On the 5th November 1605, the Gunpowder Plot was foiled when Guy or Guido Fawkes was discovered guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder that had been placed in an undercroft below the House of Lords in London. The failure of the plot and execution of the conspirators has since been commemorated in Britain on what is known as Guy Fawkes Night or Bonfire Night, where effigies of Guy Fawkes are traditionally burned on a bonfire amidst large firework displays.

The Gunpowder Plot was conceived at a time of significant religious tension in the British Isles. Less than a century had passed since Henry VIII broke from Rome, and Catholics continued to be persecuted when James VI of Scotland was crowned James I of England. Led by Robert Catesby, a group of thirteen Catholics conspired to blow up the House of Lords during the State Opening of England’s Parliament, when James would be inside the building. Having killed the king, they would then initiate a revolt that would bring James’ young daughter Elizabeth to the throne as a puppet queen. However, the plot was revealed in an anonymous letter and the search of the undercroft was conducted late in the evening of the 4th November.

Most people know that Guy Fawkes, along with the other surviving conspirators, was sentenced to execution by being hung, drawn and quartered. However, what is less widely known is that he managed to leap from the gallows and break his neck. Fawkes was therefore already dead by the time the executioner began to carry out the more gruesome parts of his sentence.

On the 6th October 1981 Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated by members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a terrorist group that was enraged by the peace treaty he had negotiated with Israel. His assassins were arrested, put on trial and executed, while the death of the President led to Vice President Hosni Mubarak becoming the premier just eight days after the assassination. He went on to rule for almost 30 years before he stepped down during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution.

Three years before his assassination, Sadat had signed the Camp David Accords and jointly received the Nobel Peace Prize with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. The Accords led to Egypt signing the Egypt–Israel Peace Treaty in 1979, which marked the first time that an Arab nation had formally recognised Israel. Although the treaty ended 40 years of almost continuous war between the two nations, it was met with hostility by some people in Egypt who felt that Sadat had betrayed the Palestinian cause and the honour or Egypt.

With hostility to his rule growing at home, Sadat was surrounded by security as he observed the 6th October parade that marked the Egyptian crossing of the Suez Canal at the start of the Yom Kippur War. The assassins were in the procession on board an artillery truck that stopped directly in front of Sadat and allowed them to approach the President. Believing that this was part of the proceedings, Sadat stood to salute them but was killed in a hail of grenades and indiscriminate firing of AK-47s. He died in hospital two hours later.

On the 30th August 1918, Bolshevik leader Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov – better known as Lenin – was the victim of a failed assassination plot. Fanya Kaplan, a member of the anti-Bolshevik faction of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, believed that Lenin was a ‘traitor to the revolution’ for dissolving the Constituent Assembly and banning other left-wing political parties. She fired three shots at him as he left the Hammer and Sickle factory in Moscow, of which one hit his arm and lodged in his shoulder while the other went through his neck and is reported to have punctured part of his left lung.

Made unconscious by the attack, Lenin was taken to his living quarters in the Kremlin from where he refused to move in case other would-be assassins attacked him. Without the medical facilities of a hospital, his doctors were unable to remove the bullets and, although Lenin did survive, the injuries he sustained may have contributed towards the strokes that led to his death in 1924.

In retaliation for the attack on Lenin barely two weeks after the successful assassination of Moisei Uritsky, the head of the Cheka in Petrograd, the Bolsheviks issued a decree beginning the Red Terror. Designed to crush counter-revolutionary action against the Bolsheviks, the Red Terror is generally accepted to have lasted throughout the period of the Civil War until 1922. Meanwhile, the Communist Party newspaper Pravda used the attack as a propaganda tool to promote Lenin.

Kaplan was executed on the 3rd September, but over the next four years tens if not hundreds of thousands of Bolsheviks opponents were killed.

On the 23rd July 1914, Austria-Hungary issued an ultimatum to Serbia specifically designed to be rejected and lead to war between the two countries. The ultimatum was delivered at 6pm by the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to Belgrade, with a deadline of 48 hours within which the Serbian government had to respond. They accepted all but one of the numerous demands, which led Austria-Hungary to declare war three days later on 28th July.

Austria-Hungary had been concerned about the growing power of Serbia, and was keen to find a way to weaken the government and stop it taking over the Southern Slavic populations of the northern Balkans, and especially Bosnia, under the banner of pan-Slavism. To the government officials who favoured war, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, on the 28th June was the perfect excuse.

