June 27

1844

The assassination of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith

In 1820 Joseph Smith (1805-44) experienced the first of a series of visions that would lead to him becoming the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. He claimed that during one of these visions an angel named Moroni revealed the location of a buried treasure containing a book of golden leaves and twin stones that would allow him to interpret the contents. He later recovered these books and dictated the translation which became The Book of Mormon. His remarkable religious claims led to him, and his growing number of followers, being forced to relocate a number of times. Many times they were met with violence and Smith himself was tarred and feathered in Ohio; on other occasions early Mormons were arrested and thrown in jail. By 1844 Smith had established his headquarters in the new city of Nauvoo where his teachings aroused opposition from both locals and long-time members of his own church. Smith ordered the destruction of a printing press run by his rivals and called out his own paramilitary force, the Nauvoo Legion, to put down resistance. On June 23, 1844 Joseph Smith and his brother Hirum were arrested and charged with treason. Smith reportedly said at the time: “I am going like a lamb to the slaughter; but I am calm as a summer’s morning. I have a conscience void of offence towards God, and towards all men. I shall die innocent, and it shall yet be said of me. ‘He was murdered in cold blood’”.

Four days later a mob, with faces blackened for disguise, attacked the jail. A near-contemporary account reads:

    Immediately there was a little rustling at the outer door of the jail, and a cry of surrender, and also a discharge of three or four firearms followed instantly. The doctor glanced an eye by the curtain of the window, and saw about a hundred armed men around the door. It is said that the guard elevated their firelocks, and boisterously threatening the mob discharged their fire-arms over their heads. The mob encircled the building, and some of them rushed by the guard up the flight of stairs, burst open the door, and began the work of death, while others fired in through the open windows.

    In the meantime Joseph, Hyrum, and Elder Taylor had their coats off. Joseph sprang to his coat for his six-shooter, Hyrum for his single barrel, Taylor for Markham’s large hickory cane, and Dr. Richards for Taylor’s cane. All sprang against the door, the balls whistled up the stairway, and in an instant one came through the door.

    Joseph Smith, John Taylor and Dr. Richards sprang to the left of the door, and tried to knock aside the guns of the ruffians.

    Hyrum was retreating back in front of the door and snapped his pistol, when a ball struck him in the left side of his nose, and he fell on his back on the floor saying, “I am a dead man!” As he fell on the floor another ball from the outside entered his left side, and passed through his body with such force that it completely broke to pieces the watch he wore in his vest pocket, and at the same instant another ball from the door grazed his breast, and entered his head by the throat; subsequently a fourth ball entered his left leg.

    A shower of balls was pouring through all parts of the room, many of which lodged in the ceiling just above the head of Hyrum.

    Joseph reached round the door casing, and discharged his six shooter into the passage, some barrels missing fire. Continual discharges of musketry came into the room. Elder Taylor continued parrying the guns until they had got them about half their length into the room, when he found that resistance was vain, and he attempted to jump out of the window, where a ball fired from within struck him on his left thigh, hitting the bone, and passing through to within half an inch of the other side. He fell on the window sill, when a ball fired from the outside struck his watch in his vest pocket, and threw him back into the room.

    After he fell into the room he was hit by two more balls, one of them injuring his left wrist considerably, and the other entering at the side of the bone just below the left knee. He rolled under the bed, which was at the right of the window in the south-east corner of the room.

    While he lay under the bed he was fired at several times from the stairway; one ball struck him on the left hip, which tore the flesh in a shocking manner, and large quantities of blood were scattered upon the wall and floor.

    When Hyrum fell, Joseph exclaimed, “Oh dear, brother Hyrum!” and opening the door a few inches he discharged his six shooter in the stairway (as stated before), two or three barrels of which missed fire.

    Joseph, seeing there was no safety in the room, and no doubt thinking that it would save the lives of his brethren in the room if he could get out, turned calmly from the door, dropped his pistol on the floor, and sprang into the window when two balls pierced him from the door, and one entered his right breast from without, and he fell outward into the hands of his murderers, exclaiming. “O Lord, my God!”

June 24

1880

The first performance of O Canada

The Canadian national anthem O Canada was written in response to a commission by the Lieutenant-Governor of Québec and performed first on the feast day of John the Baptist, the province’s patron saint. The music was composed by Callixa Lavallée (1842-91) and the French lyrics by Sir Adolphe-Basile Routhier (1839-1920); an original set of English words was added in 1908 by Robert Stanley Weir. The Christian content of both official versions has of late come under attack by secularists, under the mistaken impression that Canada maintains an American-style separation of church and state. To understand the religious imagery of our national anthems, consider the full texts below.

First, the English translation of the French lyrics:

O Canada!

Land of our forefathers,

Thy brow is wreathed with a glorious garland of flowers.

As is thy arm ready to wield the sword,

So also is it ready to carry the cross.

Thy history is an epic

Of the most brilliant exploits.

Thy valour steeped in faith

Will protect our homes and our rights.

Will protect our homes and our rights.

Under the eye of God, near the giant river,

The Canadian grows hoping.

He was born of a proud race,

Blessed was his birthplace.

Heaven has noted his career

In this new world.

Always guided by its light,

He will keep the honour of his flag,

He will keep the honour of his flag.

From his patron, the precursor of the true God,

He wears the halo of fire on his brow.

Enemy of tyranny

But full of loyalty,

He wants to keep in harmony,

His proud freedom;

And by the effort of his genius,

Set on our ground the truth,

Set on our ground the truth.

Sacred love of the throne and the altar,

Fill our hearts with your immortal breath!

Among the foreign races,

Our guide is the law:

Let us know how to be a people of brothers,

Under the yoke of faith.

And repeat, like our fathers,

The slogan: “For Christ and King! “

The slogan: “For Christ and King!


The Original English version
O Canada!

Our home and native land!

True patriot love in all thy sons command.

With glowing hearts we see thee rise,

The True North strong and free!

From far and wide,

O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

God keep our land glorious and free!

O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

 

O Canada! Where pines and maples grow.

Great prairies spread and lordly rivers flow.

How dear to us thy broad domain,

From East to Western sea.

Thou land of hope for all who toil!

Thou True North, strong and free!

Chorus:

God keep our land glorious and free!

O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

O Canada! Beneath thy shining skies

 

May stalwart sons, and gentle maidens rise,

To keep thee steadfast through the years

From East to Western sea.

Our own beloved native land!

Our True North, strong and free!

Chorus

 

Ruler supreme, who hearest humble prayer,

Hold our Dominion in thy loving care;

Help us to find, O God, in thee

A lasting, rich reward,

As waiting for the better Day,

We ever stand on guard.

Needless to say, the naked sexism of terms such as “sons” or “gentle maidens” caused the offenderati to clutch their pearls and reach for the smelling salts. Changes had to be made.

June 12

1595

The Union of Brest

National identity and religion are often closely tied. This was certainly the case in eastern Europe at the close of the sixteenth century. Many Slavic inhabitants of the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth (a territory encompassing what is now Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia) were adherents of the Orthodox Church but they resented having to acknowledge the headship of the new Patriarchate of Moscow. In order to assert their independence from Russian hegemony many clerics sought to arrive at a bargain with the papacy and in return for certain important concessions they were willing to reunite with the Catholic Church and the Bishop of Rome.

On this day in 1595 Ukrainian bishops read out a letter agreed to by Orthodoxy clergy at the synod of Brest. Their churches would acknowledge the headship of the pope, Clement VIII, but would not have to give up many of their cherished beliefs. They could retain married clergy, say the creed without the “Filoque Clause”, avoid Corpus Christi processions, and follow the Julian calendar rather than the newly-reformed Gregorian usage. Worship styles would remain unchanged and theological disputes would be shunned, as in the case of Purgatory where the synod had decreed “we shall not debate about purgatory, but we entrust ourselves to the teaching of the Holy Church.”

The split from Orthodoxy was not an easy one. Violence broke out over church property and forced allegiances; animosity still lingers in parts of Ukraine and Russia to this day.

June 4

The Preacher of Divine Love

St Francis Caracciolo (1563-1608) was the co-founder with St John Augustine Adorno of the Congregation of the Clerics Regular Minor or “the Adorno Fathers” whose motto is “Ad majorem Resurgentis gloriam” (“to the greater glory of the Risen One”).

