1 August

1774: Joseph Priestley discovers oxygen

While employed as the tutor of the children of William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne, British minister and chemist Joseph Priestley discovered the gas oxygen.


After experimenting with different ‘airs’, Priestley conducted an experiment that would make his scientific work famous. By using what was referred to as a ‘burning lens’, he placed a lump of mercuric oxide in a glass container and focused some sunlight onto the compound. A colourless gas was emitted and a candle began to burn. To begin with, Priestley called this ‘dephlogisticated air’, before further tests confirmed the discovery of oxygen.

Joseph Priestley
Joseph Priestley. (Image by Getty Images)

2 August

1100: King William II is killed by an arrow in mysterious circumstances

While hunting in the New Forest in 1100, William II (Rufus) was shot and killed by an arrow fired by nobleman Walter Tirel. The incident was at the time recorded as an accident. However, it has since been suggested that it could have been an assassination.

According to chronicler Orderic Vitalis, before the hunting party set off the king was presented with a letter from the Abbot of Gloucester, warning William II of a vision that a monk had had of the king’s death. However, the king dismissed the letter and began the hunt.

During the hunt, nobleman Walter Tirel took a shot at a stag, yet the arrow missed and hit the king in the chest. Tirel fled the scene almost immediately to France. Learning of the king’s death, William’s brother, Henry, rode to Winchester to proclaim himself king. It is possible that Henry had planned for his brother’s murder in order to gain the throne, yet this is disputed among scholars.

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3 August

1499: King Henry VII learns of a plot against his throne

The plot aimed to free Perkin Warbeck and the Earl of Warwick (both potential claimants to the crown) from the Tower of London and to place one of them on the throne. Both men were tried and executed in November.

4 August

1902: After three years of work, the Greenwich Foot Tunnel, one of the marvels of late Victorian engineering, opens beneath the river Thames

5 August

1962: Marilyn Monroe is found dead in the bedroom of her los Angeles home

The ultimate blonde bombshell, Marilyn Monroe (born 1926) radiated glamour, sex appeal and beauty at the height of Hollywood.

The world was stunned when Monroe’s body was discovered in the early hours of 5 August 1962. Monroe, 36, was found face down on her bed in her Los Angeles home, with several bottles of pills on a nearby table. The hasty coroner’s report stated the cause of death as ‘probable suicide’ from acute barbiturate poisoning. Theories have persisted, however, claiming that Monroe was murdered.

Marilyn Monroe
Marilyn Monroe. (Image by Getty Images)

6 August

1660: Spanish baroque artist Diego Velazquez dies in Madrid

As court painter to King Phillip IV he had, in addition to religious, historical and genre scenes, produced scores of portraits of the Spanish royal family.

7 August

1209: The treaty of Norham is agreed

Faced with an English invasion, William the Lion of Scotland agreed in the Treaty of Norham to pay 15,000 marks for King John’s ‘goodwill’ and handed over his two daughters for John to arrange their marriages.

Famous births in August

4 August 1870

Sir Harry Lauder, music hall singer 

5 August 1869

Alexander William Kinglake, historian and travel writer 

8 August 1861 

William Bateson, the first person to use the term ‘genetics’ to describe the study of biological inheritance

8 August 1902 

Paul Dirac, one of the founding fathers of quantum mechanics

10 August 1810

Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour. A leading supporter of Italian unification and served as the Kingdom of Italy’s first prime minister

12 August 1762 

George Augustus Frederick, the eldest son of King George III and Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz

13 August 1792

Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen, the future wife of King William IV

13 August 1809

William Penny Brookes, English physician, botanist, JP and social reformer 

14 August 1851

John Henry ‘Doc’ Holliday, American gambler, gunfighter and dentist

15 August 1769

Napoleon Bonaparte, former emperor of the French

17 August 1761

William Carey, co-founder of the Baptist Missionary Society

19 August 1560 

James Crichton, polymath and soldier

20 August 1902 

Margaret Henderson Thompson, Scottish doctor who helped provide medical care for fellow inmates while a prisoner of the Japanese

24 August 1759

William Wilberforce, anti-slavery campaigner

27 August 1770

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, influential German philosopher

28 August 1592 

George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham

29 August 1619

Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV’s minister of finance

8 August

1963: The “Great Train Robbers” steal £2.6m

The heist, hailed as the “crime of the century”, began before sunrise on 8 August 1963, when a gang of 15 armed criminals boarded an overnight Royal Mail train at Ledburn in Buckinghamshire.

