Posts filed under 'Heads of State'

1395: Ivan Shishman, falling to the Turks

1 comment June 3rd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1395, Bulgarian tsar Ivan Shishman was beheaded in Nikopol by the Ottoman Empire then engaged in absorbing his crumbling empire.

Ivan is the little guy in the middle; the towering figures are his parents.

The mythical (though not quite literal) last emperor of Bulgaria, Shishman is ungenerously judged by Wikipedia “a vacillating politician whose inopportune choices speedily guided him to his violent end and the subjugation of the country by the enemy.”

The guy ruled a waning state under the shadow of a neighboring expansionist superpower. Only inopportune choices were available.

Shishman’s sister, Maria Thamara Hatun, had been married off to the Ottoman Sultan Murad I in a token of Bulgaria’s vassalage.

In 1389, said Murad smashed the Serbians at the Battle of Kosovo. Even though Murad died in combat, the Turks left the Field of Blackbirds with the Balkans by the throat and the Bulgarian Empire (or rather, Empires: Shishman and his brother had split the kingdom) nicely encircled.

Murad’s son Bayezid “the Thunderbolt” struck soon enough.

At the Siege of Tarnovo in 1393, the Turks essentially destroyed Shishman’s realm, while Shishman bugged out to be captured at a later mop-up operation.

The Ottomans took his head, but left Bulgaria a martyr whose iconography is still good for the nationalist metal audience.

The clips in this video are from the 1969 Bulgarian flick Tzar Ivan Shishman.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Beheaded,Bulgaria,Execution,Famous,Heads of State,History,Martyrs,Myths,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Ottoman Empire,Popular Culture,Power,Royalty,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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193: Didius Julianus, who bought the purple from the Praetorians

3 comments June 1st, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 193, Didius Julianus lost the rulership of Rome for which he had paid so dearly.

And his life.

Julianus‘s path to these doleful pages begins with the assassination of the notorious Emperor Commodus at the end of 192.

That man’s successor, Pertinax, was a notable bust with the Praetorian Guard, the elite imperial bodyguard whose status as the only military unit in Rome made it potential — and here, actual — kingmakers.

The Praetorians expected the payoff that had become customary for new executives, and when Pertinax proved less than liberal on that particular budget item, they turned right around and overthrew him.

To see that there would be no mistake the next time around, the Praetorians dispensed with the pretense and brazenly auctioned the purple.

Roman aristocrat and historian Cassius Dio was a witness to this hot mess.

Didius Julianus, at once an insatiate money-getter and a wanton spendthrift, who was always eager for revolution and hence had been exiled by Commodus to his native city of Mediolanum, now, when he heard of the death of Pertinax, hastily made his way to the camp, and, standing at the gates of the enclosure, made bids to the soldiers for the rule over the Romans. Then ensued a most disgraceful business and one unworthy of Rome. For, just as if it had been in some market or auction-room, both the City and its entire empire were auctioned off. The sellers were the ones who had slain their emperor, and the would-be buyers were Sulpicianus and Julianus, who vied to outbid each other, one from the inside, the other from the outside. They gradually raised their bids up to twenty thousand sesterces per soldier. Some of the soldiers would carry word to Julianus, “Sulpicianus offers so much; how much more do you make it?” And to Sulpicianus in turn, “Julianus promises so much; how much do you raise him?” Sulpicianus would have won the day, being inside and being prefect of the city and also the first to name the figure twenty thousand, had not Julianus raised his bid no longer by a small amount but by five thousand at one time, both shouting it in a loud voice and also indicating the amount with his fingers. So the soldiers, captivated by this excessive bid and at the same time fearing that Sulpicianus might avenge Pertinax (an idea that Julianus put into their heads), received Julianus inside and declared him emperor.

-Cassius Dio, Book 74

The ignoble achievement is the only thing Didius Julianus is now remembered for.

While Julianus and the Praetorian guard were conducting their damnable business in the capital, three Roman generals in the provinces claimed the throne for themselves.

For centuries the Roman legions had been scattered beyond the Italian peninsula as a hedge against military coups. But after decades of relative stability at the top,* Rome was about to get a bracing reminder of what civil war looked like.

Praetorians — a few cohorts worth of men not in fighting trim — were fine for bullying Senators, but in an outright civil war, they were no match for the legions. The Praetorian Guard’s power to arbitrate the succession was contingent upon the beneficiary’s capacity to cement his own legitimacy by commanding the loyalty of (most of) the state apparatus.

And it turned out that buying the sceptre on spqrBay was not the way to get folks to bend their knees to it.

Septimius Severus, the imperial claimant nearest to the capital, commenced a relentless and virtually unresisted march on Rome, co-opting the troop garrisons and towns as he swept down the peninsula and spurning Julianus’s desperate diplomatic entreaties.

Cassius Dio’s record of Julianus scrambling to defend Rome against Severus is full of black humor.

Julianus … caused the senate to declare Severus a public enemy, and proceeded to prepare against him. In the suburbs he constructed a rampart, provided with gates, so that he might take up a position out there and fight from that base. The city during these days became nothing more nor less than a camp, in the enemy’s country, as it were. Great was the turmoil on the part of the various forces that were encamped and drilling, — men, horses, and elephants, — and great, also, was the fear inspired in the rest of the population by the armed troops, because the latter hated them. Yet at times we would be overcome by laughter; for the Praetorians did nothing worthy of their name and of their promise, for they had learned to live delicately;** the sailors summoned from the fleet stationed at Misenum did not even know how to drill; and the elephants found their towers burdensome and would not even carry their drivers any longer, but threw them off, too. But what caused us the greatest amusement was his fortifying of the palace with latticed gates and strong doors. For, inasmuch as it seemed probable that the soldiers would never have slain Pertinax so easily if the doors had been securely locked, Julianus believed that in case of defeat he would be able to shut himself up there and survive.

In the end, Severus took Rome without striking a blow: the Praetorians switched sides again, and the Eternal City delivered itself from the one usurper to the other. Cassius Dio, again, in media res

the soldiers, convinced by letters of Severus that if they surrendered the slayers of Pertinax and themselves kept the peace they would suffer no harm, arrested the men who had killed Pertinax … We [the Senate] thereupon sentenced Julianus to death, named Severus emperor, and bestowed divine honours on Pertinax. And so it came about that Julianus was slain as he was reclining in the palace itself; his only words were, “But what evil have I done? Whom have I killed?” He had lived sixty years, four months, and the same number of days, out of which he had reigned sixty-six days.

(Actually, Julianus had killed someone: foreseeing that the Praetorians were liable to turn coat yet again, Julianus had the Praetorian prefect who sold him this lemon of an empire put to death for trying to cut a deal with Severus. Despite this negative feedback, the transaction took place on a strict no-refunds, no-exchanges basis.)

A harsh deal for Didius Julianus was a pretty good one for the Roman Empire. Septimius Severus cleaned up his other rival claimants, and ran the empire capably for the next generation.

Kick back with this review of the the dreadful interlude of Didius Julianus with episodes 98 and 99 of the enjoyable History of Rome podcast.

