July 12th 1543: Henry VIII marries Catherine Parr
On this day in 1543, King Henry VIII of England married his sixth and last wife Catherine Parr at Hampton Court Palace. Henry’s previous wife, Catherine Howard, had been executed on 13th February 1542 on charges of adultery. Of his other four previous wives, he divorced two (Catherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves), one was executed (Anne Boleyn) and Jane Seymour died of natural causes. Catherine Parr helped reconcile the King with his daughters and assisted in restoring them to the line of succession. Henry died on 28th January 1547, and thus his last wife outlived him.
July 7th 2005: London bombings
On this day in 2005, a series of suicide bombings took place in the British capital city of London. The attacks were co-ordinated in order to achieve the most damage by striking the city’s busy public transport system at the end of the morning rush hour. At around 8.50am three bombs detonated on Underground trains: one near Liverpool Street station, one near Edgware Road and a third travelling between King’s Cross and Russell Square. The fourth explosion targetted one of London’s iconic red double decker buses and occurred at around 9.50am on a bus in Tavistock Square near King’s Cross. The four bombers responsible were Mohammad Sidique Khan (believed to be the ringleader), Hasib Hussain, Germaine Lindsay and Shehzad Tanweer. Each used homemade bombs they carried in their rucksacks. Along with the four perpetrators, the attacks killed 52 civilians and injured over 700. The attacks came during the Iraq War in which Britain, alongside the United States, took a leading role. The bombers were radical Muslims and considered the war in the Middle East oppression of their people. They also admired the head of terrorist organisation Al-Qaeda Osama bin-Laden, who was subject of an international search effort in order to bring him to justice for his role in the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City. The London bombings shook the Western world as well as Britain itself, for whom the 7/7 attacks were the country’s first suicide attack (previous terrorist attacks included the 1988 Lockerbie bombing). The incident also raised concerns over domestic terrorism (as all four attackers were British citizens, not foreign agents) and London’s security, especially as they came a day after London won its bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games.
"I don’t know what heaven looks like but I have just seen hell"
- a young policeman at the Russell Square scene
July 5th 1948: NHS launched
On this day in 1948, the National Health Service came into effect in the United Kingdom. Ideas for a nationalised health system had been around for decades before 1948, but it was not until then that they became a reality for British citizens. The Labour government of Clement Attlee, elected in 1945, were committed to the principles of the welfare state. They were greatly influenced by the 1942 Beveridge Report, which recommended social reform to tackle the five ‘Giant Evils’ of squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease. Thinkers around Britain thus came to see healthcare as a fundamental universal right, not a privilege held by a few. Working with these ideas, the government passed the National Health Service Act in 1946, which came into effect on July 5th 1948 and created the NHS in England and Wales (Scotland’s was created separately). The creation of the NHS led to universal health care in the United Kingdom, paid for through central taxation, ending the requirement that patients pay directly for their own healthcare. It radically restructured the British health care system, with the NHS taking control of the almost half a million hospital beds in England and Wales and placing almost all hospitals and staff under its jurisdiction. Despite ongoing debates over the efficiency, cost and structure of the NHS, it remains a central feature of the British welfare state. As seen with its celebration during the London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony, the NHS is a point of national pride for Britain. Indeed, according to a recent study, thanks to the NHS Britain has the best healthcare system out of eleven of the world’s wealthiest nations, with the United States in last place.
66 years ago today
June 1st 1967: Sgt. Pepper released
On this day in the 1967 the British band The Beatles released their iconic album 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band'. Their eighth album, Sgt. Pepper was an experimental piece as one of the world’s first concept albums, and represented a marked break from the Beatles’ earlier work. The concept of the album came from Paul McCartney and is that the album is being performed by a fictional band - the titular ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’. Each Beatle took on a new persona in the band, most prominently drummer Ringo Starr as Billy Shears. Having decided to stop touring in 1966, the band were freer to write songs that would be difficult to play live, including the famous ‘A Day In The Life’. Other songs on the album have acquired equally legendary status, including ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’, ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ and ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’. The album cover was designed by artists Peter Blake and Jann Haworth based on a sketch by McCartney, and featured cut-outs of famous figures. The figures depicted include Bob Dylan, Edgar Allan Poe, Marilyn Monroe, Robert Peel, Stuart Sutcliffe, Laurel and Hardy, Karl Marx, Oscar Wilde and wax versions of the Beatles themselves; John Lennon was denied his request to feature Adolf Hitler and Jesus Christ. Sgt. Pepper was an instant success, spending 22 weeks at the top of the UK album chart and winning four Grammy Awards; it is still considered one of the band’s best albums and one of the greatest albums of all time.