Following the assassination, Germany had given Austria-Hungary assurances that it would support military action against Serbia, in what is known as the ‘Blank Cheque’ of 5th July. Acting with the knowledge that the strongest army in Europe was on their side, the Austro-Hungarian Crown Council began to discuss how best to justify a war against Serbia. They decided that an ultimatum containing unacceptable demands would be the best course of action, and finally agreed the wording on the 19th.

After Serbia’s refusal of the sixth point in the ultimatum, Austria-Hungary declared war. Although it was intended to remain localised, the network of European alliances that had developed from the late 19th Century soon saw the conflict develop into the First World War.

On the 13th July 1793, the radical French journalist Jean-Paul Marat was stabbed to death in his bathtub by Charlotte Corday.

Marat, the second of nine children, had left home at sixteen in search of opportunities to pursue his interest in medicine. Having decided to move to northern England in 1770, he settled in Newcastle upon Tyne where he gained a reputation as a highly effective doctor, but also developed an increasing suspicion of the established political order.

Marat moved back to France six years later where his medical skills earned him the patronage of various members of the aristocracy. He used the wealth he earned from this position to establish a scientific laboratory where he engaged in research regarding fire, heat, electricity and light. Although he was visited by the American polymath Benjamin Franklin, the French Academy of Sciences was sceptical of his conclusions, and relations between Marat and the powerful Academy quickly broke down.

Despite Marat’s wealth and privilege, he maintained his passion for social justice throughout the years preceding the French Revolution. As Louis XVI struggled to secure his rule in the late 1780s, Marat put his scientific and medical career on hold, and instead dedicated his time to writing arguments in favour of political, economic and social reform. In the wake of the Storming of the Bastille on the 14th July 1789, he established his own radical newspaper which soon adopted the name L’Ami du peuple (“The People’s friend”).

Marat’s writings were vicious in their attacks on all those he perceived as being enemies of the people, by whom he meant the lower classes of the Third Estate. His newspaper often called for violence against the upper class and members of the government, even resulting in him fleeing to London for a few months in early 1790. On his return to Paris he continued his fierce criticism of the government, and even began to target less radical revolutionaries with his call for their execution as enemies of the people. He continued to have to go into hiding on occasion, and began to utilise Paris’ extensive sewer network, where it is believed he developed the debilitating skin condition that later saw him confined to a medicinal bath for hours on end.

Despite his reputation as a radical agitator, Marat was elected to the National Convention in September 1792 where he was a passionate supporter of the decision to declare France a Republic. He soon turned his anger on the members of the Girondin component of the National Convention who opposed the execution of the King. Within six months these moderates had been ousted from the government, and Marat turned to working from home due to his worsening skin condition.

On the 13th July 1793 Marat granted an audience to a young woman from Normandy while he soaked in his medicinal bath. The 24-year old Charlotte Corday claimed to have information about Girondin deputies who had escaped Paris, and presented Marat with a list of names of supposed traitors. Corday, however, was actually a Girondin sympathiser. After Marat told her that he would arrange for the execution of the Norman Girondins, she pulled out a five-inch kitchen knife and stabbed him once in the chest, severing a major artery and causing him to die almost immediately of massive blood loss.

Corday was placed on trial and was guillotined in Paris just four days after killing Marat. She claimed in her trial to be a supporter of Republicanism, but described Marat as a ‘monster’. She explained that she had ‘killed one man to save 100,000’, but the assassination contributed to the growing fear of counter-revolution that fuelled the subsequent Terror – in which thousands of moderate and conservative Frenchmen and women were guillotined on charges of treason.

In the immediate aftermath of the murder, Marat was virtually deified by the revolutionaries. At his funeral, the Marquis de Sade – the infamous sexual predator who had joined with the most radical elements of the National Convention after being freed from prison – gave the eulogy. Marat’s bathtub, and the knife that he was killed with, were later bought by the Musée Grévin in Paris and are now on display as part of a waxwork scene depicting the assassination.

Interestingly, Madame Tussaud’s waxwork museum had also offered to buy the bathtub – but their letter got lost in the post and arrived after a sale had already been agreed. Madame Tussaud’s in London does, however, own the guillotine blade that beheaded the former queen Marie Antoinette on October 16th 1793. The founder of the museum, Marie Tussaud, was a famed wax sculptor before the revolution, and had even had her hair cut in preparation for execution during the Terror due to her connections to the aristocracy. However, it was decided that her talents could better serve the Revolution, and so she was spared in order to create death masks of the guillotine’s many famous victims.

The guillotine is, of course, synonymous with the worst violence of the French Revolution, but the machine was actually created to represent equality. In France prior to 1789, beheading as a form of execution had been reserved for the nobility.  Commoners were usually subjected to longer and more painful deaths through hanging, or worse. To end the privilege of the nobility, and to bring about equality in death as well as life, the new revolutionary National Assembly therefore made decapitation the only legal form of execution.

It was recognised that manual beheading was, however, still a gruesome way to carry out the death sentence.  Mary Queen of Scots, who I mentioned earlier as someone who visited the town of Buxton where we are recording this episode of HistoryPod, was only beheaded after three blows of the executioner’s axe. The Yorkshire town of Halifax had tried to improve the precision of beheadings with the creation of the Halifax Gibbet – a guillotine-like machine in which an axe head was fitted to the base of a heavy wooden block that ran in grooves between two tall uprights – a whole two centuries before the French invention. However, this device didn’t make it out of Yorkshire. In the face of continued manual beheadings therefore, on 10th October 1789 French physician Joseph Guillotin argued that the new government of France should ensure that every execution was both swift and mechanical. The National Assembly agreed, acknowledging that capital punishment should simply end life, not purposefully cause pain as well.

Another physician, Antoine Louis, was appointed to lead a committee to develop a quick and efficient decapitation machine.  Although Guillotin was a member of this committee, it is actually therefore Antoine Louis who should be credited with the device’s invention, even though it carries Guillotin’s name.

The first execution using the device was conducted on 25th April 1792.  Nicolas Jacques Pelletier, a French highwayman found guilty of killing a man during one of his robberies, had the dubious honour of being the guillotine’s first victim. Contemporary accounts reveal that the execution went smoothly – much to the disappointment of the crowd who expected better ‘entertainment’.  Excited to see the new machine in action, they were disappointed at its speed and efficiency…although this was, of course, the whole point.

James A. Garfield, the 20th President of the United States, was shot by Charles J. Guiteau at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington, D.C.

Guiteau had attempted various types of employment before turning his hand to politics in the lead-up to the 1880 presidential election. He wrote a speech called ‘Grant against Hancock’ when Ulysses S. Grant was still the forerunner for the Republican nomination, but revised it to ‘Garfield against Hancock’ after the latter won the candidacy.

Although Guiteau passed copies of the speech to members of the Republican National Committee, he is only believed to have delivered the speech twice at the most. Despite this he became convinced that he was responsible for Garfield winning the election, and expected a diplomatic posting in return. He even moved to Washington the day after Garfield’s inauguration and regularly visited the State Department and the White House to reiterate his demand.

Guiteau was formally banned from the White House, and on 14 May was told by Secretary of State James G. Blaine to ‘Never speak to me again of the Paris consulship as long as you live.’ This dismissal led him to begin plotting the assassination of the President.

After buying a British Bull Dog revolver with money borrowed from a relative, Guiteau undertook target practice and began stalking Garfield. Having read about the President’s vacation plans in the press, he waited at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station where he shot him at close range. Guiteau later declared, ‘I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts! I did it and I want to be arrested! Arthur is President now!’ Garfield died 11 weeks later, while Guiteau was found guilty of murder and was hanged on 30 June 1882.

On the 15th March 44BCE, Roman dictator Julius Caesar was stabbed to death near to the Theatre of Pompey in Rome. His death, coming shortly after he had been declared dictator for life by the Senate, was intended to stop his attempt to seize more power and restore the Roman Republic. However, it instead resulted in a period of instability and civil wars that culminated in the ascendancy of his adopted son Octavian who became Caesar Augustus, the first Roman Emperor.

Julius Caesar was a respected military general, whose return to Rome saw him quickly gain respect from many ordinary citizens due a sweeping series of political, social and economic reforms. While these won support from some, however, others became concerned as he received numerous honours that began to propel him to a position akin to a king. Caesar’s apparent arrogance through accepting such honours, combined with his reluctance to stand out of respect when approached by members of the Senate, further fuelled a conspiracy against him. 