Butler’s Lives of the Saints tells us Francis was born in the kingdom of Naples, of the princely family of Caracciolo. In childhood he shunned all amusements, recited the Rosary regularly, and loved to visit the Blessed Sacrament and to distribute his food to the poor. An attack of leprosy taught him the vileness of the human body and the vanity of the world. Almost miraculously cured, he renounced his home to study for the priesthood at Naples, where he spent his leisure hours in the prisons or visiting the Blessed Sacrament in unfrequented churches. God called him, when only twenty-five, to found an Order of Clerks Regular, whose rule was that each day one father fasted on bread and water, another took the discipline, a third wore a hair-shirt, while they always watched by turns in perpetual adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. They took the usual vows, adding a fourth—not to desire dignities [high church office]. To establish his Order, Francis undertook many journeys through Italy and Spain, on foot and without money, content with the shelter and crusts given him in charity. Being elected general, he redoubled his austerities, and devoted seven hours daily to meditation on the Passion, besides passing most of the night praying before the Blessed Sacrament. Francis was commonly called the Preacher of Divine Love. But it was before the Blessed Sacrament that his ardent devotion was most clearly perceptible. In presence of his divine Lord his face usually emitted brilliant rays of light; and he often bathed the ground with his tears when he prayed, according to his custom, prostrate on his face before the tabernacle, and constantly repeating, as one devoured by internal fire, “The zeal of Thy house hath eaten me up.” He died of fever, aged forty-four, on the eve of Corpus Christi, 1608, saying, “Let us go, let us go to heaven!” When his body was opened after death, his heart was found as it were burnt up, and these words imprinted around it: “Zelus domus Tuæ comedit me“—”The zeal of Thy house hath eaten me up.”

Francis is the patron saint of Naples and Italian cooks.

May 30

St Dymphna’s Day

If you think that your family dynamics are odd or distressing, spare a thought for young Dymphna, a 7th-century daughter of a petty Irish king named Damon.

As a teenager Dymphna took a vow of chastity, an act which would lead to her persecution and death. Her father, you see, had conceived an unnatural attraction for the girl after the death of his beloved wife. As she was the image of her beautiful mother, Damon vowed he would marry her. Creeped out by this news, Dymphna fled to the Continent with her priestly confessor and the court fool. This menagerie settled in a village in what is now Belgium.

When Damon tracked her down, he had his men kill the priest and tried to force his daughter to return with him to Ireland. She resisted and, in a rage, she chopped off her head. Her tomb attracted those seeking a miraculous cure from a variety of derangements. To this day, the town where she is buried has a reputation for caring for the mentally ill.

Dymphna may be invoked against sleepwalking, epilepsy, insanity, mental disorders, neurological disorders and epilepsy. She is the patron saint of family happiness, incest victims, loss of parents, martyrs, mental asylums, mental health caregivers, mentally ill people, the demon-possessed, princesses, psychiatrists, rape victims, and runaways.

May 29

1453 The Fall of Constantinople

Mehmed the Conquerer enters Constantinople

After successfully repelling attacks by Slavs, Persians, Avars, Vikings, Arabs, and Bulgars, the thousand-year-old walls of Constantinople were finally penetrated by the Ottoman Turks under Mehmed II. The last Byzantine Emperor, Constantine XI, died defending the city and with him perished the the last remnants of the Roman Empire.

For centuries that empire had been shrinking, losing the Middle East and Levant to the Arabs, southern Italy to the Normans, and Anatolia and the Balkans to the Turks. It was in financial peril, with its trade in the hands of Genoa and Venice; its crown jewels were glass (the real ones having been pawned); and the Catholic powers of Europe demanded that Constantinople abandon Orthodox Christianity before they would give any aid. Though its walls were still formidable, the city inside them was a shrunken husk of former glory, never having recovered from its sack at the hands of the Fourth Crusade in 1204.

Finally, the young Ottoman sultan, Mehmed II, decided to end the charade. He built a fort to cut off Constantinople from the Black Sea, and brought a huge army and fleet to besiege the city. Massive artillery bombarded the ancient walls, a fleet was hauled on rollers over the hills from the Bosporus to the Golden Horn, and miners tunneled under the fortifications. The vastly outnumbered defenders finally succumbed on May 29, 1453, whereupon Mehmed, ever after known as The Conqueror, gave the city over to three days of rape, massacre, and looting, and its inhabitants were sold into slavery. The great Church of Holy Wisdom, Hagia Sophia, was immediately turned into a mosque. The most sacred relic of eastern Christians, the Hodegetria, a portrait of Mary and the baby Jesus supposedly painted by Luke the Evangelist, was chopped into bits for the gold in its frame.

