Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Five Worst Popes of the Middle Ages

Pope Stephen VI


Also called Stephen VII, this Pope's short reign is mostly known for having put on trial the previous Pope...who was dead. Stephen ordered the body of Pope Formosus exhumed, dressed in the Papal vestments, and set upon a throne. In what is known as the Cadaver Synod, Stephen charged the rotting corpse with perjury, coveting the Papacy, and breaking other church laws. During the trial, Pope Stephen screamed at Formosus, as well as mocked and insulted him.

Formosus was found guilty, and was punished by having his clothes stripped off, three of his fingers chopped off, and the rest of the body thrown into the Tiber River.

Stephen's reign did not last much longer - he was strangled to death.

Pope John XII

For much of the tenth century, the city of Rome was dominated by the Theophylact family, and they often made the decision who would sit on St. Peter's Throne. Perhaps they didn't have too many choices, but it is hard to imagine they could not have picked someone better than John XII, who is about 18 years old when he became Pope. His youth had one benefit, as began his pontificate by personally leading armies against the local enemies.

However, it soon became apparent that John was more interested in the women of Rome than in handling church affairs. His antics eventually led to Emperor Otto I calling a synod to depose the young Pope. According to one chronicler, the charges against John included:

He had fornicated with the widow of Rainier, with Stephana his father's concubine, with the widow Anna, and with his own niece, and he made the sacred palace into a whorehouse. They said that he had gone hunting publicly; that he had blinded his confessor Benedict, and thereafter Benedict had died; that he had killed John, cardinal subdeacon, after castrating him; and that he had set fires, girded on a sword, and put on a helmet and cuirass. All, clerics as well as laymen, declared that he had toasted to the devil with wine. They said when playing at dice, he invoked Jupiter, Venus and other demons. They even said he did not celebrate Matins at the canonical hours nor did he make the sign of the cross.

Pope John retaliated by excommunicating the synod, and when he caught three of the men who took part, he had one flogged, cut off the right hand of the second, and removed the nose and ears of the third. Alas, his reign ended soon after, at the age of 27, when was "stricken by paralysis in the act of adultery" and died.

Pope Benedict IX

(1032 - off and on to 1048)

Another descendant of the Theophylact family, Benedict was at least 20 when he became Pope. Sexual scandals soon started, leading many church officials to complain about him. The Abbot of Monte Cassino, who later became a Pope too, wrote about "his rapes, murders and other unspeakable acts. His life as a pope was so vile, so foul, so execrable, that I shudder to think of it."

What also sets Benedict apart from most other popes was that he resigned as well. Unlike Pope Benedict XVI, who resigned because of his old age, this Benedict resigned in exchange for a large sum of money - bribed by his godfather John Gratian, who then became the new Pope, Gregory VI. However, Benedict soon had seller's remorse, and over the next Rome and the St.Peter's was fought over between the various sides. Eventually the German Emperor came down and removed all the contenders, naming a new Pope. Benedict lived on until 1056, but never regained the Papacy.

Pope Boniface VIII


Before he became Pope, Boniface was instrumental in persuading his predecessor, Pope Celestine V, to retire. Once he got to the Papal Throne, Boniface decided that having Celestine around was too much of a threat, so he captured the elderly man and imprisoned him until his death ten months later.

Most of his reign was spent in conflicts with the other states in Italy, but Boniface got in trouble when he decided to pick a fight with Philip IV, King of France. Eventually, he excommunicated the French king and proclaimed that all monarchs were subordinate to the Papacy. Philip responded by sending an army into Italy, where they captured Boniface at his summer retreat in Anagni. The French troops beat up and nearly killed Boniface - three days later he was dead, perhaps killing himself.

The Italian poet Dante, in his work The Divine Comedy, has Boniface relegated to the eight circle of hell for simony.

Pope Alexander VI


While he may not have been guilty of all the deeds depicted in the popular show The Borgias, Pope Alexander VI was one of the most notorious schemers to hold the papacy. He made many efforts to enrich his family and get his children into positions of power, and he also had enough time to have a mistress.

His death in 1503 is something of a mystery - Alexander may have been poisoned, and his son Cesare Borgias was suspected of committing the crime. Rumours soon spread, aided by the rapid decomposition of Alexander's remains. One person who saw the body commented, "It was a revolting scene to look at that deformed, blackened corpse, prodigiously swelled, and exhaling an infectious smell; his lips and nose were covered with brown drivel, his mouth was opened very widely, and his tongue, inflated by poison, fell out upon his chin; therefore no fanatic or devotee dared to kiss his feet or hands, as custom would have required."

