1388: Nicholas Brembre, Mayor of London

1 comment February 20th, 2010 Headsman

One day after Nicholas Brembre’s treason trial was interrupted for the sudden capture and summary execution of his political ally Robert Tresilian, the former Mayor of London was back in the dock of the Merciless Parliament this day to receive (and immediately suffer) the Lords’ judgment that he be hanged.

Like Robert Tresilian, Brembre had backed the young Richard II’s bid to throw off the influence of a circle of advisors during the dangerous 1380s.

Brembre spent the early part of the decade bursting his ample coffers with a plum customs-collection gig (in which capacity he employed Geoffrey Chaucer), with a couple of stints as London mayor mixed in.

He earned a reputation for corruption and election-rigging (“on the day of the election … Sir Nicholas and others of his faction ordered to the Guildhall of London certain persons, ‘foreigns’ and others in great numbers, who were armed, to make the election”).

A wiser fellow than myself once said, sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear, well, he eats you.

A rough customer to the last, Brembre tried (pdf) to mount a defense by right of single combat. It was not taken up.

He was drawn from the Tower through the city on a hurdle to Tyburn, resting at furlong intervals he gave great penance, beseeching mercy from God and men against whom he had sinned in past times, and many commiserating prayed for him. And when the noose was put on him so that he might be hanged, the son of Northampton* asked him whether the aforesaid things done elsewhere to his father by Brembre were legally done. For Northampton was formerly a mayor of the city of London, a richer and more powerful citizen among all those who were in the city, and through certain ones, associates who were death-bearing plagues, namely Brembre, Tresilian and others, was enormously vexed by certain nefarious conspiracies and confederacies then condemned to death, and with all his goods stripped hardly escaped alive. And concerning those things Brembre confessed that neither piously nor justly but with a violent heart for the sake of destroying Northampton he had infelicitously committed those things. And seeking forgiveness, hanging by the rope, he died when his throat was cut. Behold how good and pleasant it is to be raised up to honors! It seems to me better to carry out business at home among paupers than be thus lordly among kings, and at the end climb the ladder among thieves; since it is more a matter of onerousness than honor to assume the name of honor. You who are reading, look down to regard him, and you might be able to consider by their ends how their works receive results. For in every work be mindful of the end. (Source)

Richard II subsequently outmaneuvered the foes whose ascendance in 1388 forced Brembre’s execution; in 1399, the attainder was posthumously reversed … just before his royal patron Richard II was overthrown by Henry IV.

* “Northampton” here refers to former London Mayor John of Northampton, not to be confused with the ennobled Earl of Northampton — which latter title was actually held at this time by Henry Bolingbroke, the future King Henry IV and a member of the anti-Ricardian Lords Appellant party that engineered Brembre’s downfall. (Got all that?)

Part of the Daily Double: The Merciless Parliament.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Notable Jurisprudence,Politicians,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Public Executions,Treason

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1258: Al-Musta’sim, the last Abbasid Caliph

5 comments February 20th, 2009 Headsman

For centuries after the prophet Muhammad trod the earth, the caliph had stood as a unifying principle in the Islamic world, conferring moral authority on the sultans and amirs who in turn gave the caliph temporal security. Despite political conflicts, rival claimants, and contested successions, the office, like the papacy, had weight for all Muslims, even the usurpers who conquered to the very gates of Baghdad only to “kiss the ground … and walk astride the caliph’s stirrup.”*

Seven hundred fifty-one years ago today, that last redoubt of that single Muslim community was extinguished when the last Abbasid caliph was put to death by the Mongols.

Al-Musta’sim Billah held power in the sunset days of a once-mighty empire,

a weak and miserly creature, in whose improvident hands the Caliphate, even in quieter times, would have fared ill … we need not to travel beyond the imbecility of the Caliph and the demoralisation of his now shrunken kingdom, for the causes of impending ruin. … As characteristic of his meanness, we are told that he appro­priated the state jewels of the Chief of Kerak, who with difficulty obtained their partial restitution by proclaiming the Caliph’s dishonesty before the assembled pilgrims at Mecca. (Sir William Muir)

Retrospection, of course, aids us in appreciating the “sunset” — certainly it did not occur to Musta’sim that the ascension in Egypt of Shajar al-Durr in 1250 that marks the dawn of Mamluk rule was the seed of a successor order. On the contrary, he sent this Islamic queen a contemptuous offer to provide a man for Egypt, since it could find none to seat on its throne.

He would have done better to man up against the Mongols, who had not failed to notice that Baghdad lacked the muscle to protect its accumulated wealth.

