1537: Jurgen Wullenwever, Burgermeister of Lubeck

Add comment September 24th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1537, Jürgen Wullenwever was decapitated and quartered at Wolfenbüttel.

Photo by Agnete (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Wullenwever (English Wikipedia entry | German) was a merchant from Hamburg who came to the fore of a popular Lutheran movement in the Hanseatic port of Lübeck that claimed the power of its old aristocratic council for the city’s burghers.

In this capacity, Wullenwever maneuvered — vainly as it turned out — to arrest the century-long wane of the city’s influence. Lubeck in its day had been “the Queen of the Hanseatic League”. Come 16th century, it was struggling to maintain its trading preeminence against the inroads of Dutch merchants and the fragmentation of the once-mighty Hanse.

This project was doomed in its conception — there was nothing Lubeck could really have done to hold back the historical developments happening around it — and bungled in its execution. The merchant magnates of Wullenwever’s democratic coalition grew suspicious of (too-)popular religiosity.

And Wullenwever’s political high-wire act involved arrangements of convenience with the Anabaptist commune of Münster — spurring rumors of his own radical baptist conversion* — and fomenting Catholic peasant uprisings to meddle in the succession of the Danish-Swedish crown. Whatever else one could say of him, one can’t fault him for a want of daring, a quality that stood him in good stead with romantic era writers.

But Wullenwever’s allies lost their fights, and the political coalition that supported his municipal leadership soon broke up under the pressure of events.

The aristocratic party re-took power in 1535 and didn’t immediately persecute Wullenwever. But the hostile Archbishop of Bremen eventually seized the man on his territory and turned him over to a Catholic Saxon duke for punishment.

* I’m certainly not a specialist, but I’m skeptical of the claim in some sources that Wullenwever was an Anabaptist Manchurian candidate type. Wullenwever confessed to a great Anabaptist scheme … but that was under torture of enemies determined to do him to death, and it was retracted before his execution. The claim implies that all of northern Germany might have gone over to a radically democratic Anabaptism had not the ancien regime overthrown the Burgermeister, and for that reason it’s gained Wullenwever the surprising latter-day embrace of nationalists and revolutionaries.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Denmark,Dismembered,Execution,Germany,God,Hanseatic League,History,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Torture

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1537: Janet Douglas, Lady Glamis

Add comment July 17th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1537, a Scottish noblewoman suffered the fate decreed for her treason — in the terse entry of the judicial record, combusta.

Knocking around Glamis Castle — where Shakespeare’s great villain Macbeth got his start, as Thane of Glamis* — Janet Douglas had the going enmity of Scottish king James V on the substantial grounds that Janet’s father had held the teen-king his virtual prisoner for a few years in the 1520s. Once James got free, he proscribed the lady’s brother, the Earl of Angus (whom Janet continued to shelter when occasioned), confiscated properties, forbade Douglases from approaching his person, and all that sort of thing.

Presumably according to this same anti-Douglas animus, an abortive attempt was made in 1531 to try our Lady Glamis for poisoning her late first husband, Lord Glamis. However, the charge foundered on the refusal of her peers to participate: “the lairds of Ardoch, Braco, Fingask, Abernethy, Piferran, Lawers, Carnock, Moncreiff, Anstruther, Lord Ruthven, Lord Oliphant, and many others, were fined for absenting themselves from the jury.”

Six years later she was more successfully returned to the dock, this time on a charge of plotting to poison the king himself. There seems to remain very little detail that would trace the precise unfolding of those years and offer later interlocutors a clear interpretation; while “innocent noble railroaded” is the most conventional read — Henry VIII’s agent reported that the conviction was secured “without any substanciall ground or proyf of mattir” — this book gives it a “maybe she did, maybe she didn’t” spin. That whole embittered proscription thing cuts both ways, as motives go.

At any rate, torture induced Janet Douglas’s own 16-year-old son John to testify that she had procured a potion intended to resolve that feud, and despite reported doubts and a spirited defense, the judges found her “committit art and part of the tressonabill Conspiratioune and ymaginatioune of the slauchter and destructioune of our soverane lordis” and therefore to “be had to Castell hill of Edinburghe, and thair brynt in ane fyre to the deid as ane Traytour.” (John was reprieved of this fate, but he still had to watch.)

King Jamie took over Glamis Castle and hung his spurs there until his own death in 1542 … whereupon his crown passed to Mary, Queen of Scots, and the castle reverted to that young John, the new Lord Glamis.

