6 April 1199: The Lionheart roars his last

Richard I dies of gangrene after chance crossbow shot during castle siege


A c1220 illustration from the Peterborough Psalter shows Richard I wrestling with a lion. Legend has it Richard’s killer was a French boy wishing to avenge dead family members

The death of Richard I on 6 April 1199, writes the historian John Gillingham, “was the decisive turning point in the history of the Angevin empire”. For five years, the Lionheart had been pushing back his rival Philip II of France, reconquering much of Normandy and consolidating his hold over Aquitaine. But then, in March 1199, fate brought him to the little castle of Châlus-Chabrol, south of Limoges. It was a pitifully obscure sort of place; for Richard, though, it was to prove fatal.

Historians have argued ever since about why Richard chose to besiege the castle at Châlus. One legend suggests that he had been attracted by stories of buried treasure, but he probably saw the castle as a step towards domination of the Limousin region. In any case, the evening of 25 March found him outside the castle walls, inspecting his sappers’ progress. A crossbowman took aim from the battlements, and the king sarcastically applauded. A moment later, a bolt struck him in the shoulder. Richard tried to pull it out and failed. The wound turned gangrenous, and suddenly, almost from nowhere, the great king was dying.

One version of the legend has it that when Richard’s men dragged the crossbowman before him, he turned out to be a boy called Bertram de Gourdon, who said he wanted revenge for his dead father and brothers. Richard supposedly ordered him set free with 100 shillings. Meanwhile the gangrene did its work. On 6 April, Richard died in the arms of his mother, Eleanor. His heart was buried in Rouen, his entrails in Châlus. His brother John succeeded as king, and after that it was downhill all the way. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

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6 April 1320

In the Declaration of Arbroath, the Scottish baronage declared their determination never to submit to English rule and stated that if Robert Bruce did so they would choose another king. It has been seen as an expression not only of nationhood but also of contractual kingship.

6 April 1453

Ottoman forces led by Ottoman sultan Mehmed II laid siege to Constantinople. The city fell eight weeks later.

6 April 1571

Having been found guilty of being an accessory to the murders of both Lord Darnley and the Regent Moray John Hamilton, the Archbishop of St Andrews was hanged in Stirling market place.

6 April 1528

German painter, engraver, printer and mathematician Albrecht Dürer dies in Nuremberg. His work includes The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1498), Praying Hands (1508) and a 1515 engraving of the first rhinoceros to be seen in Europe since Roman times.

6 April 1814: Emperor Napoleon abdicates

The leader’s generals force his hand after refusing his orders

The beginning of April 1814 found Napoleon Bonaparte in defiant mood. After a series of military reverses, his empire had crumbled and the troops of the Sixth Coalition (comprising Russia, Austria, Prussia, Britain and others) had occupied Paris. The emperor himself, with what remained of his army, was at Fontainebleau, south of the capital. Far from giving up, however, he was determined to fight on. At midday on 3 April, Napoleon told the Imperial Guard that they would shortly march on Paris and retake the city. “Vive l’empereur!” the men shouted. “A Paris! A Paris!”

Unfortunately for Napoleon, his senior officers had different ideas. They had no desire to see more blood spilt to appease their master’s vanity. “Are we to sacrifice everything to one man?” asked the previously loyal Marshal Ney. “It is time to think a little of ourselves, our families and our interests.”

Ney led a delegation to see Napoleon. The latest news from the capital, he said, indicated that the senate had turned against the emperor. It was pointless to fight on: “The army will not march on Paris.” “The army will obey me!” Napoleon shouted. “Sire,” said Ney firmly, “the army will obey its generals.”

There was a pause. Then Napoleon asked his marshals to let him speak to his foreign minister. In that moment, they knew he had given up. Three days later, on the morning of 6 April, the emperor summoned his officers and wrote out a note of abdication.

When the news reached England, all was jubilation. As people queued for newspapers, bells rang out in triumph. Napoleon’s extraordinary career was over – or so it seemed. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

6 April 1812

At the cost of nearly 5,000 casualties, Wellington's Anglo-Portuguese army stormed the French-held Spanish border fortress of Badajoz, opening the way for an invasion of Spain. The attack was followed by 72 hours of looting, rape and murder before order could be restored among Wellington's soldiers. Two Spanish sisters sought refuge with the officers of the 95th Rifles. One, Juana Maria de los Dolores de Leon, married Harry Smith, one of the officers. She later accompanied him to South Africa where the town of Ladysmith is named after her.

6 April 1917

The United States enters the First World War.

6 April 1994: Up to a million die as Rwanda falls into the abyss

President’s murder sparks three months of horrific bloodletting

Shortly after eight on the evening of 6 April 1994, the presidential plane appeared over Kigali. Aboard was the president of Rwanda, Juvénal Habyarimana, returning from a regional conference in Tanzania with his guest, Burundi’s president Cyprien Ntaryamira. At 8:20 the plane began its final descent towards the Rwandan capital. A few moments later, two missiles smashed into the aircraft.
There were no survivors.

What followed was total chaos. Nobody knew who was responsible; to this day, some blame Rwanda’s Tutsi rebels, others its Hutu-dominated army. The moderate prime minister, Madame Agathe Uwilingiyimana, tried to appeal for calm. But before she could reach the radio station, she and her Belgian UN escort were captured and murdered by presidential guards. That night, soldiers and militiamen roamed the streets of Kigali. Among their victims were the president of the Constitutional Court, the minister of agriculture and the leader of the Liberal party.

In the next few days the killing escalated. Tension between Hutus and Tutsis dated back to independence in 1962, and had provoked a civil war in the early 1990s. But this was murder on an entirely different scale. In roughly three months, Hutu militiamen killed, raped and mutilated hundreds of thousands of people, most of them (but not all) Tutsis.


The end came only when the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front captured Kigali and toppled the government, installing a new regime under Paul Kagame. But the scars of the genocide may never heal; many experts put the death toll at about a million, perhaps one in seven of the population | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

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