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  • Robin Hood: Outlaw in a Lawless World

    Robin Hood: Outlaw in a Lawless World

    Ian R. Storer

    When the justice system of medieval England was found to be too corrupt, Robin Hood and the outlaws of fact and fiction created their own system beyond the law.
    In his earliest incarnations, Robin Hood has his base in Yorkshire, not Sherwood, never explicitly robs the rich to feed the poor and does not associate with Maid Marian. Yet, from the early ballads onwards – most notably A Gest of Robyn Hode, which dates possibly from the mid-15th century – it is clear that he stood for something and represented certain admirable qualities: namely, opposition to the endemic judicial and administrative malpractice that was rife in late medieval society.Such qualities are common among the folk heroes that populate medieval outlaw ballads. In 1432 a clerk recording the parliamentary returns for Wiltshire added a number of fictitious names to the list of sureties:Adam, Belle, Clyme, Ocluw, Willyam, Cloudesle, Robyn, hode, Inne, Grenewode, Stode, Godeman, Was, hee, Joon, Muchette, Millersson, Scathelock, Reynoldyn. This piece of administrative embellishment is a roll call of prominent fictional outlaws – Adam Bell, Clim of the Clough, William of Cloudesley, Robin Hood, Little John, Much the Miller’s Son and Will Scarlet, as well as Reynold Greenleaf, an alias of Robin Hood. It also contains the most enduring phrase of the Robin Hood ballads: ‘Robin Hood in Bransdale stood, a good yeoman was he.’ This is not only the earliest reference to Robin Hood as a ‘good man’, but also links two well-known outlaw bands of ballad from very distant regions: Adam Bell of Cumbria, whose exploits are preserved in a ballad of around 1560, and Robin Hood of Yorkshire, whose earliest ballad dates from perhaps 1450.Evidently such tales had spread far and were popular nationally long before the surviving ballads were written. And, though such ballads can be traced back to the Anglo-Saxon period – for example the exploits of Hereward the Wake, the genesis of the most notable non-courtly stories – it is unsurprising that they proliferated during the 14th century, a period noted for its civil disorder.The violent stories of this unpoliced age contain many shared features and show signs of much borrowing, yet they all hinge upon the righting of injustices inflicted on martially capable middling men. Adam Bell and his comrades, for example, appear as yeoman outlaws living off the king’s deer in Inglewood, forced to rescue a comrade when he is betrayed in Carlisle. Battles, archery competitions and retribution follow, ending with the outlaw’s eventual pardon and employment by the king as ‘chefe rydere’ of all the north country. Robin Hood, when he first appears in print, is likewise so well known as to need no explanation. Robin and his men are pitted against the evil abbot of St Mary’s York and then their (now traditional) nemesis the Sheriff of Nottingham, as they turn the accepted social order on its head, with outlawed criminals outwitting the corrupt forces of government before eventual pardon by the ‘comely king Edward’.Certainly many medieval commentators felt the first half of the 14th century was an especially crime-ridden age, with numerous commissions launched against misdoers, who ‘Wander in diverse counties with a multitude of malefactors, beating, wounding, and maiming men in … public and private’. Modern historians have been tempted to agree, noting the prevalence of armed criminal bands, such as the well-documented Folvilles of Ashby-Folville (Leicestershire) and the Coterels of Derbyshire, who regularly appear in the court rolls and petitions of the day. Fact and fiction therefore stand some comparison, combining to give us an insight into medieval attitudes towards authority, disorder and justice – albeit through a distorted lens.There is no denying that contemporaries were quick to link the deeds of fictitious outlaws with the criminals of their age. A parliamentary petition of 1439, for example, noted that Piers Venables of Derbyshire, a criminal complicit in rescuing a prisoner en route to Tutbury Castle, had gathered a large band of men, ‘beyng of his clothinge and in manere of insurrection wente into the wodes in that county like it hadde be Robyn Hode and his meynee’. Conversely, fact could also inform fiction: an outlawed criminal by the name of Robert Stafford, a chaplain of Lindfield in Sussex, seemed to have adopted the alias ‘Frere Tuk’ in 1417, heading a band of robbers until he was pardoned in November 1429. It is not inconceivable that this renegade churchman gave rise to the warlike outlaw friar who next appears in the earliest known Robin Hood play, from the 1470s. Yet, beyond