1246: Brandur Kolbeinsson, Age of the Sturlungs beheading

Add comment April 19th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1246, Brandur Kolbeinsson suffered a summary beheading.

The chieftain of Iceland’s powerful Ásbirningar clan — it was powerful until April 19, 1246 — Brandur lost a pivotal battle during Iceland’s decades-long era of civil strife in the 13th century, the Age of the Sturlungs.

The victor, Thordr Kakali Sighvatsson, wisely offered leniency to his vanquished foes inducing many to swear oaths that helped Thoror cement his hold on the north of Iceland. But two chiefs are too many, and when Brandur was overtaken fleeing the battlefield, he was beheaded summarily. A crucifix erected in the 21st century now marks the spot.

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Beheaded,Execution,History,Iceland,No Formal Charge,Power,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1242: William de Marisco, pirate knight

Add comment July 25th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1242, the knight, outlaw, and pirate William de Marisco was drawn by a horse to Coventry and put to the pains of disemboweling and quartering — albeit only after he had already been hanged to death.


Illustration of William de Marisco’s execution by the amazing 13th century chronicler Matthew Paris.

He’d eventually be damned as a kingslayer but Marisco’s doom began with the 1235 murder of a messenger of King Henry III named Henry Clement, slain at the very gates of Westminster “to our no small dishonour and scandal of the realm.” Suspicion settled on the Mariscos, who might have been motivated by Clement’s boasting of having helped recently lay in his grave the Earl of Pembroke, a magnate and great rival to the king.*

Marisco, whose architectural legacy for us is Coonagh Castle, County Limerick in Ireland, fled the scene of the crime and took refuge on Lundy Island, a gorgeous and remote fingerbone in the westerly Bristol Channel that had once been granted to the Knights Templar.**


Lundy’s west coast.
(cc) image by P_Dean.

There, as our chronicler-illustrator Matthew Paris describes, he made his way thereafter by piracy.

Whilst these occurrences were taking place, William Marsh [“de Marisco” means “of the Marshes” -ed.], son of Geoffrey Marsh, took up his quarters on an island near Bristol, called Lundy, a place impregnable by the nature of its situation, where he lived like a pirate with a number of proscribed and wicked men, indulging in plunder and rapine, and, attended by his companions, traversed the places on the neighbouring coast, despoiling the inhabitants of their property, especially wine and other provisions. By sudden incursions lie frequently carried off vast booty from the country lying near the island, and in many ways injured the kingdom of England both by land and sea, and caused great loss to the native and foreign merchants.

William de Marisco would manage seven years on the lam, seizing victuals and booty and ransomable hostages as he could from his island fastness. He’d been dispossessed of his lands in Ireland and nursed against King Henry the personal grudge of an aggrieved nobleman.

Such injuries were known to heal over time, and amid the tangle of authority and kinship among medieval Europe’s bluebloods, today’s rebel might become tomorrow’s hand of the king. But in 1238, William cut the roads behind him and made himself permanently anathema by allegedly sending an assassin after Henry III. Matthew Paris, again, with a story that will easily bear the interpretation that Marisco’s name was put into a deranged regicide’s mouth by his torturers:

on the day after the Nativity of St. Mary, a certain learned esquire, as it is said, came to the king’s court at Woodstock, pretending that he was insane, and said to the king, “Resign to me the kingdom, which you have unjustly usurped, and so long detained from me;” he also added, that he bore the sign of royalty on his shoulder. The king’s attendants wanted to beat him and drive him away from the royal presence, but the king prevented those who were rushing on him from violence, saying, “Let the insane man rave as becomes him, for such people’s words have not the influence of truth.” In the middle of the night, however, this same man entered the king’s bedchamber window, carrying an open knife, and approached the king’s couch, but was confused at not finding him there, and immediately began to look for him in the several chambers of his residence. The king was, by God’s providence, then sleeping with the queen. But one of the queen’s maids, named Margaret Biseth, was by chance awake, and was singing psalms by the light of a candle (for she was a holy maid, and one devoted to God), and when she saw this madman searching all the private places, to kill the king, and frequently asking in a terrible voice where the king was, she was greatly alarmed, and began to utter repeated cries. At her dreadful cry the king’s attendants awoke, and leaped from their beds with all speed, and running to the spot, broke open the door, which this robber had firmly secured with a bolt, and seized the robber, and, notwithstanding his resistance, bound him fast and secured him. He, after some time, confessed that he had been sent there to kill the king, after the manner of the assassins, by William Marsh, son of Greoffrey Marsh, and he stated that others had conspired to commit the same crime.

