Posts filed under 'Martyrs'

Feast Day of James, the brother of Jesus

Add comment May 3rd, 2020 Headsman

Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you.

Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are motheaten.

Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire. Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days.

Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of sabaoth.

Ye have lived in pleasure on the earth, and been wanton; ye have nourished your hearts, as in a day of slaughter.

Ye have condemned and killed the just; and he doth not resist you.

Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain.

Be ye also patient; stablish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh.

James 5:1-8

May 3 is the current Catholic feast date of the author of the Epistle of JamesJames, the brother of Jesus, also known as James the Just.

He’s a major leader in the New Testament accounts of the primitive church, closely associated with the traditionalist Jewish side of the movement, wont to give precedence to Mosaic law and ritual — a contrast compared to the Gentile-evangelizer St. Paul. James, however, also appears in Acts of the Apostles as a principal decider of the circa CE 50 Council of Jerusalem edict to the effect that non-Jewish converts to Christianity would not be required to circumcise or observe Jewish dietary strictures.

This James has been debatably conflated at times with the Apostle James, son of Alphaeus and/or James the Less* — as in this passage from the Golden Legend:

James the Apostle is said the Less, how well that was the elder of age than was St. James the More. He was called also the brother of our Lord, because I have resembled much well our Lord in body, in visage, and of manner. He was called James the Just for his right great holiness. He was also called James the son of Alpheus. He sang in Jerusalem the first mass that ever was there, and he was first bishop of Jerusalem.

These associations are all matters of scholarly debate, for the name “James” appears repeatedly in the New Testament, and the contexts do not always make it obvious when one encounters a recurring character. No matter how many other faces we might attribute to him, James the first century Jerusalem patriarch was clearly a figure of great authority among the earliest Christians and a co-leader of the Jerusalem Church. His consanguinity with the Messiah cannot have hurt his cause.

There are various accounts given of his martyrdom in 62 or 69** CE which boil down to falling foul of the Jewish authorities, just like his brother. Importantly, he’s referenced by the ancient historian Josephus in a passage from The Antiquities of the Jews that not only casts light upon his death but provides a contemporary non-Christian source verifying the development of this sect. The setup begins with the ascent of a young and aggressive high priest named Ananus, who

was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity [to exercise his authority]. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned: but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done; they also sent to the king [Agrippa], desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for that what he had already done was not to be justified; nay, some of them went also to meet Albinus, as he was upon his journey from Alexandria, and informed him that it was not lawful for Ananus to assemble a sanhedrim without his consent. Whereupon Albinus complied with what they said, and wrote in anger to Ananus, and threatened that he would bring him to punishment for what he had done; on which king Agrippa took the high priesthood from him, when he had ruled but three months, and made Jesus, the son of Damneus, high priest.

Given his importance, James finds his way into quite a few extra-canonical Christian texts as well; for example, there’s an apocryphal Gospel of James dating to the second century. Of particular interest to we connoisseurs of death are gnostic texts from papyri discovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt titled the First and Second Apocalypse of James: the Second Apocalypse has an account of James’s martyrdom, very detailed in spite of the fragmentary text, after his preaching in Jerusalem troubled the Jews:

On that day all the people and the crowd were disturbed, and they showed that they had not been persuaded. And he arose and went forth speaking in this manner. And he entered (again) on that same day and spoke a few hours. And I was with the priests and revealed nothing of the relationship, since all of them were saying with one voice, ‘Come, let us stone the Just One.’ And they arose, saying, ‘Yes, let us kill this man, that he may be taken from our midst. For he will be of no use to us.’

And they were there and found him standing beside the columns of the temple beside the mighty corner stone. And they decided to throw him down from the height, and they cast him down. And they […] they […]. They seized him and struck him as they dragged him upon the ground. They stretched him out and placed a stone on his abdomen. They all placed their feet on him, saying ‘You have erred!’

Again they raised him up, since he was alive, and made him dig a hole. They made him stand in it. After having covered him up to his abdomen, they stoned him in this manner.

And he stretched out his hands and said this prayer – not that (one) which it is his custom to say:

My God and my father,
who saved me from this dead hope,
who made me alive through a mystery of what he wills,

Do not let these days of this world be prolonged for me,
but the day of your light […] remains
in […] salvation.

Deliver me from this place of sojourn!
Do not let your grace be left behind in me,
but may your grace become pure!

Save me from an evil death!
Bring me from a tomb alive, because your grace –
love — is alive in me to accomplish a work of fullness!

