1627: Matthäus Ulicky, for communion

Add comment September 11th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1627, Matthäus Ulicky had his right hand chopped off, and then his head, in Caslav, Bohemia (present-day Czech Republic).

Ulicky and his offending extremity were casualties of the centuries-old struggle for reformation in Bohemia, and more specifically of the 1620s triumph of Catholic arms and the consequent promulgation of Habsburg edicts enforcing orthodoxy in ecclesiastical doctrine and practice.

One of the chief fault lines in the generations’ religious strife* had been Rome’s practice — never dictated in Scripture — to limit Holy Communion for the laity to

  1. Bread only, and not both bread and wine; and,
  2. Bread only when distributed by a priest, and not by another lay congregant.

Perhaps this point reads in retrospect like a minor ritualistic difference, but for disputants upholding or breaking the priestly domination over Christ’s body and blood denoted a question of power, of the intrinsic nature of Christianity. Little surprise that the Catholic order of the 1620s barred the reformist practice of permitting communion of both types, distributed by hands unburdened with holy orders.

Ulicky and his right hand broke that prohibition, delivering both bread and wine from his own unworthy lay deacon’s hands. He initially escaped Bohemia, leaving a reformist manifesto in his wake, but was arrested when he attempted to return.

* Both the Bohemian Hussite movement and the later Lutheran Reformation opposed Catholic doctrine restricting communion to the control of ordained priests.

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1738: Baruch Leibov and Alexander Voznitsyn, Jew and convert

Add comment July 15th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1738, the Jewish proselytizer Baruch Leibov was publicly burned in St. Petersburg along with a convert, retired Russian naval officer Alexander Voznitsyn. Most of the linked pages in this post are in Russian.

The nobleman Voznitsyn met the Smolensk merchant Leibov in Moscow and the two became friends and spiritual interlocutors. In 1737, Voznitsyn’s wife denounced him for Judaizing as she began to notice that he’d stopped wearing a cross, would pray facing the wall instead of Orthodox icons, and avoided eating certain foods. It emerged too that his Christian confessor had not heard from him in a very long time, and that he had ordered peasants on his estate to destroy some icons.

Both men denied the charges at first, but Voznitsyn’s genitalia confessed his apostasy and after an application of torture, so did Voznitsyn’s mouth.

The subsequent punishment was remarkably harsh even in contemporaries’ eyes — via the curious insistence of the Empress Anna upon severity.

A rarely-used edict from the pre-Petrine 17th century was invoked against Voznitsyn for blaspheming; in the case of Leibov, it was necessary in order to fit him into the statute to construe his having “seduced” Voznitsyn into the Abrahamic faith during the two men’s religious bull sessions. Since Voznitsyn was a seasoned and educated man with a known predilection for spiritual seeking, this finding negated the entire qualifier; if Voznitsyn was “lured” or “deceived” into Judaizing then it was officially impossible for anyone to Judaize absent deception.

But in practice, it was likely the convert’s exceptional qualities that attracted such a demonstrative punishment — “so that such ungodly deeds are discontinued, and such a blasphemer as Voznitsyn and converter to Judaism as Boruch do not dare to deceive others: for the sake of such blasphemous guilt … both to be executed and burned.”

They died together before a vast concourse of gawkers near St. Petersburg’s Admiralty building.

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Feast Day of St. Eupsychius, anti-Apostate

3 comments April 9th, 2017 Headsman

April 9 is the (Roman) feast date of the minor Cappadocian saint Eupsychius.

As martyr to the hated-of-Christians pagan throwback emperor Julian the Apostate, Eupsychius could perhaps be accounted an ironical late victim of the fratricidal family politics that consumed the heirs of the great Christianizer Constantine the Great.

When Constantine kicked off in 337, he left three sons of a disgraced empress whom he optimistically hoped would share rulership. What happened instead was that, inside of a generation, practically the entire Constantinian line laid one another in the earth by dint of bloodthirsty dynastic rivalries, leaving only two men standing.

And it so happened that those two kinsmen faced one another across late antiquity’s gaping spiritual chasm: one a Christian, the other a pagan.

Constantius was the surviving son of Constantine, and regardless his Christian affiliation had secured his initial control of his father’s new eastern capital by unsentimentally butchering the bulk of his extended family including his own uncle Julius Constantius, and Julius’s firstborn son. Two other sons of Julius Constantine, too young for the abbatoir, escaped their brother’s fate and so our future Julian the Apostate grew up under a perpetually dancing Damoclean sword, a bookish philosophizing type enchanted by classical learning — so enchanted that he would eventually, and at first very quietly, apostatize from his substantial Christian education and adhere instead to the old gods.

