1523: Jan van Essen and Hendrik Vos, the first Lutheran martyrs

Add comment July 1st, 2020 Headsman


Christian reformer Martin Luther composed his hymn “Ein neues Lied wir heben an” (literally “A new song we raise” but commonly titled in English “Flung to the Heedless Winds”) in response to a major milestone for his movement: the first evangelicals executed for the faith, namely defrocked Augustinian monks Jan van Essen and Hendrik Vos (or Voes), who were burned on July 1, 1523 in Brussels. “How welcome must that fire have been which hurried them from this sinful life to eternal life yonder,” Luther wrote in a missive to the Low Countries. But it wasn’t that welcome: their entire Antwerp monastery had been suppressed as a heretical nest with all its denizens save these two fleeing the stake, many by way of recantation. Nevertheless, Jan and Hendrik would not be the last of the former Antwerp Augustinians to achieve the martyr’s crown and Luther’s tribute.

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1527: Hans Hergot, immovable type

Add comment May 20th, 2020 Headsman

Nuremberg printer Hans Hergot was beheaded in Leipzig on this date in 1527.*

He’d previously published work of revolutionary Thomas Müntzer and he proved his simpatico with that fellow’s millenarian vision by publishing his own tract, Von der newen Wandlung Eynes Christlichen (The New Transformation of Christian Living). It was for this utopian sedition that Hergot lost his life, and no wonder.

The vision is of an egalitarian, agrarian society organized on a parochial basis in which goods are held in common for the use of all, habitation is after the Carthusian pattern, farming and crafts operate harmoniously, and every invidious ground and sign of social distinction has disappeared …

The enemies of Hergot’s revelation on whom he pronounces God’s imminent wrath are the ruling nobility and the Lutheran “scripture wizards” who theologically collude with them, the unjust acquitting the unjust …

It is precisely the eclecticism of Hergot’s prophetic voice that underlies its importance. For it suggests how a far-flung outburst of enthusiasm for divine or evangelical law, as opposed to corrupt and compromised human ordinances, was a connecting thread among myriad reforming orientations int he early sixteenth century — humanist, Lutheran, mystical, and apocalyptic — all of which intersected with the German Peasants’ War and the development of Anabaptism and other strands of Christian social radicalism.

From Irenaeus to Grotius: A Sourcebook in Christian Political Thought

There’s a “Hans Hergot Tower” in the Saxon town of Uelzen.

* Overshadowed, on the Reformation martyrology, by Anabaptist Michael Sattler, who burned at Rottenburg on the same date.

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1524: The rulers of the K’iche’ kingdom

Add comment March 7th, 2020 Headsman

This Tyrant at his first entrance here acted and commanded prodigious Slaughters to be perpetrated: Notwithstanding which, the Chief Lord in his Chair or Sedan attended by many Nobles of the City of Ultlatana, the Emporium of the whole Kingdom, together with Trumpets, Drums and great Exultation, went out to meet him, and brought with them all sorts of Food in great abundance, with such things as he stood in most need of. That Night the Spaniards spent without the City, for they did not judge themselves secure in such a well-fortified place. The next day he commanded the said Lord with many of his Peers to come before him, from whom they imperiously challenged a certain quantity of Gold; to whom the Indians return’d this modest Answer, that they could not satisfie his Demands, and indeed this Region yielded no Golden Mines; but they all, by his command, without any other Crime laid to their Charge, or any Legal Form of Proceeding were burnt alive. The rest of the Nobles belonging to other Provinces, when they found their Chief Lords, who had the Supreme Power were expos’d to the Merciless Element of Fire kindled by a more merciless Enemy; for this Reason only, because they bestow’d not what they could not upon them, viz. Gold, they fled to the Mountains, (their usual Refuge) for shelter, commanding their Subjects to obey the Spaniards, as Lords …

Bartolome de las Casas, A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies (under the heading “Of the Kingdom and Province of GUATIMALA”)

On this date in 1524 the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado cinched the destruction of the indigenous K’iche’ (or Quiche*) kingdom of present-day Guatemala by burning its hostage chiefs before its demoralized capital city.

Alvarado was already a seasoned hand of the ongoing Spanish usurpation of the New World — a veteran of Cortes’s conquests in Mexico. With that realm brought to heel, Alvarado was tasked with leading a Spanish invasion of (mostly Mayan) Mesoamerican kingdoms.

In the first weeks of 1524, Alvarado pressed across the Samala River into the K’iche’ kingdom to devastating effect. “The Spaniards, O wonderful! went to the Towns and Villages, and destroy’d with their Lances these poor Men, their Wives and Children, intent upon their Labour, and as they thought themselves, secure and free from danger. Another large Village they made desolate in the space of two hours, sparing neither Age, nor Sex, putting all to the Sword, without Mercy,” de las Casas laments.

