On this date in 1437, the Earl of Atholl finally reached the end of a three-day carnival of public tortures and lost bowels, heart, and head for assassinating the King of Scotland.
When Stewart’s grandson Robert exploited the family’s familiar proximity to the king to admit a team of assassins on the night of Feb. 20-21 1437, it ended a strange run for James I.* James had been melodramatically kidnapped by pirates at age 12 and sold to the English — who held the Scottish king** for ransom for 18 years.
By the time James returned to native soil in 1424, he had had quite enough of being some other lord’s shuttlecock and irritated Scotch magnates — who had formerly enjoyed the run of the place and therefore dragged their feet when it came to repatriating their hostage king — by his overweening grabs at land, money, and power. One prime example that would come back to haunt him in the events of this post was the 1425 destruction of the Albany Stewarts, which netted the crown the forfeiture of three earldoms. Clients of the Albany Stewarts, like Sir Robert Graham, delivered a fair fraction of the 28 stab wounds that shuffled King James off this mortal coil.
But even James’s allies had to look sharp when it came to any demesnes not nailed down.
Our principal for today’s post, Walter Stewart, was one of these. James’s uncle and supporter, and the son of King Robert II, Stewart/Atholl had pushed for the magnates to ransom James.
Putatively seen as the king’s ally, Atholl’s complicity in regicide made him a byword for treachery to outraged Scottish chroniclers; the apparent grab for the throne led his captors to put a “corone of papir … upon his hed, the which was all abowte depaynetid with jubettes, and for the more dispite and shame to hym was writyne with thes wordes, TRAITOUR, TRAITOUR, TRAITOUR,” according to The Dethe and False Murdure of James Stewarde, Kyng of Scotys.
In a 1992 article on events&:dagger; historian Michael Brown noted that what Atholl had added to his holdings through his nephew the king was the earldom of Strathearn, and it was but tentatively held: granted for Walter Stewart’s lifetime only, it would revert to the king with the septaugenarian’s death, leaving his heirs no better off than Walter’s own efforts had made them circa 30 years before.
Brown depicts the aging lord as a savvy operator who “would increasingly have despaired of keeping the earldom of Strathearn in his family … [as] a consequence of James’s general opportunism when it came to increasing the revenues of the crown.” A couple of specific adverse interventions that trimmed Atholl’s estates might have presaged — in the earl’s mind, at least — a potential royal move against his position, a move that Atholl would be best advised to check preemptively or never at all. Who could say in February of 1437 whether the Stewarts would by March or April still be royal confidantes in any position to have “left the Kynges chamburs doore opyne; and … brussed and blundird the lokes of hem, yn such wise that no man myght shute hem”?
If we’re not sure of exactly why they did it, we do know very clearly that the plot failed as a coup attempt. Both the queen and the six-year-old heir James II survived that evil night, and James’s violent deposition met not support, but horror. Within weeks the conspirators were hunted to ground. Atholl, for his part, protested his innocence of the regicide all the way to the end, a protest that neither contemporaries nor historians have much credited.
And his death declar’d that there is nothing more popular than justice, for they who were wont to detract from him whilst he was alive, now he as dead had most flagrant desires after him, insomuch that the Nobles, as soon as they heard he was murder’d, came in of their own accord from their respective countries and before a tryal was appointed they voluntarily sent out into all parts to apprehend the murderers and bring them to justice.
Very many of them were taken. The principal of them was put to new and exquisite kinds of death. The rest were hang’d. The chief heads in perpetrating the wickedness were reckon’d to be Walter Earl of Athole, Robert his nephew by his son, and their kinsman Robert Graham.
The punishment of Walter (because he was the chief author and instigator of the whole plot) was divided into three days suffering. In the 1st he was put on a cart wherein a stork-like swipe [crane] or engine was erected, and by ropes let through pullies was hoisted up on high and then, the ropes being suddainly loos’d, he was let down again almost to the ground with grievous pains by reason of the luxation [stretching] of the joints of his body. Then he was set on a pillory that all might see him, and a red-hot iron crown set on his head with this inscription, that he should be called King of all Traitors. They say the cause of this punishment was that Walter had been sometimes told by some female witches (as Athole was always noted to have such) that he should be crown’d king in a mighty concourse of people. For by this means that prophecy was either fulfill’d or eluded, as indeed such kind of predictions do commonly meet with no other events. The day after, he was bound upon a hurdle and drawn at an horse-tail thro’ the greatest street in Edinburgh. The 3rd day he was laid along upon a plank in a conspicuous place and his bowels were cut out whilst he was alive, cast into the fire, and burnt before his face. Afterwards his heart was pulled out and cast into the same fire. Then his head was cut off and expos’d to the view of all, being set upon a poll in the highest place of the city. His body was divided into four quarters and sent to be hang’d up in the most noted places of the best cities of the kingdom.
