1012: St. Alphege, Archbishop of Canterbury

1 comment April 19th, 2016 Headsman

April 19 was the death date in 1012, and the feast date in perpetuity, of Archbishop of Canterbury and Christian saint Aelfheah (also known as Alfege or Alphege).

When harrying Danish invaders under Thorkell the Tall put Canterbury cathedral to the sack in 1011, they seized this Anglo-Saxon cleric too in expectation of adding a VIP’s ransom to their sacrilegious pillage of candelabras and jeweled chalices.

Aelfheah turned out not to be the render-unto-Caesar type — or at least, not unto Ragnar — and stubbornly refused to raise his own ransom or to permit one to be paid for him. Seven months on into his captivity, some ill-disciplined Vikingers with their blood (and blood alcohol) up for an Easter pillage just decided to get rid of him — as detailed in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which also helpfully provides us the date:

1012. Here in this year, there came to London town Ealdorman Eadric and all the foremost councillors of the English race, ordained and lay, before Easter — that Easter Day was on the 13 April. And they were there until after Easter, until all the tax was paid — that was 8 thousand pounds.

What we have here is the unprincipled nobleman Eadric Streona — destined for an Executed Today entry of his own — celebrating Christ’s resurrection by squeezing hard-pressed Londoners for the Danegeld needed to buy off Thorkell’s rampaging army. And beside that in the ledger, a vicar declines to save his own life at the cost of incrementing his flock’s suffering. The ransom-refusing Aelfheah is a patron saint of kidnap victims; he ought to be taxpayer ombudsman, too.

Then on Saturday the raiding-army became much stirred up against the bishop, because he did not want to offer them any money, and forbade that anything might be granted in return for him. Also they were very drunk, because there was wine brought from the south. Then they seized the bishop, led him to their ‘hustings’ on the Saturday in the octave of Easter, and then pelted him there with bones and the heads of cattle; and one of them struck him on the head with the butt of an axe, so that with the blow he sank down and his holy blood fell on the earth, and sent forth his holy soul to God’s kingdom. And in the morning the bishops [of Dorchester and of London] Eadnoth and Aelfhun and the inhabitants of the town took up the holy body, and carried it to London with all honour and buried it in St. Paul’s minster, and there now [i.e., to this day] God reveals the holy martyr’s powers.

Aelfheah was canonized by Gregory VII in 1078 — and was one of the rare clerics of the Anglo-Saxon era still officially revered after the Norman conquest.* It is said that Thomas a Becket had just prayed to Aelfheah before he too attained his predecessor’s martyrdom.

The British History Podcast hasn’t reached this incident as of this post’s publication, but it should do anon. Its Vikings coverage begins with episode 176.

* A thousand years on, a church named our man marks the purported spot of his execution/murder.

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Entry Filed under: 12th Century,Bludgeoned,Borderline "Executions",Cycle of Violence,England,Execution,God,History,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Pelf,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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995: Tormod Kark

1 comment July 16th, 2015 dogboy

On an unrecorded date in 995, Norwegian slave Tormod Kark became the first person beheaded under King Olaf I of Norway.

A subsidiary character in a long and brutal struggle for supremacy in Norway and its neighbors to the east and west, Kark had betrayed his lord, the de facto Norweigan ruler Haakon Jarl (“Earl Haakon”), as Olaf Tryggvason’s army searched for him. Haakon had holed up on a farm with Kark and at least one other trusted associate, but when Kark heard of the reward for Haakon’s, he thought it more opportune to kill his lord than to wait to be found.

Kark expected cake. Instead, King Olaf I abhorred his disloyalty and delivered him death.

Olaf grew up a refugee in the court of Kiev Rus’ ruler Vladimir the Great, who, according to some early sagas, had a Norse wife. Regardless of the circumstances, Olaf’s military prowess was such that Vladimir eventually became distrustful of a potentially dangerous guest and Olaf decided to take his leave.

Making his way back to Norway, Olaf married for the first time. When his wife died, he took sail down to the Scilly Isles (south of England), where he converted to Christianity. He then moved to England (Norsemen held sway there at this time). During his time there, he caught wind of Haakon Jarl waning hold on the affections of Norwegians high and low.

Olaf jumped at the chance. He quickly formed an alliance with several local leaders and sallied forth, and practically from the time he hit the fjords, Haakon was a fugitive.

Haakon Jarl — a.k.a. Haakon Sigurdsson — was an old friend of Harald Bluetooth,* the man credited with uniting Norway and Denmark. Haakon’s father was killed by Harald Greycloak, and Bluetooth enlisted Haakon to avenge that death. (He did so, with aplomb.)

With Greycloak out of the way, Bluetooth had solidified his position as effective ruler of Norway, where he installed Haakon — now elevated to Earl Haakon — as his vassal king. Haakon Jarl had wide latitude to subjugate the lands around him. As vassal, though, Haakon was called on by Bluetooth to fight the Holy Roman Emperor Otto II, who had made an alliance with Olaf’s father-in-law in an effort to overrun the still-pagan Norse.

Bluetooth et al fought them off initially, but Otto II sent a fleet around to Jutland and bested the Danes and Norwegians. As a result, Haakon, Harald, and their armies were forcibly converted to Christianity.

Unwillingly as he had adopted it, Bluetooth maintained his new Christianity; Haakon Jarl didn’t really go in for that Jesus stuff and stubbornly held to his paganism. When Bluetooth** approached Haakon about really really converting around 977, the Jarl refused to accept the Christian faith, instead taking his Norway and going home. Haakon thereafter ruled on his own for almost 20 years.

Ultimately, it may have partially been paganism that defeated the Jarl, who was never crowned king: Haakon’s enemies cited his distrust of Christianity as a motivator in the initial agitations against him. That may just be spin, too, since Olaf was so adamantly Christian that he insisted those under his rule convert.† And heavenly imprimaturs tend to be a hot commodity for usurpers.

Regardless of the cause, by 995 Haakon Jarl was beheaded by his slave, his slave was beheaded by the king, and King Olaf I sat on the throne of Norway.

And then five years later, Haakon Jarl’s sons deposed King Olaf.

Olaf summoned the people together out in the yard, and standing on the rock which was beside the swine-sty spake unto them, and the words that he uttered were that he would reward with riches and honour the man who would work mischief to Earl Hakon. This speech was heard both by the Earl and Kark. Now by them in the sty had they a light there with them, and the Earl said: ‘Why art thou so pale, yet withal as black as earth? Is it in thy heart, Kark, that thou shouldst betray me?’ ‘Nay,’ said Kark, ‘we two were born on the self-same night, and long space will there not be twixt the hour of our deaths.’ Towards evening went King Olaf away, & when it was night Kark slept, and the Earl kept watch, but Kark was troubled in his sleep. Then the Earl awakened him & asked him whereof he dreamt, and he said: ‘I was now even at Ladir, and Olaf Tryggvason placed a gold ornament about my neck.’ The Earl answered: ‘A blood-red ring will it be that Olaf Tryggvason will lay about thy neck, shouldst thou meet with him. Beware now, and betray me not, & thou shalt be treated well by me as heretofore.’ Then stay they both sleepless each watching the other, as it might be, but nigh daybreak fell the Earl asleep and was troubled at once, so troubled that he drew his heels up under him & his head likewise under him, and made as though he would rise up, calling aloud and in a fearsome way. Then grew Kark afeard & filled with horror, so it came to pass that he drew a large knife from his belt and plunged it into the throat of the Earl cutting him from ear to ear. Thus was encompassed the death of Earl Hakon. Then cut Kark off the head of the Earl and hasted him away with it, and the day following came he with it to Ladir unto King Olaf, and there told he him all that had befallen them on their flight, as hath already been set forth. Afterwards King Olaf let Kark be taken away thence, & his head be sundered from his trunk.

Thereafter to Nidarholm went King Olaf and likewise went many of the peasantry, and with them bare they the heads of Earl Hakon and Kark. In those days it was the custom to use this island as a place whereon might be slain thieves & criminals, and on it stood a gallows. And the King caused that on this gallows should be exposed the heads of Earl Hakon and Kark. Then went thither the whole of the host, and shouted up at them and cast stones, and said that they went to hell each in goodly company, ever one rascal with another. Thereafter did they send men up to Gaulardal, & after they had dragged thence the body of Earl Hakon did they burn it. So great strength was there now in the enmity that was borne against Earl Hakon by the folk that were of Throndhjem that no one durst breathe his name save as the ‘bad Earl,’ and for long afterwards was he called after this fashion. Nevertheless it is but justice to bear testimony of Earl Hakon that he was well worthy to be a chief, firstly by the lineage whereof he was descended, then for his wisdom and the insight with which he used the power that pertained to him, his boldness in battle, and withal his goodhap in gaining victories and slaying his foemen. Thus saith Thorleif Raudfelldarson:

Hakon! no Earl more glorious ‘neath the moon’s highway:
In strife and battle hath the warrior honour won,
Chieftains mine to Odin hast thou sent,
(Food for ravens were their corses)
Therefore wide be thy rule!’

