7 things that happened in January through history

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

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

BFMJ62 Torture of Robert-Francois DAMIENS, 1715-57 French fanatic who in 1757 made an unsuccessful attempt on the life of King...

5 January 1757: Louis XV cheats an assassin’s blade

On 5 January 1757, Versailles shivered under a thick blanket of snow. At six that evening, Louis XV, the 56-year-old king of France, left his daughter’s apartments to return to his own rooms at the Grand Trianon. As he walked through the marble courtyard towards his carriage, the guards stood motionless, their torches held aloft.


And then the assassin made his move, slipping out of the darkness to plunge a short knife into the king’s chest. The cold probably saved Louis’s life, since his clothes were so thick that the knife penetrated less than half an inch into his chest. The writer and historian Voltaire, one of the king’s fiercest critics, later claimed that it had been merely a “pinprick”. Even so, Louis feared the worst: when the queen ran to his side, he made a point of apologising for his countless affairs.

The assassin, meanwhile, made no attempt to resist arrest. A former domestic servant from Arras called Robert-François Damiens, he appears to have been outraged by the rigid policies of the French Catholic church, for which he held Louis personally responsible. Almost certainly he was insane.

What followed, however, was simply horrific. On 28 March, Damiens was publicly tortured with pincers and burned with sulphur, hot wax and boiling oil. The executioner then cut off his arms and legs. Finally Damiens’s torso – he was still alive, incidentally – was burned at the stake. Among the crowd was the womanising adventurer Giacomo Casanova. “I was several times obliged to turn away my face and to stop my ears,” Casanova wrote, “as I heard his piercing shrieks.” But his fellow spectators, he noted, watched with hungry glee, their eyes bright with pleasure.

9 January 1806: Nelson makes his final journey

The funeral of Horatio, Lord Nelson, the hero of Trafalgar, was one of the greatest public events London has ever seen. For three days from 5 January, his coffin lay in state in Greenwich’s Painted Hall, while thousands of people paid their respects. On the 8th, a royal barge, draped in black velvet and solemnly escorted by City of London barges, carried it up the Thames to Whitehall. There it was taken to the Admiralty where it rested overnight, guarded by Nelson’s chaplain, Alexander Scott.

A printed linen panel from 1806 depicts the funeral procession of Lord Nelson and scenes from his life. In the top right of the image his funeral cortege can be seen making its way to St Paul’s Cathedral. Thousands packed London’s streets to bid the naval hero farewell. (© Alamy)

The funeral procession on 9 January was one of the most colourful in the city’s history. Tens of thousands of Londoners lined the streets; some sat in specially erected stands, while others had bought tickets to obtain the best view. The cortege, made up of the Victory’s crew, Nelson’s fellow officers, Greenwich pensioners and thousands of soldiers, was so long that by the time the column reached St Paul’s, the funeral car was still at Whitehall.

By the time the service began, it was already dark. In the gloom of the cathedral, 130 lamps glittered in the dome, from where the staff of St Paul’s had hung two gigantic captured French and Spanish flags. The mood was sombre, and Nelson’s nephew wrote that it was “the most awful sight I ever saw”.

At the end of the service, as Nelson’s coffin descended into the crypt, a herald slowly read the great man’s titles, ending with the words: “The hero, who in the moment of victory, fell covered with immortal glory.” At that, Nelson’s officers broke their staves, which were later thrown into his grave.

But his sailors did not follow the script. Instead of folding Victory’s flag, they ripped it in two and divided it between them as relics of Britain’s greatest naval hero.

25 January 1077: Henry IV bends his knee to the pope at Canossa

The ruined castle of Canossa stands on the summit of a rocky hill in Reggio Emilia, northern Italy. In 1077, it was one of the most impregnable fortresses in the region. It was here that Pope Gregory VII took refuge during his bitter dispute with the Holy Roman Emperor, the German king Henry IV. And it was here that Henry waited on his knees in one of history’s most famous acts of penance.

At the root of the Walk to Canossa was a long-simmering row about the balance of power between pope and emperor, known as the Investiture Controversy. When relations broke down, Gregory formally excommunicated and deposed the emperor – the ultimate sanction in medieval Christendom. As his support began to erode, Henry felt compelled to take extraordinary measures.