A gold dinar from the Al-Musta’sim period. Interestingly, albeit tangentially, Sir Thomas Arnold recorded that for decades after this date, some Islamic rulers “went on putting the name of the dead Musta’sim on [their] coins, because [they] could find no other [caliph], and the Muslim theory of the state had not succeeded in adjusting itself to the fact that there was no Khalifah or Imam in existence.”

Genghis Khan‘s grandson Hulagu Khan (or Hulegu, or Hülegü) reduced Baghdad in a matter of days and plundered the city.** Al-Musta’sim having combined an impolitic bluster towards the advancing horde with an utter failure to ready the city’s defenses, Hulagu Khan was most unimpressed with his prisoner.

On February 20th, in a village near to Baghdad, Al-Musta’sim was executed. Contemporary chroniclers are silent as to the method; Marco Polo reported that he had been immured with his treasures in an opulent tower to starve to death.

According to The Cambridge History of Iran (volume 5), this was likely a later interpolation of a story that 13th century intellectual Nasir al-Din Tusi recorded:

[Hulagu Khan] set a golden tray before the Caliph and said: ‘Eat!’ ‘It is not edible,’ said the Caliph. ‘Then why didst thou keep it,’ asked the King, ‘and not give it to thy soldiers? And why didst thou not make these iron doors into arrow-heads and come to the bank of the river so that I might not have been able to cross it?’ ‘Such,’ replied the Caliph, ‘was God’s will.’ ‘What will befall thee,’ said the King, ‘is also God’s will.'”

It is more generally supposed that Al-Musta’sim was rolled in a carpet and trampled to death — the Mongols’ own method for putting princes to death without shedding royal blood.

However effected, the caliph’s demise ended the classical period of Islam. And yet, as Gustave Edmund von Grunebaum observes in his book on the period, that ending was itself a beginning for the flowering of high Islamic civilization that the days of the caliphate had prepared.

What terminates in 1258 is the major chain of political legitimacy to which reality had failed to conform for rather more than four centuries when the extent of the Muslim empire had ceased to be coterminous with the rule of Islam and the unity of tradition had become no more than a postulate.

None the less, the fall of Baghdad did more than bring home the precariousness of all human structures, even those erected on the true faith and devised to safeguard it. It demonstrated that the ‘Abode of Islam’ had become saturated with Islam, that the community no longer required a caliphate to give it a political and religious centre of gravity, that the vitality of Islam as an interpretation of man and the world, a way of life, and a style of thinking and feeling was now independent of any institutional support.

… the very irreparability of the calamity made the faithful realize that the abiding of their world, its beliefs and manifestations, had outgrown any particular political form and had indeed become too wide to be contained in history. In this realization the epigones undoubtedly rejoined the innermost intent of ancestors and founder.

* Later historian Ibn Tabataba, cited in The Middle East Remembered.

** Christians were spared the rapine, as Khan had a Coptic wife.

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Caliphate,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Iraq,Milestones,Mongol Empire,Mongolia,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Religious Figures,Royalty,Trampled,Wartime Executions

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1939: Georgy Nikolayevich Kosenko (aka Kislov), NKVD spy

2 comments February 20th, 2008 Dmitri Minaev

(Thanks to Dmitri Minaev of De Rebus Antiquis Et Novis for the guest post.)

One thing about the first years of Soviet history that always puzzled me is how the Bolsheviks managed to create a wide and reliable network of foreign intelligence and counter-intelligence so fast. Below is a history of life and death of a typical spy from the early Soviet years.

Georgy Nikolayevich Kosenko was born on 12 May 1901 in Stavropol. He was a smart schoolboy. Foreign languages, especially French, were among his favorite subjects. He graduated from school when the Russian Civil War began and his parents became active Bolsheviks.

Stavropol was a region of fierce struggle between the Whites and the Reds. On the one hand, the anti-Bolshevik Volunteer Army had good support in Southern Russia, but on the other hand, the factory workers who concentrated in the cities tended to support the Bolsheviks.

Georgy’s father participated in the revolt in Stavropol and in 1918 he was executed by the Whites. Georgy’s sister was a Bolshevik since 1914 and actively worked for the revolutionary underground. Soon after the death of their father she too was caught and hanged. I don’t know what was her crime, but most probably it was sabotage.

So, choosing sides in the civil war was not difficult for young Georgy. In 1920 he became a secret agent of Cheka in Stavropol; in 1921 he joined the RCP(b) (Russian Communist Party, bolsheviks) and became a private in the OGPU military detachment. From 1924 he was a full-fledged officer of OGPU (the new name of Cheka) and continued his work in Stavropol and other cities: Novorossiysk, Vladikavkaz, Rostov, Sverdlovsk and Moscow.

