1553: Prince Mustafa, heir to Suleiman the Magnificent

19 comments October 6th, 2010 Headsman

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

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

-Prince Mustafa, about himself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not to mention, of course, more titillating fare.

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

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,No Formal Charge,Ottoman Empire,Political Expedience,Power,Royalty,Strangled,Summary Executions,Turkey,Wrongful Executions

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1536: William Tyndale, English Bible translator

7 comments October 6th, 2009 Headsman

“Lord, open the King of England’s eyes!” cried William Tyndale at the stake this date in 1536 … just before he was strangled and burned.

“Translated the Bible into English,” reads Tyndale‘s epigraph; in the Protestant blossoming, this Herculean academic labor was also of itself a dangerous religious and political manifesto.

As with Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible into German, Tyndale’s English version threatened, and was intended to threaten, papal ecclesiastical authority. In undertaking the work, Tyndale defied the 1408 “Constitutions of Oxford”, an English clerical pact further to the suppression of the Lollards and kindred post-John Wycliffe heresies which expressly prohibited rendering scripture in the vernacular.

In Protestant hagiographer John Foxe‘s Book of Martyrs, a young Tyndale exasperated with a Romish divine memorably declared,

“I defy the pope, and all his laws;” and added, “If God spared him life, ere many years he would cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture than he did.”

Tyndale would give his life to, and for, that ploughboy.

On the lam in Protestant Germany, Tyndale produced an English New Testament, and then an Old Testament, of startling poetry.

The scholar also kept a reformist voice in the day’s robust theological pamphleteering — trading fire, for instance, with Sir Thomas More.

Even when the once-staunch Catholic Henry VIII broke with Rome over Anne Boleyn, the English manhunt for Tyndale continued: Henry’s reformation did not share radical Protestant objectives like scriptural authority, and the king was not shy about enforcing his version of orthodoxy.

Tyndale was equally stubborn in defense of his life’s mission to put a Bible in the hands of the English ploughboy. Offered the king’s mercy to return and submit, Tyndale countered by offering his silence and martyrdom if Henry would but publish the Good Book in English.

I assure you, if it would stand with the King’s most gracious pleasure to grant only a bare text of the Scripture to be put forth among his people, like as is put forth among the subjects of the emperor in these parts, and of other Christian princes, be it of the translation of what person soever shall please his Majesty, I shall immediately make faithful promise never to write more, not abide two days in these parts after the same: but immediately to repair unto his realm, and there most humbly submit myself at the feet of his royal majesty, offering my body to suffer what pain or torture, yea, what death his grace will, so this [translation] be obtained. Until that time, I will abide the asperity of all chances, whatsoever shall come, and endure my life in as many pains as it is able to bear and suffer.

Luckily for posterity, the English crown wasn’t biting, leaving Tyndale’s mellifluous rendering of Holy Writ to enter the English tongue.

And leaving Tyndale, eventually, to enter the martyrs’ ranks.

In 1536, an English bounty hunter befriended the fugitive translator and betrayed him to the authorities in Vilvoorde, near Brussels. It was the Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire that did the dirty work of their rivals in the Isles.

And — the Lord works in the mysterious ways, they say — Tyndale’s dying prayer was indeed answered.

By the end of the decade, a Bible in English drawn from Tyndale’s version (revised by former Tyndale assistant Myles Coverdale under Thomas Cromwell‘s direction; prefaced by Thomas Cranmer) was by regal authority placed in every parish of the Church of England.

The Tyndale Bible became the basis for the King James Bible that remains for many authoritative to this day … and Tyndale’s work lodged in the textual DNA of the evolving English Bible(s) in the five centuries since his death. (The wonderful site The King’s English deals with the linguistic legacy of the King James Version; many of the examples in fact trace back to Tyndale.)

Works by and about William Tyndale

Audiophiles should consider this podcast from a Protestant perspective, located here.

