Litterateur Barnabé Farmian Durosoy was guillotined in Paris on this date in 1792.
Playwright, poet, and (most problematically) journalist, Durosoy‘s newspaper Gazette de Paris took issue with the French Revolution’s radical and anti-clerical turn — incurring the dangerous denunciation of Marat.
“If these rebels dare to degrade the king then they dare to judge, and if they judge then their verdict is death!” Durosoy thundered.
He would not even live long enough to see his prophecy fulfilled: the Gazette was immediately suppressed and Durosoy brought to trial as “cashier of all the Anti-revolutionists of the interior.” (Carlyle)
He was the first journalist guillotined in revolutionary France — noting that he died as a royalist ought on the feast day of St. Louis.
On this date in 1901, Petrus Jacobus Fourie, Jan van Rensburg, and Lodewyk Francois Stephanus Pfeiffer were shot by the British at Graaff-Reinet.
They were among the numerous subjects of the British Cape Colony whose sympathy with the independent Boer republics which Britain was in the process of conquering extended so far as aiding their Dutch brethren’s resistance. In this case, the young men joined the famed Boer guerrilla Gideon Scheepers — and whatever one might say about the fuzziness of ethnic and national identity in a frontier region, this rated in London’s eyes as rebellion.
On July 6, 1901, Scheepers executed a raid on the town of Murraysburg — “Scheepersburg”, he called it — and put loyalist houses to the torch.
The British Gen. John French sent columns of men into the rugged Camdeboo Mountains in an effort to trap the irksome commando. Scheepers and most of his troop of about 240 men escaped, but about 27 or 28 Cape Colony rebels were captured (along with a few free staters, who could not be charged as rebels).
A particularly revolting incident happened in the execution of the three who were shot. This was, that the firing parties were a body of ten men, five with ball, and five with blank cartridges. After the word “present,” which brings the rifle to the shoulder, one of them “‘pulled off” before the command “fire” was given, and the bullet blew off the top of one man’s head.
Eight of these people were executed as rebels over the ensuing weeks, with the aid of Jan Momberg, one of their erstwhile mates who turned Crown’s evidence against them to save his own life.
After Fourie, van Rensburg and Pfeiffer were shot on Aug. 19, Ignatius Nel and Daniel Olwagen — both teenagers — died at Graaff-Reinet on August 26; and, Hendrik van Vuuren, Fredrick Toy and Hendrik Veenstra were shot at Colesberg on September 4.
Though the British made an effort to obscure the final resting-places of these potential martyr figures, their graves were located. Fourie, van Rensburg and Pfeiffer, along with Ignatius Nel and Daniel Olwagen, are among the men subsequently exhumed and placed in a collective grave. A monument in Graaff-Reinet honors these and three other guerrillas executed there … one of whom is Gideon Scheepers himself, who was captured in October of 1901 and executed the following January.
There’s a good deal more about Scheeper’s rebels, and these men in particular, in a two-part article by a descendant of van Rensburg here: part 1 | part 2.
Whatever military advantages the Huguenots obtained in various parts of the realm were more than outweighed by the death of “the brave Montbrun.”
This daring and energetic leader, the terror of the enemy in Dauphiny, had just defeated a large body of Swiss auxiliaries, upon whom he inflicted a loss of eight or nine hundred men and eighteen ensigns, while that of the Huguenots scarcely amounted to half a dozen men.
But his brilliant success in this and other engagements had made Montbrun and his soldiers more incautious than usual.
They attacked a strong detachment of men-at-arms, and mistaking the confusion into which they threw the advance guard for a rout of the entire body, dispersed to gather the booty and offered a tempting opportunity to the Roman Catholics as they came up.
Montbrun, who, too late, discovered the danger of his troops, and endeavored to rally them, was at one time enveloped by the enemy, but would have made good his escape had there not been a broad ditch in his way. Here his horse missed its footing, and in the fall the leader’s thigh was broken.
In this pitiable plight he surrendered his sword to a Roman Catholic captain, from whom he received the assurance that his life would be spared.
The king and his mother had other views.
Henry, on receiving the grateful news of Montbrun’s capture, promptly gave orders that the prisoner be taken to Grenoble and tried by the Parliament of Dauphiny on a charge of treason.
Vain were the efforts of the Huguenots, equally vain the intercession of the Duke of Guise, who wished to have Montbrun exchanged for Besme, Coligny‘s murderer, recently fallen into Huguenot hands.
Henry and Catharine de’ Medici were determined that Montbrun should die. They urged the reluctant judges by reiterated commands; they overruled the objection that to put the prisoner to death would be to violate good faith and the laws of honorable warfare.
