Historical anniversaries | February
What historical anniversaries are in February? We round up the events, births and deaths…
1587: Queen Elizabeth I signs a death warrant for her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots
1461: Yorkist forces defeat a Lancastrian army
Led by 18-year-old Edward of March (the future King Edward IV), Yorkist forces defeated a Lancastrian army under the earls of Pembroke and Wiltshire at the battle of Mortimer's Cross near Wigmore in Herefordshire.
1870: The 15th Amendment guarantees Black Americans the vote
In February 1869, the House of Representatives drafted a 15th Amendment to the Constitution, stating that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude”.
At last, on 3 February 1870, the 15th Amendment became law. Black communities exploded with joy. Alas, their struggle for equal rights was far from over.
1555: John Rogers becomes the first person to be executed for heresy under the Catholic queen
In January 1554, John Rogers had been detained for denying the authority of the Church of Rome – a brave thing to do, given that Mary was now vigorously turning the clock back towards Catholicism. And now, more than a year later, his time had run out.
He was taken to Smithfield, singing psalms as he went. On the way, his wife and 11 children were waiting; not even the sight of his family, though, could disturb his cool. Before a “great number of people”, according to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, “he was burnt to ashes, washing his hands in the fame as he was burning… He constantly and cheerfully took his death with wonderful patience, in the defence and quarrel of the Gospel of Christ.” He was just the first of Mary’s victims. In the next three years, at least 280 more would follow.
1783: Earthquake in Italy kills thousands
The first of five major earthquakes to hit Calabria, southern Italy, in two months killed an estimated 25,000 people and destroyed over 100 villages.
1952: 25-year-old Princess Elizabeth becomes queen
This was following the death of her father, King George VI, who passed away in his sleep at Sandringham. She was in Kenya when she learned of his death.
1807: Start of the two-day Battle of Eylau, the first serious check to Napoleon's Grande Armee
Famous births in February
6 February 1911
Ronald Reagan, actor, governor of California, and 40th president of the United States
9 February 1897
Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith, the first person to fly the Pacific from west to east
9 February 1909
Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha, Portuguese Samba singer who became one of Hollywood's highest paid stars
9 February 1910
Jacques Lucien Monod, French biologist who won a Nobel Prize for his discoveries concerning the genetic control of enzyme and virus synthesis
11 February 1847
Thomas Edison, American inventor
12 February 1637
Jan Swammerdam, the first person to describe red blood cells
12 February 1809
Charles Darwin, pioneering British naturalist
14 February 1483
Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur, a descendant of Genghis Khan and Turkic ruler Tamerlaine, and India’s first Mughal emperor
18 February 1838
Ernst Mach, physicist, and developer of the 'Mach number', the ratio of the speed of an object as related to the speed of sound
19 February 1473
Nicolaus Copernicus, astronomer, mathematician, and proponent of a heliocentric model of the universe
19 February 1911
Merle Oberon, actress who rose to fame through her portrayal of Anne Boleyn in his 1933 film The Private Life of Henry VIII
21 February 1907
WH (Wystan Hugh) Auden, poet, and critic
22 February 1857
Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts
Famous deaths in February
1 February 1851
Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein
2 February 1970
Bertrand Russell, Nobel Prize winning philosopher and political campaigner
3 February 1832
George Crabbe, Aldeburgh-born poet, and minister
4 February 1847
Henri Dutrochet, discoverer of osmosis
6 February 1617
Prospero Alpini, Italian botanist who is credited with introducing Europeans to the coffee plant
6 February 1783
Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, English landscape designer
7 February 1959
Daniel F Malan, African prime minister of the country from 1948 to 1954, and was one of the leading architects of its apartheid policy
11 February 1650
René Descartes, French philosopher, mathematician, and physicist
13 February 1571
Benvenuto Cellini, Italian goldsmith, painter, and sculptor
14 February 1779
Captain James Cook, Yorkshire explorer
20 February 1841
Friedrich Wilhelm Sertürner, German pharmacologist who successfully isolated morphine from opium
21 February 1513
Julius II, ‘the Warrior Pope’
23 February 1821
John Keats, English poet, and author of works including Ode to a Nightingale, La Belle Dame Sans Merci and To Autumn
24 February 1810
Henry Cavendish, scientist whose 1784 paper Experiments on Air included the discovery that water was a compound of hydrogen and oxygen
1587: Mary, Queen of Scots loses her head
Blindfolded, Mary knelt on a cushion on the specially erected scaffold and began to pray in Latin. Then came the executioner’s blow. Unfortunately, he missed and hit her on the head, not the neck. The second blow almost severed her neck, but for “one little gristle”. On the third stroke, however, her head came off completely.
