1526: 2,000 Hungarian prisoners after the Battle of Mohacs

Add comment August 31st, 2014 Headsman

The Sultan, seated on a golden throne, receives the homage of the viziers and the beys, massacre of 2,000 prisoners, the rain falls in torrents.

-Sultain Suleiman the Magnificent (writing of himself in the third person), diary, 31 August 1526

On this date in 1526, two days after the pivotal Battle of Mohács, the Ottomans executed all their Hungarian captives from that battle.

After the 1490 death of Hungary’s greatest king Matthias Corvinus, the Hungarian kingdom began to crumble. Ottoman incursions ate away at that realm’s Balkan possessions.

Squeezed between two stronger empires, Hungary’s King Lajos II put a ring on the non-Turkish one by marrying a Habsburg princess. Fair enough.

Less successful statecraft was his decision not to cut a deal for peace with the Turks and instead force a decisive confrontation … especially since that battle was a tactical debacle. Eschewing a coy retreat towards nearby friendly forces, the belligerent Hungarian nobles hurled their heavy cavalry straight at the numerically superior Turks, basically duplicating the gameplan that the West’s last Crusaders had used when they got their lances handed to them by the Ottomans a century before at Nicopolis.

And those who did not learn from history were here doomed to repeat it. “The Hungarian nation will have twenty thousand martyrs on the day of the battle, and it would be well to have them canonized by the Pope,” a priest is reported to have said when he heard about the decision. By sundown, the Hungarians were routing in disarray, the wounded Lajos himself falling into the Danube in the disorder and drowning in his heavy armor.


Well, we’re boned. The Battle of Mohacs, by Hungarian painter Mor Than (1856).

“May Allah be merciful to him, and punish those who misled his inexperience,” said Suleiman of his 20-year-old opposite number. “It was not my wish that he should thus be cut off, while he had scarcely tasted the sweets of life and royalty.”

Not so tender were Suleiman’s pities for those 2,000 anonymous prisoners of war … and, for that matter, for anyone in the surrounding countryside unfortunate enough to find him- or herself in the path of the now-unchecked Ottoman force.

The cavalry, knowing no mercy, dispersed into the provinces of the wicked one like a stream overflowing its banks and, with the fiery meteors of its sparkling sabers, burned every home to the ground, sparing not a single one…. The contemptible ones were slain, their goods and families destroyed…. Not a stone of the churches and monasteries remained.

Within the fortnight the Turks were sacking defenseless Buda(pest); they would take it for good in 1541 and hold it for 145 years, pressing the Ottoman frontier deep into Europe. It wouldn’t be a Hungarian polity that recaptured it, but the Habsburg empire into which the Magyar wreckage was subsumed — retaking Buda in 1686 in the counterattack after the failed Ottoman Siege of Vienna.

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1561: Sehzade Beyazit, inevitably

1 comment September 25th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1561, the Persian Shah abandoned Ottoman prince Sehzade Beyazit to the vengeance of his “magnificent” father.

A late and sad casualty of Istanbul’s pivotal family tragedy, Beyazit was actually a son of Suleiman the Magnificent‘s favorite wife, the freed Ukrainian slave Hurrem Sultan or Roxelana.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t the first son.

After Roxelana engineered the execution of heir apparent Mustafa on spurious grounds, Beyazit and his brother Selim were the last princes standing.

The natural rivalry between the two for eventual power was surely colored by the clear portent Mustafa’s execution had sent that the succession game was rigged for Selim. After several years of growing estrangement, Beyazit finally revolted outright only to be defeated in battle by Selim in 1559.

The loser found refuge in Persia, but only long enough for the Safavids to negotiate the price of his surrender to the hands of Suleiman … whose executioner went on the road to the Persian city of Qazvin to strangle not only Sehzade Beyazit but his four sons, too.

Extirpating the treasonable branch of the family tree cleared the succession for Selim, whose eight-year turn in power would be remembered as moment the hitherto-all-vanquishing Ottomans began their long, slow slide to Sick Man of Europe status. Particularly given that coda, Suleiman’s own

long reign is flawed by tragedy more subtle than the hubris which had overcome his ancestor Bayezit the Thunderbolt; more consequential than the gilded misery reserved for later sultans. The higher men rose in the empire, the closer they got to the bowstring; and the reign of Suleyman seems in retrospect coiled round with a silken garotte …

When the Austrian ambassador took leave of Suleyman in his old age, it was scarcely a living being he described, but a sort of metaphor of empire, rotting and majestic, fat, made up, and suffering from an ulcerous leg.

There’s more about this misfortunate lesser son in Turkish here, and a Turkish poem he wrote beseeching his father’s forgiveness here.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Iran,Ottoman Empire,Persia,Power,Royalty,Strangled,Turkey

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1536: Pargali Ibrahim Pasha, Suleiman the Magnificent’s friend and grand vizier

66 comments March 15th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1536,* the Ottoman Empire’s mightiest Grand Vizier was strangled at the order of the Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.

Say what you will about the Grand Vizier, the man knew how to enjoy the fruits of his transitory power. This, his Istanbul palace, is today the Museum of Islamic and Turkish Arts. (cc) image from docman

An Albanian [update: and/or Greek] Christian, Ibrahim Pasha — not to be confused with several other historical figures of that name, notably an Egyptian general — found his way into the Ottoman slave quarters and became a boyhood friend of the young Suleiman.

Thereafter the two would rise together: as Sultan, Suleiman rapidly promoted his trusted friend, and even married a sister to him.

