537A.D.: Dedication of the world’s largest Christian Church, the Hagia Sophia, in Constantinople. This was the third iteration of the center of imperial Byzantine worship to be constructed on the site, and is the structure that you can visit today in Istanbul. During the Moslem conquest of Constantinople in 1453, Sultan Mehmet II allowed his troops three days of unbridled looting of the city, including the Hagia Sophia, where thousands of Christians sheltered themselves behind their prayers and the massive walls of the church. The invaders eventually battered down the doors and proceeded to do what invading armies did: killing, rape, torture, looting, and taking into slavery those that they did not kill. The priests in the church continued to perform their duties at the altar until cut down by the Moslem conquerors. Once the prescribed looting was complete, Mehmet ordered the church converted to a mosque, melting gold fixtures and plastering over the centuries-old mosaics that decorated the domes and pillars of the structure. It remained an active mosque until 1935, when the father of modern, secular Turkey, Kemal Attaturk, expelled the Moslem staff and converted the structure to a museum that explicitly recognized its powerful Christian roots.
1065: Formal consecration in London of Westminster Abbey, site of the coronation of every English and British monarch beginning with William the Conqueror in 1066. The abbey’s close proximity to the royal palace of Westminster ensured its unique position in British culture, being spared from the iconoclastic excesses of the Cromwell period, and becoming the burial site for the most prominent Britons, as well as the Royals.
1066: In Grenada, the capital of the recently conquered al-Andalus region of the Iberian Peninsula, an enraged Arab mob storms the royal citadel and murders the Grand Vizier of the realm, locally born Joseph ibn Naghrela, son of Granada’s rabbi and, until this point, the second most powerful man in the Moslem kingdom. With blood on their hands, the mob then surged down into the city and conducted a brutal pogrom against the rest of the Jewish population there, killing upwards of 4,000 of them. It was not the first mass murder of its kind, and it wasn’t the last, but it was seared into European memory by the character of its initial attack against a very well-respected and highly placed Jew serving in the heart of the Moslem court.
1170: Death of Thomas Becket (b.1118), Archbishop of Canterbury, murdered while singing vespers at the altar of Canterbury Cathedral, by four knights of King Henry II. Becket’s death became a cultural touchstone, as well as prominent marker in the long-running and ongoing debate over the limits of authority between Church and State. Although something of a rake in his early years, Becket worked his way upward into a number of highly responsible positions within the Church, including Archdeacon of Canterbury and other offices that demanded a high degree of financial skills. Successes there led to his appointment in 1155 as Lord Chancellor to King Henry II, a position that not only kept him in close contact with the king, but also gave him authority over judicial proceedings and the flow of money between Crown and Church, particularly the taxing authority of the Crown over landowners and the churches. Seven years later, on the death of his mentor Theobald in 1162, Becket was nominated and confirmed as Archbishop of Canterbury, a post from which Henry believed he would be able to further exercise royal authority over the processes and finances of the Church. For his part, at his elevation, Becket suddenly shifted his intellectual and spiritual focus from being the King’s man in the administration of government, to being God’s humble representative in maintaining the proper functioning of the Church- specifically resisting any efforts of the Crown to infiltrate its way into ecclesiastical matters. The change caught Henry off guard, and opened a long process of move, counter-move, exile, reconciliation and a formalized Constitution for the increasingly tenuous relations between church and state. Pope Alexander eventually had to intervene between King and Archbishop, but with little effect. In November of 1170, Becket took pains to excommunicate three of the king’s closest allies, and then continued in a spree of excommunication of his many powerful antagonists. Henry himself, when hearing news of the new excommunications and exasperated with his failure to get Becket under control, finally shouted out, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” Having heard what by rights was a legitimate royal command, four knights- whose names I won’t bother you with- rode off to Canterbury to do the king’s will. The killing was particularly public and gruesome- the four of them came up behind Becket as he knelt for vespers and immediately one lopped off the top of his head; another then kicked him to the ground, a third took another chunk out of his head, and the fourth stirred the blood and gore into the stones of the altar with the tip of his sword. The site almost immediately became a pilgrimage destination, and the king, after the initial shocking satisfaction of learning of his rival’s demise, then went into a paroxysm of grief over not only the loss of his friend, but his own culpability in the killing. He volunteered for a public scourging by the bishops of the church as penance.
