1600: John Rigby, lay martyr

2 comments June 21st, 2015 Headsman

Most of Catholicism’s “40 Martyrs of England and Wales” were priests executed as traitors for preaching the Old Faith.

John Rigby, drawn and quartered on this date in 1600, is distinguished as the rare layman among their number.

The guy should be the patron saint of dutiful employees. He was in the service of Sir Edmund Huddleston when the master’s daughter was summoned to the Old Bailey on suspicion of Catholic backsliding. (“Recusancy”)

The daughter was sick, so Rigby appeared on her behalf … and since they were all dressed up for the occasion, Queen Elizabeth’s Javerts just started asking Rigby about his religious scruples.

Rigby owned that he had gone Catholic and stopped attending Anglican services two or three years before and was immediately thrown into Newgate, tortured, and condemned to die.

Repeatedly offered his life to apostatize, even en route to his scaffold, Rigby cheerfully refused.

When the rope was to be put about his neck, he first kissed it, and then began to speak to the people, but was interrupted by More, the sheriff’s deputy, bidding him pray for the queen, which he did very affectionately. Then the deputy asked him, what traitors dost thou know in England? God is my witness, said he, I know none. What! saith the deputy again, if he will confess nothing, drive away the cart; which was done so suddenly, that he had no time to say any thing more, or recommend his soul again to God, as he was about to do.

The deputy shortly after commanded the hangman to cut him down, which was done so soon, that he stood upright on his feet, like to a man a little amazed, till the butchers threw him down: then coming perfectly to himself, he said aloud and distinctly, God forgive you. Jesus receive my soul. And immediately another cruel fellow standing by, who was no officer, but a common porter, set his foot upon Mr. Rigby’s throat, and so held him down, that he could speak no more. Others held his arms and legs whilst the executioner dismembered and bowelled him. And when he felt them pulling out his heart, he was yet so strong that he thrust the men from him who held his arms. At last they cut off his head and quartered him, and disposed of his head and quarters in several places in and about Southwark. The people going away, complained very much of the barbarity of the execution; and generally all sorts bewailed his death.

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1600: The corpses of John and Alexander Ruthven, for the Gowrie conspiracy

2 comments November 17th, 2012 Headsman

Remember, remember, the fifth of … August?

If you didn’t get August 5 off, your jurisdiction is ignoring the Scottish parliament’s 1600 decree: “in all times and ages to come the fifth of August should be solemnly kept with prayers, preachings, and thanksgiving for the benefit, discharging all work, labour, and other occupations upon the said day.”*

They didn’t mean to keep it out of excess reverence for St. Emygdius: rather, August 5 was the date of the Gowrie conspiracy, a sketchy supposed assassination attempt on King James VI of Scotland (soon also to become King James I of England). John Ruthven, Earl of Gowrie and his brother Alexander Ruthven were both slain on the spot during that event … but not until 15 weeks later did Parliament rule that “the said bodies of the said Traitors shall be carried, upon Monday next [i.e., November 17], to the publick cross of Edinburgh: and there to be hangd, quarter’d, and drawn, in presence of the hail People: and thereafter, the heads, quarters, and carcasses, to be affix’d upon the most patent parts and places of the Burroughs of Edinburgh, Perth, Dundee and Stirling.”

Did they deserve it?

Scottish writer John Prebble considered the Gowrie conspiracy one of his realm’s best mysteries. It’s a maddeningly perplexing sequence of ambiguous (or altogether dubious) events related by interested, partisan sources.

I am murtherit!

The summary official version — and we’re skipping over such writerly red herrings as a mystery man in the turret, a still-stabled horse, and a wild fable about a pot of foreign gold — is that while staying at the Ruthven estates, James’s courtiers saw him shouting out the window, “I am murtherit! Treassoun! My Lord of Mar, help! help!”

While Lord Mar and others spent half an hour (!) trying to batter down a locked entrance to the regicidal turret, a page named John Ramsay found another staircase in, where he came upon the king and Alexander Ruthven grappling. Ramsay stabbed Ruthven about the head and neck, and Ruthven fled down Ramsay’s same staircase: there he careened headlong into more arriving royal retainers who killed him flat. Ruthven died exclaiming “Allace! I had na wyte [blame] of it!”