Catharine had not forgotten the honest Frenchman’s allusion to her “perfidious and degenerate” countrymen.
As for Henry, an insult received at Montbrun’s hands rankled in his breast and made forgiveness impossible. Some months before, the king had sent a message to him in a somewhat haughty tone, demanding the restoration of the royal baggage and certain prisoners taken by the Huguenots.
“What is this!” exclaimed the general. “The king writes to me as a king, and as if I were bound to obey him! I want him to know that that would be very well in time of peace; I should then recognize his royal claim. But in time of war, when men are armed and in the saddle, all men are equal.”
On hearing this, we are told, Henry swore that Montbrun should repent his insolence.
In his glee over the Huguenot’s mishap he recalled the prophecy and broke out with the exclamation, “Montbrun will now see whether he is my equal.”
Under these circumstances there was little chance for a Huguenot, were he never so innocent, to be acquitted by a servile parliament.
Accordingly Montbrun was condemned to be beheaded as a rebel against the king and a disturber of the public peace. The execution was hastened last natural death from the injury received should balk the malice of his relentless enemies.
A contemporary, who may even have been an eye-witness, describes the closing scene in words eloquent from their unaffected simplicity.
He was dragged, half dead, from the prison, and was carried in a chair to the place of execution, exhibiting in his affliction an assured countenance; while the Parliament of Grenoble trembled and the entire city lamented. He had been enjoined not to say a word to the people, unless he wished to have his tongue cut off.
Nevertheless he complained, in the presence of the whole parliament, of the wrong done to him, proving at great length his innocence and contemning the fury of his enemies who were attacking a man as good as dead. He showed that it was without cause that he was charged with being a rebel, since never had he had any design but to guarantee peaceable Frenchmen from the violence of strangers who abused the name and authority of the king.
His death was constant and Christian. He was a gentleman held in high esteem, inasmuch as he was neither avaricious nor rapacious, but on the contrary devoted to religion, bold, moderate, upright; yet he was too indulgent to his soldiers, whose license and excesses gained him much ill-will and many enemies in Dauphiny. His death so irritated these soldiers that they ravaged after a strange fashion the environs of Grenoble.
The death of so prominent and energetic a Huguenot captain was likely to embolden the Roman Catholic party, not only in Dauphiny but in the rest of the kingdom. In reality, it only transferred the supreme direction in warlike affairs to still more competent hands.
The young lieutenant of Montbrun, who shortly succeeded him in command, was Francois de Bonne, better known from his territorial designation as Sieur des Lesdiguieres, a future marshal of Henry the Fourth.
Although the resplendent military abilities of Lesdiguieres had not yet had an opportunity for display, it was not long before the Roman Catholics discovered that they gained nothing by the exchange.
Lesdiguieres was as brave as his master in arms, and he was his master’s superior in the skill and caution with which he sketched and executed his military plans. The discipline of the Huguenot army at once exhibited marked improvement.
Remnants of the left in Baden, exiles from the last go-rounds, and sympathetic soldiers who mutinied at the fortress of Karlsruhe and Ratstatt declared yet another abortive republic. Although the disturbance briefly forced Grand Duke Leopold to flee, other German states allied with Leopold’s exiled government to crush the rebellion. Revolutionary Baden had no chance in a test of arms against Prussia, which defeated the rebellion at Waghausel, then reduced the holdout fortress of Ratstatt. In all, 19 were shot there as rebels between August and October of 1849.
Rastatt saw the most blood flow in the execution of the law as enforced by the invaders. Here leader after leader was laid low, and his body thrown, without coffin or funeral service, into a big ditch prepared in the northern end of the cemetery. One day it was Major Konrad Heilig, the commander of the Rastatt artillery, who as a non-commissioned officer had been the pride of his men, as well as the tallest man in the army. He walked calmly to the place of execution smoking a cigar, and only when force was threatened allowed himself to be blindfolded …
Colonel Tiedemann … had been originally a lieutenant in the Baden army, [and] was the son of a well-known professor in the Heidelberg Uiversity, had gone to Greece and fought in the army of the country, and had a Greek wife and a young son in that far-away land …
In the year 1873, friends and companions-in-arms of the dead asked permission to erect a gravestone common to all those interred there; the Baden government offered no objection but Prussia stepped in with its veto, and the burial-place is still unmarked, although visited yearly by pilgrims from all parts of the world.
But on this date in 1797, that terrible death was visited on American citizen David McLane in Quebec for attempting to topple British authority in that Canadian province.