the search for historical figures among the ballads, several interesting parallels emerge.The greenwood setting is one of them. When men were outlawed for failing to appear before a local court and fled justice, their only recourse was to escape – either to supporters who would hide them, or to the wilds to lay low. Though by the 14th century the arcadia of the merry greenwood ‘where the jay flies free’ had largely been replaced by a patchwork of privately owned parks and royal game reserves, there was still enough dense woodland to hide large numbers of men – when they were not being sheltered by their maintainers in churches and manors.Merry menThe outlaw Robert Godbeard in Sherwood is a prime example and his reputation may have helped place the Robin Hood legends in their most familiar setting. A supporter of the rebel Simon de Montfort, Godbeard surrendered and obtained pardon from Henry III in 1265. Despite this, he appears to have continued his guerrilla-like existence, possibly because of an unacceptable land settlement. By 1267 the band he had gathered was clearly a serious menace and the lieutenant of Reginald de Grey (constable of Nottingham Castle) fought two heavy engagements with them – one in the heart of Sherwood Forest. Such outlaw bands could present a serious threat. William Beckwith of Yorkshire disturbed the district of Knaresborough between 1387 and 1392. Deprived of the hereditary office of the forestership and chase of Knaresborough, he attracted a band of men alleged to be 500-strong at its height and conducted a virtual war against the Duchy of Lancaster, targeting the steward and constable of Knaresborough, Sir Robert Rokeley. His actions clearly divided the countryside and, like Robin Hood, Beckwith attracted many local sympathisers.Highway robbery was similarly no literary fantasy. Just as the fictional Little John set an ambush near Sayles on Watling Street, so too did Sir Robert de Vere set an ambush for – and assaulted – the Abbot of Pipewell in the early 1330s. Yet de Vere was no woodland footpad: being both the keeper of Rockingham Forest and the constable of Rockingham Castle, he was in an unassailable position to dominate the highways of the area. Indicted as an accessory to the ransoming of Justice Willoughby, who was abducted by a consortium of criminal cartels headed by the Folville family while on commission to investigate such criminals, de Vere was evidently deeply involved in the feuding that dominated the Midlands. Just as Robin’s men took refuge in the castle of Sir Richard at Lee in the Gest, Rockingham formed a well-placed refuge for fugitives, situated on the border of Northamptonshire, Leicestershire and Rutland. ‘Sometimes twenty armed men … sometimes thirty’, would come to the castle at dusk and leave at dawn through a side entrance.Cruel worldDe Vere’s career highlights another feature shared by the ballads and medieval reality: violence. Meeting the investigating commissioner William le Zouche on the road at Beanfield Lawns with a gang of armed men, de Vere addressed the lawman with these words: ‘You wish to destroy me … but before I am destroyed I shall destroy all those who intend to destroy me, whatever their rank or estate may be.’Medieval society was informally run and highly militarised; violence was a social norm for its elite. The Statute of Winchester of 1285 required every able-bodied man between 16 and 60 to train regularly for war. Coupled with the fact that local governance and justice were left in the hands of gentry families, it is unsurprising that violence was a tool of lawmen and outlaws alike. The followers of the Cumbrian outlaw Adam Bell, for example, are depicted as brutal, wringing the porter of Carlisle Castle’s neck then throwing him in a ‘depe dungeon’, before escaping with their master. In Robin Hood and the Monk, a quarrel between John and Robin leads to Robin’s capture in Nottingham and eventual rescue by the former. Little John decapitates the clergyman taking news of Robin’s capture to the king, then murders his page boy ‘for fear that he might tell’. Grislier still is the treatment of Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, a strange tale in which Robin confronts a mysterious yeoman he has seen in a dream, who is revealed as a bounty hunter out to collect a price on Robin’s head. After bettering Guy in combat, Robin places Gisborne’s severed head on the end of his bow and proceeds to mutilate his features.Echoes of such violence can readily be found in the petitions and court records of the period. In 1276 a band of armed men released two poachers being held by the steward of Sherwood from the house where they were detained, beating up the guards before smashing the windows of the steward’s home and shouting insults at him. In 1392 