12 October: On this day in history

What events happened on 12 October in history? Dominic Sandbrook rounds up the events, births and deaths…

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12 October 633

At Hatfield Chase near Doncaster, the troops of Gwynedd and Mercia smash their Northumbrian adversaries and kill their king, Edwin.

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12 October 539 BC: Babylon falls to Cyrus the Great

The great Mesopotamian city comes under Persian control

Babylon! For millennia the name had the ring of wealth, splendour and power: the city of Hammurabi, Nebuchadnezzar, the Ishtar Gate and the Hanging Gardens.

But in the autumn of 539 BC, Babylon was at bay. After years of retreat, the Babylonians had been pushed back by the Persian king Cyrus the Great, and at the battle of Opis, on the banks of the Tigris, Cyrus won an overwhelming victory. Now, Babylon lay open before him. What happened next, however, remains mysterious.

According to the evidence of local inscriptions, Cyrus’s army entered Babylon on 12 October without a fight, let alone a siege, probably because the city’s rulers reckoned the war was lost and it was better to appease their new master. But the Greek historian Herodotus tells a much more exciting story. The city, he explained, was guarded by impassable walls, which crossed the river Euphrates. Cyrus ordered his sappers to drain off the river into a nearby lake, so that its level fell “about to the middle of a man’s thigh”. Then he sent his army along the river bed, into the heart of the city. As luck would have it, Herodotus added, the Babylonians were celebrating a religious festival. So even as the Persians crept towards them, “they went on dancing and rejoicing during this time until they learnt the truth only too well”.

Either way, the result was the same: Cyrus was the master of Babylon. It belonged to his descendants for the next 200 years.


12 October 1216: King John loses his crown jewels

Precious jewels, men and horses are engulfed by “waves and bottomless whirlpools” in East Anglia

By the autumn of 1216, England had been at war for over a year. With the barons in open rebellion against King John, Prince Louis of France had landed in Kent in May and was then proclaimed king at St Paul’s. John had fought back but by October the war had reached a gruelling stalemate.

In September, John set out across the country on a long campaign, arriving in King’s Lynn on 9 October before heading north. Three days later, disaster struck. The king had sent his baggage train separately, ordering it to take a short cut from East Anglia across the great estuary of the Wash. It was here, according to the chronicler Roger of Wendover, that “the treasures, precious vessels and all the other things which he cherished with special care” were swept away in a terrible accident, “for the ground was opened in the midst of the waves and bottomless whirlpools engulfed everything, together with men and horses, so that not a single foot-soldier got away to bear tidings of the disaster to the king”.

One of the best known of all medieval anecdotes left John widely remembered as the hapless bungler who lost his treasure in the Wash. Yet the story may not be quite what it seems. Accounts differ a lot, and even Roger’s version is muddled. Some historians suspect it never happened, others that only a small quantity of valuables was lost. But John had more important things to worry about. By the time he reputedly lost his treasure, he had contracted dysentery. Six days later he was dead.

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Julian Humphrys rounds up smaller anniversaries…

12 October 1459

A Yorkist army fled in disorder from Ludford Bridge near Ludlow after the defection of part of their forces to their Lancastrian enemies. Ludlow, which was known to be Yorkist in sympathies, was then thoroughly looted by the victorious Lancastrians.

12 October 1537 

Jane Seymour gives birth to the future King Edward VI.

12 October 1808

A naval court martial finds Mr Watson Cradock, surgeon on board HMS Vulture, guilty of “very disorderly language, calculated to generate discontent and excite mutiny amongst the seamen”, and dismisses him from the Navy.

12 October 1871

The British government in India passed the Criminal Tribes Act, which branded the members of a number of population groups as innately criminal, restricted their movements and made elaborate arrangements for their supervision.

12 October 1812

Italian chemist Ascanio Sobrero was born in Piedmont. In 1846 he discovered nitroglycerin when he added glycerol to a mixture of nitric and sulphuric acid. Alarmed by the compound’s explosive nature, he warned vigorously against its use.

12 October 1960

Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev caused uproar at the United Nations General Assembly when he used his shoe to bang on his desk in protest after the Philippine delegate accused the USSR of imperialism in eastern Europe.

12 October 1971

Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi begins festivities – at a cost of up to $200m – to celebrate the 2,500th birthday of the Persian empire.

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