated in 1827 but was merely exiled and there were other similar cases. It is reasonable to ask, therefore, why in the case of Guerrero the government resorted to the ultimate penalty. The clue is provided by Zavala who, writing several years later, noted that Guerrero was of mixed blood and that the opposition to his presidency came from the great landowners, generals, clerics and Spaniards resident in Mexico. These people could not forget the war of independence with its threat of social and racial subversion. Despite his revolutionary past, the wealthy creole Bravo belonged to this “gentleman’s club’, as did the cultured creole, Zavala, even with his radicalism. Hence Guerrero’s execution was perhaps a warning to men considered as socially and ethnically inferior not to dare to dream of becoming president. (Source)

The southern Mexico state of Guerrero is named for him; its slogan, mi patria es primero (my fatherland is first) is the legendary reply that the young Vicente Guerrero made to his Spain-supporting father when asked to foreswear the independence movement.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Heads of State,History,Martyrs,Mexico,Politicians,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1169: Shawar, Saladin forerunner

Add comment January 18th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1169, the vizier of Egypt, name of Shawar, was put to summary death as war collapsed the Fatimid Caliphate … a death required to prepare the way for a much more august successor.

A Shia dynasty that had once stretched across North Africa and the Levant, the Fatimids by the 1160s controlled only Egypt but they did not control it decisively, as neighboring powers could readily discern.

Shawar, vizier since 1162, was the effective ruler of the empire but he’d been chased to exile in Damascus by an internal rival. Nothing daunted, Shawar successfully appealed to the Turkish governor of that city, Nur al-Din, to restore him.

A Kurdish general named Shirkuh led this successful intervention, which is notable as the entry onto history’s battlefields of Shirkuh’s nephew — the mighty Saladin.

While Shawar profited from Shirkuh and Saladin’s intervention, he had no desire for them to stay — while of course staying was the whole reason that Nur al-Din had sent them to intervene. Egypt slid into a three-way war when the Frankish Crusader King Amalric of Jerusalem invaded to check the influence of Shawar’s overstaying benefactors. Miraculously, Shawar came out of this unscathed when the rival powers fought to a stalemate and departed Egypt under truce.

Alliances shift like the sands hereabouts; by 1168 it was the Franks attacking, and overwhelming, the Egyptians, forcing a desperate Shawar to torch his own capital, Fustat. Replaying the same script from 1163 with the roles reversed, Shirkuh and Saladin were soon sent to counter the Crusaders, which their very presence accomplished: Amalric withdrew as soon as they arrived.

And this, at last, left Egypt in Shirkuh’s hands and the nimble Shawar exposed to his fate. The Fatimid caliph was induced on January 18 to consent to Shawar’s immediate execution.

Shawar’s passion also signaled the imminent death of the Fatimid Caliphate. The vizier’s post was filled subsequently by Shirkuh himself … and when Shirkuh died two months later, by Saladin.

Egypt thereafter would prove the launching-point for a scintillating career: Saladin reorganized the unstable polity and by 1171 disbanded the Fatimid state, founding in its place the Ayyubid Dynasty.* From this base of power, Saladin took over Syria when his former patron (by then rival) Nur al-Din passed away in 1174, and proceeded thence to become the preeminent conqueror of his day.

* Named for Saladin’s father.

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Entry Filed under: 12th Century,Borderline "Executions",Caliphate,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Egypt,Execution,Heads of State,History,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Summary Executions,Syria,Wartime Executions

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1870: Sylvain Salnave, deposed Haitian president

Add comment January 15th, 2019 Headsman

Former Haitian president Sylvain Salnave was executed on this date in 1870.

Salnave was a general who in 1866 overthrew and replaced president Fabre Geffrard — an act which “profoundly unsettled the country.”

Salnave stood at the head of a triumvirate that promulgated a new and more democratic constitution in 1867, abolishing the president-for-life position that his predecessors had asserted — but the political rearrangement collapsed within months and saw the the president and legislature at loggerheads, and then at outright civil war as regional risings multiplied against Salnave.

