Paris, 1832. In the Tuileries garden, the young writer Victor Hugo was strolling by the river when he heard gunshots: trouble was brewing in the working-class district of Les Halles. Hugo went to investigate. For 15 minutes he hid behind a pillar and watched as the king’s soldiers fired on republican rebels. At last the battle moved away, giving Hugo the chance to make his escape. It was a moment that stayed with him for the rest of his life. Some 13 years later, he began work on a novel set in Paris during those tumultuous June days: Les Misérables.
Today, thanks to the success of the musical and film versions, Les Misérables is by far Hugo’s best-known work. Many people assume that it is set during the French Revolution. In fact, the insurrection at its heart was a two-day uprising against the Orleanist king Louis-Philippe, which ended in failure.
The June Rebellion was triggered by the food shortages of the late 1820s, a devastating cholera epidemic and the death of the popular general Jean Lamarque, who had become a hero to the working classes of Paris. At his funeral on 5 June, republican demonstrators rallied the crowds, waving red flags and calling for “liberty or death”. The mood turned ugly, and by the evening rioters had taken control of much of central and eastern Paris, throwing up the barricades that play such a key role in Hugo’s novel.
It was all for nothing. The army stayed loyal to Louis-Philippe, and by morning the uprising had lost momentum. At the Cloître Saint-Merri, the last demonstrators were surrounded by the king’s troops. By nightfall it was all over.
26 June 1541: Francis Pizarro meets a bloody end over dinner
Francisco Pizarro died as he had lived, sword in hand. Pizarro, who had defied the odds to bring down the Incas and conquer modern-day Peru for the Spanish, was almost 70 years old. As governor of New Castile (as Peru was then named), he had spent years locked in a bitter feud with a rival conquistador, Diego de Almagro. In 1538 Pizarro had had Almagro executed. But now the latter’s son – also Diego – wanted revenge.
Pizarro was dining in his palace in Lima when Almagro burst in with about 20 armed supporters. Most of the old man’s guests fled, but Pizarro stood his ground, reaching for his sword from where it hung on the wall. According to one account, he struck down two would-be assassins and ran a third through. While he struggled to draw out his sword, however, Almagro’s men stabbed him in the throat. Lying on the palace floor, Pizarro shouted: “Jesus!” The last thing he ever did was to draw a cross on the ground with his own blood and kiss it. The most ruthless conquistador of the age was dead.
Pizarro’s body was buried in Lima Cathedral, but it was not until 1977 that building workers found a lead box, bearing the inscription: “Here is the head of Don Francisco Pizarro Demarkes, Don Francisco Pizarro who discovered Peru and presented it to the crown of Castile.” Forensic scientists reported that the skull was broken by numerous violent blows – perhaps a fitting end for a man steeped in violence.
23 June 1940: Hitler crows over Paris
It was about 5.30 in the morning when Adolf Hitler’s plane landed at the edge of Paris. Three large Mercedes cars were waiting to take the conqueror into town, and the Nazi dictator knew exactly where he wanted to go first – the opera. As he told his minister, Albert Speer, Charles Garnier’s neo-baroque opera house was his favourite building in Paris. And now that the French capital had fallen to Germany’s all-conquering army, Hitler had the chance to live out a dream.
Hitler’s tour of Paris on 23 June 1940 – the only time he visited the city – was one of the greatest days of his life. France lay prostrate at his feet, the shame of 1918 finally avenged. As he toured the city, posing for pictures by the Eiffel Tower, he discussed plans for a victory parade. Yet he concluded that it was a bad idea: “I am not in the mood for a victory parade. We aren’t at the end yet.”
To Speer, the Nazis’ chief architect, Hitler waxed lyrical about the beauties of the French capital. But he was determined that Germany could do better. “Berlin,” he said later, “must be more beautiful. When we are finished in Berlin, Paris will be only a shadow.”
Hitler’s visit was astonishingly brief, and by nine in the morning he was already heading back to Germany. “It was the dream of my life to be permitted to see Paris,” he told Speer as they drove back to the airfield. “I cannot say how happy I am to have that dream fulfilled today.” Speer himself was struck by his master’s mood. “For a moment,” he wrote later, “I felt something like pity for him: three hours in Paris, the one and only time he was to see it, made him happy when he stood at the height of his triumphs.”
