8 remarkable historical events that happened in May
Dominic Sandbrook highlights noteworthy events that took place in May in history...
This article was first published in the May 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine
4 May 1926: The General Strike fails to paralyse Britain
To many people, the first full day of the General Strike on 4 May 1926 represented a turning point in history. After years of mounting tension between employers and unions, particularly in the coal industry, the Trades Union Congress finally ordered its members out. On that first morning, docks, factories and rail yards across the country stood empty and silent. Conservative newspapers warned that this would mark the beginning of a Bolshevik revolution. In Blackburn, one man later remembered, his family “sat in silence in the kitchen, holding their breath, waiting for the revolution to begin”.
Across the country, a strange sense of unreality took hold. With public transport having ground to a halt, the roads were packed. “The mill chimneys ceased to smoke and the wheels ceased to turn,” one woman in Manchester wrote afterwards. “The pavement and even the roads were crowded with pedestrians and the drivers of private cars offered lifts with surprising generosity.”
Reports of fighting came from the docks, while the government deployed troops to escort food convoys. Yet the widely predicted class warfare failed to materialise, and the General Strike never evolved into a revolutionary uprising. Indeed, compared with turbulence overseas, it turned into a bit of a non-event.
By the time it fizzled out nine days later, King George V – who had upbraided his Conservative ministers for their attitude to the strikers (“Try living on their wages before you judge them”) – considered it a tribute to British unity. “Our dear old country can be well proud of itself,” he wrote in his diary. “It shows what a wonderful people we are.”
6 May 1527: The army of the Holy Roman Emperor sacks Rome
In the early 16th century, Italy was a dangerous place to live. Torn apart by endless wars between the French king, Francis I, and his bitter rival, Charles V, king of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, the peninsula had become a byword for massacres, plunder and rapine. But nothing made a greater impression on the European imagination than what happened on 6 May 1527, the day the imperial army hurled itself on Rome.
The sack of Rome was never part of Charles V’s plan. His troops had already beaten the French; the problem was that funds had run short – so the imperial army’s commander, the Duke of Bourbon, had effectively lost control over his own men. Only by promising them loot from the capture of Rome did the duke manage to prevent a full-scale mutiny. And so it was that on 6 May, at least 20,000 imperial soldiers began their assault. Disastrously, the duke, wearing his trademark white cloak, was shot and killed almost immediately – and any semblance of discipline disappeared.
What followed was an orgy of plunder and vandalism as the imperial army swept aside the feeble resistance and rampaged through the city. Inside the Vatican, the Swiss Guard made a desperate last stand as Pope Clement VII escaped to the Castel Sant’Angelo. They were slaughtered where they stood, their captain cut down in full view of his watching wife. Meanwhile, imperial troops were ransacking churches, tombs and cemeteries. In all, at least 12,000 people were estimated to have been murdered. “The Germans were bad,” said one churchman. “The Italians were worse; the Spanish were the worst.”
6 May 1840: The Penny Black revolutionises communications in Britain
The world’s first adhesive postage stamp was the brainchild of teacher and social reformer Rowland Hill. (Mary Evans)
14 May 1264: Montfort crushes Henry III’s hapless army at Lewes
16 May 1900: Mafeking is relieved
16 May 1703: Peter the Great founds his namesake city
24 May 1487: Lambert Simnel is crowned king in Dublin
Lambert Simnel is depicted as the ‘Knight of the Golden Tulip’ on a 17th-century playing card. (Bridgeman Art)
25 May 1895: Oscar Wilde is convicted
Oscar Wilde’s decision to launch a libel action against the Marquess of Queensberry, who had accused him of “posing somdomite [sic]”, was the most unfortunate he ever made.
The trial opened on 3 April 1895 and almost immediately it was obvious that Wilde was in deep trouble. When the defence announced that they had found several male prostitutes who would testify that they had had sex with Wilde, the playwright dropped the case – but, even as he left the courtroom, the authorities were drawing up a warrant for his arrest on charges of gross indecency.
At Wilde’s first trial, which opened on 26 April, the jury was unable to reach a verdict. Three weeks later, a second trial began at the Old Bailey, prosecuted by the Liberal government’s solicitor general, Sir Frank Lockwood. Wilde wrote later that Lockwood had issued an “appalling denunciation – like something out of Tacitus, like a passage in Dante, like one of Savonarola’s indictments of the popes of Rome”. This was an exaggeration: by the standards of the day, Lockwood’s closing statement was remarkably restrained. But it is easy to understand why Wilde was so distraught.
On 25 May, the foreman announced the jury’s verdict: guilty. There were cries of “Shame!” from the gallery, and Wilde turned grey with horror. “It is no use for me to address you. People who can do these things must be dead to all sense of shame, and one cannot hope to produce any effect upon them. It is the worst case I have ever tried,” said Mr Justice Wills, who sentenced Wilde to two years of hard labour. It was, he added, “the severest sentence that the law allows. In my judgment it is totally inadequate for a case such as this.”
Other notable May anniversaries
3 May 1849: In Dresden, Saxony, pro-democracy protesters launch the ill-fated May Uprising, often considered the last of the 1848 revolutions. After six days of pitched street battles, the revolt is put down.
12 May 1364: After winning approval from the pope, the Polish king Casimir III issues a charter for his country’s first higher education institution, the Jagiellonian University (shown below) – the second-oldest university in central Europe.
15 May 1982: Attacked by Argentine Skyhawk aircraft off the coast of the Falkland Islands, the British destroyer HMS Coventry is sunk. The attack takes the lives of 20 crew.
19 May 1536: Charged with adultery, incest and treason, Henry VIII’s second wife, the enigmatic Anne Boleyn, is executed at the Tower of London.
26 May 1805: Napoleon claims the title of king of Italy and is crowned with the medieval Iron Crown of Lombardy in Milan’s magnificent cathedral.
30 May 1966: NASA launches the rocket carrying lunar lander Surveyor 1; three days later, it lands on the moon (pictured below). It is the first American spacecraft to land on an extra-terrestrial body, paving the way for the moon landing three years later.
Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and broadcaster.