In a decisive February 20 battle, Alvarado’s forces felled the half-legendary native hero Tecun Uman — a mortal blow to the empire in the memory of the Annals of the Cakchiquels, a document from later in the 16th century, which bluntly records that “the Quiches were destroyed by the Spaniards … all the Quiches who had gone out to meet the Spaniards were exterminated.”

Indians now fleeing before him, the conquistador marched onward towards the capital city of Q’umarkaj (various other transliterations are available, such as Gumarkaaj and Cumarcaaj; it’s also known from Nahuatl as Utatlan, giving us de las Casas’s reference at the head of this post). To assist blunt force, he had recourse to strategem — as Alvarado himself recorded in his account of Guatemala. Declining an invitation of hospitality from the authorities there for fear of being trapped in a hostile city, he instead convinced those guys to pay him a diplomatic visit to his camp outside the city … then seized them as hostages, who were executed speedily when their capture did not quell all resistance.

by the cunning with which I approached them, and through presents which I gave them, the better to carry out my plan, I took them captive and held them prisoners in my camp. But, nevertheless, their people did not cease fighting against me in the neighborhood and killed and wounded many Indians who had gone out to gather grass. And one Spaniard who was gathering grass, a gunshot from camp, was slain by a stone rolled down the hill …

And seeing that by fire and sword I might bring these people to the service of His Majesty, I determined to burn the chiefs who, at the time that I wanted to burn them, told me, as it will appear in their confessions, that they were the ones who had ordered the war against me … And as I knew them to have such a bad disposition towards the service of His Majesty, and to insure the good and peace of this land, I burnt them, and sent to burn the town and to destroy it, for it is a very strong and dangerous place.

The equivalent account from the Annals of the Cakchiquels is mournfully terse — paragraph 147, here quoted by Victoria Reifler Bricker in The Indian Christ, the Indian King: The Historical Substrate of Maya Myth and Ritual.

Then [the Spaniards] went forth to the city of Gumarcaah, where they were received by the kings, the Ahpop and the Ahpop Qamahay,** and the Quiches paid them tribute. Soon the kings were tortured by Tunatiuh [Alvarado].

On the day 4 Qat [March 7, 1524] the kings Ahpop and Ahpop Qamahay were burned by Tunatiuh. The heart of Tunatiuh was without compassion for the people during the war.

As Alvarado pledged to make it, this former empire’s former capital is today an utter ruin.


The Baile de la Conquista commemorates the Spanish conquest, personified in Alvarado’s confrontation with Tecun Uman.

* No etymological relationship of these “Quiche” to the egg-and-cream brunch staple. The K’iche’ people remain a major ethnic minority comprising about 11% of the present-day Guatemalan population with a widely-spoken language; Nobel laureate indigenous activist Rigoberta Menchu belongs to this group.

** From a footnote to this version of the Popol Vuh — “The Book of the People”, another important K’iche’ text — come these explanations of the ranks in question:

Ahpop is the Maya word which has passed without variation to the languages of the interior of Guatemala; its literal meaning is “the mat.” The mat, pop, was the symbol of royalty, and the chief or lord is represented as seated upon it on the most ancient monuments of the Maya Old Empire which had its origin in the Peten, Guatemala. The Ahpop was the Quiche king and chief of the House of Cavec; the Ahpop Camha, also of the House of Cavec, was the second reigning prince; the Ahau Galel was the chief or king of the House of Nihaib, and the Ahtzic Vinac Ahau the chief of the House of Ahau Quiche

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1522: Didrik Slagheck

1 comment January 24th, 2020 Headsman

Danish scheming archbishop Didrik Slagheck was burned in Copenhagen on this date in 1522 — sacrificed to his sovereign’s convenience.

Slagheck rolled into Stockholm in 1517 in the train of the papal legate who had been vainly dispatched to calm tempers during the run-up to what became the Swedish War of Liberation.

That’s liberation from Denmark, the effective overlord via the Kalmar Union joining those two countries and Norway besides. In 1520, with ecclesiastical mediation a bust and Sweden restive, the Danish king Christian II invaded. Slagheck made his villainous historical reputation by opportunistically hitching on with the vengeful king, the same king who would execute him in the end.

