814 A.D.: Death of Charlemagne, King of the Franks and first to hold the title of Holy Roman Emperor. His conquest and rule over a continuous empire covering most of central and western Europe created, for the first time in the post-Roman era, the political conditions for what we now know as “Europe,” an entity, rather than the plethora of tribes and anarchy that followed the collapse of Roman rule.
1225: Birth of Thomas Aquinas (d.1274), who began his career as an Italian monk, but whose supreme intellect and spiritual insights catapulted him to professorship at the University of Paris, where he was prolific in his writings and instruction of the burgeoning cadre of church intellectuals. His life and works remain the standard for intellectual Christianity. He was canonized in 1323, and is today held as a model teacher for aspiring Catholic priests, and anyone who thinks seriously about the relationship of science and faith.
1547: Death of King Henry VIII (b.1491), leaving in his wake the 6 year old Edward VI as king. His daughter Elizabeth did not ascend right to the throne–it was her half-brother, born of Anne Boleyn’s successor, Jane Seymour, who died only a few days after giving birth to Henry’s only male heir. Her half-sister Mary was also next in line after Edward.
1595: Death of Sir Francis Drake (b.c1540), of dysentery while anchored off the coast of Portobela, Panama. His career at sea included harassment of Spanish treasure fleets, secret surveys, a circumnavigation of the globe, and the destruction of the Spanish Armada. Drake’s life ended while engaged on yet another crusade against the treasures of Spanish America. He requested to be buried in his full armour, and was buried at sea in a lead coffin, which is today the object of regular treasure hunts.
1646: After a tumultuous reign that saw two civil wars fought between his royalist army and armies of an increasingly assertive Parliament, King Charles I is beheaded for high treason. General Oliver Cromwell assumes a role as Lord Protector of the Realm. This is the original notion of a representative Parliament facing down a king who believed his decisions and demands were legitimized under the concept of Divine Right. During Cromwell’s rule, negotiations lead to the beginnings of the constitutional monarchy we know today.
1661: As part of the settlement leading to the restoration of the British monarchy, the two-years dead remains of Oliver Cromwell are exhumed and ritually executed for regicide, 12 years to the day from Charles I’s beheading at Cromwell’s instigation. After the ceremony, the mutilated corpse was tossed into a common pit grave, and his head was displayed on a pike outside Westminster until 1685. It changed hands several times as a historical curiosity, and was finally buried in 1960.
1801: Birth of Horatia Nelson, illegitimate daughter from the public affair between Royal Navy hero Horatio Lord Nelson and Mrs. Emma Hamilton, wife of the British Consul in Leghorn, Italy.
1832: Birth of British author Lewis Carroll. His artistic genius used word-play and nonsense literature, most famously his Alice books and the Snark and Jaberwocky poems. He also spent his final 25 years mastering a new art form, photography, creating images of children which at the time were in the center of Victorian haute couture when they were made.
1850: Kentucky senator Henry Clay introduces on the floor of the U.S. Senate The Compromise of 1850, a complicated set of bills designed to diffuse the increasingly volatile issue of slavery in the new territories of the United States. The proximate trigger was the end of the Mexican War, which brought with it a huge acquisition of territory from the Mexican Cession, the status of which could not be adequately defined by the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (which set the slave-free line in the territories at N36-30). The 1850 plan was this: a) California is admitted as a free state; b) Texas is admitted as a slave state; c) Texas drops its claims for territories in New Mexico in exchange for Federal assumption of Lone Star debt d) New Mexico and Utah territories are organized to permit popular sovereignty to decide slave or free status; e) the importation and sale of slaves is prohibited in the District of Columbia, although slave labor there remains legal; f) the Fugitive Slave Act is strengthened. The final portions of the Compromise passed in September, 1850.
1865: After passage in the House of Representatives, President Abraham Lincoln signs a bill for the 13th Amendment, ending involuntary servitude in the United States, and sending it to the Several States for ratification. Illinois ratified it the same day, and 10 others followed suit in the first week. Ratification came into force in December, 1865. To date, 36 states have formally ratified the amendment, the latest being Mississippi in March of 1995.
1912: Birth of American artist Jackson Pollock. While Jackson Pollock is considered as the most well-known painter who created his abstract pieces by dripping paint onto a flat canvas, many before him experimented with this method as well. Japanese Zen Buddhist painters investigated splashing ink as far back as the 15th-century, while various authors from the Dada and Surrealist movements also used this expressive and highly experimental process.
1943: The U.S. Army’s 8th Air Force launches its first raid into Germany, sending 91 B-17s and B-24s against submarine construction yards in Wilhemshaven.
1944: After 872 days of creating unrelenting shelling and misery for the population of the former Saint Petersburg, the German Wehrmacht lifts its Siege of Leningrad and withdraws, finally allowing for opening a broad corridor for the Soviet government to re-arm and re-supply the citizens and armed forces of that city.
1945: The Soviet Red Army liberates the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland.
1951: The U.S. begins nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Range, using a B-50 bomber to drop a Mk-4 device, approximately the same size and weight of the Fat Man used at Nagasaki but with new triggering mechanisms and a modified nuclear pit. The vast majority of the 1,054 U.S. live tests were conducted at the Nevada site.
1967: The crew of Apollo 1, Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, are killed when a fire sweeps through the Command Module during a routine rehearsal prior to the scheduled launch. The ignition source was not conclusively discovered, but the flaws inherent in the initial design were exacerbated by the module being pressurized with pure oxygen to 16 psi to simulate structural pressures in space. Redesign efforts put the program on hold for 20 months.
1979: Ayatola Ruhollah Khomeini returns to Iran after 15 years of exile in France.
1986: Space Shuttle Challenger blows up 73 seconds into launch, killing all 7 astronauts aboard.
2003: After a two week-long science mission, Space Shuttle Columbia, the original orbiter in the fleet, disintegrates on re-entry into the atmosphere, killing all 7 astronauts aboard. After completion of the mishap investigation, NASA decided to terminate the Shuttle program in favor of a newly designed Constellation system. Columbia weighed around 8000 pounds more than the other orbiters, and was thus not suited for high inclination missions. She was also not fitted with an ISS-compatible air lock, so she was never used for an ISS servicing mission, but assumed primary duties for science missions and satellite launches. Columbia flew 28 missions, spending just over 300 days in orbit. Due to the annual proximity of the 17 spaceflight deaths of its astronauts, NASA commemorates their memory on January 27th.