* “The period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous,” in the judgment of Edward Gibbon.

** The Praetorians were also de-motivated because their promised donative had not been forthcoming.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Ancient,Borderline "Executions",Cycle of Violence,Execution,Famous Last Words,Heads of State,History,Italy,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Political Expedience,Politicians,Power,Put to the Sword,Roman Empire,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1393: The Muzaffarids, by Timur

1 comment May 22nd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1393 — or 10 Rajab 795 on the Islamic lunar calendar — the feared conquerer Timur (or Tamerlane) disposed of the squabbling ruling dynasty he had recently overturned, the Muzaffarids.

The House of Muzaffar came to prominence under the Mongol Ikhanate that stretched itslef from Persia to the Mediterranean in the 13th century.

As the Ilkhanate broke up in 1335, a guy like Yazd governor Mubariz al-Din Muhammad ibn Muzaffar could bloodily carve out a state of his own.*

Renowned for his cruelties, Mubariz al-Din ended his life blinded by his heir, Shah Shuja (or Shah Shujaa).

And in this generation, the House Muzaffar rapidly became a house divided, with brothers and cousins vying with each other (and with neighboring princelings). They were easy pickings for the rising Timurid Empire and its eponymous founder.

Exploiting a letter** sent by the aging Shuja (after a lifetime warring with his fellow Muzaffarids) recommending Shuja’s son to Timur’s protection, Timur rolled in and set up his own puppet Muzaffar. (It wasn’t the recommended son. C’est la vie.)

No sooner had Timur decamped for his next conquest than yet another of the Muzaffar clan — a brother of Timur’s puppet by the name of Shah Mansur† — revolted and set himself up as king.

It didn’t work, but Edward Gibbon was moved to pay tribute to Mansur’s intrepidity as he surveyed the Timurid annexations:

[P]etty tyrants might have opposed him with confederate arms: they separately stood, and successively fell; and the difference of their fate was only marked by the promptitude of submission or the obstinacy of resistance. Ibrahim, prince of Shirwan, or Albania, kissed the footstool of the Imperial throne. His peace-offerings of silks, horses, and jewels, were composed, according to the Tartar fashion, each article of nine pieces; but a critical spectator observed, that there were only eight slaves. “I myself am the ninth,” replied Ibrahim, who was prepared for the remark; and his flattery was rewarded by the smile of Timour. Shah Mansour, prince of Fars, or the proper Persia, was one of the least powerful, but most dangerous, of his enemies. In a battle under the walls of Shiraz, he broke, with three or four thousand soldiers, the coul or main body of thirty thousand horse, where the emperor fought in person. No more than fourteen or fifteen guards remained near the standard of Timour: he stood firm as a rock, and received on his helmet two weighty strokes of a cimeter: the Moguls rallied; the head of Mansour was thrown at his feet; and he declared his esteem of the valor of a foe, by extirpating all the males of so intrepid a race.

* The Muzaffarids’ most famous subject was the Persian poet Hafez (or Hafiz), whose lifetime was roughly paralleled the dynasty’s own. Hafez was patronized by the powers that be, though his favor waxed and waned.

** Timur himself would not think of empire-building; he accrued a mighty central Asian realm strictly by happenstance. “God is my witness that in all my wars I have never been the aggressor, and that my enemies have always been the authors of their own calamity.”

“For every war,” observes Gibbon of Timur and his ilk, “a motive of safety or revenge, of honor or zeal, of right or convenience, may be readily found in the jurisprudence of conquerors.”

† The Muzaffarid family tree is unnecessarily confusing, but a genealogy here may clarify matters.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Beheaded,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,Iran,Mass Executions,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Royalty,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Timurid Empire,Wartime Executions

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738: Copan king 18-Rabbit (Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil)

2 comments May 3rd, 2010 dogboy

Mayan history has thus far been difficult to examine due to a major communication gap. Much of the Western world’s understanding of its own history comes from the written word, such that the deciphering of ancient scripts is not only a linguistic triumph, but it also pushes aside centuries of debris to expose a new corner of human culture.

It is this evolving ability to crack codes from classic Mesoamerica that has yielded a close approximation of the true name of the man formerly known only as 18-Rabbit: Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil.*

(Alternately, Waxaklajuun Ub’aah K’awiil. The name means “Eighteen Images of K’awiil”; K’awiil was a Mayan divinity.)


Image (c) Matt Stokes of guatemalaholla.blogspot.com and used with permission.

By any name, he was one of the greatest rulers of the Mayan Classical Era, reigning from the Rio Copan Valley in today’s Honduras, near the present border with Guatemala. His life is preserved in several sets of stelae on temples around Copan and describes a man intent on advancing the culture of Copan.

In the city itself, Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil greatly contributed to the design of the Great Plaza, which housed one of the great ball courts in the region. More obviously, though, his reign was marked by a drastic sculptural shift away from the angular designs of the Early Classical period and straight into the more complete and rounded designs that persisted through the remainder of the Mayan era.

Reliefs from: the preceding 12th Ruler period (left); and, from 18 Rabbit’s period (right).

In spite of these major cultural moves, little about Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil is known directly. However, for the 20th anniversary of his ascension to the throne — on March 27, 715 AD** — Temple 22 was dedicated to the ruler, with a rare inscription ascribed to the ruler himself etched thereon.

It would be another 23 years before Ruler 13 was, as his conquering neighbor put it, “axed”. In 738, the Quirigua region — now in southeastern Guatemala — was considered part of the Copan empire. The Quirigua are now mostly known only for the size of their sculptures, which eclipse others in the region. But in 738, the Quiriga were mostly known for their fearsome king, Kawak Sky, or K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat, occupied the city just 50 km away and executed (or sacrificed) its former ruler.

That move ended a span of Copan dominance in the area and briefly put the Quirigua on top. Strangely, Yopaat was not apparently responsible for overseeing a particularly fruitful Quiriga culture. Almost nothing was built in his honor until after Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil’s death, after which several monuments to Yopaat’s glory were erected. It has been suggested that Yopaat was a brother or cousin of Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil, as Kawak Sky’s biography indicates that he both took the throne under Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil’s authority and executed his predecessor; this suggests that the move was not a full-on coup.

Regardless of their relationship, in the aftermath of the execution, Copan declined rapidly, presumably as their new Quirigua ruler exploited its labor and material resources to build up his own name. As one Copan scribe later lamented, “[There are] no altars, no pyramids, no places.” But the Copan would rise again: Ruler 15, or Smoke Shell, polished off the unfinished Temple 26 and built up its heiroglyphic staircase to highlight the dynastic history of Copan and its connection to its northerly neighbor, Teotihuacan. His son, Yax Pak Chan Yat, would be the last of the 16 rulers of Copan in the Yax K’uk’ Mo’ line.

* Because of his place in the dynastic sequence of Copan, Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil is sometimes referred to simply as Ruler 13.

** Mayan dates are surprisingly easy to nail down once the system is understood. While Europeans moved from Roman to Julian to Gregorian calendars — with the Eastern Orthodox Church and several traditionally Orthodox nations hanging onto the Julian one into the 20th Century — the Mayans had a consistent system that advanced day-to-day and was tied to verifiable events. Hence the ability to date Dec 21, 2012 as the end of the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar, which began on Aug 11, 3114 BCE.