[audio:http://www.bethanybaptist.co.uk/mp3/2008-05-09-pm-Brian-Edwards.mp3]

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1849: Lajos Batthyány and the 13 Martyrs of Arad

8 comments October 6th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1849, the shining lights of Hungary’s 1848 revolution met the Austrian Empire’s firing squadsexecutioners. (Correction: Most were hanged, not shot. See comments.)

Probably no polity in Europe stood more fundamentally in danger from the wave of 1848 revolutions than the Habsburg Empire. While governments would be overthrown and power renegotiated across the continent, the Austrian state’s dynastically welded hodgepodge of mingled ethnicities appeared existentially at odds with the nationalist stirrings afoot.

And none of those ethnicities answering to Vienna stirred as vigorously as the Hungarians.

The Hungarian Diet established a national government under Lajos Batthyány (English Wikipedia page | Hungarian) (or Louis Batthyani) in the spring of 1848* and soon pushed for more self-determination than Austria was prepared to countenance.

When Austrian troops turned on Hungary, the aspiring nation issued an 1849 declaration of independence full of vituperation for the ancient noble line.

[T]he house of Hapsburg-Lorraine, as perjured in the sight of God and man, has forfeited its right to the Hungarian throne …

Three hundred years have passed since the Hungarian nation, by free election, placed the house of Austria upon its throne, in accordance with stipulations made on both sides, and ratified by treaty. These three hundred years have been, for the country, a period of uninterrupted suffering.

This dynasty … which can at no epoch point to a ruler who based his power on the freedom of the people, adopted a course toward this nation from father to son, which deserves the appellation of perjury.

The house of Austria has publicly used every effort to deprive the country of its legitimate independence and constitution, designing to reduce it to a level with the other provinces long since deprived of all freedom, and to unite all in a common link of slavery.

Guess how that turned out.

Lajos Batthyany portrait by Hungarian painter Miklos Barabas.

It wasn’t much of a contest in the field, leaving this day’s doings the shooting of Batthyany at Pest (the city later merged with Buda and Obuda to form Budapest) and 13 Hungarian generals — the so-called 13 martyrs of Arad — in a Translyvanian city that is today part of Romania.

This was not, however, the last the Habsburg dynasty would hear of Hungary’s frustrated national aspirations.

Three years later, a Hungarian nationalist attempted to assassinate the youthful Emperor Franz Joseph,** and the strength of the Magyar lands’ self-determination movements would eventually drive a formal ratification of Hungarian privileges that rechristened the state as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or simply Austria-Hungary.

All that stuff we said about you Habsburgs? Bygones.

While becoming half of a dual capital opposite Vienna meant a late 19th-century renaissance for Budapest, this cure by the Empire for its internal pressures proved almost as harmful as the disease. The pressures immediately discharged would pale in comparison to the conflicts Hungarians’ now-privileged status helped provoke with Slavs and other ethnic minorities (exacerbated by Hungarians’ ability to block Austrian foreign policy). In an early preview of a now-familiar pattern, the proto-nation-state of Hungary was a nastier piece of work for its ethnic minorities than the decadent old melting-pot ruled from Vienna … and the road from this day’s executions to the Austro-Hungarian Compromise ran straight on to 1914 Sarajevo and the graveyard of Habsburg history.

As for the executions this day, Batthyany was saluted by the great Hungarian composer Franz Liszt in his Funerailles:

More prosaically and much more pervasively, a legend that Austrians were jovially toasting the death of the 13 Martyrs as they were being executed translated into a still-active tradition against clinking beer glasses in Hungary.


The Martyrs of Arad (Sixth of October) by Janos Thorma

* Hungary’s March 15 National Day derives from this period.

** Franz Joseph was no mere abstract emblem of imperial absolutism: he had assumed the Austrian throne in December 1848 upon the abdication of his feebleminded uncle specifically to free the crown from the oaths his predecessor had taken to various reforms. From the Hungarian perspective — and the declaration excerpted above dwells at length on the perfidy of this maneuver — he was installed to crush the revolution.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Austria,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,Habsburg Realm,Heads of State,History,Hungary,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Popular Culture,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Revolutionaries,Romania,Shot,Soldiers,Treason

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