Posts filed under 'Heads of State'

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 as 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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1425: Murdoch Stewart, Duke of Albany

Add comment May 25th, 2018 Headsman

On or about this date in 1425, Murdoch Stewart, Duke of Albany, climbed the Heading Hill.

Murdoch’s dad Robert Stewart was the (second) son of King Robert II, the very first monarch of the Stewart line*

That made the Dukes of Albany pere et fils a pair of vipers in a pit full of them: violent, covetous lords scrabbling ruthlessly after power. Few scrabbled with less ruth than the Albanies.

Robert Stewart had seized effective control of the government in an intra-family coup in 1389, so even though his older brother succeeded as King James I, it was the kid brother who ruled and this made for some extremely awkward years.

And he did not exercise the office with a kinsman’s love. If anything, he had an idea to supplant his brother. In 1402, the Duke of Albany even seized his own nephew — and potential royal heir — the Duke of Rothesay** and murdered him in custody. The frightened king soon sent his youngest kid, the future King James I, out of the country to keep him away from the relatives. James was promptly kidnapped by the English, and Albany — succeeding to titular power as the Regent when his feeble brother died — gleefully refused to pay the ransom while he bossed Scotland from 1406 until his death in 1420. James spent 18 years refining his poetry at the English court.

In another timeline — the one intended by Albany, no doubt — this is all prologue to his own offspring gaining the crown. It didn’t quite work out that way.

Albany’s death in 1420 passed his title to his son, our man Murdoch Stewart — who was already at the ripe old age of 58.† But the Albany run as permanent Regent was nearing the end of the line and political pressure soon forced Murdoch to sign off on the ransom of the occluded King James. His return in effect put two rival sovereigns in the realm, where both could not long abide together.

An English rout of French and Scottish troops on the continent at the Battle of Verneuil would prove ruinous to Murdoch as well, for Murdoch’s brother the Earl of Buchan was slain in the process. With him died Murdoch’s own political security, and the king crushed his cousin with dispatch.

Although some sources place Murdoch Stewart’s execution on the 24th, we’ll follow the narrative of Patrick Fraser Tytler’s History of Scotland, Volume 3:

Murdoch, the late governor, with Lord Alexander Stewart, his youngest son, were suddenly arrested, and immediately afterwards twenty-six of the principal nobles and barons shared the same fate. Amongst these were Archibald Earl of Douglas, William Douglas Earl of Angus, George Dunbar Earl of March, William Hay of Errol, constable of Scotland, Scrimgeour, constable of Dundee, Alexander Lindesay, Adam Hepburn of Hailes, Thomas Hay of Yester Herbert Maxwell of Caerlaverock, Alexander Ramsay of Dalhousie, Alan Otterburn, secretary of the Duke of Albany, Sir John Montgomery, Sir John Stewart of Dundonald, commonly called the Red Stewart, and thirteen others. During the course of the same year, and a short time previous to this energetic measure, the king had imprisoned Walter, the eldest son of Albany, along with the Earl of Lennox, and Sir Robert Graham, a man of a dark, fierce, and vindictive disposition, who from that moment vowed the most determined revenge, which he lived to execute in the murder of his sovereign. The heir of Albany was shut up in the strong castle of the Bass, belonging to Sir Robert Lauder, a firm friend of the king, whilst Graham and Lennox were committed to Dunbar, and the Duke of Albany himself, confined in the first instance in the castle of St Andrews, and afterwards transferred to that of Caerlaverock. At the same moment the king took possession of the castles of Falkland, and of the fortified palace of Doune, the favourite residence of Albany. Here he found Isabella, the wife of Albany, a daughter of the Earl of Lennox, whom he immediately committed to the castle of Tantallan; and with a success and a rapidity which can only be accounted for by the supposition of the utmost vigour in the execution of his plans, and a strong military power to overawe all opposition, he possessed himself of the strongest fortresses in the country; and after adjourning the parliament, to meet within the space of two months at Stirling, upon the 18th of May, he proceeded to adopt measures for inflicting a speedy and dreadful revenge upon the most powerful of his opponents.

