Posts filed under 'Drowned'

1478: The Duke of Clarence, in a butt of malmsey

4 comments February 18th, 2014 Jonathan Shipley

(Thanks to Jonathan Shipley of A Writer’s Desk for the guest post. -ed.)

First Murderer

Take him over the costard with the hilts of thy
sword, and then we will chop him in the malmsey-butt
in the next room.

Second Murderer

O excellent devise! make a sop of him.

Shakespeare’s Richard III, Act I, Scene 4

On this day, in 1478, George Plantagenet was executed for treason against his brother King Edward IV — famously supposed (as in Shakespeare’s Richard III) to have been drowned in a butt of malmsey wine.

George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence, played an important role in the long-waged War of the Roses, a series of dynastic wars, battles, and skirmishes between 1455 and 1487 between supporters of rival branches of the House of Plantagenet for the English crown: the House of Lancaster versus the House of York.

Plantagenet originally supported his brother’s claim to the throne. Through a series of battles with pro-Lancastrian armies, Edward, of the House of York, advanced towards London with his Yorkish army. Once there, he deposed the Lancastrian King Henry VI to rapturous celebration (London itself leaned Yorkist).

George naturally cashed in with his brother’s accession. He was made a duke. He was invested as a Knight of the Garter.

But one other perk proved butt-ugly for George’s future.

He was married, in 1469, to noblewoman Isabel Neville, daughter of the Earl of Warwick. Warwick was the famous kingmaker of the War of the Roses, whose support was instrumental for Edward IV.

But Edward ill rewarded that support by shockingly marrying a commoner and promoting her family to positions Warwick had intended to control. That drove a wedge between Warwick and Edward … and George Plantagenet went with the father-in-law during an abortive attempt to restore Henry VI.

Warwick died in battle. Edward benevolently restored his treacherous brother George back into royal favor.

But George’s mental state was deteriorating. He also became in inveterate alcoholic.

His wife died a few days before Christmas, 1476. George was convinced that his wife was murdered by her lady-in-waiting, Ankarette Twynyho. Though there was no evidence to support his claim (historians later believed Isabel died of consumption or fever) the court was bullied into hanging Twynyho on George’s accusation.

Soon after, his mental state waning still, the Duke of Clarence allegedly involved himself in another ill-conceived plot to overthrow his brother. He was soon summoned to Edward, was accused of treason and was imprisoned in the Tower of London.*

He was put on trial. The prosector was King Edward IV himself, at whose insistence Parliament attainted the royal brother of “unnatural, loathly treasons.”

Beheaded was the usual mode of execution for treasonous individuals. Not with George, however. No, at the age of 28, George Plantagenet died in his favorite beverage, malmsey wine. “The two of them roll a barrel of malmsey wine into George’s room,” Philappa Gregory writes in The White Queen, “and George the fool makes a joke of it and laughs with his mouth opened wide as if already gasping for air, as his face bleaches white with fear.”

His body was sent, still in the barrel, to Tewkesbury Abbey. He was entombed there beside his late wife, and they still reside there today.

According to the Italian chronicler Dominic Mancini, who was present in England in the 1480s and wrote an account of the fraught English political scene at that time, Edward’s and George’s youngest brother “was so overcome with grief for his brother, that he could not dissimulate so well, but that he was overheard to say that he would one day avenge his brother’s death.”

That grief-stricken sibling was the future Richard III. In a few years’ time would displace the (now-late) Edward IV’s young heirs and send them into history as the lost little Princes in the Tower.

* Clarence’s supposed rebellion is a sketchy bit of palace intrigue. Some have alleged that the whole thing was a pretext to eliminate a claimant who would be in position to argue that Edward’s supposed youthful precontracted marriage excluded the king’s children from succession. In time, Richard III did indeed make this argument.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Drowned,England,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Other Voices,Popular Culture,Power,Put to the Sword,Royalty,Treason

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Feast Day of Saints Crispin and Crispinian

Add comment October 25th, 2013 Headsman

This day is called the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day and comes safe home,
Will stand o’ tiptoe when the day is named
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall see this day, and live old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbors
And say, “Tomorrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say, “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.”

…And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.