After him, his nephew was brought forth to suffer, but because of his age they would not put him to so much pain; and besides, he was not the author, but only an accomplice in another man’s wicked design, as having obey’d his grandfather therein, so that he was only hang’d and quarter’d.
But Robert Graham, who did the deed with his own hand, was carried in a cart thro’ the city, and his right hand was nail’d to a gallows which was set up in the cart, and then came executioners which did continually run red-hot iron spikes into his thighs, shoulders, and those parts of his body which were most remote from the vitals, and then he was quarter’d, as the former. After this manner was the death of James vindicated.
‘Tis true, ’twas a cruel one, but ’twas reveng’d by punishments so cruel that they seem’d to exceed the very bounds of humanity. For such extreme kinds of punishment do not so much restrain the minds of the vulgar by the severity as they do make them wild to do or suffer any thing; neither do they so much deter wicked men from committing offences by their acerbity as they lessen their terror by often beholding them, especially if the spirits of the criminals be so hardened that they flinch not at their punishment. For among the unskilful vulgar a stubborn confidence is sometimes prais’d for a firm and stable constancy.
* James’s successors handed down the throne, father James to son James, right down into the Stuart dynasty that came to rule England as well. This makes our James I an ancestor of such scaffold worthies as Mary Queen of Scots and Charles I.
** James was kidnapped in March 1406. His father Robert III died in April of the same year.
† “‘That Old Serpent and Ancient of Evil Days': Walter, Earl of Atholl and the Death of James I,” The Scottish Historical Review, Vol. 71, No. 191/192, Parts 1 & 2 (Apr. – Oct., 1992).
However, for the matter at hand the relevant fact about Christina was her lineage: she was the daughter of the great Lutheran king Gustavus Adolphus, whose father had expelled the Catholic king, Sigismund Vasa. The Vasas still ruled Poland and gazed rivalrously across the Baltic dreaming of a return of their Nordic estates — and became a natural focal point for schemers in Sweden.
One such schemer was a brilliant and cantankerous historian, Johannes Messenius, who was father and grandfather of the men whose eventual execution occasions this post. After serving Sigismund Vasa’s Polish court some years, this most senior Messenius returned in 1608 to Sweden for career reasons, pretending an expedient Lutheran conversion into the bargain. But the quarrelsome intellectual “could hardly breathe except in an atmosphere of strife” (per this public domain volume) and after making himself unwelcome at a university continued picking fights at the Stockholm archives until
he was accused of carrying on a traitorous correspondence with the Polish Vasas, in which he urged them to attack Sweden. It does not appear that the proofs of this treason are now in existence, but its probability has been shown by a letter from Messenius, in which he owned his undiminished attachment to the Roman Church, and said that he only conformed to the Lutheran rites outwardly and by compulsion.
Gustavus Adolphus had him clapped the dungeons of an Arctic fortress which is where his son Arnold Johan Messenius (English Wikipedia entry | Swedish) grew up — understandably absorbing the grudges of his frostbitten hereditary imprisonment, until he was ripped away to a Lutheran education against which he sturdily rebelled by killing a classmate and fleeing into exile. By the time he was all of 17 he had been re-taken and locked away as a Polish agent in his own right. He’d be 33 before he regained liberty.
The liberal Christina and Count Per Brahe the Younger attempted in the 1640s to atone for Arnold Johan’s mistreatment by detailing him for a (successful) mission to Poland to retrieve his father’s magnum opus, a history of Sweden all the way back to Noah’s flood that the late father had written in prison and taken pleasure in denying to his jailers.
But Arnold Johan’s subsequent reintroduction into polite society as a nobleman with a state pension to continue the father’s histories just didn’t come with a happy ending. The boy had his father’s knack for playing both sides of the Baltic, but less so his craft with a quill: Arnold’s Swedish commission to write some histories of his own foundered on the prospective scribe’s authorial torpor. Meanwhile,
Messenius was neither softened by adversity nor improved by prosperity. He was harsh to his inferiors, insolent to his equals, and ungrateful to his benefactress. The peasants on his estate complained of his injustice and cruelty, and he was on bad terms with all his neighbours. He resisted some just claims of his own sister’s, and … a judgment given against him, Christina obliged him to make restitution to his sister. From that time he became an agitator against the government.