1446: Death of the Antipope Clement VIII (b.1369), one of the last of the 9 (or 2, or 12, depending on how you count them) Avignon Popes who sat for nearly 130 years across 12 papacies in opposition of the Bishop of Rome. The period of the late Middle Ages not only sowed the seeds of the later Protestant Reformation, it also saw the separation (or breakdown, depending on your perspective) of the temporal, i.e., political and military power of the Roman Curia from its spiritual power. Perpetual flashpoints arose with every royal coronation, especially for the Holy Roman Emperor and for the King of the Franks. There were also competing papal family dynasties at play during the selection of a new pope, and the tension grew so great that in 1305, the Frenchman elected as pope, Clement VII, declined to move to Rome and instead established the curia in papal properties in Avignon, now part of southern France. The split between competing papacies is known as the Great Western Schism;the Avignon Popes considered themselves the true spiritual heirs of Peter, while the Roman popes saw their spiritual role as a means to more effectively keep their eye on the political strengths of their position. The schism essentially ended in 1417, with the election of Martin V under the rules written by the Council of Constance (1416-18). Clement himself reigned for 16 years (1378-1394), one of the two full-up anti-popes who actually maintained a following during the Great Western Schism.
1460: More than a few huge events in Western history remain in our collective memory due to the clarity of their names: The Defenestration of Prague, for example, or perhaps the War of Jenkins’ Ear are s probably at the tip of your tongue this very minute, but I digress. In any event, the Wars of the Roses is another of those events we here in the States remember more for its name than for its protagonists and their rival claims. It was a long-running English civil war fought between the ruling Lancaster family (the then-current King Henry VI) versus the house of York (Richard Duke of York, who had a quite legitimate claim to the throne). Five years into the scheming and periodic violence of the conflict, on this day was fought the Battle of Wakefield, where York impetuously sallied from his castle against what he thought was a middling Lancaster army, but was actually a force twice his size, the bulk of which was concealed in the woods abutting the field of battle. York himself was killed, as were over 2,500 of his soldiers and noble retainers. But the victory did not seal the end of the conflict, as the bloodletting from this moment increasingly began to include the non-combatant family members of the vanquished leaders who fell over the next 21 years.
1512: Imperial Spain promulgates the Leyes de Burgos, a set of laws that codifies humane relations between the Spanish colonial overlords and the indigenous peoples of the conquered territories. Although it is was designed to ensure a decent level of stewardship and care for the people, it was largely honored in the breech, and was soon derided as simply the rationalization for the widespread abuses that characterized the Spanish Empire in the Americas.
1721: Birth of Madame de Pompadour (d.1764), favorite of King Louis XV, and head of the liveliest and most intellectual of the Paris salons of the early 18th Century. The acerbic Voltaire practiced the majority of his philosophical work at her salon, writing after her death, “It seems absurd that while an ancient pen-pusher, hardly able to walk, should still be alive, a beautiful woman, in the midst of a splendid career, should die at the age of forty two.” Her salons are regularly cited as the intellectual birthplace of the French Revolution; no little irony, given her deep engagement and privileged position within the French Court.
1776: After a treacherous overnight crossing from Pennsylvania across an ice-choked Delaware River, General George Washington leads 2,400 Continental Army troops into action against Hessian mercenaries stationed in Trenton, N.J.
The Hessians, caught completely off-guard by the attack, put up a short, sharp resistance and fighting withdrawal from their initial positions north of the city. But after several moves and counter-moves, the Hessian commander realizes the Americans have completely cut off all chance of escape or reinforcement, and surrenders his 1,500 professional troops to Washington. The victory galvanizes American support and morale throughout the colonies, and confirms Washington’s unique effectiveness in exploiting the strengths of the relatively weak Continental Army against the potential weaknesses of his enemies.
1800: Birth of American engineer Charles Goodyear (d.1860), who was awarded a patent for the process of vulcanizing raw rubber, carefully heating it to create a stable and commercially useful material.
1809: Birth of legendary frontiersman, trapper, Indian fighter, scout and soldier, Kit Carson (d.1868).
1812: In the waters of the South Atlantic in USS Constitution, Captain William Bainbridge, USN, intercepts and draws into battle the Royal Navy frigate Java, decisively battering the British ship for three hours. Captain Lambert of Java surrenders to the Americans, the third such surrender in as many months. The surviving crew are transferred to Constitution, which then makes for Boston for its own repairs. News of this loss prompted the Admiralty to forbid their frigates from fighting the American heavy frigates with anything other than a full line of battle.
1814: British and American diplomats sign the Treaty of Ghent, formally ending the War of 1812. The terms of the agreement essentially return the belligerents to the status quo ante bellum, which reinforces the notion that this two-year long conflict, never politically popular nor strategically coherent, really was a wasted effort in lost political will, lost commerce, and lives. On the positive side, the US naval victories at sea and the astonishing victory at the Battle of New Orleans convinced Britain that although they need not become close allies with the United States, they now respected us as legitimate power players on the international stage.
1822: Birth of Louis Pasteur (d.1895), whose studies in chemistry and microbiology created the basis for understanding the germ theory of disease, and the principles of vaccination and sterilization of milk and wine to prevent the spread of bacterial infections, a process now known as pasteurization.
