1306: Simon Fraser, William Wallace comrade in arms

Add comment September 8th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1306, Scottish patriot Simon Fraser was drawn and quartered in London.

This Norman-descended lord was one of the side-switching nobles during the wars of William Wallace, but after completing the full circuit from Wallace to Edward I and back again, he unexpectedly decided to lash himself to St. Andrew‘s cross for good.

Perhaps he could tell where the wind was blowing, and not just for his historical reputation: Fraser’s former ally, “Red” Comyn, went down the other fork in the road, submitting himself to an irresistible English invasion the better to devote his energies to his longshot horse in the confusing Scottish regnal derby.

Comyn’s reward was to be personally daggered to death at the altar of Greyfriars Church by Robert the Bruce.


The murder of John Comyn.

But no amount of royal sacrilege could arrest the popular fad for cutting a deal, and as celebrated in this History of the Frasers,

Every man of influence in the Kingdom, except Sir Simon Fraser, Sir William Wallace, and the band of patriots who comprised the garrison of Stirling, followed the example of Cumming [Comyn] … The patriots were proclaimed outlaws and their estates forfeited, and they ultimately sacrificed their noble lives in the undying service of their country. The redoubted Sir William Wallace continued most deservedly to be the idol of his countrymen for the glorious part which he took in establishing the independence of his fatherland, but “if to him be due the glory of being the first to awaken Scotland from her ignominious slumber, his efforts were nobly seconded by Sir Simon Fraser, who alone of the aristocracy was disposed to view with envy the merit which called his hero to command.”

Fraser outlived Wallace by a year, persisting in the field “bold as Caesar” which supposedly led a couple of Scottish knights imprisoned in the Tower to cockily wager their heads that the English would never corral him.*

Fraser suffered the torment of being hanged and cut down still alive for beheading, the spectacle of a double death (with the disemboweling part mercifully saved for posthumous application). His head was set on a spike on London Bridge beside Wallace’s, and his mangled trunk hung in chains under guard lest any soul sensitive to Scotch nationalism or mephitis should undertake to cut it down.

For all that he’s not even the most famous Simon Fraser to be executed by the English.

* Edward collected his prize; you can read all about it as an aside in this ballad on the execution of Fraser.

Sire Herbert of Morham, feyr knyht ant bold,
For the love of Frysel ys lyf wes ysold.
A wajour he made, so hit wes ytold,
Ys heued of to smhyte yef me him brohte in hold,
Wat so bytyde.
Sory wes he thenne,
Tho he myhte him kenne
Thourh the toun ryde.

Thenne seide ys scwyer a word anon-ryht:
“Sire, we beth dede; ne helpeth hit no wyht!”
(Thomas de Boys the scwyer wes to nome.)
“Nou Ychot oure wajour turneth ous to grome,
So Y bate!”
Y do ou to wyte,
Here heued was ofsmyte
Byfore the Tour gate.

Sir Herbert of Morham, a fair and bold knight,
For the love of Fraser his life was sold.
A wager he made, as it was told,
To have his head cut off if they captured Fraser,
Whatever betide.
Sorry was he then,
When he might see him
Ride through the town.

Then his squire spoke a word immediately:
“Sir, we’re dead; there’s no creature to help us!”
(Thomas de Bois was the squire’s name.)
“Now I know that our wager brings us to harm,
So my courage ends!”
I give you to know,
Their heads were cut off
Before the Tower gate.

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1306: Nigel de Brus, brother of the King

Add comment September 18th, 2014 Headsman

On an uncertain date in September of 1306 — sometime after the mid-September English capture of Kildrummy CastleNigel de Brus was drawn and quartered at the border town of Berwick.


The present-day ruins of Kildrummy Castle. (cc) image from Stu Smith.

As his name indicates, Nigel, Niall, or Neil — as your taste may run — was kin to Robert the Bruce, his brother in fact, and a key supporter of Robert in the latter’s fight for the Scottish crown.

Someone must have put the Bruces under that old Chinese curse about living in interesting times. Though the extremely interesting First War of Scottish Independence would indeed put Robert the Bruce on the Scottish throne, it was achieved in a period of devastation. Not only Nigel, but every single one of Robert’s brothers, died violently: three in all were executed, and a fourth slain in battle.

