1740: Edward Shuel, for a Catholic-Protestant marriage

1 comment November 29th, 2016 Headsman

For today’s post, we’re revisiting one of our favorite troves, James Kelly’s Gallows Speeches From Eighteenth-Century Ireland — for the remarkable story of the minister executed for secretly marrying a Catholic to a Protestant. (We don’t usually think of tragic romance as being tragic for the officiant.)

Though it was hardly commonly enforced in this way — and it’s obvious from these pamphlets that it was the political pull of the groom’s family that doomed our Edward Shuel or Sewell — Ireland indeed had a real Marriage Act that made it a capital crime to officiate an interconfessional wedding, an act that persisted into the 19th century. It was the product of a campaign by to “de-Catholicize” Ireland that also included a wide variety of other encumbrances upon Catholics, and likewise upon Protestants who failed to shun them — such as disenfranchising Protestants with Catholic wives.

This case, scandalous in its own time, inspired Dublin’s rival broadside publishers to churn out multiple scandal sheets to service the appetite of a voracious public.

Edward Shuel, in “his own” words:


The Genuine Declaration of Edward Shuel

a degraded Clergyman of the Church of Ireland, who is to be Executed near St. Stephens Green, this present Saturday being the 29th of this Instant November 1740. For celebrating the Clandestine Marriage of one Mr. Walker a Protestant, to Margaret Talbot a suppos’d Catholick, on Sunday the 16th of August last, at the World’s End near Dublin.

Good Christians,

I might reasonably have expected my Life wou’d have been saved, having obtain’d a Reprieve; but there being a Point of —– Policy strongly against me, to fulfill which I must Resign this Life sooner than Nature or Accident might have otherwise taken it. I must confess tho’ I strove to bear my Sentence with the utmost Resignation and Christian Patience; yet the imbitter’d Reports of my having two Wives tingeing my Character, affected me in some Measure; and in order to clear such infamous and malicious Aspertions which my Enemies (whom the Origin of Heaven and Earth forgive) which I heartily pray for.

To be Concise, I was Born in the North of Ireland, and bred up in the University of Dublin, where I pursued my Studies, and behav’d as became a Student: Having received Orders, I officiated in the Curacy of Carlingford, St. Michans, Christ Church Dublin, and several others Places; where I behav’d as a Gentleman, and suitable to my Function; untill most unfortunately a vile Woman prostituted herself, and seduced me to her dire Embraces; upon which she Reported that I Married my self to her, which is utterly false; and in Order to acquit my self of that Calumny, of Marrying her my self, and fully to extirpate the publick Notion of my having two Wives, I went to Georges Church near Dublin, and there received the Eucharist that I never was Married or Contracted to any Woman under Heaven, but to the Woman now my unhappy Wife, by whom I have two innocent but unfortunate Babes, of which I got a Certificate from the Minister of said Church, which I gave to his Grace _____ which must be acknowledg’d.

The Nature of the Crime for which I am to undergo this most Publick and scandalous Death, is notorious in this Kingdom. The Manner in which I now a poor and unhappy Sufferer was precipitately led into it is, that on the 16th of August last, one Richard Walker came in Disguise in a poor Habit, under the fictitious Name of Wilson, with one Margaret Talbot and another Woman in Company, who intreated me to Marry them: After I had examined them, and swearing them on the Book, who swore they were Protestants; and I believing Richard Wilson as he called himself, to be a Tradesman of no Fortune or Birth, and in his own Power, and I wanting of Support; my Children having not even Bread to Eat that Night, I unfortunately married them ’tis true, for which I received from Wilson Six Shillings and Six Pence.

But had I surmised he had been the Son of the Man he was, or any other Person of Credits Son, I would not for any Consideration have perform’d the Ceremoney, [sic] Nay, I would have sent to the Parents or next Relation and detected him, and at the same time given up the Woman, to the just resentment of the injur’d Parents.