David McLane, a Rhode Island merchant, was arrested in the suburbs of Quebec City in May of 1797 and accused of conniving with French diplomats to recover their former colony by dint of an invasion of raftborne pikemen across the St. Lawrence to support a planned French landing. This tome claims it to be Quebec’s first treason trial under British rule; the Attorney General prosecuting it thought it the first in the North American colonies since Nicholas Bayard‘s in 1701. (Cobbett’s State Trials has the entire trial transcript.)
The Quebecois spectators crowded the courts in dread of hearing the ancient English punishment pronounced. They were not disappointed.
Writing many decades later about an execution he had witnessed as a 10-year-old boy, Philippe Aubert de Gaspe recollected its grisly particulars — and the surprising (to the audience) fact that McLane was hanged to death before the emasculating-and-disembowelling portions of the sentence were visited on him.*
The government having little confidence in the loyalty which the French Canadians had proved during the war of 1775, wished to strike terror into the people, by the preparations for the execution. From the early morning was heard the noise of the pieces of aitillery that were being dragged to the place of execution outside St. John’s gate; and strong detachments of armed soldiers paraded the streets. It was a parody on the execution of the unfortunate Louis 16th and all to no purpose.
I saw McLane conducted to the place of execution, he was seated with his back to the horse on a wood-sleigh whose runners grated on the bare ground and stones. An axe and a block were on the front part of the conveyance. He looked at the spectators in a calm, confident manner, but without the least effrontery. He Was a tall and remarkably handsome man. I heard some women of the lower class exclaim, whilst deploring his sad fate:
Ah if it were only as in old times, that handsome man would not have to die! There would be plenty of girls who would be ready to marry him in order to save his life!
And even several days after the execution, I heard the same thing repeated.
This belief then universal among the lower class must, I suppose, have arisen from the fact that many French prisoners, condemned to the stake by the savages, had owed their lives to the Indian women who had then married them.
The sentence of McLane, however, was not executed in all its barbarity. I saw all with my own eyes, a big student named Boudrault, lifted me up from time to time in his arms, so that I might lose nothing of the horrible butchery. And Dr. Duvert was near us, he drew out his watch as soon as Ward, the hangman, threw down the ladder upon which McLane was stretched on his back, with the cord round his neck made fast to the beam of the gallows; thrown sideways by this abrupt movement the body struck the northern post of the gallows, and then remained stationary, with the exception of some slight oscillations.
“He is quite dead,” said. Dr. Duvert, when the hangman cut down the body at the end of about twenty-five minutes; “he is quite dead, and will not feel the indignities yet to be inflicted on him.” Every one was under the impression that the sentence would be executed in all its rigor, and that the disembowelled victim, still alive, would see his own entrails burnt but no; the poor unhappy man was really dead when Ward cut him open, took out his bowels and his heart which he burnt in a chafing dish, and cut off his head which he showed all bloody to the people.
The spectators who were nearest to the scaffold say that the hangman refused to proceed further with the execution after the hanging, alleging “that he was a hangman, but not a butcher,” and it was only after a good supply of guineas, that the sheriff succeeded in making him execute all the sentence, and that after each act of the fearful drama, his demands became more and more exorbitant. Certain it is that after that time Mr. Ward became quite a grand personage; never walking in the streets except with silk stockings, a three-cornered hat and a sword at his side. Two watches, one in his breeches pocket, and the other hanging from his neck by a silver chain, completed his toilet.
I cannot refrain, in parting from this doer of worthy deeds, from relating a fact which I have never been able to account for. When I arrived in Quebec in order to go to school, at about nine years of age, people seemed to regret a certain good hangman named Bob; he was a negro, whom every one praised. This Ethiopian ought to have inspired the same horror which is always felt towards men of his calling; but, on the contrary he visited at all the houses like the other citizens, enjoyed a name for unimpeachable honesty, ran errands, in fact was a universal favorite. As well as I can remember, there was something very touching in Bob’s history; he was a victim of circumstances, which compelled him to become a hangman in self-defence. He used to shed tears when he had to perform his terrible task. I do not know why my memory, generally so tenacious concerning all I saw and heard in my early childhood, fails me in the matter of explaining the reason of the universal sympathy extended to Bob.**
Now I return to McLane. Such a spectacle as I have described could not fail to make a great impression on a child of my age; hence it arises that I have thought a great deal about the fate of a man, whom many people looked upon as a victim to the politics of the day. I have tried to satisfy myself as to his greater or less guilt. I could say a great deal on this subject; but I will be silent. Suffice it to say, that if in these days a boasting Yankee were to proclaim to all comers, that with five hundred able men, armed with sticks hardened in the fire, it would be easy to take the town of Quebec, the young men would crowd round him to humor him and encourage him to talk, and then giving him lots of champagne to drink, would laugh heartily at him, without the government dreaming of having him hung, drawn and quartered.
It has been said that McLane was an emissary of the French government; I do not myself believe so; the French republic, at war with all the European powers, had too much work on its hands to concern itself about a little colony, containing some millions of acres of snow; to use an expression not very flattering to us.
The policy of our then rulers was crafty and hence cruel. Every where they thought they discovered emissaries of the French government. There were two Canadians banished from the country, their crime being that they had been to Martinique in, I believe, an American vessel, to transact some commercial business: they granted them the favour of allowing them to take with them their wives and children.
* Actual complete hung, drawn, quartered sentences were already passe in Great Britain.
** Colonial Quebec had several black executioners; the best-known was Martinican slave Mathieu Léveillé from 1733 to 1743. (There an interesting .pdf about Leveille and his world here.)
The identity of the affable “Bob” our narrator half-remembers is a bit of a mystery; he has been identified with George Burns, a black man who held the job in the early 1800s, but the timetable isn’t quite right relative to de Gaspe’s admittedly distant memories. (The diarist thinks Bob was the former executioner by the time concerned with our post.) Frank Mackey in Done with Slavery: The Black Fact in Montreal, 1760-1840 suggests we take the name at face value and identify this executioner as either or both of “Bob a Nigro man” jailed as a felon in 1781 (we don’t know that Bob a Nigro man became a hangman), or “Robert Lane the Hangman” who was charged with a crime in 1789 (we don’t know that Robert Lane the Hangman was African). Mackey suspects that these are one and the same man.
A subsidiary character in a long and brutal struggle for supremacy in Norway and its neighbors to the east and west, Kark had betrayed his lord, the de facto Norweigan ruler Haakon Jarl (“Earl Haakon”), as Olaf Tryggvason’s army searched for him. Haakon had holed up on a farm with Kark and at least one other trusted associate, but when Kark heard of the reward for Haakon’s, he thought it more opportune to kill his lord than to wait to be found.
Kark expected cake. Instead, King Olaf I abhorred his disloyalty and delivered him death.
Olaf grew up a refugee in the court of Kiev Rus’ ruler Vladimir the Great, who, according to some early sagas, had a Norse wife. Regardless of the circumstances, Olaf’s military prowess was such that Vladimir eventually became distrustful of a potentially dangerous guest and Olaf decided to take his leave.
Making his way back to Norway, Olaf married for the first time. When his wife died, he took sail down to the Scilly Isles (south of England), where he converted to Christianity. He then moved to England (Norsemen held sway there at this time). During his time there, he caught wind of Haakon Jarl waning hold on the affections of Norwegians high and low.
Olaf jumped at the chance. He quickly formed an alliance with several local leaders and sallied forth, and practically from the time he hit the fjords, Haakon was a fugitive.
Haakon Jarl — a.k.a. Haakon Sigurdsson — was an old friend of Harald Bluetooth,* the man credited with uniting Norway and Denmark. Haakon’s father was killed by Harald Greycloak, and Bluetooth enlisted Haakon to avenge that death. (He did so, with aplomb.)
With Greycloak out of the way, Bluetooth had solidified his position as effective ruler of Norway, where he installed Haakon — now elevated to Earl Haakon — as his vassal king. Haakon Jarl had wide latitude to subjugate the lands around him. As vassal, though, Haakon was called on by Bluetooth to fight the Holy Roman Emperor Otto II, who had made an alliance with Olaf’s father-in-law in an effort to overrun the still-pagan Norse.
Bluetooth et al fought them off initially, but Otto II sent a fleet around to Jutland and bested the Danes and Norwegians. As a result, Haakon, Harald, and their armies were forcibly converted to Christianity.
Unwillingly as he had adopted it, Bluetooth maintained his new Christianity; Haakon Jarl didn’t really go in for that Jesus stuff and stubbornly held to his paganism. When Bluetooth** approached Haakon about really really converting around 977, the Jarl refused to accept the Christian faith, instead taking his Norway and going home. Haakon thereafter ruled on his own for almost 20 years.
Ultimately, it may have partially been paganism that defeated the Jarl, who was never crowned king: Haakon’s enemies cited his distrust of Christianity as a motivator in the initial agitations against him. That may just be spin, too, since Olaf was so adamantly Christian that he insisted those under his rule convert.† And heavenly imprimaturs tend to be a hot commodity for usurpers.
Regardless of the cause, by 995 Haakon Jarl was beheaded by his slave, his slave was beheaded by the king, and King Olaf I sat on the throne of Norway.
And then five years later, Haakon Jarl’s sons deposed King Olaf.