The ringleader was Bruce Reynolds, who had come into possession of some intriguing information leaked by an insider at Royal Mail. This train, he was told, would be carrying a vast amount of cash from Glasgow to London. Over a few months, Reynolds and his gang had hatched a careful plan to intercept the train en route and relieve it of its valuable cargo.

The robbery got under way at around 3am. After leaving violence and handcuffed Royal Mail staff in its wake, the gang fled in three vehicles – two with the same registration to fool witnesses – with around £2.6m (some £55m today).

9 August

1942: Mohandas Gandhi and many other leaders of the Indian National Congress are arrested by the British authorities

This followed the launch of their ‘Quit India’ movement, which called for an immediate British withdrawal from the subcontinent.

10 August

991: Ealdorman Brihtnoth are defeated by a force of Viking raiders at the battle of Maldon in Essex

The Vikings, who were probably led by Olaf Tryggvason, had been camped on Northey Island which was joined to the mainland by a narrow tidal causeway. Seeking to bring the Vikings to battle before they sailed off to raid elsewhere, Brihtnoth allowed them to cross the causeway unopposed. Both sides suffered heavy casualties but the Vikings prevailed and Brihtnoth was slain.

11 August

1660: Birth of Henrietta Maria, Baroness Wentworth

As the mistress of James, Duke of Monmouth she pledged her jewellery, cash and credit as security to enable him to borrow £6,000 to fund his ill-fated rebellion of 1685.

12 August

1969: Catholic residents clash with the Royal Ulster Constabulary in the Bogside area of Derry

The three days of rioting that ensued became known as the battle of the Bogside and led to the deployment of British troops to restore order.

13 August

1521: Tenochtítlan falls to Spanish conquistadors

Aided by European diseases and indigenous allies, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés captures the city of Tenochtítlan after a 93-day siege. This signals the downfall of the Aztec empire and the conquest of Mexico.

14 August

1739: King George II sign the charter of the Foundling Hospital which had been established by Thomas Coram to care for abandoned children

15 August

1940: A big day in the Battle of Britain

In the most intensive day’s fighting of the Battle of Britain, the German Luftwaffe flew over 2,000 sorties and lost 75 aircraft to Fighter Command’s 34.

16 August

1858: Queen Victoria send President James Buchanan the first trans-Atlantic telegraph

The message provides “an additional link between the nations whose friendship is founded on their common interest and reciprocal esteem”.

17 August

1962: A Cold War death puts international spotlight on the Berlin Wall

Peter Fechter, an 18-year-old bricklayer, was shot by East German border guards while attempting to escape with a companion across the Berlin Wall at Zimmerstrasse, not far from Checkpoint Charlie.

18 August

1612: Pendle ‘witches’ take the stand

On 18 August 1612, one of the most extraordinary trials in British history opened at Lancaster Assizes. Earlier that year, 16 or 17 people, all of whom lived in or near Pendle Hill in Lancashire, had been accused of murder by witchcraft. Many of them belonged to two families, the Demdikes and the Chattoxes, who were believed to have been rival witch clans.

The trial’s first day opened with the examination of Anne Whittle, alias Chattox, “a very old withered spent and decrepit creature, her sight almost gone,” who had reputedly sold her soul to the Devil some years earlier. For the next two days the trial heard a bizarre series of confessions and accusations, with the rival Demdike and Chattox families each claiming that the other was a den of witchcraft.

