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26 February: On this day in history

What events happened on 26 February in history? Dominic Sandbrook rounds up the events, births and deaths…

Published: February 26, 2022 at 5:05 am
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26 February 1616: Galileo is ordered to abandon his astronomical ideas

The Catholic church lays down the law against the heliocentric model of the solar system

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The Pisan polymath Galileo Galilei had begun observing the night sky through his telescope in 1609, and published his findings in the treatise Sidereus Nuncius (Starry Messenger) – including notes on the moons of Jupiter and phases of Venus – the following year. While monumental in the history of observational astronomy, his work landed him in hot water.

The problem: Galileo’s observations placed the sun at the centre of the solar system and relegated the Earth to a mere orbiting planet, contradicting the geocentric theory of the Alexandrian writer Claudius Ptolemy – the accepted position of the Catholic church. His tract sparked a debate that raged for years. By early 1615, Dominican friar Tommaso Caccini was loudly pressing the Inquisition to crack down on Galileo’s heretical ideas. In one sermon, he suggested that astronomy contravened biblical teachings, quoting a line from the Acts of the Apostles: “Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven?”

Eventually, the Inquisition convened a special commission of theologians, or “qualifiers”. It took just five days to declare Galileo’s notion as “foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture”. Pope Paul V ordered one of the most respected thinkers of the day, Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, to share the verdict with the man himself.

So it was that, on 26 February, Bellarmine summoned Galileo to his house in Rome and ordered him “to abstain completely from teaching or defending this doctrine and opinion or from discussing it”. In Bellarmine’s words, Galileo must “abandon completely… the opinion that the sun stands still at the centre of the world and the Earth moves, and henceforth not to hold, teach or defend it in any way whatever, either orally or in writing”.

Julian Humphrys rounds up smaller anniversaries

26 February 1360
Roger Mortimer, Earl of March, died at Rouvray while campaigning against the French. Mortimer had done much to restore the fortunes of his family, which had slumped after the execution in 1330 of his grandfather, the lover of Queen Isabella, wife of Edward II. In 1344, while still only 15, he had distinguished himself in a major tournament at Hereford and two years later fought alongside Edward III at Crécy. Mortimer was a founding member of the Order of the Garter and his death is said to have greatly distressed the king.
26 February 1361
Birth in Nuremberg of Wenceslaus, uncrowned Holy Roman Emperor until his deposition in 1400 and King of Bohemia during the Czech religious reformer Jan Huss's theological challenges to the Catholic church.
26 February 1461
After being tried for high treason before John Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester (Edward IV's constable of England), John de Vere, 12th Earl of Oxford, was beheaded on Tower Hill. On his death, Oxford's younger son, also named John, inherited the earldom. Despite the efforts of Edward IV to win his support, the 13th Earl remained an implacable enemy of the Yorkist regime and in October 1470, following the return to the throne of Henry VI, he presided over Tiptoft's own trial and condemnation.
26 February 1808
Birth in Marseille of French caricaturist, sculptor and satirist Honoré Daumier. He will be imprisoned for six months in 1832 for producing a cartoon depicting King Louis-Philippe as Gargantua, the gluttonous giant featured in the works of Rabelais.
26 February 1839
The first Grand National to be run at Aintree was won by a horse with the rather appropriate name of Lottery.
26 February 1900
Delegates assembled at the Memorial Hall in Farringdon, London for the first meeting of a TUC-backed conference to establish a new trade union party, to be called the Labour party. 
26 February 1943
Theodor Eicke, SS general and former inspector of concentration camps, was killed when the reconnaissance aircraft in which he was flying was shot down over the Russian front.
26 February 1987
The General Synod of the Church of England voted in favour of the ordination of women priests.

26 February 1815: Napoleon escapes from Elba

The exile makes a daring attempt to regain his throne

Since the island of Elba lies barely six miles from the coast of Tuscany, it was not, perhaps, the ideal place for the victorious allied powers to imprison Napoleon Bonaparte after his defeat in 1814. Few of them, though, could have imagined that it would take him only nine months to escape – or that his return would culminate in such bloodshed.

Since his arrival the previous April, Napoleon had treated the island as his own little kingdom, strutting about like a dictator and even training his own militia. On 26 February 1815, for example, he spent the morning at Mass and then dined with his mother and sister, before dipping into one of his favourite books, a life of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, one of the few monarchs in history whose grandeur seemed to match his own. Deep down, he must have been simmering with excitement, for this was the day he planned to get away and reclaim his throne.

Napoleon’s escape had been arranged for an evening when his friends were reasonably sure that British and French patrol ships would be otherwise engaged. As he rode down that night to the port, where the brig Inconstant was waiting for him, local villagers lined the streets, cheering and tossing their hats. With him came 600 Old Guard grenadiers, as well as a motley collection of associates – the former generals Bertrand, Drouot and Cambronne, but also a doctor, a pharmacist and a mining inspector.

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As the brig carried him towards the French coast, Napoleon strolled confidently on deck, chatting with the soldiers and sailors. “Lying down, sitting, standing and strolling around him, familiarly, they asked him unceasing questions,” wrote one of his lancers, “to which he answered unreservedly and without one sign of anger or impatience.”

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Authors

Dominic SandbrookHistorian and presenter

Dominic Sandbrook is historian and presenter, and a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine

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