1355: Ines de Castro, posthumous queen

Add comment January 7th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1355, the 29-year-old lover of the Portuguese crown prince was put to summary death by the reigning king’s minions.

Ines de Castro (English Wikipedia entry | Portuguese) would be posthumously acknowledged as queen on the say-so of her ex, whom everyone obeyed because he was called Peter (Pedro) the Cruel.

But in the years before Ines’s death you could just call him loverboy.

As a young man, Peter got plugged into a typical dynastic marriage with Constance of Panafiel, a descendant of kings of Castille and Aragon.*

In Constance’s entourage came the enchanting Ines, the daughter, albeit illegitimate, of a Galician nobleman.

Peter was entirely smitten by entirely the wrong woman. Vainly did the Portuguese sovereign Afonso IV strive to conform his indiscreet son to the demands of conjugal propriety. At last, the put-upon Constance died after bearing Peter his heir in 1345 and left the field to her rival.

Afonso steadfastly refused to let his lovestruck son marry Ines, and even tried banishing her to Castile, but the two carried on their forbidden passion secretly like they were in poetry, which would soon be the case.


One of 20-plus operas and ballets about Ines de Castro. She also turns up in the Portuguese national epic The Lusíadas, the French play La Reine Morte, and Ezra Pound’s Cantos (“Ignez da Castro murdered, and a wall / Here stripped, here made to stand”) … among many other literary appearances.

But beyond any qualms of prudery, Peter’s obsession made dad sweat the politics.

Peter refused to marry anyone else, and got tight with Ines’s brothers. These guys were Castilian exiles with their own axes to grind. Was the whole fortune of his house and his realm to fall under the sway of this unpredictable faction just because Peter couldn’t keep it in his codpiece? The affair had already made a dog’s breakfast of the alliance Peter was supposed to contract with his scorned wife’s family; now that Peter was having kids** with his mistress, there was the potential for a contested succession, and the brothers were goading Peter to pretend to the throne of their native Castile.

Afonso figured that this was about where his son’s right to romantic love ended. Peter had proven many times that only the most drastic of steps could separate him from Ines.

On the 7th of January 1355, Afonso and his own advisors met in secret and declared Ines’s death. Then three of the king’s emissaries, Pêro Coelho, Álvaro Gonçalves and Diogo Lopes Pacheco, rode out to find the irksome mistress at Coimbra, and chopped off her head right in front of her children.†


Assassínio de Dona Inês de Castro (date unknown), by Columbano Bordalo Pinheiro.

It was only with difficulty that a sufficient reconciliation between father and son was effected to manage a stable transition once Afonso kicked off in 1357. Finally in charge, Peter set about earning that “the Cruel” sobriquet by hunting down the retainers who had slain his wife and having them all put to terrible deaths in their turn, like their hearts ripped out of their chests. Just like had happened to Peter, see.

Peter also announced that he had been secretly married to Ines, posthumously legitimizing her. Legend, probably apocryphal, has it that he even exhumed her body and set her up on the throne in regal finery like the cadaver synod, so that his courtiers could pay their respects to the putrefying flesh of “the queen who was crowned after death”. But she wasn’t coming back for real: in the still-extant Portuguese idiom, “Agora é tarde; Inês é morta” — “It’s too late, Ines is dead.”


Couronnement d’Inés de Castro en 1361 (c. 1849), by Pierre-Charles Comte.

In death at this hour, Ines de Castro reigns in a gorgeous carved tomb in the Alcobaca Monastery … right next to her lover, King Peter I.

* The Peter-Constance marriage was itself an alliance of marital castaways. Constance had been the child bride of Castilian King Alfonso XI, but was put aside by Alfonso so that he could realign his bedroom politics by instead marrying Peter’s own elder sister. But Alfonso neglected her, too — causing a love triangle that would in time end with an execution.

When Peter’s humiliated sister fled the Castilian court, the Portuguese royal family allied with Constance’s family against Alfonso, by marrying the spurned Constance to the spurned-in-law Peter.

