Posts filed under 'Power'

628: Khosrau II, Sassanid emperor

Add comment February 28th, 2015 Headsman

On this date (or very close to it) in 628, the Persian emperor Khosrau* II was put to death by the order of his son and usurper.

Chip off the old block, that boy, since he was taking power the same way as Khosrau himself had done way back in 590. But with the old man’s fall, the Sassanid Empire entered its death spiral: by 651, it would be overwhelmed by the armies of Islam.

Little could the younger Khosrau have conceived of his glorious Persian state laid low by these desert zealots! Persia’s last great pre-Muslim empire flourished in Khosrau’s heyday.

Briefly deposed in his youth, Khosrau reinstated himself with the aid of the Byzantines — ironic aid, in retrospect. After his Constantinople angel Emperor Maurice was deposed and slain in 602, Khosrau availed the pretext of vengeance to make war on Byzantium.

The season of this war would span the entire quarter-century to Khosrau’s own death — and would initially redound to Khosrau’s glory. Byzantium foundered in civil war, bringing that longtime rival of Persia to the brink of outright destruction. Khosrau’s top general Shahrbaraz won a crushing victory in 614, capturing Jerusalem where they carried off thousands of prisoners, the city’s patriarch, and the True Cross. In the years to follow, Persia conquered Egypt and pressed so deep into Anatolia that the Byzantines are said to have considered evacuating the capital to Carthage. Khosrau aspired, wrote Theophanes the Confessor more than a century later, “to seize the Roman Empire completely.”

The fall of the Sassanids, and Khosrau, from this apex was precipitous and entire.

The Byzantines under Heraclius rallied dramatically and in the winter of 627-628 carried Roman arms to the city of Dastagerd, just a short march from the Sassanid capital Ctesiphon. The intrepidity of the counterattack threw the Sassanids into a commotion; Khosrau disgracefully fled Ctesiphon, and in the power vacuum that followed, his heir Kavadh seized power. A usurper cannot afford to found his authority on sentiment; Kavadh not only had his father executed — allegedly by being shot slowly with arrows — but he ordered the deaths of all his half-brothers to extinguish as many future rivals as possible.

The precautions did not grant Kavadh a long reign: he died of the plague later that same year, beginning a dismal progression of feeble claimants overthrowing one another. The Arabs overran Ctesiphon by 636, leaving the rump of the Sassanid state shrinking towards nothingness, and its last emperor to be ignominiously slain by a miller.

Dig into the seventh century Byzantine-Persian frontier during gym time with an ample selection of audio product:

  • The History of Byzantium podcast has treated this period in some detail: for Byzantium, it was a dramatic phoenix-from-the-ashes story, and the running war with Persia is one of its principal themes. Try episodes 44, 45, and 46
  • The (defuunct, but still available) Twelve Byzantine Rulers podcast has a snappy episode on Khosrau’s Byzantine opposite number, Heraclius
  • The BBC In Our Time podcast has an enjoyable 2011 episode on the Sassanids available here.

* Also rendered Chosrou or Chosroes, among many others.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Execution,Heads of State,History,Iran,No Formal Charge,Persia,Power,Royalty,Shot with Arrows,Summary Executions,The Worm Turns,Uncertain Dates,Wartime Executions

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1601: Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex

Add comment February 25th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1601, Queen Elizabeth’s last great favorite became the last man beheaded in the Tower of London.

Vain and dashing Robert Devereux rolled into the royal court in 1584 around age 19 and immediately established himself as the new favorite of the monarch, 30-some years his senior. They spent long walks and late nights in enchanted private company, and Devereux “commeth not to his owne lodginge tyll the birdes singe in the morninge.” Ye olde walke of shayme.

In becoming the (presumed) lover* of the aging Virgin Queen, the Earl of Essex was only following the family** trade: his stepfather Robert Dudley was the younger Elizabeth’s longtime intimate.

It is up to the artists to postulate the relative measures of passion and cynicism in these dalliances; many have tried, inspired by the scaffold sundering of one of history’s great May-December affairs. The Essex-Elizabeth drama was a popular topic for broadsides, ballads, and stage treatments from the 17th century to the present day.


Benjamin Britten but the Elizabeth-Essex romance into opera in Gloriana, based on Lytton Strachey’s popular book.

He was wildly popular in London, but Essex was also afflicted by the follies of youth. Rash, temperamental, vainglorious; he aspired to leverage the favor of his sovereign into statesmanship and he achieved heroic repute for his swashbuckling raid on Cadiz.

Yet Essex reads like a whelp who never quite grew into a man’s boots. Every sketch of Essex includes, because it seems so starkly illustrative of his unstable character, the story of the time his impertinence led the queen to box his ears publicly — and the hothead’s hand flew instinctively to his sword-hilt. Everyone reconciled over this brush with lese-majeste, but only after Essex scribbled some skulking reproaches (“What, cannot princes err? cannot subjects receive wrong? is an earthly power or authority infinite?”) that he had the petulance to actually send to Elizabeth.

