23 November: On this day in history

What events happened on 23 November in history? Dominic Sandbrook rounds up the events, births and deaths…

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23 November 1499: Perkin Warbeck is executed for treason 

The pretender to the throne finally loses his bid for power 

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Perhaps it was not surprising that Perkin Warbeck’s luck ran out eventually. Who knows what was going through his mind on the morning of 23 November 1499, his last day on earth, as the guards came to his cell in the Tower of London? What was he thinking as they tied him to the hurdle that would drag him through the streets to Tyburn? What images, what memories of his childhood in Tournai, danced before his eyes as the hangman fixed the noose around his neck and his body jerked before the jeering spectators? 

Warbeck’s story was, by any standards, one of the most extraordinary in our history. He seems to have been the son of a burgess, born around 1474 near the modern-day border between France and Belgium. By 1491 he was in Cork, Ireland, working for a silk merchant, and it was there that his career as a royal pretender began. At first he seems to have impersonated the Earl of Warwick, but soon he fixed on a much better role: Richard, Duke of York, the younger of the two princes in the Tower who had disappeared, and had probably been murdered, eight years earlier. 

Why Warbeck did it remains a mystery. Some historians suspect that he may have been put up to it by the rulers of France and Burgundy. Warbeck’s bid for power, though, was a bit of a mess. He spent years drifting around the courts of Europe, made two botched attempts to land in England and rouse Yorkist support, and ended up as a prisoner of the Tudor king Henry VII. Only after he had made two attempts to escape, though, did Henry’s patience finally run out, and he was sentenced to death for treason. “This was the end,” wrote Francis Bacon a century later, “of this little cockatrice of a king.”

Julian Humphrys rounds up smaller anniversaries…

23 November 1641

MPs nearly came to blows in the early hours of the morning, after the House of Commons narrowly passed the Grand Remonstrance, a list of grievances about the perceived misdeeds of Charles I‘s reign.

23 November 1658

The state funeral of Oliver Cromwell is held in Westminster Abbey, nearly two months after the Protector’s death. The hugely expensive funeral is based on that of James I, over 30 years earlier. The procession takes seven hours to travel a mile to the abbey. After the Restoration his remains will be exhumed, hanged and decapitated and his head placed on a pole on the roof of Westminster Hall.

23 November 1897

African American inventor John Lee Love receives a patent for his portable pencil sharpener.

23 November 1889

Louis Glass installed a coin-operated phonograph in his Palais Royale Saloon in San Francisco. Although the machine had no amplification and patrons had to listen to the music through a tube, the device was in effect the world’s first jukebox.

23 November 1890

Ten-year-old Wilhelmina I became queen of the Netherlands on the death of her father, William III. As a result the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg separated from the Netherlands because, at the time, the ducal title could not be inherited by a woman.

23 November 1644: Milton fights for free speech 

The writer publishes Areopagitica – a blistering attack on government censorship 

In the autumn of 1644, civil war was raging in England. More than a year earlier, parliament had passed a Licensing Order insisting that all publications must be registered with the government, and giving itself the power to destroy offensive books and imprison their authors. 

But on 23 November, one of parliament’s greatest champions published a blistering attack on the principle of censorship. Not yet the author of Paradise Lost, John Milton was a half-blind private schoolmaster. But the idea of licensing books, he wrote, was “a dishonour and derogation to the author, to the book, to the privilege and dignity of learning”. For “if we think to regulate printing, thereby to rectifie manners”, he wrote sternly, “we must regulate all recreations and pastimes, all that is delightful to man”. 

Milton’s motives were both personal and political. After his teenage wife had deserted him, he had written several tracts arguing for the legalisation of divorce, and he was alarmed that such works would be banned under the new regime. But he was also writing from genuine intellectual conviction. He truly believed in the principle of free speech, and entitled his broadside Areopagitica after a speech by the Greek rhetorician Isocrates. 

Areopagitica has gone down in history as perhaps the greatest defence of free speech ever written. One line is even engraved above the entrance to the main reading room of New York’s Public Library: “A good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, imbalm’d and treasur’d up on purpose to a life beyond life.” 


23 November 1963: The Doctor steps inside the TARDIS for the very first time 

An unpromising BBC schedule-filler takes its first strides towards becoming a British cultural institution 

Settling down before the television in the early evening of 23 November 1963, few people could have imagined they were about to witness the start of a British cultural institution. Indeed, many were still in shock at the news from across the Atlantic, where, a day earlier, John F Kennedy had been shot dead in Dallas, Texas. 

Even as its unearthly title music filled the air, few knew what to expect from Doctor Who. The Radio Times had billed the programme as “an adventure in space and time”, explaining that its heroes might find themselves in “a distant galaxy where civilisation has been devastated by the blast of a neutron bomb or they may find themselves journeying to far Cathay in the caravan of Marco Polo”.

Yet most of the first episode was set in a contemporary London secondary school. Indeed, the programme itself had unpromising origins, having been designed as a schedule-filler to follow Grandstand. 

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Later, the BBC’s audience research report began with the verdict of a “retired naval officer” who described the show as a “cross between Wells’ Time Machine and a space-age Old Curiosity Shop, with a touch of Mack Sennett comedy”. It was, he told the BBC, “in the grand style of the old pre-talkie films to see a dear old police box being hurtled through space and landing on Mars or somewhere. I almost expected to see a batch of Keystone Cops emerge on to the Martian landscape.” 

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