‘Tis true I was degraded and by that Means render’d incapable of supporting an helpless Family; nor was it in my Power to get a Livelihood by Teaching School, for any attempts I made that way which prov’d Abortive, Work either Mechanical or otherwise I was ignorant of; and by my infirmities render’d if capable not to follow it, to beg publickly I was a shame’d, and very well knew the Amount of Charities to Street Beggars, privately I did beg by Petitions to many Persons whose Grants were small, and that but from a very few; and e’en those few wou’d not a second time assist the Wretched, this was my Case; what I then follow’d to support my Family was the Trade as its so call’d of Marrying; but always took care to examine strictly their Religion, Birth, and parentage, avoiding as much as possible to keep out of Disesteen of Families of Credit, so that it might not lie in their Powers to punish me, or to be griev’d at the undoing of their Children.

Yet all this Precaution has not hinder’d my unhappy Exit, which I hope this Calamity of mine, may be a perpetual Bar to others who are after me, who may be drove to the pressing Wants which I have often struggled with, but may God Support them.

O Lord Strengthen me to bear my Misfortunes, bless my Children and be to them a Father, and give them thy Grace, Comfort my Wife, and be to her a Husband, protect my Friends, and forgive my Enemies, and receive me into thy glorious Abode, and that I may this ‘Day sing Praises and Thanksgiving unto thy holy Name, ad infinitum, Amen.

Edward Shuel.

Note. The above was deliv’d to the Printer hereof, in the Presence of Mr. Nelson and several others, in his own Hand Writing, and Word of Mouth.

Dublin: Printed in Montrath-Street, by Chr. Goulding Book-Seller.


The Last and True Speech of Mr. Sewell

a degraded Clergyman, who was executed last Saturday the 29th of November 1740, at St. Stephen’s-Green, for a clandestine Marriage
delivered by him at the Place of Execution

Countrymen and Christians,

It may be thought, perhaps, that the Length of Time given me by the Clemency of the Lords Justice might turn my Thoughts to poor Transitory, Worldly Affairs, I hope thro’ the Merits of Christ I have not been affected so foolishly, for I will not boast, but will humbly hope, I have so numbered my Days as to apply my Heart unto Wisdom, for the Love of the Lord is the Beginning of it. I return to the Chief Governors of Ireland, the only Return I can make, my Thanks and Prayers for their Benignity in extending my shortning Length of Days to the present, in this World unhappy, but in the World, thro’ Christ, in the future, a Blessed Consummation. — Praise be to God on High Peace and Good Will amongst Men.

I am brought forth this Day, as a Precedent and Example to the Marriage Act, as a Sacrifice to its Rigor, the first, and I hope through the Almighty, the last of the kind that shall hereafter be read of in the Annals of the Holy Catholick and Reform’d Protestant Church; nor is it the smallest Pang that I feel in this solemn Anguish of my Spirit that my Memory shall reflect some Disgrace upon my Reverend, Learned and Pious surviving and future Brethern [sic] of the Ministry. Could Worldly Things now amuse or disturb my Mind, I might also be touch’d with a Sense of the Triumph, my unhappy Catastrophe, must give to the Enemies of the Establish’d Religion; but in this, as in all Things else in Heaven and Earth, the Will of the All Powerful and Eternal Father be done, yet let them consider that the Man, the poor weak Man transgress’d and not the Function; let them think that the Transgressor suffer’d, and with his Blood wash’d away Polution [sic] from the Sanctuary. The blessed Twelve should not be blamed for their fallen Member, nor should the Body of the Clergy be reproached for one wretched, sinful, misguided, but thro’ Grace repentant Brother.

Speeches and Declarations are a Custom I know observed by People in my wretched Circumstances; but this has no Influence on me, I only promulgate these few Lines to prevent many gross and ignorant Pieces of Print which may be ascribed to me, when I am past the Power of contradicting such Falshoods. [sic] I am, bless’d be my Saviour, in universal Charity with the World, and therefore neither Bitterness nor Untruth shall fall from me: I am convinced, as my Condition is particular and my self remarkable, the World will be desirous to know what I may say either in defence of myself, or Attenuation of the Crime for which I die; I will therefore briefly go thorough the Heads of my Accusation and Conviction.