Gutenberg, Executions, Medicis, Vikings, Hobbits and more - medieval news roundup

If you are a fan of Marshall McLuhan or have an interest in the history of printing, this interview from the Columbia Journalism Reviewmight interest you. In this post, entitled The future is medieval, they talk with Thomas Pettitt and Lars Ole Sauerberg from the University of Southern Denmark about their “Gutenberg Parenthesis” idea. It deals with how digital media will be tipping the scales between oral and print communication, the first change we have seen since Gutenberg started his printing machine. It includes some talk about the medieval period, such as:

The Middle Ages was not strong on membership of communities. They were not obsessive about inside versus outside. They didn’t emphasize, “I’m a denizen of this town, I’m a citizen of this country, I belong in this nation, behind these frontiers.” They saw themselves rather like Hobbits (Tolkien was a medievalist). Hobbits knew their relatives to the seventh degree: second cousins three times removed, and so on. In the Middle Ages people saw themselves as part of a network of connections. They knew their family trees. They knew with whom they were related. They identified themselves as a node in a network and they saw pathways, connections to other people in their extended family. They also saw themselves in terms depending on their profession. If they were in the Church, they saw themselves in the Church hierarchy as being a priest here, subject to the archdeacon here, subject to the bishop there, and the archbishop and the pope. You could have status by being the servant to a servant to someone important.

You can also listen to this talk they were part of from MIT:

Slate magazine offers this fascinating excerpt from The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century, by Joel F. Harrington. It details how 16th century executioners performed their task. For example:

During his own 45-year career and 187 recorded executions with the sword, Meister Frantz required a second stroke only four times (an impressive success rate of 98 percent), yet he dutifully acknowledges each mistake in his journal with the simple annotation botched

The New York Times has a short article about how nine children from the wealthy and poweful Medici family have been found to have rickets, a disease caused by a lack of Vitamin D and usually associated with the poor. In this case, "the researchers said the children were probably deprived of sunlight, which spurs the body to make vitamin D. Wealthy children of that time were often tightly swaddled and kept inside, with suntans discouraged as signs of low standing."

Sticking with the Medici's, Three Pipe Problem (a great blog) has an interview with Edward Goldberg, who does extensive research on that family and on the Jewish community in Renaissance Italy.

ScienceNordic reports that a 1200 year old Carolingian coin has been discovered in Norway. Jon Anders Risvaag, from NTNU University Museum, explains “Two factors make this find stand out. Firstly, this coin is older than the Carolingian coinage reform, and so far the oldest coin from Charlemagne’s reign found in Norway. Secondly, this coin was not found in a grave, in contrast to almost all other coins from Charlemagne and his successors that have been found in Norway.”

If you are interested in the Vikings, go over to Medieval Histories, where Karen Schousboe has written several posts about the Norsemen, including an indepth review of an exhibition Vikings 2013 at the National Museum in Copenhagen.

Finally, the CBC (our public broadcaster here in Canada), has this article Film, TV tourism spikes with Game of Thrones, The Hobbit. Fans seem to be heading to Northern Ireland, Dubrovnik and New Zealand to check out the beautiful backdrops to their favourite shows/movies. New Zealand tourism is cashing on in the Hobbit (like they did with Lord of the Rings movies) with their "100% Middle-earth, 100% Pure New Zealand" campaign.

The first ever comic book?

Damien Kempf on Tumblr writes about this image from a 12th century manuscript known as the Bible of Stephen Harding. This work contains many images, including this page that details the story of King David. Just like a modern day comic book, you are supposed to go through this page from left to write and top to bottom, and read the caption for each box. 

The manuscript - Dijon BM MS.14 - has been scanned and is available on the French government website

Tuesday, January 21, 2014


World War II Tribute (00:05:33m)

We are a nation of hero-worshippers yet we know more about fictional characters like Batman, Ironman and the Green Lantern - even Rambo is regaled as a superhero. But we seldom pay our respects to the real heroes - soldiers, whose acts of valor have elevated them far above the common thread. Sadly, few of us can name more than one or two war heroes.

This blog is in memory of soldiers who went beyond the call of duty, whose bravery was awe-inspiring, and who sacrificed their life for freedom and justice. Only a few among them have been praised as heroes but just to have taken up arms and forged bravely into battle has made heroes of them all.

Here are but a few of the soldiers who have earned their place in history as real Super Heroes. Their courage serves not only inspire us but restores our faith in the great power of the human spirit.


