1556: A canon’s servant

Add comment December 14th, 2015 Headsman

We’ve touched in these pages on the appealing diary of Felix Platter, a youth from Basel, Switzerland, studying medicine in Montpellier, France.

This was published in English as Beloved Son Felix; sadly, it’s now out of print, though it can be perused for free on archive.org.

A murderer was executed on the 14th of December. Three years earlier he had been a servant with a canon, who lived alone in his house, and carried a quantity of gold sewn into his clothes. The servant plotted with another man to kill his master. One evening, when the canon was sitting in a corner of the hearth, roasting a partridge, the servant felled him with a blow of a club on the back of the head. The villains then cut his throat and fled with the money, which came to a good sum. When the crime was discovered a sergeant was sent after them; but he allowed himself to be corrupted, and instead of arresting them he accepted a bribe and left them free to take the road to Spain. There they were too ostentatious with their wealth, and as a result they were robbed by brigands. However, the servant continued on his way, now alone. Without resources, he took employment with a Spanish shoemaker, and remained there three years. He let his beard grow, and believing that he would no longer be recognized he returned to France, and went to Lunel by way of Montpellier, but he was arrested there and brought back to Montpellier.

Although buried three years, the canon was disinterred, so that the murderer could be confronted with his victim. However, there were none of the signs they expected to see on such an occasion — as for example the opening of the wound and the gushing forth of blood; although it should be added that the corpse was very wasted. The accused man made a full confession and was condemned to the punishment they call massarer.* He appealed to Toulouse, succeeded in escaping as he was being taken across a river, was recaptured, condemned anew to that cruel punishment, and brought back to Montpellier for the sentence to be carried out. After the judgment had been read aloud, the executioner put the man on a cart, where he was laid on the lap of the executioner’s wife. He then began to pinch him with red-hot tongs, and this treatment continued until they came to the canon’s house. There the executioner cut off both the man’s hands on a block placed on the cart for that purpose. The woman held him with his eyes blindfolded, and as each hand was cut off she pulled a pointed linen bag over the stump, from which shot a jet of blood, and tied the bag on tightly to stop the bleeding. The man was taken afterwards to the Cour du Bayle, and there he was beheaded. His body was cut in quarters, and the pieces were hung up on the olive trees outside the town.

The sergeant who had taken the bribe, and who had been betrayed by the murderer, was tied to the cart, his body bare to the waist. The executioner scourged him until the blood came, several times over. After this he was banished.

Felix Platter noted a number of different executions in his five-year diary of Montpellier, but he didn’t let them get him down. The following February 27, Platter finally “with a heavy heart quitted this beloved town, in which I had lived for so long” and made for Basel where a respectable life as a doctor awaited him. (Felix was well-qualified for this from his coming of age in Montpellier, having dissected frequently: his journal records with something approaching glee the numerous midnight grave-robbings he undertook to secure subjects.)

* Massarer was the local version of the widespread and horrible “breaking” punishment of smashing the offender’s limbs one by one. Platter had earlier noted such an execution in 1554, and explained that it was carried out upon “a Saint Andrew’s cross … with two hollowed-out balks of timber.” Once the condemned murderer was trussed to the cross, the executioner “took a heavy bar of iron, called a massa, sharpened a little on one side, and broke the man’s limbs with it … The last blow was struck on the chest, and this killed the victim.”

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1556: Beatrice, a servant

2 comments December 3rd, 2014 Headsman

An everyday execution in 16th century Montpellier, from the diary of Swiss medical student Felix Platter — whom we have already had cause to notice in these pages:

Beatrice, Catalan’s former servant girl, who had drawn off my boots when I had first arrived in Montpellier, was executed on the 3rd of December. She was hanged in the square, on a little gibbet that had only one arm. She had left us a year before to go into service in the house of a priest. She became pregnant, and when her child was born, she threw it into the latrine, where it was found dead. Beatrice’s body was taken to the anatomy theatre, and it remained several days in the College. The womb was still swollen, for the birth of the child had occurred no more than eight days before. Afterwards the hangman came to collect the pieces, wrapped them in a sheet, and hung them on a gibbet outside the town.

Part of the Themed Set: Filicide.

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1556: Hemu

1 comment November 5th, 2013 Headsman

This date in 1556 saw the Second Battle of Panipat in India … and the consequent beheading of the losing commander.

Hem Chandra Vikramaditya was the unfortunate object of this treatment, a remarkable Hindu who was born a commoner and died a king.

The early 16th century saw the birth of the Mughal Empire as Turkic Muslim tribes led by the conqueror Babur swept away the Pashtun sultanates in north India. The First Battle of Panipat back in 1526 cinched this conquest.

