August 23rd 1305: William Wallace executed
On this day in 1305 William Wallace was executed for high treason in London. Wallace was one of the major leaders of the Wars of Scottish Independence that took place throughout the late 13th and early 14th centuries. He led Scottish forces against the English with great success, such as at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297, for which he was knighted. However he was later defeated at the Battle of Falkirk in 1298 and eventually captured in 1305, at which point he was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered by King Edward I of England. After his grisly execution, Wallace’s preserved head was set on a pike atop London Bridge. The Wars for Independence that Wallace had fought so valiantly for were successful, and Scotland remained an independent nation until it joined with England in 1707 to form Great Britain. Wallace has since become a Scottish icon and a symbol of the nation’s continuing campaign for independence. He remains a popular figure in literature and film, most famously portrayed by Mel Gibson as the protagonist of the 1995 film Braveheart.
"I could not be a traitor to Edward, for I was never his subject"
- Wallace on his treason charge
August 13th 1910: Florence Nightingale dies
On this day in 1910 the famous English nurse, Florence Nightingale, died in London. Born in 1820, she was named for the Italian city in which she was born where her wealthy parents were visiting at the time. Her parents initially tried to prevent her from training to be a nurse, which she resolved to do after she believed God wanted her to do some work. However Nightingale bucked the tradition of upper class women settling for a good marriage and instead pursued a career as a nurse. She became famous during the Crimean War of 1853 - 1856 when she drew attention to the poor conditions of the troops and nursed wounded soldiers. Other nurses laboured in Crimea alongside Nightingale, including the Jamaican-born Mary Seacole. Upon her return to Britain Nightingale began the movement for professional nursing by establishing a nursing school in 1860, leading many to call her the founder of modern nursing. Florence Nightingale was 90 years old when she died, and passed away in her sleep at her London home.
August 5th 1862: ‘Elephant Man’ born
On this day in 1862 Joseph Merrick, otherwise known as the ‘Elephant Man’, was born in Leicester. Merrick was an Englishman with severe facial and body deformities which resulted in him being exhibited as an ‘Elephant Man’. Treated poorly by his peers, Merrick eventually ended touring Europe as a ‘human curiosity’ and remained in a London Hospital for the rest of his life. Merrick died in 1890 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 especially famous after the 1980 film about his life starring John Hurt as Merrick and Anthony Hopkins as his good friend Frederick Treves.
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.
August 16th 1819: Peterloo massacre
On this day in 1819 a cavalry charge killed 17 and injured 600 at a public meeting in St. Peter’s Field, Manchester, England. The meeting of around 60,000 was held to demand parliamentary reform and was addressed by famous radical Henry Hunt, known as ‘the Orator’. Radical agitation had been on the rise in recent years due to the famine and unemployment that followed the Napoleonic Wars and the introduction of laws that many felt unfair to the working class. Despite the peaceful intentions of the meeting, local magistrates feared it and sent in the cavalry, who violently dispersed the crowd. 15 people died in the ensuing violence, with hundreds more injured. The event was nicknamed ‘Peterloo’ in reference to the Battle of Waterloo of 1815. The massacre caused public outcry which only encouraged the government, led by Prime Minister Lord Liverpool, to crack down on radicalism. This period is sometimes referred to as ‘reactionary toryism’.
August 8th 1963: Great Train Robbery
On this day in 1963, the ‘Great Train Robbery’ took place in Buckinghamshire, England. The team of 15 robbers stopped the Royal Mail train by changing a signal from green to red and stole £2.6 million, which is the equivalent of around £40 million today. Only 6 of the 126 bags on the train were not taken by the robbers. Most of the money, which was made up of used banknotes, was never recovered. 12 of the 15 were caught and jailed but some escaped and some were never caught.
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.