742: Birth of Charlemagne. During the Early Middle Ages, he united the majority of western and central Europe. He was the first recognized emperor to rule from western Europe since the fall of the Western Roman Empire three centuries earlier.
1146: The monk Bernard of Clairvaux preaches an impassioned sermon in a field at Vezelay, forcefully laying out the rationale for a second crusade to the Holy Lands.
1204: Death of Eleanor of Aquitane (b.1122), Queen of France and England, and mother of Richard Coeur de Lion. Eleanor was renowned for her great beauty, wealth, vivacity and political drive, but is perhaps best remembered today for her time developing “The Court of Love” in Poitiers, where she oversaw the full flowering of knightly chivalry and courtly love. Many of her tenets of gentlemanly behavior remain to this day.
1453: Ottoman Turk Mehmed II begins his siege of Constantinople, which finally falls in May, ending the Christian Byzantine Empire and establishing the Muslim Ottoman Empire (which survived through the Great War, and was finally dismembered via the Treaty of Versailles (1919)). Mehmed is credited with adopting many aspects of Byzantine administration over a fractious empire. His religious tolerance enabled one of his key methods for keeping the Christian remnants under control: kidnap the brightest Christian children from the provinces and train them up to serve in the Sultan’s court or as his personal bodyguards, the Janissaries.
1533(a): King Henry VIII divorces his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, widowed wife of Henry’s older brother, Arthur.
1533(b): Thomas Cranmer is made Archbishop of Canterbury. You will not be incorrect to think that these two items from 1533 are related. Cranmer worked the previous five years as part of the ecclesiastical legal team that developed the justification for Henry’s eventual divorce from Catherine of Aragon. You will also not be incorrect to surmise that the Boleyn family lobbied hard in favor of Cranmer’s accession to Canterbury to ensure his role in sanctifying their daughter Anne as Henry’s bride. One cannot overstate the intellectual fervor that accompanied the Christian Reformation occurring all across Europe during this period. Cranmer’s position, as head of the English Church, and his kindred intellectual-spiritual relationship with Erasmus and other key reformers, put him in the thick of changes to church doctrine that remain to this day, including the widely used Book of Common Prayer. Cranmer was caught on the wrong side of the Catholic restoration that began after the death of Henry during the short reign of his son Edward VI. He was tried for treason under a papal court and sentenced to death under English law. In the months prior to his scheduled death, he published six recantations of his “heresies.” At the pulpit on the day of his execution, he opened with a prayer and an exhortation to obey the king and queen, but he ended his sermon totally unexpectedly, deviating from the prepared script. He forcefully renounced the recantations that he had written or signed with his own hand since his degradation, and as such, he stated his hand would be punished by being burnt first. He then proclaimed, “And as for the pope, I refuse him, as Christ’s enemy, and Antichrist with all his false doctrine.” He was pulled from the pulpit and taken to where his colleagues Latimer and Ridley had been burnt six months before. As the flames drew around him, he fulfilled his promise by placing his right hand into the heart of the fire. His dying words were, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit… I see the heavens open and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.”
1727: Death of Isaac Newton.
1743: Birth of Thomas Jefferson (d.1826)
1775: In his continuing pursuit of effective colonial management, King George III endorses the New England Restricting Act. In a nod to colonial “self-rule” the act removes direct taxation to support the British military presence in New England, and replaces it with a billing invoice to for New Englanders to pay. It further stipulates that the New England colonies may only conduct commercial trade with England and adds a provision that will, as of July 20th, prohibit New Englanders from fishing in North Atlantic waters.
1801: The British Channel Fleet, with Horatio Lord Nelson second in command, destroys the majority of the Danish fleet in the Battle of Copenhagen. During the battle, Nelson refused an order to withdraw, instead turning with renewed fury to pound the line of moored Danish ships. At the height of this renewed engagement, Nelson suddenly ceased fire and opened negotiations with the Danes, who in the end agreed to a fourteen-week armistice. The victory was a blow to French interests in the Baltic and gave the British breathing room to re-fit and continue their seaborne pressure on trade with the French Republic.
1853: Birth of Vincent van Gogh.
1854: Commodore Matthew Perry signs the Treaty of Kanagawa, opening ports in Japan to American commerce. Japanese cultural memory of the visit of the Black Ships remains a very positive piece of U.S.- Japan relations.
1860:Pony Express mail service begins between St. Joseph, Missouri and Sacramento, California. The money-losing service inspired the country with its dramatic rides and colorful riders (including William “Buffalo Bill” Cody), but quickly lost its reason for being with the rapid expansion of the telegraph and railroad services. The last horses ran in October, 1861.