Henry V, Act 4, Scene 3

Though the band of brothers is much better-known than Crispin and Crispinian themselves, Shakespeare’s immortal verse alludes to a pair of questionable third-century martyrs whose feast date this is.

They were supposedly Christian missionaries proselytizing in Gaul, or possibly Britain,* and there made to suffer for the faith under Diocletian‘s persecutions: Crispin Crispian’s version of the period’s characteristic “execution survived” story has them being pitched into the drink with millstones, but failing to drown. As usual, the Romans had more methods in reserve than God had escapes.

Somewhat derogated latterly since their historicity is so shaky, C+C are the patrons of leather workers and related professions including tanners, saddlers and cobblers.

And in the great spirit of reappropriating ancient martyrs, fellows this handy with thongs and harnesses were claimed by one Toronto church as patrons of leather fetishists.

“These wounds I had on Crispin’s Day” indeed.

Oh, and speaking of St. Crispin’s Day and war and literature, October 25 is the anniversary not only of Agincourt but also of the Crimean War battle that inspired Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade”.

Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred.

* There’s a Crispin and Crispianus pub in England dating all the way to Templar times and later frequented by novelist and public hanging scold Charles Dickens.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drowned,Execution,France,God,Language,Martyrs,Popular Culture,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Uncertain Dates

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1435: Agnes Bernauer

1 comment October 12th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1435, the Duke of Bavaria-Munich had his son’s commoner mistress drowned.

Agnes Bernauer (English Wikipedia link | German) was supposed to have been the daughter of an Augsburg barber, though hard details about her life are hard to come by owing to her social class.

By 1432, she’s demonstrably a part of the Munich court; it’s thought that the prince Albert (the future Duke Albert III) must have met her at an Augsburg tournament in 1428.

The nature of her relationship to the Bavarian heir, too, must largely be guessed at. It’s been widely hypothesized that they might have married secretly.

Such a marriage might explain the shocking end to the Agnes-Albert relationship by situating it as a threat to dynastic succession: Albert was Ernst’s only legitimate son, and the Bavarian patrimony had been subdivided and fought over among Wittelsbach kin over the preceding decades.

Whatever the reason, Ernst took the disapproving (maybe) in-law act quite a lot farther than most. While Albert was out on a hunt, Ernst had Agnes seized, condemned for witchcraft, and executed by drowning in the Danube River on Oct. 12, 1435.

Upon hearing of the death of his beloved, Albert bitterly deserted his father for Ernst’s cousin and rival Louis VII, Duke of Bavaria-Ingolstadt. The prospect of capping domestic homicide with civil war loomed for several months until father and son were reconciled — and one must guess, once again, at how that conversation went. Albert endowed a perpetual mass for Agnes which is still said annually. A Bernauer chapel containing a tomb relief of Agnes, erected as an apology by Duke Ernst, remains a tourist draw in Straubing.

The star-crossed love of Agnes and Albert has proven irresistible to the arts over the centuries, with a special boom in the Romantic era.

King Ludwig I of Bavaria composed a poem in her honor; several 19th century stage tragedies (most notably that of Friedrich Hebbel) explore the story; and Carl Orff made it into an opera, Die Bernauerin.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drowned,Execution,Germany,History,Notably Survived By,Power,Sex,Summary Executions,Witchcraft,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1644: Joost Schouten, LGBT VOC VIP

July 11th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1644, Joost Schouten, the able merchant and diplomat of the Dutch East India Company, “was strangled and burned to ashes in my presence in Batavia [Jakarta] because of his gruesome sodomy.”

That’s the report of Gijsbert Heeck who, like Scouten, left a noteworthy memoir. Heeck allowed that Schouten “was a man of unusual knowledge and extraordinary intellect,” but despite his gifts remained “in his heart … a hypocritical villain and seducer of many, secretly using his prominence and great authority to force them away from the path of decency into the way of his shameful foulness, seeking thereby to satisfy his devilish lechery.”

Before all that devilish lechery stuff came to light, Joost Schouten (English Wikipedia link | Dutch) had enjoyed a brilliant two-decade career in the Far East, most notably in Siam. There, Schouten ingratiated himself with the Siamese king Prasat Thong,* winning lucrative trade concessions, personal honors, and a seat for himself on the East India Company’s executive organ, the Council of the Indies.