None of the five had reached his teens when times started getting really interesting with the shock 1286 death of Scotland’s King Alexander III, who got lost in the dark riding to Fife in bad weather and had a fatal fall down an embankment.

All three of Alexander’s children had predeceased him, so the hope of succession settled on a three-year-old* granddaughter, the Norwegian princess remembered as Margaret, Maid of Norway. Margaret now became for several years a chesspiece of diplomacy between the Scottish, Norwegian, and English courts, and was slated for marriage to the crown prince, the future King Edward II.** But we can slide right past the delicacies in all that because Margaret, too, dropped dead — in her case, at sea while en route to Scotland in 1290.† Little Margaret had never once set foot in the country she putatively ruled.

With no clear successor to Margaret, a free-for-all scramble for power ensued with no fewer than 14 noblemen claiming the throne for themselves. This “Great Cause” soon coalesced into John of Balliol (the claimant by primogeniture) vs. Robert the Bruce (the claimant by proximity of blood) — and the Guardians solicited the arbitration of the English King Edward I.

Having been balked of his goal of bringing Scotland into his dynastic thrall by means of the marital arrangements, Edward did not mean to miss the diplomatic opportunity and twisted the candidates’ arms to accept the suzerainty that Edward claimed over them. The disunited Scots had little choice but to do so.

(The Great Cause is covered in this episode of the History of England podcast.)

Edward ruled for Balliol, but his impositions and concomitant Scottish resistance soon brought the situation to open warfare. Incensed at a Scots-French alliance to oppose them, the English invaded in 1296‡ — forcing Balliol’s deposition (he’s known as “Toom Tabard”, or “empty coat”, for the regal insignia torn from his raiments) and provoking the celebrated resistance of William Wallace.

We know what happened to that guy, but Edward’s bloody pacification of the north came undone in 1306.

In February of that year, Robert the Bruce summoned the successor Balliol claimant, his rival John Comyn, to Greyfriars Church in Dumfries and sacrilegiously stuck a knife in him.


19th century illustration of John Comyn’s murder. Since we’re citing the handy History of England podcast, here’s the relevant episode.

In this affray the relative measures of perfidy by Bruce and by Comyn, both of whom were scheming nobles angling for the throne, are down to your choice of parties and sources. The consequences, however, can hardly be mistaken.

Bruce had himself defiantly crowned King of Scotland just weeks after imbruing his hands with Comyn’s blood, but a furious Edward I was smashing up the outclassed Scottish by springtime. The Bruce himself had to flee to hiding, and eventually to Ireland, while many of his supporters wound up hemmed in in Kildrummy Castle, commanded by our man Nigel. The English soon overwhelmed it (legend has it, as legend usually does, that the fortress was treacherously betrayed). Nigel was hauled off to Berwick for more or less immediate punishment; his fellow-commander at Kildrummy, the Earl of Athol, suffered the same in London on November 7.

One could forgive Nigel if, in the midst of having his entrails ripped out of his trunk by the executioner of Berwick, he indulged a moment’s despair for the family’s Great Cause. Robert himself was reduced to feeling out whether any English terms could be had.

But from this nadir of his fortunes, Robert the Bruce gloriously (nigh miraculously) returned to lead a successful guerrilla campaign against the English beginning in 1307, crucially aided by the death that same year of Edward I. He would sting the English repeatedly over the ensuing years before his gathering strength finally forced the English to recognize Scottish sovereignty in 1328.

* Margaret was actually just two years old at the time Alexander died. Alexander’s second wife was thought to be pregnant at the time — that turned out to be a nonstarter — so official succession didn’t settle on Margaret until she was three.

** Though this proposed union, never realized, raised the prospect of uniting English and Scottish realms, the Guardians of Scotland who called the shots while waiting for their sovereign to grow up insisted that the relevant document’s language assure that even if ruled by the same monarch Scotland would “remain separate, apart and free in itself without subjection to the English Kingdom.”

† A “False Margaret” posing as the lost Scottish queen would later turn up in Norway, and be executed for her charade.

‡ Among other things, this invasion seized the previously Scottish city of Berwick — Nigel’s eventual execution-place — for the English. Berwick changed hands repeatedly between the Scottish and the English for several hundred years before settling permanently into English possession in 1482.