On the 15th March, amidst rumours of a conspiracy and despite warnings from his doctors and his wife, Caesar attended the Senate on the urging of Decimus. Having taken his seat, Caesar was then approached by Cimba who pulled back Caesar’s robes. He was quickly surrounded by the other conspirators who, according to Eutropius, formed a crowd of up to 60 men. Casca dealt the first blow, a stab wound to his neck, but Caesar suffered a total of 23 stab wounds in the attack. The earliest-known postmortem report in history later stated that he died of blood loss.

On the 13th March 1881, Tsar Alexander II of Russia was assassinated in a St Petersburg street by a member of the People’s Will revolutionary movement. Despite introducing a number of reforms such as the 1861 emancipation of the serfs and the abolition of capital punishment, Alexander’s government remained autocratic and after an assassination attempt in 1866 began to brutally repress those who sought political change.

Despite this, by the 1870s the government was coming under increasing pressure from liberals and radicals to introduce further reforms. Land and Liberty, a group of reformers who sought land reform, soon gave rise to the People’s Will which favoured terrorism as a way to achieve their aims. The Tsar became the focus for a number of attacks from 1879 onwards, but finally succumbed on the 13th March 1881.

Alexander was travelling close to the Catherine Canal when a bomb was thrown at his closed carriage by a member of the People’s Will. The blast killed one of the accompanying Cossacks and injured many others, but the Tsar was unharmed. Emerging shaken from his armoured carriage, however, another assassin threw his bomb which landed at Alexander’s feet.

Suffering from severe bleeding, the Tsar was taken to the Winter Palace where he died from his wounds. Somewhat ironically, Alexander had just that morning signed the Loris-Melikov constitution which would have established an elected parliament known as a Duma. However, this was rejected by his son and heir, Alexander III who instead further suppressed civil liberties through the Okhrana. Alexander II’s death therefore arguably slowed down, rather than sped up, the move to a parliamentary democracy.

On the 24th January 41 CE, Caligula became the first Roman Emperor to be assassinated. Killed by a small group of Praetorian guardsmen in a cryptoporticus (underground corridor) beneath his palace on the Palatine Hill, he was succeeded by his uncle Claudius.

Caligula had come to power in March 37 following the death of his great uncle and adoptive grandfather Emperor Tiberius. The early stages of his reign saw him lauded by the people as “our baby” and “our star” while he built support through granting bonuses to the Praetorian Guard and other soldiers and providing the people of Rome with games and circuses.

However, following a severe illness in October, it is reported his behaviour slowly became more tyrannical to the point of megalomania. Only two sources exist from his rule – those of Philo of Alexandria and Seneca the Younger – but both demonstrate acts of enormous cruelty and, to some extent, insanity. He banished or executed his rivals, including his own father-in-law and brother-in-law, cousin and adopted son. He was accused of numerous sexual transgressions including incest with his sisters and of turning the palace into a brothel. Furthermore, in 40 CE he began to style himself as a living god and introduced religious policies that required people to worship him as such. However, perhaps most famously he is alleged to have wanted to make his favourite horse a consul.

Such actions led to three failed conspiracies attempts against him, but on the 24th January 41 three Praetorian Guards led by Cassius Chaerea cornered him in a corridor and stabbed him to death.

On the 15th January 1919, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were killed by members of the Freikorps. The two German socialists were joint-founders of the Spartacist League and the Communist Party of Germany, and were captured following the Spartacist uprising that began on the 4th January.

Luxemburg and Liebknecht were members of the Social Democratic Party of Germany when Germany declared war in 1914. Frustrated by the wider SPD’s support for Germany’s declaration of war, they and other leftists created a separate organisation known as the Spartakusbund or Spartacus League. Named after the leader of the Roman Republic’s largest slave rebellion, the Spartacus League actively opposed the ongoing war. In 1916, both Luxemburg and Liebknecht were found guilty of high treason and imprisoned after they organised an anti-war demonstration.

They were released in 1918, and in December renamed the Spartacist League the Communist Party of Germany. By this point, following the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Germany was experiencing a post-war revolution. Friedrich Ebert, a centrist member of the SPD, had assumed the position of Chancellor but struggled to maintain control of the country. His government had begun to side with conservatives, while the left sought the establishment of a government based on workers’ councils.

On the 5th January thousands of people swarmed into the Berlin streets and began to occupy government and press officers. Two days later around half a million people began a general strike. By this point, however, Ebert had hired Freikorps to crush the revolt. They did so quickly, and violently. On the 15th January Luxemburg and Liebknecht were arrested, tortured, interrogated and executed.