In a way, the MLC is the precursor to the astronomical system of Julian Dates (which are not the same as the Julian calendar).

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Entry Filed under: Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Early Middle Ages,Execution,Guest Writers,Heads of State,History,Honduras,Maya civilization,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Power,Royalty,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1554: Lady Jane Grey, the Nine Days’ Queen

8 comments February 12th, 2010 Headsman

February 12 is the anniversary of Lady Jane Grey‘s beheading at the Tower of London. The Protestant teenager was the designated successor of sickly boy-king Edward VI, but popular and aristocratic support went for Mary Tudor in a landslide.

The Nine Days’ Queen landed in the Tower and copped to a treason charge on a tenuous deal for mercy (not applicable to her sponsors and allies, many of whom went to the block). But a January 1554 Protestant rebellion that had Protestant restoration as part of its programme made it a dangerous indulgence for Mary to keep her cousin’s neck attached to its shoulders.

On this auspicious anniversary, Executed Today is pleased to welcome Jane Grey expert J. Stephan Edwards, Ph.D. Dr. Edwards runs the Some Grey Matter site, and is working on a forthcoming book about our day’s famous beheadee.

ET: The conventional wisdom on Jane Grey is that she was basically destroyed by the machinations of the men around her. Is that a misapprehension? Was she more involved in events than she’s given credit for? Can one take seriously the notion that she didn’t want to be queen?

JSE: Having spent almost ten years researching the life of Lady Jane Grey Dudley and her very brief reign as Queen of England in July 1553, I am confident that she was not directly involved in the plans to make her Edward VI’s successor to the throne. At the same time, however, I am completely convinced that she was well aware of those plans at least six weeks before she actually became queen. And it is beyond question that she knew of the plan at least a week before her accession. Thus the standard mythology that portrays Jane as utterly unaware and totally innocent until the last possible second is just that … a myth.

I am similarly convinced that Jane accepted the crown after offering little more than perfunctory resistance. The crown offered a degree of personal independence that would otherwise have been unavailable to her. It also offered power. Despite Victorian-era storytelling to the contrary, Jane Grey Dudley was very much a product of her own age, and that was an age of widespread personal ambition, of duty to both family and God to advance one’s self and one’s family. It would have been a deep betrayal of her family and of social norms actually to refuse such an exalted position.

In the act of accepting, she is recorded to have asked God for some sign that she should refuse, paused for a moment, and receiving no such sign, she accepted. Further, Jane was apparently an adherent to the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, the idea that all things, including our daily lives, are preordained and known to God, and as humans we are powerless to alter God’s plan. Having prayed to God for a sign that she should refuse the crown and receiving none was no doubt to her an indication that her God’s preordained plan was for her to be Queen of England. She therefore accepted without offering further resistance of any kind.

Further, there is ample evidence to show that Jane fully embraced her new status. She signed dozens, perhaps hundreds, of documents with her own hand rather than relying on a privy secretary to sign in her stead (common practice in the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI before her). This indicates active and positive involvement in affairs. And on more than one occasion, she countermanded the orders of her council, imposing her own will upon them, again evidence of an intent to rule.

Was she “destroyed by the machinations of the men around her”? I think perhaps there is a better way to phrase it. Jane Grey Dudley lived in an era when women were second class citizens with few legal rights and virtually barred from public affairs. Yet the circumstances of July 1553 mandated that a woman must assume the throne, however much that contradicted 400 years of established English practice. If anything, Jane Grey Dudley was a pawn in a political chess game in which the players, all male, searched desperately for a male king, yet all they had at hand were potential queens. The male players at the chess board were simply struggling with the pieces they had available and trying to make the best of an unfamiliar and even frightening situation. They failed, and Queen Jane was one of the unfortunate pieces swept from the board.

Jane is obviously a romantic figure — small r, big R — in part because she didn’t ever have the chance to start doing the un-romantic things that rulers have to do. How has her image changed over the years? What about her would most surprise people today?

Actually, Jane did “do some of the unromantic things that rulers have to do.” She sat in daily on meetings of the Privy Council. She helped to plan military maneuvers against her cousin, the future Queen Mary … maneuvers intended to bring about the latter’s death. She sent thousands of men off to die in battle. The nine short days of the reign of Queen Jane were packed with unromantic and burdensome activity unfamiliar to a woman of not quite eighteen years of age.

If anything, the years have served to erase much of that non-romantic material and replaced it with the image of an obedient girl-child secluded in study or prayer, uninvolved in the affairs of the world. Indeed, one biographer writing in the 19th century referred to her existence as one of “splendid isolation.”

Yet she was anything but isolated. The historical evidence makes it clear that she was socially active, participating in many of the public celebrations held by her kingly cousin’s court. She traveled a great deal, visiting with relatives and friends of the family scattered across the entire realm. And she had a love of music that was intense enough to give her tutor concern that she was becoming too distracted from her intellectual studies. The picture that has emerged from my own research is of a girl who was quite “normal” for those of her social and economic status in that era, with the possible exception of a gift for languages.

Had Jane, in fact, ruled, how different might events in England been? (and elsewhere, since this was also a key period of imperial competition?)

I am not myself a huge fan of “counterfactual history,” of speculating about “what might have been.” But since a lot of people do ask this question, I will say this: Had Jane remained queen, and had Mary remained on the political periphery (or been executed), it seems to me that the British Isles would be a very different place today. Just in basic political terms, Elizabeth also would likely not have become queen, so the great Elizabethan “Golden Age” would never have happened. Also, Jane would likely have had children, so there would not have been any need to reach outside the realm in 1603 to find an heir. James VI of Scotland would never have become James I of England, and Scotland may have remained forever a separate kingdom and nation. Without a King James of England, there would not have been a Charles I of England, and thus perhaps no religious civil wars in the mid 17th century. Carried still further, James II would never have become king, and no Act of Settlement would have been necessary. The Hanoverians would never have succeeded to the English throne … no George III and perhaps no American revolution. Certainly no Queen Victoria. And the current queen would instead be a German housewife.

All of this would likely have left England as a relatively small nation. It probably would never have become “Great Britain,” either geo-politically or symbolically. It might well have remained a minor actor on the international political stage. The great “British Empire” and the modern Commonwealth might never have existed.

Religiously, England might also have been very different. The more radical strain of evangelical reformism (later called “Puritanism”) espoused by Edward VI and Jane may well have prevailed. The moderate Elizabethan religious settlement of the 1560s likely would not have happened. Thus the Church of England might have looked today more like a Presbyterian or Lutheran church, both doctrinally and physically. Anglicanism today would have been based on simple preaching, with most ritual and liturgy pared down to a bare minimum. No vestments, no decorated churches, and perhaps no bishops and archbishops. All of that would, in turn, have had a huge impact on English culture, art, literature, etc.

In short, had Jane reigned long, the world would be a very different place today, in ways that we probably cannot even begin to imagine.