Audie Murphy, the sixth of twelve siblings, came from humble beginnings.He was only twelve years old when his father abandoned the family. As a result Murphy had to drop out of fifth grade and worked for a dollar per day in an effort to help his family make ends meet.  He even turned to hunting to put food on the table and the skills he attained as a marksman would serve him well.  When he reached 17 years of age, he tried to enlist in the marines and the army but was rejected twice due to his height and weight (5'5" at 110 lbs).  When Murphy finally succeeded, he quickly rose through the ranks and was promoted several times until he became company commander.  Throughout his distinguished service Murphy was decorated numerous times for his acts of valor. When his division invaded Sicily on July 10, 1943 he killed two Italian officers as they tried to escape on horseback; two months later while on night patrol at Salerno, Murphy and his men were ambushed by German soldiers, but fought their way out, killing three Germans and captured the others. His combat skills at Monte Cassino were nothing short of legendary.  By August 1944, Murphy was part of Operation Dragoon, the invasion of Southern France.  A German soldier, feigning surrender took aim and killed Lattie Tipton, Murphy's best friend. At that moment all hell broke loose as Murphy charged the enemy and single-handedly wiped out the entire German machine gun crew in retaliation.  His steely-nerved courage earned him the Distinguished Service Cross.  His other medals included the Congressional Medal of Honour, Silver Star, Legion of Merit, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, French Legion of Honour, French Croix de Guerrre, and more. After the end of the war he returned home to a heroes welcome and honoured with parades, lavish banquets and speeches.  Soon afterwards Murphy embarked on a career in acting and earned critical acclaim in the production of the Red Badge of Courage, among other films. He also wrote a book "To Hell and Back" in which he wrote about his friend Lattie.  

aka Fighting Jack Churchill, Mad Jack

John Malcolm Thorpe Fleming British WW2 hero - Mad Jack with sword in hand during a training exercise in Inveraray Scotland

John Fleming graduated in 1926 from Royal Military academy, a prestigious institution
otherwise known as "Sandhurst". For the following ten years he served in Burma with the Manchester Regiment followed by a short stint in civilian life.  But when Poland was invaded in 1939 by Germany and the Soviet Union he hastily returned to join his Regiment.  In May 1940 at L'Epinette France, Fleming earned his infamous reputation as "Mad Jack" when he attacked and killed the enemy using only barbed arrows. He was the only British soldier ever to have cut down the enemy using only a long bow.  After Dunkirk, he joined the Commandos and became second in command of his unit.  On December 27, 1941 he took part in Operation Archery in an invasion of the German garrison at Vagsoy, Norway.  As his landing craft approached the bay and the ramps were dropped ashore, Fleming lept forward like a madman while playing his bagpipes, flung a grenade at the enemy and dashed into the fighting fray.  He was decorated with the Military Cross and bar for his immense valor.

Mad Jack with sword in hand during a training exercise in Inveraray Scotland

During the invasion of Sicily, Fleming led Commando unit 2 during the landing at Catania and Salerno, armed with nothing more than a Scottish broadsword dangling at his waist, a longbow and arrows slung around his neck, and cradling his bagpipes under his arm.  At Salerno his Commandos invaded the town capturing the post and succeeded in taking 42 prisoners (which included the mortar squad).  Fleming and his men headed headed back to base while the wounded followed behind, transported in carts pushed by the German POWs.  Fleming commented that the scenario reminded him of "an image from the Napoleonic Wars".  He was decorated with the Distinguished Service Order for his valor. 

The most awe-inspiring Operation took place in Yugoslavia in 1944.  Fleming led the Commandos on a raid against German positions on the island of Brac.  With an army of 1,500 partisans, 43 Commando, and one troop consisting of 40 Commando, Fleming landed amid a hail of German fire, but decided to postpone the attack until the next day.  It was not until the second day that his company launched into battle;  as 43 Commando was moving into position along the flank, Fleming led the 40 Commando, while the partisans remained at the landing site.  Only Fleming and six other men succeeded in reaching the objective.  The rest of the unit was either killed or wounded. Legend has it that Churchill was playing on his bagpipes the tune, ""Will Ye No Come Back Again?" as the Germans advanced.

Fighting Jack Churchill was born to be a soldier and reveled in the danger and thrill of it all. When the Americans dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Mad Jack was purported to be disgruntled by the sudden end of the war.  He was reported to have said, "It it wasn't for those damn Yanks, we could have kept the war going for another 10 years


Thomas George Prince was an aboriginal Canadian of the Ojibwe Nation and was born in Manitoba. He was one of eleven children and lived with his family on Brokenhead Reservation at Scanterbury. With his siblings he has the distinction of being a descendant of Chief Pequis. As a boy growing up in the wilderness Prince became an exceptionally skilled marksman and hunter. By the time he became a teenager his sights were set on joining the army.

When WW2 broke out Prince volunteered for active service but was turned down several times even though he met all the requirements. However several months later he was finally accepted and commenced training as a sapper for the Royal Canadian Engineers. He later joined the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion and was promoted to Sergeant. And soon after volunteered for the 1st Special Service Force (SSF) also known as the "Devil's Brigade". Prince and his unit were subjected to the most rigorous of training drills, accompanied by live fire and honed their skills in hand-to-hand combat, explosive demolitions, amphibious ware, mountain fighting, and ski troops, among other disciplines.

