1592: The Uglich Bell

Add comment April 1st, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1592, the bell of Uglich had its “tongue” cut out, then was sent to Siberian exile — the crowning indignity of the collective punishment visited on that Volga River town for the murder of Tsarevich Dmitri.

Eight years on from the death of the ferocious and epoch-making Ivan the Terrible, Russia was under the rule of the boyar Boris Godunov, governing in the stead of his brother-in-law, etiolated Ivan heir Tsar Feodor.*

Although rival interpretations exist,** the conventional understanding of events we shall detail here is that Godunov turned assassin in order to maintain his hold on power and, eventually, achieve the tsardom for himself.


Boris Godunov’s 1598 coronation, from the Mussorgsky opera Boris Godunov.

Not yet the tsar himself at this point, Godunov’s problem was that he exercised power only through Feodor … and that heirless sovereign had a (much) younger brother, our victim Tsarevich Dmitri, who in the fullness of time might easily come to supplant both Feodor and Godunov. Boris Godunov had hidden this moppet and his mum away in Uglich, where the child had his own court as Russia’s last appanage prince. The English diplomat Gil(l)es Fletcher† never met Dmitry but his 1591 Of the Russe Commonwealth caught the peril of the situation, with a bit of foreshadowing.

Besides the emperor that now is who hath no child (neither is like ever to have for ought that may be conjectured of his body and the barenness of his wife after so many years’ marriage),‡ there is but one more, viz., a child of six or seven years old in whom resteth all the hope of the succession and the posterity of that house

[The child] is kept in a remote place from the Moscow under the tuition of his mother and her kindred of the house of the Nagois, yet not safe (as I have heard) from attempts of making away by practice of some that aspire to the succession if this emperor die without any issue. The nurse that tasted before him of certain meat (as I have heard) died presently. That he is natural son to Ivan Vasil’evich the Russe people warrant it by the father’s quality that beginneth to appear already in his tender years. He is delighted (they say) to see sheep and other cattle killed and to look on their throats while they are bleeding (which commonly children are afraid to behold), and to beat geese and hens with a staff till he see them lie dead.

The court rumors about Dmitry’s danger were onto something. On May 15, 1591, the eight-year-old princeling was found dead. He’d been stabbed in the neck.

Dmitry’s mother had the local prelates ring the cathedral bell summoning townsfolk to the commons to announce the murder and accuse Boris Godunov’s agents of perpetrating it. Outrage and panic soon whipped people into a mob that rampaged through Uglich, lynching 15 people — including one of Dmitry’s playmates as well as Moscow’s dyak, Mikhail Bityagovsky.


18th century icon of the Tsarevich Dmitry “Uglichsky” (click for larger image) shows his murder (left), and the cathedral bell being sounded to instigate summary justice (right). At the base of the cathedral, Mikhail Bityagovsky tries to batter down the door to silence the alarm.

Dangerous to bystanders, this mob was impotent against the Russian state. Boris Godunov dispatched a delegation that whitewashed Dmitry’s murder and ruthlessly punished Uglich; some 200 are reported to have been put to death for the disturbances.

The bell itself received the crowning punishment on the first of April in 1592, as the literal physical instigator of the riot: hurled from its tower, it was flogged on the public square and mutilated by having its “tongue” (the clapper) torn out. Then it was sent into exile in Tobolsk, where it remained until the 19th century. It hangs today at Uglich’s Church of St. Dmitry on Blood, although — as detailed in the bell’s Russian Wikipedia page — there is some debate about its authenticity.

As for “Saint Dmitry”, his story was just beginning and the canonization wasn’t the half of it.

When Tsar Feodor died in 1598 and Boris Godunov seized the throne outright, Russia entered her “Time of Troubles” — fifteen terrible years of civil war, invasion, and contested succession that ended with the seating of the Romanov dynasty. The Time of Troubles was characterized by, among other things, several imposters claiming to be this very murdered Prince Dmitry and therefore the rightful tsar. False Dmitrys were so ubiquitous during this interregnum that they have their own pretender regnal numbering, but all were failures in the contest for power: False Dmitri I, False Dmitri II, and False Dmitry III each came to violent and sordid ends.