The executioner raised it to the crowd.
“God save Queen Elizabeth!” he cried. As if on cue, the head’s auburn wig fell off, revealing Mary’s short grey hair. Standing over her body, the Earl of Kent said solemnly: “Such end of all the queen’s and the gospel’s enemies.” | Find out more about who betrayed Mary, Queen of Scots
1943: The United States declares victory over Japan in Second World War campaign
The campaign for Guadalcanal and nearby islands in the south-west Pacific lasted seven months.
1840: Queen Victoria marries Prince Albert
The ceremony was held at St James’s Palace – “very imposing, and fine and simple”, wrote Victoria. Unusually for brides of the time, she wore a white dress, a symbol not so much of purity than of wealth, which proved immensely influential. Given her royal position, the archbishop of Canterbury had suggested leaving out the vow to ‘obey’ her husband. But she insisted on keeping it in.
On the wedding night, not even Victoria’s headache could spoil the mood. “He clasped me in his arms, and we kissed each other again and again!” she recorded excitedly. And the wedding night itself? “Bliss beyond belief! Oh! this was the happiest day of my life! – May God help me to do my duty as I ought and be worthy of such blessings!”
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AD 55: Nero assassinates his stepbrother
“A drink, still harmless, very hot, and already tasted, was handed to Britannicus,” wrote Tacitus. “Then, when he declined it as too warm, cold water was poured in, and with it the poison, which ran so effectively through his whole system that he lost simultaneously both voice and breath. There was a startled movement in the company seated around, and the more obtuse began to disperse; those who could read more clearly sat motionless, their eyes riveted on Nero.”
Nero just shrugged. Britannicus, he said, was having an epileptic fit – nothing to worry about. Nobody moved; within a few moments, the boy was dead. That night, in pouring rain, Nero had his stepbrother’s body burned.
1909: Black activists and white reformers meet to form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
Horrified by the rise of lynching, the Association was designed “to promote equality of rights and to eradicate caste or race prejudice” in the US.
1258: Baghdad falls to the Mongols
The Mongols marched into the city. They burned the Great Library to the ground, threw its books into the Tigris and slaughtered its scholars. They burned and looted every mosque, palace and hospital in the city. They murdered al-Musta’sim’s sons before his eyes, wrapped him in a carpet and trampled him to death.
Above all, they threw themselves on the local populace in an orgy of rape and murder. Some estimates put the death toll at 100,000; others go much higher. The stench was such that Hulagu had to move his camp upwind. Baghdad survived, somehow. But its golden age was over.
1852: Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children opens its doors to the public
The first in-patient was Eliza Armstrong from Lisson Grove who was suffering from phthisis and bronchitis.
1493: Christopher Columbus writes of the New World
The date was 15 February 1493. Sailing back from the Americas, Christopher Columbus decided to write to the finance minister of Aragon, Luis de Santángel, to report his discoveries. He was writing, he said, from “the islands of India beyond the Ganges recently discovered”, which did not say much for his command of geography. Even so, he had good news – for the voyage had been a triumph.
One word, above all, came up again and again. “There are many spices and vast mines of gold and other metals in this island,” wrote Columbus. There were magnificent rivers, too, “most of which bear gold... To speak, in conclusion, only of what has been done during this hurried voyage, their Highnesses will see that I can give them as much gold as they desire.”