A report that Schouten initially wrote for that company surveying Siam’s geography, people, and politics was published in 1638 and translated into many tongues: he was the first general account of Siam for Europeans. While several others would follow (pdf) in the 17th century, Schouten’s Description remains an essential source for the period.

Schouten himself was no mere observer in the ferocious scramble for colonial position and trade leverage in East Asia. It’s for this august person that the explorer Abel Tasman (as in Tasmania) named Schouten Island (off the coast of Tasmania). That was on the voyage that Tasman undertook to circumnavigate Australia, and discover (for Europeans) New Zealand — a voyage outfitted by Joost Schouten. Given another decade, with Dutch commerce on the come, who knows what heights he might have attained.

But the envoy’s scintillating service record did him little good when a handsome French halberdier repulsed by Schouten’s advances entrapped him in June 1644. This was an offense the Company took incredibly seriously.

Schouten confessed the crime voluntarily, and the only consideration the judges showed him was a pre-burning mercy strangulation. Their verdict, according to Peter Boomgaard, evinced “fear for the punishing hand of God if those who ruled did not take drastic measures.” Schouten was an educated man; indeed, he himself had been a judge. All the worse that, where he had wrought his best service for the Dutch Republic, he had also consciously invited its undoing in a hail of fire and brimstone.

One could, on the other hand, say that it was the Company itself that tempted divine wrath. After all, those in its service routinely spent months in overwhelmingly male environments: ships at sea, and trading outposts that were by now barred to European women. (Local women were a different story, of course.) Nor was Schouten’s particular stomping-grounds of Siam near as virulent in its attitude towards homoeroticism as the Calvinists back home; Schouten’s own travelogue noted that “their Priests, as well as many of the Gentry, are much given to Sodomy, that unnatural passion, being esteemed no sin, nor shameful thing amongst them.” Abroad on the blooming East, coinpurse bursting with the commerce of nations: it must have been a heady experience.

Whether coming around to the Siamese “esteem” or having nurtured it from the start, Schouten had, he said, indulged same-sex encounters** with some 19 different men since putting to sea from a return visit to the mother country in 1637. At least three of those partners — a boatswain’s mate, a soldier, and a burgher — were to their sorrow alive and conveniently identifiable in the Indies.

“Those who were known [to have taken part in his deeds] were, either with him, or later … smothered under water since they were unworthy to continue living among humans,” concluded our eyewitness Gijsbert Heeck. “Which is a fitting recompense and retribution for their gruesome life on earth. In the hereafter, however, the worst is still to come. But it is not for us to judge.”

* Prasat Thong, a law-and-order type, is alleged by the account of another 17th century Dutchman to have personally conducted some executions.

** Schouten, 40ish at his death, said that he was always the “passive” (penetrated) partner in these affairs with much younger men. (This, and all the text that follows it in the post, is also as per Boomgaard.)

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1476: The Garrison of Grandson, by Charles the Bold

2 comments February 28th, 2012 Headsman

On this day in 1476, the 412-strong garrison of Grandson, Switzerland surrendered to Charles the Bold during the Burgundian Wars … and was executed en masse by hanging and drowning.

Detail view (click for the full image) of a mounted Charles the Bold under a forest of hanged men.

Charles — less generously known as “Charles the Rash” or “Charles the Terrible” — was the Duke of Burgundy, an ancient territory whose warlike inhabitants were celebrated back to The Nibelungenlied

Upon his single person the sword-strokes fell thick and fast. The wife of many a hero must later mourn for this. Higher he raised his shield, the thong he lowered; the rings of many an armor he made to drip with blood … Then men saw the warrior walk forth in full lordly wise. As the strife-weary man sprang from the house, how many added swords rang on his helmet! Those that had not seen what wonders his hand had wrought sprang towards the hero of the Burgundian land. (XXXII)

In the 15th century, the swords ringing on Burgundian helmets were those of the French and the Habsburgs, who squeezed the mighty duchy on either side.

Charles the Bold fought the expansionist Burgundian Wars as a project to strengthen his duchy’s independence. But it would have the exact opposite effect.

