29 October: On this day in history

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

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29 October 1618: Sir Walter Ralegh meets a grisly end

The Elizabethan explorer’s luck finally runs out

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After an extraordinary career of intrigue and exploration, including a 13-year stretch in the Tower of London after being found guilty of plotting against James VI and I, Sir Walter Ralegh’s luck had finally run out.

An expedition to Venezuela to find the fabled El Dorado had gone horribly wrong and, contrary to their instructions, some of Ralegh’s men had attacked a local Spanish outpost. The Spanish ambassador, who hated Ralegh already, demanded blood. And this time the king was not in a forgiving mood.

As Ralegh was led into Westminster’s Old Palace Yard on 29 October, onlookers marvelled at his insouciant self-control. But the great adventurer was in no mood to hang about. “Let us dispatch,” he remarked to the executioner. “At this hour my ague comes upon me. I would not have my enemies think I quaked from fear.”

The headsman showed him the axe that was to kill him. “This is a sharp medicine,” Ralegh said calmly, “but it is a sure remedy for all diseases.” He took his place on the block, but refused a blindfold. “Think you,” he asked, “that I fear the shadow of the axe when I fear not the substance?”

The crowd held its breath; the executioner raised the axe. “Strike, man, strike!” Ralegh said. “What dost thou fear?” The blow fell; Ralegh was no more. His embalmed head was later sent to his wife, Elizabeth. She reportedly kept it in a velvet bag for the rest of her days. | Read more about the execution of Sir Walter Ralegh


29 October 1787: Mozart’s Don Giovanni earns a joyous and jubilant reception

The great composer’s new opera sends Prague into raptures

As Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart entered his thirties, he would have been forgiven for feeling miserable. His father had died, his early successes were beginning to fade and the days of wine and roses were now a distant memory. Even Vienna, the imperial city, had lost some of its gaiety. With the Austrian army bogged down in a gruelling struggle against the Turks, food prices had risen, concerts had been cancelled and two opera companies had closed. No wonder Mozart was increasingly reliant on loans from friends.

October 1787 found Mozart working on a new production for Prague’s Italian opera house. His previous opera, The Marriage of Figaro, had opened in Prague a year earlier to tumultuous applause. “My Praguers understand me,” the composer remarked. Now he sat down with the same librettist, the Italian poet Lorenzo Da Ponte, to write a dramma giocoso (‘jocular drama’) about the seducer Don Juan. It was due to open on 29 October. True to form, Mozart finished the score the day before.

Don Giovanni was an immediate hit. “Prague has never heard the like,” gushed one critic, while a Viennese journal reported that Mozart “conducted it personally and was welcomed joyously and jubilantly by the large audience”.

It has been regarded ever since as one of his finest productions. For the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, it was a “work without blemish, of uninterrupted perfection”. The novelist Gustave Flaubert went even further. Don Giovanni, he said, was one of the “three finest things God ever made”, along with Hamlet and the sea.

Julian Humphrys rounds up smaller anniversaries…

29 October 1449

Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, tamely surrendered Rouen and other fortresses to the French. Despite this he retained the confidence of Henry VI and was appointed captain of Calais in 1451.

29 October 1562

Churchman George Abbot was born in Guildford, Surrey. Abbot was appointed archbishop of Canterbury in 1611. In 1621 his authority was undermined when he accidentally killed a gamekeeper while hunting.

29 October 1740

Birth in Edinburgh of James Boswell, lawyer, diarist and author of The Life of Johnson, one of the world’s most famous biographies.

29 October 1831

Riots broke out in Bristol following the rejection by the House of Lords of the Second Reform Bill. After three days of disorder and destruction the rioters were bloodily dispersed by the military. The government admitted to 100 civilian casualties inflicted by the troops over the three days, but the true figure may have been much higher. Thomas Brereton, the local military commander, was later court-martialed for what the authorities claimed was excessive leniency during the early stages of the rioting but he shot himself in the head halfway through his trial.

29 October 1863: The Red Cross is founded

A new organisation aims to help wounded soldiers

Henry Dunant was a man on a mission. The Swiss businessman had come to northern Italy in the summer of 1859 keen to buttonhole the French emperor Napoleon III about water rights for his company in north Africa. When he arrived, though, Dunant found himself a witness to the carnage of the battle of Solferino – a bloody clash that pitted France and Sardinia against their mutual enemy Austria. Almost 30,000 men were killed or wounded, and the horror stayed with Dunant forever.

For the next four years he travelled around Europe, describing what he’d seen and arguing that wounded soldiers deserved better care. The ideal thing, Dunant said, would be some kind of neutral organisation looking after soldiers on all sides, and recognised by all European combatants. The Geneva Society for Public Welfare took a keen interest, and by the summer of 1863 the idea had picked up considerable momentum.

So it was that on 26 October 1863, delegates from the UK, Austria, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Prussia, Russia, Spain and Sweden, as well as some smaller states and other interested organisations, joined Dunant and his colleagues in Geneva to discuss the plan. Three days later they agreed a set of resolutions, calling for international relief efforts for wounded soldiers, the creation of volunteer units to look after casualties on the battlefield, and a series of conferences to enshrine new rules in international law.

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They also agreed that medical personnel should wear as their emblem an inverse of the flag of Switzerland – a white armband with a bold red cross. Thus the new organisation gained its name: the Red Cross.

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