In November 1943, the SSF were deployed to Italy with the objective of clearing enemy lines which had been preventing the Allies from advancing towards Rome. In the following two months they succeeded in capturing Monte la Difensa, Hill 720, Monte Majo and Monte Vischiataro. From there they advanced to Anzio. By early February 1944, Prince was dispatched to scout the location of several German positions near Littoria. At his stake-out in an abandoned farmhouse just 200 metres (660 fit) from enemy lines, Prince secretly reported enemy positions, through the use of 1,400 metres (4,600 ft) of telephone wire. But communications were inadvertently lost when allied artillery fire aimed at German positions accidentally cut the telephone wire. Prince was able to locate the severed wires and rejoin them. He had calmly strolled out into the open dressed as a farmer weeding his crops, and every so often kneeling down and pretended to tie his shoelaces. For added effect, he would shake his fists at the Germans. Prince then turned to the direction of the Allied lines and shook his fist at them as well. He then resumed transmitting his reports and over the course of the next day, Allied troops succeeded in destroying four German battalions. Prince spent a total of three days behind enemy lines. The Germans never knew what hit them. Prince was decorated with the Military Medal for his "courage and utter disregard for personal safety". He was "an inspiration to his fellows and a marked credit to his unit."

On June 4, 1944, Operation Dragoon was launched, and the SSF was ordered to advance to southern France. Their first objective were the Hyeres Islands, followed by Sylvabelle on the French Riviera. By the 1st of September, Prince was sent through German lines, accompanied by a soldier, private class in the mission to scout for German positions near L'Escarene. They spotted a German reserve battalion, and were on the way back to camp to submit their report when they came upon a battle in progress between some German and French partisans; they aided in French in sniping the enemy forcing them to withdraw. When Prince finally reported to the French commander, he was asked where his company was located. Prince merely pointed to the private and said "Here". The French officer was quite astounded and thought that there were fifty troops. Prince rejoined the battle with his unit and captured the entire German battalion, about 1000 men. It was more than a battle, rather an odyssey. Prince walked for over 70 km through treacherous mountains, without food, water or sleep for 72 hours. From start to finish Prince had endured hardships that would have diminished lesser men. He was decorated with the American Silver Star. In the citation, Prince was commended for his "keen sense of responsibility and devotion to keeping with the highest traditions of...military service..of the Armed forces of the Allied Nations."

Altogether, Tommy Prince received nine medals, more than any aboriginal soldier. On February 12, 1945, Prince was called to Buckingham Palace where King George VI decorated him with the Military Medal. In April, Prince received his Silver Star from U. S. General Koening. Prince was among only 59 Canadians who received this medal, and only one of three who received the Military Medal.

Simo Häyhä
"The White Death"

Hayha was born in Rautjarvi, near the Finnish-Russian border. Before he embarked on military service, he was a farmer and hunter. When he reached the age of 20, he had joined the Finnish militia and was winning numerous shooting competitions where he demonstrated his exceptional skill at sniping. It was a skill that would prove to be invaluable during the Winter War (1939-1940)between Finland and the Soviet Union. Hayha was enlisted in the Finnish Army, with 6th Company of JR 34. He was deployed to the Kollaa River, where, dressed in white camouflage, he fought against the Red Army, enduring temperatures as low as 40 degrees below Celsius.

Wielding a Mosin-Nagant, Hayha recorded the highest number of sniper kills accomplished by one soldier,in any war - 505 confirmed kills. The records show that these kills were achieved in less than 100 days so on average, Hayha achieved five kills per day - a remarkable feat given the fact that Finland at that time of year experiences very short daylight hours.

The Red Army nick named him the White Death and tried several tactics to eliminate him, including counter-snipping and artillery attacks. On March 6, 1940, the Russians had the opportunity to strike. Hayha was shot by a bullet which struck him in the lower left jaw - it literally pulverized half his head. Despite the gruesome injury, Hayha was not dead. He regained consciousness on March 13, when peace was finally declared.

Soon after the war Hayha was promoted from Corporal to Second Lieutenant. Such a rise in rank was unprecedented in the history of the Finnish Military, but a fitting tribute to man of Hayha's great service.

In an 1998 interview, Hayha was asked how he became such a good marksmen. He answered quite simply - "Practice.". When he was questioned about whether he had any regrets for his part in the war, he replied, "I only did my duty, and what I was told to do, as well as I could."


Wladyslaw Raginis was a hero of the Polish Defensive War of 1939. He commanded a small force of soldiers who bravely faced battle against an enemy that was much stronger and vastly larger in numbers. It was during the Battle of Wizna in which Polish soldiers met with such tragic end, yet their courage in the face of such overwhelming odds has emblazoned their memory in the collective consciousness of a nation.

