21 November: On this day in history

What events happened on 21 November in history? Dominic Sandbrook rounds up the events, births and deaths…

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21 November 164 BC: Judas Maccabeus recaptures Jerusalem for the Jews

The guerrilla fighter ends a brutal three-year occupation by ousting King Antiochus’s marauding forces

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In the year 167 BC, war broke out in the Seleucid province of Judaea. After years of Jewish infighting, the Seleucid ruler, King Antiochus IV, decided to step in.

“Raging like a wild animal,” recorded the second book of Maccabees, Antiochus “took Jerusalem by storm. He ordered his soldiers to cut down without mercy those whom they met and to slay those who took refuge in their houses. There was a massacre of young and old, a killing of women and children, a slaughter of virgins and infants. In the space of three days, 80,000 were lost, 40,000 meeting a violent death, and the same number being sold into slavery.”

Far from calming the situation, though, Antiochus inflamed it. When he banned traditional Jewish religious rituals and ordered that pigs be sacrificed in Jerusalem’s temple, the province erupted in open rebellion. By 165 the Jewish guerrilla leader Judas Maccabeus had Antiochus’s forces on the run, and a year later, in November 164, Judas led his men into Jerusalem.

What Judas did next has gone down in Jewish legend. According to the first book of Maccabees, he appointed priests who “cleansed the sanctuary, and bore out the defiled stones into an unclean place”. They tore down Antiochus’s altar and built a new one, lit candles and burned incense. The temple was restored, and for eight days the people of Jerusalem celebrated. Since then, for eight days every year, the Jewish people have burned candles to mark Hanukkah, the festival of light.

Julian Humphrys rounds up smaller anniversaries…

21 November 1579

English merchant and financier Sir Thomas Gresham died at Gresham House in Bishopsgate, London. He had done much to clear royal debts abroad during the reigns of Edward VI and Mary and in 1566 had founded the Royal Exchange

21 November 1783

François Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes make the world’s first manned untethered balloon flight, a 25-minute journey over Paris. Two years later de Rozier will die in an attempt to cross the Channel by balloon.

21 November 1787

Shipping magnate Samuel Cunard is born in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

21 November 1911

Armed with hammers and stones, militant Suffragettes broke the windows of government offices and businesses in the West End of London. Two hundred and twenty women and three men were arrested.

21 November 1920: Carnage unfolds on Bloody Sunday

Tensions in Dublin spill over into violent mayhem

For the people of Dublin, Sunday 21 November 1920 began in blood and got worse. For almost two years, Ireland had been ripped apart by violence between pro-independence republicans and the British authorities. By November, some 300 people had already been killed. But both sides had gone too far to turn back now.

Early on Sunday morning, Irish Republican Army assassination squads fanned out across the capital. On the orders of their intelligence chief, Michael Collins, they had identified 20 suspected British agents and informers. Within hours, 14 of them were dead, shot in cold blood. Later, Collins said he had no more pity for them than he would for a “dangerous reptile. By their destruction the very air is made sweeter.”

As the news spread across Dublin, the tension rose. That afternoon, despite the increasingly anxious atmosphere, thousands of spectators poured into Croke Park for the Gaelic football match between Dublin and Tipperary. Unfortunately, the British had identified the match as a potential flashpoint, and as the clock ticked towards half past three, the stadium was surrounded by policemen, auxiliaries and ‘Black and Tans’ – British recruits drafted into the local police force, most of whom were unemployed war veterans.

What followed was carnage. Almost as soon as the first Black and Tans reached the stadium, they began shooting. According to one republican paper, “the spectators were startled by a volley of shots fired from inside the turnstile entrances. Armed and uniformed men were seen entering the field, and immediately after the firing broke out, scenes of the wildest confusion took place. The spectators made a rush for the far side of Croke Park and shots were fired over their heads and into the crowd.”

The gunfire lasted for just two minutes; but that was all it took. Fourteen civilians were killed or mortally wounded, including a young woman about to get married and two boys, aged 10 and 11. Ever since, Bloody Sunday has been a near-sacred day in Irish history.


21 November 1974: Birmingham reels from bombings

Blasts rip through two local pubs, leaving 21 dead

Thursday night in Birmingham in late 1974: it was payday and the pubs were heaving. The Tavern in the Town, not far from New Street station, was packed, the air thick with conversation and cigarette smoke. Just after 8.15pm, a few drinkers heard a muffled thump. Though none of them knew it, a bomb had gone off in another busy pub a few moments’ walk away, the Mulberry Bush.

Ten minutes later, there was a gigantic bang – and the roof fell in on the Tavern in the Town. Outside, the survivors told tales of unimaginable horror. One bystander said he had seen “bodies and blood everywhere”. Another witness said: “There were women and young girls screaming, blood pouring everywhere. I saw one man who seemed to have half his body blown off. It was horrible.”

In total, 21 people were killed that evening in November 1974. Although the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) have never officially admitted responsibility for the attack, at an inquest in 2019 a former IRA intelligence head testified that the group had carried out the bombing, and a British jury subsequently found that the victims were unlawfully killed by the IRA.

On the night of the attack, the Birmingham Post had received a phone call containing a vague warning, but too late for the pubs to be cleared in time.

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Under intense public pressure, the police arrested six men originally from Northern Ireland who had lived in Birmingham since the 1960s, and beat confessions out of some of them. Sentenced to life imprisonment, the men were only released in 1991, and the true killers have never been charged. And so, the bombings became synonymous with a gross miscarriage of justice, rather than the loss and suffering inflicted by republican violence.

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