In the fullness of time, the remainder of Constantius’s family succumbed to various civil wars — including Julian’s only surviving brother, Gallus, executed for treachery in 354 in an incident that could very well have claimed Julian as well if for no other reason than proximity. A prolific writer, Julian would later recall that “if some God, to inure my safety, had not ingratiated me with his [Constantius’s] beautiful and excellent wife, Eusebia, I could not have escaped his resentment.” Perhaps the childless Constantius could foresee well enough that, resentment or no, his last relation would be required for imperial policy soon enough.

And indeed the very next year, having spent many months mulling over whether to kill him, Constantius instead elevated Julius as his junior co-emperor. The young scholar soon distinguished himself as a surprisingly competent leader and battlefield commander, pacifying Germania and Gaul before, almost inevitably, the two emperors turned on one another in civil war. Julian must have been well-favored of goddess Fortuna whom he will defend in this post, for he won that war before the first spear was chucked when Constantius took ill and died as the rivals steered their armies towards one another.

So suddenly, 40 years after the empire had officially gone Christian, it had a pagan ruler — the last pagan ruler it would ever know.

Julian was an intelligent and idealistic young man. Taking power before the age of 30, he set a bold course to massively remake the empire in the image of its most admirable anachronisms: living modestly, paring the bureaucracy, debating Senators as their equal instead of their overlord, and — the attempted rollback that would mark his nickname and his reputation — restoring a pre-Christian cosmology to philosophical preeminence.

A few books about Julian the Apostate

This could have been Julian the Apostate‘s life’s work, twenty or thirty of forty years dislodging Christianity from the official foothold it had only recently attained and creating the groundwork for a pagan-dominated middle ages: fine grist for speculative alternative history, since Julian actually died in 363 in war against the Persians.

Having learned from the failure of previous rulers’ persecutions, he deployed instead the devious and modern mechanic of liberal religious toleration, starving the “Galileans” of the galvanizing force of either state backing or state oppression while perhaps setting their orthodox edifice up to splinter over time as various heretical movements began freely venting their rival doctrines on one another.


Julian the Apostate presiding at a conference of sectarians, by Edward Armitage (1875).

His uniqueness and his erudition have made him an attractive character for modern interlocutors, especially those of the Christ-skeptic variety; Gore Vidal sympathetically centered Julian in an engrossing historical novel, and Gibbon warmly admired him:

The Christians, who had now possessed above forty years the civil and ecclesiastical government of the empire, had contracted the insolent vices of prosperity, and the habit of believing that the saints alone were entitled to reign over the earth. As soon as the enmity of Julian deprived the clergy of the privileges which had been conferred by the favour of Constantine, they complained of the most cruel oppression; and the free toleration of idolaters and heretics was a subject of grief and scandal to the orthodox party. The acts of violence, which were no longer countenanced by the magistrates, were still committed by the zeal of the people. At Pessinus the altar of Cybele was overturned almost in the presence of the emperor, and in the city of Caesarea, in Cappadocia, the temple of Fortune, the sole place of worship which had been left to the Pagans, was destroyed by the rage of a popular tumult. On these occasions, a Prince who felt for the honour of the gods was not disposed to interrupt the course of justice; and his mind was still more deeply exasperated when he found that the fanatics, who had deserved and suffered the punishment of incendiaries, were rewarded with the honours of martyrdom.

It is the last named of these incidents that finally brings us round to our date’s principal.

Like Julian himself, St. Eupsychius had no way of knowing that the new, old order would be a transient epoch. In his zeal to resist a rejuvenated paganism, Eupsychius led a riotous sack of a temple to Fortuna (Tyche). The church historian Sozomen gives us the primary-est historical record, and although it dates to several decades after Eupsychius’s martyrdom we can’t be picky when it comes to antiquity.

It is said that at this time were martyred Basilius, a presbyter of the church of Ancyra, and Eupsychius, a nobleman of Caesarea in Cappadocia, newly wed and in a manner of speaking still a bridegroom. As regards Eupsychius, I conjecture that he was executed because of the temple of Tyche, then destroyed, on account of which destruction, as has been said above, all citizens of Caesarea collectively experienced the emperor’s wrath, while those who personally took part in it were punished, some with death, some with banishment.

Later iterations would expand predictably on Eupsychius’s sufferings — tortures, miracle-making, blood and milk springing from his wound, and even eventually eliding the precipitating riot or arson — all of which conspires to pull a discernibly historical figure behind the dark glass of hagiography.*

Little more than a year later, Julian suffered a mortal wound in battle against the Sassanids. The Constantinian dynasty died with Julian, as did his signature project of Apostasy — a sudden volte-face of that fickle Fortuna whose memory and reputation would persist well beyond the twilight of paganism.