the kin of William Beckwith lured his betrayer, Thomas Blande, to a meeting and killed him in cold blood; the Folvilles met their sworn enemy Sir Roger Bellers on the road near Melton Mowbray and killed him with a long knife thrust down through his collarbone to the heart. These were men with multiple homicides to their name, experts in violence and intimidation, yet the fact they were fed and sheltered in the homes and houses of local lords across the Midlands suggests that some at least viewed their actions as acceptable.Crime – and punishment?The angry tone of Gamelyn, a story set during the reign of Edward I (1272-1307), perhaps provides the fullest expression of support for violent retribution against unpopular justice. Gamelyn, youngest son of the dying Sir Johan Boundys, is left in the care of his evil elder brother, who despoils the lands held for him until he comes of age. Through many violent twists, in which the bellicose hero supports the honest against the corrupt, Gamelyn is ultimately outlawed and returns to save his honourable middle brother Sir Ote, who has been condemned to hang in his place by a rigged jury at the yearly assize. Entering the justice hall, Gamelyn releases Sir Ote before the stunned assembly and cleves the King’s Justice’s cheek to the bone. Gamelyn deals out retributive punishment to knights, abbots and sheriffs, the untouchable forces of the day. As the hero enters a court with his men to punish the corrupt judge set to hang his middle brother, the poet draws out the gory details:Gamelyn took him in the arm, and no more spake,But threw him over the barre, his arm to-brak [break].Then, most tellingly, he replaces the bribed jury with 12 of his own outlaws and, taking the justice seat, delivers his own sentence, hanging the sheriff, justice and jury. This is visceral retribution, but not entirely far-fetched. In 1326, Sir Roger Swynnerton and his armed kin barred the doors of the justice hall at Stafford, threatening Hugh de Croft and Sir William Stafford unless the trial was stopped.There is certainly no shortage of corrupt justice in the sources, with poems like the 12th-century Song against the Sheriffs demonstrating the bad reputation such untouchable royal appointees had. As an unsalaried role, the office was open to abuse and men like John de Skipwith, Sheriff of Lincoln, were able to misuse their powers to imprison opponents and conduct private feuds with impunity. In 1397 Skipwith broke into the house of Adam Wyot with 48 men-at-arms and archers ‘arrayed as if to make war’, seizing his goods and chattels until he paid a fine of 19 and a half marks. More notorious was Sir John Molyns of Stoke Poges in Buckinghamshire, who was able to extort, threaten, imprison and murder unchecked, thanks to his connections in government. Molyns had freely misused his connections, murdered his wife’s uncle to gain his manor and manipulated numerous special commissions. This might all have been overlooked had it not been for the failure of Edward III’s wool tax and the purge of corrupt officials that followed. In 1340, when Molyns stole wool sacks from Edward’s tax collectors, he was finally tried and punished.The outrages perpetrated were often more subtle, however. Sir Robert Ingram, who served as both mayor and sheriff of Nottingham, was a consistent harbourer and informant of the Coterel gang, passing them information whenever the forces of law and order were closing in. Such outrages were clearly accepted as a fact of life. For the government, the smooth running of the shires included local power struggles, in which ‘justice’ was in the eye of the beholder – or at least in the hands of the mighty.Nothing sacredThe clergy were also heavily involved in the documented history of 14th-century crime – seen in the ballads in the form of avaricious abbots, who became targets of Gamelyn and Robin in the Gest. Richard de Folville, one of the five brothers involved in terrorising the Midlands in this period, was rector of the parish of Teigh in Rutland for over 20 years, despite his life as a habitual criminal. He was finally dragged from his own church and beheaded by Sir Robert de Colville, a keeper of the peace, following a fight which had killed one of the lawmen and wounded others.More common, however, was the hiring of criminal bands by the church itself. The Coterel gang first come to light having been hired by Master Robert Bernard, a registrar of Lichfield Cathedral, to attack Walter Can, the vicar of Bakewell. In 1304 the notorious gang leader Malcolm Mussard of Worcestershire was hired to attack a rectory with a band of archers at the behest of the disgruntled former incumbent. The Folvilles were likewise hired, for £20, by two churchmen – a canon of Sempringham Priory and the cellarer of Haverholm