Things went great for Slagheck at first: he helped queue up the enemies list for the victorious Christian’s demonstrative mass beheading, the Stockholm Massacre. And he got his 30 pieces of krona right away in the form of an archbishopric which had come open along with its former owner’s neck on the occasion of said massacre. Thereafter he commanded troops in the field during the rebellion of Gustav Vasa. By 1521 he’d been kicked upstairs,

promoted to the position of archbishop of Lund, then a Danish see, entering the cathedral at his installation on November 25th with great pageantry and to the sound of martial music. During the same autumn, however, a papal legation in Copenhagen had been investigating what had taken place in Stockholm after the coronation, and five days after his installation as archbishop Slagheck was summoned to give an account of the advice he had given and the manner in which he had acted. Christian II decided to abandon him in an attempt to clear his own reputation, and Slagheck was executed and burnt in Copenhagen on January 24th 1522. (Source)

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1521: The rebel Ribbings

Add comment December 23rd, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1521, the Swedish rebel brothers Lindorm and Peder Ribbing were beheaded in Jönköping.

This event fell during the brief reign of the Danish king Christian II over Sweden, notably distinguished by the previous year’s Stockholm Bloodbath. Christian held Sweden only by force of arms and his continual bloody exertions to put down resistance have blackened his name in Swedish annals as “Christian the Tyrant”.

While the Ribbings were merely minor rebels in a country teeming with umbrage, their executions contributed a particularly atrocious (albeit perhaps folklorish) episode to that tyrannous reputation.

Not only the brothers themselves but their children also were put to death … and the story has it that after Lindorm Ribbing’s eldest son lost his head, his five-year-old brother pitiably implored the headsman, “My good man. Please do not stain my shirt as you did my brother’s or my mother will spank me.” Moved to tears, the executioner then discarded his sword and exclaimed, “Never! Sooner shall my own shirt be stained then I would stain yours.” Both he and the little boy then got the chop from a less sentimental swordsman.

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1525: Jan de Bakker

Add comment September 15th, 2019 Headsman

Heretical prelate Jan de Bakker went to The Stake at The Hague on this date in 1525.


Stained glass dedicated to Jan de Bakker at Sint-Jacobskerk in The Hague. (cc) image from Roel Wijnants.

A young ordained priest, Bakker (English Wikipedia entry | Dutch), Bakker got interested in early Sacramentarianism and learned at the foot of that Reformation-proximate scholar Erasmus.

His preaching veering outside the bounds of orthodoxy he was imprisoned briefly and soon set aside his holy orders for the baking trade, itinerant evangelizing, and marriage.

After the Inquisition had a go at menacing him into compliance, Bakker had the honor of submitting his living flesh to the flame under the eyes of the Hapsburg governor, Margaret of Austria. “O death, where is thy victory?” were his last words, quoting Corinthians. “O death, where is they sting?” Not so sanguine as he about the pains of the stake, his illicit wife preferred strategic repudiation to scriptural owns.

As he’s remembered as the Protestant protomartyr in the northern Netherlands he’s had a purchase on subsequent generations’ remembrance, and there are some streets and schools named for him.

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1525: Jacques de La Palice, “lapalissade”

Add comment February 24th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1525, a French marshal was executed during a crucial battle of the France-vs-Habsburg Italian War, beginning a long posthuous journey to a wordplay gag.


The Battle of Pavia, by Ruprecht Heller (1529).

The Battle of Pavia is best remembered for the fate — not lethal, but much more damaging to statecraft — of King Francis I of France, who was captured on the field by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.* Francis spent two years in comfortable but discomfiting imperial custody until he agreed to the humiliating Treaty of Madrid ceding vast tracts of French territory (notably Burgundy) to Charles.**

For all that, Francis kept his head and eventually resumed his station. Jacques de La Palice (English Wikipedia entry | the much longer French) did not exit the Battle of Pavia nearly so well.

The lord of La Palice (or Lapalisse), grandson to a comrade of Joan of Arc, our man had spent a lifetime bearing French arms; he’d been personally knighted by King Charles VIII for his prowess at age 15 in his very first engagement.

The great bulk of his time ever since had been spent on various campaigns in Italy, where France remained more or less continuously at war against the Holy Roman Empire until 1559.

Fighting up and down the peninsula, La Palice earned the impressive rank of Grand Master of France, and it had nothing to do with his chess acumen. He’d actually retired to the pleasures of domesticity after being captured in 1513 at the Battle of the Spurs — so named for the panicked spurring a fleeing French cavalry gave to their horses — only to be recalled to his post in 1515.

Late in 1524 he was among the host accompanying King Francis’s march to recover France’s on-again, off-again transalpine beachhead of Milan. This objective the French achieved with scant resistance, but the expedition turned disastrous in a further advance to Pavia. There, 9,000 imperial troops were dug in to defend; unable to take the city by storm the French put it to siege, fatally overextending themselves.