The Swiss had been pulled into the anti-Burgundian league, and taken the city of Grandson, inducing an irritated Charles to put it to a fearful bombardment that threatened to overrun the place in short order.

Sources vary by partisan affiliation as to whether the besieged garrison surrendered at its antagonist’s discretion (Burgundian version) or on a pledge of mercy (Swiss version). But in the actual event, no mercy at all was given. To a man, the prisoners were strung up on trees and drowned in the adjacent Lake of Neuchatel — a warning to the Swiss not to mess with Burgundy.

It was bluster that Charles’s men could not back up when their opponents fought back … and after this, who was going to surrender?

A couple days later, the Swiss relief force arrived too late to bail out the garrison. Instead, it trounced the Burgundians in battle, sending them fleeing “without looking back, helter-skelter” as Charles, “exasperated beyond measure by the stupid cowardice of his troops, rode amongst them with drawn sword, striking them furiously, in the vain effort to bring them to a standstill.”

The victorious Swiss made off with a fantastic booty from the abandoned Burgundian camp, but also recovered a more dolorous prize.

There were found sadly the honorable men still freshly hanging on the trees in front of the castle whom the tyrant had hanged. It was a wretched, pitiable sight. There were hung ten or twenty men on one bough. The trees were bent down and were completely full. There hanged a father and a son next to each other, there two brothers or other friends. And there came the honorable men who knew them; who were their friends, cousins and brothers, who found them miserably hanging. There was first anger and distress in crying and bewailing.

Charles was plenty distressed himself at his embarrassing reversal, and boldly (or rashly) regrouped, marched on the Swiss again — and had Burgundian power decisively shattered at the Battle of Murten that June. The following January, a dispirited Charles died in another losing battle, leading most of the once-imperious realm of Burgundy to settle into French hands, where it remains today.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Burgundy,Drowned,Execution,France,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Known But To God,Mass Executions,Power,Public Executions,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Switzerland,Wartime Executions

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1802: Jacques Maurepas and his entire family

1 comment November 17th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1802, a Haitian general, his family, and his men, were butchered by French forces fighting to retain control of Saint-Domingue.

Haing recently mastered the French Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte — ever one for keeping it in the family — late in 1801 dispatched his brother-in-law* and brother-in-arms Leclerc to suppress the Haitian Revolution.

Over the course of 1802, Leclerc made headway towards accomplishing just that, as much with carrots as with sticks.

Maurepas was one of the Haitian commanders tasked by Toussaint L’Ouverture with defending Saint-Domingue, in his case, Port-de-Paix. Faced with a French landing, Maurepas burned the town to the ground and withdrew for an effective guerrilla resistance in the mountains.

But he eventually came to terms with the French, as did other Haitian officers, L’Ouverture included — reintegrating forces back with the French on the understanding that all that liberte, egalite, fraternite stuff would at least extend as far as not reintroducing slavery.

The French had other plans for their lucrative once-and-future colony, and when the Haitians caught wind of them, trouble resumed — now under the leadership (since the French had sagely deported L’Ouverture) of Jean-Jacques Dessalines.**

Leclerc had the, er, “fortune” of succumbing to yellow fever shortly after Dessalines’ promising revolt got underway; he was succeeded by the brutal Rochambeau, who threw away the carrots and relied on naked violence to control the island. (Again, not uncharacteristic of Napoleonic conquests.)

Maurepas had not actually gone over to Dessalines, but the fact that he was a black Haitian general was reason enough for his white French superior officer to arrest him preventively. Immediately upon assuming command, Rochambeau made an example of Maurepas.

The sea off the Cape was chosen to be the theatre of an execution, unparalleled in what is called civilized life. For fear that Maurepas, who had gained distinction under Toussaint L’Ouverture, after having embraced the side of France, should join the insurgents, Leclerc had written to him to come by sea, with his family and his troop, to take the command of the Cape, which he destined for him as a reward for his services. No sooner had he arrived than he and his soldiers were seized and disarmed. Rochambeau ordered preparations to be made for a barbarous punishment in order to put the negro general to death, with his troop, consisting of 400 blacks. It was also put in deliberation whether death should be inflicted on his children, in order to prevent them from rising up to avenge their father.

After having been bound to the mast of a vessel, Maurepas was frightfully insulted. His wife, his children, and his soldiers were brought to be drowned under his eyes. The executioners were astounded when they beheld a father fix his dying eyes by turns on his children, his wife, and his companions in arms, undergoing a violent death; while they, on their part, turned their eyes away from a father, a husband, a general, whose countenance was disfigured by the tortures he was enduring. After being made to contemplate each other’s sufferings, they were all tossed into the ocean. They died without complaining in a manner worthy the champions of liberty. With a reversal of the order of nature, the father died last; he also suffered most.

Thus died Maurepas, whose character was a compound of frankness and severity. Thrice had he repulsed the French at the gorge of Trois-Rivières; he had at once the glory and the misfortune to go over to the French with victorious arms. The elevation of his soul equalled his valor. He preserved a tender feeling for the master whose slave he had been; he caused funeral honors to be paid to that master, and when his grave had been negligently prepared, he threw off his upper garment in order to perform the pious office properly. Among men of his own blood he was a powerful chief. A spirit of order and justice prevailed in his life. His riches, which were considerable, were given up to pillage. It would almost seem as if so much excellence were subjected to so much ignominy, expressly to show that while black men are capable of any virtue, white men are capable of any crime. Certainly, my narrative is replete with instances which, beyond a question, prove that moral as well as mental excellence is independent of the varieties of color.

This brutal punishment, preceded by vile perfidy, filled the camps of the insurgents with horror. That horror was augmented when Rochambeau, at the Cape, put to death five hundred prisoners. On the place of execution, and under the eyes of the victims, they dug a large hole for their grave, so that the poor wretches may be said to have been present at their own funeral.

Far from cowing the rebels into submission, this savagery fired more ferocious resistance from men, women, and children who now perceived that their race subjected them to wholesale and arbitrary cruelty that no display of loyalty could overcome.

A terrible retribution was determined upon. Dessalines erected 500 gibbets, and hanged half a regiment of French that he had captured by a bold countermarch. A war of extermination followed, and in December, 1803, aided by an English squadron, the French were compelled to evacuate the island.

January 1, 1804 is Haiti’s Independence Day.

* By way of marriage to Napoleon’s sister Pauline. Pauline enjoyed the Saint-Domingue adventure more than did her spouse; she sported with lovers and balked at returning to France. “Here,” she noted, “I reign like Josephine; I hold first place.”

This character is the subject of a recent biography.

** After expelling the French and becoming the first ruler of independent Haiti, Dessalines took a page from Napoleon’s own playbook and crowned himself Emperor.

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Unspecified date: British soldiers by urophagia

Add comment October 7th, 2011 Headsman

Today is the 10th anniversary of America’s post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan, two short decades after the Soviets tried the same thing with disastrous results.


Never get involved in a land war in Asia …

In honor of this impressive anniversary, we travel back in time and into the twilit frontier between fact and legend to another century’s intervention in that Graveyard of Empires — the Second Anglo-Afghan War, 1878-1880. Dr. Watson was there; maybe even his literary compatriot Sherlock Holmes, too.

It’s too bad we don’t have the services of those excellent detectives in this matter. We can’t date this particular method, or attribute any specific victim to it, or even substantiate the actuality of the practice to our liking (though there are several books by British soldiers of that war which traffick in the report). Frankly, everything about it smells. But we think you’ll agree that execution by urophagia is a story that needs to be told.

The following is an account from a biography of English officer and novelist John Masters. We’ll label it Mature Content both for what it describes and the manner of its description, just to make you really want to savor every word.

War for the Pathans [Pashtuns] was an honourable, exciting and manly exercise, in which each succeeding generation needed to prove itself, but war was also ruthless; no mercy was shown and none was expected. Neither side aimed to take prisoners. The Pathans customarily mutilated and then beheaded any wounded or dead who fell into their hands. Women often carried out these operations. A well-known torture was called the Thousand Cuts, whereby flesh woulds were newly made and grass and thorns pushed into them so that they would hurt horribly. A prisoner might be pegged out on the ground and his jaw forcibly opened with a stick so that he could not swallow, then women would urinate in his mouth until he drowned. Frank Baines, who served on the North-West Frontier and later with Masters in Burma, put it more crudely:* ‘If you got captured, you were not only killed in a lively and imaginative manner, you were carved up and quartered and had your cock cut off and stuffed in your mouth for good measure.’

