February 18

1478 The death of the Duke of Clarence

Second murderer: Take him [the Duke of Clarence] on the costard with the hilts of thy sword, and then throw him into the malmsey-butt in the next room.

First Murderer [to the Duke of Clarence, stabbing him]: Take that, and that. If all this will not do, I’ll drown you in the malmsey-butt within.

This is how Shakespeare treats the death of George, Duke of Clarence, brother to King Edward IV and Richard, Duke of Gloucester, later Richard III. Before and after the Bard’s version, historians have debated how Clarence died and who was responsible for his death. In the sixteenth century it was widely believed that Gloucester had ordered the execution while more recent historians have expressed the possibility that Gloucester opposed his brother’s death.

By the standards of the time, Clarence certainly deserved to get the chop. He had betrayed his brothers and allied himself with this family’s dynastic rivals, Henry VI and the Lancastrian faction, but eventually deserted them to rejoin his Yorkist siblings. Never quite stable, mentally, he then seems to have again aroused suspicions of disloyalty in Edward’s mind and he was convicted of treason and sentenced to death.

His two surviving children who lived into the 16th century were both murdered on the orders of Henry VIII, whose Tudor father Henry VII had usurped the throne from Richard III.

February 17


1600 The burning of Giordano Bruno

Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) was a multifaceted genius unfortunate enough to be born in the age of the Inquisition and foolish enough to be careless in his utterances.

Born in southern Italy he joined the Dominican order and became a priest in 1572. He achieved fame as a scholar, particularly in the arts of memory at a time when studies in classical mnemonics were being revived in Renaissance. His unorthodox dabbling (he mused on Arianism and Erasmus) came to the attention of the authorities and he fled north, wandering to Naples, Genoa, Venice and for a time in Calvinist Geneva, though he seems not to have found Protestantism to his liking. Moving to France, he took his doctorate in theology at Toulouse and then moved to Paris where he dazzled the French court with his mastery of memory. He found powerful patrons there and in England but the unorthodoxy of his ideas was always peeping through. He championed Copernican theory before its wide acceptance and his attacks on Aristotle were not always well received, causing him to move about Europe from one teaching post to another. He had a great gift for making enemies out of friends.

In 1592 he was denounced to the Venetian Inquisition and he spent the last seven years of his life in jail defending his positions. Aside from his offensive cosmography — he suggested that there were multiple worlds in space where other life-forms might exist — he was deemed to have advanced heretical ideas on the Trinity, the Incarnation, the nature of the Eucharist, the transmigration of souls and the Catholic Church. He was found guilty and burnt at the stake in Rome’s Campo di’ Fiori where a statue to him now stands.

In modern times Bruno has been hailed as a martyr of science at the hands of an obscurantist church but it seems that he was most likely executed for his pantheism rather than his ideas on planetary forms.

February 16


1804 Americans burn the USS Philadelphia

The civilized world was plagued for centuries by the pirates of the Barbary Coast of North Africa. They terrorized the shores of the Christian Mediterranean and sailed into the Atlantic as far north as Iceland to take slaves — over a million Europeans were taken captive from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Countries either paid protection money or suffered the constant assaults on their shipping and coastal towns. The newly-independent United States began by paying the extortion — amounting to 16% of the American federal budget — but finally, under Thomas Jefferson, the USA had had enough. The officials with whom the Americans had negotiated told them their piracy was a religious duty:

“It was written in their Koran, that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every mussulman who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise. He said, also, that the man who was the first to board a vessel had one slave over and above his share, and that when they sprang to the deck of an enemy’s ship, every sailor held a dagger in each hand and a third in his mouth; which usually struck such terror into the foe that they cried out for quarter at once.”

So in 1801 began The First Barbary War against these pirate nests. In October 1803 the frigate USS Philadelphia while engaging in this campaign went aground near the city of Tripoli and its crew taken prisoner by the local Muslim pirate king. The ship was too dangerous a prize to be left in the hands of the Bey of Tripoli, so Commodore Edward Preble ordered Lieutenant Stephen Decatur to try and repossess the ship or destroy it.

