21 March: On this day in history
What events happened on 21 March in history? We round up the events, births and deaths…
21 March 1556: Thomas Cranmer meets a fiery end
Mary Tudor has the architect of the English Reformation put to death
The death of Thomas Cranmer was one of the most dramatic in all English history. Under Henry VIII and Edward VI, Cranmer had been the driving force in the English Reformation, pushing through a revolution in the nation’s religious and political life. But under the Catholic Mary I, his fortunes changed. In September 1553, he was arrested and sent to the Tower of London. Tried for treason and heresy, Cranmer was sentenced to death. With Mary determined to make an example of him, not even his increasingly frantic recantations could save him.
Cranmer’s burning was scheduled for 21 March 1556, but Mary agreed that he could make a final recantation in Oxford’s University Church beforehand. Cranmer duly mounted the pulpit, armed with the grovelling sermon he had agreed with his gaolers. But then, suddenly, he veered from the script. His earlier recantations, he said, had been “contrary to the truth which I thought in my heart, and written for fear of death, and to save my life”. The hand that had written such words would soon be punished, “for if I may come to the fire, it shall be first burned. And as for the pope, I refuse him, as Christ’s enemy and Antichrist, with all his false doctrine.”
Dragged to the stake, Cranmer remained remarkably composed. Cranmer had a “cheerful countenance and willing mind”, reported one witness. As promised, he put his hand into the fire first, saying loudly: “This hand hath offended.” And even as the flames consumed his body, his calm and courage made a great impression on the crowds. In death, Protestantism’s champion had won his greatest victory. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook
21 March 1617: Pocahontas is buried, far from home
The young Native American woman is interred on the banks of the Thames
On a March day in 1617, a young woman was buried at a church in Kent, having died tragically young and a long way from home. The dead woman, who was only in her early twenties, was known as Pocahontas (also called Matoaka or Amonute) – and her story has captivated the imaginations of many into the modern age.
In 1614, Pocahontas – daughter of the chief of a Native American people of the Chesapeake Bay region in what’s now Virginia – had married John Rolfe, a wealthy English tobac- co merchant. Two years later, the couple – along with their infant son, Thomas – travelled to England to promote the success of their tobacco plantation. They were received at the court of King James VI & I, where they caused a sensation.
By March 1617, at the end of their London visit, Pocahontas was possibly already gravely unwell, and not keen to travel back to Virginia. As an observer wrote: “She is on her return though sore against her will, if the wind would come about to send them away.”
It was planned that the family would sail from London on the George, belonging to Samuel Argall, deputy governor of Virginia. Before the ship set out on the long ocean voyage, it dropped anchor at Gravesend to gather supplies and fresh water. Here, Pocahontas was taken off the ship, dying or possibly already dead. Her body was laid to rest in the chancel of Saint George’s Church – a superior place of burial usually reserved for clergy or high-standing parishioners.
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The party continued its journey back to Virginia, leaving a small record of Pocahontas’s burial in the parish register, in which she was recorded by her recently adopted Christian name: “March 21 – Rebecca Wrolfe, wyffe of Thomas Rolfe gent. A Virginian lady borne, was buried in ye chancel.”
During her lifetime, Pocahontas had represented hope for a peaceful, collaborative future in North America. Her premature death symbolised the cruel fate that native peoples would meet at the hands of the colonisers. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook
21 March 1729
Death of Scottish financier John Law. He had founded the first central bank in France but was later exiled to Venice following the collapse of his investment schemes.
21 March 1768
The birth in Auxerre, France, of mathematician and physicist Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier. He is best known for his research into heat conduction.
21 March 1811
Birth at Basildon Hall in Essex of Nathaniel Woodard. A Church of England priest, Woodard founded 11 schools for the middle classes in England during his lifetime. He founded Lancing College in 1848 and, following his death in 1891, Woodard was buried in the college's enormous chapel, which is reputedly the largest school chapel in the world. In 1870 Woodard was made canon of Manchester Cathedral in recognition of his work and used much of the generous stipend he received to fund his building projects.
21 March 1960
Police opened fire on unarmed black South African demonstrators in the township of Sharpeville near Johannesburg. As a result of the incident, 69 people were killed and 180 wounded.
21 March 1963
Alcatraz, the high-security federal prison on an island in the Bay of San Francisco, closed after 29 years of operation. | Read more about the battle of Alcatraz, 1946: the most violent escape attempt in the prison’s history