On this date in 1330, the king’s half-brother Edmund of Woodstock lost his head for treason.
Edmund was the youngest son of Edward I. That patrimony didn’t come with a throne attached, but hey, you could do a lot worse than Earl of Kent.
You could do a lot better too, though, if you had royal blood.
According to the chronicle Vita Edwardi Secundi, Edmund (or possibly the middle brother Thomas) was intended by his father for the more august and lucrative earldom of Cornwall.* But Edward I died when Edmund and Thomas were young boys, and “his sad death prevented what would have been appropriate from being consummated.” Instead, the heir-turned-king Edward II stiffed flesh and blood to hand Cornwall to his notorious favorite, Piers Gaveston.
Edmund seemed to get over the slight and generally had the king’s back during the turbulent 1320s.
However, after fighting for his brother’s interests in France, he found himself there in Paris in 1325-26 with Edward’s French Queen Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer just as that couple set about plotting their rebellion.
Edmund joined their circle, took part in their invasion of England, and sat on the tribunal that condemned the deposed king’s new notorious favorite, Hugh Despenser, to death. As the price for his support, Isabella and Mortimer fulfilled the cash pledges Edward I had long ago made to the boy.
His attitudes and allegiances appear ambiguous during the unsteady years of Isabella and Mortimer. Whatever his acquiescence — whatever his payoff — he had little real affection for the new master and mistress of the realm.
Edmund’s end in 1330 touches a sensitive historical controversy.
Of a sudden, the Earl of Kent became convinced that his brother Edward II was being held at Corfe Castle and resolved to liberate him. He attempted to pass a letter to the captive king — a letter that proved quite enough to incriminate him when it was intercepted by Roger Mortimer. (Mortimer might have baited him into writing it in the first place.)
Worships and reverence, with a brother’s liegeance and subjection. Sir knight, worshipful and dear brother, if you please, I pray heartily that you are of good comfort, for I shall ordain for you, that you shall soon come out of prison, and be delivered of that disease in which you find yourself. Your lordship should know that I have the assent of almost all the great lords of England, with all their apparel, that is to say with armour, and with treasure without limit, in order to maintain and help you in your quarrel so you shall be king again as you were before, and that they all – prelates, earls and barons – have sworn to me upon a book.
What’s really queer about this isn’t so much the volte-face on whether Edward ought to rule: it was the fact that Kent had actually attended Edward II’s funeral in 1327.
How could Edmund think a guy he saw buried would read his letter three years later? Was the funeral a sham? Did Edward survive his (conventionally accepted) 1327 death/murder in captivity? Edward II blogger Kathryn Warner, who calls Edmund “a brave man who tried to do the right thing”, thinks so. She makes the case in a four-part series on the Earl of Kent’s conspiracy here:
Fortunately for your humble narrator, mere headsmen are not called upon to adjudicate such controversies. Our job is just to cut whose head we’re told. Although in Edmund’s case, even that couldn’t go to plan: the poor guy was parked outside the walls of Winchester for the whole day of March 19th before someone could finally be found to give him the chop. It was a condemned prisoner who obtained his own release by turning executioner. (Source)
Later that same year of 1330, Edmund’s 17-year-old nephew Edward III — in whose name the usurpers Isabella and Mortimer ruled — mounted a palace coup to take his reign into his own hands.
With that turn of fortune, Mortimer found himself in the executioner’s clutches, and Edmund was posthumously rehabilitated. Edmund’s daughter Princess Joan — the “Fair Maid of Kent”, and in Froissart’s estimation, “the most beautiful woman in all the realm of England, and the most loving” — married Hundred Years War hero Edward, the Black Prince. Among the children Joan bore Edward was the eventual King Richard II.
* Infinitely more lucrative: the Earldom of Kent was a newly re-created title that had last been used 50 years before. It came initially with no estates or income at all.
Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence, played an important role in the long-waged War of the Roses, a series of dynastic wars, battles, and skirmishes between 1455 and 1487 between supporters of rival branches of the House of Plantagenet for the English crown: the House of Lancaster versus the House of York.
Plantagenet originally supported his brother’s claim to the throne. Through a series of battles with pro-Lancastrian armies, Edward, of the House of York, advanced towards London with his Yorkish army. Once there, he deposed the Lancastrian King Henry VI to rapturous celebration (London itself leaned Yorkist).
George naturally cashed in with his brother’s accession. He was made a duke. He was invested as a Knight of the Garter.
But one other perk proved butt-ugly for George’s future.
He was married, in 1469, to noblewoman Isabel Neville, daughter of the Earl of Warwick. Warwick was the famous kingmaker of the War of the Roses, whose support was instrumental for Edward IV.
But Edward ill rewarded that support by shockingly marrying a commoner and promoting her family to positions Warwick had intended to control. That drove a wedge between Warwick and Edward … and George Plantagenet went with the father-in-law during an abortive attempt to restore Henry VI.
