On 15th March 44 BC, Brutus, Cassius, and other senators, assassinated Julius Caesar. He had orchestrated his appointment as dictator four years earlier. I am inclined to wish that all dictators could be dispatched so quickly. Yet even four years must feel like an eternity under dictatorship.

It was also on the Ides of March, but in 1580, that King Philip II of Spain put a bounty of 25,000 gold coins on the head of William I of Orange. When I was researching The Spy who Sank the Armada, I became rather a fan of William. My ancestor, Sir Anthony Standen, was an Elizabethan spy operating in the Low Countries from 1571 to 1576, so this afforded me scope to explore the interactions they may have had.

William particularly impressed me with his religious tolerance. He was a Catholic who steadfastly supported freedom of religious faith. The defining moment for William’s rebellion against Spanish rule was a conversation with King Henry II of France on a hunting trip. Henry discussed the agreement between himself and Philip II to exterminate all Protestants in France, the Netherlands, and the entire Christian world. Henry wrongly assumed that William was in on the plan. William didn’t let on that he wasn’t, but resolved to fight against such an atrocity in the Netherlands. That fight was not easily, nor swiftly won: it was the Eighty Years’ War.

I posted recently about Russia and the long running rule of one dictator after another, with the notable exception of Mikhail Gorbachev, a beacon of light in the darkness. A dictator isn’t inclined to tolerance, as the fate of Alexei Navalny demonstrates. The bounty of 25,000 gold coins that Philip II put on William’s head was ultimately too tempting. A Burgundian Catholic, Balthasar Gérard, decided that he wanted it. After ingratiating himself with William’s followers, he made an appointment with William, and on 10th July 1584 shot him in the chest with two wheel-lock pistols. William was the first head of state to be assassinated with a handgun. William’s loyal subjects were not amused. Balthasar Gérard was tortured, tried, and convicted. He was executed in a most gruesome way. His right hand was burnt off with a red-hot iron. His flesh was torn off with pincers in six places. He was then quartered and disembowelled alive. His heart was torn from his chest, and flung in his face. He probably wasn’t alive after that. Finally he was beheaded, just to be certain.

I’m reading a fabulous book called The Savage Storm: The Battle for Italy 1943, by James Holland. My father fought in that campaign. Benito Mussolini was fleeing to Switzerland in 1945 when he was caught by communist partisans near Lake Como. He and his associates were shot the next day by the partisans. Their corpses were dumped in Piazza Quindici Martiri, Milan. After being kicked and spat upon, they were hung upside down in an Esso petrol station and stoned by civilians. I can think of one current dictator who I’d like to think might have cause to fear a similar fate.