* Ivan the Terrible had a perfectly cromulent heir being groomed for power in the form of one Tsarevich Ivan, but the volatile tsar had struck him during an argument in 1581 and accidentally killed him — which brought the unprepared Feodor into the succession and set up the catastrophic events of this post, as well as this incredible Ilya Repin painting:


Detail view (click for the full image) of Repin’s rendering of the horrified Ivan the Terrible clutching his mortally wounded son.

** The other principal version (Russian link) is that Dmitry suffered an epileptic fit while playing a game with knives, and accidentally stabbed himself. Many Uglichans gave this story to the official investigation (more Russian) that ensued the prince’s death, but their testimony is hard to depend upon since the Godunov-affiliated authorities conducting the investigation (like Patriarch Job, whom Godunov had made metropolitan of Moscow) preferred that version and presumably made sure that they received it. After Godunov’s death the official story reassigned responsibility to him — although this again was driven by the political imperatives of that moment. Some historians down the years have given credence to the “accident” hypothesis.

† That’s Giles Fletcher the elder, who is not to be confused with his son, the poet Giles Fletcher the Younger.

‡ Feodor had only a single daughter, Feodosia, born in 1592 (she died in 1594). As of the time of Dmitry’s murder, Feodor was 33 years old and completely childless.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Borderline "Executions",History,Inanimate Objects,Public Executions,Rioting,Russia,Treason

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1592: Thomas Pormort, prey of Richard Topcliffe

Add comment February 20th, 2017 Headsman

Thomas Pormort (or Pormant) was hanged on this date in 1592 on a gibbet erected adjacent to a Paul’s Churchyard haberdashery whose proprietor had once entrusted the condemned Catholic priest with his confession.

Pormort was a priest trained on the continent who returned to native soil about the beginning of 1591 to brave the Elizabethan persecution, but managed only a few months in the field before his arrest.

He had the misfortune to face the personal interrogation of the vindictive inquisitor Richard Topcliffe, notorious even in his own day for his gleeful sadism. Topcliffe seems not to have even feigned a politic distaste for the breaking of bones and and of men and made a point to attend the executions his offices effected, including Pormort’s.

Now, back in the day such grim ministers of state could be empowered to toy with their prey in their very own lairs. Even the sainted Thomas More had kept a personal torture chamber at his own home.

So it was with Topcliffe, who inflicted his hospitality on Pormort in the intimacy of his own place, where he apparently had the facilities necessary to put a prisoner to the rack. According to Portmort, the torturer had another intimacy besides during their pain-wracked discourse, taunting or boasting to his victim of carnal indulgences he enjoyed from the queen herself. Pormort would allege at the bar that

Topcliffe told [Pormort] that he was so familiar with her Majesty that he many times putteth [his hands] between her breasts and paps and in her neck.

That he hath not only seen her legs and knees [but feeleth them] with his hands above her knees.

That he hath felt her belly, and said unto her Majesty that she had the softest belly of any woman kind.

That she said unto him, ‘be not these the arms, legs and body of King Henry?’ To which he answered: ‘Yea.’

That she gave him for a favour a white linen hose wrought with white silk, etc.

That he is so familiar with her that, when he pleaseth to speak with her, he may take her away from any company; and that she is as pleasant with everyone that she doth love.

This Penthouse letter for the queen has no factual plausibility, and nobody thought so in 1592. Whether the priest’s report of its utterance is an actual glimpse into a seditious perversion of the torturer, or a desperate attempt by a doomed man to smear his persecutor, Topcliffe took the matter seriously enough that he made Pormort stand on the ladder under his noose in freezing cold for two hours on execution day while Topcliffe browbeat him to withdraw the allegation. (Pormort didn’t budge.)

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,God,Hanged,History,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Torture

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1592: Roger Ashton

Add comment June 23rd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1592, Roger Ashton was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn.

Ashton is a minor martyr on the Catholic rolls, one of many in the age who (as Edmund Campion put it) were called by determinedly Protestant English crown to “enjoy your Tyburn.”

We’ll let the Catholic Encyclopedia take it from here.

He was hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn, 23 June, 1592. His indictment is not preserved. Challoner says it was for procuring a dispensation from Rome to marry his second cousin. Later evidence, while confirming this, shows that it was not the only cause.

