On this date in 1683 the English politician and philosopher Algernon Sidney (or Sydney) was beheaded to uphold (so he conceived it) “the common rights of mankind, the laws of this land, and the true Protestant religion, against corrupt principles, arbitrary power, and Popery.”
He was one of the 17th century’s great philosophers of republicanism, and his Discourses Concerning Government was more influential in his lifetime than the work of his contemporary (and fellow-Whig*) John Locke.
Although the pen might be mightier than the sword, Sydney himself did not eschew the more literal form of combat and entered a triumphant battlefield for the Roundheads at Marston Moor. But despite penning a strong defense of assassinating despots,** Sidney’s disapproval of the proceedings against King Charles I — a trial at which Sidney, now a parliamentarian, sat as a commissioner — kept him free of the whiff of regicide.
The Republic that prevailed after King Charles’s scaffold, and in which he continued as an MP, was the closest thing Sidney would experience to the political order his writings expounded. When Parliament was forcibly disbanded in 1653 to give over to Cromwell’s rule, Sidney (like his friend and mentor Henry Vane) would not quit the legislature until General Harrison physically seized him. He sorely provoked the interregnum state thereafter by staging a pointed performance of that tyrannicidal play, Julius Caesar … starring himself as Brutus.
Away on the continent when the monarchy was restored in 1660, Sidney would not lay eyes on native soil again until 1677, when he secured a royal mulligan that also spared him the fruits of various plots he had cogitated while in exile to re-depose the Stuarts with the aid of France or the Netherlands. But he returned as one of the leading men of a Whig faction that increasingly courted the ire of the crown and from whose machinations the arch-republican was in no way dissuaded.
Sidney’s prosecution as a party to the Rye House Plot to murder King Charles II helped to earn the new Lord Chief Justice George Jeffreys his reputation as a notorious hanging judge: promoted to the post weeks earlier as a reward for his prosecution of Sidney’s alleged conspirator Lord Russell, Jeffreys stacked the trial against the defendant leading Sidney to issue from the scaffold a lengthy disquisition on the iniquities of the court. (Notably, Jeffreys circumvented a standard requiring two witnesses to prove treason by ruling that Jeffreys’ own writings made their author a “second witness”.)
* Locke had no appetite for the noble martyrdom act pulled by the likes of Sidney and Lord Russell. He fled to the Netherlands during the Rye House Plot crackdown, only returning to England with the Glorious Revolution.
Honour and riches are justly heaped upon the heads of those who rightly perform their duty [of tyrannicide], because the difficulty as well as the excellency of the work is great. It requires courage, experience, industry, fidelity, and wisdom. “The good shepherd,” says our Saviour, “lays down his life for his sheep.” The hireling, who flies in time of danger, is represented under an ill character; but he that sets himself to destroy his flock, is a wolf. His authority is incompatible with their subsistence. And whoever disapproves tumults, seditions, or war, by which he may be removed from it, if gentler means are ineffectual, subverts the foundation of all law, exalts the fury of one man to the destruction of a nation, and giving an irresistible power to the most abominable iniquity, exposes all that are good to be destroyed, and virtue to be utterly extinguished.
On this date in 1678, Catholic courtier Edward Col(e)man was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn — the second victim of Titus Oates’s “Popish Plot” concotion.
Colman was a Catholic convert whose zeal for the old faith led him into a variety of treacherous intrigues with the French court — although Colman’s eager and fruitless offices more annoyed than profited his allies.
His behavior was sufficiently indiscreet that fabulist Titus Oates had Colman queued up by name* as a Catholic plotter in the first round of 1678 Catholic terrorism allegations that would roil the realm for the next three years.
That indiscretion was very real, however, and extended to a careless presumption of his own safety. He seems to have been tipped to his danger by the judge who first took Oates’s evidence, a friend named Sir Edmund Godfrey, but he failed to use this advance intelligence to destroy his own correspondence. Godfrey in his own turn went on to a starring role in the Popish Plot debacle when he turned up murdered in October of 1678, a crime whose immediate attribution to the Catholic conspiracy that Oates had unfolded for him sent England clear round the bend.**
Colman’s case had already begun and half-fizzled by that point but with the apparent assassination of the judge a cry for his own blood now shook Parliament — “Colman’s letters!” alluding to that correspondence he surely wished he had burned: its volumes unfolded intelligence leaks, offers to exert French influence in the government even so far as dissolving Parliament, and applications for King Louis’s gold.
There are some incriminating examples in the trial transcript that, Lord Chief Justice William Scroggs charged, show “That your Design was to bring in Popery into England, and to promote the interest of the French King in this place, for which you hoped to have a Pension.” While Oates was a legendary perjurer and his fables destined to take the lives of 20-odd innocent souls in the months to come, the fact was that Colman really was caught out. His scheming ought not have merited such spectacular punishment under less extraordinary circumstances, but the things Colman really did do made it easy for Oates to position him as a paymaster in the fictitious regicidal conspiracy. “Mr. Colman, your own papers are enough to condemn you,” Scroggs said when his prisoner asserted innocence.