The History of Rome podcast deals with Julian in episodes 143, 144, 145, and 146.

* See L.G. Westerink, “The Two Faces of St. Eupsychius,” Harvard Ukrainian Studies, Vol. 7, Okeanos: Essays presented to Ihor Shevchenko on his Sixtieth Birthday by his Colleagues and Students (1983).

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1549: The Clyst Heath massacre, during the Prayer Book Rebellion

1 comment August 5th, 2016 Headsman

This date in 1549 was disgraced in England by one of the bloodiest battlefield atrocities in that realm’s history: the Clyst Heath massacre.

On Whitsunday of that year, two-plus years after the Catholic-except-for-the-Pope king Henry VIII had taken to the grave his restraining orthodoxy, the late king’s reformist archbishop Thomas Cranmer introduced to English churches his magnum opus: the Book of Common Prayer.

Rudely replacing the hodgepodge of old services consecrated by tradition, not to mention the Latin tongue in which they were conducted, with the novel vernacular composition of Anne Boleyn‘s house vicar was not wildly popular in the pews — nowhere less so than in Britain’s western extrusion of Devon and Cornwall, which were as cantankerous as they were Catholic.

Peasants at church that Sunday in those provinces were gobsmacked by the alien English service they heard, and disturbances began almost immediately.

“We wyll have the masse in Latten, as was before,” congregants in the Devon village of Sampford Courtenay petitioned their priest on Whitmonday.

We wyll have … images set up again in every church, and all other ancient olde Ceremonyes used heretofore, by our mother the holy Church.

We wyll not receyve the newe servyce because it is but lyke a Christmas game, but we wyll have oure old service of Mattens, masse, Evensong and procession in Latten as it was before.

When authorities showed up to enforce the Christmas games, there was a riot that saw someone run through with a pitchfork on the steps of the church. The Prayer Book Rebellion was on.

That summer of 1549, Common Prayer resisters in Devon and Cornwall linked up in a rude army, one with no chance at all against the larger and better-armed crown force under Lord Russell — which was reinforced as if to prove the rebels’ fears of foreign doctrinal innovations by Italian arquebusiers and German landsnecht mercenaries.*

At dawn on August 4, rebels mounted an unsuccessful attack on Lord Russell’s encampment near a windmill on Woodbury Common. We turn here to the open-source The Western Rebellion of 1549:

A fierce combat ensued, raging hottest near the windmill. Their first attack repulsed, the rebels renewed their efforts again and again, but —

notwithstanding they were of very stout stomachs and very valiantly did stand to their tackles, yet in the end they were overthrown and the most part of them slain. (Hooker)

Lord Russell’s trained men and his horsemen, at last of real service in the open field, again proved conquerors, though not without loss, for “to the strength, force, and resolution of these commons (the archers especially)” witness was borne by some that felt them. At last the insurgents were forced back on Clyst St. Mary, leaving behind many comrades either dead, dying, or prisoners.

As the insurgents retired from the hill leaving the Royal troops victorious, orders were issued for the assembly to unite in prayer and praise for the God-given victory, and the rough moor became the setting for a strange scene.

Clustering in their companies, their weapons still red with the blood of their opponents, was the mixed multitude: gentlemen with their servants and tenants levied in the surrounding country, recently devout adherents of the faith they were now called upon to exterminate: dark-browed mercenaries, still nominally papists, who later sought absolution for fighting on the behalf of heretics; heavy-jowled “almayns,” countrymen of Luther, whose protestantism varied much from the newly founded English forms; all these surrounded by the dead and dying of the recent fight.

The rebels fell back to Clyst Heath, and on the 5th, Russell’s force again advanced upon them, overcoming only with difficulty a stubborn resistance at the village of Clyst St. Mary. Though victorious in each instance, Russell’s men had had two hard days’ fighting and were sore conscious that they were invaders in hostile country. They had faced potshots from the cover of hedge rows, forays from the rear at their baggage train, and that dawn attack at the windmill. And the two days’ fighting had put some 900 prisoners in their hands.

As twilight fell on August 5, Lord Russell began thinking along the lines of Henry V at Agincourt — that these prisoners were at best an encumbrance for a troop already managing a difficult slog, and at worst a menace who might start butchering their guards should one of these rebel raids scramble his army.

And so Russell issued the expedient, conscience-curdling order.

Ere darkness fell the cries for mercy and the screams of those being murdered rang through the fields and lanes, as each soldier butchered his victim — nor age nor youth was regarded, and the shambles thus created made a terrible blot upon the scutcheon of the Royal forces.