Come the following February, the Habsburgs had cut Pavia off from Milan and the French encampment was weakened by defecting mercenaries. On the morning of February 24, the imperial forces mounted an attack on the French that turned into a comprehensive slaughter. La Palice was captured early on by the Habsburgs’ landsknecht mercenaries and executed by them at some point later on during the fight. Although his fate was a bit more premeditated, he was only one of many blue-blooded commanders who lost their lives on the field that dark day for France† — suspending French ambitions in Italy, if only for a few years.

The knight’s alleged feats are celebrated in a ballad known as “La chanson de la Palisse” (“The Song of La Palice”). Rather, there are dozens of versions of that ditty, dating from the 16th to the 18th century, of unknown original authorship but agglomerated by the French poet Bernard de la Monnoye into a humorous caper in the 18th century.

This poem presumably (though not certainly) began as a genuine praise song for the dead marshal, opening with this garment-rending stanza:

Hélas, La Palice est mort,
Il est mort devant Pavie ; 
Hélas, s’il n’était pas mort, 
Il ferait encore envie.

Alas, La Palice is dead, 
He died before Pavia; 
Alas, if he were not dead, 
He would still be envied.

Somewhere along the way fulsome became winsome — perhaps via deliberate spoof or maybe the well-known phenomenon of old-timey letter s written to look like f, transforming the verse into a comical tautology:

s’il n’etait pas mort, / Il ferait encore envie (“if he was not dead he would still be envied”)

s’il n’etait pas mort, / Il serait encore en vie (“if he was not dead he would still be alive”)

It’s thanks to this amusing misreading that the French tongue today enjoys the term lapalissade, meaning a laughably obvious truism — and in Monnoye’s composition the entirety of the lyrics consist of such jests; e.g.

Monsieur d’la Palisse is dead,
He died before Pavia,
A quarter of an hour before his death,
He was still alive.

He was, by a sad fate, 
wounded with a cruel hand.
It is believed, since he is dead,
that the wound was mortal.

Regretted by his soldiers,
he died worthy of envy;
And the day of his death
was the last day of his life.

He died on Friday,
the last day of his age;
If he had died on Saturday,
he would have lived more.

(That’s just an excerpt; the much longer full French verse is available at the song’s French Wikipedia page.)

* Ample unverifiable folklore attaches an event so memorable as the capture of a king; a site such as this is bound to note the one that reports that Francis might have been killed on the spot by rampaging foes but for the timely intercession of a young Spanish soldier named Pedro de Valdivia … who would go on to become the conquistador of Chile, and eventually an execution victim himself.

** Francis renounced the treaty as soon as he was released, on the accurate grounds that it was made under duress. In this betrayal of honor, he did his kingdom much the better turn than his distant predecessor John II had done when, captured by the English during the Hundred Years’ War, he dutifully set about extracting from his subjects the ruinous ransom and even returned voluntarily to English custody when he could not fulfill the terms of his parole.

† Another corpse at the Battle of Pavia was Richard de la Pole, Plantagenet pretender to the English throne ever since his brother had been executed back in 1513.

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1525: Jäcklein Rohrbach, for the Weinsberg Blood Easter

Add comment May 21st, 2018 Headsman

On the 21st or perhaps the 20th of May in 1525, the peasant rebel Jakob Rohrbach — more commonly known as Jäcklein (“Little Jack”) Rohrbach — was chained to a stake and burned alive as the nobility celebrated its victory in the German Peasants’ War.

Rohrbach was by history’s acclamation the most bloody-minded of the peasant revolutionaries — for Jakob perhaps had learned the lesson of the Jacquerie that rebels against the lords must vanquish or perish. (Jakob Rohrbach was literate.)

When the peasantry rose to shake Germany, Rohrbach was elected a leader in the environs of Weinsberg, in Baden-Wuerttemberg. It was here that Rohrbach’s band would author the rebellion’s most spectacular outrage, the Weinsberg Massacre, or Weinsberg Blood Easter — for on April 16, Easter Day, they overwhelmed the city and put its garrison to slaughter, collectively executing Count Ludwig von Helfenstein by forcing him to run a gantlet while peasants screamed their grievances at him.

“You thrust my brother into a dungeon,” one cried, “because he did not bare his head as you passed by.” “You harnessed us like oxen to the yoke,” shouted others; “you caused the hands of my father to be cut off because he killed a hare on his own field … Your horses, dogs, and huntsmen have trodden down my crops … You have wrung the last penny out of us.” (Will Durant)

As word of the blood rage went abroad, it not only horrified the respectable (Martin Luther turned his considerable vituperation upon the insurrection after hearing about it*) but split the rebellion itself between moderate and radical factions. We lack access to the peasant councils of war, but perhaps that was even intentional on Rohrbach’s part, to force the revolution towards its most extreme ends, much as French Jacobins would decapitate the king to cut off any hope of their moderate brethren making an accommodation.

