16 May 1703: Peter the Great founds his namesake city

The ambitious emperor plans an unlikely settlement on the Baltic


Even by the standards of Russia’s colourful history, the foundation of St Petersburg makes an extraordinary story. In May 1703, the dynamic young emperor Peter the Great had cut his way through Swedish forces to the Baltic coastline. His eye was drawn to a small island at the mouth of the river Neva where Finnish fishermen had built a few wooden huts. The story goes that Peter borrowed a bayonet to cut two strips of turf, which he laid in the shape of a cross. “Here,” he proclaimed, “shall be a town.” The first stone was laid on 16 May (27 May in the Gregorian calendar.)

Whether or not this story is true, Peter’s ambition was astounding. The cold, marshy conditions could hardly have been less propitious, and he was still fighting the Swedes. Yet by the end of May his men had built a small log house for Peter, and by year’s end they had finished a great hexagonal citadel, the Peter and Paul Fortress, which still stands today.

Yet the birth of St Petersburg did not come without a horrendous cost. The Swedes launched fresh attacks each year, but the biggest problems were caused by the conditions. Draining the marshes demanded almost superhuman effort; men poured into the site from as far afield as Finland, Siberia and Ukraine. They lived in primitive, crowded, dirty hovels; many died from dysentery, scurvy or malaria. St Petersburg, men said, was a “city built on bones”.

But it endured. Indeed, nothing better symbolises Peter’s vision than the gleaming, soaring gold spire of the Peter and Paul Cathedral. Work began on it in 1712; by the time it was completed in 1733, Peter was long dead. His city, though, lives on. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

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16 May 1770: Marie Antoinette marries the future king of France

Storm clouds gather as the 14-year-old archduchess joins the French royal family in an opulent ceremony

To the young girl at its centre, Marie Antoinette’s wedding day must have seemed an extraordinary blur of images and sensations. When the Archduchess of Austria arrived at Versailles for her wedding to the future Louis XVI on the morning of 16 May 1770, she was just 14 years old. After being presented to the current king, Louis XV, she was taken to the state apartments to get ready.
There she was dressed in a beautiful brocade gown – with only one flaw: it didn’t fit, leaving a stretch of her lacing and shift visible to onlookers. Still, the Austrian princess, who reportedly looked younger than her 14 years, kept her cool – which is more than can be said for her 15-year-old bridegroom, who was said to have looked nervous and shaky throughout.

The ceremony itself, in the Royal Chapel, went perfectly. That afternoon, however, there was an omen of the storms to come. According to Marie Antoinette’s biographer Maxime de la Rocheterie, “at three o’clock the sky became overcast; a violent storm burst; the fireworks could not be set off; the illuminations were drowned by the rain; and the crowd of curious people who filled the gardens and streets were obliged to flee in disorder before the peals of thunder and torrents of rain.”

Inside, the celebrations went on, topped by a magnificent banquet. At about six o’clock, the king led the young royals to their bedroom, an archbishop blessed the bed, and the curtains were closed on the happy couple. It was not until seven years later, however, that the marriage was finally consummated. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

16 May 1782

John Sell Cotman, watercolourist, is born in Norwich.

16 May 1811

A British, Spanish and Portuguese army under General Sir William Beresford won a hard-fought and extremely costly victory over a French force under Marshal Jean de Dieu Soult at Albuera in Spain.

16 May 1900: Mafeking is relieved

The South African town’s defenders enjoy victory after 217 days besieged

The Boer War began disastrously for Britain. The autumn of 1899 saw one defeat after another, while at Mafeking, on the border between British-held Cape Colony and the Transvaal, some 1,500 British troops were surrounded by a far larger Boer army. On 12 October the telegraph lines were cut; four days later the first Boer shells landed in the dusty little town. Yet for more than 200 days, the defenders held out. Inspired by their commander, Colonel Robert Baden- Powell, they not only laid fake landmines and mounted daring diversionary attacks, but always made time for Sunday cricket matches.

In Britain, the valiant resistance of the Mafeking defenders gripped the public imagination. By May 1900, with a relief column on its way, it seemed that everybody was waiting for news of victory. And, at last, it came. Late on the evening of 16 May, the defenders heard firing to the north. At about 7.30pm, seven British cavalrymen rode into the town. As they paused, tired and dusty, a passer-by said casually: “Oh yes, I heard you were knocking about.”

The main relief column arrived in Mafeking just before four o’clock next morning. By then, crowds had poured into the streets, filled with unbridled joy. “One man tried to speak; then he swore; then he buried his face in his arms and sobbed,” wrote a watching reporter. But that was as nothing compared with the reaction back home: a week’s worth of hysterical rejoicing ensued, complete with street parties and fireworks. The defenders of Mafeking, wrote the author FT Stevens, “carried themselves like Britons of the old breed... and because they played the game and played up well, and played to the end, and by the will of God have won, we honour them and count the country richer this day for them.” | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

16 May 1929

The first Academy Awards ceremony is hosted by Douglas Fairbanks and William C de Mille in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. In the only year that Oscars are awarded for multiple performances, Janet Gaynor wins best actress for her performances in Sunrise, Seventh Heaven and Street Angel while Emil Jannings wins best actor for The Way of All Flesh and The Last Command. Jannings is given his award in advance, as he has to return home to Germany before the ceremony takes place. Charlie Chaplin receives a special award. | Read more about the history of the Oscars


16 May 1968

Three people are killed after a gas explosion causes the collapse of a corner of Ronan Point, a newly-built tower block in Newham, East London.

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