The Saga of Olaf Tryggvason


* Bluetooth is, indeed, the namesake of the protocol that wirelessly unites mobile devices and computers. Scandanavian companies made it, so they gave it both a historically interesting name and a historically symbolic ligature logo (representing the “H” and “B”).

** Bluetooth’s daughter, Thyra or Tyra or Thyri, eventually became a consort to King Olaf I.

† Olaf I became known for his … er … creative executions for heathens.

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Entry Filed under: Assassins,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Early Middle Ages,Execution,Gibbeted,History,Murder,Norway,Power,Treason,Uncertain Dates

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1017: Eadric Streona, traitorous

2 comments December 25th, 2012 Headsman

On Christmas 1017, England’s King Cnut had the ealdorman Eadric Streona summarily axed.

While legend has it that Eadric Streona (“Grasping Eadric” or “Eadric the Acquisitor”) irritated the monarch by beating him in a game of chess, Middle Ages chroniclers attributed his fate to the just deserts of inveterate treachery.

A couple centuries of Viking raids and conquests had just culminated with the Northmen’s outright capture of the English throne, fifty years before the better-remembered Norman invasion.

Notwithstanding his best efforts at resistance, the Anglo-Saxon king Aethelred the Unready had been briefly driven into exile by Cnut’s father, Sweyn Forkbeard, and his house then decisively dispossessed by Cnut at the Battle of Assandun. (All kings had cooler names in the Anglo-Saxon period.)

Eadric figured into this period in the timeworn role of duplicitous nobleman. The BBC named him the worst Briton of the 11th century.

Though not of the highest pedigree himself, “his smooth tongue gained him wealth and high rank, and gifted with a subtle genius and persuasive eloquence he surpassed all his contemporaries in malice and perfidy, as well as in pride and cruelty.” (Florence of Worcester, whose chronicle dates to a century later.) Eadric maneuvered himself into a union with Aethelred’s daughter, but he didn’t exactly follow Corleone rules where the family was concerned.*

Plenty of lords were playing both sides of the Anglo-Saxon/Danish conflict, but Eadric did it as well as anyone. He was an exponent of the policy of appeasing the Northmen with the Danegeld tribute, rather than resisting by arms. (Eadric might have been helping himself to a rake of the Danegeld that passed through his own hands.) He’s slated with, on one occasion, dissuading Aethelred from falling upon a crippled Danish force that might have been destroyed.

His nemesis on the policy front was Aethelred’s combative son and heir Edmund Ironside. (Seriously: cooler names.)

Anyway, in 1015, when Aethelred and Cnut were pressing rival claims at arms, Eadric “seduced forty ships from the king, and they went over to Cnut.” Early the next year, he defected back.

By this time, Aethelred had died and Eadric’s old rival Edmund Ironside inherited leadership. What terms these two old foes came to when Eadric returned are a matter of speculation, but it can be no surprise that Eadric switched sides back to Cnut yet again at Assandun. Some chronicles like to attribute the whole fall of England to this backstab, but it’s more than likely the guy just recognized the balance of forces (the English got routed) and tacked to the wind.

And Eadric sure could tack. He even helpfully cleared out his and Cnut’s mutual rival Edmund Ironside, allowing Cnut to claim all the lands he’d just recently agreed to leave to Edmund. The most flinch-inducingly scabrous version of the assassination story goes that Eadric’s guys shot Edmund up the backside from a privy-hole. Guess that side wasn’t so iron.

But Eadric’s belief that he’d ingratiated himself with Cnut was as sorely mistaken as Edmund Ironside’s confidence in the loo. Kings tend to look askance upon traitors, and not a few usurpers have been known to extend that opprobrium to the very people who betrayed their predecessors. Cnut valued loyalty, and it was pretty clear he couldn’t rely upon Eadric in that department.

After tolerating this underhanded underling for a decent year or so,

[a]t the Lord’s Nativity, when [Cnut] was in London, he gave orders for the perfidious ealdorman Eadric to be killed in the palace, because he feared to be at some time deceived by his treachery, as his former lords Ethelred and Edmund had frequently been deceived; and he ordered his body to be thrown over the wall of the city and left unburied.

-Florence of Worcester (via)

The rich English-history podcast environment has various offerings touching this period, including …

* It needs to be said that Eadric is known through the testimony of hostile chronicles; given the dearth of primary documentation, his reputation lies at their mercy. One 20th century historian remarked that he takes on a bogeyman character in the texts, an all-purpose villain “to whom unknown crimes may be safely attributed.”