** High noble titles were bestowed on the three children of Peter and Ines who survived into adulthood. Two of them, John and Denis, unsuccessfully attempted to claim the throne during the chaotic interregnum of Portugal’s 1383-1385 Crisis.

† Ines’s execution/murder is associated with Quinta das Lagrimas, the Estate of Tears, even though that’s not where it actually occurred. A fountain there is said to have sprung from the tears she said as she was slain, and its red stones stained by her blood.

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1435: Agnes Bernauer

1 comment October 12th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1435, the Duke of Bavaria-Munich had his son’s commoner mistress drowned.

Agnes Bernauer (English Wikipedia link | German) was supposed to have been the daughter of an Augsburg barber, though hard details about her life are hard to come by owing to her social class.

By 1432, she’s demonstrably a part of the Munich court; it’s thought that the prince Albert (the future Duke Albert III) must have met her at an Augsburg tournament in 1428.

The nature of her relationship to the Bavarian heir, too, must largely be guessed at. It’s been widely hypothesized that they might have married secretly.

Such a marriage might explain the shocking end to the Agnes-Albert relationship by situating it as a threat to dynastic succession: Albert was Ernst’s only legitimate son, and the Bavarian patrimony had been subdivided and fought over among Wittelsbach kin over the preceding decades.

Whatever the reason, Ernst took the disapproving (maybe) in-law act quite a lot farther than most. While Albert was out on a hunt, Ernst had Agnes seized, condemned for witchcraft, and executed by drowning in the Danube River on Oct. 12, 1435.

Upon hearing of the death of his beloved, Albert bitterly deserted his father for Ernst’s cousin and rival Louis VII, Duke of Bavaria-Ingolstadt. The prospect of capping domestic homicide with civil war loomed for several months until father and son were reconciled — and one must guess, once again, at how that conversation went. Albert endowed a perpetual mass for Agnes which is still said annually. A Bernauer chapel containing a tomb relief of Agnes, erected as an apology by Duke Ernst, remains a tourist draw in Straubing.

The star-crossed love of Agnes and Albert has proven irresistible to the arts over the centuries, with a special boom in the Romantic era.

King Ludwig I of Bavaria composed a poem in her honor; several 19th century stage tragedies (most notably that of Friedrich Hebbel) explore the story; and Carl Orff made it into an opera, Die Bernauerin.

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1642: Henri Coiffier de Ruze, Marquis of Cinq-Mars

2 comments September 12th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1642, with the last words “Mon Dieu! Qu’est-ce que ce monde?”, 22-year-old former royal favorite Cinq-Mars was beheaded at Lyon’s Place des Terreaux.

Henri Coiffier de Ruze (English Wikipedia page | French) had been under Cardinal Richelieu’s protection since the boy’s father died in 1632; in 1639, the Red Eminence introduced the then-19-year-old whippersnapper to Louis XIII as a prospective royal favorite (read: lover).

Though the king did indeed take to the youth, Cinq-Mars, in the age-old custom of sullen teenagers everywhere, soon found the luxurious profligacy of the favorite’s life rather overbalanced by irritation at both of his sickly, aging patrons.

Tart talk to intimates graduated to something more serious after Richelieu rudely put the kibosh on Cinq-Mars’s (unrealistic) designs on a wealthy noblewoman — which was also a bid to parlay his tenuous favorite gig into some lasting power.

Now considering himself personally begrudged of the Cardinal, Cinq-Mars fell into the conspiracies (French link) to depose, assassinate, or otherwise replace him.

Eventually Cinq-Mars would go so far as a real blockbuster (French again): he signed a secret pact with the Spanish king to support a noble revolt in exchange for handing over French possessions, a seditious plan also backed by perennial plotter Gaston d’Orleans, the king’s scheming brother.

Our angry moppet had more than met his match in Richelieu, however: the cardinal’s agents intercepted (more French) the treasonable correspondence and had Cinq-Mars dispatched this date along with his confederate de Thou.