The president held out under bombardment in the capital of Port-au-Prince until the last days of 1869, when he fled to what he believed was the safety in the Dominican Republic — only to be arrested by the Dominican general Jose Maria Cabral and handed back over to the now-triumphant Haitian rebels. They had Salnave tried on January 15 and immediately executed that same day.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Haiti,Heads of State,History,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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546: Croesus

Add comment January 5th, 2019 Headsman

It was perhaps around the winter outset of 546 BCE that the Lydian king Croesus was captured and executed or spared by the Persians.

Famed for his wealth — he funded the construction of the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders* — Croesus was heir to a 600-year-old empire dominating western Anatolia. Herodotus credits the Lydians as the inventors of coinage, a likely basis for the “rich as Croesus” expression.

Would that he had been so rich in wisdom.

In perhaps 547 BCE, Croesus launched a war against the rising power on his eastern border — the Persian Achaemenid Empire, led by Cyrus the Great. In a classic ancient own-goal, Croesus got the thumbs-up for this adventure from the Oracle of Delphi, who told the Lydian envoys that if Croesus fought Persia, he would destroy a great empire.** That empire turned out be his own.

After fighting to a stalemate in the autumn of 547, Croesus retired to his capital of Sardis to winter, believing war would abate with the end of the campaigning season — even dismissing his allies until the spring.

Cyrus surprised him instead, marching aggressively on Sardis and putting it to siege after routing a much larger Lydian army at the Battle of Thymbra.† It wasn’t long before the Persians found an ill-defended entrance into the city’s citadel via a mountain ascent, and fulfilled the Pythian priestess’s prophecy.

We have no certain record of Croesus’s actual fate; the histories for him come from later Greeks, whose accounts are contradictory and even folklorish; J.A.S. Evans suggests in a 1978 scholarly exploration that the Greeks were equally in the dark about the matter but that “Croesus had become a figure of myth, who stood outside the conventional restraints of chronology.”

Herodotus renders his version thus, turning the action on Croesus’s remembrance of a previous encounter with the Greek wise man Solon, who had counseled him that wealth is not happiness:

The Persians gained Sardis and took Croesus prisoner. Croesus had ruled fourteen years and been besieged fourteen days. Fulfilling the oracle, he had destroyed his own great empire.

The Persians took him and brought him to Cyrus, who erected a pyre and mounted Croesus atop it, bound in chains, with twice seven sons of the Lydians beside him. Cyrus may have intended to sacrifice him as a victory-offering to some god, or he may have wished to fulfill a vow, or perhaps he had heard that Croesus was pious and put him atop the pyre to find out if some divinity would deliver him from being burned alive. So Cyrus did this.

As Croesus stood on the pyre, even though he was in such a wretched position it occurred to him that Solon had spoken with god’s help when he had said that no one among the living is fortunate. When this occurred to him, he heaved a deep sigh and groaned aloud after long silence, calling out three times the name “Solon.” Cyrus heard and ordered the interpreters to ask Croesus who he was invoking … He explained that first Solon the Athenian had come and seen all his fortune and spoken as if he despised it. Now everything had turned out for him as Solon had said, speaking no more of him than of every human being, especially those who think themselves fortunate.

While Croesus was relating all this, the pyre had been lit and the edges were on fire. When Cyrus heard from the interpreters what Croesus said, he relented and considered that he, a human being, was burning alive another human being, one his equal in good fortune.

In addition, he feared retribution, reflecting how there is nothing stable in human affairs. He ordered that the blazing fire be extinguished as quickly as possible, and that Croesus and those with him be taken down, but despite their efforts they could not master the fire.

Then the Lydians say that Croesus understood Cyrus’ change of heart, and when he saw everyone trying to extinguish the fire but unable to check it, he invoked Apollo, crying out that if Apollo had ever been given any pleasing gift by him, let him offer help and deliver him from the present evil.

Thus he in tears invoked the god, and suddenly out of a clear and windless sky clouds gathered, a storm broke, and it rained violently, extinguishing the pyre.

