7 things that happened in August through history

Dominic Sandbrook highlights events that took place in August in history...

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22 August 565: The Loch Ness monster is spotted for the first time

The story of the Loch Ness Monster was first popularised when a road was built across the loch in 1933. But when scholars investigated, they discovered that the first possible sighting had actually occurred in the days of the semi-legendary St Columba, who supposedly confronted the creature on 22 August 565.

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An Irish monk who had sailed to Scotland to spread the gospel of Christ, Columba was visiting the land of the Picts when he reached the river Ness. There he came across some locals burying one of their friends, whom “some water monster had a little before snatched at as he was swimming, and bitten with a most savage bite”.

Columba ordered one of his acolytes to swim across the river and to bring back a boat. But now the water monster made an appearance.

“Not so much satiated as made eager for prey,” explained a chronicler, it was “lying hidden in the bottom of the river.” But now it “suddenly emerged, and, swimming to the man as he was crossing in the middle of the stream, rushed up with a great roar and open mouth”.

All were terrified – except Columba. “With his holy hand raised on high,” the chronicler recorded, “he formed the saving sign of the cross in the empty air, invoked the Name of God, and commanded the fierce monster, saying: ‘Think not to go further, nor touch thou the man. Quick! Go back!’”

The monster fled, while Columba’s followers loudly praised God. As for the locals, they converted on the spot.

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10 August 1792: The French monarchy topples

In the summer of 1792 Paris seethed with tension. Since the revolution had begun three years earlier, the momentum towards violence had become unstoppable, and as one defeat followed another in the Austrian Netherlands, the mood in the capital darkened. For many people, there was an obvious scapegoat: the king, Louis XVI, with his foreign friends and Austrian-born wife, Marie Antoinette.

“It is in the name of the king,” said one revolutionary leader, “that liberty is being attacked.” For the first time, many politicians began to talk openly about the abolition of the monarchy.

On the night of 9/10 August, the storm broke. In the early hours of the morning, a revolutionary mob marched on the royal palace, the Tuileries. Reviewing his troops, “with his sword at his side, but with the powder falling out of his hair”, Louis was shocked to hear some of them shouting: “Long live the nation!” and “Down with the [royal] veto!” The queen begged her husband to stand and fight. But Louis could not abide the thought of bloodshed. Instead of standing firm, he and his family fled to the sanctuary of the National Assembly.

In the meantime, the revolutionaries rampaged through the abandoned palace, massacring Louis’s Swiss Guards, as well as his male servants and courtiers. In all, perhaps 1,000 people died. The monarchy was finished; a new moodof republican idealism seized the capital.

Abroad, the reaction was utter horror. “The French,” said one British newspaper, “by their own madness and folly, have thereby prepared for themselves that ruin and destruction, which the combined power of all the despots in the universe could not otherwise have effected.”

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2 August 1990: Kuwait falls to Iraqi forces

The invasion began at two in the morning on 2 August 1990. Without warning, four Iraqi Republican Guard divisions struck across the border with Kuwait, while Iraqi planes pounded targets in Kuwait City. Even as the Kuwaitis were struggling to respond, Iraqi helicopter gunships were landing in the capital, carrying commandos into the heart of the enemy city.

For hours the fighting raged. Hopelessly outnumbered, some Kuwaiti units fell back across the border with Saudi Arabia, while others simply surrendered where they stood. At the royal residence, Dasman Palace, the Emir’s half-brother, Sheikh Fahad, led a desperate defence against Iraqi marines, but it was no good. By 2pm, the palace had fallen. According to one Iraqi marine, the sheikh was shot in the head before his body was run over by a tank.

On paper, the invasion was a stunning military success. Iraq’s military dictator, Saddam Hussein, had taken his opponents completely by surprise. At a stroke, he had not only solved the problem of his intolerable $14bn debt to the Kuwaitis, but had gained revenge for what he claimed was Kuwait’s policy of ‘slant-drilling’ into Iraq’s oil fields.

