1764: Lt. Vasily Mirovich, for attempting to topple Catherine the Great

3 comments September 26th, 2009 Headsman

On this date* in 1764, one of history’s greatest monarchs cemented her still-uncertain hold on power by beheading a rebellious lieutenant.

Ivan VI: Born under a bad tsar.

Succession in the Russian Empire had been disputatious ever since Peter the Great went and killed off his last male son, eventually putting far-flung branches of the family into a contest for power.

To skip over much regal jockeying, Peter’s vicious niece Anna, who reigned in the 1730s, had installed her infant nephew Ivan VI as successor just before her own death.

The little Tsar of All the Russias was displaced before his second birthday by Peter the Great’s daughter Elizabeth, who clapped the former emperor in a dungeon in Schlusselburg fortress to grow up ignorant and alone, isolated from the parties who might scheme to bid for power in his name. Two Caesars are too many.

Into this dangerous scene stepped Sophia Augusta Frederica, better known to posterity by the name she took upon her politically savvy conversion to Orthodoxy: Catherine.

This Catherine immigrated to wed Elizabeth’s simpleminded heir, then overthrew him a few months into his reign.

Catherine had ultimate power, but she wasn’t yet “Catherine the Great”: as a foreigner with the late Romanov’s blood on her hands (if only indirectly), it was nowhere written that she would rule Russia for 34 brilliant years. And with the throne came its rival claimants … like Ivan, now an adult and potentially more “legitimate” than this imported German princess.

Ivan was held in Man in the Iron Mask-like secrecy, known only as “Nameless Prisoner Number One”; his warders had strict orders to murder him on the spot were any attempt made to liberate him.

Two years into Catherine’s reign, Lt. Vasily Mirovich, “a tormented young officer … with dreams of restoring his family’s fortunes,” attempted just that. As commanded, the guards put an end to Ivan’s troubles.

Those guards got cash rewards and promotions for their diligence. Mirovich got death. (Other soldiers whom he had rallied to his cause were condemned to run the gauntlet; I have been unable to ascertain if any were killed by this punishment.)

Mirovich was executed in St. Petersburg. When his head was held up to the crowd, it had a terrifying impact, the death penalty not actually having been exercised in Russia for 22 years.** Mirovich himself faced his execution calmly, convincing some of the bystanders that he was expecting to be pardoned at the last minute. His remains were left on public display until the evening, when they were burnt along with the gallows.

And so the first two years of the reign of Catherine II, who set so much store by reason and enlightened principles, had included two assassinations and an execution.

The woman of letters, the correspondent of philosophers, the Semiramis of the North … like the age’s other great enlightened despot, Frederick the Great, Catherine had to rule. She had not the luxury to dispense with statecraft’s cruel necessities.

Her admirers would have to be content with making her excuses. Fortunately, admirers always are.

“These are family matters with which I do not meddle,” wrote Voltaire. “Besides, it is not a bad thing to have a fault to repair; this engages her to make great efforts in order to force the public to esteem and admiration”

* September 26 (pdf) was the date on the Gregorian calendar then prevalent in Europe; it was September 15 by the older Julian calendar still used in Russia at the time.

** Not carrying out the death penalty had been a signature policy of Ivan’s usurper Elizabeth. The elimination of capital punishment in “backwards” Russia for an entire generation during the Age of Absolutism surely urges caution against any assumption that death penalty repeal is a one-way street.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Milestones,Power,Public Executions,Russia,Soldiers,Treason

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1396: Thousands of knights of the Last Crusade

5 comments September 26th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1396, Ottoman Sultan Bayezid I put thousands of Christian Crusaders to the sword — and with them, Christians’ zest for holy war against the Turk.

The day after crushing a European Crusading expedition at the Battle of Nicopolis — where Christ’s multinational divisions might have crippled themselves by opting for political reasons to go with gloryhounding French knights’ demand for a heavy cavalry charge as opposed to sneakier tactics — Bayezid was mighty sore to find that the invaders had executed en masse Muslim prisoners from their last engagement.

Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror relates the result:

The defeat was followed by a frightful sequel. As Bajazet toured the battlefield … he was “torn by grief” at the sight of his losses, which outnumbered the Christian. He swore he would not leave their blood unavenged, and the discovery of the massacre of the prisoners of Rachowa augmented his rage. He ordered all prisoners to be brought before him next morning. … [T]he leading nobles … were … spared [for ransom], as well as all those judged to be under twenty for forced service with the Turks.

The rest, an uncertain figure of several thousand, were marched naked before the Sultan, bound together in groups of three or four, with hands tied and ropes around their necks. Bajazet looked at them briefly, then signed to the executioners to set to work. They decapitated the captives group by group, in some cases cut their throats or severed their limbs until corpses and killers alike were awash in blood. [The Christian nobles being spared] were forced to stand by the Sultan and watch the heads of their companions fall under the scimitars and the blood spurt from their headless trunks…. The killing continued from early morning to late afternoon until Bajazet, himself sickened at the sight or, as some say, persuaded by his ministers that too much rage in Christendom would be raised against him, called off the executioners.

In truth, the era of the Crusade as most readily conceived — a bid to conquer the Holy Land — was long past by this time. But it had been under that tattered old banner that Christendom summoned its vassals to check the rising Ottoman Empire, which by this time had reduced Byzantium to a rump state around Constantinople.

The battle that precipitated this day’s* feast of carrion occurred in Bulgaria, where the Turks’ growing European footprint (and this affair essentially pinched out the Bulgarian Empire of the day) exercised the European courts in figurative as well as literal ways. Though other ventures would hoist the crusading pennant, there would be no major offensive incursions against the Turks until “crusades” had fallen well out of fashion.

None of this gory affair is to be confused with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where a leap of faith proved more felicitous.

* Most sources place the Battle of Nicopolis at September 25, although some say September 28 — the latter date would obviously place this massacre on September 29.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Beheaded,Bulgaria,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,France,God,History,Known But To God,Mass Executions,Milestones,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Ottoman Empire,Power,Put to the Sword,Soldiers,Summary Executions,War Crimes,Wartime Executions

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