March 31st 1889: Eiffel Tower opens
On this day in 1889 in the French capital of Paris, the iconic Eiffel Tower was officially opened. The tower was built for the 1889 World’s Fair to celebrate the centenary of the French Revolution and is named after its designer Gustave Eiffel. After two years of building it was inaugurated on March 31st 1889 with Eiffel, government officials, and the press going to the top of the tower by foot. Upon reaching the top, Eiffel hoisted a French flag which was accompanied with a 25 gun salute. The tower was supposed to be dismantled in 1909 but it soon became apparent the tower had both cultural and practical value as it was used for communications. Upon its creation it was the tallest man-made structure in the world (it was defeated by the Chrysler Building in New York City in 1930). The tower is now the national icon of France and is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world, drawing almost seven million visitors in 2011 alone.
March 7th 1875: Ravel born
On this day in 1875 the French composer Maurice Ravel was born in Ciboure, France, not far from the Spanish border. He was born into a Catholic household to a Swiss father and Basque mother. Ravel’s father imparted onto his son his love of music, which shaped the young Maurice’s future. His musical talents led him to the Paris Conservatoire, and whilst he was not academically successful there he was acknowledged as a gifted musician. Ravel went on to enjoy an illustrious career as a composer, especially known for his piano pieces like ‘Gaspard de la nuit’ and ‘Jeux d’eau’. However Ravel’s most famous work is probably the orchestral piece 'Boléro' which premiered in 1928. Always a Ravel classic, this piece especially rose to prominence after it was used by British ice dancers Torvill and Dean for their gold medal winning performance at the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympic Games. Maurice Ravel died after undergoing brain surgery on December 28th 1937, aged 62.
January 28th 1393: Bal des Ardents
On this day in 1393, the French King Charles VI was almost killed at a masquerade ball when the dancers caught fire; the event has since become known as the ‘Bal des Ardents’ or ‘The Ball of the Burning Men’. The fire broke out because of a flame torch, and killed four of the dancers. Charles VI, sometimes known as Charles the Mad, was in trouble as his insanity was jeopardising his legitimacy as a ruler. He had been on the throne thirteen years at the time of the ball, having ascended to power when he was only eleven. This incident did not help his reputation as it seemed emblematic of the decadence of Charles’s court.
January 21st 1793: Louis XVI executed
On this day in 1793, the King of France Louis XVI was executed by guillotine in ‘Revolution Square’ in Paris. His execution was a turning point in the French Revolution. His regime had become increasingly unpopular and seen as tyrannical; thus opposition to the French aristocracy grew among the middle and lower classes. The French Revolution began with the storming of the Bastille on July 14th 1789. After the fall of the monarchy on August 10th 1792, Louis was imprisoned and charged with high treason by the National Convention and sentenced to death. France was declared a republic on September 21st 1792. He was executed as ‘Citizen Louis Capet’, rather than King Louis XVI, on January 21st 1793. His wife Marie Antoinette was executed on 16th October the same year.
“I die innocent of all the crimes laid to my charge; I Pardon those who have occasioned my death; and I pray to God that the blood you are going to shed may never be visited on France.”
November 21st 1694: Voltaire born
On this day in 1694, the French Enlightenment writer and philosopher Voltaire was born. His full name was François-Marie Arouet, and he was born in Paris. He chose the name ‘Voltaire’ because it is an anagram of ‘Arovet Li’, which is the Latin spelling of his surname and and the initial letters of ‘le jeune’. He adopted the name after his imprisonment in the Bastille for criticising the government. He is best known for his writings promoting civil liberties and his overall writings amount to over 2000 books and pamphlets. His work influenced the thinkers of the American and French Revolutions.
August 21st 1911: Mona Lisa stolen
On this day in 1911 the Mona Lisa, a famous painting by Leonardo da Vinci, was stolen. The painting was acquired by King Francis I of France soon after it was finished in the early 16th century, and is now the property of France. The Mona Lisa has thus been on display in the Louvre Museum in Paris since 1797. It took two years for the thief, Louvre employee Vincenzo Peruggia, to be found. Peruggia hid the painting under his coat when he left work as he believed Leonardo’s painting should be returned to its native Italy. He was caught when he tried to sell the Mona Lisa in Florence, and upon his arrest and six month imprisonment Italians hailed him as a patriot.
July 28th 1794: Robespierre et al. executed
On this day in 1794, Maximilien Robespierre, Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, Georges Couthon and many of their peers were executed by guillotine in Paris. Robespierre, Saint-Just and Couthon were leading figures in the French Revolution and were radical Jacobins. They served on the Committee of Public Safety, which ruled France during the bloody ‘Reign of Terror’ which saw mass violence and executions of ‘enemies of the revolution’. There was a coup against the Committee on July 27th 1794, which prompted a reactionary movement against the bloody policies of the Reign of Terror. For their role in the violence, Robespierre, Saint-Just and Couthon were executed.
June 14th 1940: Paris falls to the Nazis
On this day in 1940 during World War Two, German soldiers marched into Paris without resistance, and began the occupation of the city. France had fallen quickly partially due to its ill-preparedness for war, and the formidable Nazi blitzkrieg attack. Troops took over the city and hung swastikas on public buildings and monuments. Many Parisians fled, and those who remained faced four brutal years of occupation. Many reported on other people’s opposition to the Nazis, and the dissidents faced torture by the Gestapo and SS. Parisian Jews were also persecuted and sent to concentration camps. Paris was eventually liberated in 1944 following the Allied invasion of Normandy.
March 28th 1854: Britain and France declare war on Russia
On this day in 1854 in a pivotal moment of the Crimean War, Britain and France declared war on Russia. This conflict originated in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars when Europe tried to rebuild and ensure future stability. One of the concerns was the crumbling Ottoman-Turkish empire, known as the ‘sick man of Europe’. The Russians planned to carve up the European part of Turkey, but Turkey objected and eventually declared war. The war was also prompted by debates over the rights of Christians in the Holy Land, which was under Ottoman control. Britain and France, each with their own interests in the preservation of the Ottoman regime, also joined the war when Russian troops failed to withdraw from the Russo-Turkish border. The allies decided to land in the Crimea to assault the Russian naval base at Sevastopol in order to gain the Black Sea. The siege took far longer than expected, and made Crimea the primary front of the war. The Crimean war was characterised by poor military leadership on both sides and a failure to adapt tactics to modern weaponry. The Battle of Balaclava in October saw the infamous British ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’, a frontal assault against Russian artillery. Eventually Sevastopol fell, the Russians were defeated, and the war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in March 1856. This war has been the subject of much recent discussion due to Russia’s controversial annexation of Crimea, which was previously an autonomous region of Ukraine.
160 years ago today
February 27th 1892: Louis Vuitton dies
On this day in 1892 the French businessman Louis Vuitton, founder of the namesake fashion brand, died aged 70. From a working class French family, Vuitton had ambitions beyond his small hometown of Anchay. He famously spent two years traveling to Paris on foot between 1835 and 1837. Once there he had great success as a box maker, eventually becoming Emperor Napoleon III’s wife’s personal box maker. He established the Louis Vuitton company in 1854, and passed the business to his son George upon his death in 1892. Louis Vuitton remains one of the world’s leading high-fashion brands.
January 25th 1924: First Winter Olympics
On this day in 1924, the first Winter Olympic Games began in Chamonix, France; they lasted until February 5th. At the time, the event was called ‘International Winter Sports Week’ but it was later retroactively called the Winter Olympics. The sports included speed skating, figure skating, ice hockey, bobsleigh and skiing. Only 16 nations took part in the first Winter Olympics, but the event steadily gained more recognition. The most recent Winter Olympics, in Vancouver in 2010, had 82 participating nations. 1924 also saw the Summer Olympic Games in Paris. However in 1994, the rules were changed so the Winter Olympics take place two years after the Summer Olympics. Hence this year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi occur two years after London hosted the Summer Games.
December 14th 1503: Nostradamus born
On this day in 1503, Michel de Nostredame or ‘Nostradamus’ was born in Provence in the south of France. Nostradamus is most known for his work as an apothecary and seer, and for his famous ‘prophecies’. Many people look to Nostradamus’s ‘prophecies’ and see them as predicting many major world events. However, it is largely believed that the supposed prophecies were really just the result of misunderstanding, mistranslation or are just very tenuous. That being said, it is interesting to see some of these ‘prophecies’ and how they seem to have come true. One oft cited example of Nostradamus’s prophecies is his supposed prediction of the Second World War:
"Beasts ferocious from hunger will swim across rivers:
Greater part of the army will be against Hister
The greater one will cause it to be dragged in an iron cage
When the Germany child will observe nothing.”
November 19th 1703: Man in the Iron Mask dies
On this day in 1703 the French prisoner known as the ‘Man in the Iron Mask’ died. He was arrested under the name Eustache Dauger in 1669/70 and was in prison until his death, and died under the name Marchioly. He was in the custody of one jailer, Bénigne Dauvergne de Saint-Mars, for his whole imprisonment. The prison official at the Bastille, where the man was held, Lieutenant Etienne du Junca, recorded on November 19th 1703 the death of an "unknown prisoner, who has worn a black velvet mask since his arrival here in 1698." Many theories exist as to his identity, including that he was an illegitimate brother of King Louis XIV, the son of King Charles II of England, an Italian diplomat, and a French general, but none have ever been confirmed.
August 15th 1769: Napoleon born
On this day in 1769 Napoleon Bonaparte was born in Corsica, France. Napoleon became French Emperor in 1804 and led France in the wars against various European coalitions in the Napoleonic Wars. France had initial success in the wars but by 1812 was in decline, partly due to Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia. Napoleon was forced to abdicate and was exiled to Elba in 1814 after defeat at the Battle of Leipzig. Napoleon returned to power in 1815, but was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo which sealed the fate of the French army, and the coalitions declared victory. Napoleon was then exiled on Saint Helena, and in 1821 died of stomach cancer.
June 20th 840: Louis the Pious
On this day in 840, King of the Franks and Holy Roman Emperor Louis the Pious died in Ingelheim died aged 61/62. Louis succeeded his father Charlemagne upon his death in 814. He was the sole ruler of the Franks from 814 until his death. The Frankish Empire plunged into civil war upon his death, with his sons fighting for control of the Empire.