Meanwhile, the Lord Gowrie — quite possibly knowing nothing but that there was a commotion involving the king in his home — had rallied outside the courtyard with his own household and marched in swords drawn, passing the fresh-slain body of his little brother on the way. He must have been in an evil temper when he burst into the chamber, there to discover Ramsay and friends, and only them: the king had been locked in another room for his protection. Ramsay demanded Gowrie’s submission and the two crossed swords, with Ramsay running the elder Ruthven through, too.

(Small wonder Ramsay went on to become a royal favorite.**)

“… if it be true”

“A very wonderful story, your Majesty, if it be true,” one lord is supposed to have replied to James upon hearing this amazing tale.

Suspicion was immediately rife that this “treason” stuff was a cover for the king to take out a rival noble. The Ruthvens had often been at odds with King Jamie’s own family; John and Alexander’s own father was beheaded in 1584 for trying to kidnap the then-teenaged king, and their grandfather had helped a gang of nobles destabilize James’s mother Mary by murdering her favorite courtier David Rizzio right before her eyes. And of course, the crown would be able to seize all the “traitors'” estates, nicely flipping around a significant cash debt owed to the Ruthven clan.

Edinburgh Presbyterian ministers openly disputed the Ruthvens’ guilt, refusing to thank God for James’s “deliverance”.† James found it necessary to forcibly quash this talk, and he would insist upon the Ruthvens’ guilt all his days. But those outside the reach of Scottish royal power had looser tongues.

French nobles who had met Gowrie on the latter’s recent return from his continental studies, and Queen Elizabeth, who had received Gowrie warmly at court, openly doubted the official account: it was thought wildly at odds with the young man’s character. The nature of the interaction between the king and Alexander Ruthven prior to the intervention of John Ramsay depends upon the account of the king himself — that account, and no other. The other witnesses were dead. And the object of the plot seems unclear: sure, maybe Alexander Ruthven could have killed the king mano a mano, but then what? There was no indication at all of confederates (even Alexander’s brother reacted in confusion), nor coherent design for some next step like massacring James’s courtiers or toppling the government or even escaping. These were scheming aristocrats, not deranged lone assassins. And both James and Gowrie had behaved for all the world before this incident as if the unpleasantness with the father was water under the bridge.

“The assassination of the Gowries was the most indefensible act that has ever appeared on the pages of Scottish history,” avers mildy a 1912 volume of the Ruthven family papers. It was “a cunning conspiracy that has disgraced the historical record for more than three hundred years.”

The jury’s still out

Still, the hypothetical account of a royal anti-Gowrie conspiracy seems if anything even less satisfying than the official story. Most of the happenings besides what passed between Alexander and James were witnessed by others, so … the king falsely yelled “treason” counting on the handful of his guys staying in the Ruthvens’ own place to kill the Ruthvens instead of the other way around? Events played out so chaotically that this convenient outcome seems mere [mis]chance. What was the plan if John Ramsay hadn’t found the unlocked second entrance?

And yet some 350 witnesses were examined without turning up any concrete design, and three Ruthven retainers hanged on August 23 insisting upon their innocence of any treasonable intent.

One can go a lot of ways from here, and it’s hard to spin any one story that satisfyingly accounts for all the evidence. A scheme to kidnap (and extract policy change from) the king, rather than murder him? Alexander an unwilling pawn, forced into it by his brother? Or, as one English envoy supposed, a destructive spiral of events proceeding from a silly misunderstanding wherein a chance reference to the Ruthvens’ executed father led Alexander to defend the family a little too hotly and the king to start shouting in panic when he realized he was unarmed in the company of an excited, and much larger, man?‡

We’ll never really know. Light a candle for epistemological uncertainty next August 5.

Much help drawn from a two-parter review of the contradictory evidence in The Scottish Historical Review, nos. 121 and 122 (April and October 1957) by W.F. Arbuckle.

* August 5 was indeed “solemnly kept” during the reign of James, according to F.C. Eeles in “The English Thanksgiving Service for King James’ Delivery from the Gowrie Conspiracy” from the July 1911 Scottish Historical Review. As the title of that piece suggests, there was even a service promulgated (though never incorporated into the Book of Common Prayer), beseeching God that James “may bee kept as the apple of thine eye, and thy kindnesse and mercy may follow him all the dayes of his life, with abundance of all thy blessings both heavenly and earthly upon his Majesty, our gracious Queene, the Prince …”

The Prince in question was the future King Charles I, which might cause one to doubt the prayer’s efficacy.