May 14th 1881: Mary Seacole dies
On this day in 1881 the nurse Mary Seacole died in London aged 76. Originally from Jamaica, the young Mary was taught her nursing skills by her mother. When war broke out in the Crimea, she applied to give medical assistance to wounded servicemen but was refused, and so gave treatment independently. Her patients admired ‘Mother Seacole’ and helped raised money for her after the war when she was left destitute. Despite her exemplary national service and popularity in Britain, Seacole faced discrimination at home due to her race and was unable to vote or hold public office. She has often been forgotten and placed in the shadow of famous Crimean War nurse Florence Nightingale, however in 2004 Seacole was voted the greatest Black Briton.
May 11th 1812: Spencer Perceval assassinated
On this day in 1812 Spencer Perceval became the first and only British Prime Minister to be assassinated when he was shot by John Bellingham in the lobby of the House of Commons. Perceval became Tory Prime Minister in 1809 (replacing the Duke of Portland) and his administration had to deal with economic depression, Luddism and the ‘madness’ of King George III. He had initially been considered a weak Prime Minister, but things had been looking up for his administration until he was shot. Bellingham was a merchant with a grievance against the government for supposedly not freeing him when he was imprisoned in Russia. The assassin was hanged on 18th May.
“I am murdered…I am murdered”
- Perceval’s last words
April 23rd 1616: William Shakespeare dies
On this day in 1616, the famous English poet and playwright William Shakespeare passed away on his 52nd birthday. Shakespeare, from Stratford-upon-Avon, became famous for his plays including Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and King Lear; he wrote around 38 plays and 154 sonnets. He was married to a woman named Anne Hathaway and had three children. In his will he left most of his estate to his eldest daughter Susanna and to his wife left “my second best bed”. He was buried in the chancel of the Holy Trinity Church. Today, on the 450th anniversary of his birth, Shakespeare is still considered one of the greatest writers of the English language in history.
"Good friend, for Jesus’ sake, forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here;
Blessed be the man that spares these stones
And cursed he that moves my bones.”
- Shakespeare’s epitaph
April 15th 1989: Hillsborough Disaster
On this day in 1989, 25 years ago today, the Hillsborough disaster occurred in Sheffield, United Kingdom. A human crush during an FA Cup semi-final match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough Stadium led to the deaths of 96 people. The victims were mostly Liverpool fans, as the two sides were allocated separate sections of the stadium. The Liverpool area was overcrowded, with the police letting in more spectators than the stadium could contain and making exits into additional entries. The game only lasted six minutes, as the mass of people broke the crush barrier. The incident proved very controversial at the time and still today. The authorities initially tried to cover up the police negligence and blamed the fans for the disaster, claiming they were mostly violent drunkards who rushed the field. Stories swirled accusing the spectators of attacking police officers and each other. However, subsequent investigations revealed the level of police culpability. These concluded that: the fans were not responsible for the disaster; the authorities did try to cover-up what happened; many of the deaths could have been avoided if they had received prompt medical treatment (only 14 of the victims went to hospital); and the findings have led to the abolition of standing spaces in British football stadiums. On the 25 year anniversary, we mourn one of the worst stadium disasters in history and the tragically avoidable deaths of the 96.
July 9th 1877: First Wimbledon began
On this day in 1877, the Wimbledon Championships tennis tournament took place for the first time. The competition is the oldest tennis tournament in the world and has been held in London annually since 1877. The first championship only included a men’s singles competition and only saw 22 competitors; in 1877 Spencer Gore became the first Wimbledon champion. It is often considered the most prestigious tennis competition in the world. In 2013, the women’s champion was Marion Bartoli of France and the men’s champion was Andy Murray. Murray was the first male British champion in 77 years. This year’s men’s final winner was Serbia’s Novak Djokovic and the female champion was Czech Petra Kvitova.
July 6th 1483: Richard III crowned
On this day in 1483, Richard III was crowned King of England. He had previously served as protector of the realm for his nephew the 12 year old King Edward V. Supposedly to protect him in the run up to his coronation, Richard had the young king and his brother lodged in the Tower of London. However Richard claimed the throne for himself and soon after his coronation ‘the Princes in the Tower’ disappeared; many believe Richard had them killed in order to consolidate his claim to the throne. Richard’s reign, and indeed much of that of his predecessors, was dominated by the Wars of the Roses. These wars for the throne were fought during the mid to late 15th century between the houses of Lancaster and York, both rival factions of the royal House of Plantagenet. Richard III was a Yorkist and contributed to many of his house’s early victories in the conflict, helping ensure his brother and then his nephew’s reign. However, Richard III was destined to become the last king of both the House of York and the Plantagenet dynasty itself. He was defeated by the forces of Lancastrian Henry Tudor in the Battle of Bosworth Field on 22nd August 1485. Richard III was killed in battle, the last English monarch to be so, allowing Henry to become King and begin the rule of the Tudors. The hastily buried remains of Richard III were lost for centuries, until an excavation in 2012 found his skeleton under a car park in the city of Leicester.