The less mercurial Earl of Salisbury, Robert Cecil, who was the son of Elizabeth’s earliest close advisor and the protege of her spymaster, was just two years Essex’s senior but smoothly outmaneuvered the loverboy in their mutual pursuit of England’s Secretaryship of State.†

Essex chased martial glory with mixed results. His last great enterprise was an ill-starred 1599 offensive in Ireland to bring Gaelic rebels to heel in the Nine Years’ War.

Not for the last time an Englishman found this conquest more easily aspired than achieved. Essex liberally overused his authority to knight men as a reward for their service, but his soldiers mostly slogged to and fro with little headway to show for it. After a frustrating campaign season chasing his tail, Essex defied the increasingly strident directives to attack issuing from Elizabeth’s irate pen, and made terms with the Irish commander Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone. Then he defied Elizabeth’s order to remain in Ireland and hastened back to London to justify himself. It was said of him that he “never drew sword but to make knights.”

This was the beginning of Essex’s end. Elizabeth’s fury at the aimless military campaign was compounded when her churlish captain turned up from Ireland unbidden and burst into her private chambers while she was still dressing to report on his unauthorized summit. Cecil et al, whose ascendance Essex had meant to reverse with the triumph of his arms, now murmured that the earl had strayed near outright treason to parley with the rebel whom he was supposed to be routing. The Privy Council put him under house arrest.

Heaped in debt and deprived of the prestigious proximity to power he had enjoyed literally throughout his adulthood, the man’s turbulent spirit stirred strangely in York House. We have seen that Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, was a man to abhor an indignity even past the point of self-preservation. He unwisely sent secret missives to try to turn the ongoing succession negotiations‡ against Robert Cecil; when the Privy Council caught wind of this intrusion, he refused its demand that he present himself to account for his actions. Instead, he made matters worse by mounting a pathetic march through London with his supporters.

This “Essex Rebellion” was meant to rally the citizenry to him and turn some sort of coup against Robert Cecil. It seems so foolhardy and ill-considered that it’s difficult to think what was in the earl’s head. If you squint at it just so, it perhaps had a big-R Romantic quality, a gallant band of brothers saving the nation from its duplicitous ministers; the night before the rebellion, Essex (a liberal arts patron in his time) splurged to have William Shakespeare’s company§ stage a special performance of Richard II — a play wherein the English monarch is deposed. Presumably this was his inspirational pregame speech.

Thinking much more clearly than Essex, Londoners vigorously ignored his summons and the marching party trudged alone — and surely increasingly frightened — through the city until it was stopped by a barricade. Its participants then fled back to Essex House where they soon found themselves surrounded.

Whatever the fancy that led the Earl of Essex on his fatal February 8 march, and whatever the extent of his ambitions for that occasion, the careless threat to the public peace went several bridges beyond a boyish foible that Elizabeth could overlook in her impulsive courtier. He was prosecuted for treason within days and Elizabeth signed his death warrant on February 20th. The only mercy extended the ex-favorite was to suffer the noble execution of beheading, rather than a traitor’s drawing and quartering. Essex also successfully appealed for a private execution within the walls of the Tower, away from the gawks of those London masses who had so signally failed to rebel along with him.

On the specially built wooden platform, Essex favored his select audience with a bog-standard execution-day mea culpa:

My sins are more in number than the hairs on my head. I have bestowed my youth in wantonness, lust and uncleanness; I have been puffed up with pride, vanity and love of this wicked world’s pleasures. For all which, I humbly beseech my Saviour Christ to be a mediator to the eternal Majesty for my pardon, especially for this my last sin, this great, this bloody, this crying, this infectious sin, whereby so many for love of me have been drawn to offend God, to offend their sovereign, to offend the world. I beseech God to forgive it us, and to forgive it me — most wretched of all.

He prayed a Psalm. Then, stretching out his neck on a low block and thrusting his arms from his sides, he bid the headsman strike. The executioner had to oblige his patient in triplicate in order to sever the puffed-up head.

The Earl of Essex has the distinction of being the last person beheaded on the Tower Green, within the walls off the Tower of London — the last name on the little placard of headless notables photographed by tour groups. Note that Essex was not the last person beheaded at the Tower, when the adjacent Tower Hill is included (that distinction belongs to Jacobite rebel Simon Fraser); nor was he the last person executed within the Tower (that distinction belongs to World War II spy Josef Jakobs, who was not beheaded but shot).

Weary and depressed, Elizabeth died little more than two years afterwards.

* There’s a mind-bending speculative hypothesis out there — cousin to the Shakespeare-focused Prince Tudor theory — that Essex was actually Elizabeth’s secret, illegitimate son. This secret history is obviously more congenial with the queen’s early favoritism for Essex than with her eventually chopping off his head.

