69 A.D.: Roman Legions in Germania Superior (present-day Alsace region) refuse to swear allegiance to the Emperor Galba, instead casting their support for the accession of Vitellius, whose short reign (April-December of this year) made him the third in a uniquely turbulent period of Roman history known as The Year of Four Emperors, all of whom were powerful generals, and all vying for control of the post-Nero Roman throne by the power of the armies they commanded in the far-flung provinces of the Empire.
406 AD: Traditional date for the beginning of the great Barbarian invasion of the Roman Empire, with waves of Vandals, Alans and Suebians crossing the un-bridged but frozen Rhine River to begin a massive campaign of pillage along a broad front of Roman Gaul.
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 very 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 dramatic change caught Henry off guard, and began 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, 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 him 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.
1229: James I of Aragon enters the port city of Palma de Majorca, completing the reconquista of the Baleric Islands from the invading Moors of North Africa.
1466: 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. In a DLH nutshell, 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.
1600: Queen Elizabeth I grants a Royal Charter to “Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading with the East Indies” better known today as the British East India Company. As a measure of its political power (and its potential for conflict), the charter awarded a monopoly on all trade with all countries east of the Cape of Good Hope and west of the Strait of Magellan. The estimable Wikipedia summarizes the bottom line: “Any traders, in breach of the charter without a license from the Company, were liable to forfeiture of their ships and cargo (half of which went to the Crown and the other half to the Company), as well as imprisonment at the ‘royal pleasure’.” You can safely assume that the ambitious traders of the Netherlands, France, Portugal and Spain did not see eye-to-eye with this assertion of particular trading rights. You probably also recognized that a commercial entity of this magnitude would soon press against the technological limits of existing ocean navigation, and the legal limits of unbridled global competition for markets.
1687: The first organized group of approximately 180-200 French Huguenots, fleeing the continuing religious persecution of Cardinal Richelieu and the Edict of Fountainebleau, set sail for the Cape of Good Hope, where they are warmly welcomed by their coreligionist Dutch settlers in the Cape Colony. They eventually settle in the area of West Cape in an area quickly known as le Coin Francais (i.e., the French Quarter) and within a generation, Franschhoek, the Dutch version of the same name. Not surprisingly, the region is one of South Africa’s premier wine districts, and many place names retain their original francophone place names.
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, ironic, given her deep engagement and privileged position within the French Court.
1759: Irish brewer Arthur Guinness begins commercial production of a stout robust dark ale from his brewery in St. James’ Gate, Dublin.
1772: The world’s first traveler’s cheques, are issued by the London Credit Exchange Company, for use in 90 cities in Continental Europe.
1775:The Battle of Quebec. Fought by an American army under the command of General Richard Montgomery and supported by Colonel Benedict Arnold, who had just completed an astonishing forced march through the Maine wilderness with about 1,100 veterans of the Siege of Boston, 600 of whom completed the arduous trek The two forces combined at the base of the city walls, and on this night initiate an attack on the fortified British Canadian redoubt of Quebec, with the intention of driving the British away from the Saint Lawrence River and claiming Canadian lands for the nascent United States. The night attack in a blinding snowstorm seemed like a good idea, and might have even worked if the plan wasn’t betrayed to the British garrison, who set up a devastating ambuscade that shattered any hope for a concentrated offense. 34 Americans were killed, including General Montgomery, and another 50 wounded and 431 captured, against 19 casualties for the British, who not only successfully defended their position, but also captured virtually the entire American force, keeping them out of the fight for the remainder of the hostilities.
1776: Incensed by his being run out of his royal colonial capitol in Williamsburg, John Murray, the 4th Lord Dunmore and last Royal Governor of Virginia, orders the three ships of his refugee fleet to set fire to the waterfront buildings of Norfolk, Virginia. Using heated shot, the mission was a complete success, made even more successful by rebel forces finishing the job to prevent the seaport’s continued use by royalist forces. By the end of the day, virtually the entire city had burned to ashes. One of the few buildings that remained standing after the fire was Saint Paul’s Church, whose three-foot thick masonry walls simply absorbed the shot and withstood the flames all around. One of Lord Dunmore’s cannonballs remains lodged in a corner wall of the church, where you can visit it today.
1781: The Pennsylvania contingent of the Continental Army, suffering in winter quarters near Morristown, New Jersey, mutinies against its officers and General “Mad” Anthony Wayne over not only the dire living conditions in camp, but also for the failure of Pennsylvania legislature to provide current and adequate pay and some positive indication concerning the legal status of their enlistments, whose supposed three-year term was long expired. Other regiments sent in to suppress the insurrection agreed with their grievances and instead of suppressing, joined them instead. And here’s an interesting twist: during negotiations between the mutineers and Pennsylvania authorities, British Commanding General Sir Henry Clinton sent over an emissary who offered immediate full back pay to the Americans if they would join forces with the British army. Clinton, however, mis-judged the nature of the Continentals: they arrested the British delegation and sent them packing with the message that there was no way they would defect to the British side. By the end of the month, enlistment contracts were re-negotiated and the regiment marched to Trenton, where they were either discharged with back pay or re-enlisted for a $20 bounty. The Pennsylvania Line Mutiny was by far the most dangerous insurrection of the entire war, but its conclusion reinforced the resolve of Americans continuing fight for independence. Two of the formerly mutinous and re-formed Pennsylvania regiments participated in General Washington’s siege and victory at Yorktown, Virginia in October.