Eleven of the accused were found guilty under the Witchcraft Act: 10 were sentenced to death by hanging, one died in prison, while another was imprisoned for a year. The remaining members of the group were all acquitted.

19 August

1561: After 13 years in France, Mary, Queen of Scots returns to Scotland

She landed at Leith, having made the journey by sea after Elizabeth I had refused her permission to travel through England.

Mary, Queen of Scots. (Image by Getty Images)
Mary, Queen of Scots. (Image by Getty Images)

20 August

1911: The first telegram is sent around the world in just 16.5 minutes

The first telegram was sent from the New York Times office in order to discover how long it would take for a message to cross the world by telegraph cable. The message, which travelled more than 28,000 miles, simply read “This message sent around the world”.

After being transferred by 16 operators across the globe, including those in San Francisco, Saigon and the Azores, the reply to the message was received by the New York Times office just 16.5 minutes after being sent. This made the telegram the fastest message to be sent by a commercial cablegram since the Commercial Cable Company first launched the Pacific cable in 1900.

Famous deaths in August

2 August 1100

King William Rufus, third son of William the Conqueror

2 August 1222

Raymond VI of Toulouse, most powerful nobleman in Languedoc

2 August 1921

Enrico Caruso, Italian tenor

3 August 1460

James II of Scotland

3 August 1792

Sir Richard Arkwright, pioneer of Britain's factory system

4 August 1859

Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney, pastor of the village of Ars near Lyon and patron saint of parish priests

6 August 1660 

Diego Velazquez, Spanish baroque artist 

13 August 1910

Florence Nightingale, founder of modern nursing

17 August 1809

Matthew Boulton, manufacturer and entrepreneur

20 August 1580 

Sir George Bowes, loyal servant of Elizabeth I

23 August 1481

Sir Thomas Littleton, English judge and lawyer 

25 August 1482 

Margaret of Anjou, widow of the deposed King Henry VI

26 August 1929

Edith Thompson, historian and lexicographer

30 August 1659

Alexander Lindsay, first Earl of Balcarres

30 August 1940

Sir Joseph John Thompson, British physicist who discovered the electron

21 August

1911: The Mona Lisa is stolen in France

Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting was stolen from the Louvre in Paris on this day in 1911. Italian handyman Vincenzo Peruggia decided to steal the 16th-century painting after being employed by the Louvre to construct protective glass cases for some of the museum’s most famous works, which included the Mona Lisa.

After spending the night in a closet, Peruggia was able to remove the painting with ease, hide it under his clothes and leave the building – he was let out by a plumber after finding the doors were locked.

The painting was not reported missing until 24 hours later. After this, the newspapers were filled with stories about the stolen masterpiece. It was not until two years later, December 1913, that the painting was finally recovered. Peruggia received a seven-month jail sentence.

People gather around the Mona Lisa painting on January 4, 1914 in Paris France, after it was stolen from the ouvre by Vincenzo Peruggia in 1911
People gather around the Mona Lisa painting on January 4, 1914 in Paris France, after it was stolen from the ouvre by Vincenzo Peruggia in 1911. (Image by Getty Images)

22 August

1485: Richard III dies at the battle of Bosworth

Richard’s forces met Henry Tudor’s men on a patch of marsh known as ‘Redemore’, south of Market Bosworth. Richard’s army was twice the size of Henry’s but, as fighting began, it became clear that the king did not have the full loyalty of his army. Betrayed by Sir William Stanley, Richard made a brave final charge at Henry but was hacked to death. His body was stripped and taken to Leicester, where it was later buried in the Grey Friars priory.

23 August

1572: The St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre begins

The massacre began in Paris with the assassination on royal orders of a number of key Huguenot leaders. Within a day this had escalated into a widespread general slaughter of French Protestants.

24 August

AD 79: Pompeii is engulfed by ash after Vesuvius erupts with furious violence and devastating results

The eruption caused the start of fires, while rooftops were swept away, columns collapsed. Almost certainly thousands were killed, though the true figure will never be known.