Even in this one text, Cyrus both does and does not execute Croesus, a figure whose proportions of historicity and legend are impossible to measure. In different variants of this tragic fall, Croesus puts up his own pyre for desperate self-immolation like the Steward of Gondor

… or it is or is not successfully extinguished. A post-pyre Croesus then goes on to become a dutiful slave of Cyrus, the relationship of conquered and conquering kings full of aphorism and fable-ready vignettes with no dependable historical warrant.

* For the pedants in the room, the “Seven Wonders” roster was composed later in antiquity, and the Temple of Artemis made the list based on its rebuild version after the one put up by Croesus had been torched by the fame-seeking Herostratus.

** Croesus rated the Delphic oracle’s advice highly. Aesop, the fable guy got himself executed by the Delphians by misbehaving while in the course of delivering a tribute from Croesus.

† Allegedly, the unnerving sight of Cyrus’s camels arrayed for battle panicked the Lydian cavalry into flight.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Burned,Execution,Executions Survived,Famous,Heads of State,History,Language,Last Minute Reprieve,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Pardons and Clemencies,Persia,Popular Culture,Power,Reprieved Too Late,Royalty,Summary Executions,The Supernatural,Turkey,Uncertain Dates,Wartime Executions

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1816: Joaquim Camacho

Add comment August 31st, 2018 Headsman

On the last of August in 1816, the Colombian statesman Joaquin Camacho was executed as a traitor to Spain.

Blind and paralyzed, he had to be carried to his firing squad in his chair, this lawyer-turned-journalist decorated the 1810-1816 “Foolish Fatherland” era of present-day Colombia, when New Granada declared independence from a Spain bogged down by the Napoleonic Wars.

In fact, multiple regions and municipalities within New Grenada each began declaring their own sovereignty in 1810. The July 20, 1810, declaration by Bogota — then and now the capital city — is still commemorated as Colombia’s Independence Day.

And Camacho (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) was right in the middle of it.

On the morning of July 20, in a maneuver intentionally staged to coax the Spanish authorities into showing their backsides to New Granada’s patriots, Camacho presented himself to the viceroy to request the calling of a council in Bogota — a request he would (and did) certainly refuse. Elsewhere in the iconic “Flower Vase Incident,” Camacho’s comrades solicited of a wealthy royalist merchant the use of his ornamental flower vase to welcome the arrival of a noted fellow-traveler. They too were predictably refused, and escalated the expected affront into a fistfight and thence to a riot in the market. The backlash against these indignities gave cover to proclaim the independence of Bogota — with Camacho among the signatories of the declaration at a public meeting that evening.

During the exciting years that followed, Camacho served in the Congress of the United Provinces of New Granada and for a few months in 1814-1815 as one of a triumvirate collectively exercising the office of president.

All such offices were swept away by the Spanish reconquest of New Granada under Pablo Morillo, who lived up to his chilling nickname “El Pacificador”. Camacho was among numerous separatist and revolutionary leaders put to death to control New Granada, several of whom we have already encountered in these annals. It worked … for all of three years, until Simon Bolivar accomplished permanently what Camacho et al and died in seeking.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Colombia,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Heads of State,History,Lawyers,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Shot,Spain,Treason,Wartime Executions

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476: Orestes, father of the last Roman Emperor

1 comment August 28th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 476, the father of the very last Roman emperor was put to death by a Germanic chief … a week before that last emperor was forced to abdicate his throne and the whole Roman experiment with it.

The final generation of Roman Emperors comprise a parade of nondescript interregnums, but the very last regnum fell to 16-year-old Romulus Augustulus whose destiny it was to seal the long fall of the (western) Roman Empire.

This youth with the apt nomen had been plopped in the purple by his dad, a Pannonian-born general named Orestes. Orestes had made his bones in the court of Attila the Hun before signing on as a free agent with Rome when the Hunnic polity collapsed after Attila’s death; he accordingly enjoyed the regard of the heavily-Germanic enlistees of Rome’s armies — a simpatico that constituted a great asset for Rome and a great danger for her sovereign. Our opportunistic general was able to turn this force against the previous emperor,* but as Gibbon notes, “having now attained the summit of his ambitious hopes,” Orestes encountered the danger of his disloyal soldiery from the opposite end of the spear.