Sir, you are hereby ordered to take command of the prize ketch Intrepid. It is my order that you proceed to Tripoli, enter the harbor in the night, board the Philadelphia, burn her and make good your retreat … The destruction of the Philadelphia is an object of great importance. I rely with confidence on your intrepidity and enterprise to effect it.

The Intrepid, previously named Mastico, had been captured from the Tripolitans, and Decatur disguised the ship as a merchant vessel run by a small Arab-speaking crew; Decatur and most of the men hid below deck. Under the ruse that the ship had lost its anchor, permission was sought to tie up to the Philadelphia. When the two ships were aside one another, Decatur and the other men burst out and onto the Philadelphia, easily overcoming the crew aboard. In a matter of minutes, 20 of the enemy were dead and others had jumped ship. The Americans then proceeded to send the ship up in flames and quickly retreat to the Intrepid.

British Admiral Horatio Nelson called it “the most bold and daring act of the age.”

February 15



Columbus issues a letter

Shortly before making landfall on his return from his first Voyage to the Indies, Columbus wrote this letter, excerpted below:

Since I know that you will be pleased by the great victory which Our Lord has given me on my voyage, I am writing you this letter, from which you will learn how in twenty days I crossed to the Indies with the fleet which the King and Queen, our most illustrious sovereigns, gave me. I found there very many islands inhabited by people without number, and I have taken possession of them all on behalf of Their Highnesses by proclamation and by unfurling the royal standard, and I was not contradicted.

To the first island I found I gave the name San Salvador in memory of His High Majesty who miraculously has given all this; the Indians call it Guanahaní. To the second I gave the name the island of Santa María de Concepción; to the third, Fernandina; to the fourth, Isabela; to the fifth, the island of Juana, and so on, to each a new name.

When I reached Juana I followed the coast to the west and I found it to be so large that I thought it must be the mainland, the province of Cathay; and since I found no towns or villages on the coast except small settlements with whose inhabitants I could not speak because they all immediately fled, I continued on that course thinking that I could not fail to find great cities or towns.

After many leagues, having seen that there was nothing new and that the coast was carrying me northwards, which was not the course I wished to take because winter was now drawing on and I proposed to make to the south, and as moreover the wind was carrying me forward, I decided to wait no longer and I turned round and made for a fine harbour. From there I sent two men inland to find out if there was a king or any great cities. They travelled for three days and found an infinite number of small villages and countless people, but no sign of authority; for which reason they returned. I understood well enough from some other Indians I had already taken that the whole of this coast was an island; and so I followed the coast one hundred and seven leagues to the east to where it ended.

I sighted another island to the east, eighteen leagues distant, to which I then gave the name Español… Española is a marvel; the sierras and the mountains and the plains and the fields and the land are so beautiful and rich for planting and sowing, for raising all kinds of cattle, for building towns and villages. The harbours are beyond the belief of anyone who has not seen them, and the many great rivers give good waters of which the majority bear gold. There are great differences between the trees and fruit and plants and those of Juana. On this island there are many spices and great mines of gold and other metals.

All the people on this island and all the others I have found or have learned of go naked, men and women alike, just as their mothers bear them, although some women cover themselves in one place with a leaf from a plant or a cotton garment which they make for the purpose.

They have no iron or steel or weapons, nor are they that way inclined, not because they are not well built and of fine bearing, but because they are amazingly timid. They have no other weapons than those made from canes cut when they are in seed, to the ends of which they fix a sharp stick; and they dare not use them, for many times I have happened to send two or three men ashore to some town to speak to them and a great number of them have come out, and as soon as they see the men coming they run off, parents not even waiting for children, and not because any harm has been done to any of them; on the contrary, everywhere I have been and have been able to speak to them I have given them some of everything I had, cloth and many other things, without receiving anything in exchange; but they are simply incurably timid.

The truth is that, once they gain confidence and lose this fear, they are so lacking in guile and so generous with what they have that no-one would believe it unless they saw it. They never refuse to give whatever they have, whenever they are asked; rather, they offer it willingly and with such love that they would give their hearts, and whether it is something of value or of little worth, they are happy with whatever they are given in return, however it is given …. I gave them thousands of pretty things I carried with me so that they would be well disposed and, moreover, would become christians, inclined to the love of Their Highnesses and the whole Castilian nation, and help us by giving us the things they have in abundance and of which we have need.

They knew no sect and were not idolaters, except that they all believe that power and good come from heaven, and they believed very firmly that I and these ships and crew came from heaven and in this belief they received me everywhere, once they had overcome their fear. And this is not because they are ignorant; rather, they are of subtle intelligence and can find their way around those seas, and give a marvellously good account of everything; it is only because they have never seen men clothed or ships of that kind. When I arrived in the Indies, at the first island I found I took some of them by force so that they could learn and give me information about what there was in those parts, and in that way they soon understood us and we them, whether by word or by sign; and they have been very useful to us. I still have them with me, and they still insist that I come from heaven, in spite of all the exchanges they have had with me, and they were the first to announce this wherever I went, and the others would run from house to house and to the nearby towns shouting: “come, come and see the people from heaven.” In this way they all flocked in, men and women alike, great and small, once they were confident about us; none were left behind, and they all brought something to eat and drink, which they gave with marvellous affection….

So I have found no monsters, nor heard of any except on an island here which is the second one as you approach the Indies and which is inhabited by people who are held in all the islands to be very ferocious and who eat human flesh. These people have many canoes in which they sail around all the islands of India robbing and stealing whatever they want; they are no more malformed than the others except that they wear their hair long like women and they carry bows and arrows made from the same cane stems with a small stick at the end for want of iron which they do not have. They are ferocious with these other people who are excessively cowardly, but I take no more account of them than of the rest.

In conclusion, to speak only of what has been achieved on this voyage, which was very rapid, Their Highnesses can see that I will give them as much gold as they require if Their Majesties will give me only a very little help; as much spice and cotton as Their Majesties may order to be shipped, as much mastic as they may order to be shipped, which until now has only been found in Greece, on the island of Chios, and the Genoese government sells it for whatever it likes, and as much aloe as they may order to be shipped and as many slaves as they may order to be shipped, and who will be from among the idolaters. I believe that I have found rhubarb and cinnamon and that I will find a thousand other things of value which the men I have left there will have discovered; for I have not delayed at any point whenever the wind gave me the opportunity to sail, except at the town of Navidad for as long as I might leave it safe and secure. And in truth I could have done a great deal more if the ships had served me as reason demanded.

That is enough. Eternal God, our Lord, gives to all those who follow His path victory over things which appear impossible, and this was a very notable example. For, although these lands may have been spoken or written of, that was all conjecture, without eye-witness, and those who heard the stories listened to them and judged them more as fables than as having the least vestige of truth. Therefore, since Our Redeemer gave to our most illustrious King and Queen and to their famous kingdoms this victory in such great matters, the whole of Christendom should be joyful and hold great celebrations and give solemn thanks to the Holy Trinity with many solemn prayers for the great exultation they will have when so many people return to our holy faith and for the temporal benefits which will bring solace and profit not only to Spain but to all christians. This is a brief account of what has been achieved.

Dated on board the caravel, off the islands of the Canaries, 15 February in the year 1493.

Your obedient servant. The Admiral.

February 14


Saint Valentine’s Day

Nothing is known about the original Valentine except that he was a Roman Christian, martyred (certainly) in the third (perhaps) century. Many medieval legends grew up around the name but they may refer to one, two or three different Valentines. Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century led to Valentine’s Day being associated with romantic love for ornithological reasons. In his “Parliament of Foules” (meaning ‘Fowls”) Chaucer notes For this was on seynt Volantynys day/ Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make — “For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day when every bird comes there to choose his mate.” Because it was a day for bird mating (said Chaucer, quite  erroneously) February 14 has come to be associated with romance.


