1 May

1851: Queen Victoria opens the Great Exhibition

A coloured lithograph of The Great Exhibition.
A coloured lithograph of The Great Exhibition. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

It was a magnificent spectacle that met the young queen as she arrived, cheered on by huge crowds, at the Crystal Palace in London’s Hyde Park. Trumpet fanfares, cannon fire and a 1,000-strong choir singing the national anthem all heralded the opening of the Great Exhibition, a world’s fair devised by her husband, Prince Albert, as a display of culture and industry; a testament of the age.


In her remarks, the queen expressed her hope that the exhibition would be in the “common interests of the human race, by encouraging the arts of peace and industry [and] strengthening the bonds of union among the nations of the earth”. Over the next six months, millions of people came to see the objects, inventions and wonders gathered from around the British empire.

2 May

1946: A battle breaks out between prisoners and guards at Alcatraz

An escape attempt from the notoriously inescapable maximum-security prison, on an island in San Francisco Bay, escalated into a firefight and a siege of one of the cellhouses. After 48 hours of the so-called battle of Alcatraz, more than a dozen people were injured and five dead: two officers and three of the escaping prisoners.

3 May

1481: Earthquakes and tsunamis batter Rhodes

The Greek island suffered severe damage in a series of earthquakes throughout the year, but the worst struck in early May and also triggered a tsunami. There were an estimated 30,000 casualties.

4 May

1471: Edward IV reclaims the throne at Tewkesbury

Edward IV
Edward IV. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

At the battle of Tewkesbury, the Yorkist king, who had been overthrown the previous year, secured a decisive victory in the Wars of the Roses against Lancastrian forces. Henry VI ended up a prisoner in the Tower of London, where he died shortly afterwards in mysterious circumstances, while his rival’s son and heir died in the fighting.

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Coupled with his victory at the battle of Barnet less than a month earlier, Edward’s throne was now safe. There would be peace for the rest of his reign.

5 May

1862: Mexican forces win at Puebla

Despite being outnumbered, inadequately trained and poorly armed, Mexican soldiers commanded by Ignacio Zaragoza defeated an invading French army at the battle of Puebla. In truth, it did not signal a breakthrough in the war, which went on for several more years, but the victory came to be commemorated in annual celebrations, known as Cinco de Mayo.

6 May

1954: Roger Bannister breaks the four-minute mile

The English runner Roger Bannister easily won the mile race at Ifley Road track, Oxford, but as he crossed the finish line the large crowd on that early evening were brimming with excitement and anticipation. The question was how quickly he had won. The official, pipe in mouth and stopwatch in hand, let the tension build before declaring, “Three minutes…”, at which point the rest was drowned out by cheering.

Bannister had achieved a physical feat never done before, despite the attempts of numerous athletes: running a mile in under four minutes. His actual time was 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds.

What’s more, the tall, loping runner had achieved the seemingly impossible in far-from ideal conditions as rain and strong winds hampered the race meet. Just 46 days later, his record time would be broken by Australian John Landy, but Bannister got his revenge by beating his rival in the so-called ‘Miracle Mile’ race in 1954.

Famous births in May

1 May 1769

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, military leader in the Napoleonic Wars

1 May 1852

Martha Jane Cannary, ‘Calamity Jane’, American frontierswoman

2 May 1729

Catherine the Great, long-reigning empress of Russia

2 May 1892

Manfred von Richthofen, the ‘Red Baron’, German ace in the First World War

3 May 1469

Niccolo di Bernardo dei Machiavelli, Italian political philosopher

4 May 1929

Audrey Hepburn, British actress and star of Breakfast at Tiffany's

5 May 1864

Nellie Bly, American journalist and globe-trotting traveller

6 May 1856

Sigmund Freud, Austrian neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis

7 May 1919

Eva Peron, Argentine first lady

9 May 1874

Howard Carter, British Egyptologist who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun

11 May 1918

Richard Feynman, American theoretical physicist

12 May 1820

Florence Nightingale, English nurse in the Crimean War

17 May 1866

Erik Satie, French composer and pianist

19 May 1890

Ho Chi Minh, Vietnamese revolutionary and statesman

19 May 1925

Malcolm X, American leader in the Nation of Islam and the civil rights movement

21 May 1527

Philip II, King of Spain who launched the Spanish Armada

23 May 1707

Carl Linnaeus, Swedish botanist and zoologist

26 May 1951

Sally Ride, astronaut and the first American woman in space

28 May 1908

Ian Fleming, British author and creator of James Bond

28 May 1887

Jim Thorpe, Native American athlete and Olympic gold medallist

7 May

1915: RMS Lusitania is torpedoed and sunk

Nearing the end of a voyage across the Atlantic from New York to Liverpool, the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania was targeted by a U-boat of the German imperial navy. The First World War was raging and the Germans had recently declared a ‘war zone’ around Britain, meaning that any ship would be attacked.

The Lusitania sank in 18 minutes, resulting in the deaths of 1,198 people on board and widespread anti-German outrage around the world.

8 May

1945: Millions celebrate Victory in Europe Day

The news of Nazi Germany’s surrender, bringing an end to the Second World War in Europe after nearly six years, leads to joyous VE Day celebrations around the world.

9 May

1662: Mr Punch makes his English debut

Punch and Judy
Punch and Judy. (Photo by Print Collector/Getty Images)

The traditional puppet show about the antics of Mr Punch and his wife Judy has its roots in the commedia dell’arte in Italy – with the character of Punchinello – but its earliest-mention in England came in the entry for 9 May by famed diarist Samuel Pepys. That day, he saw “an Italian puppet play”, thought to have been performed by Pietro Gimonde, who was known as ‘Signor Bologna’.

10 May

1872: Victoria Woodhull becomes the first woman to run for US president

The American activist and suffrage movement leader was nominated as the presidential candidate for the Equal Rights Party in the 1872 election. The famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass was put forward as her running mate, without his knowledge.

11 May

AD 868: The world’s oldest-known dated book is printed

Inside a copy of the Diamond Sutra, a Mahayana Buddhist text translated into Chinese, discovered in 1900, it included the date: “the 15th of the 4th moon of the 9th year of Xiantong”, or 11 May AD 868.

12 May

1789: William Wilberforce takes up the cause of abolition

“I mean not to accuse anyone, but to take the shame upon myself, in common, indeed, with the whole parliament of Great Britain, for having suffered this horrid trade to be carried on under their authority. We are all guilty – we ought all to plead guilty, and not to exculpate ourselves by throwing the blame on others; and I therefore deprecate every kind of reflection against the various descriptions of people who are more immediately involved in this wretched business.”

So said British politician William Wilberforce in his first major speech on abolition in the House of Commons. He went on to describe in detail the conditions of the middle passage – challenging anyone to hear the account of “one of the many hundred Negroes stowed in each ship” and having the heart to bear it – and concluded by saying that he was, “from this time determined that I would never rest till I had effected its abolition”.

He would remain a leading figure in the abolitionist movement until the outlawing of the slave trade in 1807 and end of slavery in 1833.

13 May

1981: The pope survives an assassination attempt

As Pope John Paul II passed through St Peter’s Square at the Vatican, blessing those gathered from the Popemobile, a 23-year-old Turk named Mehmet Ali Agca fired a gun four times. Hit in the abdomen and hand, the leader of the Catholic church was rushed to hospital; he would later announce that he had forgiven Agca and met with him in prison.

14 May

1796: the first vaccination is administered

To test his theory of protecting people from smallpox, the English physician Edward Jenner inoculated eight-year-old James Phipps with the pus from a cowpox sore. The boy fell ill, but when Jenner then infected him with a dose of smallpox, the disease did not develop.

15 May

1905: Sin City is founded

The growing settlement of Las Vegas was officially founded after 110 acres of land belonging to railroad owner William Clark were auctioned off.

16 May

1770: Marie Antoinette marries the French dauphin – for the second time

A painting of Marie Antoinette in 1775
A painting of Marie Antoinette in 1775. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

The 14-year-old archduchess of Austria married the heir to the French throne, Louis-Auguste – who would be the last king before the French Revolution – in a ceremony at Versailles. This was the second wedding: she was officially married a month earlier by proxy, with her own brother standing in for her betrothed.

17 May

1954: Supreme Court makes a landmark decision for US schools

In Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously ruled that racial segregation of public schools was unconstitutional. A major victory of the civil rights movement, it was a pivotal challenge to the long-established doctrine of ‘separate but equal’.

18 May

1291: The fall of Acre ends crusader ambition

For decades, the city of Acre (in modern-day Israel) was the most important stronghold remaining in the Kingdom of Jerusalem held by the crusaders, so when it fell to the Mamluks in a siege it signalled the end of the crusades in the Holy Land.

19 May

1536: Anne Boleyn is executed

Having climbed the scaffold erected within the walls of the Tower of London, Anne Boleyn gave a short speech, ending with “I pray God save the king and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never, and to me he was ever a good, a gentle, and sovereign lord. And if any person will meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best. And thus I take my leave of the world and of you all, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me.”

The second of the six wives of Henry VIII, found guilty of high treason, removed her ermine-trimmed gown and knelt down, before the executioner stepped up and removed her head with a blow from a sword. Just 11 days later, the “good”, “gentle” and “merciful” king was married again, to Jane Seymour, who would be able to provide him with his much-desired son, Edward VI.

Famous deaths in May

1 May 1873

David Livingstone, Scottish missionary and explorer in Africa

1 May 1945

Joseph Goebbels, minister of propaganda in Nazi Germany

2 May 1519

Leonardo da Vinci, Italian Renaissance polymath

5 May 1821

Napoleon Bonaparte, emperor of the French

6 May 1992

Marlene Dietrich, German and American leading lady in the golden age of Hollywood

11 May 1812

Spencer Perceval, the only British prime minister to be assassinated

11 May 1981

Bob Marley, Jamaican musician who popularised reggae around the world

15 May 1886

Emily Dickinson, one of the great American poets of the 19th century

16 May 1926

Mehmed II, last sultan of the Ottoman empire

18 May 1781

Tupac Amaru II, Incan revolutionary leader

19 May 1935

TE Lawrence (‘of Arabia’), British army officer, archaeologist and author

21 May 1542

Hernando de Soto, Spanish conquistador and explorer of the Mississippi River

23 May 1701

William Kidd, Scottish pirate

23 May 1910

Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, American Depression-era outlaws

24 May 1543

Nicolaus Copernicus, Renaissance polymath who developed the heliocentric model of the universe

26 May AD 735

Bede the Venerable, Anglo-Saxon theologian and historian

26 May 1703

Samuel Pepys, English diarist of the Restoration period

27 May 1564

John Calvin, French leading figure of the Protestant Reformation

27 May 1964

Jawaharlal Nehru, first prime minister of India

30 May 1778

Voltaire, French writer, historian and philosopher in the Enlightenment

20 May

AD 325: the Christian church holds its first ecumenical council

On the command of Constantine I, the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, the First Council of Nicaea was convened to define a uniform doctrine. The resulting Nicene Creed is still a part of the church to this day.

21 May

1927: ‘Lucky Lindy’ lands in Paris

Some 33 and a half hours after taking off from New York, pilot Charles Lindbergh touched down his single-engine monoplane, the Spirit of St. Louis, in Paris – completing the first solo non-stop transatlantic flight in history. Overnight, ‘Lucky Lindy’ had become a darling of the press and a global celebrity.

Five years later, fellow American aviator Amelia Earhart would be the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, choosing to fly on the exact same date as Lindbergh. Due to poor weather conditions and mechanical issues, however, she did not make it to Paris, but landed in a pasture in Northern Ireland.

22 May

1762: The Trevi Fountain is inaugurated

One of the most famous fountains in the world, and a landmark of Rome, it took three decades to build the Trevi Fountain. The Baroque masterpiece designed by Italian architect Nicola Salvi was officially opened and inaugurated by Pope Clement XIII.

23 May

1618: Catholic officials are thrown out of a Prague window

The Defenestration of Prague took place amidst a climate of religious tension in Bohemia, exacerbated by the new king’s intransigent stance on undoing any changes made by the Reformation. A mass Protestant demonstration in Prague as some of their leaders prepared to meet with Catholic officials at Prague (Hradčany) Castle, but the situation turned violent when two of the Catholic men, plus one of their secretaries, were thrown out of the window.

Count Villem Slavata, Count Jaroslav Martinitz and the secretary plummeted 21 metres, but somehow survived the ordeal. The defenestration, however, had much wider-reaching consequences, sparking the Thirty Years’ War.

24 May

1844: the first long-distance telegraph is sent

An image of the Telegraph central office in France.
An image of the Telegraph central office in France. (Picture by GettyImages)

In a test of the telegraph line that ran from Washington DC to Baltimore, Maryland, American inventor Samuel Morse sent the telegraph message: “What hath God wrought?” The Bible verse had been suggested by the young daughter of one of his friends.

25 May

1935: Jesse Owens has a history-making day of competition

A year before winning four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics – ripping apart Hitler’s intention of using the games as proof of Aryan supremacy – African-American athlete Jesse Owens had a performance at a competition that was arguably even better. At the Big Ten Championship in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the 21-year-old broke three world records (in the long jump, 220-yard dash and 220-yard hurdles) and tied another (the 100-yard dash).

Owens accomplished this in just 45 minutes. What’s more, he did it injured. Five days earlier, he had fallen down the stairs and hurt his lower back so severely that it was a doubt that he would be able to compete at all. Instead, he achieved what the International Olympic Committee has referred to as “the greatest 45 minutes in sport”.

26 May

1521: Martin Luther is declared a heretic

The German priest, author of the Ninety Five Theses and leading figure in the Reformation is declared a “notorious heretic” by the Diet of Worms, an imperial assembly called by Holy Roman emperor Charles V. For not recanting his views, Luther was labelled an outlaw, as were his followers, forcing him into hiding. The Diet of Worms marked a schism in the Christian world.

27 May

1703: St Petersburg is founded

As the possibly apocryphal story goes, the Russian tsar Peter the Great chose the site of his new city – on land with access to the Baltic Sea, recently conquered from the Swedes – by cutting two strips of turf with a bayonet and placing them in the shape of a cross. He then proclaimed, “Here shall be a town.”

Despite the marshy ground and threat of long, freezing winters, a log house was built for Peter, followed by the Peter and Paul Fortress, which still stands today. The city that would emerge, however, was not named after Peter himself, but the saint.

28 May

585 BC: a solar eclipse brings a halt to a battle

According to the accounts of Greek historian Herodotus, a solar eclipse – thought to have taken place on 28 May 585 BC – had been predicted by the astronomer and philosopher Thales of Miletus. In his Histories, Herodotus then states that the Medes and Lydians were fighting a war at the time, and when the sky went dark they dropped their weapons and sued for peace.

29 May

1953: Hillary and Tenzing conquer Everest

Hillary and Tensing on their return to Camp IV, the advanced base, after their successful assault on Mount Everest.
Hillary and Tensing on their return to Camp IV, the advanced base, after their successful assault on Mount Everest. (Photo by Daily Herald Archive/National Science & Media Museum/SSPL via Getty Images)

Edmund Hillary, a mountaineer (and beekeeper) from New Zealand, and the Nepalese Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay, are the first people to reach the summit of the world’s highest mountain, Mount Everest. They were part of a major British expedition, headed by Colonel John Hunt, determined to achieve the feat before their Swiss rivals.

Hillary and Tenzing spend only 15 minutes at the top, reaching the summit of the 8,849-metre mountain at around 11.30am. That was enough time to bury some sweets and biscuits in the ice and for the Kiwi to have “no choice but to urinate”.

30 May

1431: Joan of Arc is burned at the stake

The peasant girl blessed with divine visions who became a heroine of France for lifting the siege of Orleans is burned at the stake for heresy. The 19-year-old had received a politically motivated trial before an English court in Normandy, at which she was charged with numerous crimes including dressing in men’s clothing.

Around two decades after her execution on a pyre, the French king Charles VII ordered an investigation into Joan of Arc’s trial, which led to her sentence being annulled. It would be almost five centuries before she was canonised as a saint, in 1922.

31 May

1279 BC: Ramesses the Great begins his historic reign

Ramesses II, pharaoh of the 19th Dynasty, assumed the throne. During his 66 years in power, he embarked on a number of military campaigns and ordered magnificent building projects, including colossal statues of himself and the temples of Abu Simbel.

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