[H]e soon discovered, before the end of the first year, that the lessons of perjury and ingratitude, which a rebel must inculcate, will be resorted to against himself; and that the precarious sovereign of Italy was only permitted to choose, whether he would be the slave, or the victim, of his Barbarian mercenaries. The dangerous alliance of these strangers had oppressed and insulted the last remains of Roman freedom and dignity. At each revolution, their pay and privileges were augmented; but their insolence increased in a still more extravagant degree; they envied the fortune of their brethren in Gaul, Spain, and Africa, whose victorious arms had acquired an independent and perpetual inheritance; and they insisted on their peremptory demand, that a third part of the lands of Italy should be immediately divided among them. Orestes, with a spirit, which, in another situation, might be entitled to our esteem, chose rather to encounter the rage of an armed multitude, than to subscribe the ruin of an innocent people. He rejected the audacious demand; and his refusal was favorable to the ambition of Odoacer; a bold Barbarian, who assured his fellow-soldiers, that, if they dared to associate under his command, they might soon extort the justice which had been denied to their dutiful petitions. From all the camps and garrisons of Italy, the confederates, actuated by the same resentment and the same hopes, impatiently flocked to the standard of this popular leader; and the unfortunate patrician, overwhelmed by the torrent, hastily retreated to the strong city of Pavia, the episcopal seat of the holy Epiphanites. Pavia was immediately besieged, the fortifications were stormed, the town was pillaged; and although the bishop might labor, with much zeal and some success, to save the property of the church, and the chastity of female captives, the tumult could only be appeased by the execution of Orestes.

As for the young puppet-emperor Romulus Augustulus himself, the conqueror who now proclaimed himself King of Italy wasn’t a vindictive man. “The life of this inoffensive youth was spared by the generous clemency of Odoacer; who dismissed him, with his whole family, from the Imperial palace, fixed his annual allowance at six thousand pieces of gold, and assigned the castle of Lucullus, in Campania, for the place of his exile or retirement.” This gesture of charity did not save Odoacer from suffering a violent death in his own turn.

* Julius Nepos has a claim on being the last Western Roman Emperor, insofar as Orestes’s revolt did not kill him but chased him to an exile where he pathetically maintained an ineffectual claim to the purple until his assassination in 480. It was only with Nepos’s death that the Western Roman Empire was formally abolished.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Execution,Heads of State,History,Italy,No Formal Charge,Notably Survived By,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Roman Empire,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1648: Sultan Ibrahim the Mad

Add comment August 18th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1648, the once-debauched and now-deposed Ottoman sultan Ibrahim I “the Mad” was strangled to make way for his seven-year-old son.

He’s fondly remembered as a debauched madman at the helm of state but you’d go crazy too with his upbringing. He was locked up by his famously brutal brother Sultan Murad in the palace Kafes — literally, “cages”, where potentially dangerous rival claimants lived under constant surveillance — and could not but dwell on the Damoclean sword constantly dangling at his throat. Justifiably nervous about the ever-present danger of a coup — Murad owed his own throne to the Janissaries deposing and murdering a prior sultan in 1622 — Murad had three of his caged brothers put to death. Ibrahim woke each day from the ages of 8 to 25 in his gilded cage knowing that Murad was one foul mood away from ordering his own death, too.

So paranoid was he that when informed that he was to come to the throne as sultan, he suspected a trick meant to implicate himself in treason. Only the combined assurance of his and Murad’s mother and the Grand Vizier* plus a personal inspection of the late Murad’s corpse convinced him to accept rulership of the Ottoman Empire.

And once he did so, he was able to unite in his person the pathologies of imprisonment with those of absolutism.

Freed from the terror of his cell, he gave himself to sensuality that was noted for both volume and transgressiveness: forcing himself on the Grand Mufti’s daughter, scouring his empire for the fattest woman he could find and elevating her to the pinnacle of his harem, and pony playing a virile stallion in his gardens to virginal women who were made to disrobe and act his mares. But don’t forget the wild mood swings! Becoming convinced that his harem was indulging in sub-imperial frolics, he once had 278 of them drowned in the Bosporous.