** Ramsay would be supplanted in the royal sun come the 1620s, by George Villiers.

† Religion affords another potential motivation here, although perhaps only retrospectively. James was working a long-term project to reintroduce episcopacy — crown-appointed bishops — to control the loose canons of Scotch Presbyterianism. “No bishop, no king,” in the aphorism attributed him.

With the Gowrie plot as backdrop, James was able to force radical ministers and their tin-foil hats out of Edinburgh and obtain the consent of the rest to James’s own hand-picked bishops — the camel’s nose under the tent, if you like. (See Maurice Lee, Jr., “James VI and the Revival of Episcopacy in Scotland: 1596-1600,” Church History, 43 (1974).) The Ruthven family papers volume also sets great stock by the idea that a Catholic party was out to get Lord Gowrie.

‡ “by occasion of a picture (as is sayde) or otherwise, speech happening of Earle Gourie his father executed, the k. angrelie sayde he was a traitour. Whereat the youth showing a greived and expostulatorie countenance and happilie Scot-like woords, the k. seeing hymself alone and wythout weapon cryed, ‘Treason, Treason’. The Mr [i.e., Alexander Ruthven], abashed much to see the k. to apprehend yt so … putt his hand with earnest deprecations to staie the k. showing his countenance to them with out in that moode, immediatlie falling on his knees to entreat the k.” Ramsay did say that when he entered the room he saw Alexander’s head under James’s arm, which might be consistent with this supplicatory pose … especially given that accounts of the men’s respective physiques suggest Alexander should have had the clear advantage in an actual scrap.

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1600: Ishida Mitsunari, Konishi Yukinaga and Ankokuji Ekei for the Tokugawa Shogunate

1 comment November 6th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1600, the emergent Tokugawa Shogunate beheaded three men as rebels in Kyoto after they lost one of the pivotal battles in Japanese history.

The Battle of Sekigahara, on Oct. 21 of that same year, had pitted the shogunate’s founder Tokugawa Ieyasu against a coalition known as the Western Army.

This was the culmination of Japan’s bloody process of national unification.

The preceding ruler, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, had more or less unified Japan under central authority to end a century of civil war. But when Hideyoshi shuffled off leaving a five-year-old heir, a squabbling coterie of regents began elbowing for position.

The political scene eventually crystallized into one of those regents — the said Tokugawa Ieyasu — against all the others. Give yourself a gold star if you guessed that the guys who had their heads lopped off by the Tokugawa Shogunate played for the “all others” team.

Ishida Mitsunari

Ishida Mitsunari, a daimyo who served the late national unifier Hideyoshi, became the focal point of the opposition to Ieyasu.*

Mitsunari failed in a 1599 assassination bid on Ieyasu, and so the two came to outright warfare the following year — a war that Ieyasu economically won by routing Mitsunari at the Battle of Sekigahara.

That, in turn, cleared the way for Tokugawa Ieyasu eventually to take the title of shogun and found his eponymous dynasty — a dynasty whose intellectuals circled that decisive battle as the keystone in the arch.

“Evildoers and bandits were vanquished and the entire realm submitted to Lord Ieyasu, praising the establishment of peace and extolling his martial virtue. That this glorious era that he founded may continue for ten thousands upon ten thousands of generations, coeval with heaven and earth!”

Hayashi Gaho, a little on the optimistic side

Captured after Sekigahara, the “evildoer” Mitsunari was beheaded this date alongside two of his allies: a Christian convert named Konishi Yukinaga, and Ankokuji Ekei of the powerful Mori clan.

* Ishida Mitsunari wasn’t one of the regents; rather, the anti-Ieyasu regents ended up adhering to him.

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1600: Hansel Pappenheimer, following his family

Add comment November 26th, 2009 Headsman

A few months ago, Executed Today detailed the dreadful fate of the Pappenheimers, a family of poor itinerants swept into a witch scare and horrifically executed.

10- or 11-year-old Hansel Pappenheimer was made to provide some of the testimony that condemned his parents and older siblings to a torturous public death. Then, he was made to watch.