1832: U.S. Vice-President John C. Calhoun resigns his position, the first sitting VP to do so. Having served as VP for the presidencies of both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, Calhoun’s belief in the absolute supremacy of the States over the federal government led him into increasingly bitter conflict with President Jackson’s policies and certain members of his Cabinet. We have talked about the Nullification Crisis before; Calhoun’s resignation, along with the majority of Jackson’s Cabinet, was the climax of that event.
1837: Birth of Admiral George Dewey (d.1917), hero of the 1898 “Splendid Little War” with Spain, whose laconic order “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley” triggered one of the Navy’s most lopsided victories at the Battle of Manila Bay.
1845: New York Morning News journalist John O’Sullivan publishes an editorial advocating for the admission of the Oregon Territory into the United States as the logical result of the country’s manifest destiny to rule the entire continent of North America. It is the first explicit use of the term, which eventually helped rationalize the virtues and scale of our western expansion all through the 19th Century.
1853: Less than five years after annexing by conquest a massive swath of Mexico’s North American territory, the United States completes the Gadsen Purchase, adding nearly 30,000 square miles of railroad-friendly geography to the southern tier of the Arizona and New Mexico territories. It is the final annexation of new continent-spanning United States, specifically negotiated with the government of Mexico to create a viable transcontinental railroad route that could service the economies of the southern states. Final cost was $10,000,000.00. Railroad interests aside, the purchase became yet another flashpoint in the increasingly bitter sectionalism that was dividing the country into explicit slave and free states. James Gadsen was the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico.
1856: Birth of Princeton University President Woodrow Wilson (d.1924), whose Progressive impulses during his period as President of the United States have become something of a conservative touchstone on the evils of untrammeled government power.
1860: Launch of the Royal Navy’s first iron warship, HMS Warrior.
1865: Birth of English author Rudyard Kipling (d.1936). Much of his writing came as a direct result of his journalistic adventures in Great Britain’s far-flung south-Asian empire. The British paid a steep price for their control of the northern approaches to India, the jewel in the British crown. Kipling wrote: “As you lay dying in Afghanistan’s plains, and the Afghan women pick over your remains, pull out your pistol and blow out your brains, and go to your death like a soldier.” Also, “BOOTS- BOOTS- Marching over Africa…There’s no discharge from the war!” He also wrote The Jungle Book, The Story of Rikki-Tiki-Tavi, and scores of other works about the harsh reality of the British imperial project: “For it’s Tommy this and Tommy that and father, guard the door, but it’s ‘savior of the country’ when the drums are sounding war…
1884: Birth of Hideki Tojo (d.1948), Prime Minister of Japan during World War II. He assumed the Prime Ministership from the top ranks of the army as a direct result of his negotiations with the Vichy French government that allowed Japanese soldiers to be stationed in French Indo-China, all the while expanding Japan’s brutal war against China, and exacerbating tensions with the United States. It was Tojo who gave the execution order for the attack on Pearl Harbor. In US propaganda, Tojo’s face became the leering caricature of Japanese militarism. After Japan’s surrender, Tojo was arrested, tried, and convicted for war crimes by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, and on December 23rd, 1948, was hanged by the neck until dead.
1890: Soldiers of the US 7th Cavalry, enter a Lakota Indian camp in Wounded Knee, South Dakota to disarm the tribe. A predictable scuffle ensued, a shot was fired, and within minutes, a general melee broke out, with the Army indiscriminately killing over 250 Lakota men, women and children, while suffering 25 soldiers killed in the return fire. The lopsided battle became a flash point during the “American Indian Movement” of the early ’70s, which took the cry of Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee as a rallying cry.
1898: Concluding a stunning year of experimentation and discovery on the properties of radioactivity, Marie and Paul Curie announce the isolation of Radium, the central element of their comprehensive analysis of uranium, X-rays, and other naturally occurring “electrical” transmissions, which they recognized as fundamentally different than electricity, and for which they coined the term “radiation.”
1905: Birth of movie mogul, aircraft designer, pilot, businessman and legendary eccentric, Howard Hughes (d.1976).
1912: San Francisco’s Municipal Railway opens for business, taking over management of not only electric trolleys, but also the soon-to-be famous cable cars on street-level tracks throughout the hilly city.
1919: Boston Red Sox first baseman George Ruth is sold to the New York Yankees.
