4 May 1471

Yorkist king Edward IV decisively defeated a Lancastrian army under the Duke of Somerset at Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire. Edward, the 17-year-old son and heir of the deposed king Henry VI, was killed in the aftermath of the battle. Somerset and a number of other leading Lancastrians fled to Tewkesbury Abbey where they tried to claim sanctuary. They were dragged out by the victorious Yorkists, tried and executed. Edward was to rule without further challenge until his death in 1483. Henry was quietly put to death in the Tower of London. | Read more about the Wars of the Roses


4 May 1780

The inaugural running of the Epsom Derby took place. The 12th Earl of Derby had tossed a coin with Sir Charles Bunbury to decide who the race should be named after. Bunbury had the consolation of seeing his colt, Diomed, finish first.

4 May 1827

Birth in Bideford, Devon of John Hanning Speke, first to record the source of the Nile.

4 May 1839

The Canadian businessman Samuel Cunard is awarded a British government contract to carry mail between Liverpool, Halifax and Boston. The first of his steamships, the Britannia, will sail from Liverpool to Boston on 4 July 1840.

4 May 1912

American geneticist Nettie Maria Stevens died, aged 50. She and fellow scientist Edmund Wilson had been the first people to develop the idea of chromosomal determination of sex.

4 May 1926: The General Strike fails to paralyse Britain

Industrial action falls short of class war

To many people, the first full day of the General Strike on 4 May 1926 represented a turning point in history. After years of mounting tension between employers and unions, particularly in the coal industry, the Trades Union Congress finally ordered its members out. On that first morning, docks, factories and rail yards across the country stood empty and silent. Conservative newspapers warned that this would mark the beginning of a Bolshevik revolution. In Blackburn, one man later remembered, his family “sat in silence in the kitchen, holding their breath, waiting for the revolution to begin”.

Across the country, a strange sense of unreality took hold. With public transport having ground to a halt, the roads were packed.

“The mill chimneys ceased to smoke and the wheels ceased to turn,” one woman in Manchester wrote afterwards. “The pavement and even the roads were crowded with pedestrians and the drivers of private cars offered lifts with surprising generosity.”

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Reports of fighting came from the docks, while the government deployed troops to escort food convoys. Yet the widely predicted class warfare failed to materialise, and the General Strike never evolved into a revolutionary uprising. Indeed, compared with turbulence overseas, it turned into a bit of a non-event.

By the time it fizzled out nine days later, King George V – who had upbraided his Conservative ministers for their attitude to the strikers (“Try living on their wages before you judge them”) – considered it a tribute to British unity. “Our dear old country can be well proud of itself,” he wrote in his diary. “It shows what a wonderful people we are.” | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

4 May 1938

The 78-year-old Douglas Hyde, a distinguished Gaelic scholar, is elected the first president of Ireland. Despite suffering a severe stroke in 1940 that leaves him wheelchair-bound, he serves out his term of office and retires in 1945.

4 May 1942: Pacific War pivots in epic sea battle

Japanese advance checked in battle of the Coral Sea

The first great aircraft carrier clash in history, the battle of the Coral Sea was a turning point in the Pacific War. After months of unbroken advances, Japan had struck south, towards the Coral Sea between Australia and New Guinea.

If the Japanese could take Port Moresby on the coast of New Guinea, they would cut off Australia and New Zealand from their US allies. But thanks to their signals intelligence, the Americans were waiting.

From 4 May, the battle raged for four days, the sea air echoing to the screams of warplanes and the thump of torpedoes. The risks to the pilots were enormous. But on the Yorktown, Lieutenant John James Powers exhorted his comrades: “Remember the folks back home are counting on us. I am going to get a direct hit if I have to lay [his bomb] on their flight deck.”

The date was 8 May, and as Powers’ dive-bomber soared into the air, the sky was a perfect, gleaming blue. His target was the carrier Shōkaku, the pride of the Japanese navy. As he saw it in the distance, he began to dive, hurtling lower, lower, lower, through a storm of enemy fire.

A few months later, in a radio address to the nation, President Franklin D Roosevelt described Powers’ last moments. “He dived almost to the very deck of the enemy carrier, and did not release his bomb until he was sure of a direct hit,” Roosevelt said admiringly. “He was last seen attempting recovery from his dive at the extremely low altitude of 200 feet, amid a terrific barrage of shell and bomb fragments, smoke, flame and debris from the stricken vessel. His own plane was destroyed by the explosion of his own bomb. But he had made good his promise to ‘lay it on the flight deck’.” The Shōkaku was severely damaged and forced to return to Japan for major repairs.


Both sides claimed victory in the Coral Sea. But for the first time the Japanese had been turned back. Their momentum was lost, never to return. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

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