1391: Agnese Visconti and Antonio da Scandiano, adulterous lovers?

Add comment February 7th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1391, the condottiero tyrant of Mantua, Francisco Gonzaga, removed his consort from his right arm by removing her head.

Daughter of the powerful Milanese Visconti family, Agnese Visconti had been dynastically married off to the Mantuan prince by her father. Dad had in 1385 been overthrown and murdered by a kinsman, Gian Galeazzo Visconti, but still this was all in the family: the thing was that Francisco Gonzaga started wanting to cut ties with that family.

No trouble: Francisco simply accused his wife of adultery with a knight,* Antonio da Scandiano, and had both put to death on February 7, 1391 — Agnese via the blade, Antonio at the end of a rope. Then, Francisco switched its allegiance from #TeamMilan to #TeamVenice in the peninsular geopolitics scrum.**

European courts were aghast as news of the divorce proceedings reached her preening chateaux, but “nimble, opportunistic changes of political loyalty like these were typical of Gonzaga foreign policy and helped them to navigate their small state safely in a sea of unpredictable alliances.” (Source)

Consummate survivors, the House of Gonzaga weathered the Visconti wrath and ruled Mantua into the 18th century, producing among other things down the centuries a name check in Hamlet and a pious Jesuit who became namesake to the many educational institutions called “Gonzaga”.

* The headsman is not so cold to the sentiments of the heart that he excludes the possibility of an actual dalliance. Consider him agnostic, beneath his dark cowl.

** Gian Galeazzo Visconti did right by his cousin by assailing Mantua in revenge, leading Gonzaga to throw up the gorgeous Castello di San Giorgio. This fortress was later used as a prison, and in its day has held some figures destined for Executed Today‘s pages, such as Andreas Hofer and the Belfiore martyrs.

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1397: Richard FitzAlan, Earl of Arundel

Add comment September 21st, 2017 Headsman

“Torment me not long, strike off my head in one blow”

-supposed last words of Richard Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel, to his executioner

On this date in 1397, the Earl of Arundel was condemned and immediately beheaded in London’s Cheapside.

Not to be confused with his grandfather, the Earl of Arundel* beheaded 71 years earlier for loyalty to his deposed king, our man Richard FitzAlan earned the chop for being a thorn in his king’s backside.

As one of England’s great magnates, Arundel had played a principal role for many years in the bloody struggle with King Richard II over power and prerogatives; he was one of the three original Lords Appellant whose rebellion against Richard brought about their “Merciless Parliament” in 1388, and its purge of royal loyalists.

Powerless at that time to impede the Lords Appellant, then-21-year-old King Richard quietly nurtured hatred of his foes for many years until he was in a position to really strike them. This was a delicate and a long-term business, but Richard’s bitterness proved equal to the revenge. In 1397, Richard finally — per Froissart — “decided upon a bold and daring move. He had reflected that it was better to destroy than to be destroyed and that speedy action could prevent his uncle from ever being a threat to him again.”

Said uncle was the Duke of Gloucester, another one (the senior one) of those difficult Lords Appellant. To conquer Gloucester required daring indeed: Richard lured him away from the considerable protection of his own retinue on the pretext of a hunting trip, and led him into an ambush where the Earl Marshal could arrest him undefended.

Needing now to stay ahead of the news, Richard flew for London to complete his counter-coup and the next day had Arundel arrested along with the other of the three original Lords Appellant, the Earl of Warwick. Mighty Gloucester had been spirited secretly to Calais to be murdered in prison; a more formal version of the same fate awaited Arundel.**

It may be said that the Duchess of Gloucester, with her son Humphrey and her two daughters, were naturally deeply distressed when their husband and father was brought home dead, and the Duchess had to suffer another blow when the King had her uncle. Earl Richard of Arundel, publicly beheaded in Cheapside, London. None of the great barons dared to thwart the King or dissuade him from doing this. King Richard was present at the execution and it was carried out by the Earl Marshal, who was married to Lord Arundel’s daughter and who himself blindfolded him. (Froissart, again)

* The Earl of Arundel rank still exists today as a courtesy title held by the Duke of Norfolk’s heir; it has existed nearly continuously since it was created in 1138 for a Norman nobleman.

** Warwick got enough political pull on his behalf to survive in captivity; he’d eventually be released when one of his Lords Appellant allies deposed Richard II and made himself King Henry IV … a feat that he accomplished with the aid of our Arundel’s younger brother, who also happened to be the Archbishop of Canterbury.

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1393: John of Nepomuk, Bohemian rhapsody

2 comments March 20th, 2011 Headsman

This is the date in 1393 when the Catholic patron saint of Bohemia, John of Nepomuk (or John Nepomucene) was tossed from Prague’s Charles Bridge into the Vltava River to drown at the order of the Holy Roman Emperor Wenceslaus.

Baroque statue of John Nepomuk on the Charles Bridge from which he was hurled. (cc) image from Jaguar Julie

A relief detail ((cc) image from Charles Hoffman) on this statue depicts the moment of Nepomuk’s martyrdom.

This Wenceslaus — not be confused with the good King Wenceslaus of song — had a tetchy relationship with powers ecclesiastical and temporal.

But although Wenceslaus did martyr a fellow by the handle of John of Pomuk or Nepomuk, the latter makes this blog because of political tension centuries afterward. Despite the date of his corporeal death, John of Nepomuk is really a counter-reformation saint.

Between the late 14th century and Catholic Austria’s bloody 17th century triumph over Czech nationalism the historical Nepomucene parted company pretty definitively.

The real John of Nepomuk was the General Vicar of the local archbishop, John of Jenstein (or Jenzenstein), whose skirmishes with Wenceslaus over the boundaries of royal authority caused historian Albert Wratislaw to draw a Thomas a Becket comparison.*

In the event, the latest manifestation of that disputatious relationship — the king’s attempt to seize some monastic revenues — caused Wenceslaus to completely fly off the handle and arrest several of the archbishop’s advisors, among whom was our sainted martyr.

Wenceslaus personally oversaw their torture and ordered their drowning, but someone talked him out of the execution part. The king at that point had a sort of mini-Guantanamo Bay situation: he had in hand several people whom he had arrested arbitrarily and tortured, whose release would only further embarrass his own royal self. He therefore prevailed upon them to trade their silence for their liberty.

The other arrestees counted their blessings and accepted this expedient exchange. John of Nepomuk, perhaps because he was already tortured near to the point of death, refused. He was consequently “dragged through the streets to the bridge, there his hands were tied behind him, a piece of wood was thrust into his mouth, his feet were tied to his head in the form of a wheel, and he was thrown into the river.”*

The Nepomucene’s legend really grew after his death: in its most splendidly devotional form, as the proto-martyr for the seal of the confessional, which he supposedly kept as the queen’s confessor when Wenceslaus suspected her of infidelity. (An ironic inversion to say the least, since it was actually John’s more timorous co-accused who distinguished themselves with their silence.)

This is a much more edifying martyrdom altogether, so little wonder that the sourcing on John of Pomuk over the succeeding centuries is a hot mess; later scholars would actually speculate as to whether there might not have been two priests of this name who were both martyred by Wenceslaus, so dissimilar were the legends.

Nepomuk’s elevation to legend, and thereafter to the patron saint of Bohemia, would come in part thanks to a great Czech religious reformer who arose at the end of Wenceslaus’s reign — Jan Hus.

This other, heretical John became woven into the emerging Bohemian national sense; he still remains there today. When the Catholic authorities beat back a Protestant and nationalist revolt in 1620 and imposed Catholicism from above,** Saint John of Nepomuk, martyr, was ready at hand for propagandists of the new order. At least, the legendary, confessional-keeping Nepomuk was ready … because this was not a job for the random cleric-bureaucrat who’d been done to death in some forgotten dispute over rent.

For three hundred years two holy men have been rivals for the reverence of the Cech people. One of them, Saint John Nepomuk, was exalted by the Jesuits, who after the battle of the White Hill in 1620 sought to win back the Cechs to the Roman obedience. … His rival for the position of national hero has been Jan Hus, who, during the reign and under the favour of that same king Wenceslas, led the revolt of the Cechs against the ecclesiastical domination of Rome and the secular domination of Germany, and was martyred as a heretic and rebel at the council of Constance in 1415. From that date until the extinction of the independent Bohemian state by the forces of the Empire and the Counter-Reformation in 1620, Hus was publicly honoured by his fellow-countrymen as the champion of national and religious liberty. From 1620 to 1918 his rival was exalted in his place …†

John of Nepomuk today is depicted in statuary on the Charles Bridge (the spot on the bridge where he was thrown over is also marked with a plaque) and is well-represented throughout Catholic central and eastern Europe. Owing to his patronage portfolios of bridges and flood victims, you might also find the Nepomucene in many a topical posting throughout the world — like the very spot of Christianity’s European triumph, Rome’s Milvian Bridge.

(Somewhat less gloriously, the promulgation of this saint’s name and fame mean it also attaches to John Nepomuk Schrank, a Bavarian immigrant to the U.S. who attempted in 1912 to assassinate former president cum presidential candidate yet again Theodore Roosevelt.)

* Wratislaw, “John of Jenstein, Archbishop of Prague, 1378-1397,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Vol. 7 (1878), pp. 30-57. Wratislaw wrote a now-public-domain book about St. John available here.

** Bohemia’s Catholicization is perhaps the classic case in early modern Europe of the Reformation being rolled back from above and from afar. The recent (and none too affordable) book Converting Bohemia: Force and Persuasion in the Catholic Reformation takes a nuanced survey of Bohemia’s transformation from a Protestant to a Catholic bastion … and as the title suggests, finds many of the Catholic components home-grown.

† R.R. Betts, “Jan Hus,” History, Volume 24, Issue 94 (September 1939), pp. 97–112.

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1395: Ivan Shishman, falling to the Turks

1 comment June 3rd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1395, Bulgarian tsar Ivan Shishman was beheaded in Nikopol by the Ottoman Empire then engaged in absorbing his crumbling empire.

Ivan is the little guy in the middle; the towering figures are his parents.

The mythical (though not quite literal) last emperor of Bulgaria, Shishman is ungenerously judged by Wikipedia “a vacillating politician whose inopportune choices speedily guided him to his violent end and the subjugation of the country by the enemy.”

The guy ruled a waning state under the shadow of a neighboring expansionist superpower. Only inopportune choices were available.

Shishman’s sister, Maria Thamara Hatun, had been married off to the Ottoman Sultan Murad I in a token of Bulgaria’s vassalage.

In 1389, said Murad smashed the Serbians at the Battle of Kosovo. Even though Murad died in combat, the Turks left the Field of Blackbirds with the Balkans by the throat and the Bulgarian Empire (or rather, Empires: Shishman and his brother had split the kingdom) nicely encircled.

Murad’s son Bayezid “the Thunderbolt” struck soon enough.

At the Siege of Tarnovo in 1393, the Turks essentially destroyed Shishman’s realm, while Shishman bugged out to be captured at a later mop-up operation.

The Ottomans took his head, but left Bulgaria a martyr whose iconography is still good for the nationalist metal audience.

The clips in this video are from the 1969 Bulgarian flick Tzar Ivan Shishman.

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1393: The Muzaffarids, by Timur

1 comment May 22nd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1393 — or 10 Rajab 795 on the Islamic lunar calendar — the feared conquerer Timur (or Tamerlane) disposed of the squabbling ruling dynasty he had recently overturned, the Muzaffarids.

The House of Muzaffar came to prominence under the Mongol Ikhanate that stretched itslef from Persia to the Mediterranean in the 13th century.

As the Ilkhanate broke up in 1335, a guy like Yazd governor Mubariz al-Din Muhammad ibn Muzaffar could bloodily carve out a state of his own.*

Renowned for his cruelties, Mubariz al-Din ended his life blinded by his heir, Shah Shuja (or Shah Shujaa).

And in this generation, the House Muzaffar rapidly became a house divided, with brothers and cousins vying with each other (and with neighboring princelings). They were easy pickings for the rising Timurid Empire and its eponymous founder.

Exploiting a letter** sent by the aging Shuja (after a lifetime warring with his fellow Muzaffarids) recommending Shuja’s son to Timur’s protection, Timur rolled in and set up his own puppet Muzaffar. (It wasn’t the recommended son. C’est la vie.)

No sooner had Timur decamped for his next conquest than yet another of the Muzaffar clan — a brother of Timur’s puppet by the name of Shah Mansur† — revolted and set himself up as king.

It didn’t work, but Edward Gibbon was moved to pay tribute to Mansur’s intrepidity as he surveyed the Timurid annexations:

[P]etty tyrants might have opposed him with confederate arms: they separately stood, and successively fell; and the difference of their fate was only marked by the promptitude of submission or the obstinacy of resistance. Ibrahim, prince of Shirwan, or Albania, kissed the footstool of the Imperial throne. His peace-offerings of silks, horses, and jewels, were composed, according to the Tartar fashion, each article of nine pieces; but a critical spectator observed, that there were only eight slaves. “I myself am the ninth,” replied Ibrahim, who was prepared for the remark; and his flattery was rewarded by the smile of Timour. Shah Mansour, prince of Fars, or the proper Persia, was one of the least powerful, but most dangerous, of his enemies. In a battle under the walls of Shiraz, he broke, with three or four thousand soldiers, the coul or main body of thirty thousand horse, where the emperor fought in person. No more than fourteen or fifteen guards remained near the standard of Timour: he stood firm as a rock, and received on his helmet two weighty strokes of a cimeter: the Moguls rallied; the head of Mansour was thrown at his feet; and he declared his esteem of the valor of a foe, by extirpating all the males of so intrepid a race.

* The Muzaffarids’ most famous subject was the Persian poet Hafez (or Hafiz), whose lifetime was roughly paralleled the dynasty’s own. Hafez was patronized by the powers that be, though his favor waxed and waned.

** Timur himself would not think of empire-building; he accrued a mighty central Asian realm strictly by happenstance. “God is my witness that in all my wars I have never been the aggressor, and that my enemies have always been the authors of their own calamity.”

“For every war,” observes Gibbon of Timur and his ilk, “a motive of safety or revenge, of honor or zeal, of right or convenience, may be readily found in the jurisprudence of conquerors.”

† The Muzaffarid family tree is unnecessarily confusing, but a genealogy here may clarify matters.

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