1318: Sir Gilbert Middleton, son of iniquity

2 comments January 26th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1318, for kidnapping and robbing some churchmen, the Northumberland knight Sir Gilbert Middleton was condemned to be “hanged and drawn in the site of the cardinals which he had robbed” — the sentence thought to have been executed immediately.

The mid-1310s were a deep slough for King Edward II:* his political power faltered, his finances sank, and the Scots gave him a thrashing at Bannockburn. So low was Edward’s prestige that a pretender turned up claiming to have been switched at birth with the unsatisfactory king.

A “Poem on the Evil Times of Edward II” from that time enumerates the woes of Britons. It reserves several stanzas for the disreputable knights afoot in the land.

Thus is the ordre of kniht turned up-so-doun,
Also wel can a kniht chide as any skolde of a toun.
Hii sholde ben also hende as any levedi in londe,
And for to speke alle vilanie nel nu no kniht wonde
For shame;
And thus knihtshipe is acloied and waxen al fot-lame.

Knihtshipe is acloied and deolfulliche i-diht;
Kunne a boy nu breke a spere, he shal be mad a kniht.
And thus ben knihtes gadered of unkinde blod,
And envenimeth that ordre that shold be so god
And hende;
Ac o shrewe in a court many man may shende.

The author of this verse would have recognized Gilbert Middleton for sure, but before we come to the unkinde blod, appreciate the dastard’s situation. Post-Bannockburn, Robert the Bruce raided into Northumberland with impunity. Estates in that zone could suffer the pillage or pay the Scots off, but in either event they had no protection from the crown … since King Edward had his hands full in a virtual civil cold war against the powerful Earl of Lancaster.

In this tense situation, Middleton shockingly attacked the king’s cousin Lewis de Beaumont on September 1, 1317 while the latter was en route to be consecrated Bishop of Durham. Seized in the same party were Beaumont’s brother Henry, plus two Italian cardinals they had escorted back as emissaries to hammer out a truce between England and Scotland. (The papacy’s interest here was to redeploy Britain’s armed men to Crusading.)

The reasons for this attack have always been mysterious: the Pope blamed those marauding Scots for putting Middleton up to it, but Lancaster was also an ally of the errant knight as well as the promoter of a candidate for bishop rival to Lewis de Beaumont.

However it was intended to play out, the ambush quickly went pear-shaped. Perhaps raiding and holding for ransom was the sort of elbow one could throw in intra-elite politicking of the 14th century, but the presence of the cardinals changed everything.

Middleton might even have been unaware such august dignitaries were in the party when he first attacked it, and one chronicler reports that his party “at first spared the cardinals and their men, for they were not seeking to injure them” until this clemency started leading Beaumont’s retainers too to assert “themselves to be servants of the cardinals, and neither the cardinals nor others were spared, but all were despoiled.”** Regardless of how they came to do it, the sacrilegious rapine of holy cardinals and their retinue was the shocking crime that would thrust Middleton beyond the pale, either of friendship in his rebellion or of reconciliation afterwards. (Beaumont had not yet been consecrated, so the indignities he suffered were all in a day’s work.)

The Beaumonts became Middleton’s unwilling guests at Mitford Castle.† The cardinals had their effects restored and, after enduring their now-excommunicate captors’ unavailing petition for a suitable penance, were given over to Lancaster; they returned all the way to London under his safe conduct … and as they went they “published a terrible sentence upon their assailant and upon all in any way adhering to them … demand[ing] execution of this sentence through all England.” Before September was out, there was a royal proclamation against Middleton’s “sons of iniquity.”

This rebellion, whatever its dimensions, lasted for a vague span over the autumn and winter months. Sir Gilbert and his too-few friends held some fortifications in Northumberland and Yorkshire; where possible they added more noble types to his collection in Mitford but in spite of the tense situation in England no wider rising materialized.