Abbey – to burn down a rival’s water mill in 1331. It would seem that the former, Alan of Baston, had befriended the Folville brothers when harbouring them in the priory.Each of these cases shows the inability of churchmen to act against their opponents without what we might term ‘professional muscle’ to defend their rights and dues. Is there, perhaps, some parallel in the Coterels’ support of the canons of Lichfield against the encroachment upon their rights by Lenton Abbey with Robin’s upholding of needy causes? At the very least, the ballads preserve the context of the righting of perceived local injustices by immediate means, opposing abuses by the powerful land-owning monasteries, like St Mary’s York in the Gest.The background of the protagonists in the ballads also fits well with the social context of documented crime. Gamelyn is ‘born of a lady and gotten of a knight’; both Adam Bell and Robin Hood are ‘good yeomen’, who appeal to ‘gentlemen who are of freeborn blood’. In the Gest, Robin helps a knight, his supporters are yeomen – not poor peasants – and invariably his opponents are corrupt clergy and lawmen. This is the same world of bastard feudalism, within which the Coterels and Folvilles moved, where the control of confederacies and maintained retinues was replacing traditional feudal bonds.By royal decreeIn 1332, an outcry against disorder by Chief Justice le Scrope resulted in the Trailbaston commission, which found that criminals were virtually waging war against the king and writing letters to their opponents ‘in a style which was almost royal’. They were forging royal writs – in the ballads, Adam Bell does this to enter Carlisle castle. William de Cotes feigned a royal commission in order to seize livestock, 50 quarts of beans and goods worth £20 from the village of Stainsby.Most interesting of all, however, is a letter addressed to Richard de Snaweshill, parson of Huntington, from Lionel ‘king of the rout of raveners’, calling him a ‘false servant’ and demanding he remove the incumbent of Burton Agnes and replace him with an appointee chosen by the abbot of St Mary’s. He was threatened with the fate of Bishop Stapledon (murdered in 1326) and warned: ‘We will hunt you down, even if we have to come to Coney Street in York to do it.’ It is not just the regal overtones that make this letter interesting, nor the fact that it purports to come from a rival justice system ‘at our castle of the North Wind … in the first year of our reign’, but that it implies Snaweshill is breaking the law of both God and acting contrary to the true justice of the land – justice the king (and not his corrupt ministers) would uphold. This is a point of interest that runs through both the ballads and the records. Although Robin opposes the corrupt sheriffs and abbots (‘Ye shall them bete and bynde’), he is ultimately loyal to, and enters the service of, Edward, as does Adam Bell, when justice is served.The most notorious criminals of the age fared much the same, for it would appear that useful employ and lucrative reward were the most successful way of harnessing the criminal gentry’s martial skills. Nicholas Coterel, for example, was appointed Queen Phillippa’s Bailiff of the High Peak, while another gang member, Sir William Aune, was commissioned to survey the decaying castles of Wales. Sir William Chetulton and Sir John Legh, notable gangsters, lead troops to Berwick in 1336.If the medieval outlaw embodied an alternative justice system, he certainly had no interest in overthrowing the existing one. The king relied upon the might of such men to fight his wars and keep peace in his shires. It was only when their depredations caused public outcry that serious action was taken.What links these cases and the legends, therefore, is a hunger for justice, prompted by the endemic corruption of local governance in the later Middle Ages. Robin is a model of self-made good lordship, a sharp contrast to the corrupt landowners who subverted the law unchecked.For many in the 14th century, justice was hard to find in a world of officially sanctioned corruption, sheriffs who passed information to criminal gangs and churchmen who employed bandits. It is no surprise that the legend of Robin Hood and his fictional contemporaries became nationally popular.Ian R. Storer taught at the universities of Leicester and Nottingham, researches medieval gentry criminality and writes historical fiction as Ian Roberts.
  • Postwar Germany and the legacy of Nazism

  • The Ottoman Empire: Succession, Deposition and Fratricide

    The Ottoman Empire: Succession, Deposition and Fratricide

    Gemma Masson

    Getting and keeping the throne in the Ottoman Empire was no easy task. For a new sultan, the most foolproof method of securing power was to kill all other claimants.
