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12 fascinating historical events that happened in December

From the discovery of a "ghost ship" to an ancient earthquake, Dominic Sandbrook highlights 12 key events that took place in December in history...
These anniversaries were first published in past December issues of BBC History Magazine

Published: December 1, 2013 at 1:03 pm
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4 December 1872: The Mary Celeste is found drifting in the Atlantic

It was about one in the afternoon of 4 December 1872 that John Johnson, helmsman of the brigantine Dei Gratia, saw a ship on the Atlantic horizon. Almost at once, he knew there was something wrong. The ship was rotating in the water, and even from a distance its sails looked torn and dirty. Johnson called his second officer, and then the captain. They all agreed there was something odd. For two hours, they simply watched.


The mystery of the Mary Celeste has inspired authors from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Terry Pratchett. (Cumberland County Museum and Archives, Amherst Nova Scotia Canada)

Eventually, the Dei Gratia’s first mate, Oliver Deveau, agreed to board the mystery ship, which bore the name Mary (not, contrary to legend, Marie) Celeste. There he found “a thoroughly wet mess” – but no sign of life. The ship’s clock had stopped, and the captain’s logbook was gone; so were the sextant and chronometer. The lifeboat was missing, and a frayed rope trailed miserably in the water. But where was the crew?

The mystery of the Mary Celeste, with its supposedly untouched breakfasts and cups of tea (a complete fabrication), has always fascinated writers. In 1884 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle made it the centrepiece of a creepy story, and the ghostly ship has appeared in everything from novels by Hammond Innes and Terry Pratchett to an early episode of Doctor Who, which revealed that the crew had jumped overboard after being terrorised by Daleks.

But the truth may be more prosaic. The ship was carrying 1,700 barrels of commercial alcohol from New York to Genoa, yet investigators found that nine barrels were empty. Many scholars believe that these barrels had given off alcoholic vapour, which the crew feared was likely to cause an explosion. In their panic, they probably rushed into the lifeboat and cast off into the ocean, only to be swallowed up by the waves – or, if you prefer, exterminated by the Daleks.

6 December 1648: Colonel Thomas Pride purges parliament

The only genuine military coup in British history began on 6 December 1648. The Civil War was over and Charles I was a prisoner, but the winners had fallen out among themselves. While parliament’s moderate majority wanted to reopen negotiations with the beaten king, the New Model Army believed he had broken his word once too often. Something had to give, and at the beginning of December, the army’s commanders decided to act.

An engraving showing Pride’s Purge, a coup that paved the way for Charles I’s execution. (Alamy)

It was only as the first MPs climbed the stairs leading to the Commons chamber that they realised what was happening. At the top, surrounded by the men of his regiment, stood Colonel Thomas Pride, a former West Country brewer who had risen under Oliver Cromwell’s command. Pride held a list of members, divided into those deemed unreliable and those approved by the army. As word spread of his presence, many MPs fled or stayed away. But by the time Pride had finished, at least 200 members had been excluded and 45 arrested. The captives were held in a pub near the Palace of Westminster (nicknamed Hell) and later released. Parliamentary resistance had been broken; the army was the master of Britain.

In the next few days, what was left of the Commons – the so-called Rump Parliament – fell meekly into line, and by the end of January, Charles had been executed on charges of high treason.
The rule of the Rump did not last long: in 1653 it was forcibly dissolved by Oliver Cromwell, who became lord protector. But Cromwell did not forget his debts. By the time Thomas Pride died in 1658, he had become Lord Pride, with a seat in the new upper house and estates in the grounds of Henry VIII’s former Nonsuch Palace. Not too shabby for a yeoman’s son from Somerset.

7 December 43 BC: Cicero loses his head – and hands – to Rome

When Julius Caesar was murdered in 44 BC, the lawyer Marcus Tullius Cicero was one of the most powerful men in Rome. But as the champion of the senate’s opposition to Caesar’s heir, Octavian, and his own old friend Mark Antony, Cicero played his hand very badly. By December 43 BC, his arrest seemed only a matter of time.

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On 7 December, Cicero left his country house outside Rome for the coast, where he hoped to catch a ship to Macedonia. Only moments later, two officers, named Herennius and Popilius, arrived in pursuit. Although Cicero’s slaves refused to tell them his destination, the officers wormed the information out of one of his brother’s freedmen.

When the killers caught up with Cicero, he offered no resistance. As the biographer Plutarch later wrote: “He looked steadfastly upon his murderers, his person covered with dust, his beard and hair untrimmed, and his face worn with his troubles.”

Cicero reportedly said to Herennius: “There is nothing proper about what you are doing, soldier, but do try to kill me properly,” and leaned out of his litter to give them a clear stroke. With that, Herennius drew his sword and slashed off Cicero’s head.