Saint Cyril’s Day

Of much more historical consequence than St Valentine is St Cyril. Cyril (827-69) and his brother Methodius (815-85) were eastern Christian monks at a time when the Slavic peoples of eastern and southeastern Europe were being evangelized. Cyril was learned in a number of languages and was sent by church officials in Constantinople as an emissary to the Islamic caliphate and the Jewish Khazars. In 862 Cyril and Methods were sent to Moravia in what is now the Czech republic as representatives of the eastern church. The Slavs there had been Christianized but were deciding whether they should look to Rome or Constantinople for religious leadership. As part of this mission the brothers attempted to translate the Bible into a Slavic dialect (Old Church Slavonic) which necessitated inventing a new alphabet — called Glagolitic, from which came all the Cyrillic alphabets of eastern Europe such as Russian or Bulgarian.

Moravia eventually chose to align itself with Rome but armed with a Slavic alphabet Constantinople led the way in evangelizing the nations of eastern and southeastern Europe and giving them liturgy and Bibles in their own tongues. This led to the formation of what is known as the Byzantine or Orthodox Commonwealth, a loose affiliation of Orthodox autocephalous churches acknowledging the primacy of the Patriarch of Constantinople. Under this principle the Russian lands became part of eastern Christianity and assured the survival of the religion after fall of Constantinople to Muslim armies in 1453.

It should be noted, however, that by allowing the eastern churches to have a vernacular liturgy they were cut off from the Latin-speaking West and the Roman heritage so that the cultures of eastern and western Europe grew apart in the Middle Ages. The East, for example, did not undergo either the Renaissance nor the Protestant Reformation.

February 13

St Valentine’s Eve

During the 19th century, inhabitants of the eastern English city of Norwich celebrated the unique custom described here in Chamber’s Book of Days.

At Norwich, St. Valentine’s eve appears to be still kept as a time for a general giving and receiving of gifts. It is a lively and stirring scene. The streets swarm with carriers, and baskets laden with treasures; bang, bang, bang go the knockers, and away rushes the banger, depositing first upon the door-step some packages from the basket of stores—again and again at intervals, at every door to which a missive is addressed, is the same repeated, till the baskets are empty. Anonymously, St. Valentine presents his gifts, labelled only with “St Valentine’s love,” and “Good morrow, Valentine.” Then within the houses of destination, the screams, the shouts, the rushings to catch the bang-bangs,—the flushed faces, sparkling eyes, rushing feet to pick up the fairy-gifts—inscriptions to be interpreted, mysteries to be unravelled, hoaxes to be found out —great hampers, heavy and ticketed “With care, this side upwards,” to be unpacked, out of which jump live little boys with St. Valentine’s love to the little ladies fair,—the sham bang-bangs, that bring nothing but noise and fun—the mock parcels that vanish from the door-step by invisible strings when the door opens—monster parcels that dwindle to thread papers denuded of their multiplied envelopes, with fitting mottoes, all tending to the final consummation of good counsel, “Happy is he who expects nothing, and he will not be disappointed.” 

This lovely practice disappeared but there are recent attempts in Norwich to revive the custom.

February 12


St Eulalia of Barcelona

There are two saints of this name, both Spanish, both virgins, both martyred during the persecutions of Diocletian shortly after 300.  The one who is honoured today is the patron saint of Barcelona and she after whom the city’s cathedral is named.

Yearly on this date Eulalia’s Day is marked by a festival which includes many typical Catalan traditions like parades with gegants (giant effigies) and other fantasy figures, castellers (human tower building),  sardines (Catalan folk dancing), correfoc (fireworks and fire-runs) and the like. Fun for the whole family.


For me, the highlight of the rather gloomy Gothic cathedral of St Eulalia is the crucifix in the Lepanto Chapel. Locals explain the curious curve in the body of Jesus by saying that the work of art was on the prow of the flagship galley of Don Juan when a cannonball flew toward it and the Lord nimbly twisted his body out of the way.