1865: Union troops overrun Confederate defenses at Petersburg. Lee orders a strategic retreat up the Appomattox River.
1865: On news of the fall of Petersburg, President Jefferson Davis and his war cabinet abandon Richmond in the hopes of re-establishing a functioning Confederate government in Mississippi.
1865: Union forces enter Richmond, where they find little but the burned out shells of its downtown buildings, fired by the retreating Confederates. Robert E. Lee leads the remnants of the Army of Northern Virginia up the Appomattox River to meet with a promised supply train near Lynchburg
1867: Secretary of State William Seward signs a treaty with Russia purchasing the Alaska territory for $7,200,000.00, about $.02 per acre.
1882: Former Confederate guerrilla Jesse James is shot in the back by a member of his own gang, Robert Ford.
1889: Inauguration of La Tour Eiffel. Gustave Eiffel was a French structural engineer who achieved fame for his innovative use of iron in construction. Although the tower that bears his name is his most prominent legacy, he earlier became famous for his bridge building and other engineering feats before raising the tower in Paris. He also played a major role in the unsuccessful French efforts to build a canal across the isthmus of Panama.
1917: Vladimir I. Lenin arrives in St. Petersburg from Switzerland, via Germany and Sweden. There is a fascinating sub-plot to this story, in that the putative leader of Russia’s Bolsheviks was in exile in Switzerland when the original Russian Revolution broke out in February, and was thus unable to influence the course of events. As the Kerensky government vainly tried to find its post-czarist footing, the Imperial German government sensed a unique opportunity to consolidate its dominant military victories on the eastern front with a decisive political victory that would decapitate the Russian government. The Germans made secret arrangements for a guarded “extra-territorial” train to transport a small cadre of their nominal Russian enemies from their Swiss exile in order to foment continued revolution, with the goal of generating a separate peace between Russia and Germany. The plan worked exactly as expected, with Lenin’s Bolshevik faction seizing power in October and making it their first order of business to conclude the Treaty of Brest-Litvosk in March, 1918. Russia thence continued its descent into Soviet Communism, prompting Winston Churchill to offer his typically concise summation of how it started:
“Lenin was sent into Russia by the Germans in the same way that you might send a phial containing a culture of typhoid or cholera to be poured into the water supply of a great city, and it worked with amazing accuracy.” (–Speech to the House of Commons, November, 1919)
1922: Joseph Stalin becomes General Secretary of the Communist Part of the Soviet Union.
1936: Richard Bruno Hauptmann is executed by the electric chair for the kidnapping and murder of Charles and Ann Morrow Lindbergh’s baby. Although the term “media circus” had yet to be invented, media coverage of the kidnapping and trial defines the genre to this day.
1951: Julius and Ethel Rosenburg are found guilty of espionage- giving nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. They are both executed by electric chair at Sing-Sing prison two years later. Their two sons, aged 6 and 10, are adopted by family friends under assumed names. Both husband and wife maintained their innocence to the end. They weren’t.
1961: Birth of Eddie “Lookin’ Good, Billy-Ray” Murphy.
1981: John Hinkley shoots President Ronald Reagan and three others in his entourage in Washington D.C. A .22 calibre bullet buried itself to within an inch of his heart, but Reagan’s confidence and sense of humor carried the day. To his wife Nancy, “Honey, I forgot to duck.” To the doctors who were about to operate, “Please tell me you are all Republicans.” And as he came out of anesthesia, a note to his aides: “All in all, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.” Hinkley is later found Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity (NGRI) and remains mostly confined to a mental institution just up the road from here, although he recently (2017) has been granted a bit more freedom to leave the hospital campus.
1982: The United Kingdom deploys the initial flotilla of the Royal Navy task force ordered to re-take the Falkland Islands from Argentina.
1996: Theodore Kaczynski is arrested. The Unabomber sent his first letter bomb in 1978; his casualties totaled 3 dead and 26 wounded.
1997: The United States’ last active battleship, USS Missouri (BB-63) is decommissioned in Long Beach, California. After a cosmetic overhaul, she is towed to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, where she serves as a memorial to World War II, directly adjacent to the entombed hull of USS Arizona (BB-36).
2004: Four security contractors from Blackwater International are ambushed, mutilated and burned in Fallujah, Iraq.
2005: Death of Polish prelate Karol Jozef Wojtyla, better known as Pope John Paul II (b.1920), and canonized as Saint in April of 2014.