In the palace of Stirling, on the 24th of May, a court was held with great pomp and solemnity for the trial of Walter Stewart, the eldest son of the Duke of Albany. The king, sitting on his throne, clothed with the robes and insignia of majesty, with the sceptre in his hand, and wearing the royal crown, presided as supreme judge of his people. The loss of all record of this trial is peculiarly to be regretted, as the proceeding would have thrown important light upon a most interesting, but unfortunately, most obscure portion of our history. We know only from an ancient chronicle that the heir of Albany was tried for robbery, “de roboria.” The jury was composed of twenty-one of the principal nobles and barons, and it is a remarkable circumstance, that amongst their names which have been preserved, are to be found seven of the twenty-six barons whom the king had seized and imprisoned two months before at Perth, when he arrested Albany and his sons. Amongst these seven, were the three most powerful lords in the body of the Scottish aristocracy — the Earls of Douglas, March, and Angus; the rest were Sir John de Montgomery, Gilbert Hay of Errol the constable, Sir Herbert Herries of Terregles, and Sir Robert Cuningham of Kilmaurs. Others who sat upon this jury we know to have been the assured friends of the king, and members of his privy council. These were, Alexander Stewart, Earl of Mar, Sir John Forrester of Corstorfin, Sir Thomas Somerville of Carnwath, and Sir Alexander Levingston of Callendar. It is probably that the seven jurymen above mentioned were persons attached to the party of Albany, and that the intention of the king, in their imprisonment, was to compel them to renounce all idea of supporting him, and to abandon him to his fate. In this result, whatever were the means adopted for its accomplishment, the king succeeded. The trial of Walter Stewart occupied a single day. He was found guilty, and condemned to death. His fate excited a deep feeling of sympathy and compassion in the breasts of the people; for the noble figure and dignified manners of the eldest son of Albany were peculiarly calculated to make him friends amongst the lower classes of the community.

On the following day, Albany himself, with his second son, Alexander, and his father-in-law, the Earl of Lennox, were tried before the same jury. What were the crimes alleged against the Earl of Lennox and Alexander Stewart, it is now impossible to determine; but it may be conjectured, on strong grounds, that the usurpation of the government and the assumption of supreme authority, during the captivity of the king, offences amounting to high treason, constituted the principal charge against Duke Murdoch. His father undoubtedly succeeded to the regency by the determination of the three Estates assembled in parliament, but there is no evidence that any such solemn decision was passed which sanctioned the high station assumed by the son, and if so, every single act of his government was an act of treason, upon which the jury could have no difficulty in pronouncing their verdict. Albany was accordingly found guilty; the same sentence was pronounced upon his son, Alexander Stewart; the Earl of Lennox was next condemned; and these three noble persons were publicly executed on that fatal eminence, before the castle of Stirling, known by the name of the Heading Hill. As the condemnation of Walter Stewart had excited unwonted commiseration amongst the people, the spectacle now afforded was calculated to raise that feeling to a still higher pitch of distress and pity. Albany and his two sons were men of almost gigantic stature, and of so noble a presence, that it was impossible to look upon them without an involuntary feeling of admiration; whilst the venerable appearance and white hairs of Lennox, who had reached his eightieth year, inspired a sentiment of tenderness and pity, which, even if they admitted the justice of the sentence, was apt to raise in the bosom of the spectators a disposition to condemn the rapid and unrelenting severity with which it was carried into execution. Even in their days of pride and usurpation, the family of Albany had been the favourites of the people. Its founder, the regent, courted popularity, and although a usurper, and stained with murders, seems in a great measure to have gained his end. It is impossible, indeed, to reconcile the high eulogium of Fordun and Winton with the dark actions of his life; but it is evident, from the tone of these historians, that the severity of James did not carry along with it the feelings of the people. Yet, looking at the state of things in Scotland, it is easy to understand the object of the king. It was his intention to exhibit to a nation, long accustomed to regard the laws with contempt, and the royal authority as a name of empty menace, a memorable example of stern and inflexible justice, and to convince them that a great change had already taken place in the executive part of the government.

With this view, another dreadful exhibition followed the execution of the family of Albany. James Stewart, the youngest son of this unfortunate person, was the only member of the family who had avoided the arrest of the king, and escaped to the Highlands. Driven to despair, by the ruin which threatened his house, he collected a band of armed freebooters, and, assisted by Finlay, Bishop of Lismore, and Argyle, his father’s chaplain, attacked the burgh of Dumbarton, with a fury which nothing could resist. The king’s uncle, Sir John of Dundonald, called the Red Stewart, was slain, the town sacked and given to the flames, and thirty men murdered, after which the son of Albany returned to his fastnesses in the north. But so hot was the pursuit which was instituted by the royal vengeance, that he, and the ecclesiastical bandit who accompanied him, were dislodged from their retreats, and compelled to fly to Ireland. Five of his accomplices, however, were seized, and their execution, which immediately succeeded that of Albany, was unpardonably cruel and disgusting. They were torn to pieces by wild horses, after which their warm and quivering limbs were suspended upon gibbets; a terrible warning to the people of the punishment which awaited those, who imagined that the fidelity which impelled them to execute the commands of their feudal lord, was superior to the ties which bound them to obey the laws of the country.

* Destined in time to suffer one of the annals’ most illustrious beheading.

** Fun aristocratic title fact: “Duke of Rothesay” is a still-extant title held by the British heir apparent (so, as of writing, Prince Charles).

† He’d spent more than a decade in English custody himself, after being captured in battle; he’s referenced in the opening lines of Shakespeare’s Henry the Fourth, Part 1 using another title companion to that of the Duke of Albany, the Earl of Fife.

Ten thousand bold Scots, two and twenty knights,
Balk’d in their own blood did Sir Walter see
On Holmedon’s plains. Of prisoners, Hotspur took
Mordake the Earl of Fife, and eldest son
To beaten Douglas; and the Earl of Athol,
Of Murray, Angus, and Menteith:
And is not this an honourable spoil?
A gallant prize? ha, cousin, is it not?

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,Nobility,Power,Public Executions,Scotland,Treason

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222: Elagabalus

3 comments March 11th, 2018 Headsman

March 11, 222 marked the downfall of the Roman emperor Elagabalus (or Heliogabalus, in the Greek rendering).*

Notorious to posterity for lapping the field in outrageous sensuality, he was the 14-year-old cousin of the deposed brute Caracalla and stepped into the purple because his crafty grandma won the civil war that ensued Caracalla’s assassination.

By family heredity he was by that time already the high priest of the Syrian sun-god Elagabalus,** in the city of Emesa (present-day Homs, Syria). History has flattered the youth with the name of his novel god, although in life the former was simply Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. By any name, his eastern affectations would smell as foul to the Romans.

We’re forever constrained by the partiality of our few sources when it comes to antiquity and the possibility cannot be dismissed that the bizarre and alien portrait remaining us is mostly the outlandish caricature of his foes. However, such sources as we have unanimously characterize Elagabalus as — per Gibbon’s summary — “corrupted by his youth, his country, and his fortune” and it is this that has made his name a western metonym for for the sybaritic Oriental despot. The chroniclers practically compete for outlandish anecdotes of hedonism (the very dubious Historia Augusta) …

He would have perfumes from India burned without any coals in order that the fumes might fill his apartments. Even while a commoner he never made a journey with fewer than sixty wagons, though his grandmother Varia used to protest that he would squander all his substance; but after he became emperor he would take with him, it is said, as many as six hundred, asserting that the king of the Persians travelled with ten thousand camels and Nero with five hundred carriages. The reason for all these vehicles was the vast number of his procurers and bawds, harlots, catamites and lusty partners in depravity. In the public baths he always bathed with the women, and he even treated them himself with a depilatory ointment, which he applied also to his own beard, and shameful though it be to say it, in the same place where the women were treated and at the same hour. He shaved his minions’ groins, using the razor with his own hand — with which he would then shave his beard. He would strew gold and silver dust about a portico and then lament that he could not strew the dust of amber also; and he did this often when he proceeded on foot to his horse or his carriage, as they do today with golden sand.

… and tyranny (Cassius Dio)

Silius Messalla and Pomponius Bassus were condemned to death by the senate, on the charge of being displeased at what the emperor was doing. For he did not hesitate to write this charge against them even to the senate, calling them investigators of his life and censors of what went on in the palace. “The proofs of their plots I have not sent you,” he wrote, “because it would be useless to read them, as the men are already dead.”


Detail view (click for the full image) of The Roses of Heliogabalus, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1888). The work alludes to one of the boy-emperor’s crimes of decadence recounted in the Historia Augusta: “In a banqueting-room with a reversible ceiling he once overwhelmed his parasites with violets and other flowers, so that some were actually smothered to death, being unable to crawl out to the top.”

Most scandalous to Romans, or at least most expedient for his foes’ vituperations, were the adolescent’s outrageous transgressions of masculinity — again, we must underscore, “alleged”. They’re clearly deployed by his enemies to magnify Elagabalus’s cultural easternness, and we might suspect them to also hint at the emasculating power of the teenager’s mother and grandmother who were the true chiefs of state (and who were outrageously admitted to the Senate). Yet if we are to believe the half of what we read of Elagabalus then this effeminate priest-king constitutes one of history’s most notable transgender or genderfluid figures.