Warwick died in battle. Edward benevolently restored his treacherous brother George back into royal favor.
But George’s mental state was deteriorating. He also became in inveterate alcoholic.
His wife died a few days before Christmas, 1476. George was convinced that his wife was murdered by her lady-in-waiting, Ankarette Twynyho. Though there was no evidence to support his claim (historians later believed Isabel died of consumption or fever) the court was bullied into hanging Twynyho on George’s accusation.
Soon after, his mental state waning still, the Duke of Clarence allegedly involved himself in another ill-conceived plot to overthrow his brother. He was soon summoned to Edward, was accused of treason and was imprisoned in the Tower of London.*
He was put on trial. The prosector was King Edward IV himself, at whose insistence Parliament attainted the royal brother of “unnatural, loathly treasons.”
Beheaded was the usual mode of execution for treasonous individuals. Not with George, however. No, at the age of 28, George Plantagenet died in his favorite beverage, malmsey wine. “The two of them roll a barrel of malmsey wine into George’s room,” Philappa Gregory writes in The White Queen, “and George the fool makes a joke of it and laughs with his mouth opened wide as if already gasping for air, as his face bleaches white with fear.”
His body was sent, still in the barrel, to Tewkesbury Abbey. He was entombed there beside his late wife, and they still reside there today.
According to the Italian chronicler Dominic Mancini, who was present in England in the 1480s and wrote an account of the fraught English political scene at that time, Edward’s and George’s youngest brother “was so overcome with grief for his brother, that he could not dissimulate so well, but that he was overheard to say that he would one day avenge his brother’s death.”
That grief-stricken sibling was the future Richard III. In a few years’ time would displace the (now-late) Edward IV’s young heirs and send them into history as the lost little Princes in the Tower.
* Clarence’s supposed rebellion is a sketchy bit of palace intrigue. Some have alleged that the whole thing was a pretext to eliminate a claimant who would be in position to argue that Edward’s supposed youthful precontracted marriage excluded the king’s children from succession. In time, Richard III did indeed make this argument.
This is the generally attributed death date of Duke Erik and Duke Valdemar of Sweden — intentionally starved to death at the order of their royal brother, according to the 14th century Erikskrönikan.
This is pretty borderline as an execution, to be sure, but brutal games of thrones ran in these men’s family. Their grandfather Birger Jarl was a powerful duke who got his young child elected king when the throne came open in 1250, possibly circumventing family of the preceding monarch.
And no sooner did the old silverback shuffle off then said son was rudely usurped by his little brother Magnus.
We’re still in the family lore here, but past proved to be prologues for King Magnus’s kids. Magnus had his oldest child Birger set up to succeed, but Birger’s brothers Erik and Valdemar would struggle with the official heir for power after Magnus died.
The boys had a civil war in the 1300s that even resulted in Erik and Valdemar deposing Birger and clapping him in a dungeon — an outcome reversed by pressure from the Norwegians and Danes.
Come the 1310s, things were still tense. Situated on impressive domains of their own — Erik was Duke of Sodermanland, Valdemar, Duke of Finland — the kid brothers looked a potent threat to King Birger once again. Not fancying another stay in the family prison, Birger pre-emptively arrested his brothers at the family Christmas celebration in 1317.
Birger would learn that you can’t solve all family problems by starving them. Weeks after his fratricide, the brothers’ supporters ousted him for good.
Birger fled to exile. His own son, Magnus Birgersson, remained to answer at the executioner’s block for his father’s sins … while his three-year-old cousin, Erik’s son King Magnus, succeeded the throne and held it until 1364.
Cold comfort to the dead dukes, perhaps, but they at least had the consolation of being exalted as “holy dukes” thanks to the winner-written history.
In Lady Hyegyeong’s telling, the tyrannical father warped the sensitive son, sending the latter into a destructive spiral of madness. As the 1750s unfolded, Sado’s behavior grew erratic, violent, and delusional. He was prone to sudden fits of rage, stalked and raped court ladies, and wandered Seoul streets in disguise. He eventually murdered numerous servants, eunuchs, and miscellaneous commoners — even his own concubine. The court lived in terror of the mad prince’s impunity; the ruling dynasty itself stood in peril.
Many years later, the prince’s desperate wife in her autobiography remembered Sado’s own mother finally appealing to the king to do the necessary, unthinkable thing:
“Since the prince’s illness has become quite critical and his case is hopeless, it is only proper that you should protect yourself and the royal grandson, in order to keep the kingdom at peace. I request that you eliminate the prince, even though such a suggestion is outrageous and a sin against humanity.
“It would be terrible for a father to do this in view of the bond of affection between father and son; but it is his illness which is to be blamed for this disaster, and not the prince himself. Though you eliminate him, please exert your benevolence to save the royal grandson, and allow him and his mother to live in peace.