I confess that I did solemnize a Marriage between Walker and Talbot, but at the same Time I declare I did not suspect that he was any other than an ordinary working young Man, and not the Son of one of so much Consequence in the City. I had their Oath of Secrecy and an Assurance of their both being of the Protestant Religion, but he appear’d as an Evidence against me; Heaven forgive him and me, and for this Crime I lay down my Life. Were it worth a Moment of my little remaining Time, I might here controvert Margaret Talbot’s Marriage not within the Act, a Point of Law which I did but faintly Urge upon my Tryal: I might have pleaded the Inefficacy of my Degradation, the Indelibility of the Clerical Character, Validity of a Sentence pass’d by a Layman on a Person Canonical, and have spoken to an Appeal which I always apprehended was lodg’d in order to the Subversion of the Sentence of Degredation; [sic] but alas! they are Things below my Notice, for my Mind is above, and perhaps were I to illustrate on these Particulars, it may be construed either Indiscretion or Malice in a Dying Clergyman, and in my last Moments, what ever my past Life may be, I would not give Scandal to the Divine Function.

I acknowledge that I have been a frail weak Man, and that my Transgressions are numberless, and that I have done several unwarrantable and idle Things, inconsistant [sic] with the Character of a Gentleman, a Scholar, and a Divine, but let Man deal with me as I hope to be dealt with by my Heavenly Father, who will thro’ the Merits of Christ cast a Veil over my Sins, and blot out my Transgressions for ever.

I would Recommend to all Parents, with my dying Breath, a Resolution of never forcing the Dispositions of their Children, or thrusting them into a College with a View of the Pulpit, till they, if they are capable, or some Person of sound Judgment shall thoroughly examine if they have such Qualities, and Propensions as may fit them for such Office. On this Rock many Split, too many, and after some Years of Study, they come forth either contemptible for their Ignorance, or abhorr’d for their Vice. But, suppose them never so well endowed for the Ministry, the miserable Provision made for the Inferior Clergy, still more miserable by their Number, and their generally ill-judg’d Early Marriages throws them upon things which after endanger their Bread, and sometimes their Lives, of which I am a wretched Instance.

I beg that my wretched Family may not be Reproached with the Ignominy of my Death, to which I submit with Meekness, Resignation, and Resolution, hopeing [sic] that my Sufferings shall be Sanctified to me, and thro’ this Gulf of Darkness a Passage to Eternal light and Joy thro’ the Merits and Mediations of Jesus Christ my Saviour, to whom, with the Father and Holy Ghost be given all Praise and Worship now and ever more. Amen.

An Hymn
Compos’d by the Reverend Mr. Sewell, while under Sentence in Newgate, and sung by him in the Coach as he went to Execution.

Oh Fountain of Eternal Light!
Oh glorious Lord of Host!
With Mercy view my wretched Plight,
Oh spare me or I’m lost.

Grim Death in all it’s [sic] Horrors dress’d
Is ever in my View,
Where is my Hope, now I’m oppress’d?
My only Hope is You.

Injutious Man has laid the Snare,
I’m fallen, alas, I’m caught,
Man drink my Blood, but Father spare
The Soul thy Son has bought.

And suffer not my Blood to reign
O’er his Posterity,
Oh God wash out the Scarlet Stain
And cleanse both him and me.

From Vengeance turn thy gracious Eye,
And see my throbbing Heart,
That melts at thy Divinity,
And feels and heavenly Smart.

And thou, O Son, who didst sustain
A Cross and shameful Death,
Who suffering more than mortal Pain
Groan’d out thy dying Breath.

Sustain me in the Hour of Death,
In the disgraceful Cart,
And when the Halter stops my Breath,
Save my Immortal Part.

Thou dost not judge like wretched Man,
For shoudst thou be severe
And all the Faults of Mortals scan,
Who cou’d thy Judgments bear.