Raginis came from an affluent family who nurtured in him love of God and country. After having graduated from gymnasium, Raginis enlisted in the NCO, and fromthere to Infantry Officers school. He graduated in 1930 and was deployed to Grodno with the 76th Infantry Regiment, as commander and instructor at the Cadet Corps. He continued to rise through the ranks, to lieutenant, captain, and then commander of the 3rd company of the Border Defense Corps Regiment. On September 7, 1939, Raginis' soldiers were poised for battle. They numbered only 720 against a horde of 42,000 German soldiers yet despite the overwhelming disparity, the Polish unit was not deterred and continued to defend its position for three days. The situation was hopeless and in an effort to boost the morale of his men, Raginis pledged that he would not leave his post alive. On the third day, the Polish resistance was wearing thin. Raginis was severely wounded, but refused to surrender and continued to command his troops. The German commander, Guderian sent a message stating that unless the last remaining bunker ceased defensive measures, he would order the execution of all Polish POWs.

Raginis turned to his soldiers expressing his gratitude for their dutiful service, and promptly ordered them to leave the bunker and surrender to the enemy. Raginis kept his word and stayed behind. The last man to leave the shelter was Seweryn Bieganski who documented what followed. He said that Raginis " looked at me warmly and softly urged me to leave. When I was at the exit, I was hit on my back with a strong gust and I heard an explosion." Raginis had committed suicide by throwing himself on a grenade.

When the Battle of Wizna had ended, 650 Polish soldiers had been killed in action. According to Guderian, about 900 Germans were killed by Raginis' forces, and at least ten tanks and various other AFV's were destroyed.

Though Raginis' company was virtually decimated, their efforts at pinning down German forces at Wizna made it possible for remaining Polish troops in Western Poland to defend the capital city, Warsaw. Moreover, the Polish government was able to prepare for evacuation to Romania.

Raginis' corpse along with that of Lt. Stanislaw Brykalski were buried in a makeshift grave next to the bunker. When the Red Army entered Wizna, the bodies were exhumed and reburied next to the Lomza-Bialystok road. A monument stands next to the ruins of the bunker in which he died.

Monday, January 20, 2014

King Charles I of Britain

It often seems that when it comes to anti-monarchial revolutions it is the best monarchs who end up losing their lives. It was the case with Czar Nicholas II of Russia and King Louis XVI of France, both very good, decent, God-fearing men and so it was with King Charles I of Great Britain; one of the most upright, noble and principled men to sit on the throne of the three kingdoms. He was born in Scotland, the second son of King James (VI of Scotland, I of England) and his queen Anne of Denmark on November 19, 1600. He was frail and sickly as a child but very intelligent and gifted when it came to languages. In 1612 his brother Prince Henry died and young Charles became the heir to the throne, becoming Prince of Wales in 1616. He was very short but polite, dignified and possessing a very regal bearing for his 5ft 4in.

On March 27, 1625 with the passing of his father he became Charles I, King of England, Scotland, Ireland and (nominally) France. Two months later he married Princess Henrietta Maria of France, the very religious sister of King Louis XIII. It was not love at first sight but in time they would grow to be as devoted to each other as any couple could be even though religion divided them. He sent the cohort of priests who came with her back to France and she refused to attend his formal coronation on the grounds that it was Protestant ceremony. However, in time their religious differences would grow less and less pronounced as King Charles I became known for his adherence to “High Church” Anglicanism which put more emphasis on free will and more elaborate, beautiful styles of worship which Catholics viewed as moving in the right direction at the very least.

From the outset Charles I was troubled by financial issues. Inflation had been steadily growing in England for a very long time and fixed incomes began to suffer, including the King. This, along with a combination of other factors and simple mismanagement meant that Charles I did not have the money to meet the obligations, particularly national defense, for which he was responsible. This drove the King to all sorts of inventive, but perfectly legal, means of collecting money such as cashing in the dowry of his wife, borrowing money from the wealthy elites of the country and spreading “ship money” (taxes collected in coastal areas for the navy) nationwide. Parliament, dominated of course by the wealthy elites, began to grumble more and more, especially when the wars being waged were not victorious. Greed and ambition combined with a growing religious fanaticism to create a ’perfect storm’ directed against the British Crown.

King Charles, despite his reputation, was not a rigid, intolerant man and he conceded on many of the points Parliament insisted on. When they demanded still more he dissolved Parliament and ruled alone for the next eleven years in peace and harmony. However, efforts to enforce his religious style in Scotland led to war, which did not go well, and forced him to recall Parliament. The new members refused to get down to business without first re-stating their old grievances. Charles dissolved them again but unfortunately his forces in Scotland were soundly defeated, bringing him back to square one.

