June 9th 1870: Charles Dickens dies
On this day in 1870, the English writer Charles Dickens passed away aged 58 following a stroke. Dickens wrote some popular and famous works such as Bleak House, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and A Christmas Carol. He died leaving his final novel (The Mystery of Edwin Drood) unfinished, leaving the identity of the story’s murderer unknown. Due to his status as a literary giant of his age, Dickens was buried in Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey rather than the “unostentatious” service he desired. His work is still celebrated and widely read today.
“He was a sympathiser with the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed; and by his death, one of England’s greatest writers is lost to the world.”
- Epitaph for Charles Dickens
May 22nd 1455: First Battle of St. Albans
On this day in 1455 the Wars of the Roses began with the First Battle of St Albans in Hertfordshire, England. The wars were fought between the rival branches of the royal House of Plantagenet who were competing for the English throne: the houses of Lancaster and York. The First Battle of St Albans resulted in Yorkist victory, with Richard, Duke of York defeating the Lancastrians (led by Edmund, Duke of Somerset) and capturing King Henry VI. The wars continued until 1485 and led to the founding of the Tudor dynasty, as the Lancastrian Henry Tudor (Henry VII) defeated the last Yorkist King Richard III and married a Yorkist. Richard III was killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 and his remains were only recently found in 2012 under a car park in Leicester.
13th May 1940: “Blood, toil, tears and sweat” speech
On this day in 1940 British Prime Minister Winston Churchill made his famous speech in the House of Commons. The speech was his first to the Commons since becoming Prime Minister on 10th May. He gave the speech during the Battle of France of the Second World War and it provided a great morale boost in the United Kingdom.
“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering.
You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory. Victory at all costs - Victory in spite of all terror - Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival”
May 10th 1941: Hess parachutes into Scotland
On this day in 1941 during the Second World War, Adolf Hitler’s deputy in the Nazi Party Rudolf Hess fled Germany and parachuted into Scotland in an attempt to negotiate peace with the United Kingdom. On 10th May he took off in a plane from Augsburg and in the evening he arrived over the UK and parachuted down near the Scottish village of Eaglesham. He told authorities he had an important message and was handed to the army who took him as a prisoner of war. Winston Churchill sent Hess to the Tower of London, making him its last inmate. After the war he was tried at the Nuremberg Trials and sentenced to life imprisonment, which he served at Spandau Prison in Berlin. Despite calls for his release Hess died in prison in 1987, supposedly due to suicide by hanging, but many claim others helped in his death.
May 4th 1979: Thatcher becomes Prime Minister
On this day in 1979, Margaret Thatcher became the first female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. She is known for her conservative policies which have become known as ‘Thatcherism’. Upon winning the 1979 general election and becoming Prime Minister, Thatcher had to deal with high employment and financial problems and responded with deregulation, privatisation and reducing the power of trade unions. She also led Britain during the Falklands War with Argentina in 1982. Thatcher was challenged by others in her party and resigned as Prime Minister in 1990. Known as ‘the Iron Lady’, Thatcher was the longest-serving British Prime Minister of the 20th Century. She died from a stroke in 2013 and remains a very controversial figure in British history.
April 21st 1509: Henry VIII becomes King
On this day in 1509 upon the death of English King Henry VII, his son Henry VIII ascended to the throne aged 17. His coronation took place in June the same year. Henry VIII is best remembered for his six marriages, which ended in two divorces, two executions and one death. He was also the leading force in separating the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church and establishing the monarch as head of the Church of England. Henry was King until his death in 1547 aged 55.
April 7th 1770: Wordsworth born
On this day in 1770 the English poet William Wordsworth was born. Wordsworth was a major figure in the English Romantic poetry scene, and was Poet Laureate from 1843 until his death in 1850. One of his most famous poems was ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’ (also known as ‘Daffodils’).
March 27th 1625: Charles I becomes King
On this day in 1625, Charles I became King of England, Scotland and Ireland. He succeeded to the throne upon the death of his father King James I. Charles and his father believed in the divine right of kings to absolute rule. This caused Charles’s struggle for power with Parliament and resentment among his subjects for his seemingly tyrannical actions like taxing without the consent of Parliament and interfering with churches. The English Civil War broke out in the last years of his reign, which pitted the crown against Parliament. Charles was captured by the Parliamentarians and executed for high treason in 1649. The monarchy was then abolished but returned in 1660 with Charles’s son in power.
May 24th 1819: Queen Victoria born
On this day in 1819 Queen Victoria of Great Britain was born in London. She became Queen in 1837 aged 18 upon the death of her uncle King William IV, who died with no legitimate children. She married her cousin Prince Albert in 1840 and the couple had nine children. Albert died in 1861 and Victoria was in deep mourning for the rest of her life. She was monarch until her death in 1901 aged 81, making her the longest reigning British monarch and longest reigning female monarch in history.
May 14th 1881: Mary Seacole dies
On this day in 1881 the Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole died in London aged 76. She applied to give medical assistance to wounded servicemen during the Crimean War but was refused, and so gave treatment independently. Her patients liked her and helped raised money for her after the war when she was left destitute. 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 by Bellingham who was a merchant with a grievance against the government for supposedly not freeing him when he was imprisoned in Russia. Bellingham was hanged on 18th May.
“I am murdered…I am murdered”
- Perceval’s last words
May 9th 1671: Thomas 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 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. Blood and his men were soon caught and the Jewels recovered. Blood was taken before King Charles II who, to the surprise of many, 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.
April 27th 1759: Mary Wollstonecraft born
On this day in 1759, the British women’s rights advocate Mary Wollstonecraft was born in London. She was also a writer and is best known for her 1792 work ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ in which she argues that women are not naturally inferior to men and argues the importance of female education. She died aged 38 after giving birth to her second daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later became Mary Shelley), who went on to write ‘Frankenstein’. Wollstonecraft is remembered as a leading feminist philosopher.
April 11th 1890: ‘Elephant Man’ dies
On this day in 1890 Joseph Merrick, otherwise known as the ‘Elephant Man’, died in London. Merrick was an English man with severe deformities and was exhibited as an ‘Elephant Man’ which made him very well known. He eventually ended touring Europe and remained in a London Hospital for the rest of his life. Merrick died aged 27 from asphyxiation, supposedly because he decided to sleep lying down (the weight of his head meant he had to sleep sitting up) in order to be like other people. His story became well known after the 1980 film about his life starring John Hurt as Merrick and Anthony Hopkins as his friend Frederick Treves.
March 29th 1871: Royal Albert Hall opens
On this day in 1871 Queen Victoria officially opened the concert hall in London which was named after her late husband Prince Albert. The hall had been initially planned by Albert after the success of the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace in 1851. Work began in 1867; the hall was designed by Captain Francis Fowke and Major-General Henry Scott and built by Lucas Brothers. It was completed in 1871 and at the official opening on March 29th the Queen was so overcome with emotion she was unable to speak. It was Edward, Prince of Wales who had to announce:
“The Queen declares this Hall is now open”