A look at ten men who were assassinated in the Middle Ages.
With the famous line, “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?”, King Henry II unintentionally set into motion the most famous assassination in English history. By 1170 the King had been in a bitter rift with his former friend and now Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. Near the end of the year the King was so displeased with Becket’s actions that he muttered these lines (or something like it) and four knights, Reginald fitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy, and Richard le Breton, interpreted it as a royal command and set out to confront the Archbishop of Canterbury.
On December 29, 1170, they came into his cathedral, and in the words of an eyewitness:
The wicked knight leapt suddenly upon him, cutting off the top of the crown which the unction of sacred chrism had dedicated to God. Next he received a second blow on the head, but still he stood firm and immovable. At the third blow he fell on his knees and elbows, offering himself a living sacrifice, and saying in a low voice, ‘For the name of Jesus and the protection of the Church, I am ready to embrace death.’ But the third knight inflicted a terrible wound as he lay prostrate. By this stroke, the crown of his head was separated from the head in such a way that the blood white with the brain, and the brain no less red from the blood, dyed the floor of the cathedral. The same clerk who had entered with the knights placed his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr, and, horrible to relate, scattered the brains and blood about the pavements, crying to the others, ‘Let us away, knights; this fellow will arise no more’.
Giuliano de’ Medici
The Pazzi conspiracy was an attempt to destroy the Medici family and remove them from their rule of the Italian city of Florence. The plot was organized by the Pazzi, another prominent Florentine family and included among the co-conspirators the Pope. On Sunday, 26 April 1478, during High Mass at the Duomo before a crowd of 10,000, the assassins struck at Lorenzo de’ Medici and his brother Giuliano de’ Medici. Giuliano was stabbed 19 times and bled to death on the cathedral floor, but Lorenzo survived.
The rest of the Pazzi plan collapsed as the citizens of Florence rose up in support of the Medici. The assassins were killed by mobs, and the Pazzi family and their supporters were hunted down and destroyed. Lorenzo de’ Medici would eventually become more powerful than ever.
Conrad of Montferrat
The Nizari Ismailis, a Shia sect based in Syria and Persia, had a reputation for being the best assassins in the Middle Ages – in fact, they were known as the Hashishin, which gradually became the word assassin. Several assassinations were attributed to this group throughout the Middle East, including the murder of Conrad of Montferrat, who was killed on April 28, 1192.
According to the chronicler Ambroise, Conrad, who had days earlier been elected to be the next King of Jerusalem, had just left from having dinner with the Bishop of Beauvais, when:
as he went on his way, happy, two young men, without cloaks, carrying two knives, came running up to him, striking him in his body as they ran up, so that he fell … Of those who had betrayed him, one was killed straight away, the other took refuge in a church, but this was no use to him, for he was seized and dragged until he was dead.
The Ismailis got blamed for the assassination, and this was not the only time they would be accused without hard evidence. Perhaps they were the scapegoat for others. There were even rumours that Richard I, King of England, was involved in the plot, as he was opposed to Conrad becoming the ruler of the crusader state.
Louis I, Duke of Orléans
Louis I was Duke of Orléans and younger brother to the French King Charles VI. While Charles suffered from a mental illness, Louis fought with John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, over who should control the kingdom. On November 23, 1407, just three days after a peace agreement was reached between the two men, John ordered the assassination of Louis, and 15 masked men slaughtered the Duke in the streets of Paris.
John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy
The infighting among the leaders of France did not end with the death of Louis, and on September 10, 1419, John was supposed to have a meeting with the Dauphin, the son and heir of Charles V. They met on the bridge of Montereau, and as the Dauphin looked on, one of his men shouted “Kill! Kill!” and delivered an axe blow to the Duke’s face. The Duke was killed in the melee that followed, and in some reports, his right hand was cut off, just as Louis’s hand was cut off twelve years earlier.
Philip of Swabia
Philip of Swabia, who was King of Germany from 1198 to 1208, after having spent years at war to secure his throne. However, on June 21, 1208, he came to Bamberg to see his niece get married. There he was met by his supporter, Count Otto VIII of Wittelsbach, who wanted to marry one of the King’s daughters. Once he learned that Philip had refused the offer, the unstable count came with his men to the King’s bedroom, telling him that this was no time for joking. He then cut Philip’s throat with his sword, and after taking three steps the king fell to the floor and died. It took nearly a year before Count Otto was tracked down and executed for his crime, with his head being thrown into the Danube River and his body left to rot for seven years before it was buried.
