These anniversaries were first published in the March 2015 and March 2014 issues of BBC History Magazine
21 March 1556: Thomas Cranmer burns at the stake
By the early 1550s, Thomas Cranmer had a good claim to be one of the most influential men in English history.
As archbishop of Canterbury, he had laid the foundations for the new Church of England, attacking monasticism and the doctrine of the Mass, compiling the Book of Common Prayer and establishing the king, not the pope, as head of the church. But when the Catholic Mary succeeded her brother, young Edward VI in 1553, Cranmer was in trouble. Arrested that autumn, he publicly recanted in an attempt to save his skin. But it was no good. Even though he had abjured all his Protestant views, Mary wanted him to burn.
On 21 March 1556, the day scheduled for his execution, Cranmer was ordered to make a final recantation at the University Church in Oxford. He wrote out his text and submitted it to the authorities. But then, once in the pulpit, he did something quite extraordinary. Unexpectedly abandoning his text, Cranmer withdrew all that he had “written for fear of death, and to save my life”.
“And forasmuch as my hand offended in writing contrary to my heart,” he added, “therefore my hand shall first be punished: for if I may come to the fire, it shall be first burned. And as for the pope, I refuse him, as Christ’s enemy and Antichrist, with all his false doctrine.”
By now the place was in uproar. Guards dragged Cranmer from the pulpit to the spot at St Giles where other martyrs had been burned. And there, “apparently insensible of pain”, this exceptionally courageous man met his end, plunging his right hand into the flames first, as he had promised. His last words were a cry almost of exaltation: “I see the heavens open, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.”
4 March 1918: ‘Spanish’ flu strikes and kills 100 million
When Private Albert Gitchell awoke on Monday 4 March 1918, he felt awful. A company cook at Fort Riley, Kansas, Gitchell was supposed to be serving breakfast to hundreds of young American recruits, who were waiting to be shipped off to the battlefields of France. But when the doctors had a look at him, they realised that, with a temperature of more than 103, Gitchell was in no state to work in the mess.
A few hours later, another man, Corporal Lee Drake, appeared at the infirmary with similar symptoms. Then another, Sergeant Adolph Hurby. Still the men kept coming: there were 107 by lunchtime and more than 500 by the end of the week. By the end of the month, no fewer than 1,127 men at Fort Riley had come down with flu – and 46 of them had died.
In the next few months, as American soldiers flooded into Europe, they brought the deadly influenza with them. With vast armies surging across an exhausted continent, the conditions were perfect for a pandemic. This was one of history’s deadliest disasters. Across the world, some 500 million people had been struck down by flu by the end of 1920, perhaps 100 million of them fatally.
Many governments banned public gatherings or buried the victims in mass graves. Reporting restrictions in the combatant nations meant that the disease’s progress in neutral Spain drew disproportionate attention: hence its nickname, Spanish flu. Only one populated part of the world reported no cases at all: the island of Marajo, at the mouth of the Amazon.
11 March AD 222: Rome’s emperor of excess meets a bloody end
Even in the lurid parade of Roman emperors, Elagabalus stands out. Born into the imperial Severan dynasty in c203 AD, he found himself catapulted to supreme power in his early teens and soon began to court controversy.
To the horror of the Roman elite, their teenage emperor – whose real name was Marcus Aurelius Antoninus – had signed up to the cult of the Syrian sun god Elagabalus, after whom he now named himself. Once emperor, he renamed his god Deus Sol Invictus – God the Undefeated Sun – and installed him at the head of the Roman pantheon. Then he declared himself high priest, had himself publicly circumcised and made the city’s bigwigs watch while he danced around the Sun’s new altar.
In the meantime, Elagabalus’s sexual conduct was raising eyebrows across the city. In total he married and divorced five women, but his chief relationships seem to have been with his chariot-driver, a male slave called Hierocles, and an athlete from Asia Minor called Zoticus. According to gossip, the emperor “set aside a room in the palace and there committed his indecencies, always standing nude at the door of the room, as the harlots do… while in a soft and melting voice he solicited the passers-by”. If any doctor could give him female genitalia, he said, he would give him a fortune.
Eventually, the Praetorian Guard, sick of their emperor’s excesses, switched their allegiance to his cousin Severus Alexander and turned on Elagabalus.