Receive me Blessed Trinity,
Receive my Soul in Grace,
And in thy Kingdom let me be
When Times and Worlds shall cease.

DUBLIN, Printed by Edward Jones in Dirty-lane.

Part of the Themed Set: Sexual Deviance.

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1986: The Moiwana Massacre

Add comment November 29th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1986, during the opening months of a guerrilla war that would last until 1992, a 70-man detachment of Suriname soldiers raided the village of Moiwana, home of the rebel leader Ronnie Brunswijk, and massacred dozens of people.


Drawing made c. 1990 by an eight-year-old refugee of Moiwana. Image from Richard Price’s “The Killings in Suriname”, Cultural Anthropology, November 1995.

Sealing the roads, the team went house to house for four hours, torching houses and slaughtering any of the Ndyuka civilians who couldn’t escape into the surrounding jungle.

“Everyone was shot — the unarmed women, pregnant women, a baby barely seven months old,” goes the account in Memre Moiwana, a publication of the NGO Moiwana ’86. “No distinctions were made.” Some were mowed down with automatic weapons; others slashed to death with machetes. At least 38 people died, though various sources posit estimates running to upwards of 50.

In the weeks following, nearby Ndjuka villages in eastern Suriname shared a like fate, often bombarded by helicopters and finished off with bulldozers while death squads hunted suspected guerrillas. The U.S. State Department reported 244 Ndyuka people killed that December. A United Nations investigator entering the area months later reported that “no human being or living creature was seen apart from starving dogs in [one such town] Albina. The jungle vegetation had taken over the destroyed buildings.”

A police inspector named Herman Eddy Gooding who had the temerity to investigate these massacres while the guerrilla war was still ongoing was found mysteriously shot dead in 1990. (See Rainforest Warriors: Human Rights on Trial) In 2005, however, survivors of Moiwana won a suit against the army of Suriname before the Inter American Court of Human Rights.

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1938: Branislaw Tarashkyevich, Belarusian linguist

Add comment November 29th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1938, linguist and politician Branislaw Tarashkyevich was shot at the Kommunarka execution range outside Moscow: another victim of Stalin’s purges.

Tarashkyevch (English Wikipedia page | Russian | Belarusian) is best remembered today for “Taraskevica”.


Tarashkyevich, and his grammar.

That’s the familiar name for Tarashkyevich’s 1918 grammar (Belarusian link) that standardized the tongue, or rather the collection of related “Belarusian” dialects.

Its creator also happened to be a political leftist; he served briefly in the parliament of Poland (which then controlled West Belarus), then became a leader of the Belarus Peasant and Worker Masses, a communist movement. Tarashkyevich was arrested in 1928 and subsequently exchanged for a Belarusian journalist whom the Soviets had imprisoned.

His career as a Soviet appartchik in Moscow was short-lived, however, before those guys clapped him in prison, too, with the outcome typical to that frightening time and place.

A like deletion was supposed to befall taraskevica when the Stalin-era Belarus SSR ordered a standardization with grammar and orthography that more closely resembled Russian; this version (“narkomawka”) still remains the official “Belarusian” to this day.

However, the taraskevica variant has established a stubborn foothold among users who consider it more authentic than its Russified rival.*

* See Curt Woolhiser, “Communities of Practice and Linguistic Divergence: Belarusophone Students as Agents ofLinguistic Change,” Harvard Ukrainian Studies, Vol. 29, No. 1/4 (2007).

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1330: Roger Mortimer, usurper

Add comment November 29th, 2011 Headsman

The prince I rule, the queen do I command,
And with a lowly congé to the ground
The proudest lords salute me as I pass;
I seal, I cancel, I do what I will.
Fear’d am I more than lov’d;—let me be fear’d,
And, when I frown, make all the court look pale.

-Roger Mortimer in Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II

On this date in 1330, Roger Mortimer’s three-year run as de facto ruler of England ended with a rope at Tyburn.

Mortimer was a key figure in the Despenser War — a revolt of nobles against King Edward II and the king’s hated-by-nobles right hand Hugh Despenser.