And living by plunder quickly caught up with Gilbert Middleton.

certain nobles of the countryside … went to him under safe conduct, as if for their [the hostages] deliverance, and after many words and quibblings, a certain price for them being settled, they set free certain ones and left certain ones as hostages until full payment of the money. Thereupon, the day of the final payment arriving, and the appointed time, when the attendants of the same Gilbert were roaming in various places, in order to plunder and pillage, those who ought to have made the payment came to speak with him, saying that they had the money secretly in the town, and asked that free exit and entrance might be granted to them to fetch it. This granted, when they came to the gate of the castle as if to go out, the porters’ throats being cut in a moment, they led in a multitude of armed men hiding outside, who suddenly, rushing with blows upon him [Gilbert], who was thinking of no such thing, bound him tightly with iron chains.

-annals of John de Trokelowe

The captive Middleton was shipped to London and there condemned to “be dragged through the city to the gallows and there be hanged alive, and alive be torn apart and afterwards be beheaded … heart and organs to be burnt beneath the aforesaid gallows, also the body of the same Gilbert be divided into four parts, so that one quarter of his body be sent to Newcastle, another to York, the third to Bristol, and the fourth to Dover, there to remain.”

* Of course, worse times were yet to come.

** Quoted (as are many other period citations) in this useful public domain biography of Middleton. This author’s take was that Lancaster was behind the affair, believing “that it would be popular in the North of England, and would make a signal for a general rebellion throughout the country. The presence of the cardinals ruined the scheme” — and Lancaster himself had the wit and the pull to dissociate himself before it all came down on Middleton’s head.

† Yes, those Mitfords.

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1318: Dukes Erik and Valdemar Magnusson

Add comment February 16th, 2014 Headsman

This is the generally attributed death date of Duke Erik and Duke Valdemar of Sweden — intentionally starved to death at the order of their royal brother, according to the 14th century Erikskrönikan.

This is pretty borderline as an execution, to be sure, but brutal games of thrones ran in these men’s family. Their grandfather Birger Jarl was a powerful duke who got his young child elected king when the throne came open in 1250, possibly circumventing family of the preceding monarch.

And no sooner did the old silverback shuffle off then said son was rudely usurped by his little brother Magnus.

We’re still in the family lore here, but past proved to be prologues for King Magnus’s kids. Magnus had his oldest child Birger set up to succeed, but Birger’s brothers Erik and Valdemar would struggle with the official heir for power after Magnus died.

The boys had a civil war in the 1300s that even resulted in Erik and Valdemar deposing Birger and clapping him in a dungeon — an outcome reversed by pressure from the Norwegians and Danes.

Come the 1310s, things were still tense. Situated on impressive domains of their own — Erik was Duke of Sodermanland, Valdemar, Duke of Finland — the kid brothers looked a potent threat to King Birger once again. Not fancying another stay in the family prison, Birger pre-emptively arrested his brothers at the family Christmas celebration in 1317.

Birger would learn that you can’t solve all family problems by starving them. Weeks after his fratricide, the brothers’ supporters ousted him for good.

Birger fled to exile. His own son, Magnus Birgersson, remained to answer at the executioner’s block for his father’s sins … while his three-year-old cousin, Erik’s son King Magnus, succeeded the throne and held it until 1364.

Cold comfort to the dead dukes, perhaps, but they at least had the consolation of being exalted as “holy dukes” thanks to the winner-written history.

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1318: John Deydras, aka John of Powderham

Add comment June 5th, 2012 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On some day in June 1318, a cat and a one-eared man called John Deydras or Dydras, also known as John of Powderham, were hung in Oxford for challenging the right of Edward II to rule; indeed, John had claimed he was Edward II himself.

It had all started earlier that year when he walked into the King’s Hall in Oxford and announced before everyone that he was the rightful king of England. It was true that he resembled King Edward’s father, Edward I, except that he was missing an ear.

