1512: Five young Ottoman princes

Add comment November 27th, 2015 Headsman

For many generations from the 14th to 17th centuries, new Ottoman heirs maintained themselves by the cruel practice of preventive fratricide.

Enforced at varying levels of systematicity, the destruction of the men best positioned to assert a claim of bloodline legitimacy against the new sultan might arguably have been one of the bulwarks of the empire’s prosperity. It insulated the Sultanate from protracted succession crises, civil war, and political fragmentation. With each generation’s passing, power coalesced into one man.

Precedent for this sanguine consanguity policy runs back at least to the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, where the death of the sitting sultan resulted in the soldiers’ enforcing their acclamation of Bayezid I as his heir by putting to death the sultan’s brother Yakub.

The sagacity, if not the humanity, of Bayezid’s action was underscored in 1402 when Bayezid was captured in battle by the Timurids and the ensuing 11-year “Ottoman Interregnum” saw the empire strained near to breaking as brother fought brother for succession until Mehmed I emerged victorious in 1413. Having attained power by killing off three siblings, he got the nickname “Mehmed Kirisci” — “Bowstring Mehmed”, after the implement by which the mighty were strangled out of the Turkish game of thrones.

His grandson Mehmed II, the man who conquered Constantinople, formalized what had been simply wise practice into written law, e.g.:

And whoever of my children manages to reach the throne, it is fitting that he should kill his brothers, for the sake of the order of the world. Most of the ulema permit that. Let them act on that. (Source)

In Mehmed the Conqueror’s day, the child “managing to reach the throne” was the winner among the sons, who were posted to various regional outposts to earn their spurs in governance, in a scramble back to the Porte upon word of the old man’s death. This meant that in life, the boys were in a constant struggle for the privilege of central assignments and to nurture their own palace networks who when the day came could provide speedy notification of the impending succession and smooth recognition of a claim by the state apparatus. “The first son to reach the capital and win recognition by the court and the imperial troops became the new ruler,” Donald Quataert writes. “This was not a very pretty method; nonetheless it did promote the accession of experienced, well-connected, and capable individuals to the throne, persons who had been able to win support from the power brokers of the system.” The sitting sultans naturally put their own thumbs on the scale, too.

We are arriving, ever so circuitously, to the date’s honorees, and as one might suppose they were princes of the blood.

Come 1512, we find Mehmed the Conqueror’s son Bayezid II forcibly deposed by his son Selim. All those incentives favoring experienced, well-connected and capable individuals could also induce such a figure to take his advantage when it presented itself rather than awaiting the mischance of racing messengers. In Selim’s case, the father openly favored a different brother, Ahmet, so Selim and Ahmet were at each other’s throats (and dad’s too) well before Bayezid departed the scene.

Long story short, Selim got the kingmaking Janissaries on his side and lodged himself in the palace but his brother fought on against him. Selim would have to secure his power in 1512-1513 by an unusually thorough purge that set him up to earn the nickname “Selim the Grim”.*

Selim had seven brothers, five of whom were fortunate enough to predecease their father, and these seven brothers had collectively fathered nine sons of their own. Selim had quite a number possible rivals to dispose of.

In the months after his conquest of power, Selim wintered in Bursa, where he had interred five of his young nephews. (The other four nephews were all Ahmet’s sons, and still at large.) Some bout of fresh resistance by Ahmet induced Selim, on November 27, 1512, to do the grim thing:

The eldest of them, Osman, son of Prince Alemshah, was twenty years old; the youngest, Mahomet, son of Prince Schehinshah, was only seven. Selim sent Janissaries to apprehend them, and they were shut up by his orders in one apartment of the palace. On the next morning, the Sultan’s mutes entered to put them to death. A fearful scene ensued, which Selim witnessed from an adjoining chamber. The youngest of the captive princes fell on their knees before the grim executioners, and with tears and childish prayers and promises begged hard for mercy. The little Prince Mahomet implored that his uncle would spare him, and offered to serve him all the days of his life for an aspre (the lowest of all coins) a day. The elder of the victims, Prince Osman, who knew that there was no hope of mercy, rushed fiercely upon the murderers, and fought hard for a time against them. One of the mutes was struck dead, and another had his arm broken. Selim ordered his personal attendants to run in and assist in the execution; and at length the unhappy princes were overpowered by numbers, and strangled. Their bodies were deposited with all display of royal pomp near the sepulchre of Amurath II. (Source)

Six months later, Ahmet — defeated and in his own turn throttled with a bowstring — joined them in the same tomb.

