Famous Beheadings in History

Aug. 11, 2004 -- "Off with his head!" orders England's King Richard III in William Shakespeare's play about unbridled royal ambition.

Throughout history, kings, commoners and even slaves have resorted to beheadings as a method of punishment, a weapon of vengeance and sometimes even a path to emancipation.

Here is a look at some of history's most famous beheadings.

Judith Beheads General Holofernes: The Bible is replete with decapitations. Severed heads are displayed in victory and headless bodies left behind as a mass morality lesson, many of which were illustrated by some of the Western world's greatest artists.

In the Old Testament, a poor Jewish widow named Judith volunteers to deliver her people from an Assyrian siege around the town of Bethulia. Pretending to be an informer against her people, the beautiful Judith enters the Assyrian camp and seduces the military general, Holofernes. She enters his tent, gets him drunk and after he falls asleep, cuts off his head with the help of her maid, Abra. With their mighty commander beheaded at the hands of a woman, the Assyrian troops, shocked by their vulnerability, flee and Bethulia is liberated.

The story of Judith slaying the Assyrian general has been a theme for some of the Western world's most famous Italian painters, including Michelangelo Caravaggio, Artemesia Gentileschi and Donatello.

David Slays Goliath: In one of the best-known stories of the Old Testament, David, a shepherd boy and the youngest of eight sons, offers to fight Goliath, a giant Philistine warrior who was threatening the Israelites.

Armed with a slingshot, five stones, and a belief in God, David advances toward a dismissive Goliath, and hits him between the eyes with a stone. As Goliath falls, David draws out the Philistine warrior's own sword and beheads him. When the Philistines see their once-invincible warrior decapitated, they panic and flee. David carries Goliath's head triumphantly to King Saul's court in Jerusalem and keeps the sword as a spoil of war.

A Michelangelo fresco of David slaying Goliath adorns the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. Other artworks include Caravaggio's painting of David holding Goliath's deathly pale head by his hair while the Philistine warrior's expression is frozen in a terrifying scream.

John the Baptist's Head on a Platter: The New Testament has its share of beheadings, too. John the Baptist had the misfortune to end up in King Herod's prison, and the even worse misfortune to have angered Herod's wife. Queen Herodias had first been married to Herod's brother, and John had condemned her new marriage as incestuous. Herodias' daughter, Salome, dances for King Herod, who is so pleased with the performance that he promises to grant the girl anything she wishes. Salome, at her mother's urging, asks for the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter. Herod is upset, but a promise is a promise. The incident has been immortalized in paintings and plays by artists ranging from Caravaggio to Titian to Botticelli to Oscar Wilde.

Imam Hussein, Decapitated at the Battle of Karbala : The slaying of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, is one of the pivotal chapters in Islamic history.

Imam Hussein died during the Battle of Karbala, in what is now southern Iraq, in A.D. 680 after he claimed the right to become the caliph of Baghdad upon the death of Ummayad Caliph Muawiya. However, Muawiya's son, Yazid, had different ideas, and a battle broke out at Karbala, a city now situated in southern Iraq.

Hussein's small army was surrounded by Yazid's forces and deprived of food and water for 10 days. According to a historical account, a wounded Hussein dragged himself to his tent and picked up his infant son when Yazid's troops fell on him, cut off his head and trampled on his body. The martyred Hussein's head was then carried to castle of Kufa. The battle marked the breakaway of Shiites from the Sunni form of Islam, and the day of Hussein's death is commemorated as Ashura by Shiite Muslms.

Richard III Shouts ‘Off With His Head’: In William Shakespeare's play, King Richard III, the English monarch memorably shouts out this sentence in the Tower of London after accusing former ally Lord Hastings of plotting to destroy him. The execution is part of Richard's vicious, bloodthirsty agenda to secure the throne of England after the death of his brother, King Edward IV, over the claims of his two sons.

One of Shakespeare's darkest villains, Richard is depicted in the play as a deformed hunchback with a murderous appetite for power. But several modern historians have questioned the Bard's portrayal of Richard as a despotic caricature and have argued that Shakespeare's reading of history was influenced by the biased version of history put out by subsequent Tudors, such as Sir Thomas More.

Henry VIII and the Tower of London: Speaking of Tudors, Richard's great-nephew would make a name for himself for his many wives and the appalling number of judicial murders in his reign. The chancellor Sir Thomas More and the Countess of Salisbury, an elderly cousin of the king, were among the many victims he sent to the block.

But Henry's best remembered for the legal butchering of two of his six wives. When Bluff King Hal tired of wife No. 2, Anne Boleyn, he sent her to the Tower of London and on trumped-up charges of treason and adultery. Anne, who had no illusions as to what came next, valiantly joked that she would be easy work for the headsman, having but "a little neck." An expert swordsman was imported from France in order to spare the disgraced queen from the clumsy ax strokes of the usual executioner.

A few years later, in 1542, Henry's fifth marriage ended when he signed the execution warrant for his young bride, Katherine Howard. Katherine was afraid she'd do the wrong thing on the scaffold, so she asked her jailers to bring her a block so that she could practice laying her head on it.

Mary, Queen of Scots, Meets a Bloody End The long rivalry between queens Elizabeth I of England and Mary of Scotland ended in 1587 when Elizabeth, sick of the threat Mary posed to her throne, finally sent her cousin to the block. Mary met her fate with great dignity, but the aftermath was less so. When the executioner took hold of the queen's auburn hair to display her severed head, he was considerably startled to find he was holding only a wig. The queen's head rolled on the floor. Even more poignantly, the queen's loyal little dog was found cowering beneath her skirts, splashed with her blood.

Queen Marie Antoinette, Guillotined by Revolutionaries: King Charles I was executed by parlementarian "Roundheads" during the English Civil War, and Louis XVI was beheaded during the French Revolution. But the regicide that rocked the world was the 1793 execution of Marie Antoinette. The widely unpopular Austrian-born wife of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette probably never uttered that infamous remark about letting starving French peasants eat cake. Modern historians suggest that as a foreigner, Marie Antoinette became a convenient scapegoat for France's ills. The despised queen went to the guillotine with a brave dignity that touched generations to come.