Historical anniversaries | May
What historical anniversaries are in May? We round up the events, births and deaths…
1851: Queen Victoria opens the Great Exhibition
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.
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.
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.
1471: Edward IV reclaims the throne at Tewkesbury
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.
- Try our quiz | How much do you know about the Wars of the Roses?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
1662: Mr Punch makes his English debut
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’.
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.
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.
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.”
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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.
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.
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.
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.
1770: Marie Antoinette marries the French dauphin – for the second time
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.
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’.
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.
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.”
- Read more | The final days of Anne Boleyn: why did she die?
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
1844: the first long-distance telegraph is sent
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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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