How did Jane herself change over the course of her experiences in proximity to power, and then as the queen, and then in the Tower?

This is a very difficult question to answer, if not an impossible one, because we have so very little evidence about Jane herself, her character, and her personality. We know next to nothing of her innermost thoughts and attitudes during this period, especially the period during her imprisonment in the Tower. The one thing that we can perhaps say is that religion became Jane’s chief comfort during the last six months of her life, and she clung to her faith with tenacity. The evidence suggests that she was accepting of her death in the belief that she was serving her God and her faith. In fact, she seems to have carried out the activities of her last days with great care and deliberateness so as to leave a carefully constructed final impression on others. She wrote a judiciously worded letter to her sister and penned a brief note to her father, almost certainly conscious that both would be published after her death. She engaged in a semi-public theological debate with Queen Mary’s own Roman Catholic chaplain and hand signed a transcript of that debate in order to authenticate her words. And lastly, she delivered an ambiguously worded speech from the execution scaffold that declared herself simultaneously innocent and guilty. Jane was a relatively unknown private figure when she became queen, and a very public one by the time she died, well aware that she would soon be known across Europe. That transformation from private to public figure must surely have changed her profoundly, in ways we can only guess.

As a researcher, how do you deal with the sketchy documentary trail on Lady Jane?

Historians and researchers deal every day with people and groups of people for whom few written records or other evidence exists. To compensate, many modern historians take pieces of evidence from here and bits of data from there and compile them, then use that compilation to construct snapshots of groups rather than of individuals. For example, we can reconstruct from written records the amount of charity that was dispensed in certain specific regions (e.g., a single parish in London). From that amount, we can gain some idea of how extensive poverty may have been in that region. And from the list of names and ages of those to whom charity was dispensed, we can deduce what percentage of the poor were male or female, young or old … even if we know nothing more than their names and ages.

With Jane, I have reversed the process. Historians have done a great deal of work to describe aristocratic young women in England in the sixteenth century … their education, their religious beliefs and practices, their domestic lives, etc. If that group composite picture is valid, we should also be able to say that if a certain person is a member of that group of young female aristocrats, she is likely to have had similar characteristics. Thus I have proposed that in the absence of any written evidence to the contrary, Jane was probably very much like her social and economic peers in many ways. She was different only in those ways for which we have clear evidence, such as her proficiency in as many as five to seven languages.

How was her execution carried out? Was it typical for its time, place, and circumstances?

Dying was an active process in the Tudor era. It was something a person did, not something that happened to a person. Those facing death were expected to carry out certain predetermined actions and to behave in certain specific ways as demonstrations that they were destined to go to heaven. Dying was to be done with dignity, with a measure of planning (if the death was anticipated far enough in advance), and with particular tasks to be performed by the dying before they took their leave of the earthly world and moved on to the spiritual world. A large body of literature and advice books on how to die, or “the art of dying” (ars moriendi in Latin), emerged during the period. Jane Grey Dudley played her part so well that she was held up as an example to all in later years of “how to die well.”

The condemned were always afforded the opportunity to prepare themselves spiritually, with the method of preparation dependent upon the form of religion then in place. Jane was executed after Roman Catholicism had been re-instituted in England, so she was given the opportunity to confess to a Catholic priest, to be absolved, and to take final communion. Holding firm to her Protestant beliefs that confession was a private matter between penitent and God alone and not necessitating a priest’s hearing, that absolution was given only by God and not mediated by priests, and that the Roman Catholic Mass was erroneous, she instead engaged in a public theological debate with John de Feckenham. During this debate, Jane professed her faith to a sizable audience, outlining its central tenets, an action that itself served as a kind of “Protestant confession” without directly involving a priest in the process.

She then wrote letters to her sister and father bidding them farewell and offering spiritual counsel to them as well. She probably wrote letters to others, especially her mother, but they have not survived. Taking leave of the world and offering consolation to those to be left behind was part of the ars moriendi. Jane’s letter to her sister, in particular, was reproduced repeatedly over the next century as a near-perfect example of how to bid farewell to loved ones. [Available here, the last of several Jane Grey letters reproduced in this public-domain book.]

On the morning of the execution, she would have dressed appropriately in a simple gown of somber color, usually gray or black (certainly not the angelically virginal white depicted in Paul Delaroche’s famous histrionic painting of her execution). Many carried some type of religious text with them to the place of execution, often a Missal or Book of Hours (for Catholics) or a New Testament or copies of the Four Gospels (for Protestants). Jane carried a book of prayers copied from the works of St Jerome, St Ambrose, and St Austin, each a father of the early Christian church of the fourth century (Tudor-era Protestants recognized the value of the writings of these men though they denied their status as saints and intercessors in heaven). That morning, she carefully inscribed the book to her jailer in preparation for presenting it to him in her last moments. Small gifts to jailers, and even to executioners, were considered signs of humility and Christian forgiveness.

Jane was to be executed within the relatively private walls of the Tower of London rather than in the full glare of the crowds outside the walls on Tower Hill. Executions were large public spectacles that often drew huge audiences, so a private execution was considered a great favor to the condemned.

There was no permanent execution scaffold within the Tower. Scaffolds were built specifically for each execution, then immediately dismantled. The eye-witness accounts indicate that the scaffold for Jane’s execution was built against the wall of the central White Tower, at its northwest corner … the corner closest to the Chapel of St Peter-ad-Vincula. Since Jane was housed in the upper storey of the Gentleman Gaoler’s (Jailer’s) quarters, which still stands today, she would have seen the scaffold being built just a few yards across Tower Green. She would also have had a very short walk from her quarters to the scaffold, though she would have been in full view of the many permanent residents, workers, and official visitors within the Tower that busy Monday morning. She is said by eyewitnesses to have made the walk with great dignity and without any outward signs of distress.

Jane was accompanied to the scaffold by at least two of her ladies-in-waiting and by John de Feckenham, her debate opponent of the previous days. Feckenham served two purposes. Firstly, he was available should Jane wish to convert to Roman Catholicism in her final moments, and to offer whatever spiritual comfort he could should she chose not to convert. No Protestant preacher or pastor was allowed. Secondly, Feckenham served as the personal representative of Queen Mary, ready to witness the proceedings and to recount them to his mistress.

Upon reaching the scaffold, Jane, like all those condemned to die, was allowed to make a final speech. Such speeches were customarily written and memorized in advance with great care, as it was common practice for the witnesses present to write down the dying person’s last words. Scaffold speeches were often published within days of the execution and circulated widely, sometimes as political propaganda, sometimes as educational tools or warnings to others, and sometimes simply as “news of the day.” Jane would have been well aware of this practice, and her final speech, as it was published barely more than a month later, reflects a careful choice of words. She stated that she was guilty of having broken the law by accepting the crown, but that she was innocent of having sought it. She acknowledged the justice of her execution, as all condemned were expected to do. Protestations of innocence at the moment of execution were paradoxically considered signs of guilt, of lack of humility, and transgressions of God’s will.