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1843: 17 who drew the black beans

2 comments March 25th, 2010 Headsman

This date in 1843 was a good one to just stick with the guacamole.

Though the Republic of Texas (it would join the United States in 1846) had won its independence from Mexico a few years before, hostilities between the two continued.

Skirmishes in the frontierlands at length triggered a Texan reprisal-slash-plundering expedition.

The officially independent Somervell Expedition of volunteer Texan militiamen captured a couple of Mexican towns, then disbanded to go home. Those members of it optimistic about their chances for more raiding set off for Ciudad Mier* — the Mier Expedition.

Their optimism was misplaced.

The Mier Expedition was a flop, and the irate Mexican President Santa Anna ordered the entire band shot to make an example. Anglo diplomatic wrangling got him to go down to shooting one tenth of the band.

Well, you’ve gotta pick that tenth somehow.

The Black Bean Lottery

So on this day, 176 potentially condemned men were made to draw a bean from a pot containing 159 white ones and 17 fatal black ones.

For the lucky 159, there was no rush quite like winning your life from a legume, as this survivors’ account describes:

I knew then that I was safe, and the revulsion of feeling was so great and rapid that I can compare it to nothing except the sudden lifting of an immense weight from off one’s shoulders. I felt as light as a feather.

The 17 for whom the cosmos had ordained frijoles negros took a quick leave of their companions, and were shot in two batches. (Here is a thorough discussion of the entire affair.)

It was a typically dicey death by musketry, with lots of people requiring multiple volleys. One of the 17, one James Shepherd, even survived the execution altogether by playing dead. (He fled during the night, but was later recaptured and [successfully] re-shot.)

The most hated man (by the Mexicans), Ewen Cameron, pulled white, but Santa Anna thought better of letting him draw air and had him separately executed a month later. The rest of the lottery’s “winners” languished in prisons and work camps for more than a year of continued Texas-Mexico hostility, until they were amnestied and released in September 1844 — many destined to renew hostilities in the imminent Mexican-American War.

That survivor quoted above, William “Bigfoot” Wallace, was one of those re-enlistees. His colorful career with the Texas Rangers earned him a minor star in the firmament of Americana; he appears in Larry McMurty’s Lonesome Dove prequel Dead Man’s Walk … only in that version, he gets cinematically black-beaned at the big moment, as in this clip from the miniseries of the same title.

* The town is latterly famous as a key transit point for arms smuggling to Fidel Castro to supply the Cuban Revolution.

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1297: Marion (Murron) Braidfute, bride of The Wallace

3 comments May 14th, 2009 Headsman

May of 1297 marks the first appearance in the historical record of Braveheart hero William Wallace … so we mark today the undated (and presumably fictional) execution/murder of his wife that, by the most cinematic account possible, set Wallace on his own path to the scaffold.

The face that lifted a thousand claymores: Catherine McCormack as Braveheart‘s version of Marion, Murron MacClannough. Murron’s “execution” inspires William Wallace.

Marion (or Marian) Braidfute, she’s called by the Scottish poet Blind Harry in the epic dating near two centuries after famed rebel’s rising. Not wanting audiences to confuse her with Robin Hood sweetie Maid Marian, the Braveheart script renamed her Murron MacClannough.

In Mel Gibson’s gory silver screen epic, Wallace is, at this point, a determinedly apolitical commoner — a stance contrasting markedly with a backstory of nationalistic identity-forming experiences, like having his father and brother killed by the English. He’s radicalized only after his attempt to protect Murron from rape results in her demonstrative summary execution.

And of course, Wallace then wreaks a bloody revenge (complete with summary execution of his own) that soon has the country in flames.

Hollywood’s avenging-his-woman angle exploits a folkloric embroidery of a female character perhaps created by Blind Harry, writing in the 15th century. In “The Wallace”, the titular hero is already well along his conflict with the English crown when he weds Marion — whose story arc differs greatly from that of the peasant eye candy Mel Gibson taps. In the poem, Marion is exposed to the vengeance of the Sheriff of Lanark, William Heselrig, when Wallace goes off to fight and refuses to take her along.