We will leave to wiser observers of the Porte than we just where among these legends we enter into the calumnies of the enemies who eventually toppled him. That happened in 1648 and had more to do with his profligacy in matters financial, for he gobbled jewelry and expensive furs as voraciously as maidenheads, and then put the Ottoman economy under a fearful strain by launching a ruinous war of choice against Venice that would drag on for 24 years and result in the Venetian navy blockading his capital.

Pitiably, his last days were spent back in the Kafe after he was displaced by rebelling Janissaries driven to fury by the growing tax burden required to support a war that brought only immiseration. Maybe it was a mercy that he had not years thereafter to pace the gardens under the eyes of burly minders with unknown orders, but for 10 days** that quarter of the palace redounded with his wails until

on August 18, the executioners entered the “Cage”. With the Koran in his hand, Ibrahim cried out: “Behold! God’s book! By what writ shall you murder me?” and “Is there no one among those who have eaten my bread who will take pity on me and protect me? These cruel men have come to kill me. Mercy! Mercy!”

* In 1644, Ibrahim would have this same Grand Vizier executed.

** We would be remiss on this grim site not to mention the fate that befell his Grand Vizier on August 8, when Ibrahim fell: torn apart by an angry mob for attempting to impose a heavy tax, he gained the posthumous nickname “Hezarpare” (“thousand pieces”).

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,Ottoman Empire,Power,Royalty,Strangled,Turkey,Wartime Executions

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1946: Chen Gongbo, puppet president

Add comment June 3rd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1946, Chen Gongbo, president of China under the Japanese occupation, was shot for treason.

Briefly a Communist in his youth, Chen was Kuomintang state minister, then was pulled into the Japanese puppet government.

He served from 1940 as Mayor of Shanghai and speaker of the legislature, and late in 1944 became Acting President and soon actual President when ailing President Wang Jingwei traveled to Japan for medical treatment and died.

It was not long before Chen too had to relocate to Japan — in his case, as a fugitive. He was arrested and extradited back to China, where he defended himself from charges of collaboration arguing that he had acted only out of personal loyalty to his friend Wang. “Soon I will be reunited with Wang Jingwei in the next world,” was his tragic and filial sentiment upon learning his fate.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Shot,Treason

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1453: Alvaro de Luna, Spanish favorite

Add comment June 2nd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1453, the man who was once the power behind Castile’s throne became its foremost cautionary metaphor.

The greatest privado — royal favorite — in Spain’s annals, Alvaro de Luna (English Wikipedia entry | the far more detailed Spanish) sprang from noble albeit illiterate stock. He came to the Castilian court in 1410 as a witty and talented young page and adroitly got his hooks into the five-year-old crown prince, the future Juan II.

Quite uncommonly for a royal favorite, Don Alvaro held his king’s affection for many decades, and even while enriching himself into the mightiest subject in the land, he energetically served his prince’s interest.

Chief among these was managing the truculent nobility who would surely have dominated the weak-willed Juan but for his capable lieutenant — who was known from 1423 ask the Constable of Castile and Count of San Esteban de Gormaz in 1423. Don Alvaro proved a consummate politico, scheming to deflect the ambitions of Juan’s rivals and to consolidate the power of the throne … which meant his own power, too. To a very great degree the favorite was the real sovereign, until he suddenly wasn’t.

“Alvaro de Luna would probably not be particularly consoled by the judgement of modern historians,” observes a wry James Boyden in The World of the Favourite** — for they “praise his efforts on behalf of Juan II for opening the way to royal absolutism in Castile, citing his own arbitrary death sentence as the clinching proof of the newfound powers of the crown.”

Don Alvaro’s downfall from his post of seemingly unassailable preeminence satisfied every literary device imaginable, beginning with poetic justice.