Almost four weeks later, Kuwait was formally annexed as Iraq’s 19th province. But by then, Saddam’s gamble was already turning sour. Across the world, condemnation was virtually unanimous.

Within days the US had begun sending troops to Saudi Arabia; by the autumn the Americans had assembled an anti-Iraqi coalition, including troops from some 34 countries.

Saddam Hussein might have won the first battle. But in the long run, he had unwittingly set out on the road to his own destruction.

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23 August 1305: William Wallace dies a grisly death

At London’s most famous market, the crowds were waiting for the execution of the great rebel. After years in France trying to drum up military and diplomatic support from European powers for Scotland’s independence, William Wallace had at last been captured.

Convicted in a Westminster trial of “sedition, homicides, plunderings, fire-raisings, and diverse other felonies [including treason]”, he was dragged through the streets from the Tower of London to Aldgate and thence to the Elms, on Smithfield market’s western edge.

There, Wallace was hanged before a great throng, jeering and cheering in equal measure. In accordance with the law, his body was cut down before he was quite dead. His genitals were sliced off; his internal organs ripped out and burned in front of him. Then, finally, the executioner cut off his head and chopped his body into four parts. His limbs were sent to Newcastle, Berwick, Stirling and Perth; his head was jammed onto a pike and displayed on London Bridge, “as a cause of fear and chastisement of all going past and looking upon these things”.

Centuries later, Wallace was rehabilitated as a kind of Scottish freedom fighter, a representative of the masses standing up to the tyrannical King Edward I. At the time, his contemporaries would have considered such an interpretation laughable. Far from being a common Scot, Wallace was a son of the lesser nobility, and his surname, which may derive from a word meaning ‘Welsh’, suggests non-Scottish origins in his ancestry. Certainly there is no evidence he saw himself as a nationalist hero. But to modern admirers, none of that matters. They prefer the Wallace in Mel Gibson’s 1995 film Braveheart, a kilt- wearing, woad-smeared Che Guevara, ranting in an Australian accent.

Expert comment – Fiona Watson:

Wallace’s execution at Smithfield was intended as a barnstorming beginning to the St Bartholomew’s Fair holiday for an English nation nearly brought to its knees by decades of military service and taxes for Edward I’s many wars. It was also the start of the final phase of the ‘settlement of Scotland’ following the wholesale submission of most Scots to Edward I in early 1304. Only Wallace was exempt from the peace terms; his former comrades-in-arms were set to hunt him down as proof of their loyalty, which Sir John Menteith achieved in August 1305. A month later, a London parliament, attended by both English and Scottish magnates, finalised how Scotland was to be governed. But only seven months after that, in February 1306, Robert Bruce, Earl of Carrick, seized the Scottish throne, beginning the war all over again.

Wallace’s gruesome end was the same as that devised for Prince David of Wales in 1283. Each element conformed to a different crime and highlights developments in the laws of treason. Wallace did not deny the charges against him but argued that, since Edward I was not his lord, his actions were simply a reaction to the latter’s conquest of Scotland.

In executing him, Edward created a martyr who immediately captured the Scottish imagination. Wallace was the man who showed Robert Bruce the way, a theme that has lasted from the 14th century right up to the present.


Three other notable August anniversaries

16 August 1858
Queen Victoria sends President James Buchanan the first trans-Atlantic telegraph, providing “an additional link between the nations whose friendship is founded on their common interest and reciprocal esteem”.

30 August 526
In Ravenna, the Gothic king Theodoric the Great (above) dies of dysentery, leaving the crown of Italy to his 10-year-old son Athalaric.

15 August 1843
The Tivoli Gardens, which will become one of the world’s most famous amusement parks, opens its gates in Copenhagen. Denmark for the first time.

Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and presenter. His TV series, Let Us Entertain You, will shortly be aired on BBC Two.

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This article was first published in the August 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine