26 December 1792: A brilliant defence fails to save Louis XVI from the guillotine

Leading lawyer’s command performance falls on deaf ears


It was half past nine in the morning when Louis XVI’s military escort clattered across the cobblestones of Paris, taking him to his trial at the National Assembly. With revolutionary France under attack and passions running high on the capital’s streets, few people doubted the trial’s eventual verdict.

But Louis was determined to have the best possible defence, and had engaged Raymond de Sèze, reputedly one of the finest lawyers in the country.

For two weeks de Sèze had worked almost without a break. Now, as he rose to address the National Assembly, he looked exhausted: in fact, he had not slept for four days. Still, even Louis’ fiercest critics admitted that his lawyer gave a command performance.

One by one de Sèze went through the prosecution’s charges, ruthlessly dissecting their distortions and evasions.

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Then came a memorable peroration, praising the former king as the “constant friend of the people”. “Citizens,” he concluded, “I cannot finish... I stop myself before history. Think how it will judge your judgment, and that the judgment of him will be judged by the centuries.”

Then it was Louis’ turn. Pale and quiet, he was determined to avoid the example of England’s Charles I, whose defiance in 1649 had done him no favours. “You have heard my defence,

I would not repeat the details,” he said softly. “In talking to you perhaps for the last time, I declare that my conscience reproaches me with nothing, and that my defenders have told you the truth.”

Afterwards, on the journey back, the king seemed more anxious for the shattered de Sèze than for himself. A month later, Louis went to the guillotine. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

26 December 1811

Seventy two lives were lost when Virginia's Richmond Theatre was destroyed by fire during the performance of a pantomime. The victims included George Smith, the governor of Virginia.

26 December 1825: The Decembrists are slaughtered

Nicholas I orders his artillery to open fire on a crowd of rebels

In St Petersburg, the morning of 26 December 1825 (14 December in the Old Style calendar) dawned dark and cold. Sunrise did not come until nine o’clock, and the mood was heavy with tension.

For weeks Russia had been locked in a constitutional crisis. On 1 December, Tsar Alexander I had died without an heir. The throne should have passed to his brother Constantine, viceroy of Poland, but he had renounced his right to the crown in 1820 when he married a woman with no royal blood. Constantine insisted, therefore, that his younger brother, Nicholas, should become tsar. Unfortunately, Nicholas was at first very ambivalent about taking the throne and originally swore an oath to Constantine as the new tsar.

As if all that were not convoluted enough, a group of aristocratic liberals and officers had united to form the Northern Society. Passionately dedicated to the idea of reform, they were deeply opposed to the accession of the conservative Nicholas. But by the evening of 25 December, Constantine had again rejected the crown, and Nicholas was poised to take power.

The next morning dawned with St Petersburg in chaos. While Nicholas and his supporters were scrambling to secure the generals’ loyalty, some 3,000 soldiers assembled in the capital’s Senate Square, chanting support for Constantine and demanding a constitution. Word soon spread, and a vast civilian crowd began to assemble, apparently sympathetic to the rebels. Visibly pale with nerves, Nicholas sent the capital’s military governor to calm the soldiers, but a rebel shot him. The tsar then ordered a cavalry charge, but the horses slipped on the frozen cobbles.

In the end, Nicholas lost patience and ordered his artillery to fire on the crowd, and scores of people were killed. Nicholas’s throne was safe. But in the Russian liberal imagination, the martyrdom of the Decembrists was remembered as the most heinous crime of the age. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

26 December 1883

The 18-year-old Marie-Clementine (later Suzanne) Valadon, an unmarried artist's model, gives birth to a baby son in Montmartre. He will grow up to be painter Maurice Utrillo. His mother will become a protégée of Degas and a successful artist herself.

26 December 1887

Birth in Hertfordshire of Arthur Percival, who surrendered Singapore to the Japanese in 1942.

26 December 1909

Death in Connecticut of Frederic Remington, the New York-born painter and sculptor who specialised in depictions of the Old American West.

26 December 1910

The newly-built London Palladium opened with a variety show and a one-act play called The Conspiracy. It was designed by renowned theatre architect Frank Matcham and the building had cost £250,000 to complete.

26 December 1941: Churchill gives a knock-out speech at the US senate

His wartime rallying cry hails the ‘special relationship’

On Christmas Day 1941, Lord Halifax, the British ambassador to Washington, visited the White House to find an extraordinary visitor enjoying the festive season. This was Winston Churchill, in the middle of a three-week stay as President Franklin D Roosevelt’s guest. Characteristically, Churchill had made himself at home: Halifax found him in his dressing gown, working on a big speech and “surrounded by cigars, whiskies and secretaries”.

At noon the next day, Churchill arrived at the Capitol to deliver his speech. Only twice before had there been joint meetings of both houses of Congress: this was a signal honour. With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor occurring barely three weeks before, security was tight. But the cameras had been invited in to mark the occasion; their lights made the usually dim Senate chamber as bright as a Hollywood set.

Churchill began with a joke, remarking: “If my father had been an American and my mother British, instead of the other way around, I might have got here on my own. In that case, this would not have been the first time you would have heard my voice.” The audience laughed, then stood to applaud.

Despite the darkness of the hour, his speech blazed with optimism. “Now that we are together,” Churchill insisted, “now that we are linked in a righteous comradeship of arms… a steady light will glow and brighten.” There would be grim times ahead. But “in the days to come the British and American peoples will, for their own safety and for the good of all, walk together in majesty, in justice and in peace”. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

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