Execution of Cinq-Mars and De Thou in Paris (1642), engraving by Johann Luyken, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France (via)

Richelieu himself was already dying as he undid this last conspiracy against him. The cardinal succumbed on December 4, 1642 … with Louis following him into the grave the next May.

While Richelieu’s name is fixed in the firmament of history and literature, Cinq-Mars has to make do as the namesake of a rarely-seen Gounod opera, based on the 1826 historical novel Cinq-Mars by Alfred de Vigny.

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1671: Zrinski and Frankopan, Croatian conspirators

1 comment April 30th, 2012 Headsman

He who dies honorably lives forever.

-Fran Frankopan

On this date in 1671, Croatian noble Fran Krsto Frankopan and his brother-in-law Petar Zrinski were beheaded by the Austrian empire at Wiener-Neustadt Prison.

The Zrinski-Frankopan Conspiracy — or Magnate Conspiracy — was the product of great powers chess in central Europe … and specifically, of the frustration of these lords in the frontier zone between the Austrian and the Ottoman Empires at being a sacrificial pawn.

Instead, they’d take control of their own destiny and be a self-sacrificial pawn.

Croatia and Hungary had been on the perimeter of Hapsburg authority for generations, and seen the rising Ottomans push well into Europe.

In the latest of innumerable wars, the Austrians had trounced the Ottomans, potentially (so the Croats and Hungarians thought) opening the door for reconquest of lost territory. Croatia in particular had been nibbled away by Ottoman incursions into a “remnant of a remnant.” Emperor Leopold I thought otherwise: he had Great Games to play in western Europe as well and didn’t find this an auspicious moment to go all in in the east.

Rather than following up his victory by trying to run the Turks out of their half of divided Hungary, or out of Transylvania, Leopold just cut an expedient peace on status quo ante terms quite a bit more favorable to Istanbul than the latter’s military position could demand.

The aggrieved nobles started looking around for foreign support to help Hungary break away.

This scheme never came to anything all that palpable, perhaps because the operation’s leading spirit Nikola Zrinski got himself killed by a wild boar on a hunt, and definitely because no other great powers wanted to get involved in the mess.

Zrinski (or Zrinyi) was also a noteworthy Croatian-Hungarian poet, as were the remaining conspirators.

The boar-slain’s younger brother Petar, his wife Katarina, and Katarina’s half-brother Fran Frankopan, also better litterateurs than conspirators, inherited the scheme’s leadership, and its penalty.


Zrinski and Frankopan in the Wiener-Neustadt Prison, by Viktor Madarasz (1864)

Royal vengeance against the plot shattered two mighty noble houses: the Zrinskis were all but destroyed by the seizure of their estates. The Frankopans — an ancient and far-flung family whose Italian Frangipani branch was even then about to yield a pope — were done as major players.

After these executions, anti-Hapsburg sentiment metastasized in Hungary into outright rebellion.

But in what was left of Croatia, the loss of the two largest landholders spelled the end of effective resistance until the era of 19th century romantic nationalism — when our day’s unfortunates were recovered as honored national heroes.

Zrinski and Frankopan are pictured on modern Croatia’s five-kuna bill, and were both reburied in Zagreb Cathedral after World War I finally claimed the Austrian Empire. (They also got memorial plaques in Wiener-Neustadt) Their mutual relation Katarina Zrinski, who avoided execution but was shut up in a convent, was a writer as well, and has ascended to the stars of founding patriotess, seemingly the go-to namesake for most any Croatian women’s civic organization. (Dudes honor the House of Zrinski by slapping the name onto sports clubs.)

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1354: Cola di Rienzi, last of the Roman Tribunes

1 comment October 8th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1354, Cola di Rienzi (or Rienzo) was slain by a miserly Roman mob — rather a lynching than an execution, but by any name the tragic end to one of history’s most amazing political careers.*

“Almost the only man,” in the estimation of his admiring biographer Edward Bulwer-Lytton,** “who ever rose from the rank of a citizen to a power equal to that of monarchs without a single act of violence or treachery.”

So magnetic was that era’s revival of classical learning that young Rienzi’s plebeian parents found a way on an innkeeper’s wages to immerse the boy in Cicero, Seneca, and the rest. As Gibbon put it, “the gift of a liberal education, which they painfully bestowed, was the cause of his glory and untimely end.” (Surely this is an object lesson for present-day families contemplating the daunting cost of university education.)

And the oratorical gifts he thereby developed found ready exercise lamenting Rome’s medieval degradation.


This View of the Campo Vaccino actually dates to 1636, but you get the idea. “Campo Vaccino”: that’s “cow pasture,” also known (to you, me, and Julius Caesar) as the Roman Forum.

Rome had bled away the grandeur of its imperial past without recovering the liberty of its populace. A haughty and dissolute aristocracy tyrannized the brackish city: a brawl between rival factions took Rienzi’s own brother’s life, with no prospect of justice.


Rienzi vows to obtain justice for his murdered brother, depicted in a pre-Raphaelite painting by the young William Holman Hunt.

Added to this civic humiliation (though only fortuitous for Rienzi’s political opportunity), the papacy itself had decamped for its captivity in Avignon.

What to do?

How about — overthrow the bastards?

Astonishingly, for Rienzi, to dare was to do: on Pentecost in 1347, he rallied a Roman mob and proclaimed the Republic re-established — taking for himself the ancient honorific of Tribune and the real power of an autocrat. The nobility routed in disarray, or else submitted to the sudden new authority.

For the balance of the year, Rienzi’s word was law in Rome, and as a messianic, popular dictator he cleared woods of bandits, imposed the death penalty for (all) murderers, and beat the aristocracy’s re-invasion with a citizen militia. He audaciously began to resume the primacy of the caput mundi: as “Tribune”, Rienzi summoned delegations from the other Italian cities, and presumed to arbitrate the disputes of neighboring kingdoms. Audacity veered into delirium as he pressed demands on the likes of the Holy Roman Emperor. He acquired a taste for fine wine and good clothes.

“Never perhaps has the energy and effect of a single mind been more remarkably felt than in the sudden, though transient, reformation of Rome by the tribune Rienzi,” Gibbon marveled. “A den of robbers was converted to the discipline of a camp or convent: patient to hear, swift to redress, inexorable to punish, his tribunal was always accessible to the poor and stranger; nor could birth, or dignity, or the immunities of the church, protect the offender or his accomplices.”

The great humanist Petrarch, Rienzi’s contemporary, was smitten by the unfolding revolution.

But almost as soon as Rienzi’s republic began, the man fell: another invasion found the Roman in the street deaf to the alarm bells, and Rienzi fled.

“He was a dreamer rather than a man of action,” is the charge of the Catholic encyclopedia; excitable, injudicious, spendthrift, and prey to the “Asiatic” emoluments of his station.

This career alone would merit a remembrance, but Rienzi had a second act.


Richard Wagner’s first hit opera — though hard to come by in the wild nowadays — was Rienzi, der Letzte der Tribunen (synopsis), from a libretto based on Bulwer-Lytton’s homage.

After a long spell in exile, he was captured by the Holy Roman Emperor and transferred to the papacy, where he remained comfortably imprisoned for a couple of years. When the pontiff’s hat changed heads to Innocent VI, the latter freed the illustrious ex-Tribune and dispatched him back to Rome under the title of Senator — intending him a catspaw to re-assert the supremacy the papacy had abandoned by moving away.

Within weeks of arrival in 1354, Rienzi again made himself master of the city.

And within months thereafter, he had fallen again — to his death.

He is charged in this last term with severity (the execution of a high-born freebooter, Fra Monreale, in particular), with avarice and abuse of power and once more with political incompetence.