As the historian Cassius Dio recorded, there was no mercy for either Elagabalus or his mother: “Their heads were cut off and their bodies, after being stripped naked, were first dragged all over the city, and then the mother’s body was cast aside somewhere or other while his was thrown into the river.”
2 March 537: Belisarius saves Rome from the Goths
In the first days of AD 537, the people of Rome waited nervously for attack. Once the capital of the world’s greatest empire, now a miserable, ruined shadow, the ancient city had long since yielded its role to Constantinople.
In the fifth century it had fallen to the Goths, but at the end of 536 it was retaken by Constantinople’s greatest general, Belisarius. But since Belisarius had only a few thousand men, he knew he faced a struggle to keep it.
At last, on the second day of March, the enemy revealed themselves. From seven great camps overlooking the city’s main gates, the Goths began their siege of Rome. Equipped with vast siege engines, their armies were 10 times bigger than Belisarius’s little band. But even as the city began to starve, Belisarius refused to panic. His secretary, Procopius, even recorded that the general laughed on seeing the Goths’ great siege towers. He knew that reinforcements were on their way: all he had to do was wait.
When peace talks broke down, Belisarius took the initiative, sending his general John to seize the towns in the Goths’ rear. Some 374 days after the siege had begun, word reached the Goths that Rimini had fallen, leaving John barely a day’s march from their capital, Ravenna.
As smoke rose from the Goths’ camps, Belisarius knew that his gamble had paid off. He waited until half the retreating Gothic forces were across the Milvian Bridge, and then ordered his troops out of the city. They killed thousands of Goths, and many more were drowned. Belisarius had won. For the time being at least, Rome remained Roman.
24 March 1944: The Great Escape arouses Hitler’s fury
It was half past 10 when the first Allied prisoner crawled out of the tunnel into the snow, just short of the line of trees around the German prisoner of war camp Stalag Luft III, in Lower Silesia. After months of preparation, the Great Escape was on.
Immortalised in the much-loved 1963 film – a fixture in Britain’s Christmas television schedules – this staggeringly audacious escape attempt was the brainchild of Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, whose Spitfire had been shot down over Calais.
“The only reason that God allowed us this extra ration of life,” Bushell famously told his fellow prisoners in the spring of 1943, “is so we can make life hell for the Hun. In North Compound we are concentrating our efforts on completing and escaping through one master tunnel. No private-enterprise tunnels allowed. Three bloody deep, bloody long tunnels will be dug – Tom, Dick and Harry. One will succeed!’
Bushell was right about that. Although the Germans were on the lookout for escape attempts, they never dreamed that the prisoners would dig three tunnels at once. For the rest of the year, work went on, the prisoners disposing of the sand by shaking it from makeshift pouches hidden in their trousers. The ‘Tom’ tunnel was discovered in September, and ‘Dick’s’ planned exit became covered by a camp expansion, but by the following March, ‘Harry’ was ready. As night fell on the 24th, the men chosen for the escape attempt assembled in Hut 104.
By the time the Germans realised the prisoners were getting out, 76 men had crawled to freedom. The snow was so deep that they were forced to use main roads rather than forest paths, as they had planned, and all but three were soon recaptured. Hitler wanted them all shot; in the end, 50 were executed. Among them, sadly, was Roger Bushell.
26 March 1830: The Book of Mormon debuts with a whimper
If you visit the little town of Palmyra in Wayne County, New York, you will see a neat brick building decked with plaques and flags. This was once the printing press and bookshop of a man called Egbert B Grandin, who also published the local newspaper.
In the summer of 1829, Grandin announced that he was preparing a major new publication – a sacred text containing hitherto unknown biblical prophecies, as well as the history of the first people to live in the Americas, who had apparently fled from the Tower of Babel. The text, it turned out, had been engraved on gold plates and buried in a New York hillside, before being revealed to a local preacher, Joseph Smith, by an angel called Moroni.
Grandin himself thought this was a tall story and had originally turned it down. But when another printer agreed to take on the job, Grandin changed his mind. Smith gave him $3,000 in security – worth perhaps $73,000 today – and Grandin agreed to produce 5,000 copies.