Now fierce with Rage the cruel Foe draws near,
Oh does not Heaven make Innocence its Care!
Where fled thy guardian Angel in that Hour
And left his Charge to the fell Tyrant’s Power,
Shall his fierce Steel be redned with thy Gore
And streaming Blood distain thy Beauties o’er?

But now awaken’d with the dreadfull Sound
The trembling Matron threw her Eyes around,
In vain alace were all the Tears she shed
When fierce he waves the Fauchion o’er her Head
All Tyes of Honour by the Rogue abjur’d
Relentless deep he plung’d the ruthless Sword;
Swift o’er her Limbs does creeping Coldness rise
And Death’s pale Hand seal’d up her fainting Eyes.

Wallace slays Heselrig the next day, according to the poem — the actual historical event of May, 1297,* that marks Wallace’s emergence from the dim fogs of history. (In the film Braveheart, the chronology is unstated, but Wallace is revenged before Murron’s burial.)

John of Fordun, writing in the 14th century, tells the tale.

The same year William Wallace lifted up his head from his den — as it were — and slew the English sheriff of Lanark, a doughty and powerful man, in the town of Lanark. From that time, therefore, there flocked to him all who were in bitterness of spirit, and weighed down beneath the burden of bondage under the unbearable domination of English despotism; and he became their leader. He was wondrously brave and bold, of goodly mien, and boundless liberality … So Wallace overthrew the English on all sides; and gaining strength daily, he, in a short time, by force, and by dint of his prowess, brought all the magnates of Scotland under his sway, whether they would or not.

* “In the month of May the perfidious race of Scots began to rebel.” (Walter of Hemingborough)

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Cycle of Violence,England,Fictional,History,Innocent Bystanders,No Formal Charge,Notably Survived By,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Put to the Sword,Scotland,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions,Women

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Nine Executed People Who Make Great Halloween Costumes

9 comments October 22nd, 2008 Headsman

Executed Today’s Guide to Halloween, Part I (Click here for Part II.)

Grim, ghastly, and gruesome — it must be election time Halloween!

The grisliest tricks of the past are the tastiest treats of the season, and that makes Executed Today purpose-built for the occasion. Heck … that’s why it’s our anniversary.

That’s also why it’s rich with ghoulish inspiration for your Halloween costume.

For all the severed heads and flayed skins around here, the set of execution victims who are Halloween-ready is a limited one. It’s just not enough to be famous (or infamous); one must also have an iconography recognizable enough to get the public credit you deserve for your inspired disguise.

If you happen to roll with a crowd that’s totally going to get your Savonarola outfit, more power to you. The rest of us have to play to the masses.

But some few of our principals fit the bill well enough to be fine Halloween choices without too much exertion in the prep department.

Anne Boleyn

Even a character as renowned as Anne Boleyn is a little hard to play: quick, what does she look like?

But between The Tudors and The Other Boleyn Girl, there’s a current pop-culture context for the character (and plenty of precedents). Tudor garb plus the famous “B” necklace will be a dead giveaway for those in the know. For extra credit, add a prosthetic sixth finger to simulate her alleged polydactylism.

Accessories: Date decked out as Henry VIII … or as the French swordsman who beheaded her.

Marie Antoinette

You could rock this collection of Antoinette portraits, but unless you’re designing for a movie, an 18th century gown and a big tall stack of hair ought to do the trick.

Though ahistorical for Marie herself, a red ribbon around the neck, a la the post-Terror “Victim’s Balls”, makes a nice twist.

Accessories: Bring cake.

Joan of Arc

Armor, a Christian emblem, and a tomboyish look will take you home. Totally roust any English you come across.

Accessories: Business cards reading “Miss of Arc”.

Mata Hari

There’s the intrinsic sensuality of death and all, but the famous stripper-spy is this blog’s best choice for a sexy look still true to the theme.

Mata Hari was known for her (supposedly) Indian outfits and routines.

Accessories: Orientalism, by Edward Said.

Guy Fawkes

“The only man to enter parliament with honest intentions”: that is, to blow it up.

That V for Vendetta mask is re-usable for Guy Fawkes Day on — remember, remember? — the fifth of November.

Accessories: Let’s just say it’s nothing they’ll let you take on an airplane.

