1335: Prince Moriyoshi, imperial martyr

Add comment August 12th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1335,* imperial power in Japan received the executioner’s decisive verdict.

The three-year Kenmu Restoration (1333-1336) makes an interregnum sandwiched between two different eras of samurai-backed feudal shogunates, but if you were an heir to Japan’s ancient imperial house you might call the Kenmu era a plain-old regnum: the briefest of moments when the emperor actually exercised his purported authority.

It would not recur for another five centuries, during Japan’s 19th century Meiji Restoration.

Our older restoration saw Emperor Go-Daigo attempt to seize autocratic powers for his family, appointing his own sons successively as shogun. One of those sons was our date’s principal, Prince Moriyoshi (English Wikipedia entry | the more robust Japanese).

And one of those outside lords aggrieved at being cheated of the shogunate was Ashikaga Takauji, a samurai lord who would rebel against Go-Daigo. It says here that the subsequent period in Japanese historiography was the Ashikaga Shogunate, so that gives you an idea why you’re reading about Prince Moriyoshi on an execution blog. In the midst of his civil war, the upstart shogun-to-be captured Moriyoshi and sent him to a brother, who held the prince prisoner in a cave and had him beheaded at the provocation of some setback to the family cause.

Upon the re-establishment of the imperial house all those centuries later, the Meiji emperor had a Shinto shrine erected in veneration of this martyred ancestor at the place of his sufferings; the Kamakura-gu remains a popular pilgrimage and tourist site to this day.

* As best I can determine, August 12 is the consensus translation of the date from the Japanese lunisolar calendar; a date of “July 23” can also be found in some citations, which apparently reflects the 23rd day of the 7th month. However, the first day of the Japanese year occurred a few weeks after the Julian calendar’s January 1.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Execution,History,Japan,No Formal Charge,Power,Royalty,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1328: Willem de Deken, Flemish merchant-rebel

Add comment December 24th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1328, Willem de Deken, burgomaster of Bruges, had his hands cut off and his neck strung up in Paris for treason.


Belgian illustrator Jean-Leon Heuns‘s 20th century depiction of Willem de Deken.

De Deken was among the leaders of the 1323-1328 Revolt of Coastal Flanders.

“As with most rebellions in Flanders, the revolt was not a straightforward clash of social classes,” notes Medieval Bruges: c. 850-1550.

At first, the protests of the rebels of the castellany of Bruges and other rural districts in coastal Flanders were aimed at the abuses in tax collection by the ruling elites — and more specifically members of the castellany’s noblemen who were thought to be exploiting the commoners to line their own pockets … However, the rising was soon joined by a Bruges coalition of artisans and some disgruntled members of the city’s commercial elite.

De Deken “led a rebellious coalition uniting various social groups though with the textile workers as its backbone”; at one point the rebels even captured Louis, Count of Flanders. (He escaped.)

The rising’s scale brought in the intervention Louis’s French allies,* and the French finally brought Flanders to heel at the Battle of Cassel on August 23, 1328.** De Deken did not have the good sense of his peasant rebel counterpart Nicolaas Zannekin to die at this battle.


The Battle of Cassel, by Hendrik Scheffer (1837).

This was all bad news for the men and women in rebellion in the 1320s but triumph on the Cassel battlefield could not resolve a fundamental contradiction in the Low Countries between Flemish merchants, whose booming wool trade pulled them ever closer to the English cloth industry, and the French-facing political alignment of Count Louis.

Just a few years later when English-French rivalries blossomed into the start of the Hundred Years’ War, a new merchant-rebel succeeded where De Deken had failed, expelling the Count and aligning the Low Countries with England. (Eventually these precincts would become part of the Burgundian patrimony, and those dukes’ running rivalries with the French crown.)

* Times being what they were, French intervention also entailed having the Avignon Pope John XXII pronounce a sacramental interdict against Flanders pending its submission.