The next day saw the Battle of Clyst Heath, at which the Cornish — having heard of the previous night’s outrage — fought furiously to the last man in a hopeless, savage affray that all but broke the rebellion. By August 16, Russell destroyed their cause for good … back where it all started, at the Battle of Sampford Courtenay. Reprisal raids continued well after the truculent country had been pacified, and some rebel leaders were only hunted down for execution months later.

* England had scads of continental soldiers of fortune knocking about at this moment because it had been hiring to whale on Scotland.

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1849: Quddus

Add comment May 16th, 2016 Headsman

On the Baha’i calendar, this date in 1849 marked the martyrdom of Quddus.

The 18th and last of the “Letters of the Living” comprising the original disciples of the the faith’s founding prophet the Bab, Quddus was a charismatic young mullah of whom it was said that “whoever was intimately associated with him was seized with an insatiable admiration for the charm of the youth.” Denis MacEoin even argues that Quddus’s preaching verged on asserting divinity, and he might have been an incipient rival to the Bab himself for leadership of the new religion.

Under either leader the movement was officially excommunicate to the ulama, and its heretical proselytizing consequently generated no shortage of martyr-making backlash. The backlash in question for this post began with an anti-Baha’i riot in the Mazandaran city of Barfurush (today, Babol) which drove a few hundred adherents to the nearby Shrine of Shaykh Tabarsi where they took refuge behind ad hoc defensive fortifications.

The Persians’ ensuing besiegement of this redoubt constitutes the Battle of Fort Tabarsi — and if the designation sounds a bit exalted for mob control it was dearly earned by the surprising (and to Persia, embarrassing) Baha’i resilience. Under Quddus’s leadership the makeshift fort held out for seven months. Half of those original 18 “Letters of the Living” disciples would die in the engagement — the largest upheaval during those formative years.

At last, having finally been reduced to near-starvation by the encirclement, the Baha’i defenders surrendered on the guarantee of safe passage — a guarantee that was immediately violated, with most of the former “garrison” massacred on the spot on May 10.

Quddus was preserved for special treatment in Barfurush several days later: not judicial execution, but simply handing over to an angry rabble who tore him apart.

The Bab, already imprisoned pending the passion he would suffer the following year, was said to be so devastated at learning of Quddus’s fate that he could scarcely write any longer: “the deep grief which he felt had stilled the voice of revelation and silenced His pen. How deeply He mourned His loss! What cries of anguish He must have uttered as the tale of the siege, the untold sufferings, the shameless betrayal, and the wholesale massacre of the companions of Shaykh Tabarsi reached His ears and was unfolded before His eyes!” (Source)

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1619: Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, laandsadvocaat

1 comment May 13th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1619, Dutch stadtholder Maurice of Orange beheaded his political and religious rival, jurist Johan van Oldenbarnevelt.

Both men had in their day been instrumental to winning the independence (de facto, if not yet de jure) that the Low Countries were already enjoying: laandsadvocaat van Oldenbarnevelt as the commanding political personality holding together the potentially fractious provinces in the 1580s and 1590s; stadtholder Maurice as the great general* of those provinces, whose sword-arm in the 1590s and 1600s more or less staked out the borders of the present-day Netherlands.

Thanks to their good offices, the once-desperate Dutch Revolt had triumphed in all but name, and in the 1610s paused to savor the fruits of victory during the Twelve Years’ Truce.**

Increasingly after 1600, the two developed a rivalry that was both personal, and political, and religious — for in their prominence they also became the chief exponents of the neighborhood schism, van Oldenbarnevelt championing the Remonstrants or Arminians (they remonstrated against some Calvinist doctrines) and Maurice upholding the orthodox Counter-Remonstrants or Gomarist side. The conflict was no joke; the States of Holland at van Oldenbarnevelt’s urging went so far as to hire its own mercenary army, knowing that it could not trust the national army commanded by the Counter-Remonstrant William. William secured the support of the States-General to forcibly disband this rival militia in July 1618† — and from that point until his death in 1625, William was the strongman in the Low Countries.

And van Oldenbarnevelt, well — he got the kangaroo court. See?


Detail view (click for the full image) of Satire on the trial of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, by Cornelis Saftleven (1663). Saftleven liked painting animals.

Tried by a special (dubiously legal) court comprised of enemies, the grizzled pol was condemned to death as a traitor. On May 13, the day he went to the block at the Binnenhof in The Hague, his home province the States of Holland saluted him as “a man of great business, activity, memory and wisdom — yes, extra-ordinary in every respect.”