1929: Chairman of the Supreme Soviet, Joseph Stalin, announces “The liquidation of the Kulaks as a class” as a means to bring socialist collective production into the agricultural sector. The Kulaks, you’ll recall, were independent farmers who had little time or inclination to join in with the communist movement that had been violently sweeping through the major industrial cities of Russia since 1917. With civil war still festering between the communist Reds and the anti-communist Whites, Stalin took the opportunity to completely consolidate the communist model across the entirety of Russian society, particularly the agricultural heartland. The brutality of this order cannot be overstated: by the end of January, a formal resolution “On measures for the elimination of kulak households in districts of comprehensive collectivization” was issued, and offered local commissars three alternatives for dealing with their restive farmers:
1) Be shot or imprisoned based on the judgment of the commissar;
2) Be sent to prison camps in Siberia after confiscation of all property;
3) Be evicted from their property and used as forced labor at collective farms in their local districts.
No surprise, resistance to the order was widespread, particularly in Ukraine, where the events through 1933 are memorialized as the Holodomor, the starvation-induced genocide of over 5,000,000 Ukrainians in the heart of “Russia’s Breadbasket.” The sheer numbers of intentional deaths of Russian citizens at the hand of its own government are staggering beyond belief: conventional estimates have settled on 14,500,000 deaths nationwide by famine and “judicial” deaths under the order. Stalin himself was un-moved, leaving us with such banal remarks as, “If you want to make an omelet, you have to break a few eggs” and “A single death is a tragedy. A thousand deaths is a statistic.” Stalin’s murderous legacy was conveniently overshadowed in the eyes of the Left by the Nazi holocaust of the Jews, conducted in the heart of Europe and exposed by the conquering Allied armies. Russia’s self-genocide, on the other hand, remained shrouded by the remoteness and secrecy of the Soviet state.
1934: The Empire of Japan formally renounces the terms of the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty.
1935: Birth of the Dodger left-handed pitcher, Sandy Koufax.
1939: Finnish soldiers hold off advancing Soviet troops in the Battle of Kelja, part of the Winter War with the Soviet Union. Despite huge pressure and overwhelming odds from the Red Army and air force, Finland was never conquered by the Soviets, eventually ceding only about 10% of its territory at the conclusion of hostilities in 1940. Finland remained, like Spain, neutral in the continuing war between Germany and the Allied forces, which tainted them as pro-Nazi for years after the fact. They also walked a fine line during the Cold War, leaning West but warily looking East until the final collapse of the Soviet Union, after which they enthusiastically participated NATO’s Partnership For Peace exercises, with an eventual goal of actually joining the alliance.
1943: American General Dwight D. Eisenhower is named Supreme Commander for the Allied invasion of Normandy. Ike’s extraordinary skills in planning and diplomacy with the fractious British and French allies were the key to creating a success from this incredibly complex operation.
1944: Just days after General McAuliffe’s dismissal of German surrender conditions, Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s Third Army breaks through the encircling German lines to relieve the American garrison in Bastogne.
1947: Death of King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy (b.1869), in exile in Alexandria, Egypt, after abdicating the throne of Savoy in favor of his son Umberto III. After a 46 year reign, his abdication was an attempt to build post-war unity around the Italian monarchy in the face of a burgeoning referendum movement to abolish it. His efforts failed on both counts, and his move to Alexandria was in accordance with one of the stipulations of the referendum, to wit, that every male from the House of Savoy had to leave the territory of Italy and never return.
1963: The Beatles release their first two musical cuts for the American market. The songs “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “I Saw Her Standing There” may just be ridiculous pop music in the ears of some of our parents, but they represented the opening salvo of Beatlemania and the great British Invasion of the 1960s.
1968: Three days after making their trans-lunar injection (TLI) rocket firing, the astronauts of Apollo 8 fire their Service Module’s main engine and enter a stable lunar orbit. If you were sentient at the time, you will remember the stunning live color TV transmission* from the Command Module, when we earth-bound travelers witnessed with the astronauts the first “earth rise” over the limb of our celestial partner, punctuated with breathtaking poignancy as Mission Commander Frank Bormann read the opening verses of the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…” Jim Lovell and Bill Anders took turns with subsequent readings of the Creation story, closing with, “…and from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you – all of you on the good Earth.”
1968: Two and a half days after their dramatic telecast from lunar orbit, the crew of Apollo 8 makes a perfect re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere, splashing down within two miles of the Pacific Ocean recovery ship, USS Yorktown (CV-10). You’ll recall that one of the most crucial engineering test from this mission was the ability of the Apollo capsule to accurately navigate to the narrow re-entry window into the atmosphere: too shallow an angle and the capsule would skip off and drift into eternity; too steep and it would be crushed by the deceleration and burned to a cinder. In the end, it was a 6G deceleration, as planned, with the system’s automated systems working flawlessly.
1973: Congress passes the Endangered Species Act.
1983: Pope John Paul II visits in his prison cell the man who was convicted of his attempted murder, Mehmet Ali Agci, and forgives him for shooting him in St. Peter’s Square two years earlier.