Afterwards, Herennius cut off Cicero’s hands – the hands that had written his famous speeches mocking Antony – and carried them, with the head, back to Rome. There, Antony triumphantly hung them in the Forum. But according to Plutarch, the Roman people “believed they saw there not the face of Cicero, but the image of Antony’s own soul”.

A marble bust of Marcus Tullius Cicero. The Roman lawyer – and opponent of Mark Antony and Octavian – was hunted down and killed as he tried to flee Rome in 43 BC, but his writings lived on. (Topfoto)

8 December 1980: Crazed fan murders John Lennon

For musician John Lennon, the last day of his life began much the same as any other. The former Beatle had a photo shoot with the American photographer Annie Leibovitz in his apartment at the Dakota Building, New York, then an interview with a San Francisco disc jockey. Shortly before 6pm, Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono, left for the recording studio. On their way out, Lennon stopped to sign autographs for fans, as was his custom. Among them was a 25-year-old security guard from Hawaii, Mark Chapman, who wordlessly handed over a copy of Lennon’s latest album. “Is this all you want?” Lennon asked, as he scribbled his name.

It was almost 11pm when Lennon’s limousine reappeared outside the Dakota Building. Almost as soon as the musician got out, he glanced towards the shadows, perhaps recognising the man he had seen earlier. And at that moment, Chapman opened fire. The first bullet missed; the next four all hit their target.

News of the shocking assassination of former Beatle John Lennon made newspaper headlines across the world, while thousands of people gathered at his New York home to pay tribute. (AKG Images)

As Lennon lay bleeding, Chapman dropped his gun. By the time the police arrived, he was clutching a copy of JD Salinger’s book The Catcher in the Rye.

That day was a Monday and, bizarrely, it was the ABC commentators on the evening’s American football game who broke the news of Lennon’s death. Within moments the news had spread around the globe: thousands of fans gathered outside the Dakota Building while millions mourned across the world. Six days after the murder, some 30,000 people paid tribute in Liverpool, while a further 225,000 gathered in New York.

Chapman, a college dropout who had been a big Beatles fan before being born again, was sentenced to life imprisonment. He has had eight parole hearings since 2000, none of which have been successful.

11 December 1688: James II flees London

In December 1688, London was a city simmering with tension. Only weeks earlier, William of Orange had landed at Torbay, promising to safeguard England’s laws and liberties from the Catholic James II and VII. With his regime tottering, James had abandoned plans to fight and had fallen back on his capital. Now, as anti-Catholic demonstrations broke out across London, the king, hitherto so proud, began to panic. “What would you have me do?” he asked one adviser. “My children hath abandoned me… my army hath deserted me, those that I raised from nothing hath done the same. What can I expecte from those I have done little or nothing for?”

In the early hours of 10 December, James’s queen, Mary of Modena, left for France with their baby son. The next night, James followed. As he left his palace, he ordered that the writs calling for a new parliament be burned, and as his little skiff bobbed down the Thames in the darkness, he is said to have thrown the Great Seal of the Realm overboard, as if hoping to destroy the very basis of English government.

Alas for James, his escape bid ended in ignominy. A few hours later, on the morning of the 11th, his boat stopped at Faversham to take in more ballast, and his friend Sir Edward Hales was recognised by the local seamen. At first they took James merely for an “ugly, lean-jawed hatchet-faced popish dog”; on finding out who he was, however, they treated him worse than ever. Locked in a Faversham pub, he was not even allowed to go to the toilet on his own, but was surrounded by self-appointed guards and gawpers. Three days later, James’s friends managed to extricate him, but for a man who considered himself anointed by God, this had been the supreme humiliation.

Sir Peter Lely’s painting of the future James II with his family. In 1688, William of Orange’s invasion forced the Catholic monarch into a headlong flight for the coast. (Bridgeman)

14 December AD 557: The earth moves in Constantinople

It was at around midnight on 14 December 557 that Constantinople felt the first tremors. Its people were no strangers to earthquakes – there had been one just a matter of months earlier – but this seemed worse. As the Roman capital’s buildings began to shake, “shrieks and lamentations” rose from the imperial city. After each tremor, recorded the historian Agathias, there came a “deep, growling sound like thunder issuing from the bowels of the earth”, while the sky “grew dim with the vaporous exhalations of a smoky haze rising from an unknown source, and gleamed with a dull radiance”.

Seized by mass panic, the city’s population poured into the streets. They turned their eyes to heaven, wrote Agathias, as though to “propitiate the deity”. But it was no good. Everywhere was the sound of crashing and screaming, and in the chaos “the ordered structure of society… was thrown into wild confusion and trampled underfoot”. But when the dawn came, and it was over, “people moved forward to meet one another, gazing joyfully into the faces of their nearest and dearest, kissing and embracing and weeping with delight and surprise”.