    A bey or chieftain of one of the numerous Central Asian nomadic tribes died in 1280, leaving his son, Osman, to take his place. Osman – known as Osman Gazi, meaning great warrior – would go on to found a dynasty known as the Ottomans (from the Turkish Osmanlı, literally ‘of Osman’) and an empire spanning Europe, Asia and North Africa. But the ruling dynasty of the Ottoman Empire is rare in that the House of Osman managed to maintain an unbroken line of succession from its founding in the 13th century through to the family members who are still alive today.The Ottoman foundation myth alleges that Osman I had a dream in which he saw a tree grow from his navel to cast a wide shadow across the world. Anyone living within this shadow lived prosperously. This story provided the Ottomans with an explanation for the success of their expansion – and also suggested that they were chosen and favoured by Allah. Yet maintaining a smooth transition of power within the family across hundreds of years was not easy; the system of succession in the Ottoman Empire was a deadly one.As with any ruling dynasty, the requirement that the reigning sultan produce an heir was central to succession. In traditional Islamic fashion, heirs could be produced through a combination of legal marriage and slave concubinage. Indeed, after the first two rulers of the dynasty, Osman and his son and heir Orhan, almost all sultanic offspring were born from concubine mothers. Questions of marriage and reproduction did not simply revolve around love. Marriages were political. Most of those contracted in the 14th century were with Christian women; in the 15th century, sultans began to choose more Muslim women as brides for their sons. While this change reflected a shift in geopolitics, it was also a result of a more widespread end to inter-dynastic marriages around the early 15th century. The marriage in 1435 of Murad II, father of Mehmed the Conqueror, to Mara, the daughter of the Serbian ruler George Brankovich, was reputedly the last one. In the centuries that followed, brides and concubines came from as far afield as Crimea, Greece, Bulgaria, Georgia and Albania.[[{"fid":"41101","view_mode":"standard","fields":{"alt":"Osman II, from a 19th-century Ottoman manuscript.","title":"Osman II, from a 19th-century Ottoman manuscript.","class":"media-element file-default","data-delta":"2","format":"standard","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"Osman II, from a 19th-century Ottoman manuscript.","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":"Osman II, from a 19th-century Ottoman manuscript.","external_url":""},"link_text":null,"type":"media","field_deltas":{"2":{"alt":"Osman II, from a 19th-century Ottoman manuscript.","title":"Osman II, from a 19th-century Ottoman manuscript.","class":"media-element file-default","data-delta":"2","format":"standard","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"Osman II, from a 19th-century Ottoman manuscript.","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":"Osman II, from a 19th-century Ottoman manuscript.","external_url":""}},"attributes":{"alt":"Osman II, from a 19th-century Ottoman manuscript.","title":"Osman II, from a 19th-century Ottoman manuscript.","class":"media-element file-standard","data-delta":"2"}}]]These women lived in the imperial harem. Those who were fortunate enough to bear the sultan’s sons might attain the powerful role of Valide Sultan (‘mother sultan’), the title given to the mother of the reigning sultan. If a mother died before her son attained the throne, she was not awarded this title, although in special circumstances it could be bestowed upon grandmothers or even stepmothers. The title was first used in the 16th century, when it was given to Hafsa Sultan, the mother of Süleyman the Magnificent. Previously the title had been ‘cradle of the great’.The role of Valide Sultan came with a great deal of power and influence in the Ottoman Empire, both within the harem and without. As part of the duty of securing succession, she would oversee the education and grooming of young women who might attract her son. She also had a great deal of power over which of the harem women were sent to his bedchamber.Yet securing the role of Valide Sultan was not easy. A woman first had to catch the eye of the sultan, then bear him at least one son, then keep both herself and her son alive and in favour until his father died. This was easier said than done after the Ottoman tradition of fratricide was codified into law by an imperial edict of Mehmed the Conqueror.Legalised practiceAfter the death of his father Murad II in 1451, Mehmed visited the women of the harem and, while hearing their condolences, sent one of his men to strangle his infant half-brother in his bath. He validated this action with appropriate citations from the Quran, such as: ‘The execution of a prince is preferable to the loss of a province.’ In his edict legalising the practice he stated:Whichever of my sons inherits the sultan’s throne, it behooves him to kill his brothers in the interest of the world order. Most of the jurists have approved this procedure. Let action be taken accordingly.While this was not completely new to the Ottoman Empire, judicial royal fratricide became an accepted method of securing the Ottoman throne until its abolition in the 17th century by Ahmed I. That is not to say that it was practised consistently. There are numerous cases where fratricide did not occur until well after the question of succession was settled, indicating that the Ottomans were, in this, as in many matters, flexible and willing to adapt to whatever action was deemed most appropriate to the current situation. The eventual abolition of fratricide came about following widespread public disapproval over the accession of Mehmed III to the throne. He was notorious for having 19 of his brothers and half-brothers strangled in order to secure the throne for himself.Behind every weak sultanThis series of fratricides took place during a period in Ottoman history known as the Sultanate of Women, a 130-year period spanning the 16th and 17th centuries. During this period women of the imperial harem held considerable power and influence over affairs of state. Sometimes this was due to the Valide Sultan acting as regent for a son who, while on the throne, was still a minor. The adult wives of minor sultans (Haseki Sultan, ‘chief consort’) could also fulfil this role. The Sultanate of Women began with Hürrem Sultan, the wife of Süleyman the Magnificent, and her daughter Mihrimah Sultan, who became the wife of Rüstem Paşa, one of Süleyman’s grand viziers.[[{"fid":"41091","view_mode":"standard","fields":{"alt":"Portrait of Hürrem Sultan, 1541, Ottoman School.","title":"Portrait of Hürrem Sultan, 1541, Ottoman School.","class":"media-element file-float-right","data-delta":"1","format":"standard","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"Portrait of Hürrem Sultan, 1541, Ottoman School.","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":"Portrait of Hürrem Sultan, 1541, Ottoman School.","external_url":""},"link_text":null,"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"alt":"Portrait of Hürrem Sultan, 1541, Ottoman School.","title":"Portrait of Hürrem Sultan, 1541, Ottoman School.","class":"media-element file-float-right","data-delta":"1","format":"standard","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"Portrait of Hürrem Sultan, 1541, Ottoman School.","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":"Portrait of Hürrem Sultan, 1541, Ottoman School.","external_url":""}},"attributes":{"alt":"Portrait of Hürrem Sultan, 1541, Ottoman School.","title":"Portrait of Hürrem Sultan, 1541, Ottoman School.","class":"media-element file-standard","data-delta":"1"}}]]Traditionally, this period has been viewed as a time of weak sultans, either because they were minors, or because they were insufficient in some other way: drunk, lazy, mentally unstable or not intelligent enough for the role. For these reasons, women and advisers were able to gain power and manipulate the sultans for their own gain.Though it was a period of unprecedented power for royal Ottoman women, many of them faced stiff opposition, which often came from the viziers close to them. In 1583, the Venetian ambassador Paolo Contarini observed that Sultan Murad III based all his actions on the advice of his mother, Nurbanu, and that women were the real holders of power in the Ottoman Empire. Another Venetian diplomat, Alvise Contarini, recalled in 1640 how he had passed letters to the grand vizier, Kemankes Kara Mustafa Pasha, for delivery to Kösem Sultan, the then Valide Sultan. The vizier gave the cutting response that the mothers of sultans were, like all other women in the imperial house, slaves of the sultan and held no real power of their own. This was revealing of Kara Mustafa’s rivalry with Kösem for the ear and favour of the new sultan, Ibrahim.The end of the Sultanate of Women brought with it the demise of the practice of fratricide and the beginnings of its alternative, the kafes, or ‘gilded cage’, a system which advocated the virtual house arrest of any male family member who might threaten the reign of the ruling sultan. Ahmed I was enthroned in 1603 and, in preference to fratricide, permitted his 12-year-old brother Mustafa to live. It is thought that, as well as reacting to the public condemnation of royal fratricide, Ahmed I was motivated by a desire to safeguard the future of the Ottoman dynasty.The case for fratricideAhmed came to the throne aged 13 and had not yet demonstrated his ability to produce sons. Should something have happened to him before he had fathered a male heir, Mustafa would have been the only other legal candidate for the throne. Ahmed I did go on to produce sons, but, at his death in 1617, his eldest was only 13 years old. This prompted the imperial council to allow Mustafa, then aged 25, to ascend the throne as Mustafa I, although he would be deposed and re-enthroned several times throughout his life.This exposed a drawback to the abolition of fratricide. The introduction of the ‘cage’ and the survival of a number of other viable candidates for the throne meant the sultan faced a greater danger of depositions and coups by interested individuals or parties seeking to wield power. It also very often produced men unprepared for rule. It was common to imprison uncles, brothers and cousins in the cage as soon as they left the harem apartments