This child was being monitored by the authorities for any sign of infernal possession himself, so his heartbreaking exclamations as the butchery unfolded — “Look how they’re thumping my father’s arms!” as the man was broken on the wheel; “My mother is squirming!” as she burned alive — were recorded.

That’s just about as horrible as the annals of execution get.

The only thing that would make it more horrible would be the coda the Bavarian duchy added this date in 1600, when it burned little Hansel Pappenheimer too.

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1600: The Pappenheimer Family

13 comments July 29th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1600, Bavarians thronged to a half-mile-long procession in Munich for the horrific execution of the Pappenheimer family.

They were marginal, itinerant types: the father, Paulus Pappenheimer, cleaned privies (“Pappenheimer” would remain as Nuremberg slang for a garbageman into the 20th century, according to Robert Butts); the mother, Anna, was the daughter of a gravedigger. They wandered, begged, did odd jobs. They were Lutherans in a Catholic duchy.

So they were vulnerable to their extreme turn of bad luck. Fresh to the throne of Bavaria, young Catholic zealot Duke Maximilian I wanted a crackdown on the infernal arts, and when others accused the Pappenheimers of witchcraft, they found they had become the stars of a show trial.

Tortured into a spectacular litany of confessions, Anne Llewellyn Barstow, records,

they were stripped so that their flesh could be torn off by red-hot pincers. Then Anna’s breasts were cut off. The bloody breasts were forced into her mouth and then into the mouths of her two grown sons … a hideous parody of her role as mother and nurse …

Church bells pealed to celebrate this triumph of Christianity over Satan; the crowd sang hymns; vendors hawked pamphlets describing the sins of the victims.

Meanwhile, Anna’s chest cavity bled. As the carts lurched along, the injured prisoners were in agony. Nonetheless, they were forced at one point to get down from the carts and kneel before a cross, to confess their sins. Then they were offered wine to drink, a strangely humane act in the midst of this barbaric ritual.*

One can hope that between the wine and loss of blood, the Pappenheimers were losing consciousness. They had not been granted the “privilege” of being strangled before being burned, but in keeping with the extreme brutality of these proceedings, they would be forced to endure the very flames.

Further torments awaited Paulus. A heavy iron wheel was dropped on his arms until the bones snapped … [then] Paulus was impaled on a stick driven up through his anus …

The four Pappenheimers were then tied to the stakes, the brushwood pyres were set aflame, and they were burned to death. Their eleven-year-old son was forced to watch the dying agonies of his parents and brothers. We know that Anna was still alive when the flames leapt up around her, for Hansel cried out, “My mother is squirming!” The boy was executed months later.

Ouch.


The Pappenheimers’ appalling end, famous in its own time, hit modern bestseller lists with Michael Kunze‘s work of popular history, Highroad to the Stake: A Tale of Witchcraft (Review).

Dr. Kunze was good enough to share his thoughts on the Pappenheimers’ milieu with Executed Today.

You present the Pappenheimers as a sort of “show trial” case; what makes a witchcraft show trial a compelling need for a German duke at the end of the 16th century? Why do you think witch persecution arises so especially in this period especially?

Towards the end of the 16th century the Middle Ages had been overcome. People no longer believed in a God taking care of every little thing in their lives. The world was no longer regarded a safe home, guarded by the Father in heaven. Religion had been replaced by reason. The kings, princes and dukes took over direct responsibility for their countries and citizens. They started to build modern states, rationally organized und fully controlled.

The main problem was that full control was difficult to achieve. The streets were in very bad condition, the countryside far stretched, the woods were dark, the villages far away. All kinds of crimes were committed, and when the police arrived the robbers, thieves and murderers had long disappeared. In time without photographs or identity papers it was difficult to trace them. The slow flow of information was also a problem.

That’s why the authorities tried to abhor criminals by show trials and spectacular executions. A witch trial was ideal, because people believed that all mischief and evil was induced by the devil. All criminals were more or less suspected of a deal with the devil.

What’s the biggest challenge we have in our time to re-imagining the world that witch prosecutors and “witches” lived in, or the biggest difference in mindset?

People in the 16th century were absolutely convinced that the devil was a real force trying to use humans to work against God’s intentions. They believed in a huge battle between good and evil, and those who changed sides and helped the devil were regarded as traitors committing High Treason.