Olaf summoned the people together out in the yard, and standing on the rock which was beside the swine-sty spake unto them, and the words that he uttered were that he would reward with riches and honour the man who would work mischief to Earl Hakon. This speech was heard both by the Earl and Kark. Now by them in the sty had they a light there with them, and the Earl said: ‘Why art thou so pale, yet withal as black as earth? Is it in thy heart, Kark, that thou shouldst betray me?’ ‘Nay,’ said Kark, ‘we two were born on the self-same night, and long space will there not be twixt the hour of our deaths.’ Towards evening went King Olaf away, & when it was night Kark slept, and the Earl kept watch, but Kark was troubled in his sleep. Then the Earl awakened him & asked him whereof he dreamt, and he said: ‘I was now even at Ladir, and Olaf Tryggvason placed a gold ornament about my neck.’ The Earl answered: ‘A blood-red ring will it be that Olaf Tryggvason will lay about thy neck, shouldst thou meet with him. Beware now, and betray me not, & thou shalt be treated well by me as heretofore.’ Then stay they both sleepless each watching the other, as it might be, but nigh daybreak fell the Earl asleep and was troubled at once, so troubled that he drew his heels up under him & his head likewise under him, and made as though he would rise up, calling aloud and in a fearsome way. Then grew Kark afeard & filled with horror, so it came to pass that he drew a large knife from his belt and plunged it into the throat of the Earl cutting him from ear to ear. Thus was encompassed the death of Earl Hakon. Then cut Kark off the head of the Earl and hasted him away with it, and the day following came he with it to Ladir unto King Olaf, and there told he him all that had befallen them on their flight, as hath already been set forth. Afterwards King Olaf let Kark be taken away thence, & his head be sundered from his trunk.
Thereafter to Nidarholm went King Olaf and likewise went many of the peasantry, and with them bare they the heads of Earl Hakon and Kark. In those days it was the custom to use this island as a place whereon might be slain thieves & criminals, and on it stood a gallows. And the King caused that on this gallows should be exposed the heads of Earl Hakon and Kark. Then went thither the whole of the host, and shouted up at them and cast stones, and said that they went to hell each in goodly company, ever one rascal with another. Thereafter did they send men up to Gaulardal, & after they had dragged thence the body of Earl Hakon did they burn it. So great strength was there now in the enmity that was borne against Earl Hakon by the folk that were of Throndhjem that no one durst breathe his name save as the ‘bad Earl,’ and for long afterwards was he called after this fashion. Nevertheless it is but justice to bear testimony of Earl Hakon that he was well worthy to be a chief, firstly by the lineage whereof he was descended, then for his wisdom and the insight with which he used the power that pertained to him, his boldness in battle, and withal his goodhap in gaining victories and slaying his foemen. Thus saith Thorleif Raudfelldarson:
Hakon! no Earl more glorious ‘neath the moon’s highway:
In strife and battle hath the warrior honour won,
Chieftains mine to Odin hast thou sent,
(Food for ravens were their corses)
Therefore wide be thy rule!’
Francis Throckmorton (Throgmorton), was executed at Tyburn on this date in 1584 for his plot to make Mary, Queen of Scots the Queen of England, too.
The son of a prominent Warwickshire family — his father’s monumental tomb still adorns the church at Coughton, while London’s Throgmorton Street is named for our guy’s uncle Nicholas — Francis was a staunch Catholic who as a 20-something man on the make did a continental tour where he huddled with papist exiles cogitating how to win England back for the faith.
Naturally many a plot centered on the Catholic Queen of Scotland Mary, who as Henry VIII’s great-niece stood well within the scope of consanguinity necessary to rule England with legitimacy. (Mary’s son James VI of Scotland and James I of England would do justice that.)
On his return to London in 1583, the subtle agents of Elizabeth’s spymaster Francis Walsingham sniffed out his project to establish a line of communication from Mary to the Duke of Guise who contemplated a pro-Mary invasion.
“I have seen as resolute men as Throckmorton stoop, notwithstanding the great shew he hath made of a Roman resolution,” Walsingham prophesied of the obdurate young man whose fidelity to his project was to be tested by torture in the Tower. “I suppose the grief of the last torture will suffice, without anye extremity of racking, to make him more comformable than he hath hitherto showed himself.”
Indeed Throckmorton did succumb.
The ensuing bust-up of his plot forms a station on Queen Mary’s own path to Calvary: the treasonable design empowered Walsingham successfully to impel creation of the Bond of Association, a sort of legal pledge to execute anyone who attempted to usurp Elizabeth. That “bond” was called in two years later by Mary’s connection to the Babington Plot, leading directly to the Scots queen’s own trial and execution.