According to Powderham, when he was a baby and playing in the castle yard, a pig bit his ear off. His nanny, fearing the wrath of his royal parents, substituted him for a changeling. Now he was back and wanted to claim his kingdom. He even offered to fight King Edward in single combat for the right to rule.

Historian Helen Castor records the incident in her book She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth:

Edward’s first response was to laugh. He welcomed the pretender, the Chronicle of Lanercost records, with a derisive cry of “Welcome, my brother!” But for the queen, struggling to maintain her husband’s dignity (and, with it, her own), and acutely conscious of the threatening consequences of Edward’s failings, jokes did not come so easily. Proud Isabella was “unspeakably annoyed.”

Proud Isabella had a reason for being so displeased, for her husband was nothing like his father, who had been an accomplished soldier and a good king. Indeed, Edward was widely despised not only for his inept leadership but his unseemly relationships with other men.

After his arrest, Deydras confessed that the story had been a lie. He blamed his pet cat, a servant of the devil, for putting him up to it.

Modern readers can only conclude that the man was crazy. Royal pretenders had remarkably short lifespans, and to become one was effectively to commit suicide. (And at the urgings of a cat! Cats are not, after all, noted for their political acumen.)

Deydras’s contemporaries probably also knew he was mad, and Edward wanted to keep him as a court jester, but according to well-established precedent he was hung — and the cat too.

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1318: Four Fraticelli friars

4 comments May 7th, 2012 Headsman

[Spiritual Franciscans record] the names of the condemned and the days or calends on which they suffered like martyrs.

-Inquisitor Bernard Gui (the gui from Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose)

On this date in 1318, four Franciscans — Jean Barrani, Deodat Michel, Guillem Sainton, and Pons Rocha — were burned at the stake in Marseilles.

This illustration of the martyred friars also adorns the cover of the book So Great a Light, So Great a Smoke: The Beguin Heretics of Languedoc … which tells the story of what happened next.

These Fraticelli were part of the great and multi-headed 13th-14th century movement towards spiritual poverty — movements like the Apostolic Brethren, of Fra Dolcino fame.

The worldly wealth of the Church, as Eco’s narrator explains it,

generated movements of men bent on a poorer life, in protest against the corrupt priests … [the Fraticelli] claimed that Christ and the apostles had owned no property, individually or in common; and the Pope condemned this idea as heretical. An amazing position, because there is no evident reason why a pope should consider perverse the notion that Christ was poor.

Distinct from Dolcino et al (who were outside any official institutional order) but mutually sympathetic with their like, the Fraticelli were “Spiritual” Franciscans who rejected the more worldly accoutrement that even their humble order had taken on.

“Hardly a handful [of Franciscans] can be found who will abstain from luxuries, wearing cheap, patched tunics, and going without shoes, like the first brethren and the blessed Francis,” complained the ascetic Ubertino of Casale in 1311. “It seems as if all the spiritual offices of the order were rated at a price.”

In the hands of a more supple pope, this popular energy might have helped the Church, but John XXII — who held his court at Avignon in the care and feeding of the French crown — rejected his predecessors’ attempts at brokering compromises and just cracked down.

“Great is poverty,” said the papal bull ordering an end to the disputation. (Quoted here.) “But greater is blamelessness, and perfect obedience is the greatest good.”

And you have to enforce perfect blamelessness.

It began in the Avignon papacy’s Provencal back yard: southern France, which had felt the papal whip before, had proven very fertile soil for the Fraticelli, with its own similar Beguin movements among the laity.

Soon after Pope John ascended the seat of St. Peter, 25 obdurate Spiritual Franciscans were summoned to Avignon to answer to the Inquisition; 21 of them succumbed to the menacing proceedings and produced their “obedient” recantations, leaving the four stern enough to persevere unto the stake.

Many more, too many to track from the era’s sketchy documentation, followed them in the ensuing years.

