11 shocking moments in history

From the Salem witch trials to the bombing of Hiroshima, history is full of dates that shook the world and continue, decades and centuries later, to astound. Using eyewitness testimony – letters, diaries and archive interviews – the BBC oral history radio and TV programme Witness retells these watershed moments. Here, we round up 11 of the most shocking…

The execution of Anne Boleyn

On the morning of 19 May 1536, Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, became the first English queen to be publicly executed. Charged with adultery, incest and conspiring the king’s death, Anne was beheaded on a scaffold erected on Tower Green, within the walls of the Tower of London. Her death, says historian Suzannah Lipscomb, “is so familiar to us that it is hard to imagine how shocking it would have been”.

Anne and Henry had been married for little more than three years at the time of her death. For her, Henry had left his wife of nearly 24 years and the mother of his child (the future Mary I), and broken with the Catholic Church. By the spring of 1536, however, Henry’s affection had waned and he was hotly pursuing Anne’s lady-in-waiting, Jane Seymour.

Along with five courtiers, including Anne’s brother, George, Anne was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London in early May 1536. Mark Smeaton, William Brereton, Francis Weston and Henry Norris were tried and found guilty of adultery with the queen, and of conspiring the king’s death, while Anne and her brother were found guilty of high treason. By 19 May, all six convicted had been executed.

Reporting on Anne’s execution in 1536, Eustace Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador to Henry’s court, wrote: “No one ever shewed more courage or greater readiness to meet death than she did”

Today, nearly 500 years after her execution, historians cannot agree why Anne had to die. This episode of Witness explores Anne’s final hours and considers why she was executed…

To listen, click here.


Engraving depicting the execution of Anne Boleyn at the Tower of London on 19 May 1536. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

 

The building of the Berlin Wall

For almost 30 years the Berlin Wall separated Germany's communist east from the US-friendly west. Constructed overnight on 12–13 August 1961 by the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), the wall’s official purpose was to stop western “fascists” from entering east Germany and undermining the building of a socialist state. In reality, however, it served to prevent mass defections from east to west.

Berliners awoke on 13 August to find themselves cut off from family, friends, work and in some cases even their homes – it was now impossible to get from east to west. The makeshift wall was soon replaced by a 12ft-tall, 4ft-wide reinforced concrete barrier, heavily guarded and lined with booby traps. In total at least 171 people were killed trying to get over, under or around the Berlin Wall, which stood until 9 November 1989.

To find out more, click here.


Building commandos of the National People's Army of the German Democratic Republic start the erection of the Berlin Wall, August 1961. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
 

The sinking of the Titanic

On the night of 14 April 1912, the supposedly unsinkable RMS Titanic collided with an iceberg and sank on her maiden voyage. Of the 2,208 people aboard ship – the largest vessel in the world at the time – only 712 survived. It took just two-and-a-half hours for the huge vessel to sink, and amid freezing temperatures many people are likely to have died within minutes of entering the water.

The extent of the devastation was not known until several days later – reporting on the disaster on 16 April, the Daily Mail’s headline read “Titanic sunk. No lives lost”. The tragedy, says Titanic expert Dr Aidan McMichael, was greeted at first “with shock and disbelief, and then immense sorrow at the scale of the loss of life. How could a ship dubbed unsinkable by the media have met its end so tragically?”

To hear stories from survivors of the disaster, click here.


Front page of the New York Times newspaper on 16 April 1912 with headlines announcing the sinking of the Titanic. (Photo by Blank Archives/Getty Images)

 

The Great Fire of London

September marks the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London, a blaze that destroyed more than 65,000 homes and 13,000 buildings including the Royal Exchange and the original St Paul’s Cathedral.

The fire began in the early hours of Sunday 2 September 1666, at the house of Thomas Farynor (aka Farrinor), the king's baker, in Pudding Lane, near London Bridge. Helped by a strong easterly wind coupled with dry and dusty air, the fire raged for three days, by the end of which 100,000 people had been made homeless. 

Officially only a handful of people died in the fire but the true toll is likely to have been much higher.

This Witness episode brings together the first-hand accounts of diarist Samuel Pepys and schoolboy William Taswell, who watched the fire devastate the city. We also hear from Meriel Jeater, an expert from the Museum of London.

To listen, click here.


Great Fire of London, September 1666. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
 

The first man in space

On 12 April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to journey into space, making a 108-minute orbital flight in his Vostok 1 spacecraft.

Dressed in a bright orange spacesuit and a helmet inscribed with ‘CCCP’ painted in red (which marked him as a Soviet citizen so that he would be recognised after parachuting to safety following ejection from the spacecraft), the 27-year-old Gagarin set off with the word “Poyekhali!” (Let’s go!).

Sergei Khrushchev, the son of Nikita Khrushchev, who was the Soviet premier at the time of Gagarin's flight, told BBC News in 2010: “When we look at the response of the Muscovites, where everyone was in the streets, on the roofs of buildings and in the windows, I would compare this celebration with the May 9 victory day (the end of the Second World War for the Soviet Union)”.

In this episode, Witness explores how the young cosmonaut became an instant worldwide celebrity and a poster boy for Soviet technological achievement.

To listen, click here.


Yuri Gagarin, 12 April 1961. (AFP/Getty Images)

 

The Salem witches

Between June and September 1692, some 19 men and women were found guilty of witchcraft and executed in the small religious community of Salem, Massachusetts, in northeastern America. A horror that shocked the world, the Salem witch trials have spawned hundreds of films, books, scholarly articles and plays, including Arthur Miller’s acclaimed 1953 work The Crucible.

The executed men and women were convicted on the spurious evidence of a group of young village girls who claimed to have been bewitched. Paranoia, fed by ongoing family feuds and attacks by Native Americans, developed into a wave of hysteria that quickly spread throughout colonial Massachusetts. Another 150 men, women and children were accused in the spring of 1692, and were only spared the gallows by confessing.

To find out more, click here.


Engraving depicting the trial of a witch in Salem, Massachusetts. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

 

The outbreak of the First World War

Fought by more than 30 nations on a geographical scale never seen before, the First World War was arguably the first truly global conflict. It claimed the lives of more than nine million soldiers and an unknown number of civilians, and, says the Imperial War Museum, “forever altered the world’s social and political landscape”.

Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914 after weeks of tension following the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in Sarajevo on 28 June. Over the coming months, as Europe descended into war, it became clear the war would not be “won by Christmas”. 

Using archive recordings of eyewitnesses from Germany, France, Britain and Belgium, this episode of Witness tells the story of the start of a war that would devastate a generation.

To listen, click here.


The Daily Mail on 5 August 1914 reports that Britain has declared war on Germany. From ‘The Royal Jubilee Book 1910-1935’ [Associated Newspapers Ltd., London, 1935]. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)
 

Jack the Ripper

Within just a few weeks in 1888, a serial killer dubbed ‘Jack the Ripper’ mutilated and killed five prostitutes in London’s East End. Panic gripped the city as police hunted for the killer and speculation was rife as to his – or her – identity. Was Jack a doctor, a Jew, a foreigner, a butcher? Was Jack in fact Jill? One theory even linked the murders to Queen Victoria's grandson, Prince Albert Victor.

Yet despite interrogating dozens of suspects the police failed to convict anyone of the murders, and to this day the killer’s identity remains a mystery.

Here, using contemporary accounts, Simon Watts describes how Jack the Ripper stalked the streets of Victorian London.

To listen, click here.


Jack the Ripper newspaper clippings from 1888. (© Mim Friday/Alamy Stock Photo)
 

Tutankhamun’s tomb

Perhaps the greatest archaeological discovery of all time, in 1922 British archaeologist Howard Carter and his team found the intact tomb of an Egyptian pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty: Tutankhamun.

The only unplundered tomb of a pharaoh yet found in the Valley of the Kings, the tomb was filled with artefacts including statues and artwork – so many, in fact, that it took 10 years to catalogue them.

The 1922 discovery, says art critic Alastair Sooke, sparked a global frenzy for ancient Egypt. “A craze for Egyptian exoticism convulsed the West, infiltrating both high and low culture across the fields of music, fine art, fashion, film and furniture design.”
Carter became a worldwide celebrity, touring America in 1924 to deliver lectures about his finds.

This Witness episode explores Carter’s detailed record of his discovery.

To listen, click here.


English egyptologist Howard Carter and Mr Mace opening the wall of the inner chamber of Tutankhamun's tomb, 1922. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
 

The bombing of Hiroshima

On 6 August 1945, America dropped a nuclear bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, killing around 135,000 people. Within the first three seconds, says expert Stephen Walker, thousands were incinerated as the temperature at the burst-point reached 60 million degrees centigrade – 10,000 times hotter than the sun’s surface.

The attack was followed three days later by a second atomic bomb dropped on the city of Nagasaki, which killed at least 50,000 people, although according to some estimates as many as 74,000 died.

Many of the survivors suffered symptoms of radiation sickness, which include vomiting, fever, fatigue, bleeding from the gums, thinning hair, diarrhoea and, in the worst cases, death.

Here, Witness presents a first-person account from the BBC archives, of a young Japanese schoolgirl who survived the Hiroshima attack.

To listen, click here.


Picture showing the devastated city of Hiroshima following the US nuclear bombing of the city on 6 August 1945 during the Second World War. (Photo by STF/AFP/Getty Images)
 

The 'execution' of Oliver Cromwell

Arguably one of the most remarkable moments in history, in 1661 the body of Oliver Cromwell was exhumed from Westminster Abbey to be ‘executed’ for treason.

Just two-and-a-half years earlier, in November 1658, Cromwell had been given a state funeral at Westminster. An officer in the Roundheads (parliamentary army) at the outbreak of the Civil War in the summer of 1642, Cromwell went on to become one of the conflict’s key figures and played a leading role in Charles I’s trial and subsequent beheading. Following the king’s execution a republic was declared, known as the Commonwealth of England.

How, then, did Cromwell's body come to be dug up and symbolically executed? Witness investigates....

To listen, click here.

Witness airs on the BBC World Service on weekdays at 8.50am. To find out more, click here.

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