Nor could he protect himself with position. (Men even higher than Colman would succumb to the panic in time.) As detestably elevated as Colman looked to the average commoner, he was not himself a lord and was already (pre-Oates) regarded by King Charles II and many members of the court as a loose cannon. Everything pointed to sacrificing him … and they did. But as events would prove, the popular rage was not quenched on Colman’s bones alone.
* By name — not by face: Oates would be embarrassed at Colman’s eventual trial by the prisoner pointing out that Oates, who now claimed to have been personally paid out by Colman for various seditious errands, had utterly failed to recognize his “conspirator” when Oates appeared before the Privy Council to lay his charges in September.
** Godfrey’s murder has never been satisfactorily explained. There’s a good chance that it was a wholly unrelated affair with amazing bad timing; the revenge of the truculent Earl of Pembroke, whom Godfrey had prosecuted for murder a few months previous, is one leading possibility.
The strictures on artists also reflected Moscow’s abiding preoccupation with the cultural preeminence of Russia and of Communism.
Among the USSR’s many and varied exertions towards the latter end during the 1930s, not least was a project to induce a return to the motherland by genius (and homesick) composer Sergei Prokofiev, who had been mostly living and working Europe since the Bolshevik Revolution.*
In the mid-1930s, Stalin’s cultural ambassadors finally got their man.** And one of the plums that secured Prokofiev’s permanent repatriation was a commission to create for Mutnykh’s Bolshoi Theater a ballet version of the Shakespeare classic Romeo and Juliet.
Today, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet is one of the best-known and most widely performed of all his considerable output.
Some might even call Romeo and Juliet Prokofiev’s magnum opus. But Prokofiev wouldn’t have called it that.
Having gone to such great trouble to lure back a revolutionary artist, Soviet cultural officers were predictably aghast to discover that he produced a revolutionary reimagining of the Bard. In Prokofiev’s original composition, the star-crossed lovers get a happy ending and escape together instead of dying in the tomb. “Living people can dance, the dead cannot,” Prokofiev explained, unavailingly. The idea is that their love transcends the shackles of their family rivalry; even, that they had transcended the backwards political order that made them enemies. But Soviet bureaucrats were positively hidebound when it came to fiddling with the classics, and the director was forced to return to the tragic ending.
Nor was this the end of the meddling.
In 1936, joyless cultural commissar Platon Kerzhentsev ransacked the Bolshoi leadership, including Mutnykh — who had given the initial green light to Prokofiev’s first, heretical version.
For the next several years, the ballet with the checkerboard floor was twisted into shape by the Soviet bureaucracy, wringing change after change out of a frustrated but powerless Prokofiev. By the time it finally premiered — at the Kirov, not the Bolshoi — Prokofiev’s collaborator dramatist Sergei Radlov disgustedly wrote to friends that “I take no responsibility for this disgrace.”
“The version that’s known and loved around the world is completely incorrect,” said Simon Morrison, a Princeton professor. “There’s an act missing. There are dances orchestrated by people against Prokofiev’s wishes, and other stuff he was forced to put in there against his will.”
In the course of researching his 2010 book on Prokofiev, The People’s Artist, Morrison amazingly dredged up the original Prokofiev composition and documentary trails showing that the composer was forced to scrap three too-exotic dances, to “thicken” the orchestration, and to add elements like a group dance number and solos to show off the Kirov’s talent.† The ballet didn’t debut at the Bolshoi until 1946, when Stalin himself signed off it.
“Once the work was performed, Prokofiev was dismayed at a lot of things, including the sound of the orchestra. He wrote a long letter of protest but none of the changes were made to the score,” Morrison told the London Independent. “It became the canonic version, a reorganised, torn-up work. It’s a testament to how great the melodic writing is – it still became a great classic despite this mangling of it.”
A few books by Simon Morrison on Prokofiev and his world
* Prokofiev was neither an exile nor a refugee; his departure from the USSR in 1918 was voluntary and legally blessed. He had had no problem in the intervening years coming back to Russia and leaving again.
** One immediate product of Prokofiev’s return was the beloved 1936 children’s production Peter and the Wolf.
He also in 1938 gloriously scored Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky.
† Morrison in 2008 staged performances of Prokofiev’s original version of Romeo and Juliet.
In the month of November, there was a terrible execution in the Ukrain[e]. The son of a peasant in that country had given himself out for the Czarewitz, son of Peter I deceased, in the year 1718.
