1450: Jack Cade posthumously quartered

Add comment July 16th, 2017 Headsman

On or around this date in 1450 the body of the rebel Jack Cade was posthumously beheaded and quartered.

He’s one of England’s first names in rebellion, and Cade’s Kentish rising indexed England’s catastrophic breakdown under the weak king Henry VI, a milepost between the waning Hundred Years’ War and the onrushing Wars of the Roses.


Panel of a 1964-1965 ceramic mural in Peckham, by Polish artist Adam Kossowski. (cc) image from Peter Gasston.

And for all of these, Cade included, Henry was the chaos-making variable.

He had just about finished squandering the entire French patrimony so gloriously won for him by the sword-arm of his doughty father Henry V, and defeated troops fleeing French advances in Normandy compounded, as they tramped up the southeast beaten and looting, the general fury at the king’s unpopular marriage to the French princess Margaret of Anjou. With shambolic governance allied to a slumping economy, corrupt taxation, and mounting public debt, things were coming unglued.

Like many kings, Henry benefited from the instinct to target overt blame away from the sovereign himself and towards the aides and counselors who surround him. One of the very most hated of those counselors was the man who had negotiated that French marriage — giving away to the French crown the hard-won provinces of Anjou and Maine as its price. William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, was so near to being attainted or lynched around London that King Henry exiled him for his own safety to France. But Suffolk didn’t make there: instead, he was captured at sea and murdered.

When his body washed up in Kent, rumors seem to have anticipated a royal reprisal against that region and in favor of the late hated favorite, perhaps the trigger for the events in this post.

Nevertheless, the “rebels” did not conceive themselves engaged in a seditious enterprise; this is apparent from the manifesto of grievances it issued, with moderating tones and language echoing complaints that the Commons was raising to no avail in Parliament.

Item. The law serves of nought else in these days but for to do wrong, for nothing is spread almost but false matters by colour of the law for reward, dread and favour and so no remedy is had in the Court of Equity in any way.

Item. We say our sovereign lord may understand that his false council has lost his law, his merchandise is lost, his common people is destroyed, the sea is lost, France is lost, the king himself is so set that he may not pay for his meat nor drink, and he owes more than ever any King of England ought, for daily his traitors about him where anything should come to him by his laws, anon they take it from him.

Item. We will that all men know we blame not all the lords, nor all those that are about the king’s person, nor all gentlemen nor yeomen, nor all men of law, nor all bishops, nor all priests, but all such as may be found guilty by just and true inquiry and by the law.

Item. We will that it be known we will not rob, nor plunder, nor steal, but that these defaults be amended, and then we will go home …

The man at the forefront is a cipher: he went by the potent alias of “John Mortimer”, the surname unmistakably linking his cause to the rival royal claimants over at the the House of York, but neither the name of “Jack Cade” by which history recalls his movement nor the antecedent experiences that thrust him into leadership can be attested with any confidence.

He appears by the half-glimpses we catch of him in the period’s chronicles to be a vigorous and intelligent character. He shied away from battle with a royal army, wisely avoiding the taint of treason that would come with entering the field against the king’s own person; but, it was an organized withdrawal that left his forces capable of ambushing and destroying the detachment from that army that the king had sent to pursue them, a testament to Cade/Mortimer’s adroit command.

Panicked when the news of this reversal resulted in his own forces taking up the rebels’ call to punish traitorous lords, King Henry beat feet for the safety of Kenilworth Castle and abandoned the stage of London to this mysterious new character.

The rebel militia seized it on the third of July that year, visiting its promised popular justice in the process upon several of those “false counsellors” detested among the populace — including the Bishop of Salisbury, the Baron Saye and Sele, and the former sheriff of Kent, William Cromer; Shakespeare gives us a bloody-minded* Cade bantering with his prey Saye and Sele in Henry VI, Part 2 — “Ye shall have a hempen caudle, then, and the help of hatchet … Go, take him away, I say, and strike off his head presently; and then break into his son-in-law’s house, Sir James [sic] Cromer, and strike off his head, and bring them both upon two poles hither.”


Charles Lucy, “Lord Saye and Sele brought before Jack Cade 4th July 1450″

Peasant risings like these are made for eventual failure, but it the unusually high water mark achieved by Cade’s rebellion before receding makes another measure of the crown’s weakness. After ceding the Kentishmen the run of London for several days, it took a desperate nighttime battle on London Bridge to finally push them out.

A general amnesty went abroad to induce the rebels to disperse, but it was not for Cade — who fled to Sussex where he was taken, and mortally wounded in the process, by the new sheriff of Kent, Alexander Iden. (A road called Cade Street now runs in the vicinity; there is a monument to his capture in Heathfield.) It was Cade’s good fortune to succumb to his injuries on the journey back to London but the pains of justice were inflicted upon his remains just the same.