At the same time the modern idea that everything that happens has an explainable cause made the authorities suspect the devil’s work behind every thunderstorm, not to mention deadly accidents. People were not more stupid than we are. It was the mixture of medieval superstitions and modern rationalization that led to the witch trials.

How did contemporaries of the Pappenheimers and Duke Maximilian think about this event?

It was indeed a monstrous case and quite an event at the time. The contemporaries did not doubt that 1) the Pappenheimer family had been instruments of the devil, and 2) that the brutal punishment had saved their souls. Duke Maximilian certainly regarded the execution as a means to stabilize safety in his country.

In researching the interrogations and trials in these cases, where did you get the sense that we still revert to “witch trial logic” in some modern cases? If so, when does it arise?

It’s obvious that we still interpret laws based on our beliefs and point of views. The judges involved in the witch trials thought they “knew” for certain that the devil can talk to people and make deals with them. They also believed that torture brings the truth to light. Isn’t today’s deal bargaining also a form of torture? After all the authorities tell the defendant that he will be severely punished if he does not confess. That’s what I call a forced confession. Yet it is done around the world.

Obviously, this execution is utterly horrific in its particulars. How typical would this sexualized theater — slicing off Anna Pappenheimer’s breasts, impaling Paulus Pappenheimer — have been for a witchcraft case at that time and place? How would this have been understood by witnesses, as opposed to “merely” burning or breaking on the wheel?

The point was to abhor by cruelty. People should see what horrors the criminals had to endure and tell it to everyone for years to come.

* Or, perchance, the wine was offered to revive them and protract their tortures.

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1600: Jean Livingston, Lady Waristoun

3 comments July 5th, 2009 Headsman

At 4 o’clock in the morning this day — as a favor to her powerful father to limit the public spectacle — Jean Livingston lost her head for arranging the murder of her husband just three days before.

Provoked by one beating too many, Lady Waristoun (or Lady Warriston) got a servant to murder him in his bed on the night of July 1.

Robert Weir blew town — he wouldn’t be apprehended until 1604, whereupon he suffered one of the very few instances of execution on the breaking-wheel to occur in the British Isles — but the Lady and her nurse Janet Murdo were “caught red-handed”, an actual juridical concept in Scottish law which means what it says on the tin.

They were condemned to death by burning, which dad’s pull was able to mitigate for his daughter (but not the nurse), so

scho wes tare to the Girth Crosse upon the 5 day of Julii, and her heid struk fra her bodie at the Cannagait fit; quha diet verie patiently. Her nurische wes brunt at the same tyme, at 4 houres in the morneing, the 5 of Julii.

In the exceedingly brief time — about a day and a half — between sentence and execution, Lady Waristoun was reported to have undergone a wonderous transformation. The not-uninterested report* of her confessor offers these mournful final words, a stark contrast to her defiant state just after condemnation.

The occasion of my coming here is to show that I am, and have been, a great sinner, and hath offended the Lord’s Majesty; especially, of the cruel murdering of mine own husband, which, albeit I did not with mine own hands, for I never laid mine hands upon him all the time that he was murdering, yet I was the deviser of it, and so the committer. But my God hath been always merciful to me, and hath given me repentance for my sins; and I hope for mercy and grace at his Majesty’s hands, for his dear son Jesus Christ’s sake. And the Lord hath brought me hither to be an example to you, that you may not fall into the like sin as I have done. And I pray God, for his mercy, to keep all his faithful people from falling into the like inconvenient as I have done! And therefore I desire you all to pray to God for me, that he would be merciful to me!

Then, she had her head lopped off by the maiden while at the same hour Janet Murdo, much less wept for, was burnt alive at Castlehill.

This sudden and sensational fall of an elite, and allegedly beautiful, woman obviously made quite a splash, with printed accounts feeding almost inevitably into the Scots ballad tradition.

My mother was an ill woman,
In fifteen years she married me ;
I hadna wit to guide a man,
Alas! ill counsel guided me.

O Warriston, O Warriston,
I wish that ye may sink for sin;
I was but bare fifteen years auld,
When first I enter’d your yates within.

I hadna been a month married,
Till my gude Lord went to the sea;
I bare a bairn ere he came hame,
And set it on the nourice knee.

But it fell ance upon a day,
That my gude lord return’d from sea;
Then I did dress in the best array,
As blythe as ony bird on tree.