He had come into a village on the frontiers, where he had declared himself as such to three soldiers, who were on guard near the pyramidal beacons fixed along the limits. These had done homage to him, as also the inhabitants of the village. The priest had caused the bells to be rung, and said a mass in his favor.
At length the people of the village assembled, and perhaps the matter would have gone farther, if it had not been for a Sotnick, or Cossack captain, who, hearing of it, acquainted general Romanzow, then in the neighbourhood.
This pretended Prince and his adherents, who were not very numerous, were easily seized, and conveyed to Petersburgh, where they had their trial in the secret chancery; after which they were sent back to the Ukrain[e]. There the major-general Schipow had an order to see them executed.
The self-made Prince was impaled; the priest and the three soldiers were put to different kids of deaths.
The Empress forgave the peasants, but the village was razed to the ground, and the inhabitants were removed to other places.
Negrin’s major resource in this doomed project was Russian aid* — aid conditioned on Kremlin internal control within Spain, against the other factional groups (anarchists, social democrats, and so forth) that comprised the Republic’s “popular front”. Indeed, Negrin himself came to power thanks to a bloody internal coup against anarchists and anti-Soviet communists. Zugazagoitia found this distasteful but for his year in the government he had to toe the line on it: pressed by a British delegation over the political arrests — and sometimes murders — of pro-Republic dissidents like Andres Nin, Zugazagoitia allowed that “We have received aid from Russia and have had to permit certain actions which we did not like.” (quoted (p. 86) in Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia)
Though he managed to escape abroad as the Republic fell to Franco’s armies, Zugazagoitia was caught by the Gestapo in France; as they had done with his fellow politician Lluis Companys in a similar spot, the Germans deported the former Minister of the Interior to certain execution in Spain.
On this date in 1941, “the Romanian Einstein” Francisc Panet was shot with his wife Lili and three other Communists at a forest near Jilava.
A chemical engineer by training, Panet or Paneth (English Wikipedia entry | Romanian) was fascinated by the theoretical research then revolutionizing physics.
While studying in Czechoslovakia, his work on elementary particles brought him to Einstein’s attention, and the two met in 1932 and corresponded thereafter. Panet’s advocates claim that Einstein foresaw for him a brilliant future.
But back in a Romania dominated by fascism, his scientific gifts would be required for more urgent and less exalted purposes: cooking homemade explosives in his bathroom for Communist saboteurs.
Eventually the secret police traced the munitions back to Panet, and he and his wife were arrested in a Halloween raid. Condemned to death in a two-hour court martial on November 5, they allegedly went before the fascists’ guns with the Internationale on their lips.
On this date in 1591, Brian na Múrtha Ó Ruairc — Brian O’Rourke to the English who killed him — was drawn and quartered as a rebel at Tyburn.
O’Rourke was a chieftain in a disappearing world, the Gaelic Ireland that the English had been engaged in reducing ever since King Henry VIII realized that he was King of Ireland back in 1542.
O’Rourke’s patrimony in this Tudor conquest was the kingdom of West Breifne, with a lineage going right back to its 12th century founder. As far as the Tudors were concerned he was just one more truculent local lord to subdue — even if the very “proudest man this day living on the earth.” (per Nicholas Maltby)
O’Rourke’s pride put him into oppositin against the English satrap and even to succor sailors taking refuge from the shattered Spanish Armada in 1588. But fighting in his environs and eventual outright occupation steadily constrained the scope of his autonomy.
In the end it was his brother-Celts in Scotland who finished him: when O’Rourke turned up there in 1591 seeking license to recruit sword-arms there from King James VI (James was not yet James I of England at this point), Queen Elizabeth successfully prevailed upon her Scottish counterpart to arrest and extradite the man — an incident that triggered a riot in Glasgow.
Tried on the highly dubious grounds of treason against England committed in Ireland — plus a lese-majeste incident of having the queen’s image dragged in the mud tossed into the indictment for good measure* — O’Rourke scornfully refused to plead, or to defend himself unless Elizabeth herself would deign to sit in judgment — sovereign to sovereign. The court required only O’Rourke’s body, not his assent, to proceed.
O’Rourke had a sharp enough tongue when minded to deploy it, however. On the scaffold, he witheringly abused the notoriously avaricious bishop Miler Magrath who had been sent to minister to him. Then …
Upon Wednesdaie the 3 of November, Bren O’Royrke was drawne to Tyborne, and there hanged, his members and bowels burned in the fire, his heart taken out, and holden up by the hangman, naming it to be the archtraytors heart, and then did he cast the same into the fire, then was the head stricken off, and his bodie quartered
O’Rourke’s son Brian oge O’Rourke inherited his position, and his struggle, until younger brother Tadgh O’Rourke deposed him with English support. Tadgh died young in 1605 — and with him, West Breifne expired too.
