1628: Edmund Arrowsmith, Catholic priest

Add comment August 28th, 2016 Headsman

Lancashire priest Edmund Arrowsmith was martyred on this date in 1628.

Actually named Bryan by his parents, Arrowsmith took the name of an uncle while matriculating at the English seminary in Douai.

He deployed for the old religion his “fervour, zeal and ready wit” in Lancaster from 1612 to 1622, withstood an arrest, then entered the Jesuit order and resumed his underground ministry — until, as the story has it, a man whom Fr. Arrowsmith had chastised for his adulteries petulantly shopped him.

Arrowsmith suffered the horrible public butchery of drawing and quartering, as well as posthumous burning. From the remans, someone retrieved as a relic a charred hand and sent it to Arrowsmith’s relations, who (per a 19th century relative) “keep it in a silver case, and honour it very much, and every Sunday all the crippled or diseased Catholic poor come to kiss it, and the priest touches them with it. It has performed many authentic cures, — some in our time, — so strong is faith.” It has since been transmitted to the Church of St. Oswald and St. Edmund Arrowsmith in Ashton. Look for the stained glass of Edmund and his Holy Hand in this beautiful Flickr album of the church.

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Feast Day of Saints Cosmas and Damian

Add comment September 27th, 2015 Headsman


The Martyrdom of Saints Cosmas and Damian, by Fra Angelico.

September 27 is the traditional* feast date of early Christian saints Cosmas and Damian.

Martyred in Syria during the Diocletian persecution, these Arabian brothers were reputedly physicians who did not charge their patients, even for premium services like transplanting an entire leg.


Cosmas and Damian graft an Ethiopian’s leg onto a white patient.

This has made them patron saints to doctors, surgeons, pharmacists, and dentists but decidedly not to insurers.

They were once much more widely known and revered than today, back when the mysteries of medicine and of faith intertwined with one another. The two are named in the Canon of the Mass, and multiple churches in Europe dubiously claim the honor the ancient doctors’ relics; their skulls alone reside simultaneously in Bremen, Vienna, and Madrid, while a church in Venice allegedly holds their non-cranial remains. Visitors to the Roman Forum will behold the beautifully preserved pagan Temple of Romulus, which was rededicated in 527 as the basilica of Santi Cosma de Damiano and still hosts weddings beneath its impressive Cosmas and Damian mosaic.


A reliquary for the skulls of Cosmas and Damian in St. Michael’s Church, Munich.

The saints’ day is observed in Brazil, where children on September 27 receive candies (Cosmas and Damian also count confectioners and children among their devotees). St. Anthony’s Church in Utica, New York, also hosts an annual Cosmas and Damian pilgrimage attracting thousands of people from across North America.

As two men intimate with one another who traveled and ministered together, they are sometimes speculatively ventured as early gay exemplars. (They’re traditionally accounted as brothers.)

* The Vatican’s 1969 calendar revision moved the feast to September 26, leaving September 27 to St. Vincent de Paul.

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1314: Jacques de Molay, last Templar Grand Master

9 comments March 18th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1314, the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar was burned in Paris.


Illustration of Jacques de Molay and Geoffroi de Charney burning on Paris’s Île de la Cité.

In a boring materialist history, Jacques de Molay was simply the head of an overrich military order whose crusading raison d’etre had become passe* with the Templars’ expulsion from the Holy Land.

Scores of trumped-up heresy charges did the work of ecclesiastical assassination for this renowned brotherhood originally founded to safeguard pilgrims in the Holy Land. (There’s a fine podcast episode on the Templars’ history here.)

This appears to be some sort of legitimate history. How droll!

Ruthless French King Philip the Fair, who owed the Templar banks a ton of cash, mounted in 1307 a, um, surprise nationalization — with the magnificently coordinated arrest of hundreds of members of the order on Friday, Oct. 13, 1307.**

This was, on the face of it, quite an infringement by the secular power upon the Church, but since Pope Clement V was Philip’s very own sock puppet — to the extent of relocating the papacy to Avignon the better to attend to his master — it was all good. Plus, of course, everyone made out with a big pile of loot.

As the interested parties jockeyed over those confiscated estates, there ensued for the once-powerful, now-proscribed order a years-long saga of torture, burnings (of lower-ranking Templars), salacious Baphomet-worship revelations, juridical maneuvering, and, finally, a compromise life-saving confession which Molay and his associate Geoffroi de Charney dramatically spurned.

The cardinals dallied with their duty until March 1314, when, on a scaffold in front of Notre Dame, Jacques de Molay, Templar Grand Master, Geoffroi de Charney, Master of Normandy, Ilugues de Peraud, Visitor of France, and Godefroi de Gonneville, Master of Aquitaine, were brought forth from the jail in which for nearly seven years they had lain, to receive the sentence agreed upon by the cardinals, in conjunction with the Archbishop of Sens and some other prelates whom they had called in. Considering the offences which the culprits had confessed and confirmed, the penance imposed was in accordance with rule—that of perpetual imprisonment. The affair was supposed to be concluded when, to the dismay of the prelates and wonderment of the assembled crowd, de Molay and Geoffroi de Charney arose. They had been guilty, they said, not of the crimes imputed to them, but of basely betraying their Order to save their own lives. It was pure and holy; the charges were fictitious and the confessions false. Hastily the cardinals delivered them to the Prevot of Paris, and retired to deliberate on this unexpected contingency, but they were saved all trouble. ‘When the news was carried to Philippe he was furious. A short consultation with his council only was required. The canons pronounced that a relapsed heretic was to be burned without a hearing; the facts were notorious and no formal judgment by the papal commission need be waited for. That same day, by sunset, a pile was erected on a small island in the Seine, the Isle des Juifs, near the palace garden. There de Molay and de Charney were slowly burned to death, refusing all offers of pardon for retraction, and bearing their torment with a composure which won for them the reputation of martyrs among the people, who reverently collected their ashes as relics.’

A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages, Vol III

Not bad, but the for a real plot twist, check the Templars’ turn — most famously in Dan Brown’s leaden bestseller The Da Vinci Code, but more entertainingly rendered as nonfiction “speculative history” in Holy Blood, Holy Grail — as mystic guardians of Christological secrets.†

Their most sensational secret: the Holy Grail.

In this reworking, the Cup of Christ is not the San Greal but the Sang Real, God’s own royal bloodline, by way (for some reason) of the French Merovingian dynasty.

The Templars and Jacques de Molay himself, this story goes, are just part of a centuries-long vanguard of Christianity’s mystical underground. Say, is that Jacques on the Shroud of Turin?

Thither this blog dares not venture, but those with the requisite inclination towards the occult will find limitless explorations of the theme for ready sale. All we ask, gentle reader, is that you kindly cut us in on the action by using our handy affiliate links.

In what may be yet another mystical just-so story, Molay is said to have foretold, as the flames consumed him, the deaths of his persecutors.

Pope Clement, Chevalier Guillaume de Nogaret [the prosecuting inquisitor], King Philip! I summon you to the Tribunal of Heaven before the year is out!

The curse worked: none of those gentlemen lived to see 1315. Someone, somewhere, has also attributed every bum turn for the French crown since then to Molay’s anathema. There’s a legend that an onlooker at Louis XVI‘s execution dipped his handkerchief in Citizen Capet’s Sang Real and cried out, “Jacques de Molay, tu es vengé!”

* Other expeditions called “Crusades” did continue after the Templars, but Christendom’s occupation of the Holy Land was toast until Lawrence of Arabia days.

** The date of this action is a possible origin of the whole paraskevidekatriaphobia superstition.

† It is a fact that these guys liked sweeping their crusading conquests for supposed holy relics, like this Roman nail recently unveiled from a Templar fort that was reverentially “handled by a lot of people over a long period of time.”

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1098: Yaghi-Siyan, commander of Antioch

3 comments June 3rd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1098, the Turkish commander of Antioch put to flight by the invading Crusader army was seized and beheaded as a trophy of the victory.

Yaghi Siyan, the Seljuk governor known to European chroniclers as Acxianus, Gratianus or Cassianus, found himself in a bad way when Christian forces of the First Crusade laid siege to Antioch late in 1097.

Although the Europeans were famished, they maintained the siege for the best part of a year, finally surging into Antioch on the night of June 2-3, 1098, with the help (as so often the case in siege warfare) of an inside man who agreed to open a gate.

Arab historian Ali ibn al-Athir described the city’s fall.

Yaghi Siyan showed unparalleled courage and wisdom, strength and judgment. If all the Franks who died had survived they would have overrun all the lands of Islam. He protected the families of the Christians in Antioch and would not allow a hair of their head to be touched.

After the siege had been going on for a long time the Franks made a deal with one of the men who were responsible for the towers. He was a cuirass-maker called Ruzbih [or Firuz, or Firouz] whom they bribed with a fortune in money and lands. He worked in the tower that stood over the river-bed, where the river flowed out of the city into the valley. The Franks sealed their pact with the cuirass-maker, God damn him! and made their way to the water-gate. They opened it and entered the city. Another gang of them climbed the tower with ropes. At dawn, when more than 500 of them were in the city and the defenders were worn out after the night watch, they sounded their trumpets … Panic seized Yaghi Siyan and he opened the city gates and fled in terror, with an escort of thirty pages.