Jane also asked those in the small audience to pray for her soul “while yet I live.” Her choice of words reflected her disagreement with the Catholic practice of saying masses for the dead. She then kneeled and asked the audience to recite along with her as she spoke the words of Psalm 51, the Miserere, which begins, “Have mercy upon me, O God.”

Those of noble or royal status who were convicted of treason were often beheaded, whereas men of lower birth were hung, drawn and quartered and women of lower birth were often burned at the stake (considered more “humane” for the “weaker sex” than hanging, drawing and quartering). The monarch’s consent was required for beheading, but it was seldom withheld. Thus Mary consented to Jane being executed by beheading with an axe. Therefore, following her recitation of Psalm 51, Jane stood again to make final preparations to meet the axe. She handed her gloves and handkerchief to one of her ladies, and gave her small prayer-book to Thomas Bridges, the brother of the Lieutenant of the Tower. The prayerbook has survived and is sometimes displayed as part of the permanent “Treasures of the Library” exhibition at the British Library in London.

After her attendants assisted her to loosen the neck of her gown, the executioner knelt in the customary request for forgiveness from the condemned. The executioner then asked her to stand upon the straw spread around the block to soak up the blood. As she began to kneel, she asked the executioner whether he would take her by surprise and strike before she was ready. Assured that he would not, she tied a cloth around her head to block her eyesight. Then, in one of the most poignant of scenes, she felt blindly for the block, and not finding it because of the cloth over her eyes, she asked, “What shall I do? Where is it?” It was against custom to assist the condemned to find the block, lest the person offering aid be accused of having an unjust part in a death. However, someone -– usually reported as Feckenham –- apparently did reach down and guide her hands to the block. (This instant is the scene depicted in Delaroche’s near-life-sized painting, though most of the details of that painting are quite inaccurate.)

Detail view of Hippolyte (Paul) Delaroche’s The Execution of Lady Jane Grey. (Click for full-size image.)

The UK National Gallery on Feb. 24 opens an exhibition on this work titled “Painting History: Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey”.

According to the gallery’s advance publicity, “For the first time, Painting History examines this iconic masterpiece in the context of Delaroche’s great historical paintings, particularly the poignant scenes from English history which made his reputation. The exhibition features seven major international loans of paintings by Delaroche including The Princes in the Tower, 1830 and Young Christian Martyr, 1854–5 (both Louvre) and Strafford on his way to Execution, 1835 (private collection). Displayed alongside are Delaroche’s expressive preparatory drawings for Lady Jane and a selection of comparative paintings and prints by his contemporaries, including Eugène Lami, Claude Jacquand and François-Marius Granet.”

The guy sure had a thing for executions. If this blog had a patron artist, it would be Paul Delaroche.

Finally finding the block, she laid her neck upon it and repeated Jesus’s words on the cross, “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” At those words, the executioner swung his axe and she was dead.

There is a previously unchallenged tradition that Lady Jane Grey Dudley was buried in the Chapel of St Peter-ad-Vincula (St Peter-in-Chains) within the Tower, supposedly beneath the floor just in front of the left-hand side of the altar. A plaque to that effect was placed there in the 1870s, and the modern tour guides of the Tower usually regale tourists with heavily embellished stories of the events.

My own research, however, suggests that Jane may have been buried outside the Tower. Several circumstances of the day support my conclusion. First, the chapel had been restored to service in the Roman Catholic faith by mid-February 1554. The Roman Catholic Church explicitly prohibits the burial of heretics in consecrated ground, and Jane was considered a heretic by that Church. Additionally, there is a contemporary account that tells of the bodies of Jane and her husband Guildford, who was executed the same day on Tower Hill, lying in a cart outside the chapel for several hours. The reason for the delay is given as a need to seek special permission to bury them within. None of the eyewitness accounts of the day go on to speak of the burial itself. Whether this is because none of those eyewitnesses saw the burial take place or because it was considered by them to be not worth the mentioning is unclear. However, Jane’s father Henry Grey was executed on Tower Hill two weeks later for his part in a rebellion in late January 1554, and he is reported to have been buried in the Church of Holy Trinity Minories just yards from Tower Hill. That church was a former abbey of the Order of St Clare that had been closed by Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the 1530s. Henry Grey had purchased the former abbey, together with its church, from the crown in the 1540s. During renovation work in 1851, a workman discovered a carefully preserved severed head that was later identified as the head of Henry Grey. It therefore seems probable that Henry Grey was indeed buried inside Holy Trinity Minories, one of his own properties conveniently nearest the place of his execution. It is equally possible that his daughter Jane Grey Dudley and his son-in-law Guildford Dudley were buried at Holy Trinity just days before Henry.

Holy Trinity was closed as a place of worship in 1899 and merged with the nearby Church of St Botolph’s-without-Aldgate. Henry Grey’s preserved head is now kept in a secret location somewhere on the grounds of St Botolph’s, but the remains of the Church of Holy Trinity Minories were destroyed during the London Blitz of 1940. All that remains is a small public garden in Tower Hill Terrace over the road from the north outer curtain wall of the Tower, a mere 150 yards from the site of Jane’s execution.

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104 B.C.E.: Jugurtha

1 comment January 1st, 2010 emperorhadrian

(Thanks to Daily Kos diarist “emperorhadrian” for licensing this guest post, originally published on that site June 24, 2007. -ed.)

The Jugurthine War was a key war in the final century of the Roman Republic.

Like the Americans in Iraq, Rome assumed that their war against Jugurtha, King of Numidia (a nation in north Africa), would be a cakewalk. They believed that Numidia was a nation of savages with a bizarre religion. They assumed that their own “shock and awe” attacks by the superior legions would decapitate and destroy the “evil doer” Jugurtha. They believed that in order to liberate the Numidians of their primitive ways, they had to impose the civilized will of the Roman state on this backward nation. Rome never expected that the Numidians would wage an insurgent war against their Roman occupiers. This war ended up dragging on for almost a decade. And in the end, it showed the depravity of the ruling party (the ultra-conservative republican Optimate party), which was sending the Roman Republic on its way to tyranny, empire and ruin.

In 148 BC, the King of Numidia, Masinissa, died. The Roman proconsul, Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus, had been given authority by Masinissa to divide Masinissa’s estate. He divided it between Masinissa’s three sons, Micipsa, Gulussa, and Mastarnable. Soon after, Gulussa and Mastarnable died, leaving Micipsa as the sole King of Numidia. Around the year 134 BC, Micipsa sent Jugurtha (who was Masinissa’s grandson, but the son of another Numidian) to Spain with Scipio Aemilianius. Scipio was fighting the Celtiberians, who lived in a part of what is now Spain. Jugurtha was able to raise an army to help Scipio. Because of the valor of Jugurtha and his army at the Siege of Numantia, Scipio was able to win his war against the Celtiberians.

While fighting for Rome, Jugurtha worked alongside his future enemy, Gaius Marius. Jugurtha not only learned the superior Roman style of fighting, but he also learned of Rome’s weakness for money and thus bribery. Jugurtha described Rome as “urbem venalem et mature perituram, si emptorem invenerit” (“a city for sale and doomed to quick destruction, if it should ever find a buyer”). When Jugurtha returned to Numidia, Micipsa adopted Jugurtha, and decided to include Jugurtha in his will.