Cade died on Sunday, July 12. The precise date for his posthumous disgrace is not certain from the sources available to us. Many writers report July 15, seemingly based on John Benet’s chronicle, which is a strong source and asserts the 15th unambiguously. I’m here guardedly preferring the 16th based on Gregory’s Chronicle, whose authors were clearly Londoners, and who narrated the progress of the week following Cade’s death with specificity.

And that day was that fals traytoure the Captayne of Kentte i-take and slayne in the Welde in the countre of Sowsex, and uppon the morowe he was brought in a carre alle nakyd, and at the Herte in Sowetheworke there the carre was made stonde stylle, the wyffe of the howse myght se hym yf hyt were the same man or no that was namyd the Captayne of Kente, for he was loggyd whythe yn hyr howse in hys pevys tyme of hys mys rewylle and rysynge. And thenne he was hadde in to the Kyngys Bynche, and there he lay from Monday at evyn [i.e., Monday, July 13] unto the Thursseday nexte folowynge at evyn [Thursday, July 16]; and whythe yn the Kynges Benche the sayde captayne was be-heddyde and quarteryde; and the same day i-d[r]awe a-pon a hyrdylle in pecys whythe the hedde by-twyne hys breste from the Kyngys Benche thoroughe owte Sowthewerke, and thenne ovyr Londyn Brygge, and thenne thoroughe London unto Newegate, and thenne hys hedde was takyn and sette uppon London Brygge.

Cade’s is the rebellion that gets the ink, but several other uprisings in the South of England followed in the months ahead … ill omen for the king who would soon experience the ruin of his reign and family.

The History of England podcast covers Jack Cade’s rebellion in Episode 161.

* It is one of Cade’s subalterns in this play who supplies posterity with the immortal quip, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

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1785: Horea and Closca, Transylvanian rebels

Add comment February 28th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1785, two of the three leaders of Transylvania’s great peasant uprising were broken on the wheel in the city of Alba Iulia — the third having cheated the executioner by hanging himself in his cell.


Left to right: Vasile Ursu Nicola, known as Horea; Ion Oarga (Closca); and, the suicide, Marcu Giurgiu (Crisan).

The Revolt of Horea, Closca and Crisan (English Wikipedia entry | the far more detailed Romanian) featured the usual grievances of feudal serfs, who in this case were Orthodox Christians governed by a Hungarian Catholic nobility. The heavier exactions of the region’s magnates in this period had led to several peasant delegations petitioning for relief from the Habsburg crown, among whose rosters appear this day’s eventual executees, Horea and Closca.

Those grievances were transmuted into rebellion, paradoxically as it might seem, by the 1780 death of Maria Theresa and the consequent ascent to sole rulership of Emperor Joseph II. Remembered as one of history’s great progressive “enlightened despots,” Joseph would surely have thought himself a friend to the peasantry with measures like rolling back serfdom and a broadened mandate for education.*

But the careless injuries his modernizing edicts visited on a precarious dominion of his polyglot empire would help beat ploughshares into swords in the regions of present-day Romania.

Imperial demands for fresh (rationalized, as the empire saw it) cash taxation had excited the countryside’s nobility and peasantry alike, since little specie flowed through their traditional agrarian arrangements, and an attempted census had met widespread resistance as a likely harbinger of the revenue man; but, these rebels from the soil still mostly hated their traditional local overlords and in due course would direct their blades and torches accordingly. Demands they presented to a besieged city on November 11 of 1784 underscore their perspective:

  1. The nobility should be abolished; each noblemen, if he could get a job in the imperial administration, should live on that income.
  2. The noble landlords should leave once for all their nobiliary estates.
  3. The noblemen should pay taxes like any common taxpayer.
  4. The noblemen’s estates should be divided among the common people

-Source

The most immediate spark to set all this tinder ablaze would be the apparent prospect of widespread military recruitment — a desideratum for the peasantry, as it offered the prospect of social mobility and an escape from the magnate’s lash — which was then apparently withdrawn or blocked, a cruel trick to put the servile class in mind of its many abuses. In early November, beginning in Zarand, thousands of peasants Romanian, Saxon, and Hungarian alike rose in arms and began putting manors and churches to the sack.

“Letters from Transylvania continue to talk of excesses committed by rebels there,” one bulletin reported.

Not content to kill the feudal lords, they set fire to the habitations of their vassals if these refuse to embrace the party of the insurgents. At Kerespaya they broke into the coffers of the royal treasury and took away all the money. The evangelical pastor of that place, after having seen the throats of his wife and children cut, was taken to the church and decapitated at the foot of the altar. Some Franciscans met the same fate, those who had taken refuge in the bell towers were strangled and thrown into the streets. But they respect the officials of the emperor, as long as they are not nobles … Major Schultz asked one of them the motives for their cruel conduct, he answered: “Do not believe, Sir, that we have joined this party without reason; we were forced into it by the most pressing necessity. Here are authentic copies of several royal orders given out for our benefit that have not been carried out. All our remonstrances in this matter have been useless, and we have been sent away without receiving justice. It is thus only to break the yoke of the most insufferable slavery that we have resolved to vindicate ourselves. We know well that our conduct will be disapproved of, but we pride ourselves at the same time that it will serve to force examination of the conduct of those who have so cruelly deceived us. At any event, we prefer death to a miserable life, and will die content so that our example might guarantee the rights of humanity to our descendants and give the state contented subjects.”