** Essex was also a distant cousin of Elizabeth herself: his maternal great-grandmother was Mary Boleyn, sister of Anne Boleyn — who was Elizabeth’s mother.

Walter Raleigh was a notable Cecil ally in this factional conflict. Raleigh attended Essex’s execution … and, of course, shared that fate many years afterwards.

‡ Elizabeth was nearing age 70; her childless death was imminent. James VI of Scotland was being vetted by Robert Cecil as the successor. Essex tried to stick his thumb in the pie by warning James that the Cecil faction would conspire to foist the English crown on the Spanish infanta — daughter of the Spanish king who had been the Catholic Mary Tudor’s husband. (The infanta was not Mary’s own daughter.) This was no idle threat, as at this point it was only a few years since the Spanish Armada had sallied for English seas.

§ Another noteworthy Shakespeare connection: one of the participants in the Essex Rebellion was the Earl of Southampton (he was spared execution). Southampton, whose given name was Henry Wriothesley, is often identified as the “Fair Youth” to whom Shakespeare dedicated numerous love sonnets. (Some of those are directly addressed to a Mr. “W.H.”)

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1513: Pietro Boscoli and Agostino Capponi, but not Niccolo Machiavelli

Add comment February 23rd, 2015 Headsman

Niccolo Machiavelli‘s exile from Florentine politics — and subsequent entry into the intellectual canon — was cinched this date in 1513 when two of his friends (or possibly co-conspirators) were executed for a plot against the Medici.

Before he was an adjective, Machiavelli was a powerful minister of state for the Florentine Republic — the polity ensuing the 1498 execution of Savonarola.

Days after that stern friar burned to ashes on the Piazza della Signoria, Machiavelli was named the secondo segretario fiorentino,* alongside a primo segretario counterpart, the older and more cautious Marcello Virgilio Adriani.

What a moment this was to be a Florentine! The mighty Medici had been chased out of Florence and with the fall of Savonarola and his grim morals police the humanist dream of a classical republic suddenly seemed within grasp.

Machiavelli was just 29 years old when he reached this office, bursting with a patriot’s reckless exuberance — and a virile young man’s hedonism. He delighted in whores and in boozing around with his Chancery cronies Agostino Vespucci** and Biagio Buonaccorsi.

The correspondence of these indiscreet young Turks fill with profane and cutting takes on the leading citizens of Florence; Machiavelli, who was known in his own time as a playwright and not a political philosopher, was even bold enough to put such ridicule in print. The 1504 play Le Maschere is tragically lost, but by surviving accounts it lampooned “under feigned names, many citizens who were still living.”†

A few books about Niccolo Machiavelli

While not scribbling pasquinades and getting laid, the Second Secretary had matters of state to attend to. We have met him in these pages, as the Florentine ambassador to the court of Cesare Borgia; Machiavelli could not help but admire the condottiero‘s ruthlessness. Machiavelli also represented Florence in Rome, Spain and France.

Showing an equal aptitude for politics by other means, Machiavelli moved the Florentine military muscle towards a citizen militia, presciently replacing its dependence on mercenaries. In 1509 this force captured Pisa.

But Machiavelli’s excessive regard for this strategic advance married to his excessive affinity for the republic of Piero Soderini undid him in the end. While the First Secretary, Adriani, quietly cultivated contacts of various political persuasions, Machiavelli went all in against the stirring Medicean party. This became a problem when the fortunes of peninsular war drove Florence’s French allies away, leaving the city ripe for recapture by Giuliano de’ Medici, who also happened to be the brother of the pope in waiting.

In 1512, a hastily-assembled city militia of about three or four thousand infantry and 100 men-at-arms met an overwhelming Spanish-Papal-Medicean force at Prato. Scrambling to defend a lost cause, Machiavelli had mustered about a third of the militia and was trying to organize the city’s defenses. Florence’s crushing defeat in this battle and the ensuing civic massacre in Prato (with “countless murders, sacrileges and rapes”) convinced the Florentines to depose Piero Soderini and throw open the gates to Giuliano de’ Medici.

This was the end of Machiavelli the statesman … and, of course, the birth of Machiavelli the philosopher. The ensuing 15 years’ frustrating exile left him no other outlet for his political passions save his pen; needless to say, works like The Prince and Discourses on Livy retain exalted seats in the canon down to the present day. (They made little impression on Machiavelli’s contemporaries; Florentines still knew him for the plays he kept writing.)

A few books by Niccolo Machiavelli

When eveniing comes, I return home and enter my study; on the threshold I take off my workday clothes, covered with mud and dirt, and put on the garments of the court and palace. Fitted out appropriately, I step inside the venerable courts of the ancients, where I nourish myself on that food that alone is mine and for which I was born; where I am unashamed to converse with them and to question them about the motives for their actions, and they, out of their human kindness, answer me. And for four hours at a time I feel no boredom, I forget all my troubles, I do not dread poverty, and I am not terrified of death. I metamorphose into them completely.