-John Clay in John Masters: A Regimented Life

* Baines penned this memorable line for his book Officer Boy

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1393: John of Nepomuk, Bohemian rhapsody

2 comments March 20th, 2011 Headsman

This is the date in 1393 when the Catholic patron saint of Bohemia, John of Nepomuk (or John Nepomucene) was tossed from Prague’s Charles Bridge into the Vltava River to drown at the order of the Holy Roman Emperor Wenceslaus.

Baroque statue of John Nepomuk on the Charles Bridge from which he was hurled. (cc) image from Jaguar Julie

A relief detail ((cc) image from Charles Hoffman) on this statue depicts the moment of Nepomuk’s martyrdom.

This Wenceslaus — not be confused with the good King Wenceslaus of song — had a tetchy relationship with powers ecclesiastical and temporal.

But although Wenceslaus did martyr a fellow by the handle of John of Pomuk or Nepomuk, the latter makes this blog because of political tension centuries afterward. Despite the date of his corporeal death, John of Nepomuk is really a counter-reformation saint.

Between the late 14th century and Catholic Austria’s bloody 17th century triumph over Czech nationalism the historical Nepomucene parted company pretty definitively.

The real John of Nepomuk was the General Vicar of the local archbishop, John of Jenstein (or Jenzenstein), whose skirmishes with Wenceslaus over the boundaries of royal authority caused historian Albert Wratislaw to draw a Thomas a Becket comparison.*

In the event, the latest manifestation of that disputatious relationship — the king’s attempt to seize some monastic revenues — caused Wenceslaus to completely fly off the handle and arrest several of the archbishop’s advisors, among whom was our sainted martyr.

Wenceslaus personally oversaw their torture and ordered their drowning, but someone talked him out of the execution part. The king at that point had a sort of mini-Guantanamo Bay situation: he had in hand several people whom he had arrested arbitrarily and tortured, whose release would only further embarrass his own royal self. He therefore prevailed upon them to trade their silence for their liberty.

The other arrestees counted their blessings and accepted this expedient exchange. John of Nepomuk, perhaps because he was already tortured near to the point of death, refused. He was consequently “dragged through the streets to the bridge, there his hands were tied behind him, a piece of wood was thrust into his mouth, his feet were tied to his head in the form of a wheel, and he was thrown into the river.”*

The Nepomucene’s legend really grew after his death: in its most splendidly devotional form, as the proto-martyr for the seal of the confessional, which he supposedly kept as the queen’s confessor when Wenceslaus suspected her of infidelity. (An ironic inversion to say the least, since it was actually John’s more timorous co-accused who distinguished themselves with their silence.)

This is a much more edifying martyrdom altogether, so little wonder that the sourcing on John of Pomuk over the succeeding centuries is a hot mess; later scholars would actually speculate as to whether there might not have been two priests of this name who were both martyred by Wenceslaus, so dissimilar were the legends.

Nepomuk’s elevation to legend, and thereafter to the patron saint of Bohemia, would come in part thanks to a great Czech religious reformer who arose at the end of Wenceslaus’s reign — Jan Hus.

This other, heretical John became woven into the emerging Bohemian national sense; he still remains there today. When the Catholic authorities beat back a Protestant and nationalist revolt in 1620 and imposed Catholicism from above,** Saint John of Nepomuk, martyr, was ready at hand for propagandists of the new order. At least, the legendary, confessional-keeping Nepomuk was ready … because this was not a job for the random cleric-bureaucrat who’d been done to death in some forgotten dispute over rent.