If so, it failed in that objective. It would be the fragmented German polities that by dint of the danger made common cause and defeated the rebellion. For a special villain like Rohrbach, special treatment was reserved, yet his was only most exemplary among innumerable long-forgotten cruelties meted out. The lords returned stroke for stroke ten times over for every injury that Rohrbach and his kind had dealt them.

The total number of the peasants and their allies who fell either in fighting or at the hands of the executioners is estimated by Anselm in his Berner Chronik at a hundred and thirty thousand. It was certainly not less than a hundred thousand. For months after, the executioner was active in many of the affected districts. Spalatin says: “Of hanging and beheading there is no end”. Another writer has it: “It was all so that even a stone had been moved to pity, for the chastisement and vengeance of the conquering lords was great”. The executions within the jurisdiction of the Swabian League alone are stated at ten thousand. Truchses’s provost boasted of having hanged or beheaded twelve hundred with his own hand. More than fifty thousand fugitives were recorded. These, according to a Swabian League order, were all outlawed in such wise that any one who found them might slay them without fear of consequences.

The sentences and executions were conducted with true mediaeval levity. It is narrated in a contemporary chronicle that in one village in the Henneberg territory all the inhabitants had fled on the approach of the count and his men-at-arms save two tilers. The two were being led to execution when one appeared to weep bitterly, and his reply to interrogatories was that he bewailed the dwellings of the aristocracy thereabouts, for henceforth there would be no one to supply them with durable tiles. Thereupon his companion burst out laughing, because, said he, it had just occurred to him that he would not know where to place his hat after his head had been taken off. These mildly humorous remarks obtained for both of them a free pardon.

… Many places were annihilated for having taken part with the peasants, even when they had been compelled by force to do so. Fields in these districts were everywhere laid waste or left uncultivated. Enormous sums were exacted as indemnity. In many of the villages peasants previously well-to-do were ruined. There seemed no limit to the bleeding of the “common man,” under the pretence of compensation for damage done by the insurrection.

The condition of the families of the dead and of the fugitives was appalling. Numbers perished from starvation. The wives and children of the insurgents were in some cases forcibly driven from their homesteads and even from their native territory. In one of the pamphlets published in 1525 anent the events of that year, we read: “Houses are burned; fields and vineyards lie fallow; clothes and household goods are robbed or burned; cattle and sheep are taken away; the same as to horses and trappings. The prince, the gentleman, or the nobleman will have his rent and due. Eternal God, whither shall the widows and poor children go forth to seek it?”

Ernest Belfrt Bax, The Peasants’ War in Germany

* Weinsberg is also famous for a different siege centuries previous, which ended in an altogether more humane fashion.

** Luther wrote a Blood Easter of his own in Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants.

they are starting a rebellion, and violently robbing and plundering monasteries and castles which are not theirs, by which they have a second time deserved death in body and soul, if only as highwaymen and murderers. Besides, any man against whom it can be proved that he is a maker of sedition is outside the law of God and Empire, so that the first who can slay him is doing right and well. For if a man is an open rebel every man is his judge and executioner, just as when a fire starts, the first to put it out is the best man. For rebellion is not simple murder, but is like a great fire, which attacks and lays waste a whole land. Thus rebellion brings with it a land full of murder and bloodshed, makes widows and orphans, and turns everything upside down, like the greatest disaster. Therefore let everyone who can, smite, slay and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful or devilish than a rebel. It is just as when one must kill a mad dog; if you do not strike him, he will strike you, and a whole land with you

a prince and lord must remember in this case that he is God’s minister and the servant of his wrath (Romans XIII), to whom the sword is committed for use upon such fellows, and that he sins as greatly against God, if he does not punish and protect and does not fulfil the duties of his office, as does one to whom the sword has not been committed when he commits a murder. If he can punish and does not — even though the punishment consist in the taking of life and the shedding of blood — then he is guilty of all the murder and all the evil which these fellows commit, because, by willful neglect of the divine command, he permits them to practice their wickedness, though he can prevent it, and is in duty bound to do so. Here, then, there is no time for sleeping; no place for patience or mercy. It is the time of the sword, not the day of grace.

hey may die without worry and go to the scaffold with a good conscience, who are found exercising their office of the sword. They may leave to the devil the kingdom of the world, and take in exchange the everlasting kingdom. Strange times, these, when a prince can win heaven with bloodshed, better than other men with prayer!

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1525: Jakob Wehe, rebel priest

Add comment April 5th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1525 the radical priest Hans Jakob Wehe was beheaded.

Wehe led a muster of 3,000 Bavarian peasants which briefly seized the town of Lepheim, during Germany’s bloody Peasants War, ere it was routed by the Swabian League.