After crossing the Alps in the first weeks of 1077, Henry dressed as a penitent, abandoning his shoes and putting on a monk’s hair shirt. It was in this attire that, on 25 January, he arrived at Canossa.

Pope Gregory VII receives Henry IV at Canossa in this 14th-century illustration. The German king was forced to kneel in the snow for three days before being admitted to the hilltop fortress. (© Superstock)

When the pope refused him entry, Henry waited outside, praying on his knees in the snow. At last, on 28 January, the castle gate creaked open. Inside, Henry fell on his knees before the pope and asked for forgiveness, and then they took communion together.

Today, ‘going to Canossa’ has become a common expression denoting reluctant penance, especially in Germany. In reality, the effect was limited, as Henry and Gregory soon fell out again. But as a symbol of the conflict between Germany and the papacy, Canossa became enormously important. For many Lutherans, the emperor was the ‘first Protestant’. And when, in the 19th century, Otto von Bismarck launched his drive to curtail the powers of the Catholic church, he made his intentions very clear. “We will not,” he said, “go to Canossa.”

20 January 1265: England’s first parliament meets

The first parliament in English history met on 20 January 1265, but it was so different from its modern-day equivalent that the two can barely be compared. It was called not by the king – the decent, dithering Henry III – but by the rebellious magnate Simon de Montfort, who had become the standard-bearer for the cause of the barons against the monarchy.

After defeating Henry’s forces at Lewes in May 1264, de Montfort decided to call an assembly (‘parlement’) in Westminster Hall to discuss his plans. The king had called such assemblies before; what was unusual about this one, though, was that its members included representatives of the shires and boroughs, not just the clerical and aristocratic elite. As such, it posed a potent challenge to the king’s monopoly of power. It was made up not merely of England’s bishops, abbots, earls and barons, but of two knights from each county and two burgesses from each borough.

Simon de Montfort, who called the first parliament in English history, depicted on a stained-glass window in St Andrew’s Church, Oxford. (© Howard Stanbury Photography)

Of course de Montfort never intended it to be entirely independent; many historians think he packed his parliament with men sympathetic to his interests. But by inviting knights and burgesses – who became known as the ‘Commons’ – de Montfort implicitly recognised the rising power of the English gentry.

Little detail about this first parliament survives, and it seems to have broken up within a month. But it established a vital principle, and when Henry’s son Edward I summoned the ‘Model Parliament’ 30 years later, he too invited knights and burgesses, as well as representatives from each city, all of whom were elected.

So perhaps de Montfort’s reputation as the accidental godfather of parliamentary democracy is not entirely false, even if he was far from being a democrat.

Expert comment – Professor Nicholas Vincent:

The events of January 1265 were momentous in several ways. In the words of the great constitutional historian FW Maitland, they helped transform parliament “from an occasion into an institution”.

Exactly 50 years after Magna Carta first demanded that no tax be imposed without consultation, the king’s subjects now met to debate far wider questions of policy. Their potential future division into ‘houses’ of Lords, clergy and ‘commoners’ was clear to see. The ‘commons’, as early as 1265, were elected on a county and borough franchise still operating into the 19th century and beyond. 

Parliament is thus an ancient institution. It is not the most ancient in Europe. Parts of Spain and southern France had representative assemblies long before 1265. Simon de Montfort, a Frenchman and chief orchestrator of the events at Westminster, knew this. He had witnessed the assemblies of France and the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Thanks to his actions, the Westminster parliament can now celebrate 750 years of debate. It was elected primarily to represent the people, to advise and, if necessary, alter their governance. It has great powers, but also great responsibilities. 

Back in de Montfort’s day, as is the case now, parliament’s authority rested upon popular respect. Should it lose that respect, even today, then it forfeits all authority.

Three other notable January anniversaries

2 January 1492: After an eight-month siege, the last Muslim emirate in the Iberian peninsula, Granada, surrenders to Castile and Aragon, marking the end of Islamic rule in what is now Spain.

14 January 1907: In Kingston, Jamaica an earthquake kills almost 1,000 people and leaves some 10,000 more homeless.

29 January  2002: George W Bush (pictured below) pledges to take on states that he says sponsor terrorism, identifying Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an ‘axis of evil’.

(© Rex Features)


Dominic Sandbrook recently presented Tomorrow’s Worlds: The Unearthly History of Science Fiction on BBC Two.