Let’s hear at some length from the tittering Cassius Dio, calling the emperor “Sardanapalus” to exoticize him by connection to Assyria.†

When trying someone in court he really had more or less the appearance of a man, but everywhere else he showed affectations in his actions and in the quality of his voice. For instance, he used to dance, not only in the orchestra, but also, in a way, even while walking, performing sacrifices, receiving salutations, or delivering a speech. And finally, — to go back now to the story which I began, — he was bestowed in marriage and was termed wife, mistress, and queen. He worked with wool, sometimes wore a hair-net, and painted his eyes, daubing them with white lead and alkanet. Once, indeed, he shaved his chin and held a festival to mark the event; but after that he had the hairs plucked out, so as to look more like a woman. And he often reclined while receiving the salutations of the senators. The husband of this “woman” was Hierocles, a Carian slave, once the favourite of Gordius, from whom he had learned to drive a chariot. It was in this connexion that he won the emperor’s favour by a most remarkable chance. It seems that in a certain race Hierocles fell out of his chariot just opposite the seat of Sardanapalus, losing his helmet in his fall, and being still beardless and adorned with a crown of yellow hair, he attracted the attention of the emperor and was immediately rushed to the palace; and there by his nocturnal feats he captivated Sardanapalus more than ever and became exceedingly powerful. Indeed, he even had greater influence than the emperor himself, and it was thought a small thing that his mother, while still a slave, should be brought to Rome by soldiers and be numbered among the wives of ex-consuls. Certain other men, too, were frequently honoured by the emperor and became powerful, some because they had joined in his uprising and others because they committed adultery with him. For he wished to have the reputation of committing adultery, so that in this respect, too, he might imitate the most lewd women; and he would often allow himself to be caught in the very act, in consequence of which he used to be violently upbraided by his “husband” and beaten, so that he had black eyes. His affection for this “husband” was no light inclination, but an ardent and firmly fixed passion, so much so that he not only did not become vexed at any such harsh treatment, but on the contrary loved him the more for it and wished to make him Caesar in very fact; and he even threatened his grandmother when she opposed him in this matter, and he became at odds with the soldiers largely on this man’s account. This was one of the things that was destined to lead to his destruction.

Aurelius Zoticus, a native of Smyrna, whom they also called “Cook,” after his father’s trade, incurred the emperor’s thorough love and thorough hatred, and for the latter reason his life was saved. This Aurelius not only had a body that was beautiful all over, seeing that he was an athlete, but in particular he greatly surpassed all others in the size of his private parts. This fact was reported to the emperor by those who were on the look-out for such things, and the man was suddenly whisked away from the games and brought to Rome, accompanied by an immense escort, larger than Abgarus had had in the reign of Severus or Tiridates in that of Nero. He was appointed cubicularius before he had even been seen by the emperor, was honoured by the name of the latter’s grandfather, Avitus, was adorned with garlands as at a festival, and entered the palace lighted by the glare of many torches. Sardanapalus, on seeing him, sprang up with rhythmic movements, and then, when Aurelius addressed him with the usual salutation, “My Lord Emperor, Hail!” he bent his neck so as to assume a ravishing feminine pose, and turning his eyes upon him with a melting gaze, answered without any hesitation: “Call me not Lord, for I am a Lady.” Then Sardanapalus immediately joined him in the bath, and finding him when stripped to be equal to his reputation, burned with even greater lust, reclined on his breast, and took dinner, like some loved mistress, in his bosom. But Hierocles fearing that Zoticus would captivate the emperor more completely than he himself could, and that he might therefore suffer some terrible fate at his hands, as often happens in the case of rival lovers, caused the cup-bearers, who were well disposed toward him, to administer a drug that abated the other’s manly prowess. And so Zoticus, after a whole night of embarrassment, being unable to secure an erection, was deprived of all the honours that he had received, and was driven out of the palace, out of Rome, and later out of the rest of Italy; and this saved his life.

He carried his lewdness to such a point that he asked the physicians to contrive a woman’s vagina in his body by means of an incision, promising them large sums for doing so.

Some books about Elagabalus

The essential problem for Elagabalus was that regardless the precise reality of the behavior his sure cultural distance from Roman manners was also a cultural distance from Roman soldiers — the men whose power to arbitrate succession had placed him in the purple to begin with. The reader may hypothesize the direction of causality but Elagabalus’s historical reputation proves that he failed to bridge that distance.