On the 5th of April towards evening, they [Wehe and some other captives] were taken to a flowery meadow lying between Leipheim and Budesheim to be executed. As Master Jakob was led forward to the block, Truchsess turned to him with the words: “Sir paster, it had been well for thee and us hadst thou preached God’s word, as it beseemeth, and not rebellion.” “Noble sir,” answered the preacher, “ye do me wrong. I have not preached rebellion, but God’s word.” “I am otherwise informed,” observed Truchsess, as his chaplain stepped forward to receive the confession of the condemned man. Wehe turned to those around, stating that he had already confessed to his Maker and commended his soul to Him. To his fellow-sufferers he observed: “Be of good cheer, brethren, we shall yet meet each other to-day in Paradise, for when our eyes seem to close, they are really first opening.” After having prayed aloud, concluding with the words: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” he laid himself on the block, and in another moment his head fell in the long grass.

The preacher of Günzburg, who had also taken part in the movement, and an old soldier of fortune, who had joined the rebels, were brought forward in their turn to submit to the same fate, when the old soldier, turning to Truchsess, observed: “Doth it not seem to thee a little late in the day, noble lord, for one to lose one’s head?” This humorous observation saved the lives of himself and the preacher. The latter was carried about with the troops in a cage, until he had bought his freedom with eighty gulden. He lost, however, the right of preaching and of riding on horseback!

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1525: Cuauhtémoc, the last Aztec emperor

Add comment February 28th, 2018 Headsman

Although the primary accounts — those by conquistadors Hernán Cortés and Bernal Díaz del Castillo, and historian Francisco Lopez de Gomara* — did not explicitly record the date, February 28 is the traditionally recognized anniversary of the execution of the last Aztec emperor, Cuauhtémoc.

A monument to Cuauhtemoc in Mexico City. (Author’s photo; public domain)

Cuauhtemoc (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) was enthroned early in 1521, in a Tenochtitlan already in the train of devastation brought by the Spanish, which had over the preceding months laid low the Emperor Moctezuma II (by violence) and his brother Cuitlahuac (by smallpox, a disease that halved the city’s population within a year).

He was about 23 or 24 years old, a nobleman who must have distinguished himself in war — “a handsome man, both as regards his countenance and his figure,” in Bernal Diaz’s estimation; “a valiant man and a good warrior” by Gomara’s account.

And it would fall to him to bear his proud kingdom’s ruin.

Having previously been welcomed to Tenochtitlan as guests, Cortes and the Spanish had fought their way out and now returned as besiegers, joined by most of the Aztecs’ resentful former subject kingdoms. They soon had Tenochtitlan in a stranglehold, undaunted by the frightening sacrifice of captured prisoners.

all in a moment the large drum of Huitzilopochtli again resounded from the summit of the temple, accompanied by all the hellish music of shell trumpets, horns, and other instruments. The sound was truly dismal and terrifying, but still more agonizing was all this to us when we looked up and beheld how the Mexicans were mercilessly sacrificing to their idols our unfortunate companions, who had been captured in Cortes’ flight across the opening.

We could plainly see the platform, with the chapel in which those cursed idols stood; how the Mexicans had adorned the heads of the Spaniards with feathers, and compelled their victims to dance round the god Huitzilopochtli; we saw how they stretched them out at full length on a large stone, ripped open their breasts with flint knives, tore out the palpitating heart, and offered it to their idols. Alas! we were forced to be spectators of all this, and how they then seized hold of the dead bodies by the legs and threw them headlong down the steps of the temple, at the bottom of which other executioners stood ready to receive them, who severed the arms, legs, and heads from the bodies, drew the skin off the faces, which were tanned with the beards still adhering to them, and produced as spectacles of mockery and derision at their feasts ; the legs, arms, and other parts of the body being cut up and devoured!

In this way the Mexicans served all the Spaniards they took prisoners; and the entrails alone were thrown to the tigers, lions, otters, and serpents, which were kept in cages. These abominable barbarities we were forced to witness with our own eyes from our very camp; and the reader may easily imagine our feelings, how excessively agonizing! the more so as we were so near our unfortunate companions without being able to assist them. Every one of us thanked God from the bottom of his soul for His great mercy in having rescued us from such a horrible death!

Bernal Diaz

Wracked by famine after Cortes successfully cut off its food and water, Tenochtitlan succumbed that August. (The conquistadors found they could barely endure the stench of countless rotting bodies as they took control of the famished city.) When captured, Cuauhtemoc implored Cortes through tears (again according to Bernal Diaz),

I have done what I was bound to do in the defence of my metropolis, and of my subjects. My resources have now become entirely exhausted. I have succumbed to superior power, and stand a prisoner before you. Now draw the dagger which hangs at your belt, and plunge it into my bosom.