A Lethal Career

In 1933 the Foreign department of OGPU noticed the young officer with good command of French and offered him a post in Soviet foreign intelligence. On 30 April 1933 he was appointed the deputy of the chief agent of OGPU in Kharbin in Manchuria, then occupied by the Japanese. According to the usual practice of the OGPU, he received false documents and became Georgy Nikolayevich Kislov. He became the secretary of the Soviet embassy in Kharbin. In June 1935 he was promoted to the chief agent and, automatically, to the vice-consul of the USSR.

Anti-communist forces were still active in Siberia in the 1930s and the main task of Soviet agents in Kharbin was identifying organized groups of Whites. There was a large colony of Russian emigrants in Manchuria and many of them eagerly helped the anti-Soviet fighters. By the end of 1935 Kosenko-Kislov and his colleagues had identified about 180 members of this movement. The gathered information helped to intercept three armed groups on the border of the USSR. Another important target of Soviet counter-intelligence was Japanese spies. Kosenko identified about 300 of them. He also helped to prevent an operation of Japanese saboteurs who planned to destroy a railroad tunnel.

In the end of 1935 Kosenko fell ill and was evacuated to Moscow. Having spent some months in a hospital he got better and in May was sent to Paris.

The French Connection

France played a crucial role in international politics and the main goal of Soviet intelligence was to learn more about the position of the French government toward Germany and USSR. The network led by Kosenko received information from government sources, from the president’s office and from the French army and intelligence. They also gathered important information on new models of tanks, aeroplanes and handguns.

Another target of Soviet intelligence was the so called Russian All-Military Union (ROVS, Rossiyskiy Obshche-Voinskiy Soyuz). This organization united the soldiers and officers of the Russian army who were forced to leave Russia in 1920 but who still hoped to return. The organization was then headed by General Yevgeny Miller. NKVD thought that if they could make Miller disappear, the leadership would go to General Skoblin, who was an agent of Soviet intelligence. Miller was kidnapped to the USSR in an operation assisted by Alexander Orlov — remember that name — the head of Soviet intelligence in Spain and by Georgy Kosenko.

Kosenko was awarded the order of the Red Banner — but the most important operation of his life was still to come.

Another anti-Soviet organization also located in Paris was the international secretariat of the Fourth International, founded by Leo Trotsky. The secretariat was managed by Leo Sedov, Trotsky’s son. An agent of Soviet intelligence, Mark Zborovsky, became Sedov’s personal secretary and transferred to NKVD the letters of Trotsky and Sedov. In August 1936 Sedov left Paris and left all his papers to Zborovsky. Zborovsky got access to the list of Trotsky’s correspondents in many countries and immediately sent it to NKVD. He also informed Soviet intelligence that Trotsky sent a large part of his personal archive to the Institute of Historical Research in Paris. Stalin ordered the archive captured. A special NKVD group headed by Yakov Serebryansky was sent to Paris and Kosenko organized the operation. On 6-7 November 1936 Kosenko received the archive — about 80 kilograms of documents, articles and letters — and sent it to Moscow with the diplomatic mail.

In February 1937 Kosenko received a report from Mark Zborovsky that Sedov had asked Zborovsky to organize Stalin’s assassination. When Kosenko sent this information to Moscow, Stalin was infuriated and ordered Trotsky and his top aides killed. Among other operations to this end, Moscow sent Trotsky’s eventual murderer Ramon Mercader from Spain to France. Kosenko had to help him to enter the circle of Trotsky’s close friends.

Although this intrigue turned out to be a success, it would claim Kosenko’s life before Trotsky’s.

Purged

In July 1938, Kosenko’s Spanish opposite number and sometime collaborator Alexander Orlov fled to the USA, guaranteeing his own safety (and that of the mother he left in the USSR) by threatening to reveal Soviet intelligence secrets if pursued. Orlov sent a letter to Trotsky warning him that a Soviet agent named Mark had penetrated his son’s circle, and that the NKVD was preparing the assassination of Trotsky at the hands of either Mark or an unknown Spaniard. (Trotsky thought the tip was a provocation, and fatefully ignored it.)

Stalin went mad. He ordered the new head of NKVD Lavrentiy Beria to punish all spies involved in the debacle. Kosenko was one of them. In November 1938 Kosenko received an order to return to Moscow and on 27 December he was put to the same jail where General Miller was still imprisoned. Kosenko was accused of participation in a counter-revolutionary organization and on 20 February he was sentenced to death. That same night of 20-21 February 1939 he was shot and his body was buried in an tomb without any name or date.

So, this story does not answer the question I asked in the beginning, but rather dismisses it by proving that the Soviet intelligence network was wide but far from reliable and that eventually these spies either eagerly got rid of each other or simply fled as far as they could.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Other Voices,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,Spies,The Worm Turns,Treason,USSR

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