In this unsettled environment, an able man could rise. Few were abler than Hem Chandra, more familiarly known to posterity as Hemu.

Born to a family of Hindu priests in a time when Hindu kings had not ruled his homeland for centuries, Hemu first came to prominence as a merchant supplying provisions, and later armaments, for the imperial army. He proved so capable that Islam Shah took him on as an adviser.

Now, despite the Mughal conquest, Islam Shah was actually an Pashtun. A weak succession after Babur had thrown the Mughals into retreat, and most of their once and future territory was now under the temporary authority of the Sur Empire.

Following Islam Shah’s death in 1554, the political situation for the Sur Empire fell into confusion. A boy-emperor successor was murdered to give way to a drunk, and Hemu emerged as the de facto authority in the chaotic realm … which in practice meant racing around dealing with various military threats.

Hemu put down the many internal revolts that flowered after Islam Shah’s death, but his greater problem was the resurgent Mughals.

Babur’s heir Humayun had been driven into exile in Persia years ago. Now he returned at the head of an army to retake his patrimony. Even when Humayun himself died in the process (he fell down a flight of stairs*), he bequeathed Hemu a potent foe in the form of his teenage heir Akbar — the sovereign who would eventually be esteemed the Mughals’ greatest emperor.

Even so, Hemu was routing all who stood against him. The onetime merchant had proven himself “one of the greatest commanders of the age,” in the words of Victorian historian John Clark Marshman. “He never shrank away from the battlefield and when the fight was most fierce, he did not bother for his personal safety and always fought with his adversaries courageously along with his comrades.”

On October 7, 1556, Hemu whipped Akbar at the Battle of Delhi. Entering the ancient capital, Hemu proclaimed himself emperor under the regnal name Raja Vikramaditya. And why not, after all? The kingdom already only maintained itself by Hemu’s own brilliance; he’s reputed to have had an undefeated combat record at this point.

But sometimes a single loss is all that’s needed.

Hemu was the first Hindu emperor in 350 years, but he only held the position for a month.

The new emperor again met Akbar (and Akbar’s regent Bairam Khan) on the fifth of November at Panipat, and this time the Mughals won. Hemu’s valorous exposure to danger proved his undoing when he was struck in the face by an enemy arrow.

As his once-unconquerable army routed, the captured Hemu was taken as a prisoner to his rival ruler — unconscious, and already dying. Again, the accounts vary;** in the classical version, Akbar nobly refuses to put the captive to death. Elphinstone‘s History of India, glossing some earlier Muslim historians, writes that

Bairam was desirous that Akbar should give him the first wound, and thus, by inbruing his sword in the blood of so distinguished an infidel, should establish his right to the envied title of ‘Ghazi’ or ‘Champion of the Faith’; but the spirited boy refused to strike a wounded enemy, and Bairam, irritated by his scruples, himself cut off the captive’s head at a blow.

However, there are other versions of this story in which the 14-year-old Akbar is not so reticent.

Whoever chopped it, the severed head was sent to Kabul to cow Hemu’s Pashtun supporters, while the torso was publicly gibbeted outside Purana Quila. Hemu’s followers were massacred afterwards in numberless quantities sufficient, so it is said, to erect minarets of their skulls.

Akbar ruled the Mughal state until his death in 1605.

* Humayun’s monumental tomb is a UNESCO World Heritage Site today.

** See Vincent A. Smith, “The Death of Hemu in 1556, after the Battle of Panipat,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (July 1916). Smith’s opinion is that Akbar probably did cut off Hemu’s head personally, but might later have spun the incident in a less distasteful direction.

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1556: Joan Waste, in Windmill Pit

Add comment August 1st, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1556, Derby hosted the incineration of a young blind woman who refused to renounce her Protestantism.

The ascendance of Queen Mary briefly restored Catholicism as England’s official religion. The previous decades’ Protestant reforms, however, had been achieved with bloodshed and could only be undone with more bloodshed. (That’s why she’s “Bloody Mary”: because she executed a bunch of people, and because the Protestants who executed a bunch of people won out and got to do the naming.)

In the wrong place at the wrong time was Joan Waste, who though blind proved a deft hand at knitting ropes to support her poor family. Inspired by hearing Scripture in the Queen’s English during Anglican services shaped by Cranmer, Joan scrimped and saved the earnings of her poor profession until she could afford a Bible … specifically (and problematically for the new old faith), one printed in English rather than Latin. Being blind, she then had to recruit friends, townspeople, or other parishioners to read it to her.

This made her a pretty easy target when England reinstated Catholic heresy laws in 1555, although presumably not one selected by the public relations department. Pious Joan preferred the stake to renouncing her heresies.