June 8th 793: Viking invasion of England begins
On this day in 793, Vikings raided the abbey at Lindisfarne in Northumbria, thus beginning the Scandinavian invasion of England. The abbey was a famous centre of learning across the continent, and many of the resident monks were killed by the Vikings and the abbey’s treasures were taken. The invasion shocked the Christian West and alerted Europe to the Viking threat; many consider it the beginning of the Viking Age.
“Never before has such an atrocity been seen”
- Alcuin of York, 793
May 23rd 1701: Captain Kidd executed
On this day in 1701 the Scottish pirate William Kidd was executed in England. Kidd, born in Dundee around 1654, enjoyed a successful career as a seaman before his turn to piracy. In May 1696 Kidd set sail charged with the job of hunting pirates and attacking enemy French ships as a privateer. However whilst on this voyage around the Indian Ocean, Kidd and his crew began plundering treasure ships. During his time, Kidd killed a mutinous gunner on his ship, contributing to his fearsome piratical reputation. Their main prize was the Quedagh Merchant which carried a wealth of gold, silk and spices - the haul from this came to around £15,000, a huge amount of money for this period. As news broke in England of Kidd’s activities, his wealthy and powerful patrons at home scrambled to condemn him. He was eventually arrested in New York, where he had gone with hopes of support from his powerful contacts there, insisting he was innocent and had acted only as a privateer. Whilst he gave up some of his buried treasure on Gardiners Island, he claimed he had more buried somewhere else; would-be treasure hunters have been searching for his haul ever since. Kidd was put on trial for piracy in England, in what became a public spectacle due to his prominent connections, where he was found guilty and sentenced to death. On May 23rd, Kidd was hanged on the River Thames in London and his body encased in an iron cage and left to rot as a warning to other pirates.
May 12th 1937: George VI crowned
On this day in 1937, the coronation of King George VI of the United Kingdom was held at Westminster Abbey, London. He became King upon the abdication of his older brother Edward VIII who left the throne in order to marry the divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson. George never expected to become King, but when the role was thrust upon him became one of Britain’s most loved monarchs. He ruled during the Second World War, and he and his wife Elizabeth were a great morale boost for the nation. However the war was not the only monumental event that took place during the reign of George VI; it was under his rule that the British Empire mostly dissolved, with independence movements in India and Ireland leading to a transition from empire to Commonwealth. George VI died on 6th February 1952 with his oldest daughter Elizabeth becoming Queen - she rules as Queen Elizabeth II to this day.
May 9th 1671: Blood tries to steal the Crown Jewels
On this day in 1671 the Irish colonel Thomas Blood attempted to steal England’s Crown Jewels from the Tower of London. Blood, who was a Parliamentarian during the Civil War, was disaffected with the monarchy after losing his Irish estate after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. The theft of the Crown Jewels was one of many attempts at insurrection by the colonel. In 1671 Blood, disguised as a priest, and some accomplices subdued Master of the Jewel House Talbot Edwards after he showed them the jewels and then tried to steal them. Blood flattened the St. Edward’s Crown with a mallet and hid it under his coat, another filed the Sceptre with the Cross in two and a third stuffed the Sovereign’s Orb down his trousers. The alarm was soon raised with cries of "Treason! Murder! The crown is stolen!". Blood and his men were soon caught and the Jewels recovered. Blood was taken before King Charles II who, to the surprise of many contemporaries and continued puzzlement of historians, pardoned Blood and then gave him land in Ireland. Since then, the Crown Jewels have been kept under armed guard in the Jewel House of the Tower of London.
"It was a gallant attempt, however unsuccessful! It was for a crown!"
- Blood upon his capture
April 16th 1889: Charlie Chaplin born
On this day in 1889 the famous silent film star Charlie Chaplin was born in London. Chaplin came from a musical family, but his family fell on hard times and he spent his childhood on the streets of London. This hardship did nothing to abate the young Chaplin’s aspiration to be an actor. He began to secure roles on stage, securing a reputation as a fine comic actor. Chaplin moved to the United States in 1913 to embark on a promising film career. Soon after arriving he established the character that would make him famous: ‘the Tramp’. The character, a bumbling vagrant, featured in over 10 of Chaplin’s films. This role threw Charlie Chaplin to international prominence, and he soon earned a huge salary of $670,000 a year - a vast amount even now; he had come a long way from his poverty-stricken youth in London. He continued to star in films, notably ‘The Great Dictator’ in 1940 which parodied Adolf Hitler. Chaplin’s popularity waned as he faced controversy in the United States when he was accused of being a communist. However he enjoyed a renewed appreciation by the 1970s, winning an honorary Oscar in 1972. Chaplin died in 1977 aged 88 in Switzerland, where he had moved in the early 1950s after being banned from the States.