For three hundred years two holy men have been rivals for the reverence of the Cech people. One of them, Saint John Nepomuk, was exalted by the Jesuits, who after the battle of the White Hill in 1620 sought to win back the Cechs to the Roman obedience. … His rival for the position of national hero has been Jan Hus, who, during the reign and under the favour of that same king Wenceslas, led the revolt of the Cechs against the ecclesiastical domination of Rome and the secular domination of Germany, and was martyred as a heretic and rebel at the council of Constance in 1415. From that date until the extinction of the independent Bohemian state by the forces of the Empire and the Counter-Reformation in 1620, Hus was publicly honoured by his fellow-countrymen as the champion of national and religious liberty. From 1620 to 1918 his rival was exalted in his place …†

John of Nepomuk today is depicted in statuary on the Charles Bridge (the spot on the bridge where he was thrown over is also marked with a plaque) and is well-represented throughout Catholic central and eastern Europe. Owing to his patronage portfolios of bridges and flood victims, you might also find the Nepomucene in many a topical posting throughout the world — like the very spot of Christianity’s European triumph, Rome’s Milvian Bridge.

(Somewhat less gloriously, the promulgation of this saint’s name and fame mean it also attaches to John Nepomuk Schrank, a Bavarian immigrant to the U.S. who attempted in 1912 to assassinate former president cum presidential candidate yet again Theodore Roosevelt.)

* Wratislaw, “John of Jenstein, Archbishop of Prague, 1378-1397,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Vol. 7 (1878), pp. 30-57. Wratislaw wrote a now-public-domain book about St. John available here.

** Bohemia’s Catholicization is perhaps the classic case in early modern Europe of the Reformation being rolled back from above and from afar. The recent (and none too affordable) book Converting Bohemia: Force and Persuasion in the Catholic Reformation takes a nuanced survey of Bohemia’s transformation from a Protestant to a Catholic bastion … and as the title suggests, finds many of the Catholic components home-grown.

† R.R. Betts, “Jan Hus,” History, Volume 24, Issue 94 (September 1939), pp. 97–112.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Czechoslovakia,Death Penalty,Drowned,Execution,Fictional,God,History,Holy Roman Empire,Martyrs,Myths,No Formal Charge,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Popular Culture,Power,Religious Figures,Summary Executions,Torture,Wrongful Executions

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1582: Philippe Strozzi, corsair

2 comments July 27th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1582, Philippe Strozzi, the Florentine-born commander of a French naval expedition against the Spanish was summarily executed as a pirate.

The Strozzi were long one of Florence’s wealthy and powerful families, as evidenced by, say, the Strozzi Palace, or the Strozzi coat of arms on Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo.

That made the Strozzi sometime-allies, sometime-rivals* of Florence’s more famous powerbrokers, the Medici. It is in both capacities that we meet Philippe (English Wikipedia entry | Italian | French).

To cut a centuries-long story short, the Strozzi had basically come out on the wrong side of the power struggle in the 16th century.

Philippe’s father, Piero Strozzi, was the child of a Strozzi-Medici union, and Piero too married a Medici. He also fought the Medici for power and ended up in exile whereupon he gravitated to the French court of … Catherine de’ Medici. (Catherine had been educated at the home of Philippe’s grandfather, Filippo Strozzi.) Catherine then turned around and used Piero as a French Marshal, including sending him to back Tuscan city-state Siena in opposition to its (and France’s) rival, Florence.**

Your basic tangled geopolitical-genealogical web.

Bottom line, Piero’s son Philippe was born in Florence but grew up Gallic, and fought in the French army all over the continent from the time he was a teenager.

When France got involved in the War of Portuguese Succession, they put this warlike fellow aboard a boat and sent him to dispute Spanish King Philip II‘s attempt to claim the Portuguese throne and unify the Iberian peninsula.

Strozzi’s armada got its clock cleaned at the naval Battle of Ponta Delgada near the Azores, with devastating loss of life.


The Spanish galleon San Mateo, which did yeoman service at this battle.

Since Spain and France were putatively at peace, Spain treated its captives not as prisoners of war but as pirates, and proceeded to execute several hundred in Vila Franca do Campo. Strozzi didn’t even get that much ceremony, however; the day after the battle, he was mortally stabbed, then tossed into the waves.

Happily, the name and the fame of the Strozzi outlived Spanish justice. In the next century, a distant relative by the handle of Barbara Strozzi became one of the most renowned composers of Baroque vocal music. (As befits wealthy Italians of the Renaissance, the Strozzi were big on the arts; Philippe was supposed to be a fine musician himself.)