After the fall of Numantia, Jugurtha returned home with a letter from Scipio addressed to his uncle; in it, the commander praised Jugurtha’s exploits and congratulated Micipsa for having “a kinsman worthy of yourself, and of his grandfather Masinissa” (Sallust Iug. 9). On this recommendation the king formally adopted Jugurtha and made him co-heir with his own children

In 118, Micipsa died. He left his kingdom to Jugurtha and his two natural sons, Hiempsal and Adherbal. Shortly after Micipsa’s death, Jugurtha had Hiempsal killed. Adherbal fled to Rome. The Roman Senate sent a commission to Numidia to make peace. Jugurtha bribed the Romans on the commission, and thus the commission gave the better regions of the kingdom to Jugurtha.

In 113 BC, Jugurtha took his army and cornered Adherbal in his capital city of Citra. According to Sallust, Adherbal had the support of the people, but Jugurtha had the support of the best soldiers. A Roman Commission was sent to Numidia to forge a new peace. Jugurtha then bribed the Romans on this commission. The Romans thus allowed Jugurtha to storm Citra, and slaughter Adherbal and his supporters. Because Jugurtha slaughtered a number of Italian business people (including Roman Equites, or “Knights“), the Roman senate declared war on Jugurtha.

The Roman Senate sent an army under the command of the consul Lucius Calpurnius Bestia to fight Jugurtha. Bestia decisively defeated Jugurtha. But Jugurtha bribed Bestia, and thus was given unusually favorable terms. The Roman Senate viewed the favorable terms with suspicion, so it summoned Jugurtha to Rome. When Jugurtha arrived in Rome, he bribed two Tribunes, who thus prevented him from testifying. While in Rome, Jugurtha attempted to have his cousin and rival Massiva assassinated. Because of this, he was expelled from the city and returned to Numidia.

In 110 BC, the Roman Senate sent the praetor Aulus Postumus Albinus (who was the cousin of a consul for that year) to defeat Jugurtha. Because Jugurtha bribed key Romans involved in Albinus’ army (who then betrayed Albinus), Albinus was defeated.

The Roman Senate then sent the consul Quintus Caecilius Metellus to fight Jugurtha. At the Battle of the Muthul, a young Roman officer named Gaius Marius helped to reorganize Metellus’ legions, which then defeated Jugurtha. But Jugurtha was defeated because he forced his army to retreat before it could suffer heavy losses. The Romans did suffer their own heavy losses. Jugurtha disbanded his army, and had his soliders mount an insurgency to fight the Roman occupiers.

Marius returned to Rome. Dissatisfied with the slow pace of the war under Metellus, the Roman Military Assembly (one of the two Roman legislative assemblies, similar to the US Senate) appointed Marius consul (the Military Assembly, not the senate, appointed consuls). The Roman consuls had similar powers as the US President. The consulship was the highest constitutional office, and the consuls had imperium powers, which allowed them to command armies and conduct wars. The senate didn’t want Marius to be consul, because at this time it was dominated by an ultra-conservative republican party of aristocratic elites known as the Optimates. Marius belonged to the party that opposed the Optimates, the Populares. Partly because the senate didn’t like Marius, and partly because of the increasing difficulty Rome was having in recruiting armies, Marius was forced to raise his own army.

The capture of Jugurtha, from this French history of the Jugurthine War.

Marius took his army to Numidia to fight Jugurtha. But while Marius had been raising his army, Jugurtha allied with his father-in-law, Bocchus, the King of Mauretania. Marius defeated Jugurtha and Bocchus in several key battles. But much like with the American occupation in Iraq, Jugurtha’s strategy of insurgency warfare against the occupiers rendered all conventional victories irrelevant. Marius was playing a game of whack-a-mole. No matter how many times the Numidians were defeated, Jugurtha’s insurgents would regroup and keep fighting. It became clear that because of this, Rome could not defeat Jugurtha.

Marius sent his young Quaestor, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, to Bocchus. Sulla bribed Bocchus, and told him that Bocchus would be given a part of Numidia if he would betray Jugurtha. Bocchus then decided to give Jugurtha to Sulla. Sulla took Jugurtha to Rome, where Jugurtha was strangled in the Tullianum in Rome after marching in Marius’ January 1, 104 B.C. Triumph.


The Triumph of Marius (1729) by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. The inscription in Latin reads “The Roman people behold Jugurtha laden with chains”.

The Jugurthine War was over. But in the process, several problems were exposed that would cause Rome serious pain in the future. Republicans in this country love to tell us that money in politics is harmless free speech. But as we saw in the Roman Republic during the Jugurthine War, money can be very corrupting. Rome almost lost the war because of money in politics, and the susceptibility of public officials to bribery.

In addition, this war saw the rise of two Romans who would play a key role in the events that directly preceded the fall of the Roman Republic. The first Roman made famous through this war was Gaius Marius. Gaius Marius would later hold the Roman Consulship an unconstitutional 7 times in 21 years (constitutionally, a Roman had to wait 10 years before being reelected consul).

The second Roman made famous through this war was Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Sulla and Marius would fight an unconstitutional civil war with each other several years after this war had ended. Sulla would illegally march his troops on Rome, and unconstitutionally legalize the mass killing of Marius’ supporters. Marius’ supporters in the senate would unconstitutionally prevent Sulla from fighting a war during one of Sulla’s consulships. Sulla would eventually seize absolute power for himself. Sulla would be the first Roman to be Dictator in almost 150 years. He would also be the first Roman in history to hold the dictatorship without the traditional six month term limit.

As dictator, Sulla would illegally change the Roman constitution to make himself and his party (the ultra-conservative republican Optimates) even more powerful. And most importantly, Sulla would set the example (of civil war on Romans, and then the seizing of absolute power) that the future tyrant Gaius Julius Caesar would follow.

In the end, the actions taken by key players in the war against Jugurtha would be repeated in the final destruction of the Roman Republic. The future triumvir Pompey would unconstitutionally hold multiple consulships in a short period of time. Crassus, another future triumvir, would illegally bribe politicians to get his way. And the future tyrant Julius Caesar would bribe, unconstitutionally hold the consulship, and become dictator for life (as Sulla had done). It was Caesar’s actions in this regard, as well as the similar actions of his adopted son and heir, Gaius Octavius (later Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, the Emperor Augustus) that would once and for all destroy the Roman Republic, and create the Roman Empire.

1. When when, and whenever death closes our eyelids,
2. Moving naked over Acheron
3. Upon the one raft, victor and conquered together,
4. Marius and Jugurtha together,
5. one tangle of shadows.

6. Caesar plots against India,
7. Tigris and Euphrates shall, from now on, flow at his bidding,
8. Tibet shall be full of Roman policemen,
9. And the Parthians shall get used to our statuary
10. and acquire a Roman religion;

11. One raft on the veiled flood of Acheron,
12. Marius and Jagurtha together.
13. Nor at my funeral either will there be any long trail,
14. bearing ancestral lares and images;
15. No trumpets filled with my emptiness,
16. Nor shall it be on an Atalic bed;
17. The perfumed cloths shall be absent.
18. A small plebeian procession.
19. Enough, enough and in plenty
20. There will be three books at my obsequies
21. Which I take, my not unworthy gift, to Persephone.