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.
1804: After a vicious uprising against their French masters, and supported in part by the infant United States, the former plantation colony of Haiti declares its independence from France, becoming the Western Hemisphere’s second independent state and the first one governed as a free black republic.
1812: Cruising 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. 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.
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.
1860: Launch of the Royal Navy’s first iron warship, HMS Warrior. The ship today is beautifully restored, and on public display at the Royal Dockyards in Portsmouth (UK), a few hundred yards away from the spectacular HMS Victory. When I visited back in 2006, two things were quite striking about the ship: 1) she was essentially designed and built just like a conventional wooden warship, except using iron frames and plates instead of oak; 2) because of the unreliability of the steam plant, the two-bladed propeller was designed to be faired into the centerline of the keel, and then hoisted up out of the water to reduce drag while under sail.
1862: President Abraham Lincoln signs an enabling act that admits West Virginia into the Union as a Free State.
1863: President Abraham Lincoln signs the Emancipation Proclamation, legally freeing slaves from their servitude in the states still in rebellion on this date.
1865: Birth of English author Rudyard Kipling (d.1936), whose work remains embedded in the subconscious of most of the English-speaking world to this day. Much of his writing came as a direct result of his journalistic adventures in Great Britain’s far-flung south-Asian empire. The Brits, you may recall, paid a steep price for their control of the northern approaches to India, the jewel in the British crown. Kipling was typically elegant about it: “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.” For those of us who endured SERE* school back in the day, you’ll recall the recording of endlessly repeated refrain of “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 paeans to 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…”
1879: Inventor Thomas Alva Edison publicly demonstrates the incandescent light bulb in his Menlo Park laboratory.
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 negotiating with the Vichy French government to allow 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, hanged by the neck until dead.
1885: Twenty-five industrialized nations adopt the concept of “standard time,” which we now know as Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) or “Zulu” time, from which all other clock times are derived, basing their local times on the concurrent establishment of 24 time zones world-wide.
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 flashpoint during the “American Indian Movement” of the early ’70s, which took the cry of Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee as a rallying cry.
1890: The city of Pasadena, California, hosts its first Tournament of Roses Parade.
1907: The first public New Year’s Eve celebration is held in the former Longacre Square in the middle of Manhattan. In 1906 and prior years, New Yorkers were completely sober and reflective as the calendar turned from one year to the next. No, really. Gary- back me up on this.
1945: Birth of Belgian race car driver Jackie Ickxx (pronounced like yikes– but without the y diphthong). Ickxx had 25 podium finishes in his Formula One career, and then went on to win six runnings of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
1951: After a four year expenditure of just under $13,000,000.000.00 on rebuilding the business and infrastructure needs of the shattered societies of Western Europe, the European Recovery Program, a.k.a. the Marshall Plan, is terminated.
1968: First flight of the Tupolev TU-144 Charger supersonic transport aircraft. Its basic design echoed the Anglo-French Concorde, but in typical Russian fashion, the machine’s designers met their most intractable problems with predictable brute force, including a massive steel (yes) plate shielding the underbody from runway debris. After its 1977 commercial introduction, the plane saw the majority of its service on the domestic Moscow-Vladivostok run, which makes sense if your country is 11 time zones wide. It had a miserable mishap rate and pathetic reliability record, which only hastened its commercial demise in 1983 after only 55 (yes**) paying flights. As a point of reference, the Concorde dropped its landing gear for the last time in 2003. One of the last flyable TU-144s was offered to NASA & Boeing as a supersonic test bed by an independent contractor. It made 27 flights in 1996-97 before losing funding.
1970: At 00:00:00 GMT, time began for the UNIX computer system.
1983: Formal break-up date for the AT&T – Bell Labs regulated monopoly, an act that freed AT&T to exploit all of its lab work into the burgeoning field of digital telecommunications, and personal computing.
1992: Death of Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, USNR (b.1906), one of the visionary thinkers who ushered the U.S. into the computer age. In the early 1950s, she worked on the design team for the original UINVAC 1 system, which included her particular input, a functional compiler, a capability long considered beyond the reach of computing machines. Ten years later, she spearheaded the design and application of COBOL, the first computer language designed around more natural English as opposed to machine language. She retired in 1986, the oldest commissioned officer in the Navy at 79 years of age. USS Hopper (DDG-70) is named in her honor.
1999: Introduction of the EURO as a continent-wide common currency.