30 October 1501: Cesare Borgia hosts a night to remember

Italy’s most powerful family gathers at the Vatican for an evening of ‘adult entertainment’


On Sunday 30 October 1501, Cesare Borgia had some friends around for dinner; the guests included his father – Pope Alexander VI – and sister, Lucrezia. Formerly a cardinal, now commander of the papal armies, Cesare had a reputation for high living. But, even by the Borgias’ colourful standards, the bacchanal that became known as the ‘Ballet of Chestnuts’ would be a party like no other.

According to the diary of the papal official Johann Burchard (who may, in fairness, have somewhat exaggerated events), the banquet was held in Cesare’s apartments in the Vatican. On their arrival, the guests were greeted by 50 of Rome’s most accomplished prostitutes who danced during dinner – initially clothed but subsequently naked.

Then, according to Burchard, “the candelabra... were taken from the tables and placed on the floor, and chestnuts were strewn around, which the naked courtesans picked up, creeping on hands and knees between the chandeliers, while the pope, Cesare, and his sister Lucrezia looked on.” If this were not excitement enough, Cesare then announced that there would be prizes for those men who could “perform the act most often with the courtesans, such as tunics of silk, shoes, barrets and other things”.

Whether this story is really true, of course, will never be known for sure. Because of their Valencian origins the Borgias were often regarded as boorish, grasping upstarts, and the story may have been circulated by their enemies.

More like this

The historian William Manchester later embellished the tale still further, suggesting that the pope, who supposedly “measured a man’s machismo by his ejaculative capacity”, ordered his servants to keep a running orgasm count – but this, surely, is too good to be true. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

30 October 1751

Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan was born in Dublin. The author of plays including The Rivals and The School for Scandal, he also served as a Whig MP for over 30 years and was treasurer of the navy from 1806–07.

30 October 1757

Death of Admiral Edward "Grog" Vernon, the man who ordered the watering down of the Navy's rum ration.

30 October 1864

After a series of devastating defeats, Denmark signs the Treaty of Vienna, ceding the duchies of Schleswig, Holstein and Lauenburg to Prussia and Austria.

30 October 1910

Henry Dunant died in Heiden, Switzerland, aged 82. In 1859, while visiting Lombardy on business, he witnessed the suffering of those wounded in the battle of Solferino and his book A Memoir of Solferino inspired the creation in 1863 of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which he played a leading role in organising. He was also a driving force behind the establishment of the Geneva Convention, and in 1901 became the first recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, which he shared with French peace campaigner Frederic Passy.

30 October 1938

An Orson Welles radio adaptation of HG Wells's War of the Worlds causes some American listeners to believe their country is actually under Martian attack.

30 October 1942

Tony Fasson, Colin Grazier and Tommy Brown from HMS Petard retrieved an Enigma coding machine from a sinking U-boat off Port Said. Fasson and Grazier continued searching the submarine but were drowned when it suddenly sank.

30 October 1959

Ronnie Scott's jazz club first opened its doors at 39 Gerrard Street, London. It soon became the most important jazz venue in the capital and in 1965 moved to larger premises in Frith Street.

30 October 1965: The mini dress makes waves at the races

Swinging Sixties model Jean Shrimpton causes a stir by baring her knees

Derby Day, and Melbourne was agog. The Victoria Racing Club had started a ‘Fashions on the Field’ event to attract younger visitors, and in 1965, they had pulled off a coup. At a cost of £2,000, textile firm DuPont persuaded Jean Shrimpton to fly from London to judge the fashion show.

To many in 1965, the 22-year-old Shrimpton was not just the world’s most celebrated model. She was a symbol of modernity itself, the embodiment of Swinging London. No wonder the Australian press were excited.

Shrimpton and her dressmaker, Colin Rolfe, designed a white shift dress using DuPont’s new acrylic fabric, Orlon. But they did not have enough so Rolfe had to cut it short, about four inches above the knee. Also, the day of her appearance was hot. Shrimpton chose not to wear stockings, a hat or gloves.

She never imagined the fuss to come. When Shrimpton walked into the members' lounge, there was a long, appalled silence. “There she was, the world’s highest-paid model, snubbing the iron-clad conventions at fashionable Flemington in a dress five inches above the knee, NO hat, NO gloves, and NO stockings!” gasped the Melbourne Sun News-Pictorial.

Later, this was seen as the moment the mini-skirt was born, even though Shrimpton was actually wearing a dress. But to the British press, the furore merely proved that Australia was decades behind the times. “Surrounded by sober draped silks and floral nylons, ghastly tulle hats and fur stoles,” the Evening News said witheringly, Shrimpton looked “like a petunia in an onion patch”. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

30 October 1974: Ali delivers a knockout blow

One billion viewers are gripped as the boxer fells Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle

There will never be another event like the Rumble in the Jungle. Held in Kinshasa, Zaire – now the Democratic Republic of Congo – it saw the undefeated heavyweight boxing champion, George Foreman, challenged by the former champion, Muhammad Ali. But the sporting clash was only part of the story.

Formerly the Belgian Congo, Zaire had only been independent since 1960. Its military strongman, General Mobutu, had seized power with strong American support, and was keen to present himself as Africa’s leading actor on the world stage. This was a chance to cement his regime’s image and stability, and Mobutu struck a deal with the controversial promoter Don King. The purse was set at a record-breaking $5m for each fighter.

What followed was a circus of mind-boggling proportions. The fight was preceded by a three-day music festival starring James Brown and BB King. Both Foreman and Ali spent weeks training in Zaire, acclimatising to the intense heat. But they encountered very different reactions. The 25-year-old Foreman never seemed comfortable, even though he was a prohibitive favourite. In contrast, the 32-year old Ali, who had refused to fight for his country in Vietnam, was regarded as a local champion. “Ali, boma ye!” crowds chanted: “Ali, kill him!”

Due to the demands of US television, the fight itself did not begin until four o’clock in the morning. The fighters entered to a tumultuous reception. As they climbed into the ring, an estimated 1 billion people were watching worldwide.


For eight rounds, Foreman hurled punch after punch at Ali, who kept to the ropes, allowing his opponent to exhaust himself. Then Ali struck, opening up with a devastating combination. After Foreman had been down for eight seconds, the referee called a halt. “Ali leaped in triumph,” said the next day’s Times, “and then fell, pushed by a mob invading the ring before he sat on his haunches while pandemonium raged above him.” | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

Browse more On this day in history