-Nuove di diverse corti e paesi, Dec. 27, 1784 (quoted by Franco Venturi)

The tragic aspirations of this rebellion — which lasted only two months, but had managed to assume a proto-national character** — were amply fulfilled once it was crushed and its three principal leaders betrayed to the government. The two who faced the horrors of the breaking-wheel, and Crisan as well, had their corpses quartered and their limbs distributed to the major thoroughfares by way of intimidation. Dozens of others of less eternal fame were also put to death during this period, to add to the innumerable killings in the course of suppressing the rebels.†


Above: detail view (click for the full image) of an 18th century print illustrating the execution. Below: another take on the scene.

But there was, too, that examination they desired forced upon the emperor, who promulgated a decree abolishing serfdom in 1785, eliminated noble control over marriages, and expanded the peasantry’s grazing rights. These reforms were at best only partially successful (the true end of serfdom still lay decades in the future) but they betokened on parchment just as the rebels had done in fire and blood the crisis striking at the ancien regime — for, alongside condemnations of the peasantry, there were during those revolutionary years also vindications of them, written in the language of the Enlightenment:

The Walachian uprising is an important lesson for sovereigns. It confirms the observation that the human spirit is mature for a general ferment, that it yearns for laws that respect equality, justice, and the order corresponding to its nature. How could it have been that under the most beneficent and mild government in the world, that of Joseph II, such an event could occur? It is because the principles of liberty, justice, and equality are woven into our hearts; they are a part of our natural destiny.

-Wilhelm Ludwig Wekhrlin

* Joseph also abolished the death penalty in 1787. (He died in 1790, and the abolition with him.)

** And even more so in hindsight; see, for instance, this 1937 tributary obelisk.

† “I will leave you to judge the excesses they committed. Among others twenty-seven peasants were arrested, whose heads were cut off by nobles in one day without any kind of procedure.” One reported decree — we hope never effected in reality — threatened to impale a random citizen of any town that gave sanctuary to the “villainous low people.” (Both nuggets from Venturi, op. cit.)

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1653: Six beheaded and one hanged for the Swiss Peasant War

3 comments July 24th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1653, seven ringleaders of Switzerland’s greatest peasant revolt were executed in Basel.


Six were decapitated (like the foreground) and one hanged (find the triangular gallows in the background).

Not widely known now outside of Switzerland, the peasant war of 1653 shook the Swiss city-states so profoundly that it was described in its own time as a revolution.

Like most peasant rebellions, it was triggered by the economy; a recovery of peacable harvests after the Thirty Years’ War ended in 1648 had staggered Swiss peasants who had grown accustomed to selling their produce abroad at a premium. When they were pressed even harder by taxes and currency devaluations inflicted by the city-states with their own budget problems, they found their breaking-point.

In February 1653, peasants of the Entlebuch Valley gathered in an illegal assembly and decided to stop tax payments to Lucern until they got some concessions.

To the chagrin of urban grandees, Entlebuch’s refusal soon began garnering sympathetic imitations among its neighbors and peasant resistance spread across the whole north, spanning the put-upon rural dominions of four cities: Lucern, Bern, Basel, and Solothurn.


(cc) image by Lupo.

Tense negotiations continued into April, but Lucern’s concessions were undone by its refusal to offer a blanket amnesty that would also cover the rebellion’s leaders. That May, with the cities still powerless to control affairs, the disaffected peasants throughout the region united in theLeague of Huttwil — named for the little town where they met. In this cross-confessional compact, Catholic and Protestant peasants made common purpose and declared themselves a sovereignty apart from the cantons. Then, the army they had raised from their number marched on both Lucern and Bern simultaneously, the threatened sieges respectively led by Christian Schybi and Niklaus Leuenberger. Bern was so unprepared for this turn of events that it had to capitulate to the peasantry’s demands, which arrangement led Lucern also to conclude a truce.

In so doing the cities had to capitulate to the peasantry’s economic demands. Had this state of affairs somehow stood, it would have forced a rewrite in the relationship between city and country throughout the Swiss confederation.

And for just that reason, the affected cities as well as nearby Zurich were raising armies to undo the nascent revolution. Within days, troops from Zurich had dealt the peasant force a crushing defeat at the Battle of Wohlenschwil, then united with a Bernese column to conclusively shatter the rebellion. Before June was out, all of Entlebuch Valley stood pacified and the rebellion’s leaders lay in dungeons. To the peasantry’s economic burdens was added a bitter levy to fund the war that had smashed them.

Several dozen peasants were executed in the ensuing weeks, most aggressively by the canton of Bern — whence derives today’s illustration.

Notwithstandng such vengeance, The Swiss were wise enough to wield the carrot along with the stick. Even as the cities re-established their political control of the countryside, they took care in the coming years to use a lighter touch in governing the peasantry for fear of stoking new disturbances; arguably, the memory and the threat of the peasant war might have checked the potential development of absolutism in Switzerland.