Charles I

Cromwell succeeded where Fawkes failed, at least as pertains the royal person. And if you’re the type who can sell a Charles I costume — possibly requiring a fairly highbrow room — you’ll have nigh outstripped the achievements of both.

The lush coiffure, the wispy facial hair, the delicate movements … not everyone can pull that stuff off. If you can, get your Alec Guinness impression down and you’re on your way to a date at Whitehall.

Accessories: The whole point is to wear the silly hat, isn’t it?

William Wallace

Francophiles may go for Vercingetorix, but Mel Gibson made Wallace the barbarian everyone loves to hang, draw and quarter.

Don’t neglect to bellow “FREEDOM!” repeatedly at the top of your lungs. Everyone loves that.

[audio:William_Wallace_Freedom_Speech.mp3]

Accessories: That big, swingin’ sword. You know what I’m talking about.

Saddam Hussein

Gone but not forgotten, Saddam offers a variety of looks:

  • Beaten, older Saddam, with salt-and-pepper beard (wear the noose with this look, unless you’re a dead ringer);
  • Haggard, fresh-captured Saddam (not recommended; neither the goofball look nor the implicit triumphalism square with the known sequel)
  • Younger, despotic Saddam, with crazy smile and military fatigues;
  • The Coen brothers’ “bowling alley Saddam” that can double as duds for your neighborhood Lebowski Fest.

Accessories: Be sure to complete the outfit by bringing Colin Powell. Seriously, he’ll be grateful for something to do.

Che Guevara

Love him or hate him, no post-World War II icon is more instantly recognizable than the Cuban guerrilla. Do your part, comrade! Contribute to the posthumous appropriation of his image with a “revolutionary” is-that-ironic-or-not-? Che costume.

Accessories: Che Guevara cigarettes. Che Guevara ankle socks. There’s no shortage of Che Guevara accessories to choose from; for a more meta look, go as Che’s mediated historical image by simply dressing entirely in various Che-branded apparel.

Creative Commons pumpkin image courtesy of fabbio

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Entry Filed under: Administrative Messages

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1305: William Wallace, Braveheart

10 comments August 23rd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1305, Scottish knight Mel Gibson — er, William Wallace — was hanged, drawn and quartered at Smithfield for treason to a British crown he refused to recognize.

Just like so:

Well, close enough. Some wags have alleged one or two historical liberties in Braveheart.

Among the lesser (but more pertinent here): that they weren’t — you knew this already — offering the former Guardian of Scotland the opportunity to reduce his suffering with a public submission, or use the stage for theatrical defiance. Hanging, drawing and quartering was a brand new execution Edward I was experimenting with for emasculating, disemboweling, and (so the idea went) utterly cowing the rebellious hinterlands of the British Isles. Wallace may have been just the second person to suffer it.

But only a pointy-headed blogger could possibly care when the main point is that back before Christendom succumbed to nancy decadences like Vatican II, men wore woad, defenestrated queers, and tapped top-shelf babes.


Among the few things known for certain about William Wallace is that he did not score with Isabella of France. Or with Sophie Marceau.

Facts? This is show business!

Mel’s bloodbath only riffs the already-fantastic 15th century epic of “the Wallace” by Scottish minstrel Blind Harry, which in turn got a lyrical call-out in Robert Burns’ 18th century Scottish patriotic tune Scots Wha Hae.

National martyrs — and, sure, it helps to die at the right time, as Wallace did just before Robert the Bruce secured Scottish independence — feed a train of hungry authors and ready audiences in every time, place and medium.

However genuinely flesh-and-blood the limbs that wrought his feats and were torn apart on this day, Wallace returns to his generations of interlocutors half-shrouded in mythology. Seven centuries on, his contested (and sometimes absurd) use as precedent or metaphor stakes a claim to his Truth at least as compelling as battlefield tactics at Stirling Bridge. What does he “really” have to tell us? No matter how grisly his end, William Wallace doesn’t get to decide: it’s between you, me, Mel, and a few billion other folks.

Only a character really worth remembering is worth that kind of fictionalizing.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Hanged,Heads of State,History,Martyrs,Mature Content,Myths,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Scotland,Separatists,Soldiers,Treason

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