There would be no bosom-daggering. Cortes had a much worse fate in mind.

He saluted Cuauhtemoc for his intrepidity in defense, vowing to maintain the latter as the ruler of Mexico … Cortes’s ruler, to ratify the dictates of the conquerors, beginning with commanding his remaining loyalists to surrender. Cuauhtemoc obeyed, with what posterity can only guess must have been fathomless shame and sorrow.

Upon humiliation, Cortes heaped physical torture when the invaders’ ransack of their captured city turned up far less lesser quantities of material loot than they had anticipated — torture which Cuauhtemoc and a cousin-king of a loyal Aztec ally both endured heroically without augmenting the Spanish bottom line. Bernal Diaz once again:

The next thing which Cortes did was to collect all the gold, silver, and jewels that had been found in Mexico, of which, however, there was very little; for Quauhtemoctzin, it was said, had ordered all the treasures to be thrown into the lake four days previous to his capture. A great quantity had likewise been purloined by the Tlascallans, Tezcucans, Huexotzincans, Cholullans, and other auxiliary troops which had assisted us in the siege, besides what had fallen into the hands of the troops on board the brigantines.

The crown officials were positive that Quauhtemoctzin had concealed the greater part, and asserted that Cortes was very pleased that the monarch refused to say a word where it was hidden; for he would then be able to get the whole treasure into his own possession.

The officers then proposed that Quauhtemoctzin and the king of Tlacupa, his most intimate friend and cousin, should be put to the torture, in order to extort from them a confession as to what had become of the treasures: but Cortes could not make up his mind to insult so great a monarch as Quauhtemoctzin, whose territory more than trebled that of Spain, and that for mere lust after gold. Moreover, the monarch’s household assured us they had given up all the gold they possessed to the officers of the crown, which, it was well known, amounted to 380,000 pesos, the whole of which had been melted into bars; and one thing is certain, that the emperor’s and Cortes’ fifths were deducted from that sum; but the conquistadores were not at all satisfied, and considered this sum much below the real amount, and several expressed their suspicion to Alderete, the royal treasurer, that Cortes’ only reason for not wishing to put the monarch to the torture was, that he might secretly take possession of all his riches. Cortes, not willing that such a suspicion should any longer he upon him, or that he should afterwards be called to an account on this score, at last consented that both should be put to the torture.


Detail view (click for the full image) of David Alfaro Siquieros‘s monumental 1950-51 mural, The Torment of Cuauhtemoc.

Boiling hot oil was then applied to their feet; upon which they confessed that, four days prior to Quauhtemoctzin’s capture, all the gold, with the cannon, crossbows, and muskets, which we had lost in the night of sorrows, when we retreated from Mexico, besides those which had been taken in Cortes’ last defeat on the causeway, had been thrown into the lake. A number of good swimmers were then sent to dive for the treasure in the spot they pointed out, but nothing was found. Yet there was some truth in the statement; for I was myself present when Quauhtemoctzin led us to a large and deep reservoir of water, built of stone, which lay near his palace. From this reservoir we fished up a sun of gold similar to the one sent us by Motecusuma, besides many jewels and other trinkets, though all of little value. The king of Tlacupa also informed us that he had hidden all manner of valuable things in some large houses, about twelve miles from Tlacupa, and he would accompany us there to point out the spot where he had buried them.

Alvarado was then despatched thither with six soldiers, among which number I also was; but when we arrived at the spot, this king assured us he had merely invented all this in the hopes that we would have killed him in a moment of anger at our disappointment.

(Diaz later added that “the suspicion was become pretty general that he [Cortes] had concealed the greater part of Quauhtemoctzin’s treasure,” and indeed some disgruntled companions — unsatisfied with the share they had been allotted for so magnificent a conquest — would come to lodge this charge against Cortes formally with Emperor Charles V.)

Cortes eventually brought both these hostages/puppet kings/torture victims along with him on a 1524-1525 expedition to Honduras, perhaps to deprive them of any opportunity to rebel in his absence.

On the evening of February 27, Cortes received a report or a rumor that the Indian kings had rebellion on their mind just the same. The timetable from this report to execution is uncertain from the records, but if it was not within 24 hours it cannot have been much longer. Diaz, a hostile-to-Cortes witness here whose narrative indicates his dismay at proceedings, describes it thus:

I have now to relate a circumstance of a very different nature, which occasioned much grief to us all. Quauhtemoctzin and other Mexican chiefs who accompanied our army had, it would appear, spoken among themselves, or secretly determined to put the whole of us to death, then march back to Mexico, and assemble the whole armed power of the country against the few remaining Spaniards, and raise an insurrection throughout the whole of New Spain. This circumstance was discovered to Cortes by two distinguished Mexican chiefs, one of whom was named Tapia, and the other Juan Velasquez. This latter personage had been Quauhtemoctzin’s captain-general during our war with Mexico, and his testimony was borne out by the investigation which Cortes made into the matter, and by the confession of several of the caziques themselves who were implicated in the conspiracy. These men fearlessly declared, that seeing how carelessly and dispiritedly we roamed about; that numbers of the men were ill from want of food; that four of our musicians, with the buffoon and five soldiers, had died of hunger; and that three other men had turned back, more willing to run the risk of reaching Mexico again than of moving forward, the thought struck them that they could not do better than fall suddenly upon us while we were crossing some river or marsh, particularly as they were upwards of 3000 in number, all armed with lances, and several of them with swords. Quauhtemoctzin did not hesitate to acknowledge that these men had spoken the truth, but added that the conspiracy did not emanate with him, and that he himself had never for a moment contemplated carrying it into effect, but had merely spoken about it with the other caziques. All the cazique of Tlacupa confessed was, his having declared to Quauhtemoctzin that it was better to die at once than daily to have death before their eyes on these fatiguing marches, and see their countrymen and relations perish with hunger.

These were sufficient proofs for Cortes, and without any further ceremony he sentenced Quauhtemoctzin and his cousin the king of Tlacupa to the gallows. Before, however, this sentence was executed, the Franciscan monks, with the assistance of Dona Marina, strove to comfort these unfortunate men, and commended their souls to God. When they were being led to the place of execution, Quauhtemoctzin turned to Cortes, and said: “Oh Malinche! I have for a long time perceived, from your false words, that you had destined me for such a death, because I did not lay violent hands on myself when you entered my city of Mexico! Why are you thus going to put me unjustly to death? God will one time ask this of you!”

The king of Tlacupa said, he could only rejoice in a death which he would be permitted to suffer with his monarch Quauhtemoctzin.

Previous to their being hung, both these unhappy caziques confessed to father Juan, who understood the Mexican language, and they begged of him to commend their souls to God. For Indians they were good Christians, and they died in the true faith, and fully believed in our holy religion.

The death of these two monarchs grieved me excessively, for I had known them in all their glory, and on our march they honoured me with their friendship, and showed me many little attentions; for instance, they would often order their servants to go in quest of fodder for my horse; besides which, they were innocent of the guilt imputed to them, and it was the opinion of all who accompanied this expedition that they were put to death unjustly.

But I will leave this miserable subject, and return to our march, on which we henceforth observed the utmost vigilance, for we greatly feared the Mexicans might rise up in arms against us, after they had thus beheld their monarch ignominiously hung by the neck from a tree. But hunger, fatigue, and sickness weighed heavier upon their minds than the misfortune of Quauhtemoctzin.


Detail view (click for the full image) of the “rebel” kings hanged from a tree.

Gomara and, of course, Cortes characterize the accusations against the Indian kings as true and the proceedings against them lawful. From the footnotes in this same Bernal Diaz volume, we have this from the later Jesuit historian and ethnographer Juan de Torquemada, who was fluent in Nahuatl:

I find it differently represented in a history written in the Mexican language, and which I believe to be perfectly correct. While Cortes (the Mexican author says) was quartered in a certain township, the Mexican chiefs one evening began to discourse among themselves about the recent hardships they had suffered, and Cohuanacotzin said to Quauhtemoctzin, to Tetlepanquetzaltzin, and to other distinguished Mexicans, ‘Thus you see, gentlemen, from kings we are become slaves, and we suffer ourselves to be led about by Cortes and this handful of Christians. If we were other people than we are, and would break through the promise we have made these Spaniards, we could play them a pretty trick here, and revenge ourselves upon them for all they have done to us, and the ill-treatment my cousin Quauhtemoctzin has suffered at their hands.’ To this the Mexican monarch replied, ‘I beg of you Cohuanacotzin to drop this subject, lest some one should overhear us, and imagine we were in earnest.’ It appears (continues Torquemada) that they were indeed overheard, for the whole of this discourse was reported to Cortes by a low-minded Mexican of the lower classes.

By law, Mexican flags fly at half-staff in his honor on February 28.

* These texts are cited throughout the post, but for ease of reference … Bernal Diaz: Memoirs of the Conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo, vol. 1, vol. 2 | Gomara: The Pleasant Historie of the Conquest of the West India; now called New Spaine | Cortes: History of New Spain, which is a Spanish text as I could not locate an English translation. However, even the Anglophone is liable to appreciate (from p. 225) the illustrations of Indian material culture observed by the Spaniards.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Heads of State,History,Hostages,Martyrs,Mexico,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Royalty,Soldiers,Spain,Summary Executions,Torture,Wrongful Executions

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