By that time, Constantinople, once the grandest city on the planet, was only a hollow shell of its former self and the Roman Empire, of which it had been its capital, was reduced to a few scattered holdings. But the capture of the city had enormous political and symbolic importance. Both the Turks and the Russians claimed to be the heirs of Byzantium. Mehmet styled himself the Kayser-i-Rum, “Roman Emperor” and decreed that his next conquest would be Rome itself. The ruler of Muscovy, Ivan III, married a Byzantine princess and declared that he was the successor of Orthodox supremacy, appropriating the title of Czar, or “Caesar”. The flood of exiles from the city who found refuge in Italy brought with them manuscripts and a knowledge of Greek that helped fuel a second stage in the Renaissance. Turkish expansion brought with it a strangling of the trade between Asia and Europe, encouraging Europeans to embark on direct voyages to the East rather than relying on Islamic middle men; the expeditions of Columbus and Vasco da Gama are results of the fall of Constantinople.

Today, visitors to Constantinople, called “Istanbul” by the Turks, can visit a tiny enclave in the Fener district by the Golden Horn and see the compound of the Patriarch of Constantinople, the last remaining official of the Roman Empire.

In recent years, the Islamist government of President Erdogan has made political capital out of the Conqueror and Turkey’s Ottoman past — television movies have been made about Mehmet II and his descendant Suleiman the Magnificent; a new bridge across the Bosporus has been named after Mehmet — all part of Erdogan’s plan to erase the nonsectarian republicanism of Ataturk.

May 28

In May, 1541 an old lady was hacked to death in the Tower of London on the orders of Henry VIII. The victim was Margaret Pole (1473-1541), Countess of Salisbury, and her crimes were being a loyal Catholic and a member of an inconvenient family.

Margaret was born into royalty. She was the daughter of George, Earl of Clarence, brother to two Yorkist kings, Edward IV and Richard III, but when Richard died in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth, her heritage made her a target of the new Tudor dynasty. Over the next few decades Margaret would see her family members picked off, one by one, by Henry VII or Henry VIII. Her brother Edward was imprisoned in the Tower for years but was still executed for a conspiracy in which he had no part.

Despite her dangerous relations, Henry VIII treated Margaret well. She was named Countess of Salisbury in her own right, one of only two women in the sixteenth century with an aristocratic title independent of a husband; she was named to Princess Mary’s household and was a lady-in-waiting to Queen Katherine. Her peril, however, emerged in the 1530s with the divorce of Katherine and the king’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. Margaret opposed the divorce and stood by Mary even after she had been declared a bastard. But it was her son Reginald Pole who brought her the most trouble. Reginald was a brilliant scholar, destined for a career in the Church and the recipient of Henry VIII’s patronage. However, Reginald broke with Henry on religious grounds, called on Englishmen to rebel against him, and was named a Cardinal by the pope. Henry sent assassins to murder Reginald and not too long after had Margaret and two of her sons arrested for conspiring with Reginald against the king. One son was executed, the other exiled, and Margaret, after years in the Tower was condemned to beheading. She maintained her innocence and wrote a poem carved in her cell, declaring this:

For traitors on the block should die;

I am no traitor, no, not I!

My faithfulness stands fast and so,

Towards the block I shall not go!

Nor make one step, as you shall see;

Christ in Thy Mercy, save Thou me!

In an era when it was considered the height of good manners to go calmly to one’s execution and make a humble speech of contrition, Margaret refused to cooperate in her death. She did not lay her head on the block as required and had to be held down. The rookie executioner struggled to make a clean chop to the neck of the struggling victim and, in fact, it took ten hacks before the poor woman died. The official report blamed the “blundering youth” who “hacked her head and shoulders to pieces”. The Catholic Church considers her a martyr; she was beatified in the nineteenth century.

But there may have been some posthumous revenge. Visitors to St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle are told that the body of Henry VIII lies underneath its stones. There was, however, a different story told shortly after: in the 1550s Reginald Pole was now the Archbishop of Canterbury and it is said that he and Queen Mary, who had suffered so much at the hands of her father, had Henry’s corpse disinterred, burnt and the ashes scattered in the river.

May 27

Saint Augustine of Canterbury

No part of Europe suffered as much from the fall of the Roman Empire to the barbarian invasions as did Britain. After the last legion pulled out in 410, the island was left to its own resources which proved insufficient to repel the waves of Picts, Saxons, Irish, Angles and Jutes that assailed the Romano-Britons. Civilization gradually died; literacy almost vanished; the barter system replaced coinage; and Christianity retreated into the Welsh hills and the remoter regions; Germanic petty kingdoms were established on the ruins.