The fires kindled at Marseilles were a signal for the extermination of the Spiritualists throughout Provence. We hear of burnings at Narbonne, Montpelier, Toulouse, Lunel, Lodvfere, Carcassonne, Cabestaing, Beziers, Montreal. Mosheim tells us of a band of a hundred and thirteen Spirituals sacrificed at Carcassonne from 1318 to 1350. Wadding tells us that the Franciscan inquisitors alone burned one hundred and fourteen of the zealots in a single year (1323). And Angelo compares the indiscriminate frenzy of the persecutors to the fierceness of rabid dogs and wolves. The works of Olivi were condemned at the Pentecostal chapter of 1319 at Marseilles, and even the bones of many saints who had died uncondemned (though suspected), were cast out of their tombs. The result of the fierce persecutions was to stamp out the Spirituals in Provence.

Beguini combusti or “burned Beguins” (doc link) inspired their synoptic brethren, and strains of the persecuted movement persisted for many years.**

John XXII reaped the hatred of the put-upon Franciscans. According to Bernard McGinn’s study of reputed “papal antichrists”† John was “the pope who bears the distinction of being the most popular candidate for the role of Papal Antichrist in medieval history.”


Image of Pope John XXII as the Antichrist. 15th century image from the Vaticinia de Summis Pontificibus, adapted from a c. 1340 illustration of the apocalyptic pro-Spiritual text as described in The Use and Abuse of Eschatology in the Middle Ages.

* Theologically, it was a dispute over whether Christ and the Apostles owned anything, singly or jointly. Politically, it pitted the Holy See against the Holy Roman Emperor, the classic Guelph-Ghibelline contest. (A few years on, there would be a Spiritual Franciscan appointed as antipope by the emperor.)

** William of Ockham — the Occam’s Razor guy — had to flee to imperial protection because, although not a radical Fraticello, he merely considered well-founded the doctrine that Christ and company didn’t own anything.

† In “Angel Pope and Papal Antichrist”, Church History (Jun., 1978)

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1318: Mikhail of Tver

9 comments November 22nd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1318, the Russian knyaz Mikhail of Tver was executed at the command of the Mongols.

Mikhail was the nephew of legendary prince and allegory Alexander Nevsky.


Not directly Mikhail-related. Just awesome.

Mikhail Yaroslavich (English Wikipedia page | the much more detailed Russian) in 1304 succeeded Alexander Nevsky’s younger brother as Grand Prince of Vladimir, a position granted by Mongol yarlyk that symbolized primacy over all other Russian knyazes. But Mikhail was challenged for leadership by his cousin, the Grand Prince of Moscow.

This fellow, Yuri(y) by name, would fight Mikhail off and on for the latter’s 14 years in power. Their personal rivalry was also the political rivalry of their respective cities, Moscow and Tver — vying for that yarlyk and, in effect, for the eventual leadership of the still-gestating Russian state.

Since it was gestating at the pleasure of the Khanate at this time, the dispute was resolved by Yuri’s getting in with the new khan, Uzbeg.* To get that yarlyk, and he got it in 1317, Yuriy even went so far as to marry one of Uzbeg’s daughters.

We mention this not because it’s a piquant period detail of kingly politics and intercultural exchange, but because the next time Mikhail and Yuriy met in battle, Mikhail won a rout … and ended up with the Mongol princess in his custody.

And then, she died in his custody.

This was a most grave development for Mikhail, almost as much as for the wife herself.

The Mongol commander whom Mikhail released — because Yuriy also got a Mongol army out of the yarlyk deal — reported the tragedy with the most incriminating coloration. While we’re in no position to assert definitively that Mikhail didn’t murder the woman, it plainly does not fit the cui bono test.

The furious Uzbeg summoned Mikhail to the Horde, a summons that, times being what they were, did not admit refusal.

When he arrived, Mikhail found himself already stitched up by the accusations of his enemies, and he was beaten and stabbed to death at the khan’s order.