-Machiavelli, December 10, 1513

The cautious primo segretario Adriani, who could better see where the winds were blowing, survived the transition by having the wisdom not to align himself with the losing party. Whatever the verdict of posterity, the 1510s were Adriani’s time to bask in the center of events while Machiavelli did his work of ages in obscurity.

But what cinched Machiavelli’s unhappy permanent banishment from Florentine politics — notwithstanding unctuous expedients like dedicating The Prince to the Medici ruler — were the events culminating in two February 23, 1513 beheadings.

Machiavelli had been dismissed in November 1512. Four months later, a nascent (or wildly exaggerated) anti-Medici conspiracy led by a republican named Pietro Boscoli came to light. Its chief, and paltry, evidence was little more than a written list of around 20 fellow-travelers, upon which appeared the name of Niccolo Machiavelli. It’s more than likely that the “treason” amounted to little more than the idle chatter of some disaffected republicans, but after a generation in exile the newly restored Medici dynasty wasn’t taking any chances.

For the onetime Second Secretary, this meant prison and torture by the strappado. Three months on, he was released to his estate with no political succor save the haunts in his head.

But the head he got to keep — and that was better than one could say for Pietro Boscoli.

Boscoli and one Agostino Capponi were beheaded early in the morning of February 23, a bare eight hours after their death sentences were announced. Their last hours were recorded as a Recitazione by a young friend named Luca della Robbia: the tender Passion scene of Boscoli in particular struggling to come to grips with his shockingly sudden fates. The full narrative can be found in translation by Alison Knowles Frazier in The Art of Executing Well: Rituals of Execution in Renaissance Italy. We excerpt a little taste below:

At about 8 o’clock, having had his supper, Boscoli was brought with his legs in irons to the chapel where … he was told that he had to die …

Pietro Paolo cried out “Oh Pietro Paolo, oh poor Pietro Paolo! What has become of you!”

Then I, moved by the greatest compassion, seeing my beloved friend in such great distress, went first to him as lovingly as I could, with a gesture full of mercy, and greeted him like this: “God save you, dearest friend. ‘Do not fear those who kill the body, for they cannot kill the soul.’

Poor Pietro Paolo struggles on here for 15-odd pages in evident anguish, veering between practical considerations of the family he is leaving behind and whom to rustle up as his last-minute confessor, and his uncertain spiritual readiness for death (he was particularly upset at being told of his fate after dinner, for “I am too loaded down with food, and I have eaten salty things, so that I don’t feel able to join my spirit to God”). Della Robbia stays with him the whole time; in the latter’s introduction, he says he “noted diligently all his words, both questions and replies, and kept them in my memory … that such a great and well-formed example of strength and spiritedness would not be lost” and recorded them faithfully later on.

By the end, Boscoli has reconciled his mind to the scaffold.

He is escorted down the stairs from the chapel of the Bargello to its interior courtyard where

leaving the first step, he encountered the Confraternity’s‡ crucifix.

“What am I to do?” [Boscoli] said.

“This is your captain, who comes to arm you,” the friar responded. “Greet him, honor him, ask him to make you strong.”

Then he said, “Greetings, Lord Jesus. I adore you, hanging on the cross. Make me, I beg you, like to your Passion. True Lord, I ask you for peace.”

And thus, going down the second step, he kept commending himself, saying, “‘Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit. You redeemed me, Lord, God of truth.’” When he was on the little platform of the stair, he said, “Is it enough, a good preparation towards God? For I feel some battle. Recall to me those three things.”

Then I, who was behind him, said, “Well you know that it is enough. Say to him, Fra Cipriano, that verse by David, ‘Your ear heard the preparation of their heart, Lord.’

“Okay, yes,” the friar replied, “Your ear heard the preparations …,” and told him once again the three things.§

And he answered, and said, “‘Let your ear hear the preparation of my heart, Lord Jesus.'”


Then the execution, because he wanted to put a kerchief over his eyes, asked his forgiveness and offered to pray to God for him.

“Go ahead and do your duty,” Pietro Paolo said. “And when you have put me at the block, leave me like that for a bit and then finish me off, and that you pray God for me, I accept.”

The reason why he asked for a little time at the block, was that he had all night long always desired a great joining with God and he didn’t feel that he had achieved it as he desired, so that he hoped in that last moment to make a great effort and so to offer himself wholly to God …

And placing himself down, and the executioner, giving him the shortest time, cleanly removed his head, which, so cut, continued to move its mouth for a time.

Agostino Capponi, whom della Robbia has seen only glancingly over his long narrative, follows Boscoli. Although Capponi required two blows of the executioner’s blade, he perhaps went into the hereafter with a soul better at peace — for he “retained on his face a certain wry expression, perhaps not distant from true sincerity.”