So absolute was Ibrahim’s power that Italian diplomats** called him “Ibrahim the Magnificent”. At the Ottomans’ acme, his word was law as surely as his distinguished master’s. Ibrahim’s achievements in war, diplomacy, and as a patron of the arts attested his worthiness of the honors.

Unfortunately, he may have taken those honorifics a little too much to heart.

We do not know the precise cause of Ibrahim Pasha’s fall: only that it was precipitous. Two months after returning from a campaign against the Safavids that reconquered Baghdad, he was put to death, reputedly spurning an opportunity to flee and loyally submitting himself to the Sultan’s punishment. Much as this smacks of poetic amplification, Ibrahim’s last meal was said to be taken dining alone with Suleiman.

It’s impossible that in 13 years as Grand Vizier, this Islamic convert and upstart slave had not won himself powerful enemies — but he lived in Suleiman’s favor, and was destroyed when that favor reversed. One theory of Ibrahim’s fall has it that his self-awarded titles started getting a little bit, er, “magnificent” and Suleiman jealously snuffed out any potential for actual political rivalry. Another looks towards the Ukrainian slave girl who was taking over Suleiman’s harem — Roxelana, who would ruthlessly destroy all the political obstacles to her son’s eventual succession.

Between those two, or other palace machinations, or factors yet un-guessed, Suleiman was induced to destroy his boyhood companion and right-hand man. And in the thirty years the sultan had to outlive his vizier, who knows what pangs conscience held in store.

Dear Lord! Shower me with your grace
Whether there is any remedy other than You I do not know.
Help me, forgive my sins,
Please, help me, forgive my sins.

poetry by Suleiman the Magnificent, writing as “Muhibbi”

* There are some other March 1536 dates out there, but the Ides seems like the strongest.

** Very tight with the Ottomans.

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1553: Prince Mustafa, heir to Suleiman the Magnificent

19 comments October 6th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1553, the capable heir apparent to Ottoman Emperor Suleiman the Magnificent was strangled at dad’s order — casualty of the the realm’s lethal harem politics.

If ’tis state thou seekest like the world-adorning sun’s array,
Lowly e’en as water rub thy face in earth’s dust every day.
Fair to see, but short enduring is this picture bright, the world;
‘Tis a proverb: Fleeting like the realm of dreams is earth’s display.
Through the needle of its eyelash never hath the heart’s thread past;
Like unto the Lord Messiah bide I half-road on the way.
Athlete of the Universe through self-reliance grows the Heart,
With the ball, the Sphere—Time, Fortune—like an apple doth it play.
Mukhlisi, thy frame was formed from but one drop, yet, wonder great!
When thou verses sing’st, thy spirit like the ocean swells, they say.

-Prince Mustafa, about himself

Suleiman’s first-born son by his first concubine, Mustafa seemed well-positioned to emerge in the Ottomans’ fratricidal succession.

The racket: when the current sultan dies, all his sons by his various concubines make a rush from their provincial outposts for the capital and fight it out, the winner killing off his half-brothers to consolidate his rule.

This disorderly ascension made, while dad still lived, for fraught internal politicking among the sons for the inside track: the most prestigious positions, and the assignments closest to Istanbul. The various mothers of the contenders jockeyed just as aggressively on behalf of their various entrants in the imperial sweepstakes.

Mustafa was the capable eldest son in a kingdom at its very acme,* but to his misfortune, and the empire’s too, he found himself pitted against one of the ablest women ever to call the Ottoman harem home: Hürrem Sultan, also known as Roxelana (or Roxolana).

A Ukrainian woman kidnapped to the harem by Tartar slavers, Roxelana enchanted Suleiman and soon became his favorite. Therefore, Roxelana also became the rival, with her son and her own potential heir, to Mustafa and his mother.

As the story is told, Roxelana at length contrived to convince Suleiman that Mustafa was in cahoots with the rival Safavid Empire to supplant Suleiman on the throne; Suleiman had his firstborn summoned to his tent on campaign in Anatolia, and straightaway put to death. He’s supposed to have sat by the body in grief for days afterwards, and barely averted a revolt by his elite Janissaries, who much favored the talented Mustafa.

“This terrible tragedy exercised an effect on Ottoman affairs resembling that which the Massacre of St. Bartholomew had on the history of France,” according to The Cambridge Modern History (vol. 3). Roxelana’s unimpressive son “Prince Selim, in whose favour the crime was committed, was the first of a series of degenerate Sultans, sunk in pleasure-seeking or stricken with Imperial mania, under whose sway the Empire went to ruin.”

Consequently, Mustafa is still mourned in Turkey as a tragic turning-point; visitors pay homage to his tomb at Bursa.

Westerners had word of this fascinating palace intrigue through diplomatic correspondents who were not privy to the actual harem, and adopted the story themselves while imaginatively filling in the orientalizing details. Inevitably these imaginings have helped shape the story as it comes to us.

The scenario blending the familiar and the exotic — a European in the court of the Turk; a slave woman dominating the conqueror; fratricidal princes and the alluring seraglio — all set in the heart of the feared Muslim state proved irresistible to literary interlocutors. These made of Suleiman, Mustafa (Mustapha), and Roxelana moral fables, theater (endorsed by Samuel Pepys!), symphony

… and opera (many librettos, this by Hasse):

Not to mention, of course, more titillating fare.

* The PBS documentary Islam, The Empire of Faith does engrossing coverage of Suleiman (including his relationship with Roxelana and the execution of Mustafa) in these video segments: 3, 4, 5.

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