* Throckmorton’s plot also resulted in the expulsion of Spanish ambassador Bernardino de Mendoza, an energetic spy for the Catholics’ overseas allies.
Born to a globetrotting journalist, the young polyglot Saadeh was living abroad in Brazil when his native Lebanon fell from the collapsing Ottoman Empire into French hands.
He returned in 1930 to Lebanon an irredentist on the make and churned out a prodigious literary output: fiction, newspaper stories, political pamphlets.
It was his vision for a “Greater Syria” that would define the man’s legacy, and cause his death. In 1932 he secretly founded the Syrian Social Nationalist Party to advocate for a vast Syrian state encompassing what now comprise Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel/Palestine. At its most ambitious this prospective state dreamt itself inscribed upon the whole Fertile Crescent from the Tauras Mountains to the Persian Gulf.
The SSNP still exists in Syria and Lebanon to this day, but it was a big cheese in the French Mandate by the late 1930s — when the imminent end of colonialism put the future shape of the entire region into question. Saadeh, harried by French authorities who had clapped him in prison a couple of times, emigrated to Argentina and carried on the struggle through exile publications.
In 1947, Saadeh returned to a rapturous reception in now-independent Lebanon:
But his pan-Syria idea was distinctly at odds with what had happened on the ground. Whatever the colonial roots of the borders that had been set down, they defined not only zones on a map but elites with an interest in their maintenance. Lebanon’s founding “National Pact” arrangement among Christians and Muslims also committed all involved to Lebanon as an independent state not to merge with Syria.
So despite (or rather because of) Saadeh’s popularity, the SSNP faced renewed crackdowns in 1948. Revolutionaries, reformers, and pan-Arabist types were surging throughout the region thanks to the distressingly shabby performance of Arab armies in their 1948 war to strangle Israel in its crib. (Lebanon fielded only a tiny force in this fight which also won no laurels; instead, Israel began its long tradition of occupying southern Lebanon.) Saadeh was certainly alarmed by the birth of a Zionist state so inimical to his own programme; “Our struggle with the enemy is not a struggle for borders but for existence,” he declared in 1948.
On July 4, 1949, the SSNP put its muscle to the test by attempting to seize state power in Lebanon — and disastrously failed. Saadeh had traveled to Damascus hoping to gain the support of the Syrian military dictator Husni al-Za’im;* instead, al-Za’im simply handed Saadeh right back to Lebanese authorities who had him tried in secret and swiftly executed.
These noble heads rolled a bare 10 weeks after the death of King Edward IV to whom Woodville was certainly quite loyal: the Earl’s sister, Elizabeth Woodville, was Edward’s queen Consort.
This marked the acme of the family’s meteoric, single-generation rise from gentleman nobodies. Anthony’s dad, Richard Woodville, vaulted the family into the nobility with an illicit marriage to the Duke of Bedford’s widow. Their pretty daughter Elizabeth scandalized Britain’s elite by conquering Edward’s heart and his hand in 1464 — though this was her second marriage: the first, to Sir John Grey of Groby, had produced two children, one of whom was the Richard Grey who went to the block with Sir Anthony Woodville.
The reason that Anthony Woodville and not his father was the current Earl Rivers was because dad had his own head cut off when King Edward was temporarily deposed in 1469. (Exile to Bruges was also the reason that the second Earl Rivers met William Caxton.)
After Edward came roaring back at the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471, the Woodville family would have been feeling pretty well set up: their Yorkist faction seemed to have won as decisive a victory as could be imagined over the Lancastrians.
But King Edward’s early death meant that Anthony’s nephew Edward V inherited all too early — which is to say that he did not truly inherit at all. The 12-year-old Edward and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York, both of them children of Elizabeth Woodville, were the boy-princes left to the care of Edward IV’s brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester.
Now, they believe it; and withal whet me
To be revenged on Rivers, Vaughan, Grey:
But then I sigh; and, with a piece of scripture,
Tell them that God bids us do good for evil:
And thus I clothe my naked villany
With old odd ends stolen out of holy writ;
And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.
The next part of the story is quite notorious, and it directly concerns the Woodvilles: the reason that Richard infamously disappeared those tragic princes into the Tower of London was because they were in Elizabeth Woodville’s own custody — and Richard, soon to seize power for himself as King Richard III, feared that if given the opportunity to gather themselves the Woodvilles and not he would dominate English politics.
Events could easily have turned out differently — even with Richard on the blade end of the Woodvilles’ executioner. In the chaotic days following Edward’s death, as news made its way ponderously around the realm, Richard raced to get ahead of the Woodvilles before they were secure in their patrimony. On April 30 of 1483, Richard intercepted the royal party traveling to London and took king into custody along with Rivers, Thomas Vaughan, and Richard Grey.
