25 August 1482

Margaret of Anjou, widow of the deposed King Henry VI, died in Anjou aged 52. Captured by the Yorkists after the battle of Tewkesbury in 1471 she had been ransomed and brought to France by King Louis XI.


25 August 1609

Pisan physicist and astronomer Galileo Galilei demonstrated his first telescope to a highly impressed Venetian senate after constructing it earlier that summer.

25 August 1825

In the Brazilian province of Cisplatina, an elected assembly votes for the secession of what becomes the independent nation of Uruguay.

25 August 1830: An opera inspires revolution – and a new nation

A festival performance in Brussels sparks civil unrest

Daniel Auber’s opera The Mute Girl of Portici is rarely performed these days, but its place in history will never fade. Very few operas can be said to have inspired a revolution and created a country.

On the evening of 25 August 1830, the music-lovers of Brussels gathered at the Royal Theatre of La Monnaie for a performance of Auber’s best-known work. It had been arranged to close a three-day festival celebrating 15 years under William I, King of the United Netherlands. Unfortunately, William was not a popular man.

Although the formerly Austrian Netherlands had been merged with the former Dutch Republic after Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, it was not a happy marriage. The Dutch had a stran- glehold on public life, while Catholics and French-speakers felt shut out. By summer 1830, tension was rising. In the run-up to the festival, activists put up posters in Brussels: “Monday, the 23rd, fireworks; Tuesday, the 24th, illuminations; Wednesday, the 25th, revolution.”

Exactly what happened that night remains murky, but there is no doubt that many opera-goers were prepared for trouble. When the singers struck up the second-act duet ‘The Sacred Love of Country’, the cheering was so loud that they had to start again. And when one character sang the line ‘To arms!’, one paper reported that “the public could no longer be restrained. They acclaimed aria and actor, they booed the fifth act in order to stop the performance, and the delirious crowd [hurled itself] out of the hall – into history.”

Chaos followed. As crowds surged through the streets, nationalists took possession of government buildings. They tore down the Dutch flag and replaced it with a tricolour in black, yellow and red. Although William sent his army to restore order, repression proved an utter failure. Just weeks later, the rebels’ provisional government declared independence. They named their new country Belgium. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

25 August 1841

Mary Hosford, Elizabeth Prall and Caroline Rudd became the first women to be awarded degrees when they graduated from Oberlin College, Ohio.

25 August 1875: Matthew Webb conquers the Channel

After a gruelling journey of more than 21 hours, Webb becomes the first man to swim the English Channel

Today, Captain Matthew Webb is best remembered as the man whose face appeared on millions of Bryant and May matchboxes. To the Victorians, however, he was one of the great celebrities of the age: the first man ever to swim the English Channel.

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A former steamship captain in his late twenties, Webb was obsessed with swimming the Channel, training at Lambeth Baths and in the heavily polluted river Thames. With one unsuccessful attempt 12 days earlier behind him, on 24 August 1875 he made his way to the end of Dover’s Admiralty Pier. There, having been rubbed all over in porpoise oil, he dived in, and with three boats bobbing alongside, began the long breaststroke swim to France.

Although the French coast was only 18 nautical miles away, Webb’s route lasted much longer. The strong current meant he effectively zigzagged across the Channel instead of heading directly across. At first, said one contemporary account, the water was “as smooth as glass”, but by 3am on the morning of the 25th an exhausted Webb had entered a patch of very rough sea. At one point he was even stung by a jellyfish, and had to be thrown a bottle of brandy to revive his spirits.

By this stage he was heading for Sangatte, but more bad weather blew him off course. In the end, he waded – or more plausibly, staggered – ashore on the sands at Calais, having survived a journey of 21 hours and 45 minutes. He was hailed as nothing less than a national hero. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

25 August 1944: The Nazis are driven out of Paris

Allied forces liberate the French capital after four years of German occupation

By the middle of August 1944, the Allied armies were at the gates of Paris. On the 19th, as German tanks roared down the Champs-Élysées, the first clashes broke out between the occupying forces and French Resistance fighters. Five days later, a company of nominally French – but actually mostly Spanish – troops broke through into the city centre, exchanging fire with the German defenders. The last battle for Paris was at hand, and Adolf Hitler’s instructions were clear. If the enemy attacked, the French capital must be destroyed. It “must not fall into the enemy’s hand except lying in complete debris”.

But, despite the dictator’s orders, Paris was not destroyed. Later, the German governor, Dietrich von Choltitz, wrote that he had deliberately disobeyed Hitler’s orders because he knew the führer was insane, though it is more likely he was persuaded by the municipal council chairman Pierre Taittinger, (of champagne fame). In any case, by about 3.30pm on the 25th, von Choltitz had made up his mind. The Germans surrendered: the city was liberated.


Later that day, in a victory address from the Hôtel de Ville, France’s provisional leader Charles de Gaulle told his audience that Paris had been “liberated by itself, liberated by its people with the help of the French armies, with the support and the help of all France”.
It was a good line, but it was not quite true. After all, millions of French men and women had cooperated with the occupiers. And Paris had not really been liberated by the French, but by the Americans – and most embarrassingly of all, the British. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

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