Gibbon claims that Rienzi “contracted the habits of intemperance and cruelty: adversity had chilled his enthusiasm, without fortifying his reason or virtue; and that youthful hope, that lively assurance, which is the pledge of success, was now succeeded by the cold impotence of distrust and despair.” We incline to prefer Bulwer-Lytton’s more generous estimation of a man who with no resource save his own brilliance twice recovered to his low-born person the tattered remnants of the purple and dared against a thousand mighty antagonists to lift it on the standard of the Gracchi. Flaws, and they fatal, he possessed in abundance: but greatness even more.

At any rate, all the scolds upon Rienzi’s imperfections were so much froth in 1354. He certainly did not succumb to the greater virtue of the polis, but merely to its shortsighted refusal to bear a levy:

it was from a gabelle on wine and salt that he fell. To preserve Rome from the tyrants it was necessary to maintain an armed force; to pay the force a tax was necessary; the tax was imposed — and the multitude joined with the tyrants, and their cry was, “Perish the traitor who has made the gabelle!” This was their only charge — this the only crime that their passions and their fury could cite against him.

Rienzi’s eloquence, so often his decisive weapon, failed to move the shortsighted mob that besieged him, and he was hauled to a platform in the Capitol where public executions had been performed at his behest. “A whole hour, without voice or motion, he stood amidst the multitude half naked and half dead: their rage was hushed into curiosity and wonder: the last feelings of reverence and compassion yet struggled in his favour; and they might have prevailed, if a bold assassin had not plunged a dagger in his breast.” (Gibbon)

If this amazing character’s contradictions seem difficult to reconcile and his actions sometimes perplexing, Bulwer-Lytton argues in Rienzi’s defense that we must view him as a complex man ultimately fired not by political ambition but by religious zealotry. One thinks of Savonarola, the prim monk who mastered Florence and perished in flames, save for the essential detail: Rienzi’s loss “was bitterly regretted … for centuries afterwards, whenever that wretched and degenerate populace dreamed of glory or sighed for justice, they recalled the bright vision of their own victim, and deplored the fate of Cola di Rienzi.”


Statue of Rienzi in Rome. (cc) image from ZeroOne.

* And surely in keeping with the time-honored way for Roman chiefs to fall.

** We’ve encountered Bulwer-Lytton glancingly in these pages; his novel Zanoni climaxes with the beheading of its fictional title character in one of the last carts of the French Revolution’s Terror, and he wrote a novel (savaged by Thackeray) about executed intellectual Eugene Aram. The “biography” in question for this piece is actually a work of historical fiction, Rienzi, Last of the Roman Tribunes; the quoted sections are from Bulwer-Lytton’s (non-fiction) afterword.

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1634: Urbain Grandier, for the Loudon possessions

3 comments August 18th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1634, a Paris tribunal “declare[d] the said Urbain Grandier duly guilty of the crime of sorcery, evil spells, and the possession visited upon some Ursuline nuns of this town of Loudon and of other laywomen mentioned at the trial, together with other crimes resulting from the above. For redress of these, he has been condemned … to be taken to the Place of Saine-Croix of this said town, to be tied to a post on a pile of faggots that is to be built in the said Place. There his body is to be burned alive … and his ashes are to be scattered to the winds.”

The sentence was immediately enforced.

These Loudon possessions were a disgraceful carnival of simulated enspellment by the local Ursuline nuns engineered to destroy Grandier, a parish priest with a knack for acquiring enemies.

Alexandre Dumas, pere would write about Grandier in his Crimes Célèbres, and later in a stand-alone play. In Dumas’s rendering, Grandier arrived in Loudon as a handsome outsider, eloquent in the pulpit and doubly so in pursuit of a pretty girl,* as inexorable as Shylock in his victorious lawsuits against the local grandees.

Most recklessly of all, he made a foe of Cardinal Richelieu — snubbing him, opposing him politically, and (so it was alleged) authoring a scathing and anonymous lampoon of the Grey Eminence.

When Richelieu’s deputy came to town, the locals got the Ursuline nuns into their fits and got Grandier fast-tracked for hell.

