11 February 660 BC

According to legend, the sun god’s descendant Jimmu establishes the empire of Japan.


11 February AD 55: Nero assassinates his stepbrother

Power-mad emperor poisons rival on eve of his 14th birthday

For Tiberius Claudius Caesar Britannicus, the evening of 11 February in AD 55 was always going to be special. The next day was his 14th birthday, which was widely regarded as the beginning of adulthood: a landmark event for any young Roman.

But Britannicus was not just any young Roman. He was the only son of the late emperor Claudius, who had died a few months earlier. The throne had passed to Britannicus’s older stepbrother Nero, the son of Claudius’s fourth wife, Agrippina. But Nero never felt secure. Britannicus, he decided, had got to go.

According to the Roman historian Tacitus, Nero engaged the services of a poisoner, Locusta, who had already been condemned to death. The emperor made his move on the night of 11 February, as Britannicus was enjoying his last meal before turning 14.

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“A drink, still harmless, very hot, and already tasted, was handed to Britannicus,” wrote Tacitus. “Then, when he declined it as too warm, cold water was poured in, and with it the poison, which ran so effectively through his whole system that he lost simultaneously both voice and breath. There was a startled movement in the company seated around, and the more obtuse began to disperse; those who could read more clearly sat motionless, their eyes riveted on Nero.”

Nero just shrugged. Britannicus, he said, was having an epileptic fit – nothing to worry about. Nobody moved; within a few moments, the boy was dead. That night, in pouring rain, Nero had his stepbrother’s body burned. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

11 February 1650

French philosopher, mathematician and physicist René Descartes died at Stockholm in Sweden. He has often been described as the founder of modern philosophy.

11 February 1847

American inventor Thomas Edison is born in Ohio. He will eventually hold over 1,000 patents.

11 February 1813

Death, aged 46, of Swedish chemist Anders Gustav Ekeburg. In 1801 he was blinded in one eye by an exploding flask but in the following year he discovered the element tantalum.

11 February 1858

A 14-year-old girl, Bernadette Soubirous, claims to have experienced the first of her visions of the Virgin Mary in a small cave on the outskirts of Lourdes in France.

11 February 1861

After weeks of unrest at Chatham prison, around 850 convicts rioted and briefly took over the jail before the authorities restored order with the assistance of troops and police.

11 February 1929

The first Lateran accord is signed by Benito Mussolini – on behalf of King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy – and Cardinal Gasparri, for Pope Pius XI. It establishes the Vatican City as an independent state.

11 February 1942

The first ever gold disc was awarded by RCA Victor Records to Glenn Miller at the CBS Playhouse in New York City to celebrate 1.2m sales of his recording of Chattanooga Choo-Choo.

11 February 1956: Soviet spies break cover

Two members of the “Cambridge Five” spy ring surface to meet journalists

It was a dreary Saturday in February 1956 when Richard Hughes got the call. On the line was a man from the Soviet news agency TASS, who told Hughes to present himself at room 101 of the Hotel National at 8pm before putting down the phone. As The Sunday Times man in Moscow, Hughes was never going to ignore such an enigmatic invitation. When he arrived at the room, he found that the only other British guest there was another reporter, Sidney Welland of Reuters. Two men then appeared from the shadows, announcing themselves as Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean.

Hughes recognised the names immediately. Burgess and Maclean were British diplomats who had vanished in the summer of 1951. It had turned out that they had been passing secrets to the Soviet Union since the mid-1930s, after being recruited to the communist cause while students at the University of Cambridge. Having been tipped off by a fellow traitor, Kim Philby, they had taken a ferry to St Malo, a train to Paris and another to Zurich, then a flight to Prague before heading to Moscow. The British soon worked out what had happened, but there had been no official confirmation – until now.

As press conferences go, Burgess and Maclean’s appearance was a bit of a let-down. They simply handed out copies of a prepared statement and refused to answer questions. The statement claimed that “neither of us have ever been communist agents” and insisted that they had flown to the USSR only to promote “better understanding between the Soviet Union and the west”. But they had become “convinced from official knowledge in our possession that neither the British nor, still more, the American government was at that time seriously working for this aim” – so they had chosen to stay.

For the British authorities, the news was a stunning humiliation. And the Daily Mirror knew exactly what to blame: the “monstrous stupidity” of the Whitehall establishment, whom it characterised as “intellectuals, the Old School Tie brigade, long-haired experts and the people-who-know-the-best-people”. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

11 February 1975: Thatcher becomes Britain’s first female party leader

The Grantham MP takes the helm of the Conservative party… to mixed reactions

Tuesday 11 February 1975 was a big day in the Thatcher household. Carol was due to take one of her Law Society exams that afternoon, but her mother seemed to have other things on her mind. “You can’t be as nervous as I am,” Margaret Thatcher told her daughter at breakfast, ostentatiously crossing the fingers on both hands.

She need not have worried. A week earlier, the former Grantham grammar-school girl had toppled the incumbent, Edward Heath, and now the momentum was with her. At 4pm, the news broke that she had won 146 votes, far ahead of her nearest rival, Willie Whitelaw.

When Mrs Thatcher met the press just before 6pm, she seemed the picture of serene self-confidence. Had her gender been an issue? No, she said: “I would like to think it was merit.”

Only on the BBC news that evening did the first woman to lead a British political party betray the emotions surging through her veins. “My predecessors, Edward Heath, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, Harold Macmillan, Anthony Eden, then of course the great Winston,” Mrs Thatcher said breathily. “It is like a dream… I almost wept when they told me” – and then, biting her lip, her eyes welling up – “I did weep.”

Mrs Thatcher’s admirers were, of course, beside themselves with joy. “The Lady is a Champ!” roared the next day’s Daily Mail, exulting that the Tories had “chosen a woman of ambition, nerve and brilliance to lead them”. But among the old guard, all was consternation. “My God!” exclaimed one party vice-chairman when the result came through. “The b*tch has won!” | Written by Dominic Sandbrook


11 February 1990

In perhaps the greatest upset in sporting history, 42–1 outsider Buster Douglas beats Mike Tyson to become heavyweight champion of the world.

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