From Homage to Sextus Propertius, Canto VI by Ezra Pound

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1818: Abdullah ibn Saud, last ruler of the first Saudi state

3 comments December 17th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1818, the last ruler of the first state established by the Al Saud who rule the modern state of Saudi Arabia lost his head to the Ottoman Sultan.

The Ottoman state and its (largely independent) vassal Egypt begged to dispute the Wahhabi tribe’s authority in the Arabian peninsula (and its proclivity for raiding Ottoman caravans) and made war on the House of Saud throughout the 1810’s.

The Battle of ad-Dir’iyah in 1818 settled the matter, with our day’s principal Abdullah I surrendering to the Egyptian general Ibrahim Pasha.

We pick up the action from the third-hand, well-after-the-fact reports of the London Times. This, printed on Jan. 16 1819 under the “German Papers” heading:

FROM THE TURKISH FRONTIERS, DEC. 16.

The last victory over the Wechabites puts an end to the war at once. Ibrahim Pacha, who commanded the Turkish army, sends the captive Abdallah to Constantinople, but he first had his head shaved, and all his teeth pulled out.

On Feb. 6, the Times channeled the Dutch and Flanders mail:

Intelligence from Constantinople, dated the 24th December, states, that the Chief of the Wechabites, Abdallah, and his Iman, were brought prisoners into that capital on the 16th of the same month. After being led, in chains, through the principal streets, they were taken to prison and put to the torture. On the following morning, they were brought before the Sultan and beheaded. Their naked bodies were exposed during three days, and then delivered to the populace.

In addition to Abdullah himself, this affair finished off the city of Diriyah as a Saudi capital.

But of course, the Saud and their state were just getting started.

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1326: Hugh Despenser the Younger, King Edward II’s lover?

8 comments November 24th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1326, the power behind Edward II’s throne — and the presumed lover in his bed — was hanged, drawn and quartered and pointedly emasculated in a grisly public execution as the Queen and her lover took control of England.

(Wince.)

The younger Despenser, being carved up in an illustration from Froissart.

Poor King Edward — that’s the swishy princeling gay-baited in Braveheart — would suffer a horrid demise of his own a few weeks later. He’s the one most conveniently read as a gay martyr.

Hugh Despenser the Younger (or Hugh le Despenser) has his fans, but he’s much more likely to be taken for a villain.

An upstart knight who unexpectedly lucked into a jackpot inheritance when his wife’s brother died at Bannockburn — that’s the rumble Robert the Bruce starts at the end of Braveheart — Hugh the younger parlayed his newfound position of feudal magnate into the still better gig of royal favorite.

That job was open because its occupants had a distressing tendency to get dead, a fate obviously ordained for Hugh Despenser as well.

But whereas Edward’s childhood pal Piers Gaveston, the murdered former fave, aroused mostly personal pique among rival nobles, Hugh Despenser meant to use his favor to rule.

Despenser exploited his position to build up his wealth and control the king; with his father (you’ll never guess that he went by “the elder”), he became the de facto if never the de jure ruler of the realm.

At one point, his rivals in the nobility turned the tables and got him exiled. Hugh became a pirate in the English Channel while he maneuvered his way back onto dry land in his customary most-favored-consigliere position.

So although the British barons who wanted Despenser’s head were undoubtedly a distasteful lot themselves, and certainly capable of all manner of depravity in pursuit of their own crass self-interest, it doesn’t take a backwards view of human sexuality to get why Hugh Despenser would raise an early 14th century Briton’s hackles.

But you have to give England this: its politics back then were a damn sight more interesting than you get today. Anyone who uses the term “bloodsport” for the modern electoral charade ought to cross cutlasses with the likes of the dread pirate Despenser.

And it gets better. Meaning, for Hugh Despenser the Younger, worse. Much.

Queen Isabella — that’s Sophie Marceau’s hot-for-barbarian imported princess in Braveheart — became estranged from her Hugh-lovin’ husband,* and established herself back in France with her lover Roger Mortimer.

Then, the lovebirds invaded England.

Edward and Hugh were so unpopular at this point that “their” nobles who should have repelled the incursion went in a landslide for the invading adulterers.

Hugh Despenser’s father had already been hanged for his trouble by the time The Younger was taken; the latter tried to cheat the executioner by refusing all food and drink for days, truly a spartan image of desperate self-mortification in a rough day and age.

When you get a load of the death his royal captors had worked out for him — and which they were obliged to deliver to their starving captive hurriedly in Hereford rather than more ceremoniously back in London — you can understand why. After a perfunctory trial that same morning, they tore the former favorite apart.

Froissart’s rendering:

When the feast was over sir Hugh, who was not beloved in those parts, was brought before the queen and knights assembled; the charges were read to him – to which he made no reply; the barons and knights then passed the following sentence on him: first, that he should be drawn on a hurdle, attended by trumpets and clarions, through all the streets in the city of Hereford, and then conducted to the market-place, where all the people were assembled; at that place he was to be bound on a high scaffold, in order that he might be more easily seen by the people. First, his privates were cut off, because he was deemed a heretic, and guilty of unnatural practices, even with the king, whose affections he had alienated from the queen by his wicked suggestions. His private parts were cast into a large fire kindled close to him; Afterwards, his heart was thrown into the same fire, because it had been false and traitorous, since he had by his treasonable counsels so advised the king, as to bring shame and mischief on the land, and had caused some of the greatest lords to be beheaded, by whom the kingdom ought to have been supported and defended; and had so seduced the king, that he could not or would not see the queen, or his eldest son, who was to be their future sovereign, both of whom had, to preserve their lives, been forced to quit the kingdom. The other parts of sir Hugh thus disposed of, his head was cut off and sent to London.**

It’s reported that Isabella and Mortimer feasted and made merry as they beheld this hideous spectacle. Now that’s bloodsport politics.

Hugh the younger Despenser and his life and times are covered in amazing detail by a couple of active-posting enthusiasts of this particular period who have already been linked elsewhere in this post: the aptly-named Edward II blog (dig his biography of Hugh Despenser, among many other such dramatis personae; also his account of the execution, already cited); and, Lady Despenser’s Scribery (whose entire sidebar is pretty much all about our day’s principal; for the quick tour, see her biography and posts on the “trial” and execution).

* The reason for said estrangement can be situated anywhere one likes along the personal-political spectrum; one recent historical novel speculates (upon no authority but dramatic license) that Hugh raped the queen.

** Remains reportedly discovered last year were speculatively identified as Hugh Despenser’s; the litany of injuries to the body testify to the ghastly death-ritual its owner underwent.

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1974: Black Saturday in Ethiopia

3 comments November 23rd, 2009 Headsman

November 23, 1974 was “Bloody Saturday” in Ethiopia for that day’s* surprise purge of some threescore politicians and soldiers by the ruling Derg.