For the rest of that winter, Agathias wrote, the people of Constantinople were afflicted by “nagging doubts and persistent fears”. Many saw the calamity as a divine judgment on their sins – and on their emperor, Justinian. Afterwards, the emperor set about restoring the vast number of public buildings damaged during the earthquake. But barely six months later, the main dome of Hagia Sophia, the jewel of his capital, collapsed in ruins. The structure that replaced it, however, stands to this day.

17 December 1903: The Wright brothers fly into history

On the North Carolina coast, Thursday 17 December 1903 was a cold and very windy day. When Orville and Wilbur Wright awoke that morning, they thought it was almost perfect. Three days earlier, after years of trials, they had tried to get their primitive powered ‘airplane’, with its 40ft wingspan, into the air. But no sooner had Wilbur got it off the ground, than the aircraft stalled and plunged back down into the sand. Now it was Orville’s turn.

By conventional standards the two men made implausible historical icons. Born in 1867 and 1871 respectively – the sons of an evangelical Christian clergyman – the story goes that they were first smitten by the principle of flight when their father bought them a helicopter toy. After working as commercial printers, the pair opened a bicycle shop, capitalising on the craze for cycles but all the time tinkering with schemes to get an aircraft into the sky.

History is made as Orville Wright takes to the skies in the powered plane he had built with his brother, Wilbur. The fourth attempt achieved a flight distance of 852 feet and lasted for 59 seconds. (Getty)
Just after 10.30am, Orville climbed into the Flyer. Disappointingly, his diary fails to capture the excitement he must have felt. “The wind, according to our anemometers at this time, was blowing a little over 20 miles, 27 miles according to the government anemometer at Kitty Hawk,” he wrote. “On slipping the rope the machine started off increasing in speed to probably seven or eight miles. The machine lifted from the truck just as it was entering on the fourth rail. Mr Daniels took a picture just as it left the tracks… A sudden dart when out about 100 feet from the end of the tracks ended the flight. Time about 12 seconds (not known exactly as watch was not promptly stopped).”

It was the first of four flights made that day, each longer than the one before. On the fourth trial, Wilbur guided the world’s first plane through the air for a distance of 852 feet in 59 seconds. For the first time, mankind had the power of flight. It was a genuinely extraordinary moment.

25 December 1991: The Soviet Union takes its dying breath

It’s 25 December 1991. In Moscow, where there are two weeks to go until the Orthodox Christmas, it ought to be just another day. But this is a date that will go down in history: the last day of the Soviet Union.

Historians still argue about when the Soviet state began to fall apart. But the death-blow came in August 1991, when communist hardliners, alarmed at the pace of change, staged a coup. Although the coup failed, it ripped the heart out of the communist regime. At the beginning of December, leaders of the Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian republics met in a remote Belarusian hunting lodge and signed an accord to end the Soviet Union forever.

For President Mikhail Gorbachev, the accord was a humiliation, destroying his hopes of remaining as leader of a reformed, decentralised Soviet empire. For the next two weeks he cut a distinctly miserable figure, holed up in the Kremlin, presiding over a country that was doomed.

On 25 December, the end came. In a short address at 7pm, broadcast live on Soviet television, Gorbachev announced he was resigning his position. The presidential office, he said sadly, was now extinct. Tellingly, his speech was filmed by an American rather than Russian crew, while he signed his resignation letter with a Mont Blanc pen borrowed from the president of CNN. A few minutes later, Gorbachev handed over the famous briefcase with the Soviet Union’s nuclear codes to an officer representing Russian president Boris Yeltsin, who had declined to turn up in person.

At 7.32pm came the most symbolic moment of all. Above the Kremlin, the red Soviet flag was lowered for the last time. In its place, Yeltsin’s men raised the red, white and blue tricolour of tsarist Russia.

The Musichick family watches Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev’s resignation speech on Soviet television from their Moscow apartment. (PA)

The Musichick family watches Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev’s resignation speech on Soviet television from their Moscow apartment. (PA)

26 December 1792: A brilliant defence fails to save Louis XVI from the guillotine

It was half past nine in the morning when Louis XVI’s military escort clattered across the cobblestones of Paris, taking him to his trial at the National Assembly. With revolutionary France under attack and passions running high on the capital’s streets, few people doubted the trial’s eventual verdict. But Louis was determined to have the best possible defence, and had engaged Raymond de Sèze, reputedly one of the finest lawyers in the country.

For two weeks de Sèze had worked almost without a break. Now, as he rose to address the National Assembly, he looked exhausted: in fact, he had not slept for four days. Still, even Louis’ fiercest critics admitted that his lawyer gave a command performance.