Today, with an estimated 15 million Mormons worldwide, original copies of the Book of Mormon change hands for well over $50,000. But when the book first went on sale on 26 March 1830, sales were disappointing. Many local citizens thought it was blasphemous; another Palmyra paper even called it “the greatest piece of superstition that has come to our knowledge”.
Local farmer Martin Harris had mortgaged his property to pay for Smith’s security. Harris lost everything, yet he never lost his faith in the Book of Mormon. It was “no fake,” he said on his deathbed. “I know what I know. I have seen what I have seen and I have heard what I have heard. I have seen the gold plates from which the Book of Mormon is written.”
31 March 1889: France’s iconic tower opens
The Eiffel Tower had a troubled birth. Conceived by engineers Maurice Koechlin and Emile Nouguier as the centrepiece of the 1889 Paris Universal Exposition, it was built by the celebrated bridge-maker Gustave Eiffel, who claimed it would celebrate “not only the art of the modern engineer, but also the century of Industry and Science in which we are living, and for which the way was prepared by the great scientific movement of the 18th century and by the Revolution of 1789”.
Most of the French intellectual establishment hated the idea. It would be “useless and monstrous”, a “hateful column of bolted sheet metal”, claimed a petition signed by some 300 writers and artists. But Eiffel was having none of it, even comparing his new structure to the pyramids of Egypt. “My tower will be the tallest edifice ever erected by man,” he wrote. “Will it not also be grandiose in its way? And why would something admirable in Egypt become hideous and ridiculous in Paris?”
In fact, when the tower was finally opened to the government and press on 31 March 1889, it was not quite finished. Crucially, the lifts were not yet working, so the visiting party had to trudge up the stairs on foot. Most gave up and remained on the lower levels; only a handful made it to the top, where Eiffel hoisted a gigantic French flag, greeted by fireworks and a 21-gun salute.
The tower was an instant hit: illuminated every night by gas lamps, it dominated not just the Exposition, but Paris itself. When the public were finally allowed in, the lifts were still not working. Yet in the first week alone, almost 30,000 people climbed to the top – a sign of how completely it had caught the world’s imagination.
5 March 1946: Churchill warns of an ‘iron curtain’ falling across Europe
In the spring of 1946, Winston Churchill arrived in Fulton, Missouri. The little Midwestern town seemed an unlikely destination for the man who, until the previous summer, had been leading the world’s largest empire. But Churchill, rejected by the British electorate, was in the doldrums. When President Harry Truman invited him to give a lecture at a little college in his home state, Churchill saw it as a chance to revive his American reputation.
Churchill and Truman travelled to Fulton by train and on the way the president read a draft of the former prime minister’s talk. It was, he declared, excellent. But when Churchill stood up on 5 March, in the packed gymnasium at Westminster College, few could have expected that his words would resound in history.
A shadow, he explained, had fallen “upon the scenes so lately lighted by the Allied victory” – thanks entirely to Stalin’s Soviet Union. “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic,” he declared, “an iron curtain has descended across the continent.” That made Anglo-American co-operation all the more important. Theirs, Churchill added, was a “special relationship”.
Churchill was not the first man to use the words ‘iron curtain’, but he was unquestionably the most famous. After that day in Fulton, there was no doubt that the alliance between Stalin’s Soviet Union and the two great western powers was over – and that the Cold War had begun.
Other notable March anniversaries
5 March 1981
Clive Sinclair launches the ZX81 computer, the first British model to sell more than a million units. It cost just £70, and nobody who uses its peculiar keyboard will ever forget it.
9 March 1230
Tsar Ivan Asen II crushes the army of Theodore Komnenos Doukas, so reasserting Bulgaria’s primacy in the southern Balkans.
19 March 1649
Having executed Charles I, the House of Commons passes an act abolishing the House of Lords, which it calls ‘useless and dangerous to the people of England’.
23 March 1801
In St Petersburg, Tsar Paul I is attacked by disgruntled Russian officers, who strike him down with a sword before strangling and stamping him to death.
27 March 1881
In the then violent town of Basingstoke, troops are called to clear the streets after the Salvation Army’s anti-alcohol campaign provokes rioting by local brewery workers.
29 March 1461
At Towton in Yorkshire, Edward IV leads the Yorkists to victory over the Lancastrian army – led by the Duke of Somerset – in the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil.
Dominic Sandbrook is a historian who has presented several documentaries for the BBC.