How’s your German? Two academic books on the Swiss Peasant War

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1381: John Ball, radical priest

1 comment July 15th, 2016 Headsman

Radical priest John Ball was hanged, drawn, and quartered on this St. Swithin’s Day in 1381 for the edification of the 14-year-old king whom he had very nearly deposed.

The wandering “hedge priest” Ball emerged out of St. Albans in the heart of the calamitous fourteenth centry spitting class leveling to rapt audiences of aggrieved peasants. He paid the price with at least three stints in prison. In 1366, an edict forbade his would-be flock from hearing his seditious theology demanding clerical poverty and (so complained the Archbishop of Canterbury) “putting about scandals concerning our own person, and those of other prelates and clergy.”*

But there was a reason that Ball’s illicit sermons could command such attention, and ordering him to shut up was mere whistling past the graveyard.

Ravaged by war and plague and heavy-handed wage suppression, England’s seething 99% broke into rebellion in June 1381.

Wat Tyler’s rebellion was one of the most spectacular risings England ever saw, and one of the first acts of peasants marching on London was to liberate Ball from ecclesiastical custody in Maidstone.

Ball preached to his rescuers at Blackheath, coining his great egalitarian slogan-couplet, “When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?”

When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.

They came breathtakingly close to accomplishing it.

For a few days that pregnant June the rebels controlled London, even putting to death the Archbishop of Canterbury and mounting his head on London Bridge — and Ball the “mad priest” stood in leadership alongside Wat Tyler and Jack Straw. Peasant rebellions are usually destined to end horribly; maybe this was one always was too, but it achieved very much more — terrifyingly much, to England’s ruling class — than previous other disturbances by the pitchfork crowd. By appearances, Wat Tyler and John Ball and the rest were within an ace of overturning England’s feudal hierarchy. Certainly they had the opportunity to slay young king Richard II, whose courage in command at this moment might have saved the crown to be taken from his descendants. During face-to-face negotiations between Richard and Wat Tyler himself, the rude peasant was murdered — and Richard acted smartly to bluff his villeins into marching away at a moment when they could easily have turned regicidal.

The beheaded movement was soon dislodged from London, and while promises of mercy (not always observed) did for the mass of rebels, those in its leadership could never hope for the same — least of all a career rabble-rouser. Ball was hunted down in hiding, and this time would be indulged no ecclesiastical detention: instead, his head replaced the Archbishop of Canterbury’s on London Bridge.

Wat Tyler’s name attaches to the rebellion, but for posterity it is the words of Ball, few as have survived for us, that describe its aims in something like its own voice.

Those words still make for a powerfully current critique in our own oligarchical age. When in 2015 a marker was unveiled commemorating the peasants’ rebellion, it was done on this anniversary of John Ball’s execution — and with a summons to equality he issued that has never yet been answered.

Things cannot go on well in England nor ever will until everything shall be in common. When there shall be neither Vassal nor Lord and all distinctions levelled.

* Ball’s radicalism also helped turn English elites against the religious reforms sought by John Wycliffe, who was still alive during the 1381 peasants’ rebellion.

** In the early 20th century, socialist priest Conrad Noel had a marker with the same words hung at Thaxted Parish Church, where it can still be seen today.

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1536: Skipper Clement, rebel

Add comment September 9th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1536, the Danish rebel Skipper Clement was put to death at Viborg.

Clement (English Wikipedia entry | Danish) was a naval officer for the Danish king Christian II.

When said heavy-handed monarch was deposed by his own uncle Frederick, Clement turned privateer … and when said deposing-uncle Frederick died in 1533, Clement entered the ensuing civil war between supporters of the still-imprisoned ex-king Christian II and those who backed Frederick’s own son Christian III. This was also a social and political war over the Reformation.

Clement went to war for his former boss, Christian II, instigating a 1534 North Jutland uprising of the Catholic peasantry that in October of that year trounced the Protestant noble army sent to suppress it at the Battle of Svenstrope Mose (Svenstrop Bog or Moor).

That battle clinched Clement’s reputation as one of the great peasant-rising leaders, and also clinched for Clement the fate that usually befalls such characters. Shortly after, Clement’s aristocratic ally cut his own deal with Christian III and abandoned the rabble to a vicious counterattack. In December 1534, General Johan Rantzau stormed the rebel strongholdof Aalborg, slaughtering two thousand peasants, reducing freeholding farmers to tenants, and bringing Clement home in chains for a grand finale.

The captured commander languished in his dungeon awaiting the conclusion of the civil war. It took a good year under siege for Rantzau to bring Copenhagen to heel, but once that city capitulated in August 1536, Clement was brought out of storage for use as a victory cigar. (Danish link)

On September 9, 1536, wearing a lead crown to mock his ambition, Clement had his head chopped off, and his remains were dismembered and set up for public display.