Parliament was even more unreasonable than before and more religiously intolerant with not only Catholics but Anglicans and High Church Anglicans in particular being attacked as ‘insufficiently Protestant’. Again, though this often ignored, King Charles I was willing to negotiate and gave in to almost all of the demands of Parliament for the sake of peace in the realm. However, like all liberal revolutionaries, give them an inch and they demand a mile. Charles agreed to all but two of the demands of Parliament; that he should effectively stop being the Supreme Governor of the Church of England and that he give up control of the militia. On these two issues Charles I refused to negotiate but that was not enough for the radicals in Parliament who demanded all or nothing.

After failing to gain Scottish support Charles I attempted to arrest the Parliamentary ringleaders but this too came to nothing and both sides prepared for war. The start is usually dated August 22, 1642 when the Royal Standard was raised at Nottingham. With the Parliamentarians (or Roundheads) controlling the majority of the wealth of the country and the most vital areas the odds were greatly stacked against the Royalists (or Cavaliers), however, they fought extremely well and King Charles himself proved that, while he may not have been a military genius, he was certainly a competent and worthy military commander with a good grasp of tactics. His strategic judgment has often been criticized, but in truth this was simply a result of his humanity. Charles I did not want to wage a ‘total war’. Opportunities were often lost because the King hated having to fight his own people, was convinced that most had simply been led astray by wicked men and that he simply needed to sting them to bring them to their senses and return them to loyalty.

In short, the Roundheads were out to destroy the King but the Cavaliers were not out to destroy anyone. Despite coming fairly close to success in 1643 the tide turned against the King who sought support in Scotland. The Scots turned him over to the Roundheads but Charles escaped, was recaptured, Scotland reconsidered and attacked the Parliamentarians but in the end Charles was captured for good, the Scots and English royalists were defeated, Edinburgh was occupied and King Charles was hauled before a rump “parliament” (no House of Lords) to be tried for “treason”. With great dignity and composure he refused to recognize the authority of the court (which made a farce of justice, refusing to allow anyone even suspected of favoring the King from taking their seat and silencing anyone who spoke in his favor) and did not speak much at all until his final statement at the time of his condemnation.

On January 30, 1649 King Charles I was executed by beheading at Whitehall Palace -and Britain would never be the same again. The gallant monarch was buried, secretly and in haste, at Windsor Castle and the Puritan military commander Oliver Cromwell became dictator of Britain and Ireland for the only period in British history without a monarch on the throne. Ruling in tyrannical fashion and bringing gruesome persecution down on the people of Ireland, the British Isles were a gloomy place before the death of Cromwell allowed King Charles II to claim his father’s throne.

The Church of England eventually recognized King Charles I as a saint, a martyr for Anglicanism. However, the victory of the Parliamentary forces could not be undone, even though the monarchy was finally restored. Ever since tension has existed between Crown and Parliament, which has even been enshrined in the ceremonies of the British Parliament to this day. It would take a while longer to be fully put in place but with the defeat of the heroic King Charles I, Great Britain set out on the path toward a system effectively dominated by Parliament. Looking down from his “incorruptible crown”, what would the late Stuart King things of his countries today?

Friday, January 17, 2014

Dead Men Tell No Tales

Mystery of York's 'Headless Romans' 

York Archaeological Trust undertook excavations during 2004 and 2005 in advance of construction work on two sites close to the line of one of the main roads out of the Roman town. Archaeologists suspected the probability of finding further burials there as Roman graves had been previously found in the area on the outskirts of Eboracum, the name of the Roman town of York, and Roman cemeteries were often placed alongside roads outside the city walls.

These excavations at the site of a 3rd century Roman burial ground at Driffield Terrace in York revealed 80 burials, of which 60 were mostly complete. The vast majority were well-built adult males, averaging some 2 cms (one inch) taller than the average male from Roman Britain, their bones showing signs of extreme physical exertion; most of these people had died violently. About 45 of the 60 mostly complete skeletons, showed signs of decapitation, with about 20 showing evidence of injuries that had penetrated bone which would have almost certainly been fatal blows. About a third had suffered wounds and fractures that had healed and no doubt there were probably other wounds that had penetrated only the soft tissue leaving no evidence.

Decapitated and mutilated burials similar to these are known from other cemeteries in Roman Britain, but the York cemetery seems to have an unusually high proportion; a very unusual type of population for a typical Roman cemetery. However, despite the evidence for a generally hard and violent life and brutal death, these people had all been carefully buried between the late 1st and early 4th centuries AD, sometimes with grave goods such as pottery and food, at a cemetery
Although headless burials are not unknown, to see so many in the same place is unprecedented anywhere in the Roman Empire. Most intriguing is what had been done with the skulls of the skeletons; of the decapitated skeletons, about 30 were buried with their heads placed on their shoulders but others had their heads placed between their knees, on their chests or by their feet. In one double burial the two bodies even had had their heads swapped over.