* Summary of Machiavelli’s career based on William Landon’s Politics, Patriotism and Language: Niccolò Machiavelli’s «Secular Patria» and the Creation of an Italian National Identity.

** Machiavelli’s clerk Agostino Vespucci — a cousin of the explorer Amerigo Vespucci for whom the American continents were named — made the headlines recently when discovery of a scribble he left in the margin of a 16th century text established the identity of the long-mysterious first lady of Renaissance art, Mona Lisa: she was Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of a Florentine cloth merchant.

† Landon says the primo segretario Adriani encouraged Machiavelli to publish this play, even though Adriani himself is one of its targets — in Landon’s view, because Adriani was playing a long game for power, and revenge: quietly encouraging Machiavelli’s excesses while positioning himself politically to profit from his consequent fall.

‡ The Confraternity of the Blacks: a lay brotherhood associated with Florence’s [former] Chiesa di Santa Maria Vergine della Croce al Tempio, tasked with the spiritual assistance of prisoners condemned to death.

§ Shortly before proceeding to execution, Boscoli steeled himself for the ordeal by resolving that “In this journey I have to have three things. I have to believe the faith. I have to have firm hope that God will pardon me. And the third is that I have to suffer this death for love of Christ and not for others.”

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904: Pope Leo V and Antipope Christopher, at the dawn of the Pornocracy

Add comment February 15th, 2015 Headsman

Around this time in 904, Pope Sergius III allegedly had one or both of his deposed predecessors put to death in prison.

Sergius held the throne of St. Peter for seven years, which was a longer incumbency than achieved by his seven immediate predecessors combined:* they march speedily through the Vatican’s annals like so many third-century Caesars, acclaimed by one faction within Rome’s political vipers’ nest to no better effect than to offer flesh for their rival factions’ fangs; most are eminently forgettable save when they are utterly insane.

So pell-mell turned the scepter from one pretender to the next that the Church has even waffled in its official histories on just who was legitimate. Officially, Leo V is considered Sergius’s immediate predecessor; in reality, Leo was deposed and imprisoned two months after his July 903 election by a fellow named Christopher who was counted as a pope on canonical papal rolls until the 20th century. Today, he’s considered an antipope who was illegitimately elected.

“Legitimacy” in this period meant little but who had the muscle make their election stick. And though Sergius was the beneficiary, the man doing the flexing in this instance was Theophylact, Count of Tusculum along with his wife Theodora. For the next century the papacy would be a bauble of the Theophylacti family, who liberally plundered its perquisites. It is this Count who is thought to have forced the murder of Pope Leo — and possibly (Anti)pope Christopher, although Hermannus Contractus says Christopher was merely exiled to a monastery.

The resulting stability (relatively speaking) was the ascent with Sergius of the so-called “pornocracy”, or “Harlot State”.** The harlots in question are the Theopylacti women in a vicious bit of historiographical branding sourced ultimately (since there are very few to choose from) to the highly partisan histories of Liutprand of Cremona.

The count’s wife, Theodora, elevated to the unprecedented rank of “senatrix”, was the first voracious woman so designated and the possibly spurious charge that it was she who steered the Count’s hand is of course meant to redound to the detriment of both. Theodora’s daughter, Marozia, is alleged to have become Pope Sergius’s concubine at age 15.

As Marozia grew into womanhood, she would succeed as the de facto ruler of Rome, and become for propagandists the principal Pornocrat: “inflamed by all the fires of Venus,” gaped Liutprand; “a shameless whore … [who] exercised power on the Roman citizenry like a man.” She married the Duke of Spoleto and later the Margrave of Tuscany and was reputed to have manipulated numerous other paramours with her charms.

“A more inquisitive age would have detected the scarlet whore of the Revelations,” mused Edward Gibbon, who speculated that Marozia’s domination of the papacy might have sparked the later legend of a female “Pope Joan”. Our age might better see a ruthless conqueror entitled to indulge a Triumph or two. She made and unmade pontiffs in her own lifetime, and no fewer than six men tracing lineage directly to Marozia were Bishop of Rome in the next century and a half:

  • Marozia’s son (by either Pope Sergius or by the Duke of Spoleto) John XI, whose election Marozia forced in 931 when John was all of 21 years old;
  • Her grandsons John XII and Benedict VII;
  • Her great-grandsons (we’re into the 11th century for these) Benedict VIII and John XIX; her great-great-grandson Benedict IX

* In fact, you have to go back to Nicholas the Great (858-867) to find a longer-serving pope than Sergius.

** Saeculum obscurum, or Dark Ages, is historiography’s less colorful term.

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1942: Matvey Kuzmin, modern-day Ivan Susanin

Add comment February 14th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1942, German troops in Russia’s Pskov Oblast summarily executed 83-year-old peasant Matvey Kuzmin for leading them into an ambush.

World War II’s real-life Ivan Susanin was conscripted as a guide for the occupying Wehrmacht intending to approach a Soviet position at the village of Makino.