Danish speakers may enjoy these short audio narrations of the Svenstrope Mose and Aalborg engagements. Aalborg parents may enjoy sending their children to Skipper Clement International School.

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1648: The leaders of the Salt Riot

Add comment July 3rd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1648, the ringleaders of a short-lived rebellion over salt taxes were executed in Moscow.

Salt saker image (cc) Greg Bishop

The Salt Riot is exactly what you’d think from its name, right down to being over in a matter of weeks.

Common folk irked at a new salt tax* that made the commodity dramatically more expensive besieged tsar Alexei I at the beginning of June, soon joined by opportunistic Streltsy who hadn’t been paid in a while.

The specific target of their rage was the boyar Boris Morozov, the elder brother-in-law of the teenage monarch, and the true power behind the throne. He accordingly played the traditional role of bad cop to the tsar’s presumptive good cop.

Of course, both guys were really on the same team.

A few days of mayhem, a few boyars’ heads on pikes later, the Streltsy had been bought off and the rioters divided and quashed. Alexei avoided handing over Morozov to the vengeance of the mob, and “exiled” him to a monastery. He would return from “exile” in a few months, once everyone had chilled out and the rising could be taken with a grain of salt.


Salt Riot in Kolomenskoe, by Nikolay Nekrasov.

This passing spasm in the Russian polity left a long-lived and troublesome legacy: one of the demands of the rioters was the convocation of the Zemsky Sobor to hammer out a new legal code.

This happened to be a need for the Russian state anyway, since its rulers were governing by the haphazard issuance of countless ukases nobody could keep straight. So, 1649 saw the promulgation of the Sobornoye Ulozheniye, helpfully rationalizing the lawmaking process.

Win, and win! Except that this legislative milestone also codified serfdom in its most heavy-handed form, formally binding most Russian peasants to their estate without freedom of movement, and making this unhappy condition hereditary. The legal code, and the institution of serfdom subsisted until the 19th century.

* According to The Cambridge History of Russia, the salt tax itself had actually been abolished at the end of 1647, but “other direct taxes were tripled to compensate for the loss of revenue.”

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1381: Simon of Sudbury and Robert Hales during Wat Tyler’s peasant rebellion

4 comments June 14th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1381, a mob’s summary execution on Tower Hill of some nobby English lords marked the acme of that country’s most noteworthy peasant revolt.

The trigger for the revolt was an onerous poll tax levied to finance the realm’s escapades in the Hundred Years’ War, but as Barbara Tuchman notes,

the fundamental grievance was the bonds of villeinage and the lack of legal and political rights. Villeins could not plead in court against their lord, no one spoke for them in Parliament, they were bound by duties of servitude which they had no way to break except by forcibly obtaining a change of the rules. That was the object of the insurrection, and of the march on the capital that began from Canterbury.

Late medieval England was in the throes of economic, and therefore social transformation.

Manorial lords’ traditional power over their peasants had become untenable for a labor pool depleted by the Black Death, survivors of which found themselves consequently in-demand and suddenly blessed with leverage. As one chronicler recorded,

There was so marked a shortage of labourers and workmen of every kind in that period that more than a third of the land in the whole realm was left idle. All the labourers, skilled or unskilled, were so carried away by the spirit of revolt that neither King, nor law, nor justice, could restrain them. … The entire population, or the greater part of it, has become even more depraved… more ready to indulge in evil and sinfulness.

Rentiers put a forceful kibosh on “sinfulness” like rising wages and labor mobility, legislating backwards feudal rights and pre-plague wage levels.

Who Then Was The Gentleman?

It was a ground fertile for insurrectionary sentiment, like the class-warfare sermon of subversive Lollard preacher John Ball:

When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.

This cry for justice anticipated the Levellers by almost three centuries.

Poll Position

But these 14th century downtrodden had some rough levelling of their own in mind, and when the poll tax set spark to tinder, the conflagration spread with terrifying rapidity.

[T]here were some that desired nothing but riches and the utter destruction of the noblemen and to have London robbed and pilled; that was the principal matter of their beginning, the which they well shewed; for as soon as the Tower gate opened and that the king was issued out with his two brethren and the earl of Salisbury, the earl of Warwick, the earl of Oxford, sir Robert of Namur, the lord of Vertaing, the lord Gommegnies and divers other, then Wat Tyler, Jack Straw and John Ball and more than four hundred entered into the Tower and brake up chamber after chamber …

These guys were after, above all, John of Gaunt,* the Dick Cheney of 14th century England right down to the malevolent name and underwhelming military achievements: the throne at this time held the posterior of 14-year-old (in 1381) Richard II, and the widely reviled uncle John ran (and freely looted) the realm with a council of loathsome optimates.

London Calling

Luckily for John, he happened to be off at the Scottish frontier when the Peasants’ Revolt rolled into London; the mob settled for destroying his opulent Savoy Palace on June 13.

