1663: Corfitz Ulfeldt, in effigy

Add comment November 13th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1663, Danish noble Corfitz Ulfeldt — then a fugitive abroad — was executed in effigy.

Ulfeldt (English Wikipedia page | Danish) is notorious as his country’s greatest traitor.

To commit great betrayals, one needs to begin with great trust. Ulfeldt was the son of a chancellor and was married off to Leonora Christina, the daughter of King Christian IV.

When Christian died, Ulfeldt was the de facto ruler of the realm or a few months in 1648 while the elective monarchy sorted out where to pass the crown next.

The choice ultimately fell to the late king’s son Frederick III, but this saturnine prince was distrusted by the Danish nobility, who forced on him as the price for his power a Haandfaestning — a sort of temporary Magna Carta circumscribing a monarch’s power for the period of his individual reign. It set a less than comradely tone for the two men’s relationship.

In 1651, an accusation surfaced that Ulfeldt was in on a plot to poison the king — an accusation that cost Ulfeldt’s lover her own head. Deciding that he didn’t need to be around when the next specious regicide allegation made the rounds, Ulfeldt pre-emptively fled the country.

From there, Ulfeldt’s lust for power and personal enmity for Frederick would light his path to infamy.

He signed up with Sweden’s King Charles X — Denmark’s greatest foreign rival — and mounted an invasion of his native country, possibly even financed by stolen Danish treasure. Rewarded with a Swedish noble title, he promptly began double-dealing against them, until his disgusted new sovereign dispossessed him, leading Ulfeldt to return hat in hand to Copenhagen.

Imprisoned there for that whole leading-an-enemy-invasion incident, Ulfeldt again managed to wriggle out and immediately tried to raise a German army against Denmark. Really — enough, dude.

Frederick certainly thought he’d seen enough too. Not having the compulsive traitor available to execute bodily, he resorted to the weird ritual of punishing a mannequin, and ordered the prison governor:

Know that you have to command the executioner in our name, that to-day, November 13, he is to take the effigy of Corfitz, formerly called Count of Ulfeldt, from the Blue Tower where it is now, and bring it on a car to the ordinary place in the square in front of the castle; and when he has come to the place of justice, strike off the right hand and the head, whereafter he is to divide the body into four parts on the spot, and carry them away with him, whilst the head is to be placed on a spike on the Blue Tower for remembrance and execration.

A few months after, the hunted Ulfeldt was reported to have died in Switzerland, a report considered highly suspicious in his native land. Nevertheless, he was never captured or heard from again, so whenever or however he died, it seems he managed to cheat the executioner of his flesh. As to the judgment of posterity: that, he had long since squandered.

The royal and loyal widow Leonora Christina enjoys a reputation quite a bit more favorable than her husband. She swallowed every draught of his exile, and more — remaining imprisoned under harsh conditions long after Corfitz’s death, only released in 1685 with the passing of King Frederick’s wife, her vengeful personal enemy. In that time, and in between fending off in her dungeon the local vermin, lecherous jailers, and the poison of personal bitterness, she wrote voluminous and well-regarded memoirs.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Denmark,Executed in Effigy,Execution,History,Infamous,Nobility,Not Executed,Politicians,Treason

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1945: Kim Malthe-Bruun, Yours, but not forever

10 comments April 6th, 2011 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this day in 1945, Kim Malthe-Bruun was executed by firing squad in the Vestre Fængsel Prison in Copenhagen. His crime was being a member of the Danish Resistance Movement in German-occupied Denmark; he had stolen a customs boat and used it to smuggle arms from Sweden to Denmark to be used against the Nazis.

Kim was born in Saskatchewan, Canada in 1923, and moved to Denmark at the age of nine with his sister and mother. He quit school at seventeen to become a merchant seaman, then joined the Danish Resistance in 1944. Kim was arrested on December 19, 1944, held in various detention cells over the next few months, tortured, and condemned to die, along with three other members of his resistance group. Doubtless the Nazis were anxious to execute them all while they still could; Germany’s surrender was less than a month away.

In 1949, Kim’s mother, Vibeke Malthe-Bruun, published a collection of his letters and diary entries. The book, titled Kim, became a bestseller in Denmark and made Kim revered as a national hero. It was published in English in 1955, under the title Heroic Heart: the Diary and Letters of Kim Malthe-Bruun. Most of the sources about him are in Danish.

