17 July 1453

The last battle of the Hundred Years’ War saw the French, under Jean Bureau, use artillery to defeat the English under John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury at Castillon in Gascony. Talbot was killed in the battle.


17 July 1717: Handel’s Water Music makes its royal premiere

George I throws a Thames party featuring a classical soundtrack

Almost three years after George I had succeeded to the British throne, the Elector of Hanover was not exactly the most popular man in the country. With his thick accent, he still struck most people as irredeemably German. To compound matters, his son seemed determined to eclipse him, pointedly throwing huge parties that left his father looking soul-numbingly boring. What was a king to do?

The answer was a theatrical spectacular that still resonates down the ages. On the evening of 17 July, the monarch boarded an open barge at Whitehall and set off up the Thames towards Chelsea. The first British daily newspaper, the Daily Courant, takes up the story: “Many other Barges with Persons of Quality attended, and so great a Number of Boats, that the whole River in a manner was cover’d; a City Company’s Barge was employ’d for the Musick, wherein were 50 instruments of all sorts, who play’d all the way from Lambeth the finest Symphonies, compos’d express for this Occasion, by Mr Hendel; which his Majesty liked so well, that he caus’d it to be plaid over three times in going and returning”.

‘Mr Hendel’ was, of course, the great George Frideric Handel, who had once worked for George in Hanover. Some said the future king had been offended by Handel’s lucrative move to London, but the Water Music was the perfect way to rebuild their relationship. The banks of the Thames were packed with sightseers; many people declared they had heard nothing like it.

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The king was clearly delighted with Handel’s efforts, and the party went on well into the night. “At Eleven his Majesty went a-shore at Chelsea where a Supper was prepar’d,” said the Courant, “and then there was another very fine Concert of Musick, which lasted till two; after which, his Majesty came again into his Barge, and return’d the same Way, the Musick continuing to play until he landed”. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

17 July 1761

The first section of the Bridgewater canal was opened. Commissioned by Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, it was built to transport coal from Bridgewater’s mines at Worsley to the industrial parts of Manchester, and was the first major canal in England not to follow an existing watercourse. One of its most notable features was the Barton aqueduct – the work of Derbyshire- born engineer James Brindley who had been brought in to advise on the project.

17 July 1862

The United States Militia Act authorised the president to employ “persons of African descent” in military or naval service. The rates of pay established by the act for black soldiers were lower than those enjoyed by their white counterparts.

17 July 1918: Russia’s royals are killed in cold blood

A cellar in Yekaterinburg becomes the scene of a horrific murder

“The atmosphere around us is electric,” Alexandra, the former empress of Russia, wrote to a friend in one of her last letters before her death. “We fear that a storm is coming but we know that God is merciful.” If Alexandra had known what was really coming, even she might have questioned the Almighty’s intentions for her family.

In the city of Yekaterinburg, on the edge of the Urals, July 1918 was punishingly hot. In a former merchant’s house, commandeered by the local Soviet, Russia’s royal family awaited their fate. Since the fall of the monarchy more than a year earlier, Nicholas II, his wife, Alexandra, and their five children – Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia and Alexei – had been stripped of their privileges, placed under heavy guard and shipped east. But with Russia now torn apart by civil war, and Czechoslovakian forces approaching the city, the atmosphere was heavy with tension.

Just after midnight on the 17th, the Bolshevik commander Yakov Yurovsky ordered the royal family out of their beds and into a dingy cellar, supposedly to wait for their transport. Then Yurovsky began reading out a hastily scribbled death sentence: “Nikolai Alexandrovich, in view of the fact that your relatives are continuing their attack on Soviet Russia, the Ural Executive Committee has decided to execute you.”

“What? What?” said the former emperor, and at that, the guards began shooting. Nicholas fell at once. But the scene that followed was complete chaos, a nightmare of smoke and bullets. The couple’s teenage daughters were not killed straight away, so Yurovsky and his men finished them off with bayonets. Some of the children had diamonds sewn into their clothes, which made the task of killing them even messier. It was a horrific business. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

17 July 1920

Kenneth “they think it’s all over” Wolstenholme was born in Worsley, Manchester. A wartime bomber pilot, he won the DFC and Bar but will probably be best remembered for his commentary for the BBC of the 1966 World Cup final.

17 July 1955: Disneyland opens to the world

Chaotic scenes mar the theme park’s first day

On 17 July 1955 in Anaheim, California, Walt Disney welcomed Americans into his very own Garden of Eden. “To all who come to this happy place, welcome,” he proclaimed. “Disneyland is your land. Here age relives fond memories of the past, and here youth may savour the challenge and promise of the future. Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America, with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.”

Disney had been planning a huge Mickey Mouse Park, as it was originally called, since at least 1948. The park cost in the region of $17 million, and public interest was enormous. Although Disney issued just 11,000 tickets on the first day, it’s been estimated that the crowds numbered about 28,000, thousands having bought fake tickets or simply climbed over the fences into the park.

Despite Disney’s rhetoric, that first day was a disaster. California was in the grip of a heatwave, and the temperature hit 38°C (101°F). In the sweltering heat, the surrounding roads were jammed with traffic, and women’s high heels sank into the melting asphalt. Three areas were closed after a gas leak, and some of the rides broke down. Many refreshment stands ran out of food and drink, while a plumbers’ strike meant that there was no water in the drinking fountains. Even the live TV coverage, co-presented by the actor (and future president) Ronald Reagan, was a shambles.


To Disney’s executives, the opening became known as ‘Black Sunday’. But Disneyland never looked back. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

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