Save me from sinful flesh,
because I trusted in you with all my strength,
because you are the life of the life!

Save me from a humiliating enemy!
Do not give me into the hand of a judge who is severe with sin!
Forgive me all my debts of the days (of my life)!

Because I am alive in you, your grace is alive in me.
I have renounced everyone, but you I have confessed.
Save me from evil affliction!

But now is the time and the hour.
O Holy Spirit, send me salvation […] the light […]
the light […] in a power […].’

After he spoke, he fell silent … [text ends]

* Saint James the Great was definitely a different fellow.

** The proximity of this martyrdom to the Jewish-Roman War (66-73 CE) led some subsequent ancient writers — not Josephus himself — to cite it as a cause of the great Roman Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE, which famously destroyed the Second Temple.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,Israel,Jews,Martyrs,Palestine,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Stoned,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates

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1557: Thomas Losebie, Henrie Ramsey, Thomas Thirtell, Margaret Hide and Agnes Stanley

Add comment April 12th, 2020 Headsman


“The Martyrdom of Thomas Losebie, Henrie Ramsey, Thomas Thirtell, Margaret Hide and Agnes Stanley at Smithfield on 12th April, 1557”, woodcut illustration from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

The five ordinary Londoners pictured above had been snitched out by neighbors for shirking the Catholic Mass under Queen Mary — the offense that Protestants would call recusancy when the mitre was on the other bishop.

They had the sturdiness one would attribute to men and women of the common clay, and also the theological unsophistication; our martyrology caveats of their interrogation that “some of them attributed the title and honour of a sacrament to the holy estate of matrimony” — the standard Anglican and also Lutheran position was that there were only two sacraments, baptism and eucharist — but this “undoubtedly was done rather of simple ignorance, than of any wilful opinion.” That’s the kind of interpretive generosity you’re entitled to when you go to the stake for the faith.

(Foxe has some miniutes from their interrogation; scroll down to page 410 of this pdf of Foxe’s Volume 12, from here.)

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1821: Patriarch Gregory V, in his vestments

Add comment April 10th, 2020 Headsman

The Ottoman Empire besmirched this date in 1821* by launching the Constantinople Massacre of Orthodox Greeks, prominently including the summary hanging of Patriarch Gregory V in his full clerical vestments — on Easter Sunday.


Gregory V approaching martyrdom, by Nikiforos Lytras.

On edge from the outbreak just days earlier of the rebellion that would become the Greek War of Independence, Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II came down on the Greeks within his empire like a ton of bricks. He demanded a religious fatwa licensing a general massacre, a demand that the Sheikh ul-Islam courageously refused. (It cost him his own life to do so.)

Trapped frightfully in the middle of this was the Patriarch, 75 years old and no revolutionary but with a delicate job to safeguard his flock. Fatwa or no — and Gregory’s own private mission to his Muslim counterpart had helped to block that dreadful order — his people stood at Mahmud’s mercy. With news of rebel advances reaching the Porte during Holy Week, Mahmud had the prelate seized during Easter liturgy, escorted outside, and hanged at the gate of the Patriarchate.


St. Peter’s Gate where Gregory suffered has never since been opened. (cc) image from Alessandro57.

On the same day, dozens of other Greek priests, merchants, and officials were summarily executed around Constantinople; one report described of that day that “[a]ll the Archbishops and Bishops who were in the Church on account of the celebration of Easter, were either executed or thrown into prison. The congregation fled out of the Church to the neighbouring houses of the priest, but many were murdered by the enraged populace.” This assault signaled the start of months of terrors ranging from official persecutions, harassment by Janissaries, pogroms, and frequent public executions of prominent Greek Christians that continued into the summer.

* It was April 10 by the Julian (O.S.) date that was still in use in the Orthodox world; by the Gregorian (N.S.) calendar, it’s April 22. We think the reasons to override our general preference for Gregorian dates in this era of history are self-explanatory, especially since the Patriarch has been canonized with a feast date of April 10.

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1915: Pandit Kanshi Ram, Ghadar plotter

Add comment March 27th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1915, Indian revolutionary Pandit Kanshi Ram was hanged by the British.

Present on the U.S. west coast for the founding of the heavily Sikh revolutionary Ghadar Party, Ram repatriated to participate in that clique’s eponymous Ghadar Mutiny.