James I of Scotland
While James was the King of Scotland for more than 30 years, the first 18 years were spent detained by the King of England. Once he was able to ransom himself back to freedom, he was faced with a Scottish kingdom that had powerful nobles who were used to a country without a king. Eventually, his uncle and former ally Walter Stewart, Earl of Atholl, fearing that the King would seize his lands, decided to launch a coup to overthrow James.
On the night of February 20, 1437, a band of thirty men came to Perth where the King and Queen were staying, in order to kill them both. James tried to escape by fleeing through a sewer tunnel, but it had been recently blocked up to prevent tennis balls from getting lost. The King was discovered and murdered, but the wounded Queen managed to escape. Their six-year-old son, James II, was installed on the throne, while the conspirators were hunted down and killed. Walter Stewart would be tortured for three days, including being blinded by red-hot iron pincers and having his entrails removed and burned in front of him, before his heart was torn out.
Charles the Good was the Count of Flanders from 1119 to 1127. On March 2, 1127, the Erembald family and other nobles, fearing that the Count was about to strip them of their lands and power, decided to kill the Count while he was at church in the town of Bruges. The chronicler Galbert of Bruges provides this vivid description: “those wretched traitors, already murderers at heart, slew the count, who was struck down with swords and run through again and again, while he was praying devoutly and giving alms, humbly kneeling before the Divine Majesty.” The murder would unleash a civil war in Flanders, and eventually most of those involved in the plot would be executed.
Nikephoros II Phokas
The Byzantine Emperor from 963 to 969, Nikephoros had success on the battlefield and in reviving the Empire. However, the emperor’s wife Theophano was having an affair with Nikephoros’ nephew and general John Tzimiskes, and they plotted to assassinate the emperor. They smuggled and hid the assassins into the palace in Constantinople, and on December 10, 969, as John joined them, they attacked the emperor as he was sleeping in his bedroom. The History of Leo the Deacon describes the scene:
‘When Nikephoros was awakened and propped his head on his elbow, Leo, called Balantes, struck him violently with his sword. And the emperor, in severe pain from the wound for the sword struck his brow and eyelid, crushing the bone, but not injuring the brain, cried out in a very loud voice, “Help me, O Mother of God!”; and he was covered all over with blood and stained with red. John, sitting on the imperial bed, ordered them to drag the emperor over…saying, “Tell me, you most ungrateful and malicious tyrant, wasn’t it through me that you attained the Roman rule and received such power? Why then did you disregard such a good turn, and driven, by envy and evil frenzy, did not hesitate to remove me, your benefactor, from the command of the troops? Instead you dismissed me to waste my time in the countryside with peasants, like some alien without any rights, even through I am more brave and vigorous than you; the armies of the enemy fear me, and there is no one who can save you from my hands. Speak then, if you have any grounds of defense remaining against these charges.”
The emperor, who was already growing faint and did no have anyone to defend him, kept calling on the Mother of God for assistance. But John grabbed hold of his beard and pulled it mercilessly, while his fellow conspirators cruelly and inhumanely smashed his jaws with their sword handles so as to shake loose his teeth and knock them out of the jawbone. When they had their fill of tormenting him, John kicked him in the chest, raised up his sword, and drove it right through the middle of his brain…’
John would go on to rule the Byzantine Empire for another six years, while Nikephoros was buried. An inscription carved on the side of his tomb reads: “You conquered all but a woman.”
Vaclav I, Duke of Bohemia
According to the Czech chronicler Cosmas of Prague, on September 28, 929, Boleslav decided to kill his brother Vaclav, and replace him as Duke of Bohemia. Cosmas writes that “he deceitfully invited his brother to a feast where he schemed instead to kill him in order to seize control of the realm.” As the deed was done, Boleslav’s wife would give birth to a son, which they named Strachkvas, which means “terrifying feast”. Boleslav would rule the Czechs for another 35 years, while Vaclav was canonized as a saint and is remembered to this day as “Good King Wenceslas”.