Gloucester-cum-Richard III acted with dispatch from that point. He had Elizabeth Woodville’s marriage to the late king invalidated, effectively disinheriting her children. While Gloucester made ready for his coronation, Anthony Woodville and his friends made sad poetry and last wills and testaments.
On this date in 1718,* Peter the Great’s hand-picked court condemned his son and onetime heir apparent Tsarevich Alexei to death for plotting treason.
Probably no single figure more strikingly underscored Peter’s violent rupture of the old Russia than Alexei: “timid, secretive and lacking in self-confidence,” he was Peter’s opposite in nearly every particular — his nemesis, literally from birth.
The product of Peter’s unsatisfactory first dynastic marriage to a conservative boyar princess, Alexei got abandoned along with his mother Eudoxia Lopukhina when Peter went on his years-long jag through western Europe.
Peter eventually forced the tsaritsa into a convent so he could take up with the ambitious emigre beauty Anna Mons, but the firstborn son was not so easily discarded.
Often malignantly ignored in his youth, Alexei spent his teen years being browbeaten by Peter who rightly despaired of ever making the boy into a king who could carry Peter’s legacy.
Where the father was preternaturally energetic, the son was feeble and reticent; Peter’s irritated letters to Alexei frequently complain of his laziness. (“I am incapable of exertion,” Alexei whinged.) Where the father had a curious mind for the Age of Enlightenment, the son was a dreamer who preferred the mysteries of the Orthodox religion. The boy showed little interest in politics or statecraft, but his position as the firstborn son meant that politics and statecraft were interested in him. Alexei just wanted to go to church and fool around with his Finnish mistress; he feigned or induced illness to avoid the instructional tasks his father appointed him, and once even tried to shoot himself in the hand to duck work.
The father called on all of his legendary severity fruitlessly trying to twist this malformed sapling into a sovereign when the boy’s every characteristic seemed to reproach Peter’s mission of a new and reborn Russia.
“How often have I scolded you for this, and not merely scolded but beaten you,” Peter wrote the boy when the latest assignment was not accomplished to his satisfaction. “Nothing has succeeded, nothing is any use, all is to no purpose, all is words spoken to the wind, and you want to do nothing but sit at home and enjoy yourself.” Start with scolding, proceed to beating — Peter’s philosophy of management as well as child-rearing.
Ever more fearful of his hated father, Alexei in 1716 gave Peter one final and greatest embarrassment by spurning his father’s last ultimatum to join the Russian army on campaign. Instead, the tsarevich fled to the protection of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI. Charles put him up in Naples for a year until Peter’s courtier Count Tolstoy** finally persuaded Alexei to return.
Alexei hoped he had arranged to get out of the royal-succession game and live as a private citizen, but where princes of the blood are concerned this option is more easily conceived than arranged. Peter well knew that the Orthodox clergy and many aristocrats awaited his death as their opportunity to roll back his reforms; the pious Alexei was inevitably a focus of these hopes and the boy embraced rather than shunned the association. Moreover, the twerp had made Peter look the fool before all of Europe with his running-away act.
Instead, the prince — whose return to Russia under the circumstances really was quite naive — found himself faced with a cruel inquisition.
Detail view (click for the full image) of Nikolai Ge’s 1871 painting “Peter the Great Interrogating the Tsarevich Alexei Petrovich in Peterhof” (via Wikimedia Commons)
Gibbon wrote of Marcus Aurelius that in permitting his notorious son Commodus to become his heir, “he sacrificed the happiness of millions to a fond partiality for a worthless boy, [and] chose a successor in his own family, rather than in the republic.”
Peter the Great easily possessed the iron resolution that the ancient Stoic lacked.
The tsar had learned seamanship in his youth by working in European dockyards; had learned soldiery by enrolling himself in the ranks and working his way up from drummer-boy. In his childhood he had seen the palace guard run amok in the Kremlin slaughtering his own family, bided his time until he could topple the power of his half-sister and take Russia in hand, and then wrought on those mutinous soldiers a terrible revenge.
And he had set for his reign a self-consciously world-historic mission, to force an unwilling nation into the European family. This enterprise of relentless, exhausting hubris the tsar applied everywhere from the cut of his noblemen’s facial hair to the whole-cloth creation of the Westward-facing capital city St. Petersburg.
Just so did Peter address himself to his truculent son.
“I will deprive you of the succession, as one may cut off a useless member,” he threatened in a come-to-Jesus letter of 1715, when Alexei was already 25 years old.