And it added a passage from Corinthians:

Die staet siet toe dat hij niet en valle

He who stands, let him take care that he does not fall


Detail view (click for the full image) of a 17th century engraving of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt’s beheading.

Van Oldenbarnevelt’s son Reinier, lord of Groeneveld was beheaded in 1623 for conspiring to assassinate Maurice in revenge for his father’s execution.

* Maurice of Orange was recognized in his time as perhaps Europe’s greatest and most innovative commander. His introduction of infantry volley fire and highly disciplined drill regimens revolutionized the battlefield — and made the Dutch very difficult for their Spanish masters to handle.

The Indian Ocean island-nation Mauritius, discovered by Dutch explorers in 1598, was named for him.

** Posterity has the luxury of hindsight knowledge that although war would resume for the Low Countries in 1621, the peace of Westphalia would secure an independent Netherlands. However, already during the Twelve Years’ Truce the place was acting as an independent country, and some other states formally recognized it as such.

† One of van Oldenbarnevelt’s supporters was international law pioneer Hugo Grotius. Grotius was clapped in prison with van Oldenbarnevelt’s fall in 1618; he famously escaped this dungeon in 1621 by hiding in a chest of books and lived out his scribbling days in France.

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1688: James Renwick, to end the Killing Time

Add comment February 17th, 2016 Headsman

Though none of the crowd that thronged Edinburgh’s Grassmarket this day in 1688 could know it, that date’s execution of minister James Renwick would make an end to the Killing Time, the great 1680s persecutions that scattered martyrs’ bones across Highland and Lowland.

Renwick, at any rate, was the last of many Covenanters who submitted to the public executioner; only a few months yet remained when officers in the field were empowered to force an oath of abjuration upon suspected dissidents, on pain of summary death in the field. By year’s end, the absolutist Catholic King James II — with whose brother and predecessor the movement had such a tortured history — fled to exile as the Glorious Revolution brought the Protestant William of Orange to power: royal recognition of Scottish Presbyterianism ensued.*


Monument to Renwick at his native Moniaive. (cc) image by Scott Hill.

The son of a village weaver, Renwick manifested a martyr’s uncommon zeal for the faith early in life and matriculated at the University of Edinburgh. There in 1681 he witnessed the hanging of Covenanter preacher Donald Cargill. Here, muses the hagiography, “the mantle of Elijah fell upon young Elisha.”

After studying — and ordination — abroad in the Netherlands Renwick returned to his native soil in 1683. He managed some five years of secret ministering in hidden homes and conventicles, and all the while the law sought him ever closer. By the time it finally hunted him to ground in 1688, so many of the faith’s august champions had already taken their martyrs’ crowns that at age 25** Renwick was among the biggest game remaining.

How often cowled on ghostly moors by torchlight had the young reverend rehearsed the steadfast refusal he might one day deliver to his persecutors? Had he prayed that the weakness of flesh would not betray his spirit with an unbecoming attachment to his own life? “I cannot own this usurper as the lawful king, seeing both by the word of God such an one is incapable to bear rule, and likewise by the ancient laws of the kingdom which admit none to the crown of Scotland until he swear to defend the Protestant religion, which a man of his profession cannot do,” he declared to his captors when pressed for the formula of abjuration.

Renwick passed this test but little could even he have imagined how speedily would be fulfilled his gallows prayer:

Lord, I die in the faith that Thou wilt not leave Scotland, but that Thou wilt make the blood of Thy witnesses the seed of Thy church, and return again and be glorious in our land. And now, Lord, I am ready.


Condemned Covenanters on Their Way to Execution in the West Bow, Edinburgh. Artist unknown. (Source)

James Renwick has enjoyed tender biographical treatment from posterity; see here and here for some longer-form examples.

* While good news for the Presbyterians, this put many an Episcopal and Catholic in a tight spot of their own, setting up decades of bloody tragedy for Jacobite loyalists … but this is a subject for other posts.

** The captain who finally caught Renwick is supposed to have exclaimed at seeing his youth, “Is this the boy Renwick that the nation has been so much troubled with?” The outlaw minister turned 26 two days before his execution.

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1550: Four Anabaptist martyrs at Lier

Add comment January 31st, 2016 Headsman

The Martyrs Mirror hagiography of Reformation martyrs offers us these four stalwart subjects of the Habsburgs’ Low Countries patrimony:

On the last of January, 1550, there were offered up for the faith, at Lier, in Brabant, four pious Christians, named Govert, Gillis, Mariken and Anneken, who, as sheep for the slaughter, had been apprehended without violence. When they were brought before the council, and questioned concerning their faith, they made a frank and unfeigned confession of it. The bailiff then said, “You stand here to defend yourselves?”