February 11

1626 Ethiopia becomes officially Roman Catholic

One of the oldest Christian churches in the world is that of Ethiopia. The country maintained its Coptic variety of Christianity over the centuries despite repeated attacks from surrounding Muslim nations. When the Portuguese reached India in the late 1400s it was possible for Roman Catholicism influence to be felt. When Ethiopia appealed for help against the Muslim Adal Sultanate in 1531, the military aid opened up the country further. Jesuit missionaries arrived and made some converts among the people but their real target was the ruling class. The Emperor Susenyos I was converted to Catholicism and in 1622 declared it to be the country’s official religion. When Afonso Mendes, a Portuguese Jesuit, was named Patriarch of the Ethiopian Church and Susenyos used force to compel the latinization, resistance grew. On the death of the Emperor the union with Rome was declared over, Mendes was expelled and the Catholic missionizing came to an official end. Jesuits who lingered were martyred.

1929 The Lateran pacts are signed

The reunification of Italy in the 19th century came at the expense of the Papal States, ruled by the Pope since the 700s. When the last bit was gobbled up by Italy in 1870 subsequent popes refused to recognize the status quo and claimed to be prisoners in the Vatican. In the Lateran Pacts signed with Benito Mussolini, the fascist dictator, the Vatican received independence and reparations while agreeing to recognize the Kingdom of Italy.

2013 Pope Benedict XVI resigns the papacy

When the noted theologian Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was named Pope Benedict XVI in 2005 he was already 77 years old. He served as Bishop of Rome until 2013 when he stepped down from his office, not wishing to imitate the example of his predecessor John Paul II who was incapacitated in the latter part of his reign. He cited “lack of strength of mind and body” as the reason for his decision. He was the first Pope to resign since 1415 when Gregory XII was forced to step down under pressure from the Council of Constance. The last pope to resign voluntarily was the unfortunate Celestine V who retired in 1294.

February 10


HMS Dreadnought and the arms race

With the exception of Great Britain, all of the major European states had adopted universal military service after 1871. Standing armies grew enormously, with millions of men under arms in many  countries. Moreover, all had copied the German General Staff and had adopted  their ideas on the scientific study of war and preparation for war. Thousands  of specialists in each country pored over maps, employed spies, sought out  enemy spies, assessed intelligence, and considered the problems of topography, ordnance, transportation and logistics. Once this sort of machinery had been put in motion, it was inevitable that they begin to have an influence on policy decisions. This was particularly true in France with its obsession about revanche and Germany, fully aware of French feelings and planning a “preventive war”. Militarism took an increasingly large part of national budgets: the British taxpayer who paid $3.54 for the armed forces in 1870 paid $8.23 in 1914; France went from $2.92 to 7.07; Germany from $1.28 to 8.19. The Dreadnought Race is symptomatic of this.

In 1906 the Royal Navy launched a new type of battleship: heavily armoured, all-big gunned, steam-turbine-powered, and fast. It made all other battleships obsolete. The problem was that HMS Dreadnought also made British naval superiority obsolete at a stroke. Hitherto Britain had insisted that its navy be as large as the next two navies combined so that no alliance could challenge its power at sea. Now, however, its numerical advantage was useless; what mattered was how many ships of the dreadnought class a nation could produce. Germany was particularly eager to compete and started building similar ships of their own, forcing the British into an ever more expensive arms race and heightening tensions that eventually exploded in 1914.

February 9


The Beatles’ first appearance on the “Ed Sullivan Show”.

With so few entertainment choices, in the 1960s popular culture was still relatively uniform. It had not finished dividing into the many sub-categories we endure today; a television variety program like Ed Sullivan’s could attract a multi-generational audience with a variety of performers ranging from night-club crooners, Chinese plate-spinners, Mexican ventriloquists, borscht-belt comedians, and rock musicians.

The British Invasion that was changing the sound of pop music was led by those four lovable mop-topped lads from Liverpool, the Beatles. By early 1964, their hold on youth was so strong that my church youth group was resigned to letting us teenagers go home early to watch their first North American tv appearance. I sat on the polyester rug in our living room and sang along while my parents watched, manifestly unimpressed.

In the end, Sullivan’s show lost its appeal to those advertisers seeking to court the youth market and his show was cancelled in 1971.