The next day, it rampaged through the Tower of London

… and at last found the archbishop of Canterbury, called Simon, a valiant man and a wise, and chief chancellor of England, and a little before he had said mass before the king. These gluttons took him and strake off his head, and also they beheaded the lord of Saint John’s and a friar minor, master in medicine, pertaining to the duke of Lancaster, they slew him in despite of his master, and a sergeant at arms called John Leg; and these four heads were set on four long spears and they made them to be borne before them through the streets of London and at last set them a-high on London bridge, as though they had been traitors to the king and to the realm.

Simon’s severed, and incredibly well-preserved, skull has been resident in a cubby at St. Gregory’s Church of Sudbury for lo these six hundred years. It made news recently when it was retrieved for a CT scan to (among other things) reconstruct Simon’s real-life appearance.

Right, these executed-today guys.

Simon of Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor of England, and Robert Hailes, Lord High Treasurer, neatly concentrated in their persons the political, financial, and religious power exercised by “the unjust oppression of naughty men.”

Still better, they were the advisors most directly connected to the poll tax. As a reward, they got their polls axed.

This was no mere provincial riot. A lower-class revolt had massed an overwhelming force in the very capital of the kingdom, with most of the main government ministers trapped therein — holed up and inconclusively debating one another about how to get out of this jam. And the movement aimed itself at the conquest of power: Tuchman (citing Benedictine chronicler Thomas Walsingham) says that rebel leader Wat Tyler was anticipated that “in four days’ time all the laws of England would be issuing from his mouth.”


Hey, it’s Baldrick!

In the end, the last thing between history and King Wat — and, if you’re willing to dream an anachronistic dream, a Commune of London — was the peasantry’s foolhardy reverence for the person of the pimply king.

Foreshadowing a later era’s “if only the tsar knew” naivete, the rebels who thirsted for the blood of Richard’s advisors fancied the king their champion. Young and handsome; regal; charismatic; and plausibly not implicated in the villeins’ grievances … you can understand why they thought that. But disarmed thereby of the ruthlessness necessary to strike him, Wat Tyler’s band instead went the way of the typical peasant rising.

Richard the Lionheart

The king’s own nerves were steel in this moment, when a lesser adolescent would have quailed from the perilous task of safeguarding the divinely ordained oligarchy with his own person. Richard was, at this point, still in his minority: other men took the country’s decisions in their own hands. Richard would one day have to fight them for his own kingly rights; but, on the evidence of this crisis, he had already grown up, and fast.

Perhaps reasoning that royalty is the best shroud, Richard invited the rebels out to Smithfield the very next day, June 15. When the royal teenager was in personal parley with Tyler, the king’s buddy William Walworth got into a scrape with the peasant and

gave him a deep cut on the neck, and then a great cut on the head. And during this scuffle one of the King’s household drew his sword, and ran Watt two or three times through the body, mortally wounding him. And he spurred his horse, crying to the commons to avenge him, and the horse carried him some four score paces, and then he fell to the ground half dead. …

when the commons saw that their chieftain, Watt Tyler, was dead in such a manner, they fell to the ground there among the wheat, like beaten men, imploring the King for mercy for their misdeeds.

(This source says that Tyler was retrieved from hospital for a summary execution of his own that same day. Others, such as Froissart, indicate that he died straightway from the wounds he suffered in the fray.)

Brazenly wielding the dread sovereign power over the minds of his subjects, Richard braved death by riding unprotected towards their lines, styling himself their “captain,” commanding their obedience. Peasant archers and pikemen who on that day might have turned English history on its head instead lowered their weapons and submitted themselves.

Though the ensuing bloodbath was a bit less wholesale than the one attending France’s recent Jacquerie, it went rough for the leaders, and concessions the king had made the rank and file vanished along with the danger to his crown. “Villeins ye are,” he would later tell a delegation of petitioners imploring him to effect his pledge to abolish serfdom, “and villeins ye shall remain.”

* John of Gaunt also kind of got the last laugh out of those tumultuous years: though John brokered compromises between the king and his rival nobles, John’s son was one of those rival nobles. After dad’s death, that young man overthrew Richard and established the Lancastrian dynasty as King Henry IV.

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1671: Stenka Razin, Cossack rebel

2 comments June 6th, 2010 Headsman

On this date* in 1671, famed rebel Stepan (Stenka) Razin was publicly butchered in Moscow.


On that day, following four days of torture, he was led to an executioner’s scaffold in Red Square in the company of his younger brother, Frol. The list of Razin’s crimes and then his sentence were read out to him. The punishment was to be “an evil death befitting the wicked — by quartering.” According to eyewitness accounts, Razin then crossed himself and submitted to the executioner. Normally, death by quartering requires that the executioner first chop off the right arm of the convicted man at the elbow, then his left leg at the knee, then the left arm at the elbow, then the right leg at the knee, ending the whole gruesome process by decapitation. In the case of Razin, the executioner made only the first two cuts when, for some reason — perhaps for fear of Razin’s power over the assembled multitude — he was told to end it all and chop off the head. To complete the sentence, the executioner then went back and severed the remaining limbs of the already headless Razin. The limbs and the severed head were taken to Bolotnaia ploshchad’ across the Moscow River and displayed on spikes. The body was thrown to the dogs. Frol, who was supposed to be executed in a similar manner, began screaming his willingness to cooperate with the authorities midway through his brother’s execution. He was led back to prison, interrogated further, and executed on 26 May 1676.