The nuns put on a circus of frothing, profane, hip-thrusting demoniac possession accusing Grandier of bewitchment as they melodramatically underwent exorcism. (Fabulously attended, these public displays of possession and exorcism went on for several years after Grandier’s death as a perverse tourist attraction.)

Richelieu’s guy arranged to try Grandier in his own court (no appeal possible) and threatened to arrest for treason anyone who testified in his defense. In case that were insufficient advantage, a contract with Lucifer — a literal, signed document — was produced for the magistrates’ edification.


In fairness, this “contract” must have been a hell of a lot of fun to forge.

Heck, even nuns who tried to recant were turned away. Must be back under Lucifer’s influence!

Before proceeding to the stake, Grandier was subjected to one last “extraordinary” torture. His holy persecutors, “lest the Devils should have the power to resist the blows of a profane man, such as the hangman was, they themselves took the hammers and tortured the unhappy man” until the bone marrow leaked from his legs. Satan’s subcontractor suffered the blows without confessing or naming an accomplice.

In 1952, Aldous Huxley molded the horrible Grandier story into a non-fiction novel, The Devils of Loudun. Huxley’s take helped to popularize the tale — one that polemicists in the 17th century also recognized as an injustice — for the modern era of flesh minced by ideological madness.

From beginning to end, the trial proved a farce in which the condemnation of the accused was a foregone conclusion. By means of a series of trumped-up charges reinforced by an official philosophy and falsified theological dogmas, the resources of the state were mobilized to crush the offending individual. Huxley is not slow to point to the modern counterpart of such proceedings, notably in Fascist or Communist countries.

-Book review by S. van Dantzich, The Australian Quarterly, June 1954

Evidently, it struck a chord.

A 1971 cinematic adaptation of this book, The Devils, a captivating and sacrilegious tapestry of violent, sexual, and religious iconography, won critical praise and censor board bans, as well as an “X” rating in the United States. It’s hard to find, but worth the trouble.

Huxley’s book also formed the basis for an operatic interpretation, Die Teufel von Loudun (The Devils of Loudun)

* As we’ve seen, French priests making sexy time stood in danger from their game-less counterparts.

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1800: Mario Cavaradossi, Tosca’s lover

1 comment June 18th, 2011 Headsman

It’s at dawn on this date in 1800 that the republican Mario Cavaradossi is shot at Castel Sant’Angelo in the climax of the Puccini opera Tosca.

This opera was adapted from the play La Tosca, by Victorien Sardou. That author does this site the considerable favor of exactly dating the action; a character at the end of Act 1, Scene 1 announces, “this evening, 17 June, a celebration at the Palazzo Farnese in honor of this victory.” The remaining story unfolds over that night and into the next morning.

En route to Marengo: Jacques-Louis David‘s heroic picture of Napoleon crossing the Alps comes from this campaign.

“This victory” worth the proposed palazzo party is the Austrian defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Marengo during Bonaparte’s 1800 invasion of Italy.

But there’s a minor problem. Said seesaw battle went not to Austria but (decisively) to Napoleon, after a late French rally.

The action of Tosca takes place in a Rome which has received an initial, incorrect notice of Austrian victory. This is of particular import in the Eternal City because it’s under the temporary receivership of the Hapsburg Queen Maria Carolina, a virulent foe of the French Republic as befits a sister of Marie Antoinette.

(France-supported Italian revolutionaries had already deposed Maria Carolina once; the Corsican’s reappearance on her peninsula gave her good cause to fear that it would happen again.*)

At any rate, “Queen Caroline” and her husband Ferdinand were not above spilling blood to hold down the republican elements in Rome. Harold Acton pegged their harvest at “8,000 political prisoners … 105 were condemned to death, six of whom were reprieved.”

Our date’s fictional principal would reckon among those.

We meet him as a painter with subversively liberal inclinations, in love with the titular heroine as she with him — but opposed by police chief Scarpia: his profession is to pursue revolutionaries; his passion, to pursue Tosca.