After enduring an execution sermon from the Catholic churchman Anthony Draycot, Foxe’s martyrology describes the fate of “the poor, sightless object” — which doesn’t look the most felicitous build of a noun phrase — who “was taken to a place called Windmill Pit, near the town, where she for a time held her brother by the hand, and then prepared herself for the fire, calling upon the pitying multitude to pray with her, and upon Christ to have mercy upon her, until the glorious light of the everlasting Sun of righteousness beamed upon her departed spirit.”

The old Windmill Pit execution site can still be found in Derby today. There’s a local legend, of Victorian manufacture, that Joan cursed the location with the words: “never shall this pit, of which ye are about to make a pit of fire, hold drop of water more.”

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1556: Thomas Cranmer, architect of Anglicanism

7 comments March 21st, 2008 Headsman

[audio:John_Merbecke_Creed.mp3]
(Part of John Merbecke‘s plainsong rendition of the Book of Common Prayer, as performed by the Virginia Theological Seminary motet choir. Via.)

Good Friday falls early this year, and gives pause to recollect the burning this date of Thomas Cranmer, Henry VIII’s Archbishop of Canterbury, author of this gentle prayer for Holy Week:

Almighty and everliving God, who, of thy tender love towards mankind, hast sent thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our flesh, and to suffer death upon the cross, that all mankind should follow the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may both follow the example of his patience, and also be make partakers of his resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God,for ever and ever. Amen.

Thomas Cranmer was an obscure middle-aged priest when happenstance acquainted him with the circle then endeavoring to engineer Anne Boleyn‘s elevation from Henry VIII‘s enamored to Queen of England.

Cranmer enthusiastically supported Henry’s position that his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon should be annulled, and the perspicacity of the doctrinal case he developed to that effect saw him admitted into the inner circle of royal theologians.

The papal case foundered because Catherine’s kinsman Charles V happened, in the course of politics on the Italian peninsula, to be holding the pope a virtual hostage in Rome. On such accidents of history do faiths arise — and the faithful burn.

The Break With Rome

The 16th century, yeasty with religious disputation widely circulated by the printing press, is thick with folk who are one sect’s martyrs and the other sect’s villains.

Cranmer is just such a character.

One could charge him — and Catholic partisans have, many times — with blowing with the wind, granting theological license to the whims of his sovereign. Henry pressed through Cranmer’s appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533, just in time for Cranmer to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine and validate the secret vows he had taken with Anne, earning both bishop and king excommunication.

That Cranmer rose with Anne but was ready to hold against her when she fell from favor, that he authorized the king’s famous pattern of discarding his past wives, that he signed off on the crown’s seizure of monasteries — that, in the end, he navigated Henry’s bloody reign with his position intact and even enhanced puts the whiff of opportunism about him. As Cranmer expert Ashley Null says (the link is a .pdf):

Like his first royal master, Cranmer did not make himself easy to love. In an era noted for the fervent courage of many martyrs for faith, Cranmer’s very survival under a king as unprincipled, or at least unpredictable, as Henry VIII has made him suspect. His late vacillation under Mary has only seemed to confirm the image of a man ruled more by the grip of fear than the assurance of the faith.

Whatever kernel of truth one might discern in such a charge, the fact remains that the church Cranmer built has by the test of centuries proven itself far more spiritually significant than mere opportunism could have admitted.

The Archbishop truly came into his own after Henry’s death.

For six years during the regency of Henry’s sickly, doomed son Edward VI, Cranmer hammered together the Anglican liturgy, wrote prolifically and beautifully, and assembled the Book of Common Prayer, a text which still guides Anglican services to this day.

His words still retain their power, and in some cases, their recognizability:

One can read Cranmer, especially in this mature stage, through many prisms — the competing threads of Catholicism, Lutheranism and Calvinism in his developing thought; the attempt to steer his institutional church towards his vision of the Reformation; and certainly as an inconstant individual — for his recantation when the Catholic Mary Tudor took the throne shows us a man as prone as any to folly and weakness.*

It is not the headsman’s purpose, and certainly not on this day, to render judgment on Cranmer’s soul; still less to unpack his theology. If we find him a man of flaws to compensate his genius, we must do him the justice of remembering also his firmness at the last hour, dramatically abjuring the recantation that had been forced upon him and thrusting the offending right hand that had signed it first into the flames.

* Cranmer had endorsed Mary’s rival Lady Jane Grey in the contentious succession that followed Edward VI; for this, he was convicted of treason in a trial managed by his old friend and fellow-survivor Thomas Howard. (Source) The Queen spared him execution on this charge in order to have him up on heresy instead, and it was this that Cranmer attempted to avoid by submission to the pope.

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