Perhaps to avoid spilling the prince’s blood, the royal lunatic was that very day forced into a sturdy chest in a palace courtyard. The ferocious prince entered it placidly, and his living eyes never again beheld the outside of that box: it was nailed shut and buried. (A recently discovered inscription, however, perhaps implies that the king didn’t actually mean for eight days locked in a box to be fatal. If so, it certainly lends credence to the idea that Sado’s mistreatment in childhood lies behind the later psychotic breaks.)
The royal grandson was indeed spared. When that child, Jeongjo of Joseon, finally succeeded to the throne upon his grandfather’s death in 1776, he wasted little time restoring the honor of his dead father.
Required by the revolutionary tribunal to identify herself, she retorted (since her brother’s death passed the succession to the imprisoned child Louis XVII), “I am called Elizabeth Marie de France, sister of Louis XVI, aunt of Louis XVII, your King.” The papers just reported that she said “Elizabeth Marie.”
This fate cannot have surprised her: her correspondence anticipates a bloody reckoning with the revolutionary “monsters from hell” from years earlier, and reflects the figure in the royal household pushing the king and queen on immoderate courses like their famous attempted escape. (Elisabeth posed as a maid with the fugitive party.) “The Assembly is still the same; the monsters are the masters,” she wrote in February 1790. “The king, and others, from the integrity of their own natures, cannot bring themselves to see the evil such as it is.”
Elisabeth was nevertheless quite attached to her brother and her sister-in-law, and swore an oath to keep with Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette during the royal couple’s harrowing attempt to ride out the revolution. She courageously quaffed the every terror that family endured all the way to the dregs; when the mob stormed the Tuileries on June 20, 1792, she was momentarily mistaken for the queen and thereby put in peril of her life. “Do not undeceive them!” she warned an associate who was about to save her by correcting the misapprehension.
Elisabeth’s correspondence shows her not “merely” self-sacrificing but a keen observer of events who pushed her brother to rein in the revolution by force … and pushed her exiled brother the Comte d’Artois** to do likewise. For Elisabeth, bloodshed would be necessary, and desirable sooner than later — in contrast to the national-reconciliation stuff the doomed king was still hoping for.
By the end Paris of the Terror probably didn’t really need any better reason to cut off Elisabeth’s head than the fact of her bloodlines — “sister of the tyrant.” There are enough little hagiographies out there concerning Elisabeth’s piety and loyalty, however, that some think she should eventually be proposed as a candidate for Catholic canonization.
This gentleman went under the title Prince of Tang, making him Beavis and Butthead’s favorite Ming despot. Indeed, he was a direct descendant of the founder of that illustrious dynasty. Unfortunately for the Prince of Tang, that descent was of the ninth generation, which meant that the Ming were well into their decadence and decline.
The Prince of Tang had spent essentially the whole of his adult life seeing the state eaten away by sclerotic bureaucracy, internal revolts, economic breakdown … and, as a consequence of all that erosion, by the incursions of the Manchus.
The first ruler of those people’s successor Qing dynasty was already on the Chinese throne at this point, having seized the capital Beijing in 1644. The splintering thereafter of Ming officials and loyalists led to, among other transitional formations, a “Southern Ming dynasty” — far southern, almost to Burma. The Prince of Tang would accede to this contingent remnant of a once-glorious dominion, and enjoy the conceit of the purple and its prospect of imminent violent death for the last 14 months of his life.
When his able military commander Zheng Zhilong saw the writing on the wall and defected, Qing soldiers pouring through defenseless passes and over the Qiantang River swiftly routed the demoralized southern Qing in the summer of 1646.
The Longwu Emperor — that’s what the Prince of Tang was styling himself, the name inaptly meaning “plentiful and martial” — spent his last days being driven from pillar to post ahead of the Qing before he was finally overtaken and put to summary death with his wife.
The Southern Ming would fight on another fifteen years, but the particular familial branch embodied by the Prince of Tang met an unceremonious end long before the Ming as a whole succumbed. Zhu Yujian’s younger brother succeeded him as “the Shaowu emperor” that December and squandered the scant resources of his statelet — “lacking court dress, the thousands of officials who were appointed to the Shaowu government … had to buy theatrical robes from local actors” — on a few weeks’ counterproductive civil strife with a rival Ming claimant until the Qing utterly overran them.
After Roxelana engineered the execution of heir apparent Mustafa on spurious grounds, Beyazit and his brother Selim were the last princes standing.
The natural rivalry between the two for eventual power was surely colored by the clear portent Mustafa’s execution had sent that the succession game was rigged for Selim. After several years of growing estrangement, Beyazit finally revolted outright only to be defeated in battle by Selim in 1559.