Kim’s writings reveal him to be a deeply sensitive and caring young man, wise beyond his years. On April 4, two days before his death, Kim wrote his last letter to his girlfriend, Hanne, urging her to go on with her life:

I don’t expect you to forget me. Why should you forget something so beautiful as that which existed between us? But you mustn’t become a slave to this memory … Don’t let it blind you and keep you from seeing all the wonderful things life has in store for you. Don’t be unhappy …

You will live on and you will have other beautiful adventures, but promise me — this you owe to everything I have lived for — that never will the thought of me come between you and life … Gradually as bigger and more important things appear, I shall glide into the background and be a tiny speck of the soil out of which your happiness and your development will keep on growing …

You see, Hanne, one day you will meet the man who will be your husband. The thought of me will flash through you, and you will perhaps deep down have a vague, uneasy feeling that you are betraying me or something in you which is pure and sacred. Lift up your head once more, Hanne, look straight into my eyes which are smiling at you and you will understand that the only way to betray me is by not completely following your natural instincts. When you see him, let your heart go out to meet him — not to drown your sorrow but because you truly love him.

He closed with:

Yours, but not forever.

The author Lois Lowry was inspired by Kim’s story and based a character on him in her book Number the Stars. The novel, which is about the rescue of the Danish Jews, won the 1990 Newberry Medal, one of the most prestigious awards in children’s literature.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,Germany,Guerrillas,Guest Writers,History,Martyrs,Other Voices,Shot,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1661: Kaj Lykke, in effigy

1 comment September 10th, 2010 Headsman

On an uncertain date in 1661, the Danish noble Kaj Lykke (sometimes Kai Lykke) — safely but penuriously absconded to exile — was “executed” in effigy.

This wealthy roue (Danish Wikipedia page) was famous for his affairs innumerable.

To one of these maids, Lykke addressed a love-note remarking that the unpopular queen consort Sophie Amalie enjoyed queen consorting with her servants.

The sort of salacious rumor-mongering that constitutes many a blogger’s daily bread (and no doubt many a debauched noble’s pillow-talk) was, in Denmark at the dawn of its absolute monarchy, lese-majesty, and a good excuse once it became known to seize the naughty noble’s riches for the crown.

Lykke got himself abroad and didn’t have to face the music in the flesh — though the forfeited estates were no mean loss — and a doll representing the dirty-minded fugitive had its hands and head lopped off in Lykke’s stead in Copenhagen.

Kaj Lykke returned from exile (Swedish link) and died in Denmark in 1699. Centuries later, his skull was unearthed pursuant to eugenics research: the theory was that this bad boy’s sloping forehead showed him to be a primitive Neanderthal-descended type.

Though that particular bit of pseudo-science has long since been buried, Lykke’s skull never has been — and given that it’s out and about anyway, it’s been used to reconstruct the noble’s appearance. (I’ve been unable to locate an image of this reconstruction online.)

Part of the Themed Set: Executions in Effigy.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Denmark,Executed in Effigy,Execution,History,Nobility,Not Executed,Notable for their Victims,Power,Public Executions,Scandal

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1517: Torben Oxe

3 comments November 29th, 2008 dogboy

It was November 29, 1517, when the last Roman Catholic king of Denmark, the ambitious and possibly manic-depressive monarch Christian II, enforced the execution of a man whom he trusted for years. Torben Oxe was beheaded at St. Gertrude’s Hospital Cemetery for crimes against the throne.

Oxe was a subsidiary character during the tenure of one of the more intriguing Western European monarchs, and his hasty — and largely unsubstantiated — condemnation was a critical indicator in the governance of King Christian II.

Christian II of Denmark

Christian took the throne during a time of great disquiet in Scandanavia. His father, Hans of Denmark, fought for more than 30 years to restore the union across Norway, Sweden, and Denmark while harshly opposing the Hanseatic League. His efforts bore fruit in 1483 when Norway and Denmark came together to appoint him ruler of those two lands; 14 years later, he conquered Sweden and claimed kingship.

But his dominion over Sweden was short-lived: struggles to regain independent territory in Northern Germany resulted in a resounding defeat, and Sweden gave its new king the pink slip in 1501. Hans was eventually reinstated as an absentee ruler, awarded the title of king in 1509 but not allowed into Stockholm, nor re-crowned. His takeover was exclusively economic.

It was during this time that Christian stepped into his political future.

He took control of Norway as viceroy in 1506, and his rule was less than appreciated by the wealthy. The nobles in Norway maintained a sort of Privy Council called the Rigsraadet, which Christian was unwilling to cede any more power to than he felt was necessary.* Christian was known as a brutal man among the nobles even as he tried to cultivate a connection to the common people.

It was this connection that led to the downfall of Oxe. During his time in Norway, Viceroy Christian took a mistress named Dyveke Sigbritsdatter, a Norweigan peasant of Dutch descent.

At the death of Christian’s father early in 1513, the viceroy became King of Denmark and Norway and immediately set to bringing Sweden under heel. His father had made similar efforts which were supported by Eric Trolle, who was initially appointed regent to Sweden after Sten Sture (the elder) passed away; unfortunately for Christian II, in 1511, Sten Sture (the younger) convinced the high council to rescind its earlier appointment in his favor.