This attempt to incite rebellion in the Raj was heavily surveilled, and crushed at the outset. The result was a series of trials bringing 20+ executions in 1915 known as the Lahore Conspiracy trials. (It’s not to be confused with the Delhi-Lahore Conspiracy.) “The British as a nation, all white men as a race and the English Government in particular, are all maligned in a spirit born of a depraved nature,” fumed the first court, the one that condemned Pandit Kanshi Ram. “Facts are not only distorted but most maliciously perverted to appeal to the lowest passions of Indian subjects. In the most open, defiant and unmasked manner mutiny is preached. “

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Feast Day of Saint Octavian, martyred by the Arian Vandals

2 comments March 22nd, 2020 Headsman

March 22 is the feast day of Saint Octavian of Carthage — a martyr for orthodox Nicene Christianity to its rival tradition of Arianism.

Ninth century illustration of Constantine burning Arian writings

One of the most consequential of the ancient world’s many confusing christological ruptures, the Arian controversy arose in the fourth century when the bishoppriest Arius of Alexandria preached that Christ was a subordinate entity to God the father — distinct from what is now the mainline trinitarian Christian position that God the father and Christ the son are equal and consubstantial divinities. The Arian position enjoyed substantial support, and it was largely to resolve this controversy that the Emperor Constantine convened the Nicene Council to define the church’s official line.

Nicene Christianity ruled Arianism heretical which the emperor — concerned above all to enforce uniformity within his realm — backed up with book-burnings and anathemas. But the doctrine proved tough to extinguish, waxing and waning in the ensuing decades and often finding a sympathetic ear among Constantine’s own successors.

And crucially, while all this was shaking out, it was Arian missionaries who converted the Germanic tribes fringing the empire’s borders — Goths, Gepids, Burgundians, and (crucial for this post) Vandals — and made Gothic Christianity a carrier of of the Arian contagion long after it had been suppressed within the Latin and Greek worlds.

Come the fifth century, the Vandals had established a kingdom in Carthage on the North African coast, stretching to Sicily and Sardinia and harrying in the Mediterranean the failing Roman state. These polities, however rivalrous, were brother-nations within Christendom — except that the Vandals were still Arians, a gulf that could easily be worth a martyr’s crown.

That’s where our man Octavian comes in. As the (Nicene) archdeacon of Carthage, he was inherently exposed any time the civil authorities might feel like making an example. The Vandal king Hun(n)eric, inheriting the throne of the Vandal Kingdom in 477 from the legendary Genseric, had this feeling exactly; he’s notorious for unleashing an anti-Nicene persecution. Besides Octavian, that persecution also claimed Saints Victorian and Frumentius, who are commemorated on March 23 of the Roman martyrology.

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1547: Diego de Enzinas, Spanish Protestant

Add comment March 15th, 2020 Headsman

On or about this date in 1547, the Spanish-born scholar Diego de Enzinas was burned by the Roman Inquisition.

Like his (more renowned) brother Francisco de Enzinas — who translated the New Testament into Spanish — Diego (English Wikipedia entry | Spanih) was an apostate (to Cathoic eyes) Protestant scholar.

He spent the early 1540s — when he was merely in his early 20s — studying, translating, and propagandizing in Paris and the Low Countries. Catching word from his kin in Burgos that it was too dangerous to risk returning to his homeland, he took refuge with fellow dissidents in Rome … but when arrested, he would betray their names to Inquisition torturers.

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1653: Felim O’Neill

Add comment March 10th, 2020 Headsman

Irish rebel Felim (or Phelim) O’Neill of Kinard was executed on this date in 1653.

“A well-bred gentleman, three years at court, as free and generous as could be desired, and very complaisant; stout in his person, but, not being bred anything of a soldier, wanted the main art, that is, policy in war and good conduct” by a contemporary assessment, O’Neill numbered among the leaders of the 1641 Irish Rebellion against English governance. He issued a noteworthy manifesto of the affair known as the Proclamation of Dungannon.

The attempted coup helped to launch the English Civil War,* whose local-to-Ireland theater was known as the Irish Confederate Wars — Irish Catholics versus Protestant English and Scottish colonists. Felim O’Neill passed these years as a parliamentarian of the rebel (to English eyes) Confederate Ireland whose destruction required the bloody intervention of Oliver Cromwell.

O’Neill officered troops in this conflict, to no stirring victories. Although far from Confederate Ireland’s most important player, he was significant enough to merit an exception to the 1652 Act for the Settlement of Ireland — which made him an outlaw with a price on his head. He was captured in February 1653 and tried for treason in Dublin, refusing the court’s blandishments to abate the horrible drawing-and-quartering sentence by shifting any blame for the rising to the lately beheaded King Charles I.

* Or for a somewhat broader periodization, the rebellion fit into the Britain-wide breakdown that delivered the Wars of the Three Kingdoms.

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1945: Theo van Gogh, famous name

Add comment March 8th, 2020 Headsman

Theo van Gogh, a Dutch resistance fighter of portentous lineage, was executed by the German occupation on this date in 1945.

This man was the grandson of the famous Theo van Gogh, art dealer and brother to troubled, brilliant painter Vincent van Gogh.

Our Theo was a 23-year-old university student in Amsterdam pulled into anti-Nazi resistance by the imposition of a hated loyalty oath on university personnel and was arrested several times, repeatedly tolling his father for bribes to extract him.

The arrest he couldn’t buy his way out of was a home raid on March 1, 1945 — the very last weeks of the war, while these Germans were in the process of being stranded in the Low Countries. Evidently the collapse of the Reich didn’t dampen their enthusiasm for the cause, because on March 8 the Germans imposed a collective punishment of 100+ executions in revenge for the Dutch resistance’s attempt to assassinate a prominent SS officer.* Theo van Gogh was one of them.

Besides his name-brand ancestry, Theo the World War II resistance figure is also the uncle (quite posthumously — this man wasn’t born until 1957) of film director Theo van Gogh, who’s a far-right martyr in his own right thanks to the vociferous anti-Islamic work that resulted in his 2004 assassination.


Prisoners’ Round (after Gustave Doré) (1890), by Vincent van Gogh.

* That officer, Hanns Albin Rauter, was executed for war crimes in 1949.

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1590: Christopher Bales, Nicholas Horner, and Alexander Blake

1 comment March 4th, 2020 Charles George Herbermann

(Thanks to Charles George Herbermann for the guest post. Herbermann emigrated from Prussia to the United States in childhood and became a prominent scholar of Catholicism at the institution now known as New York University. Herbermann was the chief editor of the gigantic originally published in a volume of Catholic Encyclopedia in the early 20th century, where this text originally appeared; many other contributors were involved, and it’s impossible to tell . -ed.)

Christopher Bales. Priest and martyr, b. at Coniscliffe near Darlington, County Durham, England, about 1564; executed 4 March, 1590. He entered the English College at Rome, 1 October, 1583, but owing to ill-health was sent to the College at Reims, where he was ordained 28 March, 1587. Sent to England 2 November, 1588, he was soon arrested, racked, and tortured by Topcliffe, and hung up by the hands for twenty-four hours at a time; he bore all most patiently. At length he was tried and condemned for high treason, on the charge of having been ordained beyond seas and coming to England to exercise his office. He asked Judge Anderson whether St. Augustine, Apostle of the English, was also a traitor. The judge said no, but that the act had since been made treason by law. He suffered 4 March, 1590, “about Easter”, in Fleet Street opposite Fetter Lane. On the gibbet was set a placard: “For treason and favouring foreign invasion”. He spoke to the people from the ladder, showing them that his only “treason” was his priesthood. On the same day Venerable Nicholas Horner suffered in Smithfield for having made Bales a jerkin, and Venerable Alexander Blake in Gray’s Inn Lane for lodging him in his house.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,God,Gruesome Methods,Guest Writers,History,Martyrs,Other Voices,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Treason

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1944: Osmund Brønnum

Add comment March 3rd, 2020 Headsman

Osmund Brønnum — boxer, Communist, and anti-Nazi Resistance martyr — was executed in Quisling Norway on this date in 1944.

Brønnum (English Wikipedia entry | Norwegian) practice the sweet science for still-extant Oslo club Vika IF and later progressed into a municipal sports administrator.

A committed Popular Front advocate who had also studied in Moscow, Brønnum greeted the German occupation of his native soil with a turn to printing underground propaganda for the Norwegian Resistance — until, sensing danger, he attempted to escape to Sweden only to be arrested at the border.

He was shot with six other men (notably ichthyologist Iacob Dybwad Sømme) at the Trandumskogen forest execution site (and, a natural enough double role, mass grave). A granite marker unveiled there in 1954 pays tribute to “173 Norwegians, 15 Soviet subjects, and 6 Britons” executed in the forest over the course of the war.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Athletes,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Entertainers,Execution,Germany,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Norway,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Shot,Treason,Wartime Executions

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