Kuzmin cunningly sent his son ahead to Malkino to alert his countrymen of the attack while guiding the Germans circuitously. By the time Kuzmin et al reached the outskirts, a Soviet ambush was waiting for them.

An enraged German officer shot Kuzmin during the ensuing firefight.

Since Kuzmin’s feat of resistance was not at all anonymous, he was transmuted into a parable of national heroism almost immediately. Kuzmin was posthumously honored as a Hero of the Soviet Union; the Moscow visitor to this day can behold his statuary’s valorous stance at the Partizanskaya metro station, opposite the martyred guerrilla Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya.

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1691: Sylvester Medvedev, bread-worshipper

Add comment February 11th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1691, Russian Orthodox priest Sylvester Medvedev was beheaded on Red Square.

Medvedev was a protege of the great progressive clergyman, poet, and educator Symeon of Polotsk, one of the intellectual champions of the reforming faction of Orthodoxy’s Great Schism.

The Schism in question was the widespread disaffection of the faithful (now known as “Old Believers”) for changes dictated from on high whose effect was to centralize the Russian Orthodox church and to alter its services.


Patriarch Nikon and Epifany Slavinetsky revising service-books.

The Patriarch of Moscow had underaken to revise the liturgy, the prayer-books, and the church services in Russian Orthodoxy in order to bring them in line (so he said) with their proper Greek antecedents. It provoked a furious reaction by Russian traditionalists. Perhaps the most vividly symbolic flashpoint of the Schism was the simple-seeming distinction between making the sign of the cross with three fingers (as the Patriarch demanded), or with two. It was all down to what Nikon said was a mistranslation of the original Greek when the rite had first been established hundreds of years before.

That reform and others were enforced, and opposed, violently: floggings, executions, and desecrations of now-outlaw icons were met by Old Believers willing to mutilate their own hands, or kill themselves, or go to the stake rather than bend. Some 20,000 people are said to have self-immolated in resistance.

“Come, Orthodox People,” thundered Protopope and soon-to-be Old Believer martyr Avvakum Petrov. “Suffer tortures for the two-finger sign of the cross … Although I have not much understanding I am not a learned man yet I know that the Church which we have received from our Holy Fathers is pure and sacred. As it came to me, so shall I uphold my faith until the end.”


Boyarina Feodosia Morozova concurred with Avvakum Petrov (who was her confessor): in this famous painting of her by Vasily Surikov, she makes a defiant two-fingered blessing to onlookers as she the authorities drag her away.

Meanwhile, after the death of Symeon’s patron Tsar Alexis, a tense contest for royal political played out during the 1680s. Finally, in 1689, the 17-year-old Peter the Great overthrew the authority long wielded by his elder half-sister, the Regent Sophia.

Peter, of course, was not yet “the Great”: he was just a vulnerable kid with a potential legitimacy problem. As one consequence, his mother, Natalyz Naryshkina, was able to dictate the appointment of a very conservative patriarch when that post opened in 1690.

That man, Adrian, would be the last Moscow patriarch until the Bolshevik Revolution in large measure due to his conflicts with the grown Peter over the latter’s blasphemously western orientation.

Adrian was no Old Believer but he bitterly opposed Peter’s attempts to get Russians to dress like Europeans and shave off their beards. And given the ferocity of religious feeling when the stakes are a matter of a single finger, it will go without saying that an inveterate liberalizer like Sylvester Medvedev would have no purchase with the patriarch.

This is indeed a strange interim in Russian history; Russian’s great westernizing and secularizing autocrat has reached the throne but with him ascends, just for a moment, the staunchest conservatives ecclesiastics.

What was Medvedev up to that got the new patriarch in a twist? If you liked the three-finger thing, you’ll love this: Medvedev maintained that the transubstantiation/metousiosis of ceremonial bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ was accomplished during liturgy by the Words of Institution (“Take, eat, this is my body …”), which was also the Catholic perspective — in contrast to the orthodox Orthodox position that this was achieved by the Epiclesis invoking the Holy Spirit.

That made Medvedev a heretic — or more vituperatively, a “Latinizer” or even a “bread-worshipper”. (See The Church Reform of Peter the Great)

His real crime might well have been to align himself politically with the lately deposed Sophia, for Medvedev inherited his mentor’s place as court poet and education paladin when Symeon of Polotsk died in 1680. Sycophantish verse like this, written in Medvedev’s unuccessful attempt to gain leadership of an academy to promulgate western learning, can’t have done him any favors in the end:

You have been given the name of wisdom,
For Sophia was named wisdom by God.
It befits you to begin the sciences,
To pursue them, most wise one!

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1943: The last five Young Guards shot in Krasnodon

Add comment February 9th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1943, days before their city was liberated, five members of the anti-occupation resistance were shot in Krasnodon in the Donbass.