* Enjoy an itemized list of the naughty O’Rourke’s many offenses against English sensibilities from page 144 of this public domain volume.
This Khan aspired to far-reaching reforms that would modernize his marchlands kingdom and not for the last time an Afghan ruler found this programme stoked a furious resistance among tribal grandees. Kalakani, though derisively nicknamed Bacha Seqao (son of a water-carrier) was just such a grandee, having pivoted profitably from regular military orders to highway robbery.
When Khan’s forces had vacated Kabul to manage a Pashtun rebellion in the south — only the latest of numerous tribal risings that plagued the Khan years — Kalakani in late 1928 sprang a surprise Tajik rebellion from the north and marched on the unprotected capital.
Amanullah evacuated Kabul with a quickness, personally behind the wheel as he blazed his Rolls Royce ahead of Kalakani’s cavalry all the way to India and eventual exile in Europe.
But the “bandit king” soon found his own government strained by the same tensions that had elevated him. Pashtun rebels who used to chafe under a western-oriented king now chafed under a Tajik one — in fact, the only Tajik to rule Afghanistan in its modern history — and their fresh rebellion soon toppled Kalakani in his own turn. He was shot with his brother and their aides, contentedly telling his firing squad, “I have nothing to ask God, he has given me everything I desired. God has made me King.”
Kalakani is still the third-last king of Afghanistan and is still bitterly — violently — controversial on his native soil, where whether you reckon him a hero or a thug depends upon your kinship. Just weeks ago as we write this, a reburial of Kalakani’s remains in Afghanistan provoked bloody ethnic melees on the streets.
* Although there is no specific connection here to Habibullah Kalakani, an execution blog would be remiss not to include a reference to this sadly undateable National Geographic photo tracing to Khan’s reign of one of those real-life dangling man-cages so beloved of the sword-and-sandals fantasy genre. Per NatGeo’s caption, an actual thief was “put in this iron cage, raised to the top of the pole, so that his friends could not pass food or poison to him, and here he was left to die.”
The young Pietro was able enough to establish himself as an envoy to the imperial court, and ambitious enough to conceive it the platform from which he would redeem the fortunes of Lucca and Fatinelli alike.
Complicit with his friend Captain Giambattista Bazzicalupo di Chiavari, Fatinelli pltted to do away with some of the principal families whom Fatinelli detested, as they represented the merchant oligarchy that spurned his more ancient and noble family.
News of the plot came to the ears of the Lucchese government when Fatinelli unadvisedly mentioned his intentions to Count Agostino Lando, an opprtunistic nobleman from Piacenza, while the two were residing in Venice.
You can’t trust Lando.
Thinking to make some profit at no risk to himself, Lando secretly informed the Lucchese of Fatinelli’s intentions. The signoria acted with utmost secrecy and was able to seize the unsuspecting Bazzicalup di Chiavari while he was reconnoitring in Lucca. They put him to the torture and he cnfessed and revealed the details of the plot, after which he was summarily executed. [August 25, 1542 -ed.]
As Fatinelli resided at the imperial court and had powerful prtoectors, the Lucchesi had a difficult time extraditing him. It took all their powers of persuasion to prove to the emperor that Fatinelli was a traitr. Eventually convinced, Charles V handed Fatinelli over to the Lucchesi, who tried him and publicly executed him after he apologized to the citizens of Lucca. The emperor insisted that, as a last favour, the young man be given the name of his denouncer, as a reward for having repented and admitted his guilt.
Though Fatinelli was defeated, the disaffection with his native city-state proved far deeper-seated than his own person. Just four years after Fatinelli’s hot head fell on the scaffold, another Lucchese nobleman attempted an even more daring revolution.
Hugh Cahun had been in Scotland since probably 1565, in the service of a unit commanded by his older brother William. It was one of three Scottish cavalry commands in Sweden at this time; French and German troops too joined the polyglot coalition.*
In the summer of 1573, Cahun caught wind of recruitment among these foreign auxiliaries for a plot to depose the Swedish King John III in favor of his imprisoned predecessor Erik XIV. Cahun reported the plot, but he didn’t know enough about it to make it stick to someone else — so perversely, he himself became the one suspected of seditious design.
King John appears by his vacillation not to have been all that convinced of the turn justice had taken in this case, twice reprieving Cahun and ultimately sparing him the horrors of the breaking-wheel for a simple beheading — sort of the early modern equivalent of the calculating modern governor who, faced with compelling evidence of innocence, consents to send a condemned man to a dungeon for the rest of his life instead of letting the law take its course. (There’s an account of the back-and-forth run-up to Cahun’s execution in this public domain book, provided you’re packing your Swedish proficiency.)
He would have cause to regret his severity soon enough: in the months to come, it would emerge that the plot was actually being spearheaded by a French loyalist of Erik named Charles de Mornay, who would himself be executed the following September.