Now “the elder Messenius invented the most absurd and contradictory accusations against the Queen and her Ministers, which were exaggerated by the heated imagination of his son,” Arnold Messenius, our source avers, and the boy bursting with the family bile proceed to circulate “a virulent squib against the queen and the nobility, and, in the frankest language invited the heir to the throne to place himself at the head of a rebellion.” This is the so-called “Messenian conspiracy,” after the surname of father and son who both soon found themselves under Christina’s personal interrogation for this incitement, the father first denying any part in the affair and subsequently claiming the letter as his own inspiration in an apparent effort to shield the boy.
Humane Christina was rigorous with this third-generation treason, and had both beheaded without delay — although she also confined the punishment to these two rather than others they accused of collaborating on a general rising.
For her part, Christina by this time had grown weary of rule and interested in Roman Catholicism to which she perceived she could not convert without splinterizing her kingdom. She had already set in motion her own abdication, which she effected in 1654. Christina would play out the string in Rome, as the guest of the papacy and the friend of intellectuals, artists and eccentrics — while that heir the Messenians had sought to incite peacably ascended to her place as Charles X Gustav.
Edinburgh Castle, toune and towre,
God grant thou sink for sin!
And that e’en for the black dinner
Earl Douglas gat therein.
-Sir Walter Scott
On this date in 1440, 10-year-old King James II of Scotland celebrated the Black Dinner and saw two Clan Douglas rivals sent straight to the block.
Scotland in the early 15th century was a fractious kingdom that was often governed by rivalrous regency councils ruling in the stead of absent or enfeebled kings. That was the case after the 1437 assassination of King James I passed the crown to his young son.
On these councils, the clan Douglas always swung a very large claymore. Elevated to the first rank of lowland families by their early support of Robert the Bruce a century before, the Earls of Douglas had become perhaps the realm’s preeminent noblemen — the sort of overweening powers-behind-the-throne that everyone starts thinking about how to topple. No surprise, James II’s regent was this very Earl of Douglas, Archibald Douglas — until the latter died in 1439 and passed the title to a young heir of his own.
Only about 16 years old, the new Earl, William Douglas, wasn’t exactly a child by the standards of the time. (He already had a wife.) But he was no match for the grizzled schemers he was pitted against among James II’s other guardians, Crichton and Livingston. These two perversely connived with William’s own uncle James to be rid of the whelp before he could grow into another overmighty Earl of Douglas.
This day’s infamous meal accomplished the plot.
Caledonia’s answer to the Red Wedding — and an actual inspiration for that literary slaughter in the Game of Thrones universe* — the Black Dinner of folklore is supposed to have featured both William and his little brother David naively accepting an invitation to Edinburgh Castle for noshes with the king.** Having left their own strongholds, they were vulnerable here.
After their feast on this date, it is said — though this excessive detail was undoubtedly concocted by generations of folklore — that a severed black bull’s head was plopped onto the table, to symbolize the imminent decapitation of the Douglas alpha males.† Then the Douglas lads were subjected to a mock trial as traitors and instantly dragged outside for beheading. That devious uncle James happily inherited as the seventh Earl of Douglas.‡
* The Massacre of Glencoe, another great Scottish bloodbath, also figures in the Red Wedding’s source material. “No matter how much I make up, there’s stuff in history that’s just as bad, or worse,” saidThrones author George R.R. Martin. Amen to that.
** Along with Sir Malcolm Fleming of Cumbernauld, who was seized along with the Douglas boys but seemingly only killed a few days later.
† Still, not as terrifying as a Thanksgiving Cthurkey.
‡ While the child king was more prop than participant in the events of the Black Dinner, he would have the privilege little more than a decade later of personally stabbing to death the eighth Earl of Douglas, James’s son William.
On this date in 1659, an Irish adventurer named Don Guillen Lombardo went to the stake in Mexico City as a heretic — en route to a destiny as a romantic swordsman
William Lamport was born in Wexford, by blood the descendant of English aristocracy and by conviction kin to Ireland’s Gaelic resistance to English incursion. His grandfather Patrick fought for Irish rebels at the Battle of Kinsale.
This was years before Lamport’s own birth but the youth must have been a chip off the old block: by the 1620s, as a student, William got himself run out of London for his aggressive Catholic proselytizing. Or at least, this is what William would say of himself: for his early years, we have mostly just his own word to go by.