One by one de Sèze went through the prosecution’s charges, ruthlessly dissecting their distortions and evasions. Then came a memorable peroration, praising the former king as the “constant friend of the people”. “Citizens,” he concluded, “I cannot finish… I stop myself before history. Think how it will judge your judgment, and that the judgment of him will be judged by the centuries.”

Then it was Louis’ turn. Pale and quiet, he was determined to avoid the example of England’s Charles I, whose defiance in 1649 had done him no favours. “You have heard my defence, I would not repeat the details,” he said softly. “In talking to you perhaps for the last time, I declare that my conscience reproaches me with nothing, and that my defenders have told you the truth.”

Afterwards, on the journey back, the king seemed more anxious for the shattered de Sèze than for himself. A month later, Louis went to the guillotine.

29 December 1170: Henry II’s knights scatter Thomas Becket’s “brains and blood”

Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, was on his way to Vespers when the four knights caught up with him. They had ridden from the court of Becket’s old patron, Henry II, who had become infuriated by his protégé’s defence of the church’s privileges. Once the two men had been friends; Henry supposedly remarked that Becket showed him more affection in a day than his father had done in his entire lifetime. But now Henry’s patience had run out. When they asked Becket to come to meet the king at Westminster, he refused outright.

Thomas Becket
The murder of Thomas Becket was one of a series of calamities to rock Henry's kingdom to its core in England's turbulent 1170s. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Moments later, Henry’s knights exacted a terrifying penalty. Whether they really were acting on the king’s orders, we will never know. According to the monk Edward Grim, who was hiding near the altar, the knights launched their attack near the stairs leading to the cathedral choir. The first blow caught Becket’s head, slicing open his scalp. “Then he received a second blow on the head but still stood firm,” Grim wrote. “At the third blow he fell on his knees and elbows, offering himself a living victim, and saying in a low voice, ‘For the Name of Jesus and the protection of the Church I am ready to embrace death.”’

A fourth blow smashed Becket’s skull, so that, in Grim’s words, “the blood white with the brain, and the brain no less red from the blood, dyed the floor of the cathedral”. Then a clerk, who had accompanied the knights, put his foot on Becket’s neck, and “horrible to relate, scattered the brains and blood about the pavements”. “Let us away, knights,” the clerk said, “this fellow will rise no more."

30 December 1460: Richard of York’s decapitated head is given a crown of paper

By the end of 1460, England was in tumult. After months of uneasy peace between the rival Lancastrian and Yorkist factions, open war had broken out once more.

In the north of England, Richard of York was holed up in his fortress at Sandal Castle, while the Lancastrian forces were camped barely 10 miles away at Pontefract. On 30 December, York led his men from the castle, perhaps on a foraging expedition, or possibly to launch a surprise attack on his adversaries. In truth, his plans have never been explained. But what followed was sheer carnage.

By later standards, the battle of Wakefield was barely a battle at all. It was all over very quickly. As one chronicler put it, by the time York reached “the plain ground between his castle and the town of Wakefield, he was environed on every side, like a fish in a net, or a deer in a buckstall; so that he manfully fighting was within half an hour slain and dead, and his whole army discomfited”.

As many as 2,500 men may have been slaughtered, among them not only York himself, but his son Edmund, Earl of Rutland and his brother-in-law and chief northern ally, the Earl of Salisbury.

Their enemies shed no tears for the fallen Yorkists; quite the reverse. The Lancastrian commander, the Duke of Somerset, ordered that the three barons’ heads should be mounted above Micklegate Bar, the city of York’s western gate. In a gesture of supreme contempt, Richard of York’s head wore a paper crown.

31 December 1759: Ireland’s most famous drink is born

On the last day of 1759, a young man signed a 9,000-year lease on a dilapidated brewery on James Street, Dublin, for which he agreed to pay the sum of £45 a year.

His name was Arthur Guinness and he now enjoys near-legendary status in the Republic of Ireland. He was a member of the island’s Protestant Anglo-Irish elite. His father was a land steward for the archbishop of Cashel, but Arthur had decided to make his living as a brewer.

Since, at the time, there were already some 70 breweries in Dublin, it might have been thought that Guinness stood little chance of success. The country’s most popular drinks tended to be spirits and the quality of its beer was generally low. But Guinness’s business boomed, and by 1767 he had been elected master of the Dublin Corporation of Brewers.

By the time Guinness died, almost 40 years later, his brewery was turning out some 20,000 barrels of the black stuff every year. By the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, it was the biggest brewery in the British empire.

The key to Guinness’s success was his embrace of porter, a drink that for decades had been associated with London’s street and river porters. It was a dark, heavy beer, made from roasted barley and much more flavoursome than the thin ales then associated with Dublin’s brewers.

Contrary to popular belief, however, it has evolved considerably since then. Who knows whether Arthur would recognise the drink inside the bottles that, even today, still carry his signature?


Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and presenter.


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