The fickle Praetorian Guard soon harbored an accelerating preference for Elagabalus’s cousin and heir Severus Alexander, a moderate and respectable Roman youth. Elagabalus triggered his own downfall, and summary deaths meted out to his associates and hangers-on like the hated charioteer/lover Hierocles, with an ill-considered attempt to disinherit this emerging rival. For this narrative we turn to Herodian, a contemporary of events who has disdain for the emperor’s weird god and his “dancing and prancing” but is not nearly so colorful on the subject of his purported sexual depravity. (For Herodian, Elagabalus’s “mockery of human marriage” consists in taking and discarding several different wives, including a Vestal Virgin.)

the emperor undertook to strip Alexander of the honor of caesar, and the youth was no longer to be seen at public addresses or in public processions.

[11 or 12 March 222] But the soldiers called for Alexander and were angry because he had been removed from his imperial post. Heliogabalus circulated a rumor that Alexander was dying, to see how the praetorians would react to the news. When they did not see the youth, the praetorians were deeply grieved and enraged by the report; they refused to send the regular contingent of guards to the emperor and remained in the camp, demanding to see Alexander in the temple there.

Thoroughly frightened, Heliogabalus placed Alexander in the imperial litter, which was richly decorated with gold and precious gems, and set out with him for the praetorian camp. The guards opened the gates and, receiving them inside, brought the two youths to the temple in the camp.

They welcomed Alexander with enthusiastic cheers, but ignored the emperor. Fuming at this treatment, although he spent the night in the camp, Heliogabalus unleashed the fury of his wrath against the praetorians. He ordered the arrest and punishment of the guards who had cheered Alexander openly and enthusiastically, pretending that these were responsible for the revolt and uproar.

The praetorians were enraged by this order; since they had other reasons, also, for hating Heliogabalus, they wished now to rid themselves of so disgraceful an emperor, and believed, too, that they should rescue the praetorians under arrest. Considering the occasion ideal and the provocation just, they killed Heliogabalus and his mother [Julia] Soaemias (for she was in the camp as Augusta and as his mother), together with all his attendants who were seized in the camp and who seemed to be his associates and companions in evil.

They gave the bodies of Heliogabalus and Soaemias to those who wanted to drag them about and abuse them; when the bodies had been dragged throughout the city, the mutilated corpses were thrown into the public sewer which flows into the Tiber.

More detail on reprisals — not exactly dated — comes from Cassius Dio:

His mother, who embraced him and clung tightly to him, perished with him; their heads were cut off and their bodies, after being stripped naked, were first dragged all over the city, and then the mother’s body was cast aside somewhere or other, while his was thrown into the river.

With him perished, among others, Hierocles and the prefects; also Aurelius Eubulus, who was an Emesene by birth and had gone so far in lewdness and debauchery that his surrender had been demanded even by the populace before this. He had been in charge of the fiscus, and there was nothing that he did not confiscate. So now he was torn to pieces by the populace and the soldiers; and Fulvius, the city prefect, perished at the same time with him.

The History of Rome podcast covers Elagabalus in episode 104.

* As pertains the mandate of this here site Elagabalus’s death is far more a murder than an execution, while the actual and threatened executions surrounding this murder are not necessarily dated, and verge towards lynchings. But between them we have a patina of somewhat orchestrated state violence with a somewhat dependable calendar peg that will suffice for a worthy cheat.

** The deity Elagabalus was among several pagan forerunners of the later sun god Sol Invictus, whose cult in turn became eventually conflated with another strange Asian religion, Christianity. There is a reading (distinctly a minority one) of Elagabalus as Rome’s Akhenaten, an unsuccessful proto-monotheist traduced by the incumbent priests who defeated his before-his-time religious revolution.

† Cassius Dio was a senatorial historian which both positioned him to know the scandalous things he reported and problematically incentivized him to concoct scandalous things to report. In particular we should note that Elagabalus’s successor Severus Alexander was personally and politically tight with Cassius Dio and, the historian boasts, “honoured me in various ways, especially by appointing me to be consul for the second time, as his colleague, and taking upon himself personally the responsibility of meeting the expenditures of my office.” In reading Cassius Dio we read the party line of the post-Elagabalus regime.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Heads of State,History,Homosexuals,Infamous,Italy,Lynching,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Put to the Sword,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Royalty,Scandal,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates

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