Lamport took exile in Spain and there found his niche as a soldier and ladies’ man under a Hispanicized name: “Guillen Lombardo de Guzman” — that last nombre taken in tribute to his patron, the Count of Olivares. Guillen Lombardo de Guzman was a considerable enough figure in the Spanish court to have his portrait painted by Rubens.
These were formative years for the young man, but the crucial formative events we can only guess at: how did his thought evolve to the seditious or heretical form that set him against the Inquisition? Why did he cross the Atlantic to New Spain with the Marques of Villena in his late twenties?
This undergraduate thesis (pdf) tries to unravel the mystery of the man. What we know is that he was denounced to the Inquisition in October 1642 after attempting to enlist a friend in a subversive plot. The records here come via the Inquisition and are colored accordingly, but they indicate that Don Guillen aspired to cleave off New Spain with himself as the king of a radically egalitarian new state that would abolish all race and caste divisions. Among the papers he prepared for this visionary future was the first known declaration of independence in the Indies.
He spent the next 17 years in dungeons — less a few days when he escaped prison on the morrow of Christmas in 1650 and quixotically proceeded to nail up revolutionary manifestos on the cathedral door and around town denouncing the Inquisition. He was quickly recaptured, having now assumed the character of a determined rebel against powers both spiritual and temporal and consigned to an auto de fe in Mexico City’s main square. He was supposed to burn alive, but is supposed to have effected a cleverly merciful self-strangulation on the iron collar that staked him to his pyre.
On this date in 1591, Brian na Múrtha Ó Ruairc — Brian O’Rourke to the English who killed him — was drawn and quartered as a rebel at Tyburn.
O’Rourke was a chieftain in a disappearing world, the Gaelic Ireland that the English had been engaged in reducing ever since King Henry VIII realized that he was King of Ireland back in 1542.
O’Rourke’s patrimony in this Tudor conquest was the kingdom of West Breifne, with a lineage going right back to its 12th century founder. As far as the Tudors were concerned he was just one more truculent local lord to subdue — even if the very “proudest man this day living on the earth.” (per Nicholas Maltby)
O’Rourke’s pride put him into oppositin against the English satrap and even to succor sailors taking refuge from the shattered Spanish Armada in 1588. But fighting in his environs and eventual outright occupation steadily constrained the scope of his autonomy.
In the end it was his brother-Celts in Scotland who finished him: when O’Rourke turned up there in 1591 seeking license to recruit sword-arms there from King James VI (James was not yet James I of England at this point), Queen Elizabeth successfully prevailed upon her Scottish counterpart to arrest and extradite the man — an incident that triggered a riot in Glasgow.
Tried on the highly dubious grounds of treason against England committed in Ireland — plus a lese-majeste incident of having the queen’s image dragged in the mud tossed into the indictment for good measure* — O’Rourke scornfully refused to plead, or to defend himself unless Elizabeth herself would deign to sit in judgment — sovereign to sovereign. The court required only O’Rourke’s body, not his assent, to proceed.
O’Rourke had a sharp enough tongue when minded to deploy it, however. On the scaffold, he witheringly abused the notoriously avaricious bishop Miler Magrath who had been sent to minister to him. Then …
Upon Wednesdaie the 3 of November, Bren O’Royrke was drawne to Tyborne, and there hanged, his members and bowels burned in the fire, his heart taken out, and holden up by the hangman, naming it to be the archtraytors heart, and then did he cast the same into the fire, then was the head stricken off, and his bodie quartered
O’Rourke’s son Brian oge O’Rourke inherited his position, and his struggle, until younger brother Tadgh O’Rourke deposed him with English support. Tadgh died young in 1605 — and with him, West Breifne expired too.
* Enjoy an itemized list of the naughty O’Rourke’s many offenses against English sensibilities from page 144 of this public domain volume.
The young Pietro was able enough to establish himself as an envoy to the imperial court, and ambitious enough to conceive it the platform from which he would redeem the fortunes of Lucca and Fatinelli alike.
Complicit with his friend Captain Giambattista Bazzicalupo di Chiavari, Fatinelli pltted to do away with some of the principal families whom Fatinelli detested, as they represented the merchant oligarchy that spurned his more ancient and noble family.
News of the plot came to the ears of the Lucchese government when Fatinelli unadvisedly mentioned his intentions to Count Agostino Lando, an opprtunistic nobleman from Piacenza, while the two were residing in Venice.
You can’t trust Lando.