In 2006, isotope analysis of tooth enamel suggested that the men came from from every corner of the Roman Empire; Britain, the Mediterranean, the Alps and even as far away as North Africa. This has led to suggestions that the 80 men could have been elite Roman soldiers. In 2006 the BBC Timewatch program 'The Mystery of the Headless Romans' put forward the proposal that the men could have been from Emperor Severus' household, executed by the Emperor Caracalla who died, stabbed to death by his own body guard in 217 AD. But this is pure conjecture.

June this year (2010), it was announced York's headless Romans might have been Gladiators and portrayed in the Channel 4 program 'Gladiators: Back from the Dead' with Driffield Terrace being cited as the 'worlds only well-preserved gladiator cemetery'. The key evidence for the gladiator claim is the discovery of a large, carnivore bite mark and a high incidence of substantial arm asymmetry due to prolonged weapon wielding from an early age. Further evidence in support of the gladiator claim is the healed and unhealed weapon injuries and possible hammer blows to the head; a feature attested at the gladiator cemetery at Ephesus in Turkey, the first authenticated gladiators graveyard.
The remains of 67 individuals was discovered in 2007 at Ephesus, Turkey, nearly all aged between 20 to 30. Many with evidence of healed wounds, suggesting they were prized individuals receiving expensive medical care; one body even possesses signs of a surgical amputation. Pathologists discovered various unhealed wounds on bones, for example tell-tale nicks in the vertebrae, suggesting at least some of the bodies suffered a fate of execution being consistent with depictions on reliefs from the time showing a kneeling man having a sword rammed down his throat into the heart. A very quick way to die.

Bioarchaeological Analysis

To shed some light on these mysterious skeletal remains a scientific team under Gundula Müldner, a bioarchaeologist at the University of Reading with colleagues from Reading and the NERC Isotope Geosciences Laboratory in Nottingham, recently carried out multi-isotopic analysis of the skeletal remains.

Scientists normally only examine strontium and oxygen isotopic systems to calculate an individual's origins but on this occasion the scientists took samples of teeth and bone and analysed isotopes of strontium, oxygen, carbon and nitrogen, combining information about the individual's diet with the type of climate and geological setting. Isotopes are absorbed by our teeth and bones from our food, drinking water and the air. Their proportions vary around the world due either to differences in regional geology or climate, so they provide important clues about where individuals spent their childhood years. Oxygen (O) and strontium (Sr) are fixed in dental enamel as our teeth form. The enamel does not alter significantly with age, therefore oxygen and strontium levels can be matched fairly closely to the geology and climate of the place an individual grew up. The oxygen and strontium isotopes indicated that just five of the men tested had probably grown up in York.

Müldner's team also tested 68 individuals for carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) in order to obtain clues about their diet. Carbon and nitrogen isotopes are absorbed from our food and can be measured in dentine or bone collagen samples, providing scientists with information about land and sea foods in an individual's diet as well as the balance of plant and animal protein. They also distinguish plants that photosynthesis in different ways to produce different proportions of the isotopes known as C3 and C4.

In addition, there are two stable carbon isotopes known as C-12 and C-13. The common isotope that makes up about 99% of all natural carbon is C-12 with C-13 only accounting for only about 1%. Plants of the C4 group, which are adapted to hot, dry climates and include maize, sorghum and millet, tend to fix C-13 more readily than C3 group plants, such as wheat, rice and barley, which do better in temperate climates. Thus by measuring the ratio of C-13/C-12 in bone it can be possible to derive the proportion of C3 and C4 plant groups in the diet of the sample.

Of the 68 individuals tested for carbon and nitrogen two in particular had eaten diets with distinctly high carbon isotope ratios, indicating the consumption of C4 plants, or the products of animals raised on them. To have consumed enough of their distinctive diets to produce these unusual isotope results, the scientists concluded that these two individuals must have come from abroad. The only 'C4 plant' cultivated in Europe at the time was millet, but it was almost certainly not grown in Britain during this period, possibly because the climate was too wet. Indeed, millet is not known to have been cultivated in Britain in the Roman period or at any time before.
They discovered that five of the headless Romans ate very different foods from York's local population. The results revealed that at least two had a diet rich in plant during their childhood, consuming C4-plant based protein probably millet, that wasn't grown in Britain at that time. Dr Müldner said, “This approach was very important in this case, because it has given us information about these unusual burials that would have been missed if only strontium and oxygen had been analysed.”

Müldner deduced that as we had not seen similar values in Britain before, nor much in Europe in the Roman Period, the "Headless Romans" likely came from as far away as Eastern Europe, with the evidence of previous combat scars suggesting that the men led violent lives. He added, “the headless Romans are very different [physically] than other people from York, coming from all over the place. Some of them are quite exotic."

