What historical events happened in December? The Mary Celeste was found drifting in December 1872; John Lennon was murdered in December 1980; the powerful Roman lawyer Cicero was beheaded in December 43 BC; James II fled London in December 1688; and the Wright brothers make the first powered flight in December 1903. Here, Dominic Sandbrook highlights events that took place in December in history…
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
9 December 1960: Millions of viewers tune in as the first episode of Coronation Street airs
For British audiences, 9 December 1960 was a milestone in television history. At seven that evening, with more than 3 million people staring at their sets, a brass band struck up a mournful tune, the grainy black and white picture showed a long street of terraced back-to-backs, and Coronation Street began its record-breaking run as the nation’s best-loved soap opera.
Coronation Street was the brainchild of a young Granada scriptwriter, Tony Warren. In keeping with the sociological trends of the late 1950s, Warren was keen to explore working-class life in the urban north, a world already being transformed by postwar affluence.
“A fascinating freemasonry, a volume of unwritten rules,” began his note on the new series. “These are the driving forces behind life in a working-class street in the north of England. To the uninitiated outsider, all this would be completely incomprehensible.” The point of his new show, he explained, was “to entertain by examining a community of this kind and initiating the viewer into the ways of the people who live there”.
Yet although viewers clearly loved the new soap, the critics were not kind to Coronation Street. In the Mirror, one writer thought Warren had focused on the “wrong folk. For there is little reality in his new serial, which, apparently, we will have to suffer twice a week.” The paper’s main reviewer, Jack Bell, struck a similar note. Who, he wondered, could possibly want this “continuous slice-of-life domestic drudgery two evenings a week”?
11 December 1688: James II flees London
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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.
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”.
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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.
16 December 1773: Boston rebels dump tea into the sea
It was dark in Boston when the Tea Party began. After years of rising tension between Britain and its American colonies, attention had become focused on the Tea Act of 1773, which reaffirmed the controversial tax on imported tea. At the end of November, the first tea ship, the Dartmouth, had arrived in Boston, but local activists demanded that it return home without paying the import duty.
The last day before the deadline for the Dartmouth to pay up was 16 December. The mood was edgy; at the Old South Meeting House, not far from the harbour, thousands of agitators rallied against the tea tax. Chief among them was local politician Samuel Adams, a long-standing opponent of British authority, and future founding father of the United States.
With passions running high, the crowd was soon surging towards the harbour. That evening, dozens of men, some of them disguised as Native Americans, boarded the Dartmouth and two other tea ships, unloaded hundreds of chests of tea and dumped them into Boston harbour. It was an act of pure vandalism, and back in Britain, the authorities were appalled.
To some observers in Massachusetts, however, the Tea Party seemed a rousing call to arms. “There is a dignity, a majesty, a sublimity, in this last effort of the patriots, that I greatly admire. The people should never rise without doing something to be remembered: something notable and striking,” the future president John Adams wrote in his diary. “This destruction of the tea is so bold, so daring, intrepid and inflexible, and it must have so important consequences, and so lasting, that I can’t but consider it as an epocha in history.”
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Expert comment – Professor Benjamin L Carp:
John Adams was right to note the boldness of the Bostonians’ action. They had rejected cheaper tea on principle – they didn’t accept parliament’s power to tax them, they hated that the revenue paid the salaries of certain government officials, and they detested parliament’s favouritism toward the East India Company monopoly.
The destruction of the tea looks even bolder because it invited dire consequences: the Coercive Acts of 1774. The Boston Port Act prohibited commerce until the town made restitution for the tea, threatening total economic ruin. The Massachusetts Government Act took power away from town meetings and local juries and vested them in the king and his governor. Meanwhile, the Administration of Justice Act allowed officials to stand trial for capital crimes in more favourable venues. These acts were intended to single out Massachusetts (and its capital) for punishment, but instead the harshness of the laws united 13 of the American colonies in their complaints against the British parliament.
The Boston Tea Party was a lawless act in defence of higher principles and in later years advocates of civil disobedience on the right and left have cited its example. These range from practitioners of violence (including the Ku Klux Klan and libertarian bombers) to practitioners of nonviolence (including Gandhi and Martin Luther King).
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.
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.
20 December AD 69: Roman emperor Aulus Vitellius is dragged to his death
The emperor Vitellius has not had a good press. The historian Suetonius said he was “stained by every sort of baseness”, while Cassius Dio claimed he was “addicted to luxury and licentiousness”. Yet by the summer of 69, this greedy, profligate man found himself master of Rome. Amid the chaos following the death of Nero, two replacement emperors – Galba and Otho – had already been and gone, leaving Vitellius, for the time being, as the last man standing.
It has to be said that he was not an obviously impressive figure. Suetonius even claimed that he was so greedy that he “could never refrain, even when he was sacrificing or making a journey, from snatching bits of meat and cakes amid the altars, almost from the very fire, and devouring them on the spot”.
By December, however, Vitellius’s luck had run out. The governor of Judaea, Vespasian, had risen in revolt and his allies were marching on Rome. On 20 December, after ruling for less than a year, Vitellius threw off his purple robe, disguised himself in dirty clothes and took refuge in the palace door-keeper’s lodge, reportedly “tying a dog before the door and putting a couch and a mattress against it”.
Not surprisingly, this proved completely ineffective. When, a little later, the soldiers burst in, they quickly recognised him. As Vitellius was dragged half-naked to the Forum, wrote Suetonius, “some pelted him with dung and ordure, others called him incendiary and glutton, and some of the mob even taunted him with his bodily defects”.
At last his dead body was thrown into the river Tiber. His last words, apparently, were: “Yet I was once your emperor!”
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.
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 1890: Up to 300 Native Americans are killed at Wounded Knee
By the winter of 1890, the Lakota Sioux had reached a grim nadir. After decades of expansion by white settlers, with their bison herds hunted almost to extinction, most were now confined to reservations in North and South Dakota. Alienated and frightened, many were attracted to the new Ghost Dance movement, which claimed that through an esoteric circle dance, the Native Americans could expel the settlers and recapture their lands.
For the American authorities, the Ghost Dance movement threatened a wider Native American uprising. Mutual suspicion hung in the air when, on 28 December 1890, a party of 7th Cavalry troopers intercepted a group of around 350 Lakota Sioux en route to the Pine Ridge Reservation, and escorted them to Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota.
As dawn broke the next day, the troopers ordered the Sioux to surrender any weapons. With tempers rising, a medicine man, Yellow Bird, began to perform the Ghost Dance. When another Sioux, Black Coyote, who was deaf, refused to give up his rifle, troopers tried to take it by force. Nobody quite knows what happened next: there was a scuffle, a gunshot – and then the firing began.
Only when the last shots died away was the extent of the slaughter clear. At least 25 troopers had fallen, many to friendly fire. But up to 300 Sioux had been cut down, including women and children. As one US army veteran recalled: “The white hot fury of this mad melee defies my attempts at description.” His comrades, he admitted, “simply went berserk”. The result was one of the most notorious massacres in American history.
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.
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.”’
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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.
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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?
Other December anniversaries
17 December 920
In Constantinople, the Byzantine admiral Romanos Lekapenos is crowned emperor alongside the existing ruler, the 15-year-old Constantine VII.
31 December 1857
After deliberating over a location for Canada’s new capital, Queen Victoria announces her choice: Ottawa.
Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and presenter.
These anniversaries were first published in past December issues of BBC History Magazine