Paris has evident contempt for William, but he does note that “William boldly denied all these charges, yet he did not obtain any credit, nor was he listened to; he therefore, however unadvisedly, betook himself to out-of-the-way places, and became a fugitive and an outlaw.” It is not clear to this author that outlawry is “unadvisable” vis-a-vis standing to the judgment of a king who is certain you have attempted his life; nevertheless, it is usually little better than the temporary expedient for the doomed.

On the feast of St. James, by the king’s order, the said William, with sixteen of his accomplices taken with him, was tried and condemned, and, by the king’s order, was sentenced to an ignominious death. He was, therefore, first dragged from Westminster to the Tower of London, and from thence to that instrument of punishment called a gibbet† suspended on which he breathed forth his miserable life. After he had grown stiff in death, his body was let down and disembowelled; his entrails were immediately burnt on the spot, and his wretched body divided into four parts, which were sent to the four principal cities of the kingdom, that the sight of them might strike terror into all beholders.

His sixteen accomplices were all dragged through London at the horse’s tail, and hung on gibbets. The said William, after his condemnation, when about to imdergo the sentence pronounced upon him, invoking the divine judgment to witness, boldly declared that he was entirely free and guiltless of the crime of treason imputed to him, and likewise of the murder of the aforesaid clerk Clement; he also asserted that he had betaken himself to the aforesaid island for no other reason than to avoid the king’s anger, which he had always above all things wished to pacify by submitting to any kind of trial, or by any other humiliation; but that, after he had taken refuge as a fugitive in the said island, he was obliged to prolong his miserable life by seizing on provisions wherever he could find them. He then poured out his soul in confession before God, to J. de St. Giles, one of the brethren of the Preacher order, and confessed his sins with contrition, not excusing himself and giving vent to evil words, but rather accusing himself. This discreet preacher and confessor then administered gentle comfort to him, and dismissed him in peace, persuading him that he underwent the death to which he was doomed by way of repentance. And thus, as before mentioned, horrible to relate, he endured not one, but several dreadful deaths.

Readers of Latin can peruse the transcript of the trial, which has surprisingly survived the ravages of century, in this 1895 English Historical Review article.

* Pembroke’s brother and heir was also suspected initially, but was able to clear himself; however, he was later made to take a vow no longer to protect William de Marisco, suggesting that Pembroke was at least in simpatico with the hit. Both William and Geoffrey de Marisco had been fined previously for adhering to the Pembroke side in a fight with the king.

** The Templars at best barely possessed Lundy and the Mariscos who claimed it opposed those banker-knights’ stake, successfully.

† Paris’s unfamiliar marking of the term “gibbet” is interesting here; according to dictionary.com it was during the 13th century that this word for gallows entered Middle English from French.

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Arts and Literature,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Gibbeted,Gruesome Methods,Hanged,History,Murder,Nobility,Notable for their Victims,Pirates,Public Executions,Treason

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1246: Mikhail of Chernigov, Miracle-Worker

Add comment September 20th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1246, the Russian prince Mikhail of Chernigov was put to death by the Mongol commander Batu Khan for refusing to make an idolatrous gesture of submission.

In its time, prosperous Chernigov (or “Chernihiv” in a more Ukrainian transliteration) vied with neighboring Kiev for the the pride of place in Rus’.

But Chernigov’s time ended with Mikhail’s time, because the Mongols came crashing through the gates. The “Tatar Yoke” descended on Chernigov, and on Rus’, in the 1230s, and would not be lifted for a quarter of a millennium.

The nomadic Mongols weren’t there to commit genocide or displace the Russian civilization; they just wanted the tribute payments, thank you very much. But the local rulers the Mongols left to collect for them were selected for compliance like any good ploughman would do — and Mikhail found the yoke too disagreeable for his shoulders.