That eastern Ukrainian city* had fallen under German-Italian-Romanan occupation in July 1942.

In response, some 100 local teens banded together into an anti-fascist underground — the Molodaya Gvardiya, or Young Guard. (English Wikipedia entry) | Russian) Most of their number would give their lives in resistance.

During the few months of occupation, the Young Guards managed an impressive record of sabotage operations and propaganda coups. It busted 90 people out of the Germans’ concentration camp, and got the hammer and sickle hung up on government buildings to mark the silver anniversary of Red October. In December, the Young Guards managed to destroy the labor bureau (and its list of intended conscripts) on the eve of a planned deportation, sparing 2,000 people that dreadful fate.

The Germans finally got their hooks into the Young Guards and started mass arrests at the start of January. They brought in most of the Young Guards for torture and execution — smashing up the organization in their very last weeks in town.

The five put to death this date were the last of those martyrs, and the more tragic in that the occupiers were even then gearing up to evacuate as the Red Army closed in. (The Soviets took the city on February 15.) They were:


Oleg Koshevoy’s interrogation. Image from MolodGuard.ru’s stupendous images collection.

In September 1943, three Soviet citizens were publicly executed in the liberated city on charges of having aided the Germans in suppressing the Young Guards.

The Young Guards’ youth and intrepidity made them extremely congenial to the Soviets’ wartime demand for martyrs. At the urging of his Ukrainian deputy Nikita Khrushchev — who himself hailed from the Donbass — Stalin approved a number of the Young Guards (including this date’s Koshevoy and Shevtsova) as Heroes of the Soviet Union.

The Guards valorized in a 1945 novel, and then a 1948 film based on that novel. (Russian links, both.)

They’ve featured in postage stamps, public artwork, and every manner of patriotic commemoration ever since. They’ve even come in for a bit of post-Soviet “ownership” conflict (over the Guards’ degree of Communist Party affiliation) between Ukraine’s Russian- and Soviet-leaning east and the nationalist-sympathizing west.

Today the “Molodaya Gvardiya” brand might be most immediately recognizable as a youth organ of Vladimir Putin’s party — no connection to the young partisans, of course.

* Not to be confused with the Russian city of Krasnodar.

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1545: Cornelis Appelman and Willem Zeylmaker, Batenburgers

Add comment February 7th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1545, the leaders of the violent Anabaptist Batenburgers were burned at the stake in Utrecht.

We know Anabaptists best as peaceniks, but the Batenburgers were the dead-end trail to a wholly different reputation. Named for a former Dutch mayor named Jan Van Batenburg, these Zwaardgeesten (“sword-minded”) Anabaptists answered the annihilation of their brethren’s Münster commune by doubling down on revolutionary struggle.

Batenburgers rejected the blandishments of David Joris to lay down the impolitic swords. Their numbers and their philosophies are hard to know with certainty owing to their secrecy, but they’re thought to have maintained the radical Munsterite teachings on polygamy and property.

Van Batenburg himself was caught and executed in 1538, and with that the Batenburgers — who had been living secretly in regular Catholic and Protestant communities — took to the wilderness under the leadership of a Leiden weaver named Cornelis Appelman. For the next ten years or so (even outlasting Appelman’s own death) this band of a couple of hundred desperate men made their way as marauders. We’d probably just call them terrorists today.

Appelman was even more extreme than his predecessor, verging right into crazy cult leader territory with his dystopian insistence on being called “The Judge” and readiness to mete out the severest penalties for any breach of obedience — to say nothing of the arsons, the church-sackings, and the summary executions dealt out to unbelievers. He was finally caught and put to death with his aide Willem Zeylmaker. Batenburger remnants, however, persisted for several more years with at least one splinter continuing until around 1580.

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1601: Starina Novak, hajduk

Add comment February 5th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1601, Serbian-Romanian hajduk Starina Novak was slow-roasted in Cluj with two of his captains.

The hajduk in the Balkans was a romantic figure who mixed traits of the “social bandit” outlaw with those of anti-Ottoman guerrilla. Colorful characters answering the archetype persisted into the 20th century.

Novak, who was around 70 by the time of his death, is still celebrated for his feats of arms on the soldiering side of the ledger in a running conflict with the Ottomans. Most of the sites about Starina Novak are in Serbian, like this one.

He emerges as a commander of Serbian and Bulgarian auxiliaries fighting with Michael the Brave in the 1590s to carve out of the Ottoman realm a kingdom of Wallachia, Transylvania, and Moldavia — roughly, present-day Romania plus Moldova. The enterprise was as glorious as its destiny was tragic.

By 1601 an Italian officer aptly christened Giorgio Basta had had enough of his erstwhile allies and double-crossed hajduk and upstart king alike.

The former he shopped as a traitor to Michael’s Hungarian allies, who put him to the stake in Cluj and made sure to throw water on the burning partisan throughout in order to prolong the ordeal. (The charred corpses of Novak and his associates were then impaled.) A few months later, Basta had Michael the Brave assassinated, and placed himself at the head of Michael’s hard-won kingdom.