Mikhail mostly reads as a garden-variety unprincipled local ruler, and he had his own conflicts with ecclesiastical leaders when they took the wrong sides in the Moscow-Tver power struggle. In spite of that, our man was posthumously expropriated by the Orthodox church as a saint.** In fact, he’s the patron saint of the city (which he’s holding, in the icon pictured above) … kind of because of what happened next.

Mikhail’s son Dmitry “the Terrible Eyes” had a terrible revenge for his father’s enemy, and murdered Yuri a few years later, temporarily gaining the yarlyk for himself. The Muscovites almost immediately recaptured the upper hand, however, and in an ensuing Tverite rising the Mongols intervened directly and sacked the city.

Tver would never again regain anything like peer status vis-a-vis Moscow, which in the following years grew larger, stronger, and wealthier under Ivan I; the Mongol yarlyk thereafter became essentially the hereditary possession of his family line. The Orthodox metropolitan outright moved to Moscow under Ivan’s reign … leaving Tver with memories of what might have been, and this monumental equestrian statue of the guy who couldn’t quite make it happen.


(cc) photo of Saint Mikhail’s monument in Tver.

Although the “Tartar yoke” would eventually be thrown off, that was hardly the end for political domination in Russian history.

Experiencing a like phenomenon in altogether different circumstances, the 19th century Decembrist poet Alexander Bestuzhev, aka Marlinsky reclaims the long-ago Mikhail for an updated usage.†

His 1824 poem “Mikhail Tverskoy” (Russian link) casts the knyaz as a martyr for the Russian nation. After all, by Marlinsky’s time, the poet could take comfort that those terrible Mongols were

struck by their vassals,
[And] became their slaves‡

* Also Ozbeg or Uzbek. The longest-tenured khan in the Mongol empire’s history, Uzbeg adopted Islam and might be the namesake of the Uzbek ethnic group.

** According to this tome on the Russian church, Mikhail wasn’t really venerated as a saint until centuries after his death: only when that occurred were hagiographical details of his pious life, principled refusal to worship pagan Mongol gods, and supposed contemporary popular cult backfilled into the story.

† A maneuver quite like his friend Kondraty Ryleyev, who pulled the same trick with Severyn Nalyvaiko.

‡ Full original translation of this poem by friend of the blog Sonechka.

“Mikhail Tverskoy”

by Bestuzhev-Marlinskiy

In a dungeon, glum and hollow,
Amidst nocturnal gloom,
A darkish lampad flickers,
And shines its flimsy light
Upon two men within a shady corner:
One, in his youthful years’ prime,
The other, fettered in chains,
Adorned already with gray hair.
Why has this elder been immured
Within your walls, Abode of fear?
Is he condemned to end existence hither,
Or were the gallows meant for him?
No sighs escape his mouth,
And in his fervent eyes —
The glimmer of serenity divine.
Towards the skies his gaze is often cast,
Or with a tender sorrow, he beholds
His son, imbued with grief,
And speaks in consolation:
“Enough, my dear friend,
Of tears sousing your eyes;
The time has come for us to part,
And buy the tranquil calm of native land
with Mikhail’s head.
Be always honorable, truthful.
And, if you wish
To pay your father homage,
Relinquish all the enemies of his without vengeance …”
The people clatter at the square
In the metropolis of brutal khans,
These Russia’s fierce and evil tyrants;
They gawk with savage joy
At the cadaver, beset by wounds.
Above him, smitten by despair,
The young prince weeps,
And rips his clothes and hair,
Reproaching the Tartars and Uzbeks,
And summoning the deity of vengeance …
This mighty god has heeded prayers,
And aided Russians in revolt;
Obliterating the oppressors,
Whose city turned into the ravens’ dwelling;
Whose fields of wheat were desiccated,
Whose hand that held the arms grew weak,
Who, struck by their own vassals,
Became their slaves.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Arts and Literature,Bludgeoned,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,Mongol Empire,Mongolia,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Put to the Sword,Religious Figures,Russia

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