Mikhail knew full well that the Mongols were no joke. He was present at the 1223 Battle of the Kalka River, when the Rus’ principalities had caught word of a horde from the east advancing into present-day Ukraine, rode out to repel them, and lost 10,000 dead.* One of them was the previous prince of Chernigov, which is how Mikhail got the job.

Rus’ had a reprieve because this force was merely the vanguard; the Mongols had business elsewhere. Mikhail would return to the trade negotiations and regional political jockeying that made up the workaday life of a knyaz, thinking who knows what about the mysterious barbarians.

Then the Mongols returned in force.

From December 1237, they overwhelmed and sacked city after city: Ryazan, Kolomna, Moscow, and Vladimir just by March of 1238, and then dozens of cities to follow.** Some held out fiercely; some gave way quickly — but each in its turn succumbed. The “Grand Principality of Chernigov” was no more by 1239.

As the Mongols swept onwards towards Bulgaria, Poland, and Hungary,† the Mongol ruler Batu Khan (grandson of Genghis) set up a capital where the Russian princes would be made to give their ceremonial submissions. Mikhail was one of the last to do so but in 1246 to forestall the prospect of another Mongol attack, he too made the trip.

Although Mikhail consented to kowtow to the Mongol prince, he incensed his host by refusing to prostrate himself before heathen idols. For this he was slaughtered along with an equally faithful boyar named Fedor, their bodies cast into the wilds for animals and elements to devour.


Michael of Chernigov at the camp of Batu Khan, by Vasiliy Smirnov (1883)

For this sacrifice, they became honored as Christian saints and martyrs, with September 20 fixed as the “Feast of the Miracle-Workers of Chernigov” — a liturgical expression of Russian resistance to that Tatar Yoke. When Ivan the Terrible put the Tatars of Kazan and Astrakhan to rout in the 16th century, he also translated the Miracle-Workers’ relics from Chernigov to Moscow — a political expression of their national import.

* Or possibly several times that. Body counts from chroniclers are notoriously unreliable.

** It was to save itself from the Mongols that the mythical city of Kitezh is supposed to have sunk itself like Atlantis into Lake Svetloyar near Nizhny Novgorod.

† As well as points south.

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Bludgeoned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,God,Heads of State,History,Martyrs,Mongol Empire,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Rus',Russia

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1244: Two hundred-plus Cathars at Montsegur

1 comment March 16th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1244, over two hundred Cathar heretics submitted themselves to the stake rather than submit to the Catholic church.

Though not literally the last of the Cathars, that outlawed dualistic sect in the south of France whose extirpation occupied the papacy for much of the 13th century, this date was the last great stand and the signature massacre of the Albigensian Crusade. Afterwards, only minor outposts and isolated individuals would remain available for mop-up duty.

Heretical holdouts, fleeing a malevolent Inquisition established in the Languedoc by victorious Catholic armies, holed up at a few Cathar strongholds of which the most impressive was the mountain citadel of Montsegur.


The spectacular attraction of Montsegur tourists see today is not the legendary Cathar castle — which was razed by its conquerors — but a subsequent rebuild. (cc) image from SarahLouiseHathaway

Finally in 1243-1244, a massive Catholic army invested Montsegur; one can’t help but compare this hopeless confederation of fearless zealouts ranged against the mighty temporal powers to the Jews at Masada — and as with Masada, it were death to succumb to the besiegers.

When Montsegur finally surrendered, two hundred-some — the reported counts differ slightly — were burned at the stake for refusing to renounce their faith; many of them had actually taken sacred vows in the days before Montsegur fell.

They were Nazis, Dude?

The National Socialists’ weird quest to outrace Indiana Jones for mystical artifacts also brought the swastika to Montsegur, under the direction of the occult medievalist Otto Rahn.

Rahn thought the Holy Grail may have been secreted at Montsegur under Cathar protection, a half-literal, half-metaphorical secret goblet carrying the heretics’ forbidden gnostic wisdom from the day of Mani.

(Other Nazis, allegedly including Heinrich Himmler himself, favored the similar-sounding Spanish fortress of Montserrat. Dan Brown prefers the Knights Templar, who could have laid their gauntlets on the cup of Christ when a few Cathars allegedly slipped through Montsegur’s encirclement carrying some unidentified mysterious secret.)

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,France,God,Heresy,History,Known But To God,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Public Executions,Religious Figures,The Supernatural

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