Gold! That was what the Spanish authorities most wanted to hear. And with that, history was made.
1923: English archaeologist Howard Carter opens the fourth room of King Tutankhamun’s tomb
The sealed burial chamber contained the king’s sarcophagus and mummified body.
1662: Frederick Coyett, the last governor of Dutch-occupied Taiwan, abandons the island to its Ming conquerors, who were led by Koxinga
1478: Edward IV’s brother is apparently drowned in a barrel of wine
Even by the standards of medieval England, George, Duke of Clarence met a colourful end. “Take him on the costard with the hilts of thy sword,” says one of his two murderers in Shakespeare’s play Richard III, “and then throw him into the malmsey-butt in the next room.”
Clarence was dragged into the Tower of London, charged with “unnatural, loathly treasons”. For months he lingered; then, on 18 February 1478, he was executed.
Was he really drowned in a butt of sweet wine? Writing only five years later, the Italian visitor Dominic Mancini said so. And who would invent such a bizarre story?
1942: Japan’s surprise bombing raid brings death and destruction to Darwin
Few dates are as deeply etched into Australia’s imagination as 19 February 1942, which saw the bloodiest attack by a foreign power in the nation’s history. In all, 242 Japanese planes (from the fleet that had attacked Pearl Harbor) swooped down on Darwin, the Northern Territory’s capital, in two waves of terrifying intensity. “Men who were there during the raids declared it was worse than anything they had experienced in London,” reported The Sydney Morning Herald two days later. “It was a blitz of the most ferocious kind.”
Yet as clouds of thick black smoke rose above the waterfront, the horror and panic in Darwin did nothing to undermine Australia’s commitment to the struggle. Indeed, the shock of the Japanese attack only strengthened many people’s resolve to fight back. “Whatever the future holds in store for us,” declared Prime Minister John Curtin, “we are Australians and will fight grimly and victoriously... Unity must be our watchword, national service our one desire.”
1472: Orkney and Shetland are annexed by Scotland
This followed the failure of Christian, the King of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, to pay a dowry for James III's bride, Margaret of Denmark.
1804: Pen-y-Darren locomotive steams into history
Samuel Homfray, founder of the Pen-y-Darren Ironworks in Merthyr Tydfil, was open to innovation and, in 1802, he engaged a Cornish inventor, Richard Trevithick, to build a high-pressure steam engine to drive a hammer.
Homfray liked what he saw so much that he bought the patent. Then he made a 500-guinea bet with a rival ironmaster, Richard Crawshay, wagering that his new locomotive could pull 10 tonnes of iron along the Merthyr Tydfil tramway, a distance of almost 10 miles. A date was set: 21 February 1804. And in its way, it deserves to be remembered as one of the most influential moments in history.
A large crowd assembled to watch the great moment. Steam went up, the wheels turned – and they were off. Underneath, some of the tramway’s plates buckled and cracked under the weight of the train. But they kept moving. Four hours later, the train eased to a stop. Homfray had won his bet, and the history of transport would never be the same again.
22 February 1879
Frank Woolworth opened his first store in New York
It was not a success, but he opened more and the firm grew. The first UK shop opened in Liverpool in 1909.
303: Diocletian orders massive persecution of Christians
On 23 February, Diocletian made his move. It was the feast-day of Terminus, the god of the boundary-marker – an appropriate day to begin the termination of Christianity. At first he ordered that the new Christian church in the eastern city of Nicomedia be destroyed and its treasures seized. But the next day he went further. In his Edict Against the Christians, Diocletian ordered that all Christian churches, books and relics be obliterated. Christians were banned from religious meetings or from appearing in court, while all Christian senators, civil servants and officers were stripped of their titles.
Although Diocletian ordered that the edict be carried out “without bloodshed”, officials in the east in particular quickly resorted to the death penalty, burning Christians alive if they resisted. But the truth was that Christianity was too deeply embedded in Roman culture to be rooted out. As one historian puts it, the persecution was “too little, too late”.