Do not fancy that, because I have no other child but you, I only write this to terrify you. I will certainly put it in execution if it please God; for whereas I do not spare my own life for my country and the welfare of my people, why should I spare you who do not render yourself worthy of either? I would rather choose to transmit them to a worthy stranger than to my own unworthy son.
Peter, to borrow a phrase redolent in Russian historiography, mourned not the cracked eggs that made his omelette.
And sometime after Alexei’s flight to Naples, Peter had clearly come to the understanding that for the good of his nation that unworthy son must indeed be spattered.
This episode places Peter in a monstrous light, just as would Marcus Aurelius appear to us had he contrived to murder the future tyrant Commodus when the latter was a mere callow youth. We do not have the luxury of seeing the path not taken, but it ought be said in the towering tsar’s defense that his disdain for the crown prince’s ability is difficult not to share. Alexei’s character stacks flaw upon flaw; no doubt Peter’s upbringing, by turns distant and brutal, was stamped upon it. Let the father bear that failure, but it does not relieve the sovereign’s choice: was he to confide his country and his legacy to the hands of this goblin? Was it even tolerable to leave this firstborn cooling his heels in a monastery, waiting for Peter’s death to cast off cowl and abdication and be acclaimed king by Old Russia?
Peter’s own youth, when he was part of an unresolved dynastic rivalry awkwardly sharing power, had been mired in plots and counterplots. Now, he could scarcely help but suspect that Alexei was also a piece of some conspiracy intending to undo Peter — whether in life or in death.
He forced the son to name his confidantes, then put those confidantes to torture and followed their accusations. In March of 1718, several men were broken on the wheel in Red Square; Alexei’s mother, long ago exiled to a convent, was menaced through her lover who was publicly impaled. Others got off with whippings, brandings, beatings, exile.
Not long after, that Finnish mistress of Alexei returned to the rodina herself. During his mission to Italy, Count Tolstoy had compromised her, and now she willingly supplied Peter the evidence of his son’s treason: that he spoke often of the succession, and how he would abandon St. Petersburg, let the navy rot, and restore the rights of the church; that he thrilled to every rumor of Peter’s illness and even to a mutiny. (Alexei would later acknowledge to his father’s face that had the mutineers acclaimed him tsar, he would have answered the summons.)
Peter empowered a very reluctant secular court to examine Alexei as a traitor without deference to his royal person. In a word, this meant torture — and on June 19, the frail Alexei was lashed 25 times with the knout, a terrible whip reinforced with metal rings that flayed a man’s back into carrion-meat and could even break the spine. Alexei managed to endure it, so on June 24 his suppurating wounds were reopened with another 15 strokes of the cruel scourge.
Under this inhuman torment, Alexei admitted wishing his father’s death — not much of an admission since he had already said as much to dad in the weeks before. But this gave his magistrates enough to condemn the tsarevich to death later that same night, for compassing the death of the king. The reality was that Alexei, vapid and indolent, had only one design on the death of his father: to await it with hope.
What we do not quite know is whether or how this sentence was actually effected. Peter wavered and did not sign the sentence — but as contemporaries saw it, God signed it.
On the morning of June 26, Peter and a number of other court dignitaries went to Peter and Paul Fortress. The fortress’s logs do not specify whether this was yet another round of torture for Alexei; stories would later circulate that Peter or a subaltern murdered the boy here by crudely beating him to death or privately beheading him, sparing the realm the spectacle of the broken crown prince mounting the scaffold.
But the official story, that an already-faltering Alexei begged Peter’s forgiveness as he succumbed to the shock notice of his condemnation, could easily be true: 40 strokes of the knout were enough to take the life of a much firmer constitution than Alexei’s.
By any measure, Peter authored the death of his son under the pall of execution, if not its literal fact — and for all the instances of royal-on-royal violence supplied by the annals, this filicide is nearly unique: Peter the Great, Emperor of All Russia, tortured his disappointing son to death.
Peter the Great died in 1725 at age 52 — according to legend, catching his death by forging into the freezing Finnish Gulf to rescue some drowning soldiers. (“I do not spare my own life for my country and the welfare of my people …”) Peter’s wives had borne him eight legitimate sons over the years, but Alexander, Pavel, Peter, another Pavel, another Peter, yet another Pavel, and yet another Peter had all died in early childhood. This was to be (after the brief reign later in the 1720s of Alexei’s sickly son Peter II) the end of the direct male line of Romanovs.
Instead, Peter was succeeded by his remarkable wife Catherine, by origin a Latvian peasant — and the 18th century would be dominated by female monarchs, culminating with Catherine the Great.
* It was June 24 by the Julian calendar still in use in Russia at that time. By the modern Gregorian calendar, Alexei Petrovich was condemned on July 5, and died on July 7.