upon reaching puberty. This marked the end of their education, meaning that when one of them was ‘released’ to take the throne they were often uninformed or unprepared for the tasks ahead of them.In previous centuries, it had been common to send princes out into the Empire to serve as rulers in the provinces so that they gained life experience and a practical education before returning to vie with their brothers for the throne. While the cage was more humane, it did not help those imprisoned – or the Empire. From the 17th and 18th centuries, therefore, we begin to see a change in the role of the Ottoman sultan and how much power the office and the individuals in the office actually held. Sultans began to rely increasingly on their viziers and advisers to counsel them and to understand what to do, leading to a reduction in the power they held.Death of a sultanIt is a truth universally acknowledged that royal depositions must, sooner or later, be in want of a regicide. The first in the history of the Ottoman Empire occurred on Friday 20 May 1622, with the death of Osman II, son of Ahmed I. Known as Osman the Young, he had ascended the throne in 1618 at the age of 14, following the coup that deposed Mustafa I, his uncle, for the first time. In 1622, aged 17, he had still not succeeded in legitimising himself as a conqueror of territory and so sought to cultivate the role of a pious sultan instead. He announced his intention to undertake a pilgrimage to Mecca, something no Ottoman sultan had done before. Previous rulers, while acknowledging and respecting the importance of the pilgrimage, had heeded the advice of jurists, who argued that their most sacred duty lay in staying in their capital and tending to their subjects. That Osman II announced his intention to undertake the pilgrimage immediately after returning to Istanbul from Edirne provoked fears that he might become an absentee monarch, who might be seeking to return the capital to its original site – Edirne.Other reasons given for his death include an attempt to abolish absolutist rule and fears on the part of the army that his pilgrimage was really a decoy, with the young sultan intending to recruit a mercenary army to challenge the power of Ottoman military groups. Osman II had not endeared himself to the military by closing the coffee houses owned by many of their members, as they were suspected to be places where seditious groups met to plot rebellion. On 18 May 1622, members of the military demanded the execution of some high-ranking administrators, claiming that they were leading the sultan away from his true duties and purpose. Later that day they found the young sultan and, being displeased with the answers he gave them, deposed him and re-enthroned Mustafa I.Two days later Osman II was killed by strangulation at Yedikule Fortress in Istanbul. The impact of this regicide was allegedly minimal, causing little to no distress in the city. It has, however, been accorded a great deal of importance by historians, who view it as a key turning point in the power structures of the Ottoman Empire.Pomp, ceremony and bribesSuffice to say that attaining and, more importantly, keeping power in the Ottoman Empire was a complex business. There were, however, a wide range of legitimising tactics that sultans could turn to in order to make their rule agreeable to all concerned. The accession of a new sultan, as with most key events in the Empire, was surrounded by ritual and ceremony, from girding with the sword of Osman I (a tradition which began when the Empire’s founder was himself girded with the sword of Islam) within two weeks of a sultan taking the throne, to the payment of a sum of money to the military. An important ceremony designed to assure a mutual loyalty and respect between the sultans and their army included the gifting of boiled sweets to the sultan by the soldiers when they received their wages. Another was the annual Ramadan baklava event, whereby the sultan would give many trays of this traditional sweet to the military, assuring their loyalty and reminding them and those who watched that the military was (theoretically) dependent upon the sultan for all things – from their position, to the food on their table and the clothes on their backs.The dynasty continued with variable succession methods until the end of the sultanate, with Mehmed VI, who ruled from 1918 until 1922. Following the official declaration and recognition of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, Mehmed VI went into exile. Upon his death in 1926, the title of caliph was bestowed upon Abdülmejid II, who would be the last Ottoman Caliph. Descendants of the Ottoman line continue to use the family name Osmanoğlu (‘the sons of Osman’) and the title of Head of the House of Osman is still passed down and used today.Gemma Masson is completing a PhD on the urban janissary in 18th-century Istanbul at the University of Birmingham and is a Reviews Editor at H-Empire.
  • A Personal History of South India

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    From cave paintings to Kindle, our history is written in ink – adapted and reinvented to reflect, and influence, the needs of the day.

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