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20 March: On this day in history

What events happened on 20 March in history? We round up the events, births and deaths…

Published: March 20, 2022 at 6:05 am
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20 March 1413

After collapsing in Westminster Abbey, King Henry IV of England died in the Jerusalem Chamber of the Abbot’s House nearby.

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20 March 1470

In what has been described as the last private battle on English soil, the retainers of Thomas Talbot, Viscount Lisle, and William, Lord Berkeley, clashed at Nibley Green in Gloucestershire. Berkeley was victorious and Lisle was slain.


20 March 1549

Thomas Seymour is beheaded for treason on Tower Hill. The brother of Jane Seymour, he had married Catharine Parr, the widow of Henry VIII.


20 March 1648

Charles I's attempt to escape from captivity in Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight is thwarted when he is unable to squeeze through the bars of his window.


20 March 1811

Napoleon II, the son of Napoleon Bonaparte and his second wife, Marie Louise of Austria, was born in the Tuileries Palace in Paris. He was given the title of the King of Rome.


20 March 1852: Uncle Tom’s Cabin takes the literary world by storm

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s indictment of American slavery is proclaimed “the story of the age”

The impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is almost impossible to exaggerate. Written by Harriet Beecher Stowe in the mid-19th century, this passionately sentimental indictment of American slavery is often credited with changing millions of people’s minds, not just in the United States but around the world. It sold an estimated 300,000 copies within 12 months in Stowe’s native land; in Britain, even more strikingly, it sold a million.

Yet the book’s origins could hardly have been more obscure. Harriet Beecher Stowe, a Connecticut-born teacher and passionate abolitionist, was very far from being a household name when, in 1851, she began sending what she called “sketches” to an anti-slavery newspaper. Later that summer, a Boston religious publisher, John P Jewett, approached her for the book rights to what had become a long-running serial, which Stowe signed over in return for a royalty of 10 per cent.

The final version, entitled Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly, first appeared in bookshops on 20 March 1852. It was “the story of the age”, proclaimed one advert. “For power of description and thrilling delineation of character, it is unrivalled.”

And the public clearly agreed. Some 3,000 copies changed hands on the first day alone, and the first two print-runs disappeared within a fortnight. As Jewett himself remarked: “Three paper mills are constantly at work, manufacturing the paper, and three power presses are working 24 hours per day, in printing it, and more than 100 book-binders are incessantly plying their trade to bind them, and still it has been impossible, as yet, to supply the demand.” Never had there been a phenomenon to match it. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook


20 March 1917

Dame Vera Lynn is born Vera Margaret Welch in East Ham.


20 March 1966: A thief steals into church and pinches the World Cup

The Jules Rimet trophy vanishes from a Methodist hall just weeks before England hosts football’s greatest tournament

An ordinary Sunday morning, March 1966. Through the doors of Westminster’s Methodist Central Hall came hundreds of worshippers, looking forward to an hour’s prayer and hymn singing. In a side room, a little gold statue glittered in the morning light: the Jules Rimet trophy, better known as the World Cup. With England due to host the tournament that summer, the cup had been put on show only two days earlier, together with an exhibition of rare stamps. But as the Methodists were filing out after the service, somebody noticed that the World Cup was gone.

“Nothing went wrong,” Cecil Richardson, the chairman of the exhibition, insisted afterwards. “It was just stolen.” But how, when the building was full of worshippers and security guards? It must have happened during “an aversion of human eyes”, Mr Richardson said opaquely. The police, however, immediately identified a suspect: a man seen lurking in the hall beforehand, “of slim build and sallow complexion, with dark, possibly black hair, greased, wearing a dark suit”. Some witnesses even claimed he had a scar, though that may have been wishful thinking.

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For the next few days, Britain was agog. As the secretary of the Football Association admitted, the theft had cast “quite a cloud” over the forthcoming tournament. But then, on 27 March, the cup was found. Out walking with his owner in South Norwood, a dog called Pickles disappeared beneath a hedge, and reappeared with something wrapped in newspaper – the Jules Rimet trophy. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

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