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17 April: On this day in history

What events happened on 17 April in history? We round up the events, births and deaths…

Published: April 17, 2022 at 6:06 am

17 April 1492

Christopher Columbus and the Catholic monarchs of Spain signed the Capitulations of Santa Fé detailing the terms under which Columbus would sail in search of a new western route to the East Indies.

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17 April 1521: Martin Luther stands firm at Worms

A landmark meeting heralds the opening of a great chasm in Christendom

In the spring of 1521, Europe was in ferment. A few years earlier, Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses, challenging what he saw as the abuses of the Catholic church, had sent a tremor through Germany. Now Luther had been summoned to Charles V’s imperial assembly (the ‘Diet’) in the town of Worms, on the river Rhine, for one of the pivotal encounters in world history.

On 17 April, Luther walked into the town hall, where “the emperor, the electors and the princes” were waiting. A thin, pale man of medium height, he admitted later that he was “physically fearful and trembling”. The presiding official, Dr Johann Eck, asked if Luther had indeed written the offending words, and invited him to retract them. “It would be rash and dangerous for me to reply to such a question,” Luther insisted, until he had had time to think it over.

Very well, his interrogators agreed: they would meet again the following day. The next morning, Luther was summoned to meet Charles’s bishops. He would not, he said, retract his books attacking the abuses of the church.

“If I now recant these,” he explained, “I would be doing nothing but strengthening tyranny.” He was not prepared to bow to the judgment of the pope; he had “no other guide but the Bible, the Word of God”, and could not act contrary to his conscience. “My God help me,” he said firmly. “Amen.”

According to Protestant tradition, Luther ended with the words, “Here I stand, I can do no other,” but this was probably a later invention. What is certain is that a few days later, Luther disappeared, probably going into hiding. This was, it seems, a wise move: on 25 May, Charles V declared him a heretic and demanded his arrest. Though few at the time could have realised it, a great chasm had opened in Christendom. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook


17 April 1790

American founding father Benjamin Franklin died in Philadelphia, aged 84. An estimated 20,000 people attended his burial in Christ Church burial ground.


17 April 1808

Napoleon's Bayonne Decree orders the seizure of all American vessels in European harbours. As a result an estimated ten million dollars' worth of ships and goods are confiscated.


17 April 1923

British film director Lindsay Anderson was born in Bangalore, India. His best-known film was If, a jaundiced look at life in an english public school. The film won the Palme d’Or at the 1969 Cannes film festival.


17 April 1937

Daffy Duck has his screen debut in Porky's Duck Hunt.


17 April 1961: Bay of Pigs fiasco fails to oust Castro

CIA attempt to spark popular revolt in Cuba ends in disaster

It was in the small hours that Gregorio Moreira realised something was happening. High in the darkness above the Cuban coastline, he saw a flare, “like a candle in the sky”. So Moreira, a fisherman, called his brothers, and they grabbed their rifles and scurried down to the beach. Then they waited. At last, at about four in the morning, they saw shapes moving ahead of them. Then they started shooting.

The Bay of Pigs invasion, in which some 1,400 exiles landed on the island of Cuba in an attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro, had been long in the making. The plan had been hatched by the CIA, who were convinced that with just a little nudge, the Cuban people would rise up to overthrow their communist masters. In the spring of 1960, President Eisenhower gave his blessing, and the CIA began training Cuban exiles on the beaches of Guatemala.

Eisenhower’s successor as president, John F Kennedy, was not entirely sure about the plan. But he had promised to wage the Cold War with greater vigour, so it seemed a perfect fit. In February 1961, Kennedy gave the formal go-ahead. And shortly after midnight on Monday 17 April, at Playa Girón on the Bay of Pigs, the operation began.

Unfortunately for the exiles, the whole thing was a disaster from start to finish. Rumours of the invasion had already spread to the island from Miami, and the Cuban militia were quickly on the scene. Within hours the invaders had come under heavy fire, two of their ships had been sunk and the sky was thick with fighter planes. Far from storming inland to a huge popular welcome, the exiles were bogged down on the beaches. As Castro’s troops raced to the scene, where was the promised US support?

Within two days it was all over. The Americans managed to rescue a handful of the exiles by sea, but the rest were killed or captured. Kennedy had been humiliated. And Castro? He stayed in power for the next 47 years. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

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17 April 1969

At just 21, Bernadette Devlin becomes Britain's youngest ever female Member of Parliament. Standing as an independent unity candidate, she secures a 4,000-vote majority over Anna Forrest, widow of the previous Unionist MP, George Forrest.

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