16 December 1653: Oliver Cromwell assumes power as lord protector

Following political turmoil, the puritan general hailed for his huge moral authority is appointed to lead the nation

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The inauguration of the lord protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland, which took place on 16 December 1653, was one of the most extraordinary moments in all British history. Almost five years after the execution of Charles I, the experiment with parliamentary government had comprehensively failed. Having run out of other options, the New Model Army handed supreme power to its most successful general, Oliver Cromwell, who became chief magistrate for life.

Cromwell’s inauguration, which was not advertised beforehand, was vaguely based on the formula for a royal coronation. At one that afternoon, reported one newspaper, a coach drew him along Whitehall to the Palace of Westminster, accompanied by “the chief officers of the army with their cloaks, and swords, and hats on”. In Westminster Hall the great men of the kingdom – judges, aldermen and so on – were waiting. When Cromwell entered, they saw he was dressed in plain black, as was fitting for a Roundhead reformer.

A secretary read out a written constitution, the Instrument of Government, drafted by Cromwell’s fellow officer, John Lambert. Cromwell then swore an oath to defend property, religion and liberty, took his seat on the dais, and accepted the sword and seals of office. Then he and his men processed back along Whitehall to “great acclamations and shoutings along the streets”.

Under the circumstances, it had gone remarkably well. “There is more than ordinary joy in and about London (both by the Inhabitants and the Soldiery),” one paper said, “for this happy day.”


16 December 1773: Boston rebels dump tea into the sea

Britain and its American colonies come to blows over a controversial tax

It was dark in Boston when the Tea Party began. After years of rising tension between Britain and its American colonies, attention had become focused on the Tea Act of 1773, which reaffirmed the controversial tax on imported tea. At the end of November, the first tea ship, the Dartmouth, had arrived in Boston, but local activists demanded that it return home without paying the import duty.

The last day before the deadline for the Dartmouth to pay up was 16 December. The mood was edgy; at the Old South Meeting House, not far from the harbour, thousands of agitators rallied against the tea tax. Chief among them was local politician Samuel Adams, a longstanding opponent of British authority, and future founding father of the United States.

With passions running high, the crowd was soon surging towards the harbour. That evening, dozens of men, some of them disguised as Native Americans, boarded the Dartmouth and two other tea ships, unloaded hundreds of chests of tea and dumped them into Boston harbour. It was an act of pure vandalism, and back in Britain, the authorities were appalled.

To some observers in Massachusetts, however, the Tea Party seemed a rousing call to arms. “There is a dignity, a majesty, a sublimity, in this last effort of the patriots, that I greatly admire. The people should never rise without doing something to be remembered: something notable and striking,” the future president John Adams wrote in his diary. “This destruction of the tea is so bold, so daring, intrepid and inflexible, and it must have so important consequences, and so lasting, that I can’t but consider it as an epocha in history.”

Julian Humphrys rounds up smaller anniversaries

16 December 1431
The ten-year-old Henry VI of England was crowned King of France by Cardinal Beaufort in the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris.
16 December 1659
John Tradescant gifted his collection of curiosities to antiquary Elias Ashmole. Ashmole later donated his collections, library and manuscripts to Oxford University to create the Ashmolean museum.
16 December 1717 
Birth in Deal of the writer and "bluestocking" Elizabeth Carter.
16 December 1838
The Battle of Blood River. A Zulu army suffers heavy casualties in an unsuccessful attack on a Boer force under Andries Pretorius which had been drawn up in a laager (a defensive circle of wagons) on the banks of the Ncome.
16 December 1850
The Charlotte Jane became the first ship to carry emigrants to the new colony of Canterbury, New Zealand, when it arrived at Lyttelton harbour. James Edward Fitzgerald, later a leading New Zealand politician and civil servant, was first ashore.
16 December 1882 
Birth in Cambridge of cricketer Jack Hobbs. He became the leading run-scorer and century-maker in first class cricket, and in 1953 he became the first cricketer to be knighted.

16 December 1989: Romanians rise up against communism

Unrest in Timişoara triggers a nationwide revolution

In December 1989, tensions in the city of Timişoara were approaching breaking point. After months of controversy, a local ethnic Hungarian pastor, László Tőkés, had finally pushed the communist authorities too far. Having preached against the regime and spoken to foreign reporters, Tőkés had seen his power cut off and his ration book confiscated. Now he faced eviction from his little church flat.

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On the 15th, the day scheduled for the eviction, a crowd of Tőkés’s ethnic Hungarian parishioners formed a human chain outside the flat. The next day, 16 December, the mayor arrived and commanded the crowd to disperse by 5pm if they wanted to avoid repercussions. They told him to produce a written promise that Tőkés’s eviction would be cancelled; the mayor said he would, but nobody believed him.

Tőkés himself begged the crowd to leave, but they refused, convinced that he was only asking under pressure from the secret police. Dusk fell, and the crowd remained, larger than ever, the Hungarian ranks now swollen with hundreds of Romanians. They started singing banned patriotic songs. Then somebody started chanting “Down with communism!”

Soon they moved off towards the city centre, where they began chanting outside the party headquarters. The police waded in, opening fire with tear gas canisters and water cannons. But the crowds had become much too big for them; far from being dispersed, the demonstrators seized control of the water cannons and threw them into the river.

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By now the situation had escalated from a riot into a revolution. The next day, open fighting broke out between the rebels and the police, the streets littered with rubble and bodies. The authorities declared martial law in Timişoara, but it was too late. By the following day, the crowds had started waving Romanian flags with the emblem of the Socialist Republic cut out. By the 20th, the city belonged to the rebels. The next day, the revolution spread to Bucharest.

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Authors

Dominic SandbrookHistorian and presenter

Dominic Sandbrook is historian and presenter, and a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine

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