** It’s one of several battles of Cassel in northern France, further muddled by several battles of the unrelated but homophonic Cassel/Kassel in Hesse.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Belgium,Burgundy,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Hanged,History,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Torture,Treason

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1330: Edmund of Woodstock, family man

Add comment March 19th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1330, the king’s half-brother Edmund of Woodstock lost his head for treason.

Edmund was the youngest son of Edward I. That patrimony didn’t come with a throne attached, but hey, you could do a lot worse than Earl of Kent.

You could do a lot better too, though, if you had royal blood.

According to the chronicle Vita Edwardi Secundi, Edmund (or possibly the middle brother Thomas) was intended by his father for the more august and lucrative earldom of Cornwall.* But Edward I died when Edmund and Thomas were young boys, and “his sad death prevented what would have been appropriate from being consummated.” Instead, the heir-turned-king Edward II stiffed flesh and blood to hand Cornwall to his notorious favorite, Piers Gaveston.

Edmund seemed to get over the slight and generally had the king’s back during the turbulent 1320s.

However, after fighting for his brother’s interests in France, he found himself there in Paris in 1325-26 with Edward’s French Queen Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer just as that couple set about plotting their rebellion.

Edmund joined their circle, took part in their invasion of England, and sat on the tribunal that condemned the deposed king’s new notorious favorite, Hugh Despenser, to death. As the price for his support, Isabella and Mortimer fulfilled the cash pledges Edward I had long ago made to the boy.

His attitudes and allegiances appear ambiguous during the unsteady years of Isabella and Mortimer. Whatever his acquiescence — whatever his payoff — he had little real affection for the new master and mistress of the realm.


Edmund’s end in 1330 touches a sensitive historical controversy.

Of a sudden, the Earl of Kent became convinced that his brother Edward II was being held at Corfe Castle and resolved to liberate him. He attempted to pass a letter to the captive king — a letter that proved quite enough to incriminate him when it was intercepted by Roger Mortimer. (Mortimer might have baited him into writing it in the first place.)

Worships and reverence, with a brother’s liegeance and subjection. Sir knight, worshipful and dear brother, if you please, I pray heartily that you are of good comfort, for I shall ordain for you, that you shall soon come out of prison, and be delivered of that disease in which you find yourself. Your lordship should know that I have the assent of almost all the great lords of England, with all their apparel, that is to say with armour, and with treasure without limit, in order to maintain and help you in your quarrel so you shall be king again as you were before, and that they all – prelates, earls and barons – have sworn to me upon a book.

What’s really queer about this isn’t so much the volte-face on whether Edward ought to rule: it was the fact that Kent had actually attended Edward II’s funeral in 1327.

How could Edmund think a guy he saw buried would read his letter three years later? Was the funeral a sham? Did Edward survive his (conventionally accepted) 1327 death/murder in captivity? Edward II blogger Kathryn Warner, who calls Edmund “a brave man who tried to do the right thing”, thinks so. She makes the case in a four-part series on the Earl of Kent’s conspiracy here:

Fortunately for your humble narrator, mere headsmen are not called upon to adjudicate such controversies. Our job is just to cut whose head we’re told. Although in Edmund’s case, even that couldn’t go to plan: the poor guy was parked outside the walls of Winchester for the whole day of March 19th before someone could finally be found to give him the chop. It was a condemned prisoner who obtained his own release by turning executioner. (Source)

Later that same year of 1330, Edmund’s 17-year-old nephew Edward III — in whose name the usurpers Isabella and Mortimer ruled — mounted a palace coup to take his reign into his own hands.

With that turn of fortune, Mortimer found himself in the executioner’s clutches, and Edmund was posthumously rehabilitated. Edmund’s daughter Princess Joan — the “Fair Maid of Kent”, and in Froissart’s estimation, “the most beautiful woman in all the realm of England, and the most loving” — married Hundred Years War hero Edward, the Black Prince. Among the children Joan bore Edward was the eventual King Richard II.

* Infinitely more lucrative: the Earldom of Kent was a newly re-created title that had last been used 50 years before. It came initially with no estates or income at all.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Power,Public Executions,Royalty,Treason

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1330: Roger Mortimer, usurper

Add comment November 29th, 2011 Headsman

The prince I rule, the queen do I command,
And with a lowly congé to the ground
The proudest lords salute me as I pass;
I seal, I cancel, I do what I will.
Fear’d am I more than lov’d;—let me be fear’d,
And, when I frown, make all the court look pale.

-Roger Mortimer in Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II

On this date in 1330, Roger Mortimer’s three-year run as de facto ruler of England ended with a rope at Tyburn.

Mortimer was a key figure in the Despenser War — a revolt of nobles against King Edward II and the king’s hated-by-nobles right hand Hugh Despenser.

That war failed and landed Mortimer in the Tower. Then, things really got interesting.

Mortimer escaped his cell in 1323 and fled to France. There he took up with King Edward’s own wife, Queen Isabella, when the latter came to court on some state business.

This was, needless to say, quite a scandalous arrangement — but hey, Isabella had seen royal cuckolding right in her own family before.

So the adulterous lovebirds settled in to canoodle and set about planning some serious homewrecking.

Both Isabella and Mortimer are by every appearance among the most outstanding personalities of their day, and they had ambition to match their considerable personal gifts.

In the autumn of 1326, they invaded England and won a swift victory as those disaffected nobles from the recent wars declared for the usurpers. This time, Hugh Despenser was put to death.

Edward didn’t fare that much better. By the next January, he had been forced to abdicate in favor of his 14-year-old son, which in reality meant ceding power to his ex and her lover. And you thought your divorce settlement was bad.

In the long tradition of rival heads of state being disposed of, Edward II was, well, disposed of: strangled in captivity later that same year (allegedly! there is some doubt as to whether he really died in 1327), and given a state funeral that put Roger Mortimer into a bogus public display of mourning

(Mortimer’s kinsman and historical-fiction-biographer Ian Mortimer thinks Edward actually survived, which is neither here nor there as pertains the fate of Mortimer.)

Once he got to the top of the heap, Mortimer too had rocky aristocratic relationships. He irked the lords of the realm with his tendency to behead them. He lost the First War of Scottish Independence. Oh, and he was a regicide. All this frayed his popularity. (This just in: governance is hard.)

More than that, since he and Isabella ruled in the minority of the titular king, Edward III, they were rearing a wolf to their own destruction — a wolf with a built-in personal grudge about his father’s overthrow and murder. All young Edward needed was a plan to disencumber his fangs.

As is so often the case, the most direct solution proved to be the best. In one of the more dramatic family moments in the English royal annals, Edward joined his close friend and a small band of trusted armed men, and burst in on Mortimer at Nottingham Castle, arresting him while his mother plaintively implored Edward to “have pity on gentle Mortimer.”

But Mortimer got as much mercy as he’d given the late Edward II. A mere six weeks removed from mastery of England, Mortimer was presented bound and gagged for the formality of a condemnation by Parliament on grounds of assuming royal authority. Then he was hustled off to Tyburn dressed pointedly in the same black tunic he had once worn to mourn Edward II. It was the first documented case of a nobleman being hanged at that grim destination.

First Lord. My lord, here is the head of Mortimer.
K. Edw. Third. Go fetch my father’s hearse, where it shall lie;
And bring my funeral robes.
Accursed head,
Could I have rul’d thee then, as I do now,
Thou hadst not hatch’d this monstrous treachery!

-Marlowe’s Edward II

The French could say the same thing of Edward.

We’ve previously recommended Lady Despenser’s Scribery for its coverage of this period; true to form, it has a detailed series on Roger Mortimer: 1, 2, 3, 4

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Heads of State,History,Infamous,Milestones,Nobility,Power,Public Executions,Sex,Treason

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