1452: Antonio Rizzo, cannonaded

Add comment December 8th, 2019 Headsman

From Charles Stanton in Medieval Maritime Warfare:


In the months preceding the final fall of Constantinople in 1453, the great Ottoman sultan Mehmed (II), the Conqueror, caused to be constructed in less than twenty weeks on the European bank of the Bosporus just north of the city a colossal castle which he called Bas-kesen, meaning ‘Decapitator’ or ‘Throat-cutter’. Later called Rumeli Hisar (‘Castle of the Roman Lands’), it stood opposite the Anadolu Hisar (‘Castle of Anatolia’), built in 1394 by his great-grandfather Bayezit I at the narrowest part of the strait (less than 1km across). It consisted of three main towers and fourteen smaller ones connected by inner and outer curtain walls, covering an area of 31,250 sq. m (almost 7.75 acres). The fortress still stands to this day, glowering down upon passing maritime traffic much as it did when it was completed on 31 August 1452.


The view from the still-standing fortress shows its commanding view over the narrow strait. (cc) image from Olga Petrovska.

The main tower in the middle was 22m (72ft) high and 23.3m (76ft 5 in) in diameter, with 6.5m (21ft 4in) thick walls. Named the Halil Pasha after the sultan’s vizier who built it, it stood closest to the shoreline. On it, Mehmed had positioned what were described as ‘bronze tubes capable of discharging balls weighing over six hundred pounds’. He then gave the citadel’s commander, one Firuz Aga, the following explicit instructions:

Do not allow ships sailing from the Hellespont [Dardanelles] to the Black Sea or from the Black Sea to the Hellespont, no matter under whose flag they may be sailing — Genoese, Venetian, Constantinopolitan, Kaffatinian, Trapezundian, Amisinian, Sinopean, or even under my own flag, and no matter what class they are — triremes, biremes, barques, or skiffs — to sail through without first lowering their sails and paying the customs duties; only after they have done so will you permit them to proceed on their way. Use the cannon to sink the ship that does not comply and submit.

Early the following November two Venetian ships destined for the Dardanelles ignored the injunction and passed through the Bosporus without stopping as ordered. Luckily, they survived the consequent cannonade. A third, carrying grain for Constantinople a short time later, was not so fortunate. The earlier experience had evidently served to provide Firuz Aga’s gunners with the proper range. A single stone from one of the cannon ‘shattered the ship’. The crew of thirty, including the captain, a certain Antonio Rizzo, were subsequently captured and taken to the sultan in Didymoteichos (in Thrace, about 37km or 23 miles south of Adrianople — modern Edirne). ‘He gave orders to behead them all except the captain whose life was to be taken by a stake through the anus,’ recorded a fifteenth-century chronicler known only as ‘Doukas’, who claimed he himself saw Rizzo’s rotting corpse only ‘a few days later’. The impact on maritime warfare was just as dramatic. The advent of a true ship-killing weapon spelled the end of one age and the beginning of another.

In his watershed study Gunpowder and Galleys, early modern military historian John Francis Guilmartin concluded that the one technological innovation most responsible for ushering in a new age of warfare was ‘the use of effective heavy cannon’. It was, therefore, fitting that Mehmed II employed perhaps the largest cannon ever built up to that point to vanquish the first great naval power of the passing medieval period. In his campaign to conquer Constantinople, the Ottoman sultan engaged a Hungarian engineer named Orban to produce a sort of supergun which could smash the several-feet thick Theodosian Walls that had protected the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire for a millennium. ‘In three months’ time a terrifying and extraordinary monster was forged,’ testified Doukas. Mehmed’s Greek biographer, Michael Kritovoulos, provided precise dimensions: the barrel was cast in bronze some 20cm (8in) thick; it measured about 8m (26ft 8in) long, with a bore at the muzzle of 76m (30in) in diameter. In a test, the cannon discharged a 544kg (1,200-pound) stone ball which burrowed itself almost 2m (6ft) into the ground over 1.6km (1m) away. Doukas said that thirty wagons pulled by sixty oxen and 200 men were required to haul it from Adrianople to Constantinople where it was positioned to batter the walls south of the Blachernae Palace.

Not content with this ostentatious display of military power, Mehmed then brought to bear the full force of his powerful new fleet. The Byzantines had barred the entrance to the Golden Horn with a giant iron chain suspended on wooden pontoons between two fortified towers, one on each side. (This chain currently resides in the Turkish Naval Museum of Istanbul.)


(cc) image from Henri Bergius.

A squadron of ten Greek warships was stationed outside it, while another sixteen from Genoa, Venice and other western maritime cities guarded it from inside. Previous Ottoman assaults on this defensive cordon had failed, so the sultan circumvented it by building a road of greased wooden logs across Galata Hill behind the Genoese colony of Pera on the side of the Golden Horn opposite the city. He then, on 22 April, had seventy to eighty ‘biremes on wheeled cradles’ hauled over said byway and into the harbour behind the chain. The manoeuvre demoralized the defenders and enabled Mehmed’s naval forces to attack the city’s sea walls from the Golden Horn at the same time that his army assaulted the land walls. Inevitably, Constantinople fell on 29 May 1453. Vanquished were the last vestiges of Byzantine imperial power and its maritime thalassocracy remained only as a distant memory.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Beheaded,Byzantine Empire,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Gibbeted,Greece,Gruesome Methods,History,Impaled,Ottoman Empire,Power,Public Executions,Turkey,Wartime Executions

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1209: Massacre of Beziers, “kill them all, let God sort them out”

27 comments July 22nd, 2009 Headsman

Today the French town of Beziers remembers the 800th anniversary of the first sack and massacre of the Albigensian Crusade.

Rome was alarmed by the advent in southern France of a mass religious movement, Catharism, with such scandalous doctrines as spirit-body dualism and not giving tons of money to Rome.

Naturally, God said to cut them to pieces.

Beziers was the first town invested by the invading crusader army, left to its fate as the Cathars mustered in Carcassone. Interestingly, this particular city did not so much present that familiar spectacle of Christians killing Christians who thought differently — unless the thought in question was about handing over their neighbors to a throng of land-grabbing nobles.

Part of the Catholic faith did itself honor this day: those Biterrois who refused to abandon to the glories of martyrdom the Cathars in their midst, who are thought to have numbered merely a few hundred. So when the walls fell, it was mostly orthodox Catholics killing orthodox Catholics.

Well, what’s a crusading army with other cities to sack supposed to do?

“Kill them all”

After the fortified city embarrassingly got itself captured within hours by camp followers, Caesar of Heisterbach recorded one of history’s more quotably infamous instances of prayerful deliberation:

When they discovered, from the admissions of some of them, that there were Catholics mingled with the heretics they said to the abbot “Sir, what shall we do, for we cannot distinguish between the faithful and the heretics.” The abbot, like the others, was afraid that many, in fear of death, would pretend to be Catholics, and after their departure, would return to their heresy, and is said to have replied “Kill them all for the Lord knoweth them that are His” (2 Tim. ii. 19) and so countless number in that town were slain.

Or, in glorious Latin:

Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius.

And so they did.

And they killed everyone who fled into the church; no cross or altar or crucifix could save them. And these raving beggarly lads, they killed the clergy too, and the women and children. I doubt if one person came out alive … such a slaughter has not been known or consented to, I think, since the time of the Saracens. (William of Tudela, cited in Cathar Castles)

Ten to twenty thousand are thought to have been slain this day — in what proportions Catholic and heretic, only God can say.

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1573: Wigbolt Ripperda, Haarlem city governor

2 comments July 16th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1573, Wigbolt Ripperda was beheaded in Haarlem’s Grote Markt for having led a stubborn seven-month resistance to a Spanish siege.

Ripperda had been a Calvinist with a hand in the iconoclastic spasm against Catholic churches that had led to the beheadings of Counts Egmont and Hoorn a few years prior.

In the intervening years, relations between the Low Countries and the Spanish crown that ruled them had deteriorated into outright revolt — the germ of the decades-long struggle that would result in Dutch independence.

Haarlem had initially tried to keep its head down in the conflict, but had declared against Spain in 1572. That brought it into the sights of a vengeful Spanish army that greatly outnumbered Haarlem’s 4,000 defenders. Spurning any talk of compromise or capitulation, city governor Ripperda rallied his garrison and held out against the Spanish siege throughout the winter and spring.

In the end, starvation did the work that engines of war could not. Haarlem fell on July 12, 1573.*

Ripperda was beheaded with a lieutenant a few days later, but in winning the battle, Spain had suffered a setback in the war: besides the seven-month delay, other Calvinist strongholds took heart from the effective resistance and got a lot less cowed by the royal army.

While this day’s martyrdom made “Ripperda” a fixture in Haarlem place names, and despite a somewhat illustrious family tree that also includes a signatory of the Peace of Munster and a fascinatingly disreputable 18th century politician, actual Ripperdas are apparently hard to find in present-day Holland. According to American Tom Ripperda, who runs the family site ripperda.org, the name lives on only in the U.S. and Germany.

“In the 1830’s the last of the Dutch Ripperdas died,” Ripperda told me. “There are no Ripperdas in the Netherlands since they moved to Germany (about 200 or so) and on to America (about 600 or so).”

* As to the vengeful mass executions visited on Haarlem, John Lothrop Motley conveys this anecdote.

Instead of Peter Hasselaer, a young officer who had displayed remarkable bravery throughout the siege, the Spaniards by mistake arrested his cousin Nicholas. The prisoner was suffering himself to be led away to the inevitable scaffold without remonstrance, when Peter Hasselaer pushed his way violently through the ranks of the captors. “If you want Ensign Hasselaer, I am the man. Let this innocent person depart,” he cried. Before the sun set his head had fallen.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Activists,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,God,History,Netherlands,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Soldiers,Spain

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