In 1585 he had gone to serve in the under the Earl of Leicester against the Spaniards. Sir William Stanley having been placed on guard over the town of Deventer, which had revolted from the Spaniards, he, with the assistance of Ashton, gave the town back to Spain and went over to their side (29 January, 1587).*

Cardinal Allen published a “Defence” of this act** in the form of a letter addressed to one “R.A.”, whose letter to the Cardinal prefixed and under these initials it seems natural to recognize our martyr. Stanley next entrusted to Ashton the difficult task of bringing over his wife from Ireland, but she was already under arrest, and he is said to have been sent Ashton to Rome. At the close of the year 1587 he returned to England and was apprehended in Kent with the marriage dispensation already mentioned. In January, 1588, he was in the Tower, where he lay ill towards the close of the year, when he was transferred to easier confinement in the Marshalsea. From this he managed to escape and fled to his brothers in Lancashire.

He was seized later, at Shields near Newcastle, while trying to escape over the seas. Transferred thence to Durham and York, he was tried and sentenced at Canterbury, and died “very resolute”, making profession of his faith and “… pitied of the people”, though the infamous Topcliffe tried to stir up ill-feeling against him by enlarging on his services to Spain.


Executions at Tyburn in the time of Elizabeth. From Tyburn Tree.

* This event — an English commander betraying a city to the enemy during wartime (in fact, two English commanders, as Rowland York (or Yorke) handed the Spanish the fortress of Zutphen on the same day) — naturally raised a scandal in 1587.

Although this treacherous William Stanley is not to be confused with the contemporaneous fellow-noble of the same name who has a horse in the “who really wrote Shakespeare?” race, Lily Bess Campbell argues that the imprint of events in Deventer and the subsequent volley of pamphleteering informs a discourse of royal prerogative in the Bard’s Henry V, when the disguised monarch goes slumming with the common soldiery on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt.

BATES

… wee
know enough, if wee know wee are the Kings Subiects:
if his Cause be wrong, our obedience to the King wipes
the Cryme of it out of vs

WILLIAMS

But if the Cause be not good, the King himselfe
hath a heauie Reckoning to make, when all those
Legges, and Armes, and Heads, chopt off in a Battaile,
shall ioyne together at the latter day, and cry all, Wee dyed
at such a place, some swearing, some crying for a Surgean;
some vpon their Wiues, left poore behind them;
some vpon the Debts they owe, some vpon their Children
rawly left: I am afear’d, there are few dye well, that dye
in a Battaile: for how can they charitably dispose of any
thing, when Blood is their argument? Now, if these men
doe not dye well, it will be a black matter for the King,
that led them to it; who to disobey, were against all proportion
of subiection

Henry replies that soldiers should look after their conscience on their own time and obey the prince of the realm in wartime. No doubt Queen Elizabeth approved.

if they dye vnprouided, no more
is the King guiltie of their damnation, then hee was before
guiltie of those Impieties, for the which they are
now visited. Euery Subiects Dutie is the Kings, but
euery Subiects Soule is his owne.

(As long as we’re digressing with Shakespeare and anti-Stratfordian candidates, here’s an argument that the jittery national mood post-Deventer and pre-routing the Spanish Armada — the time when Mary, Queen of Scots lost her head — makes a case for dating the Henry plays to that period, which in turn makes a case for Edward de Vere as their true author. Make of that what you will.)

** The obedience due a sovereign as opposed to the obedience due to an abstract standard of Right is a lasting modern question, so it’s no surprise that Cardinal Allen’s justification has a modern ring.

For that to revolt, is of itselfe, lawful or unlawful, honorable or otherwise, according to the justice, or injustice of the cause, or difference of the person, from or to whom the revolt is made … Whensoever thou art armed, & in readinesse for battayle, let this be thy first cogitation, that thy very corporal streingth itselfe, is the gift of God: whereby thou shalt stil be put in minde, never to use the gift of God, against God him selfe, that gave it thee.

Presumably he wouldn’t have supported the “only following orders” defense.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,God,Gruesome Methods,History,Martyrs,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Soldiers

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