When Juan’s first wife, Maria of Aragon, died in 1445 — and Don Alvaro’s own hand has been suspected in that death — the Constable managed Juan’s pivot to 19-year-old Portuguese princess Isabella as the successor queen.

From her advantageous position in the king’s bed, Isabella soon began to work against Don Alvaro. She resented his intrusions into even their most intimate chambers, and she surely feared sharing the fate of her predecessor, Maria. Eventually, her arguments carried the day. Boyden once again:

It is difficult to imagine a more striking illustration of the transitory nature of earthly fortune than the spectacle of the constable’s execution in a public square of Valladolid on 2 June 1453. Certainly the event caught the imagination of contemporary poets. ‘Look then to that great Constable,’ wrote Jorge Manrique, ‘the Master whom we knew so deeply favoured by the king / And yet even of him nothing more need be said than that we saw him beheaded. / His limitless treasures, his towns and villages, his power of command / What did they bring him but tears? / What were they to him except sorrows at the leaving?’

According to Juan II, Don Alvaro’s principal crime was that he ‘has for a long time held and usurped a chief position near me and in my household and court’, and despite having been admonished about his excessive pride and effrontery ‘he has persevered in it … grasping more power to himself each day, excessively, without temperance or measure, so that there remains to me no more room to rule and administer my kingdoms personally, nor to maintain my towns in justice and truth and law …’

Not surprisingly, the constable saw matters in another light. While the king alleged usurpation of his royal authority, Don Alvaro responded with a charge of ingratitude, levelled in a tone meant to convey the sadness and resignation of a loyal servant stripped at last of his illusions. Rather than withdraw into a well-deserved retirement after forty-five years of service, he wrote,

I chose … to serve as I was in duty bound and as I felt the situation demanded; I deceived myself, for this service has been the cause of my misfortune. How bitter that I should find myself deprived of liberty who more than once have risked life and fortune to preserve your highness’s freedom! I am well aware that for my great sins I have angered God, and I will consider it a boon if I can placate his rage through these travails.

This appeal to justice was accompanied by an offer of treasure, but neither swayed the king, who was so intent upon Don Alvaro’s destruction that he would finally order his execution despite the failure of a hand-picked tribunal to render a clear sentence of death.

Although it cut no ice with his king, Alvaro de Luna’s posture of betrayed fidelity — his courage and dignity on the scaffold, ere his throat was cut and his severed head mounted on a hook — helped to salvage what might easily have become a hateful reputation among Spaniards. The annalist Pedro de Escavias recorded that Don Alvaro “struck terror into all who saw him” but “he died with a good countenance and good courage, as a knight and a faithful Christian should. May God forgive him, for he handled many great matters in the days when he enjoyed the king’s favour.” (Quoted in the out-of-print volume The Greatest Man Uncrowned: A Study of the Fall of Don Alvaro de Luna) This respectful epitaph is evident in the numerous artistic treatments around the Constable’s corpse.


Collection to Bury the Body of Alvaro de Luna, by Ramirez Ibanez Manual (1884)

Collection to Bury the Body of Alvaro de Luna, by Jose Maria Rodriguez de Losada (1867)

Burial of Alvaro de Luna, by Eduardo Cano de la Pena (19th century).

Juan’s rancor did not extend to denying his favorite an ornate tomb in Toledo Cathedral. Like all the best sovereign-favorite pairs — Richelieu comes to mind — Juan II soon followed to the grave his secret-sharer, dying in July 1454 allegedly stricken with remorse.† His daughter was Isabella of Castile, famed of Christopher Columbus sponsorship.

* There appears to be some ambiguity among sources between June 2 and June 3 whose resolution lies beyond the reach of myself and perhaps of any human. I tentatively prefer June 2 based on a preponderance of citations, and because June 3 was a Sunday.

** There’s also a fine essay on our principal to be found in The Emergence of León-Castile c.1065-1500: Essays Presented to J.F. O’Callaghan.

† However, Juan’s knowledge of his own failing health and a desire to disencumber his successors of this overmighty minister have also been suggested as reasons for Don Alvaro’s destruction. The favorite treads a very treacherous road indeed.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Spain

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