* All told, Selim the Grim ordered something like 30,000 executions in his eight-year reign.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Notably Survived By,Ottoman Empire,Power,Royalty,Strangled,Summary Executions,Turkey

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1553: Prince Mustafa, heir to Suleiman the Magnificent

19 comments October 6th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1553, the capable heir apparent to Ottoman Emperor Suleiman the Magnificent was strangled at dad’s order — casualty of the the realm’s lethal harem politics.

If ’tis state thou seekest like the world-adorning sun’s array,
Lowly e’en as water rub thy face in earth’s dust every day.
Fair to see, but short enduring is this picture bright, the world;
‘Tis a proverb: Fleeting like the realm of dreams is earth’s display.
Through the needle of its eyelash never hath the heart’s thread past;
Like unto the Lord Messiah bide I half-road on the way.
Athlete of the Universe through self-reliance grows the Heart,
With the ball, the Sphere—Time, Fortune—like an apple doth it play.
Mukhlisi, thy frame was formed from but one drop, yet, wonder great!
When thou verses sing’st, thy spirit like the ocean swells, they say.

-Prince Mustafa, about himself

Suleiman’s first-born son by his first concubine, Mustafa seemed well-positioned to emerge in the Ottomans’ fratricidal succession.

The racket: when the current sultan dies, all his sons by his various concubines make a rush from their provincial outposts for the capital and fight it out, the winner killing off his half-brothers to consolidate his rule.

This disorderly ascension made, while dad still lived, for fraught internal politicking among the sons for the inside track: the most prestigious positions, and the assignments closest to Istanbul. The various mothers of the contenders jockeyed just as aggressively on behalf of their various entrants in the imperial sweepstakes.

Mustafa was the capable eldest son in a kingdom at its very acme,* but to his misfortune, and the empire’s too, he found himself pitted against one of the ablest women ever to call the Ottoman harem home: Hürrem Sultan, also known as Roxelana (or Roxolana).

A Ukrainian woman kidnapped to the harem by Tartar slavers, Roxelana enchanted Suleiman and soon became his favorite. Therefore, Roxelana also became the rival, with her son and her own potential heir, to Mustafa and his mother.

As the story is told, Roxelana at length contrived to convince Suleiman that Mustafa was in cahoots with the rival Safavid Empire to supplant Suleiman on the throne; Suleiman had his firstborn summoned to his tent on campaign in Anatolia, and straightaway put to death. He’s supposed to have sat by the body in grief for days afterwards, and barely averted a revolt by his elite Janissaries, who much favored the talented Mustafa.

“This terrible tragedy exercised an effect on Ottoman affairs resembling that which the Massacre of St. Bartholomew had on the history of France,” according to The Cambridge Modern History (vol. 3). Roxelana’s unimpressive son “Prince Selim, in whose favour the crime was committed, was the first of a series of degenerate Sultans, sunk in pleasure-seeking or stricken with Imperial mania, under whose sway the Empire went to ruin.”

Consequently, Mustafa is still mourned in Turkey as a tragic turning-point; visitors pay homage to his tomb at Bursa.

Westerners had word of this fascinating palace intrigue through diplomatic correspondents who were not privy to the actual harem, and adopted the story themselves while imaginatively filling in the orientalizing details. Inevitably these imaginings have helped shape the story as it comes to us.

The scenario blending the familiar and the exotic — a European in the court of the Turk; a slave woman dominating the conqueror; fratricidal princes and the alluring seraglio — all set in the heart of the feared Muslim state proved irresistible to literary interlocutors. These made of Suleiman, Mustafa (Mustapha), and Roxelana moral fables, theater (endorsed by Samuel Pepys!), symphony

… and opera (many librettos, this by Hasse):

Not to mention, of course, more titillating fare.

* The PBS documentary Islam, The Empire of Faith does engrossing coverage of Suleiman (including his relationship with Roxelana and the execution of Mustafa) in these video segments: 3, 4, 5.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,No Formal Charge,Ottoman Empire,Political Expedience,Power,Royalty,Strangled,Summary Executions,Turkey,Wrongful Executions

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