Sture was no friend to Christian II.

It is widely thought that the desires of Christian were eventually played out through Gustav Trolle, Eric’s son, who rose to the post of archbishop early in Christian II’s reign. Trolle threw his lot in with the Danish ruler and gained his ear, earning the promise that Trolle might rule over Sweden in Christian’s name. Trolle did everything he could to secure his place in history, demanding more autonomy for the church and, Sture claimed, attempting a backdoor coup. In 1515, Sture had Trolle imprisoned, the Catholic church condemned the Swedish government, and the Swedes and Danes squared off in a series of battles to decide its fate.

But Christian was obsessed with the expansion of his realm. He worked persistently to expand his power and reach, forming alliances that would help him gain control of what he considered the whole of Denmark. It was around this time that Christian II hitched the horse of the Holy Roman Empire to his team by marrying Isabella (Elizabeth I), granddaughter of Maximilian I.**

Which brings the story back to Torben Oxe.

Oxe was appointed Governor of Copenhagen Castle, a modest nobleman’s post that put him in close contact with the king’s court. Despite Christian’s marriage, he kept his mistress, openly housing her and her mother immediately adjacent to his residence. In summer 1517, Dyveke Sigbritsdatter fell ill and died; her mother pointed the finger at Oxe, who sent the girl a box of cherries two days earlier: apparently, Oxe was also enamored of Dyveke. Sigbrit alleged that Dyveke rebuked Oxe’s advances, and out of spite, he had murdered her.

History is awash with uncertainties, and there are plenty of those in the death of Dyveke. To begin, it’s not even clear that Dyveke was poisoned; she died suddenly and with severe stomach pain, so poisoning was assumed, but never really proven. In addition, it’s not clear whether Oxe was, indeed, courting Dyveke, as Sigbrit insisted. Last but not least, if Dyveke was murdered, there was nothing to suggest that the killer was not a member of the Rigsraad — the Privy Council in Denmark — or just someone seeking revenge on the king for one of his many cruel acts; instead of tracing these possibilities, Christian II condemned his friend Oxe on Sigbrit’s word alone.

But the farce was not complete without an equally farcical trial or two. Oxe’s post gave him a trial by the Council of the State: a dozen noblemen met, conferred, and delivered a rebuke to the king, declaring Oxe innocent of the crime. Christian was incensed at the verdict, allegedly asserting, “If I had as many kinsmen in the Rigsraad as he has, he would never have been acquitted.”

Not content with this form of justice, the king turned to the people, assembling a jury of peasants who were more than obliging in delivering the famed line, “We do not convict him, but his deeds convict him.” So, despite the pleadings of the king’s wife, Torben Oxe lost his head — and his corpse was burned for good measure.


Christian II underskriver Torben Oxes dødsdom, or Christian II Signs Torben Oxe’s Death Warrant (1874-76), by Eilif Peterssen. The queen sits at his side, imploring him not to do it.

In the great tradition of nepotism, Sigbrit was subsequently appointed chief adviser to the king and took over the role of management of the mercantile taxation system, the Sound Tolls; she was remarkably successful in these posts and formed a middle-class council which held far more sway over Christian than its “noble” counterpart, the Rigsraadet.

As he moved away from them, Christian’s rule became more and more unstable, and his desire to have Sweden almost insatiable. After a series of battles, he managed to claim the title of King of Sweden for a brief period around 1520, crowned by his friend Gustav Trolle shortly before putting on the Stockholm Bloodbath. It was this event which earned him the title in Sweden of Christian the Tyrant.

Peder Oxe

As if these connections weren’t enough, Oxe’s nephew, Peder Oxe (born in 1520), who was Steward of the Realm under Frederick II, became one of the players in an attempt to restore Christian II’s daughter, Christina, to the Danish throne — long after Christian himself was out of the picture. The attempt was unsuccessful.†

Dyveke’s story, and her impact on King Christian II, has been cast in a variety of literary formats.

* The Rigsraadet was the Norweigan instantiation of the Scandanavian sort of House of Lords, with members the noblemen of the time. New members could be appointed by kings and queens, or by other members of the council, and, until the Reformation, Roman Catholic bishops also maintained posts.

** This marriage also extended the reach of the Habsburgs into Denmark, a move that would have further consequences several hundred years hence.

Christina also has the distinction of turning down a marriage proposal by Henry VIII. According to legend, her witty response to the ambassador sent to arrange the marriage was, “If I had two heads, one should be at the King of England’s disposal.”

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Murder,Nobility,Notable for their Victims,Notable Jurisprudence,Notably Survived By,Other Voices,Public Executions,Wrongful Executions

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