It was barely ten weeks since the Derg — an Amharic word meaning “committee”, in this case a leftist military junta — had formally overthrown Emperor Haile Selassie, so ancient that he was already middle-aged back when he’d been leading Ethiopia’s resistance against Mussolini.

It’s strange to say in retrospect, but having spent the best part of a year systematically supplanting the political authority of the decrepit ancien regime with widespread public support, the Derg had engendered hope that its revolution would be accomplished without slaughter.

“Ityopiya tikdem/yala mimin dem” — “Let Ethiopia progress/Without any bloodshed” — became the popular slogan of that heady time. (pdf source)

Black Saturday turned the leaf on all that, and opened the sanguinary chapter of Ethiopian history today evoked by the name of the Derg.

What went wrong with Ethiopia's bloodless revolution?
“The prospect,” concluded the analysis that appeared under this headline in the Nov. 29, 1974 London Times, “is that the mass executions will be followed by further drastic action aimed at consolidating the control of the new military rulers.” The same author, Michael Knipe, had written on Nov. 16 that “the firmness of [the military’s] control appears to be matched by an overall moderation of approach, which holds promise for Ethiopia’s future.”

The Derg long remained a shadowy body, its members largely unknown and its internecine factional politics only guessed-at. The executions this date are generally read as the consolidation of the coup’s “radical” elements as against its “moderates” and the first signal event in Derg member Mengistu Haile Mariam‘s eventual conquest of supreme authority.

The crucial issue that separated radicals from moderates at the revolution’s early stage appears to be their approach to the ongoing struggle of coastal Eritrea — then still a province of Ethiopia.

Ethnically Eritrean officer Aman Michael Andom, the first titular head of the Derg who had been deposed from his position only a week ago, was a noteworthy advocate of negotiating a peacable settlement with Eritrean agitators. He was among the casualties of Black Saturday. (Aman was later reported to have been killed resisting arrest, rather than actually executed; many of the available accounts of this massacre have slightly varying numbers and particulars.) Henceforth, military force would be Addis Ababa’s only approach to the Eritrean problem.

A few other Aman supporters in the Derg shared his fate in a political wipeout. But more numerous among the 29 civilian and 31 military men announced as casualties the next morning — and there had been no prior warning that executions were imminent — were aristocrats and officials of the Haile Selassie government, including:

  • Two former Prime Ministers, Endelkachew Makonnen and Aklilu Habte-Wold (or Aklilou Wold), both of whom had been slated for trial for the recent famine in Wollo (London Times, Nov. 14, 1974);**

  • Solomon Abrahami, the former governor of Wollo;
  • Selassie’s own grandsom, Rear Adm. Iskender (Alexander) Desta;
  • 16 generals, including Selassie’s son-in-law (and former Defense Minister) Abiye Abebe.

(This Nov. 25, 1974 New York Times article — behind the paper’s pay wall — lists all 60 vicitms.)

These were a selection of some 200 political prisoners held by the Derg; how hard to come down on these officials was another point of contention between radicals and moderates. It emerged later that the Derg had met earlier on the 23rd to vote, name by name, which among its prisoners deserved execution.

So if you look at it right, summarily machine-gunning only 30% of your political prisoners is a moderate policy. Alas: these would hardly be the last.

After the Derg government was itself finally overthrown in 1991 — and the troubled province of Eritrea finally won its independence from Ethiopia — some of the perpetrators of its genocidal atrocities were themselves put on trial.

* It’s obscure — perhaps permanently so — whether the nighttime killings transpired before or after the end of the day, and both the 23rd and 24th are variously cited as the date of death. “Reliable sources said the executions were by machine gun at midnight,” the unhelpfully breezy New York Times reported on Nov. 25. This account (pdf) has the shootings occupying several batches with midnight passing during the process. We give precedence to Saturday the 23rd here because that’s the day that earned the “Bloody” appellation.

** According to Marxist Modern: An Ethnographic History of the Ethiopian Revolution, Mengistu was rumored to have disposed of Aklilu personally.

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1864: Hong Tianguifu, in the Taiping Rebellion

8 comments November 18th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1864, the sins of the father were visited upon the son when the Qing Dynasty dealt a coup de grace in what is perhaps history’s bloodiest civil war, executing the luckless teenager to whom leadership of the Taiping Rebellion had fallen.

Strangely little-known, the Taiping Rebellion shook the weakened Chinese state through the middle of the 19th century, nearly to its very foundations.

From 1851 until the 1864 death of its queer leader figure, prophetic Christian convert Hong Xiuquan, it maintained its own state in southern China, the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom.

Also of interest: Google freebies from the 19th century. Ti-ping tien-kwoh: the history of the Ti-ping revolution and History of the insurrection in China: with notices of the Christianity, creed, and proclamations of the insurgents.

China’s defeat in the First Opium War in the 1840’s set the stage for Hong Xiuquan’s movement, and not only geopolitically: western powers had pried open the Orient to proselytizers as well as poppies, and though Christianity would find a rough go of it in China, it did win over Hong.

Fired by his supposed divine vision, Hong’s Heavenly Kingdom conquered the Yangtze Valley and much of the south, with an outlook radically progressive as against the hidebound Qing: egalitarian land distribution and gender equity (the Kingdom’s administrative acumen is less generously accounted). Naturally, the “real” Christian missionaries abhorred it, which sincere theology happily comported with the policy of their national statesmen who abhorred the Taiping’s encumbrance upon the opium trade.

This illustrated podcast does creditable coverage of the Qing’s twilight century; from about 14:17, it covers Hong Xiuquan and the Taiping Rebellion specifically.

The rebellion waxed while the Qing lost a second Opium War to the west, but a Taiping bid to capture Shanghai fell short in 1860. By this time, westerners had the Qing by the short-and-curlies and were not eager to see the client dynasty they had so painstakingly browbeaten supplanted by a bunch of millenarian Levellers without the common courtesy to promulgate smack; accordingly, China’s recent Opium War antagonists now helped China field the forces necessary to suppress the rebellion.

Charles George Gordon, a British evangelical Christian himself destined for eventual beheading, even led the pacification force swaggeringly branded the “Ever Victorious Army“.

We’ve reached the end here and only just met our day’s principal, the son and heir who at 15 was handed the helm of the collapsing state by his visionary father. (Hong Xiuquan conveniently proceeded to kick the bucket just before the Qing finished off the rebellion.)

Officially the second (and obviously the last) ruler of the Heavenly Kingdom, Hong Tianguifu had no juice with his military or administration, and no time to enjoy the more prosaic perquisites of regal authority, but was available as the object of official vengeance. (Thanks, dad.)


Less exalted Taiping Rebellion prisoners, from here (click through the pages for a detailed history of the rebellion).

The Taiping Rebellion features in the 2007 Chinese flick Tau ming chong (The Warlods), which represents a Qing-Taiping battle in the fine cinematic bloodbath below. Some 20 to 30 million people are thought to have perished in this civil war, which was also one of the last significant conflicts fought primarily with blades rather than bullets.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Children,China,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,God,Heads of State,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Royalty,Treason,Wartime Executions

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