Govert replied, “As regards my faith, I have freely confessed it, and shall turn to no other; though it cost my life, I will adhere to it.”

Forthwith the imperial edict* was read to them, and the bailiff asked them whether they understood its contents.

Govert said, “God has commanded us through Christ, as is recorded in the sixteenth chapter of Mark, that all who believe and are baptized shall be saved, and that those who do not believe shall be damned; but the emperor, in his blind judgment, has commanded that whoever is baptized upon his faith, shall be put to death without mercy. These two commands militate against each other; one of the two we must forsake; but everyone ought to know that we must keep the command of God; for though Satan teaches that we are heretics, yet we do not act contrary to the Word of God.”

When they were led to the tribunal, Govert said to the priests, “Take off your long robes, put on sack cloth, put ashes on your heads, and repent, like those of Nineveh.”

In the court the bailiff asked him whether he desired no favor.

He replied, “I will not ask for your favor; for what I cannot do without, the most high God will give me.”

The bailiff said also to Anneken, “Do you not desire a favor, before sentence is passed upon you?

She answered, “I shall ask favor of God, my refuge.”

Mariken, an old woman of seventy-five years, was asked whether she would confess her sins to the priest.

She replied, “I am sorry that I ever confessed my sins to the mortal ears of the priests.”

Seeing some brethren, Govert turned his face and joyfully comforted them, saying among other things, “I pray God, that you may be thus imprisoned for His glory, as I now am.”

The bailiff very fiercely said, “Be still, for your preaching is of no account here.”, “My lord bailiff,” said he,”I speak only five or six words, which God has given me to speak, does this give you so much pain?” And when the people murmured on this account, he said, “This has been witnessed from the time of righteous Abel, that the righteous have suffered reproach; hence be not astonished.” The two servants that stood by him said, “You must not speak; the bailiff will not have it; hence be still.”

Immediately God closed his mouth, which grieved many. Gillis was not questioned, and he said nothing at all; but they were led back to prison, where they rejoiced together, and sang: Saligh is den man, en goet geheeten; and also the forty-first psalm. The bailiff then came into prison, and asked Govert, whether he had considered the matter; to which be replied, “Unless you repent, the punishment of God shall come upon you.” The bailiff looked out of the window, and said, “Will God damn all this multitude of people?”

Govert replied, “I have spoken the Word of God to you; but I hope there are still people here who fear God?”

The bailiff then turned to Anneken, and asked her what she had to say to it.

She replied, “Lord bailiff, twice I have been greatly honored in this city, namely, when I was married, and when my husband became emperor; but I never had a joy that did not perish, as I now have.”

On his way to death, Govert delivered an excellent admonition, reproving the wicked railing, and said, “Be it known to you, that we do not die for theft, murder or heresy, but because we seek an inheritance with God, and live according to His Word.”

The executioner commanded him silence, but he said, “Leave God be with me for a little while; repent, for your life is short.”

A brother then said, “God will strengthen you.” “Oh, yes,” said he, “the power of His Spirit is not weakening in me.”

The monk attempted to speak to Mariken, but Govert said, “Get you hence, deceiver, to your own people; for we have no need of you.”

Entering the ring, Govert said to the gild-brothers, “How you stand here with sticks and staves? Thus stood the Jews when they brought Christ to death; if we had been afraid of this, we would have fled in time.”

They then knelt down together, and prayed; whereupon they kissed each other. Anneken immediately commenced to sing, “In thee, O Lord; do I put my trust.” The servants told her to be still; but Govert said, “No, sister, sing on,” and helped her sing. Enraged at this, the bailiff called to him a servant, and whispered something in his ear. The latter went to the assistant of the executioner, who, upon receiving the order, immediately put a gag on Govert; but the latter held his teeth so firmly closed, that the gag did not hinder him much, and he laughingly said, “I could easily sing with the gag on; but Paul says: “Sing in your heart to God.”

The executioner, in order to put her to shame, made Anneken stand in her bare chemise. A servant asked Gillis whether he did not see some of his people. Gillis said, “Do you know of nothing else to torment us with?” “What does he say?” asked Govert. “He inquires for our fellow brethren,” replied Gillis. Govert said, “Though I could count twenty, I would not mention a single one. You think that by killing us you can suppress the Word of God; but of those that hear and see this, hundreds shall yet come forth.” Standing at the stake, he said, “Amend your ways and repent; for after this there will be no more time for repentance.” A servant who had a bottle of wine, asked them whether they wished to drink. Govert said, “We have no desire for your insipid wine; for our Father shall give us new wine in His eternal kingdom.” When it was thought that the old woman had been strangled at the stake, she began to sing a hymn in honor of her Bridegroom, which when Anneken heard it, she, from ardent love, sang with her. When they all stood at their stakes, each with a strap around the neck, they smiled at and nodded to one another, thus affectionately saluting and comforting each other, and commending their souls into the hands of God, they fell asleep in the Lord, and were burned.