A statue of Starina Novak keeps vigil in the city where he died. (cc) image from Bogdan Pop.

Being a national hero means your prior career in brigandage gets a little Robin Hood elbow grease.

In the Serbian epic “Starina Novak and Knez Bogosava” — translated here by polyglot friend of the site Sonechka — Novak attributes his turn to banditry to the impositions of his rulers, specifically (and ahistorically) blaming the 15th century despot’s wife Jerina for overtaxing him.

Novak and Radivoj are imbibing wine
By the brisk waters of Bosna,
At a certain Prince Bogosav’s.
And having sated themselves with wine,
Prince Bogosav began to talk:
“Brother, Old Novak,
Tell me straight, as if confessing,
Why did you, brother, become a hajduk?
What compels you
To break your neck, to wander the forest
As a brigand, pursuing your ignoble employ,
Unto your senescence, when your time has passed?”

Replies Old Novak:
“Brother, Prince Bogosav,
When you ask, I answer in earnest —
It was truly not my wish.
If you could recollect
The time when Jerina was building Smederevo
And ordered me to toil.
I labored for three years,
I pulled the trees and carried stones,
All on my own cart and oxen.
And in three years term,
I gained not a dinar,
Not even opanci to put on my feet.
But that, brother, I would have forgiven!
Having built Smederevo,
She began to mount towers,
To engild the gates and windows,
And imposed the duty on the vilayet,
For each house – three measures of gold,
Which is three hundred ducats, brother!
Those who had, gave her the treasure;
Those who gave, stayed.
I was a pauper,
With nothing to give,
I took my pickax, which I toiled with,
And with this pickax I turned to banditry,
No longer could I linger anywhere
In the domain of cursed Jerina,
But ran away to the icy Drina,
Then reached stony Bosnia.
And when I neared Romania,
I met a Turkish wedding party –
Escorting a noble girl,
All passed in peace,
Save for the Turkish groom.
On the great dark brown steed,
He did not want to pass in peace.
He pulls his three-tail whip
(encumbered with three bolts of weight)
And lashes me across my shoulders.
I begged him thrice in the God’s name:
‘I beg you, Turk,
So blessed you with fortune and heroism,
And happy joviality,
Go on, proceed along your way with peace —
Do you see that I am a poor man!’
Withal the Turk would not budge.
And ache had grasped me,
And the anger grew,
I pulled my pickax from my shoulder
And struck the Turk, mounting on his brown steed.
The blow was so light
That it threw him off his horse,
I came upon him,
Hit him twice, and then again three times
While rending him asunder.
I rummaged through his pockets,
And found there three bags of treasure;
I stashed them in my bosom;
Untied his sword,
Having untied it from his belt, I have attached it to my own;
In place I left the pickax,
So that the Turks will have a tool with which to bury,
And thenceforth I mounted his brown steed,
And headed straight to the Romanian forest.
This all was witnessed by the wedding party
That dared not pursue me.
They wanted not or dared not.
It happened forty years back.
I grew more fond of my Romanian forest
Than, brother, of a palace;
Because I guard the mountenous road,
I wait for young Sarajevans
And take their gold, and silver,
And finer cloth, and satin;
I dress myself and the gang;
So I can come and flee,
And stay in horrid places —
I fear nothing but God.”

For Bosnian-Serbian-Croatian speakers with a lot of time on their hands, here’s a reading of the original:

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1751: Lobsang Trashi and the Lhasa Rebellion leaders

Add comment January 23rd, 2015 Headsman

On January 23, 1751 Lhasa … witnessed another horrible example of Chinese justice. Lobsang Trashi and six other leaders of the rebellion were executed by cutting them into pieces. Other people were beheaded or strangled. The heads of the executed were mounted on spikes. The other leaders were exiled and stripped of their property.

-Luciano Petech, China and Tibet in the Early XVIIIth Century

China’s domination of Tibet, dating to 1720, has generated resistance, intermittently violent, down to the present day.

The incident at hand here was a November 1750 Lhasa riot sparked by the assassination of Tibet’s prince by China’s plenipotentiary, who had caught wind of the local ruler’s intention to detach his kingdom from Qing dominance.

The royal chamberlain, Lobsang Trashi (German Wikipedia entry | Dutch) managed to escape the scene and found himself at the head of a furious rabble that sacked the Qing embassy, looted a treasury, and killed dozens of Chinese soldiers — and dozens more Chinese civilians.

But the popular furor burned itself out within days, most Tibetan elites sagely declining to get involved in the pogrom pending the likely — and soon, actual — overwhelming Qing response. These guys got the fire-eaters arrested (they’d be handed over to the arriving Chinese army) and installed the Dalai Lama as the new secular as well as religious authority.

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