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
The torched city burns as thousands of imperial troops pillage Rome on 6 May 1527, as depicted by a 16th or 17th-century Italian artist. (AKG)
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.”
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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
Rowland Hill had a vision. While a small boy in Kidderminster, he had watched in embarrassment as his mother scrabbled for money to pay the postman. By the 1830s, Hill, now a teacher and social reformer, was determined to push through a change that he believed would transform the Post Office into a force for progress: universal penny postage, paid in advance.
By May 1840, Hill’s scheme was up and running. As he explained, people would prove that they had paid by using “a bit of paper just large enough to bear the stamp, and covered at the back with a glutinous wash, which the bringer might, by applying a little moisture, attach to the back of the letter”. He enlisted the Royal Mint’s chief engraver to create a memorable image – a picture of Queen Victoria. Today we know his creation as the Penny Black.
The first stamps went on sale on 1 May, and the system came into operation five days later. One schoolboy recalled that he did not “fancy making my mouth a glue pot,” while the newssheet The Town ran a saucy poem:
“You must kiss our fair Queen,
or her pictures, that’s clear.
Or the gummy medallion
will never adhere.
You will not kiss her hand,
you will readily find
But actually kiss little Vicky’s behind.”
The Penny Black was an instant hit. Within a week the presses were working round the clock producing 600,000 stamps a day. The stamp had become an icon, a symbol of national pride: an image of Britannia itself.
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
In the long list of royal catastrophes, the battle of Lewes holds an especially ignominious place. Like his father, the ill-starred John, Henry III had spent decades feuding with his barons while attempting to raise money. In particular, he found himself pitted against the ruthless Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, who was determined to uphold the principles of Magna Carta and secure more power for England’s magnates.
Both sides had begun preparing for war in the early 1260s, but it was not until 14 May 1264 that their armies clashed in earnest. Montfort had cornered the royal army in the Sussex town of Lewes. The night before battle was joined, the barons’ leader slept not a wink, preferring instead to give his time “to divine offices and prayers and exhorting his men to make sincere confessions”.
Montfort need not have worried. When battle commenced the following day, the royal troops’ lack of discipline proved fatal. Though the king’s son, the future Edward I, led a stirring cavalry charge that broke his enemy’s left wing, he was unable to rally his men back to their positions. In the confusion, Montfort’s men crushed the rest of the king’s army. Henry himself – who was almost 50 years old – fought bravely, but to no avail. By evening, he and his son had retreated to Lewes Priory, and the following day they formally surrendered to Simon de Montfort. It was one of the most humiliating moments in Plantagenet history.
16 May 1900: Mafeking is relieved
The Boer War began disastrously for Britain. The autumn of 1899 saw one defeat after another, while at Mafeking, on the border between British-held Cape Colony and the Transvaal, some 1,500 British troops were surrounded by a far larger Boer army. On 12 October the telegraph lines were cut; four days later the first Boer shells landed in the dusty little town. Yet for more than 200 days, the defenders held out. Inspired by their commander, Colonel Robert Baden-Powell, they not only laid fake landmines and mounted daring diversionary attacks, but always made time for Sunday cricket matches.
In Britain, the valiant resistance of the Mafeking defenders gripped the public imagination. By May 1900, with a relief column on its way, it seemed that everybody was waiting for news of victory. And, at last, it came. Late on the evening of 16 May, the defenders heard firing to the north. At about 7.30pm, seven British cavalrymen rode into the town. As they paused, tired and dusty, a passer-by said casually: “Oh yes, I heard you were knocking about.”
The main relief column arrived in Mafeking just before four o’clock next morning. By then, crowds had poured into the streets, filled with unbridled joy. “One man tried to speak; then he swore; then he buried his face in his arms and sobbed,” wrote a watching reporter. But that was as nothing compared with the reaction back home: a week’s worth of hysterical rejoicing ensued, complete with street parties and fireworks. The defenders of Mafeking, wrote the author FT Stevens, “carried themselves like Britons of the old breed… and because they played the game and played up well, and played to the end, and by the will of God have won, we honour them and count the country richer this day for them.”
16 May 1703: Peter the Great founds his namesake city
Even by the standards of Russia’s colourful history, the foundation of St Petersburg makes an extraordinary story. In May 1703, the dynamic young emperor Peter the Great had cut his way through Swedish forces to the Baltic coastline. His eye was drawn to a small island at the mouth of the river Neva where Finnish fishermen had built a few wooden huts. The story goes that Peter borrowed a bayonet to cut two strips of turf, which he laid in the shape of a cross. “Here,” he proclaimed, “shall be a town.” The first stone was laid on 16 May (27 May in the Gregorian calendar.)
Whether or not this story is true, Peter’s ambition was astounding. The cold, marshy conditions could hardly have been less propitious, and he was still fighting the Swedes. Yet by the end of May his men had built a small log house for Peter, and by year’s end they had finished a great hexagonal citadel, the Peter and Paul Fortress, which still stands today.
Yet the birth of St Petersburg did not come without a horrendous cost. The Swedes launched fresh attacks each year, but the biggest problems were caused by the conditions. Draining the marshes demanded almost superhuman effort; men poured into the site from as far afield as Finland, Siberia and Ukraine. They lived in primitive, crowded, dirty hovels; many died from dysentery, scurvy or malaria. St Petersburg, men said, was a “city built on bones”.
But it endured. Indeed, nothing better symbolises Peter’s vision than the gleaming, soaring gold spire of the Peter and Paul Cathedral. Work began on it in 1712; by the time it was completed in 1733, Peter was long dead. His city, though, lives on.
This rather romantic depiction of the founding of St Petersburg was painted in 1838 by Alexei Gavrilovich Venetsianov. (Superstock)
24 May 1487: Lambert Simnel is crowned king in Dublin
In the spring of 1487, Henry VII sat uneasily on his throne. It was less than two years since he had taken the crown by force at Bosworth, and he had already put down one Yorkist uprising. But then, at the end of May 1487, word reached Henry that the worst had happened. A Yorkist pretender claiming to be the young Earl of Warwick had been crowned king in Dublin, and an Irish army was on its way to England.
In reality, as Henry knew perfectly well, Warwick was safely locked in the Tower of London. The imposter was a tradesman’s son, 10-year-old Lambert Simnel (though this name is doubtful). He had been groomed by a Yorkist priest called Richard Symonds, who put it about that Warwick had escaped from the Tower and was now under his guidance. The priest then sailed to Ireland and presented young Simnel to the lord deputy, the Earl of Kildare, who was no fan of Henry VII. Kildare was also not a fool, and almost certainly knew that Simnel was an imposter – but the prospect of playing kingmaker was too tempting to resist.
On 24 May, Simnel was paraded through the streets of Dublin. At the Priory of the Holy Trinity, later Christ Church Cathedral, he was crowned king of England with a gold circlet borrowed from a statue of the Virgin Mary. Afterwards he was carried through the streets on the back of a giant Irishman, one D’Arcy of Platten.
But the plot soon began to unravel. When the rebels met Henry’s forces at Stoke Field in Nottinghamshire, the result was utter disaster for the Irish troops. For little Lambert Simnel, though, there was a surprisingly happy ending. Showing unexpected mercy, Henry gave him a job in his kitchens. Simnel reputedly later became a falconer, dying peacefully in his bed during the reign of Henry VIII.
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.