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Entry Filed under: 11th Century,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Early Middle Ages,England,Execution,History,Infamous,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Public Executions,Summary Executions

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c. 865: Ragnar Lodbrok, Viking raider

4 comments November 19th, 2011 Headsman

On an unknown date in (perhaps) the 860s, Norse raider Ragnar Lodbrok (or Ragnar Lothbrok) was allegedly put to death in the Indiana Jones-esque manner of being cast into a pit of snakes.

Ragnar is a half-legendary character who plundered France and Britain in the mid-ninth century, the heyday of Viking marauders; he’s also the lead character of the cable TV series Vikings.

He’s known from Scandinavian sagas, like the Ragnarssona Þattr, which describes Ragnar’s final battle after shipwrecking in Northumbria.

At that time, there was a king called Ælla ruling over Northumbria in England. And when he learns that raiders have come to his kingdom, he musters a mighty force and marches against Ragnar with an overwhelming host, and hard and terrible battle ensues. King Ragnar was clad in the silken jacket Aslaug had given him at their parting. But as the defending army was so big that nothing could withstand them, so almost all his men were killed, but he himself charged four times through the ranks of King Aella, and iron just glanced off his silk shirt. Finally he was taken captive and put in a snake-pit, but the snakes wouldn’t come near him. King Aella had seen during the day, as they fought, that iron didn’t bite him, and now the snakes won’t harm him. So he had him stripped of the clothes that he’d been wearing on the day, and at once snakes were hanging off him on all sides, and he left his life there with much courage.

Here’s Ernest Borgnine as Ragnar in the 1958 film The Vikings, dying in a pit full of wild dogs, not snakes. Well, it’s the same animal kingdom.

“How the little pigs would grunt if they knew how the old boar suffers!” he’s supposed to have exclaimed, keeping to the nature theme.

Although Vikings didn’t really seem to need a casus belli to pillage England, the little pigs would in fact do some serious grunting when they found out about the boar: Ragnar’s sons punitive sorties against England martyred the Christian king St. Edmund.

Update: When this post was first written in 2011, information about this distant Viking captain was not all that plentiful. Ragnar’s starring turn in a TV serial since that time has somewhat broadened his cultural footprint.

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Entry Filed under: Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",By Animals,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Denmark,Early Middle Ages,England,Execution,Gruesome Methods,Heads of State,History,Immured,No Formal Charge,Notably Survived By,Occupation and Colonialism,Pirates,Power,Royalty,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Terrorists,Wartime Executions

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1002: St. Brice’s Day Massacre

6 comments November 13th, 2007 Headsman

On this date over a millennium past, according to the chronicle of John of Wallingford, King Ethelred the Unready of England conducted a massacre of Danes living in the realm.

The character of this sanguinary event — named after a fourth-century French bishop whose feast day Nov. 13 happens to be — lies half-buried in history’s shifting sands. Surely the slaughter of every Dane in a Britain then very much in the Scandinavian orbit would have been not only morally reprehensible but logistically unimaginable.

The accepted, albeit sketchy, story has it that to consolidate his own authority — or to check an actual or suspected plot against him — Ethelred ordered the surprise apprehension and summary execution of some sizable number of Danish lords and mercenaries. British historian Thomas Hodgkin characterizes it as a sort of coup d’etat.

On this date, it was the Danes who were unready for Ethelred.

But whatever its true extent or immediate object, it occurred within the context of intensifying conflict between the English crown and Scandinavian aspirants. Ethelred was to spend the better part of his life struggling — both militarily and through the ruinous tribute of Danegeld — to hold back the incursions of the Viking king Sweyn I.

The St. Brice’s Day Massacre exacerbated those tensions. Sweyn’s sister was apparently among those massacred, and — whether driven by vengeance or simply availing a pretext — Sweyn resumed harrying the English kingdom in the following years.

By 1013, Sweyn had driven Ethelred to Normandy and ruled all of England, welding together a Norse empire fringing the whole north of Europe.

But the empire — and England’s place in it — proved an historical cul-de-sac. Authority in England would be contested for another half-century, gradually sapping the crown’s strength until the Norman Conquest in 1066 swept aside Viking power and set England on a course that would redefine its history.

Update: The story of Ethelred, Normandy, and the Vikings told in Episode 3 of Lars Brownworth’s Norman Centuries podcast:

[audio:http://c4.libsyn.com/editions/58550/17915/03-richard-the-good.mp3]

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