Pliny the Younger wrote that while “ashes were already falling, hotter and thicker as the ships drew near, followed by bits of pumice and blackened stones, charred and cracked by the flames”. With ash filling the sky, the unnatural darkness seemed “blacker and denser than any ordinary night”.

After the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, the ancient Roman city was lost for centuries. Today, it is one of the world's most famous – and fascinating – archaeological sites.

25 August

1875: Matthew Webb conquers the Channel

To the Victorians, Matthew Webb was one of the great celebrities of the age: the first man ever to swim the English Channel. A former steamship captain in his late twenties, Webb was obsessed with swimming the Channel, training at Lambeth Baths and in the heavily polluted river Thames. With one unsuccessful attempt 12 days earlier behind him, on 24 August 1875 he made his way to the end of Dover’s Admiralty Pier. There, having been rubbed all over in porpoise oil, he dived in, and with three boats bobbing alongside, began the long breaststroke swim to France.

Although the French coast was only 18 nautical miles away, Webb’s route lasted much longer. The strong current meant he effectively zigzagged across the Channel instead of heading directly across. At one point he was even stung by a jellyfish, and had to be thrown a bottle of brandy to revive his spirits.

Matthew Webb is helped by a boat crew
Matthew Webb is helped by a boat crew during his attempt to swim the English Channel. (Image by Getty Images)

26 August

1346: English forces claim victory at the battle of Crécy during the Hundred Years’ War

On 26 August 1346, thousands of English and French troops lined up against one another near the town of Crécy-en-Ponthieu in the north-eastern corner of France.

The English army consisted mainly of footsoldiers. Led by Edward III, they had landed in Normandy in July and plundered and razed every town in their way. The stunning victory over the French marked a new dawn for the humble foot soldier, and is a landmark moment in the Hundred Years’ War

27 August

1955: The Guinness Book of World Records is published

The first edition of The Guinness Book of Records was published on 27 August 1955, and printed 50,000 copies in its first year. By Christmas 1955 the book had become a bestseller in the United Kingdom.

Sir Hugh Beaver, the managing director of the Guinness Brewery, first came up with the idea of the book of records in the early 1950s following an argument at a shooting party about the fastest game bird in Europe.

Twins Norris and Ross McWhirter were invited by Beaver to research and write the book, which took 13-and-a-half straight weeks to write. The first edition of the records was drafted and then published in 1955.

28 August

1592: Birth of royal favourite George Villiers, later the 1st Duke of Buckingham.

His popularity with James VI and I was only matched by his unpopularity throughout the country. News of his murder in 1628 was met with wild rejoicing.

29 August

1842: In China, the Treaty of Nanking marks the end of the First Opium War, opening five treaty ports to British trade and handing over Hong Kong as a British colony

30 August

1918: Vladimir Lenin is shot by a socialist revolutionary

During an address by the Bolshevik leader to urban workers, a woman called out to Lenin from the crowd before levelling her Browning revolver and firing three times.

The first shot fired by Fanny Kaplan, a 28-year-old member of the Socialist Revolutionaries, went through his coat and hit a bystander; the second hit his shoulder; the third punctured his lung. As horrified observers grabbed the unresisting assassin, Lenin’s guards heaved his unconscious body into the car and made for the Kremlin.

Lenin survived, although he was badly wounded. Kaplan was later executed.

31 August

1897: Thomas Edison secures a patent for his kinetograph

After first developing it in the early 1890s, Thomas Edison secured a patent for the kinetograph, a camera that could record film footage. His camera was based on work completed by French still-photograph pioneers Joseph Nicéphore Niépce and Louis Daguerre, but unlike previous cameras Edison used celluloid film in the kinetograph. After building a small film studio in 1893, Edison was able to capture footage and create films. One of his first was of three of his employees acting as blacksmiths.


In 1897 Edison sued American Mutoscope and Biograph Pictures, after he claimed the company had transgressed on the patent for his kinetograph.

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