23 May 1162

The election of Henry II's favourite Thomas Becket as archbishop of Canterbury was confirmed by a royal council of bishops and noblemen.


23 May 1430

Joan of Arc was captured outside Compiègne by the Burgundians, who later sold her to the English for 10,000 francs.

23 May 1609

The Virginia Company of London is granted a new charter by King James VI and I, expanding the territory under its jurisdiction in the New World.

23 May 1617

Elias Ashmole, English antiquary and founder of Oxford's Ashmolean Museum, is born in Lichfield, Staffordshire.

23 May 1618: Defenestration of Prague triggers Thirty Years’ War

An act of violence sends shock waves through Europe

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Wars often start strangely, and the Thirty Years’ War – which ravaged Bohemia, killed perhaps a fifth of the adult population in Germany and saw swathes of central Europe devastated by famine, disease and murder – was no exception. It began, in fact, with three men being thrown out of a window.

The deeper causes of the war were fiendishly complex, but what happened on 23 May 1618 was reasonably simple. Under the rules governing the Holy Roman Empire, individual princes could determine the religion of their own subjects. But in Bohemia the imperial authorities, which were Catholic, had begun cracking down on Protestant churches. So the Protestant nobles called an assembly at Prague Castle, and demanded that the emperor’s four Catholic regents answer for their actions.

The four regents duly turned up, and after a bit of back-and-forth, the Bohemian Protestants decided to let two of them go. Then the Protestant spokesman, Count von Thurn, turned to the remaining pair. “You are enemies of us and of our religion, have desired to deprive us of our Letter of Majesty, have horribly plagued your Protestant subjects… and have tried to force them to adopt your religion against their wills,” he said. To keep them alive, he added, would be a disaster; they must die.

A few moments later, the bodies of first one regent, then the other, flew through the tower’s third-floor window, followed by their secretary. But though all three were badly hurt, they survived the 70-foot fall. Catholic propaganda claimed that angels had saved them; Protestant pamphlets countered they had landed in a dung-heap.

Either way, the Defenestration of Prague was a disaster for millions of people who barely even knew about it. Within days, both sides were gathering troops for war; within months, all Bohemia was ablaze. Much of Europe would follow. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook


23 May 1701

Scottish privateer Captain William Kidd was hanged for piracy and murder at Execution Dock, Wapping. The rope broke during the execution and Kidd was hanged at the second attempt.

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