I took my young son in my arms,
Likewise my nourice me forebye;
And I went down to yon shore side,
My gude lord’s vessel I might spy.

My lord he stood upon the deck,
I wyte he hail’d me courteouslie;
“Ye are thrice welcome, my lady gay,
Wha’se aught that bairn on your knee?”

She turn’d her right and round about,
Says, “Why take ye sic dreads o’ me?
Alas! I was too young married,
To love another man but thee.”

“Now hold your tongue, my lady gay,
Nae mair falsehoods ye’ll tell to me;
This bonny bairn is not mine,
You’ve loved another while I was on sea.”

In discontent then hame she went,
And aye the tear did blin’ her e’e;
Says, “Of this wretch I’ll be revenged,
For these harsh words he’s said to me.”

She’s counsell’d wi’ her father’s steward,
What way she cou’d revenged be;
Bad was the counsel then he gave, —
It was to gar her gude lord dee.

The nourice took the deed in hand,
I wat she was well paid her fee;
She kiest the knot, and the loop she ran,
Which soon did gar this young lord dee.

His brother lay in a room hard by,
Alas! that night he slept too soun’;
But then he waken’d wi’ a cry,
I fear my brother’s putten down.

O get me coal and candle-light,
And get me some gude companie;
But before the light was brought,
Warriston he was gart dee.

They’ve ta’en the lady and fause nouriee,
In prison strang they hae them boun’;
The nouriee she was hard o’ heart,
But the bonny lady fell in swoon.

In it came her brother dear,
And aye a sorry man was he;
“I wou’d gie a’ the lands I heir,
O bonny Jean, .to borrow thee.”

“O borrow me, brother, borrow me–
O borrow’d shall I never be;
For I gart kill my ain gude lord,
And life is nae pleasure to me.”

In it came her mother dear,
I wyte a sorry woman was she;
“I wou’d gie my white monie and gowd,
O bonny Jean, to borrow thee.”

“Borrow me, mother, borrow me,–
O borrow’d shall I never be;
For I gart kill my ain gude lord,
And life’s now nae pleasure to me.”

Then in it came her father dear,
I wyte a sorry man was he;
Says, “Ohon! alas! my bonny Jean,
If I had you at hame wi’ me.

“Seven daughters I ha’e left at hame,
As fair women as fair can be;
But I would gie them ane by ane,
O bonny Jean, to borrow thee.”

“O borrow me, father, borrow me,–
O borrow’d shall I never be;
I that is worthy o’ the death,
It is but right that I shou’d dee.”

Than out it speaks the king himsell,
And aye as he steps in the fleer,
Says, “I grant you your life, lady,
Because you are of tender year.”

“A boon, a boon, my liege the king,
The boon I ask, ye’ll grant to me.”
“Ask on, ask on, my bonny Jean,
Whate’er ye ask, it’s granted be.”

Cause take me out at night, at night,
Lat not the sun upon me shine;
And take me to yon heading hill,
Strike aff this dowie head o’ mine.

Ye’ll take me out at night, at night,
When there are nane to gaze and see;
And ha’e me to yon heading hill,
And ye’ll gar head me speedilie.

They’ve ta’en her out at nine at night,
Loot not the sun upon her shine;
And had her to yon heading hill,
And headed her baith neat and fine.

Then out it speaks the king himsell,
I wyte a sorry man was he;
“I’ve travell’d east, I’ve travell’d west,
And sailed far beyond the sea,
But I never saw a woman’s face
I was sae sorry to see dee.

“But Warriston was sair to blame,
For slighting o’ his lady so;
He had the wyte o’ his ain death,
And his bonny lady’s overthrow.”

* Snappily titled, “A Worthy and Notable Memorial of the Great Work of Mercy which God wrought in the Conversion of Jean Livingstone Lady Warristoun, who was apprehended for the Vile and Horrible Murder of her own Husband, John Kincaid, committed on Tuesday, July 1, 1600, for which she was execute on Saturday following; Containing an Account of her Obstinacy, Earnest Repentance, and her Turning to God; of the Odd Speeches she used during her Imprisonment; of her Great and Marvellous Constancy; and of her Behaviour and Manner of Death: Observed by One who was both a Seer and Hearer of what was spoken.”

Part of the Themed Set: The Ballad.