26 June AD 363: A Persian spear fells Rome’s last pagan emperor
In the spring of 363, the Roman emperor Julian invaded Persia. Having ruled Rome for less than two years, he felt that he needed to prove himself to the troops on the empire’s eastern frontier. And what better way than by taking on their age-old enemies?
On 5 March, around 60,000 Roman troops marched out of Antioch (near modern-day Antakya in Turkey), led by the emperor himself. At first everything went smoothly, and by mid-May Julian had crossed the Tigris and was outside the Persian capital, Ctesiphon.
But then things began to go wrong. Harassed almost daily by Persian attacks, Julian ordered his army to retreat north, and at a minor engagement on 26 June, the worst happened. Julian had thrown himself into the fray, wrote Ammianus Marcellinus, a historian on the emperor’s military staff, “when suddenly a cavalry spear, grazing the skin of his arm, pierced his side and fixed itself in the bottom of his liver”.
The wound did not at first seem serious; Julian’s personal doctor washed it with wine, then tried to stitch up the organs. But the bleeding continued, and it became obvious that the emperor was failing. As he lay dying, wrote Ammianus, Julian “entered into an intricate discussion with the philosophers Maximus and Priscus on the sublime nature of the soul”.
This seems a bit unlikely. It was inevitable that the last non-Christian emperor would get short shrift from Christian writers, so Ammianus, a fellow pagan, was probably gilding the lily. “At last,” the historian went on, “the swelling of his veins began to choke his breath and, having drank some cold water, which he had asked for, he expired quietly about midnight, in the 31st year of his age.”
16 June 1883: 183 children crushed to death in concert tragedy
The poster for Sunderland’s Victoria Hall seemed wonderfully enticing. “On Saturday Afternoon at 3 o’clock,” it said, “the Fays from the Tynemouth Aquarium Will Give a Grand Day Performance for Children – The Greatest Treat for Children Ever Given.” There would, it added, be prizes, “a handsome Present, Books, Toys, &c”. When Mr and Mrs Fay took the stage on 16 June 1883, an estimated 2,000 children were packed into the concert hall.
What followed was a tragedy of heartbreaking proportions. At the end of the show, an announcer declared that children with specially numbered tickets would get a prize on the way out. Meanwhile, performers began handing out treats to children in the front row. Many of the 1,100 children in the gallery rushed towards the stairs, worried they were going to miss out.
At the bottom, however, they found a narrow door, bolted to allow only one child through at a time. As more children stampeded down the stairs, a crush began to develop. Parents rushed to help, but could not get near the door.
Children started falling, bodies piling up near the door. By now it was obvious that a terrible disaster was under way. In all, 183 children died that day, some as young as three. In the aftermath, legislation provided for better emergency exits, with doors opening outwards, not inwards. Queen Victoria sent a heartfelt letter of condolence quoting the words of Jesus: “Suffer little children to come unto me… for such is the Kingdom of God.”
18 June 1178: Monks witness an extraordinary lunar event
On 18 June 1178, Gervase of Canterbury heard an extraordinary story. Gervase, who had been ordained by Thomas Becket, spent much of his time compiling a detailed chronicle of English history. But nothing could have prepared him for the account reported to him that night by five fellow monks.
Some time after sunset, the monks had noticed something extraordinary in the sky. “Now,” Gervase wrote, “there was a bright new moon… its horns were tilted toward the east; and suddenly the upper horn split in two. From the midpoint of the division a flaming torch sprang up, spewing out, over a considerable distance, fire, hot coals, and sparks. Meanwhile the body of the moon which was below writhed, as it were, in anxiety, and to put it in the words of those who reported it to me and saw it with their own eyes, the moon throbbed like a wounded snake.”
This extraordinary sight, he noted, “was repeated a dozen times or more, the flame assuming various twisting shapes at random and then returning to normal. Then after these transformations the moon from horn to horn, that is along its whole length, took on a blackish appearance.
Today, many lunar experts believe the monks had been watching the formation of the moon’s enormous Giordano Bruno crater, named after an Italian philosopher. It was probably created by the impact of an asteroid or comet, which would explain the burst of molten matter seen by the monks – though they, of course, had no way of understanding what it was they had witnessed.