That war failed and landed Mortimer in the Tower. Then, things really got interesting.

Mortimer escaped his cell in 1323 and fled to France. There he took up with King Edward’s own wife, Queen Isabella, when the latter came to court on some state business.

This was, needless to say, quite a scandalous arrangement — but hey, Isabella had seen royal cuckolding right in her own family before.

So the adulterous lovebirds settled in to canoodle and set about planning some serious homewrecking.

Both Isabella and Mortimer are by every appearance among the most outstanding personalities of their day, and they had ambition to match their considerable personal gifts.

In the autumn of 1326, they invaded England and won a swift victory as those disaffected nobles from the recent wars declared for the usurpers. This time, Hugh Despenser was put to death.

Edward didn’t fare that much better. By the next January, he had been forced to abdicate in favor of his 14-year-old son, which in reality meant ceding power to his ex and her lover. And you thought your divorce settlement was bad.

In the long tradition of rival heads of state being disposed of, Edward II was, well, disposed of: strangled in captivity later that same year (allegedly! there is some doubt as to whether he really died in 1327), and given a state funeral that put Roger Mortimer into a bogus public display of mourning

(Mortimer’s kinsman and historical-fiction-biographer Ian Mortimer thinks Edward actually survived, which is neither here nor there as pertains the fate of Mortimer.)

Once he got to the top of the heap, Mortimer too had rocky aristocratic relationships. He irked the lords of the realm with his tendency to behead them. He lost the First War of Scottish Independence. Oh, and he was a regicide. All this frayed his popularity. (This just in: governance is hard.)

More than that, since he and Isabella ruled in the minority of the titular king, Edward III, they were rearing a wolf to their own destruction — a wolf with a built-in personal grudge about his father’s overthrow and murder. All young Edward needed was a plan to disencumber his fangs.

As is so often the case, the most direct solution proved to be the best. In one of the more dramatic family moments in the English royal annals, Edward joined his close friend and a small band of trusted armed men, and burst in on Mortimer at Nottingham Castle, arresting him while his mother plaintively implored Edward to “have pity on gentle Mortimer.”

But Mortimer got as much mercy as he’d given the late Edward II. A mere six weeks removed from mastery of England, Mortimer was presented bound and gagged for the formality of a condemnation by Parliament on grounds of assuming royal authority. Then he was hustled off to Tyburn dressed pointedly in the same black tunic he had once worn to mourn Edward II. It was the first documented case of a nobleman being hanged at that grim destination.

First Lord. My lord, here is the head of Mortimer.
K. Edw. Third. Go fetch my father’s hearse, where it shall lie;
And bring my funeral robes.
Accursed head,
Could I have rul’d thee then, as I do now,
Thou hadst not hatch’d this monstrous treachery!

-Marlowe’s Edward II

The French could say the same thing of Edward.

We’ve previously recommended Lady Despenser’s Scribery for its coverage of this period; true to form, it has a detailed series on Roger Mortimer: 1, 2, 3, 4

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1957: Adolfas Ramanauskas-Vanagas

1 comment November 29th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1957, Lithuanian anti-Soviet partisan Adolfas Ramanauskas-Vanagas (Lithuanian link) was shot in Vilnius.

Ramanauskas-Vargas himself was born in the U.S., but his Lithuanian family soon returned to the motherland, where Adolfas grew up and taught seminary during the war years.

When the USSR finally broke the Siege of Leningrad and sent the Wehrmacht running west in 1944, it (re-)occupied the Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. And the Soviets didn’t plan to leave.

Bands of anti-Soviet partisans formed in these anti-Soviet states, as elsewhere in Eastern Europe — the evocatively named Forest Brothers. Ramanauskas-Vanagas joined up.

Absent western support which was not forthcoming, these nationalist guerrillas were overmatched against the Red Army — but the movements held out in their secret wilderness fastnesses for years, and in the case of at least a few intransigent individuals, decades.

The Soviets answered with ruthless suppression to quell resistance, coupled (after Stalin’s death in 1953) with an amnesty offer that largely emptied the forests.

