1573: Hans Boije af Gennäs

Add comment January 1st, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1573, the Swedish commander of Weissenstein (present-day Paide, Estonia), Hans Boije af Gennäs was executed when his fortress was overrun by Russian troops, during the Livonian War.


Ruins of (cc) image from Ivo Kruusamägi.

A walled city with a Teutonic Knights-built keep, Weissenstein sat at a crossroads in interior Livonia and changed hands several times during this decades-long multilateral conflict involving Russia, Sweden, Denmark-Norway, Poland, and Lithuania — the latter two of which united into a Commonwealth during the war.

Big picture, the Livonian War ran from 1558 to 1583; the stakes were, as one might guess, control of Livonia — essentially, the present-day Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia. Long ago this precinct had been the medieval remit of those same Teutonic Knights; after 1561, it was controlled in the south by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (that’s Latvia), and in the north by Sweden (that’s Estonia, containing Weissenstein).

Needless to say, this brought enormous suffering to Livonian, which Livonian chroniclers like Johann Renner, Balthasar Russow and Salomon Henning blamed mostly on the Russians. As Charles Halperin summarizes,

To the Livonian chroniclers, the Russians were barbaric, sadistic monsters, whose atrocities they described in graphic, sensational detail. According to Renner, the Russians were cruel, bloodthirsty, and inhumane. They massacred men, women, and children among fishermen. They hanged Livonian women from trees and robbed them of their clothing, silver, and gold. They impaled babies on stakes or sharp picket fences, and hacked little children in two and left them, or hacked adults into pieces. They placed a huge stone on the stomach of a pregnant women [sic] to force her foetus from her womb. They burned alive a woman hiding in an oven. They cut off the breasts of maidens and women and hacked off the hands and feet of men. They threw fifty children into a well and filled it with stones. They flayed a man and cut open his side, poured in gunpowder, and blew him apart. They decapitated captives after flaying them and cutting off their fingers and toes. They massacred peasants young and old. They flayed captives in Moscow with whips of braided flails, marched them five miles to a cemetery and then beheaded them with axes. They drove naked peasants into great fires and nailed one peasant to a post and suffocated him with smoke. They tied a captured noble to a tree, cut open his body, and let his intestines fall out. They nailed a ferryman to a door and then killed him with arrows. They killed an old forest overseer by cutting open his body, nailing one end of his intestines to a tree, and then beating him with whips to make him run, pulling out his intestines and bringing about his death. Peasants were drawn and quartered. They murdered captives by snapping their necks in such a way that they suffered for one, two, or three days before expiring. The Tatars cut out the heart of one prisoner (killing him, of course), and ate it, saying that doing so would give them courage.

Russow adds that Russians committed terrible acts of murder, theft, and arson during their invasion. They tortured and tormented Livonians, massacred them, threw poor peasant, their wives and children to their deaths off city walls, hacked to death servitors of Magnus,* roasted captives on spits for days, stole the blanket off a dead woman, deposited children on the ice to die of overexposure or drown, put out a noble’s eyes before flaying him to death, drowned, tortured, and executed captives, sabered captives, plucked out the heart of the living body of a mayor, ripped a preacher’s tongue from his throat, sold captives into slavery, raped maidens and women, threw captives to their deaths off the walls of conquered cities, and starved captives nearly to death. They left the bodies of their victims for wild beasts to eat …

According to Henning, the Russians were bloodthirsty “ignorant barbarians”, who raged like savages, and tortured and killed their enemies in inhuman fashion, including stretching them and breaking them on the wheel. They cut down even the young and the old, women and children, who surrendered with their hands raised, or subjected them to inhuman barbarities and atrocities, and then barbaric slavery. Everywhere they went, they plundered, slew, roasted, and burned. They hacked pregnant women in two, impaled foetuses on fence stakes, slit men’s sides, inserted gunpowder and blew them up, and slit men’s throats and let them bleed to death. They smeared people with thick pine pitch, bound them, and burned them. They gang-raped women and girls, and sold the survivors into slavery to the Tatars. They tore nursing babes from their mothers’ breasts, chopped off hands, feet, and heads, and gutted the remainder of the bodies, stuck bodies on spits and roasted or baked them, and then ate them to satisfy their “diabolical, bloodthirsty hunger” … They massacred innocent Livonian townsmen, wives, and children in retribution for anti-Russian plots in which they had no part. They butchered poor little schoolchildren. Despite safe-conducts to the surrendered occupants of assaulted cities, they sabered them as they departed. Captives too old or infirm to be led into captivity, even nobles, were killed on the spot. Survivors of a castle whose occupants chose to blow themselves up rather than surrendered were sabered, hacked to bits, mutilated, and left unburied to be eaten by birds, dogs, and other wild beasts.

To skip past various twists of state- and warcraft, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was taking a breather from the fight in the early 1570s, leaving Russia and Sweden mano a mano.

The Russians invaded Swedish-defended Estonia in 1572 with Tsar Ivan the Terrible personally leading the army, and put the small garrison of Weissenstein/Paide to irresistible siege. Nevertheless, it did resist, and these defenders have the distinction of killing during this siege the sinister operative of the tsar — Malyuta Skuratov, so much the emblem of Ivan’s terrible Oprichnina that in Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, the titular Margarita at an infernal ball can’t help but notice one “face ringed by a fiery beard, the face of Malyuta Skuratov”.


Portrait of Skuratov by a contemporary painter, the late Pavel Ryzhenko.

Considering the flaying and intestine-ripping that mere passersby were liable to expose themselves to, the Swedes earned no quarter from Ivan for compounding their resistance with the death of the tsar’s hand. Our man Hans Boije af Gennais (English Wikipedia entry | Swedish) and his chief aides were all impaled and slowly roasted over flames immediately upon Weissenstein’s New Year’s Day capture.

* Magnus, Duke of Holstein was Ivan’s unsuccessful puppet king in Livonia in the early 1570s, but he lost favor after being repeatedly thumped by the Swedes and eventually outright turned against the Russians. Ivan captured him and (alas for Executed Today) did not put him to death, but gratuitously brutalized anyone in Magnus’s train.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Estonia,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Impaled,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Russia,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Sweden,Torture,Wartime Executions

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