Scarpia captures, and tortures, Cavaradossi for aiding an escaped official of the recently destroyed Roman Republic, and forces Tosca to yield herself to him in exchange for her lover’s life.** This is Tosca’s aria lamenting her position:

One thing: because Scarpia doesn’t want to be implicated in the release of a dangerous radical, he insists on a mock-execution in which the prisoner will appear to be shot and feign death, the better to spirit Cavaradossi away and on to happily-ever-after.†

And because Scarpia is a villain, he arranges for his rival’s “mock” execution to be not so mock after all … to the suicidal horror of Tosca.

Aaaaaand curtain.

There are scads more Tosca excerpts on YouTube. Here’s an Italian-English libretto, and here a handy summary.

* It would, in fact, happen again.

** Okay, to agree to yield herself to him. Tosca stabs Scarpia to death when he rises to collect her promised virtue.

† “In the manner of Count Palmieri,” Scarpia instructs his subaltern. If this is a reference to a real case, we are not aware of it; there was a royalist Marquis Palmieri executed in Naples in 1807 by Napoleon’s brother, Joseph.

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1590: Anne Pedersdotter, Norwegian witch

1 comment April 7th, 2011 Headsman

The most famous witchcraft execution in Norwegian history took place on this date in 1590, with the burning of Anne Pedersdotter.

Pedersdotter (English Wikipedia entry | Norwegian) was the wife of Lutheran minister Absalon Pedersson Beyer (Norwegian link), a reformist theologian in Bergen.

Anne may have become a target of her prominent husband’s enemies; she was first implicated for witchcraft in 1575 when her husband’s uncle dropped dead, clearing the way for Absalon to take his place as bishop.

While she repelled that round of allegations, Absalon himself soon followed his kin into the great hereafter, leaving his widow a bit shorter on political pull. She lived on as a near-hermit, forever shadowed by the intimation of infernal intercourse.

In 1590, Anne’s neighbors, and maid, accused her again; her fate was sealed when a forbidding storm broke during her trial. (So says Witch Hunts in the Western World)

Anne Pedersdotter’s execution has become a literary staple in Norway, with a (highly dramatized) play (available free online here) itself re-stylized into other notable cultural products — such as Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer‘s 1943 Vredens Dag (Day of Wrath) …

… and two different operas, Edvard Fliflet Braein‘s Anne Pedersdotter, in Norwegian; and, Ottorino Respighi‘s more conventionally Italian-language La Fiamma:

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Daily Double: 1945, and the legacy of Valkyrie

1 comment February 2nd, 2011 Headsman

By February of 1945, Nazi Germany was in quite a fix.

Its last big offensive, the Battle of the Bulge, had been repulsed in the west to no lasting effect other than the thousands of squandered men; in the east, the Red Army was smashing its way through Poland and into the Reich itself, advancing within 70 kilometers of Berlin.* The war’s outcome was self-evident; everyone who was anyone was trying to cut the best deal possible with the soon-to-be-conquerors.

Old Adolf, though — he was determined to check out with all of Germany for his pyre. Götterdämmerung: the Twilight of the Gods. The man loved himself some Wagner.


Albert Speer said that this scene of Brunnhilde‘s immolation from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung was the last thing the Berlin Philharmonic performed before it evacuated Berlin in 1945.

Though one can’t speak for every single German, it’s safe to say that the Teutonic consensus at that moment would have trended quite a bit less pyromaniac. After all, they were the kindling.

The reason Der Fuhrer remained at liberty to enact this weird and destructive climax was his efficiency in scotching threats to his life or leadership from the upper echelons of the Reich.

And he was still at it even as the war slipped away: here, just weeks before the fall of Berlin, adherents of the previous year’s near-miss assassination attempt were still being shuffled off this mortal coil.

These next two dates are not literally the last of the Stauffenberg affair, but they’re a sort of metaphorical last — for these tragic, bumbling dissidents, and the regime they could not topple.

These dates have a fitting, entirely coincidental postscript: on February 4, 1945, the Yalta Conference opened — and Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill set about shaping the postwar world.

* Liberating Auschwitz in the process.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Daily Doubles

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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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