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1600: Giordano Bruno, freethought martyr

12 comments February 17th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1600, gadfly philosopher Giordano Bruno was burnt for heresy in Rome’s Campo dei Fiori.

A figure of ridicule in the 17th century, Bruno got this statue at the site of his execution in the 19th — when the world finally began to catch up with him.

A Dominican inductee in his teens, Bruno was cast out of the order for his heterodoxy.

There followed a lifetime seemingly always on the run, with each successive safe harbor turned against his pantheistic principles and abrasive personal manner.

Bruno has been understood with hindsight to have grasped, fleetingly, the world-upending implications of the Copernican system. In “a time when more than 99% of the intellectuals believed that the Earth was the center of the Universe, and a few others, like Copernicus and Galileo, believed that it was the Sun, instead, at the center of the Universe,” Bruno intuited modern cosmology — wherein both earth and sun were merely heavenly bodies among many others, situated in an infinite universe that did not revolve around them.

More than that, he intuited the expanse of philosophical, scientific and spiritual inquiry that would follow from that idea’s comprehensive destruction of the medieval order, centuries ahead of his time.

That little of Bruno’s own scientific work has withstood the test of time, and other scientific contemporaries did not sympathize with him, enables a hostile source like the Catholic Encyclopedia to sniff that

the exaggerations, the limitations, and the positive errors of his scientific system; his intolerance of even those who were working for the reforms to which he was devoted; the false analogies, fantastic allegories, and sophistical reasonings into which his emotional fervour often betrayed him have justified, in the eyes of many, Bayle’s characterization of him as “the knight-errant of philosophy.” His attitude of mind towards religious truth was that of a rationalist. Personally, he failed to feel any of the vital significance of Christianity as a religious system.

These latter traits are precisely the reason for his reclamation by Age of Reason deists.

[audio:http://podcast.cbc.ca/mp3/tapestry_20100425_31274.mp3]

But the sixteenth century had no place for him.

This historical thriller — the first of a series — features Bruno in England, where some think he might have spied for Francis Walsingham.

Bruno fled Italy for Geneva, where he was soon excommunicated by Calvinist authorities, and thence to France, impressing King Henri III before wearing out his welcome. He spent time in England and Lutheran Germany, running afoul of each new host with his radical ideas, his contempt for the dead hand of Aristotelianism, and his decided want of tact.

He returned at last to Italy and these pages, perhaps counting on the Venetians’ historic rivalry with the papacy in accepting a sponsorship in the maritime republic. There the Inquisition clapped him in irons and shipped him to Rome where for unclear reasons he spent six-plus years imprisoned before facing trial as a heretic.

“Perhaps you, my judges, pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it.”

Refusing all opportunity to recant, Bruno was led to the stake this morning gagged against any last outrages against St. Peter’s throne, and the friar who recorded Bruno’s unyielding end — famously mythologized in turning away from the proffered crucifix — could hardly have thought he was writing Bruno’s heroic epitaph as a martyr to the spirit of critical inquiry and passionate dissent.

But he insisted till the end always in his damned refractoriness and twisted brain and his mind with a thousand errors; yes, he didn’t give up his stubborness, not even when the court ushers took him away to the Campo de’ Fiori. There his clothes were taken off, he was bound to a stake and burned alive. In all this time he was accompanied by our fraternity, who sang constant litanies, while the comforters tried till the last moment to break his stubborn resistance, till he gave up a miserable and pitiable life.

That end serves as the climax to the forgettable 1973 Italian flick Giordano Bruno.

Sole bird of the sun, thou wandering phoenix!
That measurest thy days as does the world
With lofty summits of Arabia Felix.
Thou art the same thou wast, but I what I was not:
I through the fire of love, unhappy die;
But thee the sun with his warm rays revives;
Thou burn’st in one, and I, in every place;
Eros my fire, while thine Apollo gives.
Predestined is the term of thy long life;
Short span is mine,
And menaced by a thousand ills.
Nor do I know how I have lived, nor how shall live,
Me does blind fate conduct;
But thou wilt come again, again behold thy light.

-From Bruno’s esoteric The Heroic Enthusiasts, available on gutenberg.org

A few recent books about Giordano Bruno

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Freethinkers,God,Heresy,History,Intellectuals,Italy,Martyrs,Papal States,Public Executions

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