Ramanauskas-Vanagas, the South Lithuania commander, wasn’t captured until late in 1956. He enjoyed the customary favors of his KGB captors, and after torture, the Lithuanian SSR Supreme Court sentenced him to execution. (His wife got a trip to the gulag.)

There’s a Lithuanian biography of him here, and a few good photos in this forum thread.

A few topical books

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1781: The slaves of the Zong, for the insurance

5 comments November 29th, 2009 Headsman

Beginning this day in 1781, the captain of the slave ship Zong began throwing his cargo overboard in a still-notorious case combining the horrors of the Middle Passage with the cruel rapacity of capital.

The Liverpool-based ship was en route from Africa to Jamaica, there to exchange its human chattel for New World produce bound for the European market.

Characteristically for slave ships, it was inhumanly packed: more economical for a slaver to overcrowd its captives and write off the ones who died than to maximize slaves’ chances of survival. And on this particular ship, malnutrition and disease claimed more than 60 slaves (as well as seven crew members).


Underwater sculpture off Grenada commemorating slaves thrown overboard during the Middle Passage.

With many more in danger of expiring, Captain Luke Collingwood reasoned that the cargo would be a loss if it succumbed, but that shippers’ insurance would reimburse the firm “when slaves are killed, or thrown into thrown into the sea in order to quell an insurrection.” Over a three-day span beginning Nov. 29, 1781, Collingwood had 133 still-living but sick slaves cast overboard;* “the last ten victims sprang disdainfully from the grasp of their executioners, and leaped into the sea triumphantly embracing death.” (Source)

This gave the ship’s owners — the good captain himself was not among them — the chance to attempt an insurance scam.

This historical-philosophical book (review, a pdf) analyzes the Zong affair as the emblematic “inauguration of a long twentieth century underwritten by the development of an Atlantic cycle of capital accumulation.”

When the Zong landed having lost in total more than half of its original 440 slaves (and Collingwood himself, that fastidious servant of his shareholders), its owners did indeed attempt to recoup the many who had been intentionally killed. Smelling fraud, the insurer refused to pay.

There followed the signal case of Gregson v. Gilbert, a dry insurance trial that also became a beacon of the slave system’s blood-chilling jurisprudential logic.

After a jury sided with the claimant shippers against the insurers, the matter hit a wide public on appeal before Lord Chief Justice Mansfield when abolitionist activists Granville Sharp and Olaudah Equiano seized upon its conscience-shocking quality.

While Sharp and Equiano agitated unavailingly for a homicide investigation, the insurer — which was itself in the very same business of human bondage as the shipper — self-righteously posed “as counsel for millions of mankind, and the cause of humanity in general.” (Source) Its interests, after all, would be served by the least possible indemnity for slaves murdered in passage.

Solicitor-General John Lee — “the learned advocate for Liverpool iniquity,” in Sharp’s estimation — successfully insisted upon limiting the case to its commercial considerations.

What is this claim that human people have been thrown overboard? This is a case of chattels or goods. Blacks are goods and property; it is madness to accuse these well serving honourable men of murder. They acted out of necessity and in the most appropriate manner for the cause. The late Captain Collingwood acted in the interest of his ship to protect the safety of his crew. To question the judgment of an experienced, well-travelled captain held in the highest regard is one of folly, especially when talking of slaves. The case is the same as if horses had been thrown overboard. (Quoted here; Wikipedia has it “as if wood had been thrown overboard.”)

Lord Mansfield agreed, “(though it shocks one very much) that the case of slaves was the same as … horses,” and simply found with the insurers that no liability attached them since the killings were voluntary rather than necessary.

Nobody was ever prosecuted.


The disturbing 1840 Turner seascape “Slavers throwing overboard the Dead and Dying – Typon [sic] coming on”, also known simply as “The Slave Ship”, is widely thought to have been inspired by the Zong episode. The allusion would have been well-known to his contemporaries.

* One of the 133 survived by climbing back aboard the ship.

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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.”

On this day..

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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