11 June 323 BC: Alexander the Great dies after drinking binge
Alexander of Macedon, master of the world from the shores of the Adriatic to the mountains of Afghanistan, spent the early summer of 323 BC in Babylon. Only a year before, his troops had persuaded him to turn back from a planned invasion of India. But already he was planning new conquests, hoping to strike at the heart of Arabia. On top of that, the 32-year-old king was pressing forward with his plans to integrate Persians and Macedonians, even urging his officers to take Persian wives. And then, some time around the beginning of June, disaster struck.
Accounts of Alexander’s death differ widely. The most popular, told by the historian Plutarch, holds that he was taken ill after a drinking session with his friend Medius of Larissa. In the next few days, Alexander developed a fever. Although he managed to put in an appearance before his worried troops, his condition worsened until he could no longer speak. At last, some time in the night between 10 and 11 June, he died.
Since so many Macedonian rulers fell victim to assassination, speculation has long surrounded Alexander’s death. Many historians have suggested that he may have been poisoned by rivals within the Macedonian elite or by officers outraged by his Persian affectations. The true explanation may be more prosaic. In the festering heat of summer in Babylon, the hard-drinking Alexander may well have succumbed to typhoid or malaria.
His death had a shattering impact. Within weeks the Macedonian empire was already falling apart, as his officers began to carve out their own rival dominions. Even Alexander’s sarcophagus, hijacked and taken to Alexandria, became a weapon in the civil war. “I foresee great contests,” he is supposed to have said, “at my funeral games.” He was right.
4 June 1989: Hundreds die in Tiananmen Square
By the beginning of June 1989, Tiananmen Square, in the centre of Beijing, was packed with demonstrators. After weeks of mounting protests, with students and dissidents at the forefront, the Chinese communist government had declared martial law and sent some 250,000 troops to the capital – but still the crowds refused to disperse. On 2 June party leaders, including the country’s effective leader, Deng Xiaoping, agreed that it was time to crack down.
Tiananmen Square, they agreed, must be cleared, so that “the riot can be halted and order restored to the capital”. The following evening, 3 June, troops and tanks thundered into the centre of Beijing, as state television warned residents to stay in their homes. By about 10 o’clock, reports were emerging of bloodshed at major intersections on the roads into the city. Inside Tiananmen Square, some 70,000 people stood and waited. Then, just after midnight, the first armoured vehicle appeared from the west. Some students threw stones and bricks, while others tried to prevent them; it was vital, they said, that their protest remained non-violent.
What followed remains the single most controversial moment in China’s recent history. In the early hours of 4 June, the army cleared the square by force. Government officials initially claimed the action resulted in no deaths – later revised to about 200; other estimates suggest that as many as 1,000 people lost their lives. Either way, the result was the same: the protesters had been defeated. One image, taken the next day, captured the terrible drama: a photograph of a lone man, holding two shopping bags, standing in front of a column of tanks. Who he was, and what he was doing, remains uncertain. At the time, there were rumours that he was arrested and dragged before a firing squad. We may well never know.
Other notable June anniversaries
29 June 1613
When a cannon misfires during a performance of Henry VIII, accidentally igniting the theatre’s thatched roof, the Globe Theatre in Southwark burns to the ground.
3 June 1937
In a chateau near Tours, the Duke of Windsor – formerly Edward VIII – marries Wallis Simpson. His brother, George VI, forbids his other brothers from attending the nuptials.
7 June 1494
Spain and Portugal agree a treaty to divide the New World between them, carving up the newly discovered Americas along a meridian 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde islands.
9 June 1934
The world’s most famous duck, Donald, makes his first appearance in the short Walt Disney cartoon The Wise Little Hen, based on the fairy tale of The Little Red Hen.
27 June 1358
Following the Treaty of Zadar, the Republic of Dubrovnik throws off Venetian rule and comes under the protection of Louis I of Hungary.
25 June 1978
In San Francisco, the artist Gilbert Baker designs a hippie-influenced rainbow flag with eight stripes, to be flown during the city’s Gay Freedom Day Parade.
Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and regular presenter on BBC television and radio.
This article was first published in the June 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine