17 November: On this day in history

What events happened on 17 November in history? Dominic Sandbrook rounds up the events, births and deaths…

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17 November 1558: Elizabeth I hears of Mary I’s death

The princess learns of her half-sister’s demise, and her own ascent to the English throne

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For the daughters of Henry VIII, 17 November 1558 was a day of tragedy and apotheosis. For months, Mary I, England’s first undisputed reigning queen, had been ailing. After a controversial five-year reign, she was suffering from ‘dropsy’ (possibly uterine cancer). Reporting to her husband, Philip II of Spain, one observer warned that there was “no hope of her life”. Early on the 17th, in bed at St James’s Palace, Mary was given her last communion. Moments later, she lost consciousness. By midday she was dead.

Legend has it that Mary’s half-sister, Elizabeth, was reading beneath a tree at Hatfield House, in Hertfordshire, when the council arrived with the news. Just 25 years old, she had recently spent months under house arrest. Now she was queen. According to one account, she fell to her knees. “This is the Lord’s doing: it is marvellous in our eyes,” she reportedly said.

Another version of the story has Elizabeth delivering a remarkably polished speech to the visiting delegation. “My lords, the law of nature moves me to sorrow for my sister; the burden that is fallen upon me makes me amazed, and yet, considering I am God’s creature, ordained to obey his appointment, I will thereto yield,” she began. Cleverly, she flattered her visitors, begging them “to be assistant to me, that I with my ruling and you with your service may make a good account to Almighty God and leave some comfort to our posterity on earth.” With these words, Elizabeth I had started as she meant to go on – as a consummate politician.

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Julian Humphrys rounds up smaller anniversaries…

17 November 1511

Henry VIII and his father-in-law, Ferdinand of Aragon, concluded the Treaty of Westminster, pledging mutual aid against Louis XII of France.

17 November 1869

The Suez Canal in Egypt was first opened to shipping. It had taken ten years to complete and had cost the lives of thousands of forced labourers. The canal connected the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea.

17 November 1937

British foreign secretary Lord Halifax visits Germany at the invitation of Hermann Göring.

17 November 1970

The beginning of the court martial of Lieutenant William Calley for his part in the My Lai Massacre of March 1968, when as many as 500 Vietnamese civilians were murdered by US troops. Calley was later found guilty on four charges and sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labour. However, within three days he was released, pending appeal, and spent three years under house arrest. In 1974 his sentence was cut to ten years and he was paroled later that year.

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