* A 1535 edict against Anabaptists, issued in the aftermath of the Muenster rebellion.

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1678: James Mitchell, Covenanter assassin

Add comment January 18th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1678, Covenanter radical James Mitchell was hanged at Edinburgh for attempting to murder the Archbishop of St. Andrews.

Mitchell’s intended victim, James Sharp by name, is one of Scottish history’s great villains — tasked as he was to cheat Presbyterians of the religious reform they had spent a generation seeking. After Cromwell had King Charles I beheaded, his heir Charles II was nothing but an exile pretending to the throne his father had been deposed from.

Desperate for allies, he made a reluctant pact with Scottish to promulgate Presbyterianism throughout the realm should he regain the kingdom: this meant, in practice, bottom-up church governance as against the top-down authority of bishops characterizing Episcopacy. For a king, this would entail ceding considerable power over religious matters.

Such a promise was more readily given than honored. When Charles II regained the English throne in 1660, he instead restored Episcopacy in the north and everywhere else — selecting our man James Sharp, up until then a Presbyterian minister of the moderate faction, to boss Scotland’s most exalted ecclesiastical post. “The great stain will always remain, that Sharp deserted and probably betrayed a cause which his brethren intrusted to him,” Walter Scott wrote.

From this position, whose very existence was obnoxious to his former friends, our Judas* was Charles’s point man for reintroducing and enforcing all those ecclesiastical prerogatives of the monarchy that the Presbyterians had been so desperate to abolish.

He drove from the church irreconcilable Covenanter ministers — so named for their adherence to the objectives of those discarded covenants. That faction despised Sharp, and he returned the sentiment. On one occasion, he had to call for the militia to disperse an angry mob, only to be told that the militia’s members had joined the mob too. After a Covenanter rising was put down at the Battle of Rullion Green, Sharp okayed the withdrawal of quarter for surrendered foes with the taunt “You were pardoned as soldiers, but you are not acquitted as subjects” — putting his episcopal imprimatur on numerous ensuing hangings.

It was only a matter of time before someone tried to murder him.

On the 11th of July in 1668, James Mitchell — a zealous but unordained freelance preacher and dyed-in-the-wool Covenanter — stepped to a carriage the archbishop was embarking and took a shot at him. Mitchell missed, and pinged one of the prelate’s companions in the wrist, crippling the hand.

Mitchell managed to escape and live for several years with sizable sum on his head and nobody interested in claiming it** before Sharp’s own brother finally captured him in 1674. The proceedings against him are surprisingly protracted considering the famous vindictiveness of his target, and resolved by (as Mitchell said at his hanging) “an extrajudicial confession, and the promise of life given to me thereupon by the chancellor, upon his own and the public faith of the kingdom.” Given his party, he ought not have been surprised that the promise was not kept; as an added bonus, his retraction of the confession — which was the only evidence against him — resulted in his torture by the boot.

In 1679, a different bunch of Covenanters finally succeeded in assassinating the hated Archbishop Sharp.


The Murder of Archbishop Sharpe on Magus Muir near St. Andrews, 1679, by William Allen (c. 1840).

There’s a public domain biography friendly to Sharp (and perforce extremely hostile to the Covenanters) here.

* Cromwell met Sharp — still a Presbyterian minister at that time — in a negotiation during the Protectorate and allegedly rated him “ane Atheist, and of noe principles at all.”

** At one point Mitchell resided in Edinburgh with another man bound for the scaffold, Major Weir

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764: St. Stephen the Younger, iconodule martyr

Add comment November 28th, 2015 Headsman

This is the supposed martyrdom date, in the year 764 or perhaps 765, of St. Stephen the Younger in Constantinople at the hands of an iconoclastic emperor.

Ancient and “dark ages” history characteristically comes with all kinds of problems arising from the paucity and prejudice of primary sources. Byzantium’s century of Iconoclastic controversy is a fine example.

In this period from approximately 726 to 842, the empire was rent by a conflict between iconophiles or iconodules — proponents of the use and adoration of religious imagery in Christian worship — and iconoclasts — who abhorred same as a form of sacrilegious idolatry.