The loser found refuge in Persia, but only long enough for the Safavids to negotiate the price of his surrender to the hands of Suleiman … whose executioner went on the road to the Persian city of Qazvin to strangle not only Sehzade Beyazit but his four sons, too.
Extirpating the treasonable branch of the family tree cleared the succession for Selim, whose eight-year turn in power would be remembered as moment the hitherto-all-vanquishing Ottomans began their long, slow slide to Sick Man of Europe status. Particularly given that coda, Suleiman’s own
When the Austrian ambassador took leave of Suleyman in his old age, it was scarcely a living being he described, but a sort of metaphor of empire, rotting and majestic, fat, made up, and suffering from an ulcerous leg.
There’s more about this misfortunate lesser son in Turkish here, and a Turkish poem he wrote beseeching his father’s forgiveness here.
These two were sore about their father Ragnar Lodbrok, who had shipwrecked in England — maybe East Anglia, maybe elsewhere — and allegedly been thrown into a snakepit.
According to the hagiographic account, these Danish heathens attempted to force Edmund to renounce Christianity. Edmund demurred.
Then those wicked men bound Edmund, and shamefully insulted him, and beat him with clubs, and afterwards they led the faithful king to an earth-fast tree, and tied him thereto with hard bonds, and afterwards scourged him a long while with whips, and ever he called, between the blows, with true faith, on Jesus Christ; and then the heathen because of his faith were madly angry, because he called upon Christ to help him. They shot at him with javelins as if for their amusement until he was all beset with their shots, as with a porcupine’s bristles, even as Sebastian was.
The martyr-king’s body was ultimately interred at the aptly-namd Bury St. Edmunds. This locale thereafter became a major, and lucrative, pilgrimage spot in Britain.
Edmund himself became the patron saint of England until he was supplanted just before the Norman invasion by omnibus patron saint George. As George had nothing to do with England, there’s been some latter-day push to revert the honor to the native king.
On an unknown date in (perhaps) the 860s, Norse raider Ragnar Lodbrok (or Ragnar Lothbrok) was allegedly put to death in the Indiana Jones-esque manner of being cast into a pit of snakes.
Ragnar is a half-legendary character who plundered France and Britain in the mid-ninth century, the heyday of Viking marauders; he’s also the lead character of the cable TV series Vikings.
He’s known from Scandinavian sagas, like the Ragnarssona Þattr, which describes Ragnar’s final battle after shipwrecking in Northumbria.
At that time, there was a king called Ælla ruling over Northumbria in England. And when he learns that raiders have come to his kingdom, he musters a mighty force and marches against Ragnar with an overwhelming host, and hard and terrible battle ensues. King Ragnar was clad in the silken jacket Aslaug had given him at their parting. But as the defending army was so big that nothing could withstand them, so almost all his men were killed, but he himself charged four times through the ranks of King Aella, and iron just glanced off his silk shirt. Finally he was taken captive and put in a snake-pit, but the snakes wouldn’t come near him. King Aella had seen during the day, as they fought, that iron didn’t bite him, and now the snakes won’t harm him. So he had him stripped of the clothes that he’d been wearing on the day, and at once snakes were hanging off him on all sides, and he left his life there with much courage.
Here’s Ernest Borgnine as Ragnar in the 1958 film The Vikings, dying in a pit full of wild dogs, not snakes. Well, it’s the same animal kingdom.
“How the little pigs would grunt if they knew how the old boar suffers!” he’s supposed to have exclaimed, keeping to the nature theme.
On this date in 1449, Timurid sultan and astronomer Ulugh Beg was beheaded at the order of his son.
Ulugh Beg and his famous astronomical observatory, depicted on a Soviet stamp.
Grandson of the conquerorTimur (Tamerlane), Ulugh Beg had hitched along on some of those legendary military campaigns.
As power passed to Ulugh Beg’s father Shah Rukh, our man settled in as governor of the silk road city of Samarkand, in modern Uzbekistan — and turned it into an intellectual capital of the empire.
A great patron of the sciences, Ulugh Beg was a brilliant astronomer in his own right, nailing NASA-quality precise calculations of heavenly bodies’ positions and the revolutions of the earth a century ahead of the likes of Copernicus.
An inscription on the madrasah he erected summed up the city’s philosophy under its philosopher-prince: “Pursuit of knowledge is the duty of each follower of Islam, man and woman.”
Wedding scientific genius to political power enabled Ulugh Beg to build a great observatory in Samarkand. Though this structure unfortunately did not outlive Ulugh Beg himself, it made Samarkand the world’s astronomical capital in the 1420s and 1430s.
But the flip side of wedding scientific genius to political power was that the guy had to govern — which wasn’t his strong suit. Within two years of his father’s 1447 death, Ulugh Beg had been overthrown by his own son* and summarily beheaded.
* The son became known as “Padarkush”, meaning “parricide” … and appropriately, he was overthrown by his own cousin within months.