Yaghi-Siyan fell from his horse in flight; his

companions tried to lift him back into the saddle, but they could not get him to sit up, and so left him for dead while they escaped. He was at his last gasp when an Armenian* shepherd came past, killed him, cut off his head and took it to the Franks at Antioch.**

A borderline “execution” at best, but close enough for our purposes; the Turkish garrison Yaghi-Siyan left behind to face the music was receiving similar treatment from the Crusaders, as were civilians, Muslim and Christian alike.

The month following Yaghi-Siyan’s death was a strange and pivotal one in the strange and pivotal history of the Crusades.

The city of Antioch was almost immediately invested again — by a relief force of Turks who had arrived too late. Facing seemingly long odds on the other end of the siege, and still near to starvation, the Crusaders discovered the “Holy Lance”† and managed to repel the Turks, enabling the upstart Christian army to march on to Jerusalem.

* Having had their homelands overrun by the Seljuks during the preceding decades, there was no small tension in the Armenian relationship with their Turkish rulers; the man who betrayed the city was himself said to be an Armenian who had been forced to convert to Islam. The account of the city’s capture by Raymond d’Aguiliers reports that our day’s victim “was captured and beheaded by some Armenian peasants, and his head was brought to us. This, I believe, was done by the ineffable disposition of God, that he who had caused many men of this same race to be beheaded should be deprived of his head by them.”

** Different accounts give slightly different versions of how Yaghi-Siyan came to his end — whether thrown from his horse or caught attempting to take refuge — and the station in life of the Armenian (everyone seems to agree on the nationality of the executioner) who decapitated him.

† The spear supposed to have pierced Christ on the cross, whose discovery was directed by Peter the Hermit at the direction, he said, of St. Andrew. Ibn al-Athir had a more skeptical take:

a holy man who had great influence over them, a man of low cunning … proclaimed that the Messiah had a lance buried in the Qusyan, a great building in Antioch … Before saying this he had buried a lance in a certain spot and concealed all trace of it. He exhorted them to fast and repent for three days, and on the fourth day he led them all to the spot with their soldiers and workmen, who dug everywhere and found the lance as he had told them.

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1191: Muslim prisoners at Acre

Add comment August 20th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1191, Richard the Lionheart had 2,700 Muslim prisoners of Acre demonstratively executed before his opposite number Saladin, when ransom arrangements dilated.

Courtesy of Project Gutenberg, here is Guizot on this ugly prod to action from the Third Crusade

From the 1st of August, 1191, to the 9th of October, 1192, King Richard remained alone in the East as chief of the crusade and defender of Christendom. He pertains, during that period, to the history of England, and no longer to that of France. We will, however, recall a few facts to show how fruitless, for the cause of Christendom in the East, was the prolongation of his stay and what strange deeds—at one time of savage barbarism, and at another of mad pride or fantastic knight-errantry—were united in him with noble instincts and the most heroic courage. On the 20th of August, 1191, five weeks after the surrender of St. Jean d’Acre, he found that Saladin was not fulfilling with sufficient promptitude the conditions of capitulation, and, to bring him up to time, he ordered the decapitation, before the walls of the place, of, according to some, twenty-five hundred, and, according to others, five thousand, Mussulman prisoners remaining in his hands.

The only effect of this massacre was, that during Richard’s first campaign after Philip’s departure for France, Saladin put to the sword all the Christians taken in battle or caught straggling, and ordered their bodies to be left without burial, as those of the garrison of St. Jean d’Acre had been. Some months afterwards Richard conceived the idea of putting an end to the struggle between Christendom and Islamry, which he was not succeeding in terminating by war, by a marriage. He had a sister, Joan of England, widow of William II., king of Sicily; and Saladin had a brother, Malek-Adhel, a valiant warrior, respected by the Christians. Richard had proposals made to Saladin to unite them in marriage and set them to reign together over the Christians and Mussulmans in the kingdom of Jerusalem. The only result of the negotiation was to give Saladin time for repairing the fortifications of Jerusalem, and to bring down upon King Richard and his sister, on the part of the Christian bishops, the fiercest threats of the fulminations of the Church. With the exception of this ridiculous incident, Richard’s life, during the whole course of this year, was nothing but a series of great or small battles, desperately contested, against Saladin. When Richard had obtained a success, he pursued it in a haughty, passionate spirit; when he suffered a check, he offered Saladin peace, but always on condition of surrendering Jerusalem to the Christians, and Saladin always answered, “Jerusalem never was yours, and we may not without sin give it up to you; for it is the place where the mysteries of our religion were accomplished, and the last one of my soldiers will perish before the Mussulmans renounce conquests made in the name of Mahomet.”

Good thing that Jerusalem issue has since been cleared up.

The BBC treated the scenario — complete with the resultant loss of the last chunk of the supposed True Cross — in a chunk of its 90-minute documentary on the Third Crusade:

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