Thinking to make some profit at no risk to himself, Lando secretly informed the Lucchese of Fatinelli’s intentions. The signoria acted with utmost secrecy and was able to seize the unsuspecting Bazzicalup di Chiavari while he was reconnoitring in Lucca. They put him to the torture and he cnfessed and revealed the details of the plot, after which he was summarily executed. [August 25, 1542 -ed.]
As Fatinelli resided at the imperial court and had powerful prtoectors, the Lucchesi had a difficult time extraditing him. It took all their powers of persuasion to prove to the emperor that Fatinelli was a traitr. Eventually convinced, Charles V handed Fatinelli over to the Lucchesi, who tried him and publicly executed him after he apologized to the citizens of Lucca. The emperor insisted that, as a last favour, the young man be given the name of his denouncer, as a reward for having repented and admitted his guilt.
Though Fatinelli was defeated, the disaffection with his native city-state proved far deeper-seated than his own person. Just four years after Fatinelli’s hot head fell on the scaffold, another Lucchese nobleman attempted an even more daring revolution.
According to a note in the memoirs (French, natch) kept by Le Puy master tanner Antoine Jacmon, “the portrait and effigie of the noble Jean de Mourgues” was publicly beheaded in place of the flesh of the noble Jean de Mourgues, as penalty for the latter’s attempt to murder his own uncle.
According to the author’s note, this punishment had so little effect that Jean de Mourgues successfully carried out the assassination in a hail of gunfire two years later.
Were you a Bolshevik propagandist during that war, interested in portraying the tsarist rearguard as literally a gaggle of psychopathic foreigners, Roman von Ungern-Sternberg was some kind of godsend. (Here’s his English Wikipedia page | German | Russian)
A German-descended lord in Estonia whose family owed its ennoblement to the exercises of the “crusaders and privateers” (the baron’s words, perhaps holding more of self-promotion than truth) up the family tree. One ancestor was supposedly a notorious Baltic Sea pirate.
Ungern — he’s often known simply by the one name — had the courage of rash irascibility; as a tsarist officer in the years ahead of the Great War he was notorious for his hard drinking and penchant for fighting duels.** Expelled from his regiment, he wandered in the transbaikal and beyond, picking up the Mongolian tongue and Buddhist occultism into the bargain.† He returned to fight in the European front up to 1917 like a loyal Russian, and got court martialed for attempted murder after one of his furies, but his destiny lay in the East.
The man was a ferocious monarchist and a disdainer of the “morally deficient” West — unto which he would make a terrible scourge when the hated Communists seized the state. Ungern had been at that time collaborating with Grigory Semenov to raise non-Russian troops from the peoples on the fringes of Moscow’s empire; now they would become with those troops warlords holding out against the Reds, Ungern returning to establish himself in Mongolia — indeed, as the power in an unsettled frontier itself between tworevolutions. Prior to his execution in 1921, he was the dictator of Mongolia, the power behind the throne of the very last khan — and that wasn’t the half of it for Ungern also positioned himself as an avatar of the very God of War.
Certainly he strove to justify this colorful apotheosis by dint of a legendary bloodthirstiness, now that he had armies and states into which to pour his violent passions instead of merely rival barracks-mates.
Reports of Ungern’s sadism almost beggar belief and might have profited by extra embroidery since both the man and his enemies inclined to show him in the most implacable light imaginable. As James Boyd points out in “‘A Very Quiet, Outspoken, Pleasant Gentleman[sic]': The United States Military Attache’s Reports on Baron von Ungern-Sternberg, March 1921″ in Inner Asia, vol. 12, no. 2 (2010), much of what we think we know of his behavior traces ultimately to the less than reliable (albeit firsthand) pen of a traveler named Ferdinand Antoni Ossendowski.
The latter was a Polish wanderer who went to Mongolia. Ossendowski became Ungern’s friend, but he’d already been born a prose-purpler. Ossendowski’s account of his and his soon-to-be-ex-traveling companion first encountering “the terrible general, the Baron” would curl your hair.
After a talk with Kazagrandi the Baron invited Colonel N. N. Philipoff and me into his presence. Colonel Kazagrandi brought the word to me. I wanted to go at once but was detained about half an hour by the Colonel, who then sped me with the words:
“Now God help you! Go!”
It was a strange parting message, not reassuring and quite enigmatical. I took my Mauser and also hid in the cuff of my coat my cyanide of potassium. The Baron was quartered in the yurta of the military doctor. When I entered the court, Captain Veseloffsky came up to me. He had a Cossack sword and a revolver without its holster beneath his girdle. He went into the yurta to report my arrival.
“Come in,” he said, as he emerged from the tent.
At the entrance my eyes were struck with the sight of a pool of blood that had not yet had time to drain down into the ground — an ominous greeting that seemed to carry the very voice of one just gone before me. I knocked.
“Come in!” was the answer in a high tenor. As I passed the threshold, a figure in a red silk Mongolian coat rushed at me with the spring of a tiger, grabbed and shook my hand as though in flight across my path and then fell prone on the bed at the side of the tent.
“Tell me who you are! Hereabouts are many spies and agitators,” he cried out in an hysterical voice, as he fixed his eyes upon me. In one moment I perceived his appearance and psychology. A small head on wide shoulders; blonde hair in disorder; a reddish bristling moustache; a skinny, exhausted face, like those on the old Byzantine ikons. Then everything else faded from view save a big, protruding forehead overhanging steely sharp eyes. These eyes were fixed upon me like those of an animal from a cave. My observations lasted for but a flash but I understood that before me was a very dangerous man ready for an instant spring into irrevocable action.
He is a warrior in the 20th century’s great ideological battle, yes, but it is difficult to capture in an excerpt like this the spellbinding and queer monster that Ossendowski presents us, a European landlord able to bend Asiatic mythology to his person until charges who were convinced that Ungern could not be slain were “rushing about in long blue coats; Mongols and Tibetans in red coats with yellow epaulets bearing the swastika of Jenghiz Khan and the initials of the Living Buddha.”
Thus lived this camp of martyrs, refugees pursued by events to their tryst with Death, driven on by the hate and contempt of this offspring of Teutons and privateers! And he, martyring them, knew neither day nor night of peace. Fired by impelling, poisonous thoughts, he tormented himself with the pains of a Titan, knowing that every day in this shortening chain of one hundred thirty links brought him nearer to the precipice called “Death.” also permit Ungern to have his own say for himself.
— but also sympathetically channel Ungern’s self-vindication:
“Some of my associates in the movement do not like me because of my atrocities and severity,” he remarked in a sad voice. “They cannot understand as yet that we are not fighting a political party but a sect of murderers of all contemporary spiritual culture. Why do the Italians execute the ‘Black Hand’ gang? Why are the Americans electrocuting anarchistic bomb throwers? and I am not allowed to rid the world of those who would kill the soul of the people? I, a Teuton, descendant of crusaders and privateers, I recognize only death for murderers!”
Ungern’s khanate became increasingly squeezed between the Red Army and Chinese nationalist forces, and he was finally driven out by a mutiny to eventual capture by the Soviets — who found the white War-God alone in the deserts that had answered his mastery, clad in the saffron robes of his deposed estate. There was none of his rage on display at his short trial; Ungern full well knew his fate, and when mockingly offered his life by the judge if he would humiliate himself by singing the “Internationale,” the defendant cleverly countered by daring the judge first to sing the tsarist national anthem. As it should for any mystic, Ungern’s enigma outlived his fleshing form.
“You can interpret Ungern as you wish,” Leonid Yuzefovich wrote,‡
as a hero of the anti-Bolshevik struggle, a brigand-chief, a Eurasian in the saddle; as a predecessor to fascism, a medieval fossil, a herald of future global clashes between East and West, a creator of one of the darkest utopias of the twentieth century; as one of the tyrants that grow on the remnants of great empires, or as a maniac, inebriated with the crude extracts of great ideas. But whatever you think, in all these variants the fate of that Baltic baron who became the ruler of Mongolia, in all its frightening unreality conceals some answers to the crucial questions of the epoch.
* Not to be confused with the Black Baron, a stone-faced Germanic nobleman named Peter Wrangel who wound up commanding White forces in southern Russia during the same war. Wrangel (as “Vrangel”) enjoyed a prominent role as public enemy no. 1 in anti-White propaganda.
** In one such fray, Ungern-Sternberg picked up a nasty saber knock to the noggin. It’s been speculated that the unbalanced behavior of his later life owed a lot to that head injury: concussions are no joke.
† Biographical details heavily cribbed from Canfield Smith, “The Ungernovshchina — How and Why?” in Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas, Bd. 28, H. 4 (1980), pp. 590-595.
‡ Quote via a review of The Autocrat of the Desert by Julia Latynina in History Workshop Journal, no. 39 (Spring 1995).
On this date 1354, the Provencal mercenary Montreal d’Albarno was beheaded in Rome by order of the tribune Cola di Rienzi.
Known locally as Fra Moriale (English Wikipedia entry | Italian), our man was a former Knight Hospitaller who turned his knack for violence into an entrepreneurial career — for he led one of the very first of those condottiero companies whose profitable ravaging the peninsula would pave the way for generations of unscrupulous mercenaries.
It was really Moriale’s predecessor, a Swabian knight named Werner von Urslingen, who first perceived that Italy’s wars had potential for such lucrative disruption. Reputed to have rode into battle with a breastplate blazoned with his Thielesque motto “The enemy of God, of pity and of mercy”, Urslingen had about 1342 founded a swords-for-hire business known as “The Great Company”.
While not literally the first gang of condottieri, it was the gang that changed the way Italians fought. By 1385 one pact between city-states cursed Werner in its preamble as the man who “first devised this plague of societies.”*
Fielding a massive army of some 3,000 cavalrymen at the outset — its fighting strength was north of 10,000 by Moriale’s day — the Great Company could put more muscle in the field than Italy’s little principalities could readily deal with, and Werner et al were soon realizing dividends hand over mailed fist by alternately hiring themselves out to this or that city, or squeezing them for tributary payoffs by the threat of pillage.
As the inability of the squabbling communes to suppress this racket became manifest, mercenaries fast multiplied into “a multitude of villains of various nations associated in arms by the greed to appropriate the fruits of labor of innocent and unarmed people, let loose to every cruelty, to extort money, methodically devastating the countryside.”** Condottieri would plague, and often dominate, Italy into the 16th century, with some of their more illustrious number ascending ducal palaces and others the scaffold.
By the time we reach events in this post, Werner von Urslingen is several years into comfortable retirement. But like any successful startup, the firm he launched still thrived.
Indeed, the Great Company had a stable, nigh-professional organization to match its bottom-line objectives. “Structurally, [the Great Company] resembled a corporation,” according to William Caferro. It had “a well-articulated hierarchy” which a governing board comprised “of Werner and a council made up of the leaders (corporals) of the various contingents.”
The booty derived from pillage and plunder was carefully divided by the leader and the council among the company’s rank and file. The company drew to its service lawyers and notaries to deal with legal issues and make contracts (condotte), treasurers and bankers to handle money, priests and prostitutes to cater respectively to spiritual and carnal needs.
In the early 1350s, Moriale delighted all these vendors by banking record profits in central Italy. And in the freebooting business, the balance sheets pleasingly compounding the success: “Because of the enormous booty which the company was taking, many soldiers, having completed their terms of service, without wanting further pay, went off to join Fra Moriale,” the Florentine chronicler Matteo Villani wrote in 1354. “Sometimes they had themselves dismissed in order to join him.” Matteo also notes that the businesslike Moriale “guaranteed safety to the purchasers [of his pillage] and treated them correctly in order to facilitate his commercial dealings [and] set up councillors and secretaries through whom he directed everything.” (Via Michael Mallett’s Mercenaries and their Masters: Warfare in Renaissance Italy)
A few books about the emergent mercenary business
In August of 1354, this captain of industry rode to Rome to collect on a debt: his brothers’ loan to Cola di Rienzi which had helped the latter re-establish his power in Rome after a spell in exile.
But Rienzi, who was short on cash himself (the exhausted treasury would in a few weeks’ time cost the tribune his life) resolved the debt and did a little opportunistic expropriation of his own by having his wealthy creditor seized and condemned to death. This strangely attracted the opprobrium of treachery among contemporaries, as if its victim were not a man who had founded his devastating career on infidelity. But the definitions of honor and knightly conduct at this juncture were flexible enough to admit the legitimacy of Moriale’s operation: indeed, Caferro even gives us the priceless scene of the buccaneering Hospitaller being dragged to his Roman executioner as he howls, “Don’t you see that I’m a knight? How can you be so despicable?”
After the beheading, a fighter named Konrad von Landau took leadership of the Great Company. The cutthroat business continued profitably shaking down city-states until 1363, when a burgeoning new rival startup, John Hawksood‘s White Company,† thrashed its predecessor into irrelevance at the Battle of Canturino.
* Cited in Caferro’s Mercenary Companies and the Decline of Siena; the book argues (pdf review) that its titular commune slipped into its spiral towards political irrelevance and eventual absorption due largely to the military and financial ravages imposed by the condottieri. From a historical perspective safely distant from the companies’ day-to-day predations, the condottieri arguably helped to drive the slow consolidation of Italy’s many micro-states into a handful of larger polities.
** The words are those of Pope Urban V in a 1364 bull, cited by Caferro’s “Italy and the Companies of Adventure in the Fourteenth Century” in The Historian, June 1996.
Ancien regime minister Arnaud de La Porte was guillotined on this date in 1792* by the new order.
Stock of a long line of Versailles courtiers, de La Porte (English Wikipedia entry | French) followed his father into administration with a specialty in naval finances. He knocked around maritime bureaus from the time he was a whelp of 18 in 1755; he was at last named Louis XVI‘s Minister of the Navy on July 12, 1789 — two days before the Bastille fell.
He had both the wisdom to immediately expatriate himself to Spain, and the loyalty to answer his harried sovereign’s summons to return; by December 1790, he was appointed intendant of the Civil List and minister of the king’s household.
This made de La Porte the bagman in the king’s campaign to buttress the Revolution’s moderating forces — writers, thinkers, and artists in the constitutional monarchist camp, as against the Marats — to which end some 200,000 livres dropped from his fingers every month. All was to little avail.
De La Porte’s position made him a close confidante of the royal family. When the latter attempted the ill-starred flight to Varennes, it was de La Porte who was entrusted to present the absconded king’s Dear John note to his jilted subjects in the Constituent Assembly.
With the king’s embarrassing capture, the Capets’ confinement became ever more uncomfortably close, and with them that of a loyal aide who must have passed a few moments contemplating the Iberian charms he had abandoned to share this bitter draught — until the following summer when Danton et. al. finally overthrew the monarchy on August 10, 1792.
A bad day for Arnaud de La Porte: the storming of the Tuileries Palace on August 10, 1792, by Jean Duplessis-Bertaux.
De La Porte was overthrown with them.
While revolutionary Paris is synonymous to posterity with frightful political trials, it was in the aftermath of the August 10 revolution that they began, and then as novelties. (The guillotine at this point was itself just a few months old.)
Endeavoring to cement their triumph, the revolutionaries constituted a tribunal to try the deposed royalist ministers as traitors for their maneuverings. (They also obviously blocked any prosecution of their own number for massacring hundreds of Swiss Guards who fought to defend the king.) These can be accounted among the first overt political trials of the revolution, the harbingers of the coming Terror and ill omen for the judgments the Revolution would levy against king, queen, and royals all. De La Porte in his closing address to the court fervently hoped his nation would not follow that dark road.
Citizens — I die innocent, notwithstanding that appearances are against me. May my blood, which is to be shed for the expiation of a crime of which I am not guilty, restore tranquility to this empire: And may my sentence be the last unjust arret which shall be pronounced by this Tribunal. (via the London Times, Aug. 30, 1792)
With the post-Napoleonic restoration, the man’s son — also named Arnaud — was created a hereditary baron in recognition of his ancestor’s service to the crown.
* The dates for these trials are very sloppily accounted for; this is also true of Durosoy, whose head was chopped off the next day.
As of this writing, de La Porte’s Wikipedia entries both French and English misdate his execution to August 23 (actually the date his examination began), and one will find sources placing it as late as August 28 whose attribution traces all the way back to the erroneous initial publications of the tribunals. To be sure, the trial against de La Porte had an unusual internal clock reflecting the revolution’s ad hoc process: it unfolded over the two days, and after conviction the accused was beheaded the same day, but not immediately — instead, de La Porte was returned from his court to prison for a few hours, where he dined before going to the scaffold in the evening.
By way of substantiation, we find that under an August 25 dateline (printed in the August 29 edition), the London Times correspondent reports from the scene thus:
The new criminal Tribunal, instituted for the trial of persons supposed to be concerned in treasonable correspondence with the late Executive Government, proceed in a very summary manner on the trial of those persons who have been so unfortunate as to fall into the hands of the mob. M. de la Porte, the late Intendant of the Civil List, was yesterday convicted, after a trial of 37 hours. Sentence of death was immediately passed on him, and at night he was conducted to the Place de Carrousel, where he was executed. During the whole of his examination at the bar, as well as at the place of execution, he behaved with great firmness, and declared his innocence to the last …
The principal evidence against M. de la Porte was, that he had employed the public money to libel the new Constitution, by employing different Journalists to write down the Jacobin faction … The proof against him was so slight and contradictory, that it was with great surprise and indignation that the sober part of the citizens heard of his conviction. He certainly fell a victim to the Royal cause and to justice.