-Playing Robin Hood: The Legend as Performance in Five Centuries

Stenka Razin’s unpleasant end came with the consolation of a ticket to immortality as Russia’s go-to folklore bandit.

In life, Razin led the most renowned internal rising against the Romanovs, lasting from 1667 to 1671.

Marshaling the underclasses (literally, the “naked ones”: the Cossacks had class issues) in the semi-lawless southern reaches of the realm, Razin segued smoothly from from a career of brigandage into suzerainty over a quasi-state around the Volga with the help of a sympathetic peasant uprising.


Stepan Razin on the Volga (1918), by Boris Kustodiev.
Throw back a frosty glass of Stepan Razin beer, brewed in St. Petersburg since 1795.

Razin’s revolt had scope and duration enough to trounce a Persian expedition against him. He bestrode the Volga — sailed the Caspian — raided foreign lands — established a Cossack republic.

It was an impressive run while it lasted. But like most peasant revolts, it was ultimately on the receiving end of the trouncing.

Captured and hailed to Moscow for his demonstrative end, Razin’s story lives strong in Russian culture and folklore even though his body ended up in bits and pieces.

Razin is the subject, for instance, of the first Russian feature film, a 1908 silent.

According to the Russian Wikipedia, Razin was even the subject of the first foreign dissertation about a Russian figure.

During the late 19th century’s reactionary period, Boris Glazunov put Razin’s capture to symphony.

In the Soviet era, poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko wrote about Razin’s execution, and so did Dmitri Shostakovich.

Best-recognized and most universally beloved is the folk tune “Ponizovaya Volnitsa”, which celebrates Stenka and the mighty waterway that bore him to posterity, the Volga.

* June 6, 1671 per the Julian calendar. It was June 16 in those countries that had already adopted the Gregorian calendar.

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1525: Count Ludwig von Helfenstein

1 comment April 16th, 2010 Melabesq

At the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth centuries, conditions for peasants in what is now southern and central Germany were in decline. The cost of goods continued to increase while the ruling aristocracy, who owned the land rented by peasants to grow crops, declined to reduce rents or raise wages

In addition, the territorial sovereigns attempted to increase their income to accommodate the increase in prices by levying additional taxes and tithes on, and increase other obligations owed by, the peasants and serfs under their control.

Simultaneously, changes in the economic market due to increased international trade and industry affected the structure of society, putting into conflict the interests of the aristocracy and the growing merchant class, and giving rise to burghers and industrial workers. Growing awareness of the Reformation and changes in commerce and the social structure also put ecclesiastical society and its lifestyle into conflict with secular interests.

In 1524, a petition known as the Twelve Articles of the Black Forest was presented to the Holy Roman Emperor.

The majority of the Twelve Articles asked for relief from economic hardships, such as the cattle tithes and death tax, and for the preservation of “common” land for use by the peasants. The Emperor ignored the petition, which then became the definitive set of grievances of the lower class. The movement quickly splintered into three factions: Catholics who resisted any challenge to the Church’s supremacy; burghers and princes seeking autonomy from the Church through reforms proposed by Luther; and the lower classes.

Violence soon errupted, as these factions took up arms to preserve, or better, their way of life in an uprising known as the Peasant’s War (1524-1525).

Not surprisingly, sources differ on why the conflict came to a head when it did: the Catholic church blamed the revolting Lutherans; the peasants blamed the aristocracy; and the aristocrats blamed the church. Regardless of the reason, Count von Helfenstein was not in a favorable position.

Count Ludwig von Helfenstein fought against the peasants during this conflict. Occupying the town of Weinsberg on the orders of the Archduke, von Helfenstein freely slew peasants either when discovered in small bands or when they sought admission to the town.

On April 16, in revenge for these killings, an attack led by Florian Geyer and Jacklein Rohrbach (German link) and under the command of George Metzler captured the town and von Helfenstein.

Many aristocrats and knights were killed outright during the fight. Von Helfenstein, however, was forced by vengeful peasants to run (while his wife and child watched) a double gantlet of men with spears drawn.


Helfenstein is led to his messy fate, while his kneeling wife entreats in vain, in this 1844 painting by Gustav Metz. (More, in German.)

Like most peasant revolts, however, it got its licks in and then got crushed. The princes, connected to the Empire, were able to amass greater control over other nobility, while feudalism’s decline was accelerated in favor of commercialism and trade.

(See The Peasants War in Germany, 1525-152, by Ernest Belfort Bax for a florid description of Helfenstein’s end.)

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1525: Thomas Müntzer, prophet of the Peasants’ War

9 comments May 27th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1525, radical religious reformer and Peasants’ War leader Thomas Müntzer lost his head in the town of Mühlhausen.