This was deadly serious stuff in the way that only Byzantine sectarian conflict could be, but the controversy was not strictly about defining the Biblical injunction on graven images. As the excellent History of Byzantium podcast explains in its iconoclasm episode,* it likely manifests “an empire-wide reaction to the trauma of defeat” — battlefield defeat by the rising armies of Islam, and with it a shaken confidence in the favor of God. (Islam’s hard line against idolatry surely can’t be coincidental.)

But in posterity we are reduced to these muddy qualifiers because as the winning party in the dispute, iconodules wrote the history. That’s no moralistic stab: iconoclasts, too, burned the enemy’s tracts when they had the opportunity; had they prevailed in the end, they would have blurred out the background, motivations, and achievements of their rivals as readily as the iconodules did and leave those who followed to read between the lines of a partisan history. Indeed, Bissera Pentcheva’s recent Icons and Power: The Mother of God in Byzantium even contends that the legendary centrality of icons to Byzantine religiosity was an invention of the post-iconoclastic era, with events like the Marian icon’s saving Constantinople during the Avar siege of 626 backfilled to replace the original story about Marian relics working the divine intervention.


Iconoclasts plastering over an icon.

The iconoclastic era opens in the late 720s; according to the (iconodule, naturally) saint and historian Nicephorous, its immediate trigger was the devastating 726 eruption of the Greek island Thera (Santorini) — and affrighted by the apparent divine wrath, “the impious emperor Leo [III] started making pronouncements about the removal of the holy and venerable icons.” He’s alleged to have taken down a particularly revered icon of Christ on Constantinople’s Chalke Gate.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to get a firm fix on what specific anti-icon policies Leo promulgated, if indeed there were any at all. (The Greek term for “pronouncements” could be understood simply as “comments” instead of “edicts”.) It is Leo’s son Constantine V, succeeding the purple in 741, who clearly brings an overt imperial turn against icons, for “He cannot be depicted. For what is depicted in one person, and he who circumscribes that person has plainly circumscribed the divine nature which is incapable of being circumscribed.” Constantine convened an ecumenical council that ruled for his anti-icon position and set about removing images from churches.

Against this campaign was ranged the bulk of the clergy — church vs. state is another possible and difficult-to-measure dimension of the whole dispute, although Constantine’s ability to win the acquiescence of hundreds of bishops must complicate this interpretation.

The great champion of and martyr for the iconodule position in this time was St. Stephen the Younger. That’s “younger” vis-a-vis the original St. Stephen, Christianity’s protomartyr.

As befits that exalted company, this monk and hermit was credited by his adherents with a supernatural power in the iconoclasm debate.

A man blind from his birth visits the saint with suppliant outcry for relief. “If you hast faith in God,” he replies, “if thou art a worshipper of His image, thou shalt behold the light and the beauty of hidden things.” Scarcely had the words gone forth, when the blind man rejoiced in beholding light. A woman brings to him her son “grievously vexed with a devil,” and a distressing scene is described. Stephen bids a disciple to apply the sign of the Cross to the whole afflicted body. The saint calls upon God with many tears. Finally he delivers the boy safe to his mother, when the image of Christ has been adored. An infirm soldier comes with entreaty for relief. The saint bids him adore the images of Christ and His Mother, and immediately he is restored. The soldier afterwards repudiates image-worship before the Emperor, who at once promotes him to the rank of centurion. Leaving the imperial presence he would mount his horse; the horse rears, throws him to the ground, and tramples him to death. Such is the life of the younger Stephen as related with awe-struck delight in Greek and Roman martyrologies. (Source)

And so forth.

The emperor is alleged by the hagiographies to have sought Stephen’s destruction for many years, being continually frustrated even to the point where Stephen’s torturers in prison seemed unable to finish him off. “Will no one rid me of this monk?” Constantine cries, anticipating Thomas a Becket by a good four centuries. His soldiers finally clubbed to death the obdurate cleric on November 28, 764. (For a critique of Stephen’s hagiography, including a death date that proves questionable (no surprise), see this pdf.)

But not for the first time, an imperial innovation in theology failed to outlast the patronage of its sovereign. After Constantine’s death, Empress Irene** restored the iconodules to favor† — and set the stage (after some hiccups) for a great flowering of Orthodox icons in the centuries to come.

* Also see Episode 75, delving into Constantine’s iconoclasm.

** The fact that the extant remnant of the Roman Empire had no emperor — merely a woman ruler — formed part of the rationale for the western church crowning Charlemagne “Holy Roman Emperor”. This slap in the face to Constantinople could occur because a papacy long deferential to Byzantium had at last broken with the East in the mid-8th century … in part, over iconoclasm.

Emperor Leo V restored official iconoclasm in 813 for another 29-year run as imperial policy before the movement’s final defeat.

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