* The Strozzi-Medici conflict frames the action in the play Lorenzaccio, in which the titular Brutus-like character mulls assassinating the Medici dictator in order to restore the Republic, only to find no such restoration in the offing once he actually does the deed; the father and grandfather of our day’s protagonists are both principal characters.

** That didn’t work. Strozzi was trounced at the Battle of Marciano, which signaled the permanent demise of the ancient city-state‘s independence.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,At Sea,Borderline "Executions",Drowned,Execution,France,History,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Piracy,Pirates,Portugal,Power,Put to the Sword,Soldiers,Spain,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1781: The slaves of the Zong, for the insurance

8 comments November 29th, 2009 Headsman

Beginning this day in 1781, the captain of the slave ship Zong began throwing his cargo overboard in a still-notorious case combining the horrors of the Middle Passage with the cruel rapacity of capital.

The Liverpool-based ship was en route from Africa to Jamaica, there to exchange its human chattel for New World produce bound for the European market.

Characteristically for slave ships, it was inhumanly packed: more economical for a slaver to overcrowd its captives and write off the ones who died than to maximize slaves’ chances of survival. And on this particular ship, malnutrition and disease claimed more than 60 slaves (as well as seven crew members).


Underwater sculpture off Grenada commemorating slaves thrown overboard during the Middle Passage.

With many more in danger of expiring, Captain Luke Collingwood reasoned that the cargo would be a loss if it succumbed, but that shippers’ insurance would reimburse the firm “when slaves are killed, or thrown into thrown into the sea in order to quell an insurrection.” Over a three-day span beginning Nov. 29, 1781, Collingwood had 133 still-living but sick slaves cast overboard;* “the last ten victims sprang disdainfully from the grasp of their executioners, and leaped into the sea triumphantly embracing death.” (Source)

This gave the ship’s owners — the good captain himself was not among them — the chance to attempt an insurance scam.

This historical-philosophical book (review, a pdf) analyzes the Zong affair as the emblematic “inauguration of a long twentieth century underwritten by the development of an Atlantic cycle of capital accumulation.”

When the Zong landed having lost in total more than half of its original 440 slaves (and Collingwood himself, that fastidious servant of his shareholders), its owners did indeed attempt to recoup the many who had been intentionally killed. Smelling fraud, the insurer refused to pay.

There followed the signal case of Gregson v. Gilbert, a dry insurance trial that also became a beacon of the slave system’s blood-chilling jurisprudential logic.

After a jury sided with the claimant shippers against the insurers, the matter hit a wide public on appeal before Lord Chief Justice Mansfield when abolitionist activists Granville Sharp and Olaudah Equiano seized upon its conscience-shocking quality.

While Sharp and Equiano agitated unavailingly for a homicide investigation, the insurer — which was itself in the very same business of human bondage as the shipper — self-righteously posed “as counsel for millions of mankind, and the cause of humanity in general.” (Source) Its interests, after all, would be served by the least possible indemnity for slaves murdered in passage.

Solicitor-General John Lee — “the learned advocate for Liverpool iniquity,” in Sharp’s estimation — successfully insisted upon limiting the case to its commercial considerations.

What is this claim that human people have been thrown overboard? This is a case of chattels or goods. Blacks are goods and property; it is madness to accuse these well serving honourable men of murder. They acted out of necessity and in the most appropriate manner for the cause. The late Captain Collingwood acted in the interest of his ship to protect the safety of his crew. To question the judgment of an experienced, well-travelled captain held in the highest regard is one of folly, especially when talking of slaves. The case is the same as if horses had been thrown overboard. (Quoted here; Wikipedia has it “as if wood had been thrown overboard.”)

Lord Mansfield agreed, “(though it shocks one very much) that the case of slaves was the same as … horses,” and simply found with the insurers that no liability attached them since the killings were voluntary rather than necessary.

Nobody was ever prosecuted.


The disturbing 1840 Turner seascape “Slavers throwing overboard the Dead and Dying – Typon [sic] coming on”, also known simply as “The Slave Ship”, is widely thought to have been inspired by the Zong episode. The allusion would have been well-known to his contemporaries.

* One of the 133 survived by climbing back aboard the ship.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,At Sea,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,Drowned,England,Execution,Executions Survived,History,Jamaica,Known But To God,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Pelf,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,Summary Executions

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