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29 December: On this day in history

What events happened on 29 December in history? Dominic Sandbrook rounds up the events, births and deaths…

Published: December 29, 2021 at 6:06 am
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29 December 1170: Henry II’s knights scatter Thomas Becket’s “brains and blood”

Canterbury attack makes a martyr of the king’s former ally

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Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, was on his way to Vespers when the four knights caught up with him. They had ridden from the court of Becket’s old patron, Henry II, who had become infuriated by his protégé’s defence of the church’s privileges. Once the two men had been friends; Henry supposedly remarked that Becket showed him more affection in a day than his father had done in his entire lifetime. But now Henry’s patience had run out. When they asked Becket to come to meet the king at Westminster, he refused outright.

Moments later, Henry’s knights exacted a terrifying penalty. Whether they really were acting on the king’s orders, we will never know.

According to the monk Edward Grim, who was hiding near the altar, the knights launched their attack near the stairs leading to the cathedral choir. The first blow caught Becket’s head, slicing open his scalp. “Then he received a second blow on the head but still stood firm,” Grim wrote. “At the third blow he fell on his knees and elbows, offering himself a living victim, and saying in a low voice, ‘For the Name of Jesus and the protection of the Church I am ready to embrace death.”’

A fourth blow smashed Becket’s skull, so that, in Grim’s words, “the blood white with the brain, and the brain no less red from the blood, dyed the floor of the cathedral”. Then a clerk, who had accompanied the knights, put his foot on Becket’s neck, and “horrible to relate, scattered the brains and blood about the pavements”. “Let us away, knights,” the clerk said, “this fellow will rise no more.” | Read more about the killing of Thomas Becket

Julian Humphrys rounds up smaller anniversaries

29 December 1788
The Danish archaeologist CJ Thomsen is born in Copenhagen. As curator of the Danish National Museum he will introduce the three-age system of archaeological chronology: stone, bronze and iron ages.
29 December 1809
Future prime minister William Ewart Gladstone was born in Rodney Street, Liverpool. He was the fourth son of the Scottish entrepreneur and politician Sir John Gladstone.
29 December 1812 
The USS Constitution defeated HMS Java off the coast of Brazil during the War of 1812. The Java was so badly damaged that the Constitution’s captain, William Bainbridge, was unable to take her as a prize and ordered her to be set alight.
29 December 1857 
British and French forces occupy Canton during the Second Opium War
29 December 1860
HMS Warrior, the Royal Navy's first iron-hulled armoured warship, was launched at the Thames ironworks, Blackwall, London. The vessel had been ordered, designed and built in response to France's construction of La Gloire. It was the coldest December for 50 years and when it came to the launch, Warrior refused to move – the grease on the slipway had frozen to its hull. Six tugs were needed to haul the ship into the river.
29 December  1911
Chinese revolutionary leader Sun Yat-Sen became the first president of the Republic of China.

29 December 1890: The Sioux are cut down at Wounded Knee

Up to 300 Native Americans are killed in one of the most notorious massacres in US history

By the winter of 1890, the Lakota Sioux had reached a grim nadir. After decades of expansion by white settlers, with their bison herds hunted almost to extinction, most were now confined to reservations in North and South Dakota. Alienated and frightened, many were attracted to the new Ghost Dance movement, which claimed that through an esoteric circle dance, the Native Americans could expel the settlers and recapture their lands.

For the American authorities, the Ghost Dance movement threatened a wider Native American uprising. Mutual suspicion hung in the air when, on 28 December 1890, a party of 7th Cavalry troopers intercepted a group of around 350 Lakota Sioux en route to the Pine Ridge Reservation, and escorted them to Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota.

As dawn broke the next day, the troopers ordered the Sioux to surrender any weapons. With tempers rising, a medicine man, Yellow Bird, began to perform the Ghost Dance. When another Sioux, Black Coyote, who was deaf, refused to give up his rifle, troopers tried to take it by force. Nobody quite knows what happened next: there was a scuffle, a gunshot – and then the firing began.

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Only when the last shots died away was the extent of the slaughter clear. At least 25 troopers had fallen, many to friendly fire. But up to 300 Sioux had been cut down, including women and children. As one US army veteran recalled: “The white hot fury of this mad melee defies my attempts at description.” His comrades, he admitted, “simply went berserk”. The result was one of the most notorious massacres in American history. | Read more about the massacre at Wounded Knee

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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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