Glamis Castle still stands, picturesquely, and legend has it that the visitor there might encounter the burned woman’s ghost haunting the place as the Grey Lady.**

* Not actually true of the historical man Macbeth.

** Not to be confused with the New York Times. Actually, there are several ghosts who go by this colorless title.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Nobility,Notable for their Victims,Public Executions,Scotland,The Supernatural,Treason,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1537: “Silken Thomas” FitzGerald, Earl of Kildare

Add comment February 3rd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1537, an Irish lord and his five uncles were hanged and beheaded at Tyburn for revolting against Henry VIII: the last act in an entire cycle of executions.

The Rumored Execution

Thomas FitzGerald‘s father, the king’s Lord-Deputy of Ireland, had been summoned to London to answer the complaints of his rivals and there committed to the Tower.

Said rivals then cunningly circulated reports that dad had been beheaded, inducing the hot-headed (and finely-appareled) heir Thomas to renounce his allegiance and rebel with a dramatic retinue of 140 silk-bedizened gentlemen.

The Summary Execution

The Earl of Kildare hadn’t really been executed at all: he just died of shock and grief upon reading the reports of what his son had got up to in his absence.

Stuff like, besieging Dublin Castle where he hunted down the fleeing Archbishop (a longtime enemy of the Kildares) and had him instantly put to death.

(This might have been more pardonable had he at least managed to take Dublin Castle.)

The Maynooth Pardon
(Euphemism for Execution)

Instead, Silken Tom holed up in Maynooth Castle where he soon found himself on the receiving end of a siege.


Maynooth Castle in its present, romantically ruined state. (cc) image from Bart Busschots.

Thomas and his silk went off to find some allies to relieve it, hoping to play a Catholic-resentment card against Henry VIII’s rift with Rome.

But the local response was desultory and while the new Earl of Kildare was busy beating the bushes, the English took the castle — issuing to its garrison the “Maynooth Pardon”, the ironical sobriquet for executing most of the lot.

Silken Thomas’s Execution

His rebellion having been all downhill since the big silken resignation, Thomas was eventually induced by promises of safekeeping to surrender himself to the royal mercy.

But said mercy was not forthcoming, and he endured a year-plus locked up in something less than his trademark finery — “I have had neither hosen, doublet, nor shoes, nor shirt but one; nor any other garment but a single frieze gown … so I have gone wolward, and barefoot and barelegged,” he complained in a letter — until, attainted by the Irish Parliament, he was executed with his kinsmen.

Although the Kildare title disappeared for a time, Thomas FitzGerald’s young but hunted half-brother escaped to the continent, bounced all over Europe for a decade, picked up an education, fought the Turks, and returned to receive his family’s peerage re-granted so he could practice alchemy in his castle as “the Wizard Earl”.

When next in Kildare Town, stand a drink or two for these hearty bygone Geraldines at the Silken Thomas pub.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,History,Ireland,Mass Executions,Nobility,Power,Revolutionaries,Treason

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1537: Robert Aske, for the Pilgrimage of Grace

2 comments July 12th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1537, Robert Aske was hanged for leading the Pilgrimage of Grace.

The year preceding had been among the most wrenching in British history, and when Henry VIII began shuttering Catholic monasteries, many an egg that would comprise the English Reformation‘s omelette would be shattered.

In the conservative and Catholic-leaning north, Thomas Cromwell‘s reforms (combined with various political and economic grievances) triggered an uprising that soon controlled York.

This fraught situation ended much easier for the English crown than it might have, with a royal negotiating strategy of nominally accepting the Pilgrimage’s terms inducing the massive rebel force to disband, allowing its leaders to be seized thereafter on the first pretext of renewed trouble.

Robert Aske, the barrister who had come to the fore of the Pilgrimage movement and had personally negotiated terms with Henry, was among about 200 to suffer death for their part in the affair. In Aske’s case, it was against the will of Jane Seymour, Henry’s demure third queen and also a Catholic-inclined traditionalist; she made an uncharacteristic foray into state policy by ask(e)ing for Aske’s life, summarily vetoed by the king’s reminding her the fate of her politically-minded predecessor.*

Here’s Aske hanged at York Castle in The Tudors:

And here’s an inscription on a Yorkshire church reminding one of Aske’s surviving brothers of the events of those pivotal months.

* In other wives-of-the-king developments, Henry’s future (sixth, and final) wife Katherine Parr was taken a hostage by the rebels during the Pilgrimage.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,20th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Gibbeted,God,Hanged,History,Lawyers,Murder,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Soldiers,Treason

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