The task of reintroducing Christianity fell to Irish monks who evangelized the north and to a mission sent out from Rome in the 590s. Aethelbert, a barbarian king in Kent, had married a Frankish princess who had won permission to include Christian priests in her retinue. Pope Gregory the Great took the opportunity to send monks from his own monastery to the Kentish capital at Canterbury and the expedition was to be led by the abbot Augustine. On the way to his post Augustine apparently heard stories of the bloodthirsty people to whom he was being sent and wanted to turn back. His spine was stiffened by exhortations from Gregory so the monk continued to Britain, arriving in 597. Aethelbert’s reception was friendly but guarded. According to the Venerable Bede, the king said: “Your words and promises are very fair but as they are new to us and of uncertain import, I cannot assent to them and give up what I have long held in common with the whole English nation. But since you have come as strangers from so great a distance, and, as I take it, are anxious to have us also share in what you conceive to be both excellent and true, we will not interfere with you, but receive you, rather, in kindly hospitality and take care to provide what may be necessary for your support. Moreover, we make no objection to your winning as many converts as you can to your creed”.

Eventually Augustine succeeded in converting Aethelbert and thousands of his people. He followed up this success by establishing monasteries, schools, and churches and laying the foundation for a network of bishoprics that would encompass all of the Anglo-Saxon territory. He was not successful, however, in winning over the native British Christians to the obedience of Rome — a Celtic variety of Christianity persisted on the island for some time.

Augustine was named the first Archbishop of Canterbury, dying in 605. His body is still interred in the church of Saints Peter and Paul which he founded.

May 12

1982 A priest attempts to murder the pope

Pope John Paul II was the most well-travelled pope in history, visiting 129 countries, journeying over a million kilometres and speaking to crowds of millions of the faithful. Sometimes his close proximity to large crowds brought him into peril, despite the armoured pope-mobile in which he often rode. In 1981 a Turkish militant, Mehmet Ali Agca, shot the pope twice with an automatic pistol, wounding him severely. Bullets perforated John Paul’s abdomen and he lost three-quarters of his blood; drastic surgery was undertaken but the pope credited the Virgin Mary with saving his life.

A year later, John Paul was visiting one of the Virgin’s most famous shrines, at Fátima in Portugal, when he was again attacked. This time the weapon was  a bayonet and his attacker was not a fascist in the pay of the Soviet bloc, as it had been in 1981, but a Catholic priest who shouted “Down with the Pope, down with the Second Vatican Council”. Juan Maria Fernández y Krohn was a traditionalist cleric who had been ordained by renegade Cardinal Marcel Lefebvre of the ultra-conservative St Pius X Society. The wound he inflicted was not a serious one and the pope continued his visit.

Krohn believed that the pope was a Communist out to corrupt the Church. His radicalism was demonstrated by the fact that he accused his own mentor Lefebvre of being too moderate and by his actions after being expelled from the priesthood. He moved to Belgium where he became a lawyer, famous for slapping a judge in the face and spreading antisemitic propaganda. He was acquitted of an arson attack on a Basque separatist headquarters and accused Spanish King Juan Carlos of murdering his brother Alfonso.

May 11

760 Death of St. Gengulphus

Gengulphus of Burgundy (aka Gengoux, Gengoult, Gangolf, or Gingolph) was a decent sort of fellow. Born into Burgundian nobility (such as it was in that dark age) he served King Pepin the Short at court and on the battlefield. He was known to be a pious Christian, a generous donor to the Church, charitable to the poor, and a good lord to the peasants on his estate. 

It was his misfortune to marry a woman of easy virtue. While Gengulphus was absent on a military campaign, she committed adultery with a priest. When the nobleman was informed of this on his return, his wife protested her innocence but Gengulphus put her claim to the test. He commanded that his wife dip her hand in a spring of water he had miraculously found and, to her horror, the hand was instantly scalded. Being of a merciful disposition Gengulphus merely banned his wife from further relations with him, banished the priest, and proceeded to live a life of charity and chastity.

Alas for the poor husband. The unfaithful wife contrived to have the criminous priest return and carry out a murderous plot against her spouse. The priest attacked Gengulphus as he slept and dealt him a wound which proved fatal, whereupon he and the hussy escaped, only to meet a suitably grisly end elsewhere. (One splendid account of the guilty couple’s fate reveals that the wife was cursed with bouts of uncontrollable farting.)

The Church considered him a martyr and his relics were widely distributed. He is the patron saint of betrayed husbands and unhappy marriages.