1848: France’s last king abdicates amid riots
In the early stages of the 1848 revolution, Louis-Philippe had sympathised with the revolutionaries. But, as a cousin of the late Louis XVI, he dreaded suffering the same bloody fate and, in any case, lacked the stomach to order large-scale repression. By the late morning of 24 February, his courage had run out. Cloistered with his courtiers, the king called for ink and paper. His queen, Marie-Amélie, begged him to stand firm. “Sir, you are giving way to a riot; you are allowing yourself to be frightened!” she begged. But he gently pushed her away and a moment later signed the instrument of abdication. Later that afternoon, dressed all in black, the last French king left his palace for exile in Surrey.
1956: Khrushchev denounces Stalin
Three years after Stalin’s death, Nikita Khrushchev said, it was time to tell the truth about Stalin’s legacy.
- On the podcast | Stalin: the real victor of WW2
The dictator had been projected as “a superman possessing supernatural characteristics, akin to those of a god”. In fact, Khrushchev said, Stalin had been a man of “brutal violence… capricious and despotic”. He had practised “mass terror” against “the honest workers of the Party and of the Soviet state”. He had ignored warnings that the Nazis were going to invade in 1941. And he had taken credit for the heroism of the Soviet people, encouraging a cult of “loathsome adulation”. All of this, Nikita Khrushchev said, had been built on lies; all of it must gradually be exposed to the people.
1616: Galileo is ordered to abandon his astronomical ideas by the Catholic church
There was a problem. Galileo’s observations placed the sun at the centre of the solar system and relegated the Earth to a mere orbiting planet, contradicting the geocentric theory of the Alexandrian writer Claudius Ptolemy – the accepted position of the Catholic church. His tract sparked a debate that raged for years. By early 1615, Dominican friar Tommaso Caccini was loudly pressing the Inquisition to crack down on Galileo’s heretical ideas. In one sermon, he suggested that astronomy contravened biblical teachings, quoting a line from the Acts of the Apostles: “Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven?”
On 26 February, Bellarmine summoned Galileo to his house in Rome and ordered him “to abstain completely from teaching or defending this doctrine and opinion or from discussing it”. In Bellarmine’s words, Galileo must “abandon completely… the opinion that the sun stands still at the centre of the world and the Earth moves, and henceforth not to hold, teach or defend it in any way whatever, either orally or in writing”.
1881: British routed at Majuba Hill in surprise attack during First Boer War
With hundreds of reinforcements newly arrived from the south, the British commander, Sir George Colley, decided to mount a surprise attack on the Boers that would force them to agree to Britain’s terms. On the night of the 26th, his troops climbed Majuba Hill, above the main Boer camp. Then, at first light, the firing began.
As Colley had anticipated, the battle was a walkover – but for the wrong side. As the Boers charged up the hill, taking cover in the long grass, British resolve faltered. Suddenly, wrote young Thomas Carter, men started running. “Five, six, seven, eight more men broke from the ranks in front of us and fled,” he wrote. “The rest wavered, and... the whole lot went rushing wildly over us down into the bottom of the basin.” And as Boer gunfire echoed around the hill, Carter admitted, “it was not long before I was on my feet and running with the rest”.
By now, Colley was dead, shot by a Boer sniper as he tried to rally his men. He was one of 92 killed, while dozens more were captured, among them Thomas Fortescue Carter. For the British, it was a disaster; at the ensuing peace conference, they were forced to recognise the independent Transvaal Republic. But they never forgot Majuba. And two decades later, they got their revenge.
1638: Members of the Scottish nobility sign the National Covenant in the churchyard of Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh
Drawn up by churchman Alexander Henderson and lawyer Archibald Johnston of Wariston, the Covenant was an affirmation of the Presbyterian system of church government and a statement of Scottish opposition to Charles I's religious innovations, notably his attempt to introduce, without consultation, the Book of Common Prayer into Scotland.
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