Dead Men Tell No Tales

Far from solving the enigma of the 'Headless Romans' the results seem to have deepened the mystery; if they were not local people it raises the question who they were and what were they doing in Roman York?

It has been suggested that if these decapitated individuals who died a violent death were not gladiators or a warrior elite they may have been executed criminals or members of a religious cult who suffered a ritual killing. Post-mortem decapitation is known to have been carried out by superstitious Romans to prevent some people returning as ghosts; the head is thought to be the seat of the soul, consequently if the head is separated from the body the soul escapes and the dead will not be able to walk the earth.


Non-Roman citizens would normally undergo a harsh and degrading execution, such as crucifixion or being thrown to wild animals in the gladiatorial arena. But some, such as early Christian martyrs, appear to have been buried after their execution. Roman citizens could be executed by decapitation although authorities sometimes prevented certain individuals being given a decent burial, perhaps in order to prevent them reaching the afterlife. The suggestion that at least some of the York individuals may have been executed criminals is supported by one of the skeletons being found with heavy lead leg-shackles. A few of the ‘decapitated’ burials show no signs of cuts on the vertebrae possibly as a result of hanging, which would have been followed by burial some days afterwards when the head may have become detached from the body. The site at Driffield Terrace rises above the Mount and this may be significant as death by execution often takes place at a place of prominence where it can easily be seen by many. But it is unlikely criminals would have been given such a burial.

Ritual Killings

The Celts venerated the head as the seat of the soul and are well attested for their cult of the head and these beliefs persisted into the Roman period. It has been suggested that the decapitations and the additional injuries are reminiscent of ritual killing by way of the triple death of human sacrifices as practised in the pre-Roman world of the Celts. The sacrifice of adults for religious reasons was banned by the Emperor Augustus, however this does not necessarily mean that such practices did not continue and deposits of horse and other animal bones with some the burials, along with other grave goods, suggest that ritual played a part in many of the burials.

Warrior Elite

The vast majority of the burial group being well-built adult males, taller than the average male, with their bones showing signs of extreme physical exertion with most bearing evidence of a violent death, immediately suggests an elite group of warriors provided with special status amongst society.

The Roman historian Tacitus, writing in the 1st Century AD, describes how the Catti warriors were given elite status amongst the tribe and took part in Arminius' Germanic tribal coalition that annihilated Varus' legions in 9 AD in the Teutoburg Forest. Soldiers were executed for desertion and other court martial offences, which could result in punishment by decapitation. Alternatively, the injuries may have been the result of soldiers killed in battle and whose bodies were recovered by their own side and given a decent burial. But this would not explain the pelvic injury apparently caused by a large carnivore as seen on one of the skeletons.


It is estimated that up to a million gladiators are thought to have died in arenas across the Roman Empire. Roman Britain was second only to Italy in the number of purpose-built gladiatorial arenas in Europe. It is assumed York had its own amphitheatre, although evidence of it remains elusive, so the presence of gladiators here should not be surprising.

All the Driffield Terrace individuals were male and the majority killed by decapitation, suggesting an unusual group of people. These people were taller than the average Romano-British male and more robust. Significantly in about a third of the skeletons, one arm slightly longer than the other, the right humerus of one skeleton being 18mm longer than the left, suggesting one-sided work from an early age, perhaps representing prolonged sword practice. Although we cannot rule out the possibility of other occupations, such as archery or blacksmithing, which may also cause the over-development of one arm, it would seem unlikely to be a group of smiths. Men with similar asymmetry, muscular arms, have been excavated at the gladiator cemetery at Ephesus in Turkey.

Blunt force trauma, i.e. a blow to the head, found on a number of the York skeletons appears to be evidence of methods that were used to kill vanquished or dying gladiators by a slave in the arena dressed as the god of the Underworld and armed with a large iron mallet who despatched any fatally wounded gladiator with a sharp blow to the head.

The Injuries to the pelvis are consistent with carnivore toothmarks, evidence perhaps of a gladiator being bitten about the hip by a large carnivore such as a lion or a bear. Gladiator versus animal fights were common events in the arena and undertaken by a specially trained and equipped fighter known as the bestiarii or venatores. However, we cannot rule out the possibility of a common Roman method of execution, in which criminals were tied to a post in the arena and left to the mercy of beasts.

The 'gladiatorial' explanation of these decapitated burials at York seems the more likely with the use of the cemetery at Driffield Terrace being continued for some time in different phases, dating from the early 3rd to 4th century, indicating that this was not a single mass event, but occurred over a number of years and corresponds with deaths from gladiatorial combat which appear to have risen in Roman Britain at this time. Evidence from tombstones suggest an average age of 27 for gladiators.