Müntzer, a university-educated theologian, caught the whiff of Lutheranism in the Zeitgeist; following Luther’s call to study the Biblical text directly without the intervention of the doctors of Rome, Müntzer swiftly discerned a heavenly admonition to set to rights the many wrongs of an unjust world.

Luther had not had in mind dispossessing the haves, particularly not when imperial electors defended him from the Pope’s inquisitors.

When in 1517 opposition against the dogmas and the organisation of the Catholic church was first raised by Luther, it still had no definite character. Not exceeding the demands of the earlier middle-class heresy, it did not exclude any trend of opinion which went further. It could not do so because the first moment of the struggle demanded that all opposing elements be united, … Luther’s sturdy peasant nature asserted itself in the stormiest fashion in the first period of his activities. “If the raging madness [of the Roman churchmen] were to continue, it seems to me no better counsel and remedy could be found against it than that kings and princes apply force, arm themselves, attack those evil people who have poisoned the entire world, and once and for all make an end to this game, with arms, not with words. If thieves are being punished with swords, murderers with ropes, and heretics with fire, why do we not seize, with arms in hand, all those evil teachers of perdition, those popes, bishops, cardinals, and the entire crew of Roman Sodom? Why do we not wash our hands in their blood?”

This revolutionary ardour did not last long. The lightning thrust by Luther caused a conflagration. A movement started among the entire German people. In his appeals against the clergy, in his preaching of Christian freedom, peasants and plebeians perceived the signal for insurrection. Likewise, the moderate middle-class and a large section of the lower nobility joined him, and even princes were drawn into the torrent. While the former believed the day had come in which to wreak vengeance upon all their oppressors, the latter only wished to break the power of the clergy, the dependence upon Rome, the Catholic hierarchy, and to enrich themselves through the confiscation of church property. The parties became separated from each other, and each found a different spokesman. Luther had to choose between the two. Luther, the protégé of the Elector of Saxony, the respected professor of Wittenberg who had become powerful and famous overnight, the great man who was surrounded by a coterie of servile creatures and flatterers, did not hesitate a moment. He dropped the popular elements of the movement, and joined the train of the middle-class, the nobility and the princes. Appeals to war of extermination against Rome were heard no more. Luther was now preaching peaceful progress and passive resistance.

Muntzer became adopted into the Marxist pantheon sufficiently to grace East Germany’s five-mark bill.

That’s Engels in The Peasant War in Germany, revisiting the theological conflicts at the birth of the Protestant Reformation from the perspective of 19th century Marxism.

Projecting backwards, Engels saw in Müntzer a distant forerunner of their own day’s class conflicts — the man whose language was Biblical and apocalyptic but whose subject matter was the peasantry’s demand for material justice.

[Luther] says in his booklet on commerce that the princes should make common cause with thieves and robbers. But in this same writing he is silent about the source of all theft … Behold, the basic source of usury, theft, and robbery is our lords and princes, who take all creatures for their private property. The fish in the water, the birds in the air, the animals of the arth must all be their property, Isaiah 5[:8]. And then they let God’s commandment go forth among the poor and they say, “God has commanded, ‘Thou shalt not steal’.” But this commandment does not apply to them since they oppress all men — the poor peasant, the artisan, and all who live are flayed and sheared, Micah 3[:2f]. But, as soon as anyone steals the smallest thing, he must hang. And to this Doctor Liar says, “Amen.” The lords themselves are responsible for making the poor people their enemy. They do not want to remove the cause of insurrection, so how, in the long run, can things improve? I say this openly, so Luther asserts I must be rebellious. So be it!*

In this detail view of East German artist Werner Tübke’s weird panorama of the Battle of Frankenhausen, a crestfallen Müntzer realizes divine aid is not forthcoming.

Müntzer embraced the cause of a massive peasant revolt in central Europe in 1524-25. Luther said God wanted them “knocked to pieces, strangled and stabbed, secretly and openly, by everybody who can do it, just as one must kill a mad dog!”

So it was with Müntzer, who was captured in the decisive Battle of Frankenhausen, tortured into recanting his heretical doctrines,** and beheaded.

Whether one thinks of politics leading Müntzer’s theology or theology leading his politics† or some sort of dialectic between them, we see Müntzer latterly through a glass darkly — the wasted root of a lost Reformation.

* From a 1524 pamphlet vituperatively entitled “Highly provoked defense and answer to the spiritless, soft-living flesh at Wittenberg, who has most lamentably befouled pitiable Christianity in a perverted way by his theft of holy Scripture,” reprinted in Revelation and Revolution.

** Müntzer’s theology included rejection of infant baptism, which ranks him as an early anabaptist.

† “I have done nothing but say that a Christian should not so wretchedly sacrifice someone else on the butcher’s table. And if the political bigwigs do not cease to do so, the government should be taken from them. Whenever I have seriously proclaimed this to Christendom, it either refused to act or was too scared to do so. What more shall I do? Should I perhaps be silent, like a dumb dog? Why should I then make a living off the altar?”

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