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6 May: On this day in history

What events happened on 6 May in history? We round up the events, births and deaths…

Published: May 6, 2022 at 6:05 am

6 May 1527: Imperial troops sack Rome

A mutinous Habsburg army mercilessly lays waste to the city


On the morning of 6 May 1527 the people of Rome awoke with a sense of dread. The previous day, the Habsburg imperial army, commanded by Charles, Duke of Bourbon, had arrived at the walls of the old city. After years of fighting in the Italian peninsula, his army was short of funds and discipline. His adversary, Pope Clement VII, was the ideal target. And now, at his headquarters at the monastery of St Onofrio, the duke gave the order to attack.

As luck would have it, Charles himself was killed early in the assault – but his death only enraged his men, most of whom were Spanish and German mercenaries. After breaking through the city’s defences, they rampaged through the streets, smashing their way into churches and monasteries, looting and killing without mercy.

The Germans in particular seemed fired with religious fury. In front of Clement’s fortress, they staged a mocking parody of a papal procession. “Long live Luther Pontifex,” they chanted. One observer lamented that “the Germans were bad, the Italians worse, but worst of all were the Spaniards.”

The most infamous confrontation of the day occurred in the Teutonic Cemetery next to St Peter’s where the pope’s elite bodyguards, the renowned Swiss Guard, had assembled to cover his escape into the castle. What followed was a massacre, the guardsmen cut down where they stood by the Habsburg troops.

In the final bloody moments of the encounter, the guard’s commander, Kaspar Röist, escaped to his house nearby. The imperial troops burst in and butchered him in front of his wife. Of the 189 Swiss Guards, only 42 survived. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

6 May 1562

Birth in Tuscany of Italian baroque sculptor Pietro Bernini. His best-known work is the Fontana della Barcaccia at the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome.

6 May 1758

French Revolutionary leader Maximilien de Robespierre is born. Architect of The Terror which saw the executions of as many as 30,000 people, he himself will be guillotined in 1794.

6 May 1840: The Penny Black revolutionises communications in Britain

Rowland Hill’s “gummy medallion” becomes a national icon

Rowland Hill had a vision. While a small boy in Kidderminster, he had watched in embarrassment as his mother scrabbled for money to pay the postman. By the 1830s, Hill, now a teacher and social reformer, was determined to push through a change that he believed would transform the Post Office into a force for progress: universal penny postage, paid in advance.

By May 1840, Hill’s scheme was up and running. As he explained, people would prove that they had paid by using “a bit of paper just large enough to bear the stamp, and covered at the back with a glutinous wash, which the bringer might, by applying a little moisture, attach to the back of the letter”. He
enlisted the Royal Mint’s chief engraver to create a memorable image – a picture of Queen Victoria. Today we know his creation as the Penny Black.

The first stamps went on sale on 1 May, and the system came into operation five days later. One schoolboy recalled that he did not “fancy making my mouth a glue pot,” while the newssheet The Town ran a saucy poem:

“You must kiss our fair Queen, or her pictures, that’s clear.
Or the gummy medallion will never adhere.
You will not kiss her hand, you will readily find
But actually kiss little Vicky’s behind.”

The Penny Black was an instant hit. Within a week the presses were working round the clock producing 600,000 stamps a day. The stamp had become an icon, a symbol of national pride: an image of Britannia itself. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

6 May 1851

American locksmith Linus Yale Junior was awarded US Patent 8071 for his 'Self-Detaching and Attaching Key-Lock'.

6 May 1910

King Edward VII died at Buckingham Palace aged 68. He was succeeded by his second son, George, who had become heir to the throne following the death of Albert Victor, George's elder brother, in 1892.


6 May 1959

The House of Commons discusses the much-publicised case of rock'n'roll star Terry Dene who had been discharged from the army as psychologically unfit for National Service.

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Elinor EvansDigital editor

Elinor Evans is digital editor of HistoryExtra.com. She commissions and writes history articles for the website, and regularly interviews historians for the award-winning HistoryExtra podcast


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