December 30



The death of John Wyclif. John Wyclif (or Wycliffe) was an English priest born c. 1320, a profound critic of the 14th-century Church and the leader of a heresy that came to be known as Lollardy.

The Catholic Church was languishing in one of its worst ebbs during the 1300s. The papacy was a puppet of the French monarchy and had moved from Rome to Avignon in what was known as the Babylonian Captivity. The popes could not protect the Templar Knights from the depredations of the French kings; they quarrelled with the popular Franciscan order; they could do nothing to halt the ravages of the Hundred Years War; and were helpless in the face of natural disasters such as the onset of the Little Ice Age and the Black Death. The low regard in which the Church was held sank to even further depths when rival popes multiplied in the Western Schism, producing two, three and even four claimants to the Throne of St Peter. Out of this morass rose a number of heresies, the most of these being led by Wyclif.

As an Oxford priest and doctor of theology, Wyclif developed a powerful list of indictments against the Church as he saw it. He denied the doctrine of transubstantiation; claimed the true church was not the contemporary Catholic Church but an invisible body of believers; asserted a strong view of predestination; demanded scripture in the common language; criticized the wealth of the clergy; denied the power of excommunication; called for the abolition of the monastic orders; and, worst of all, advanced a novel theory of dominion, claiming that those in a state of sin could not be authentic rulers — thus if priests were bad men and not in the state of grace they could not rightfully possess spiritual lordship and laymen may justly deprive them of their property.

The Church could not sit still when Wyclif stated that the true church was not the visible institution but the “totality of those who are predestinate”, dead, alive or yet to be born. The pope then was not the head of the true church. At best he headed only the western European branch of the church on earth. At worst a pope who was not predestined might not even be a member of the true church. To the English government, Wyclif’s words were a potential weapon against proud prelates and so the priest was protected from Church prosecution while alive. The Council of Constance in 1415 condemned the Lollard heresy and the version of it that had spread into the Czech lands where it had been taken up by Jan Hus (or John Huss). Hus was burnt at the stake while Wyclif’s remains were dug up, burnt and thrown into a river.

Wycliff has rightly been called the “morning star of the Reformation” and though Lollardy was forced underground in England, most of Wyclif’s ideas re-emerged triumphantly in the 16th century.

December 29

In 1162 Henry II sought to bring the English Church under strict royal control by appointing to the archbishopric of Canterbury his chancellor and good friend, Thomas Becket. But in raising Becket to the primacy, Henry had misjudged his man. As chancellor, Becket had been a devoted royal servant, but as archbishop of Canterbury he became a fervent defender of ecclesiastical independence and an implacable enemy of the king. Henry and Becket became locked in a furious quarrel over the issue of royal control of the English Church. In 1164 Henry issued a list of pro-royal provisions relating to Church-state relations known as the “Constitutions of Clarendon,” which, among other things, prohibited appeals to Rome without royal license and established a degree of royal control over the Church courts. Henry maintained that the Constitutions of Clarendon represented ancient custom; Becket regarded them as unacceptable infringements of the freedom of the Church.

At the heart of the quarrel was the issue of whether churchmen accused of crimes should be subject to royal jurisdiction after being found guilty and punished by Church courts. The king complained that “criminous clerks” were often given absurdly light sentences by the ecclesiastical tribunals. A murderer, for example, might simply be banished from the priesthood (“defrocked”) and released, whereas in the royal courts the penalty was execution or mutilation. The Constitutions of Clarendon provided that once a cleric was tried, convicted, and defrocked by an ecclesiastical court, the Church should no longer prevent his being brought to a royal court for further punishment. Becket replied that nobody ought to be put in double jeopardy. In essence, Henry was challenging the competence of an agency of the international Church, whereas Becket, as primate of England, felt bound to defend the ecclesiastical system of justice and the privileges of churchmen. Two worlds were in collision.

Henry turned on his archbishop, accusing him of various crimes against the kingdom. And Becket, insisting that an archbishop cannot be judged by a king but only by the pope, fled England to seek papal support. Pope Alexander III, who was in the midst of his struggle with Frederick Barbarossa, could not afford to alienate Henry; yet neither could he turn against such an ardent ecclesiastical champion as Becket. The great lawyer-pope was forced to equivocate—to encourage Becket without breaking with Henry—and Becket remained in exile for the next six years. At length, in 1170, the king and his archbishop agreed to a truce. Most of the outstanding issues between them remained unsettled, but Henry permitted Becket to return to England and resume the archbishopric. At once, however, the two antagonists had another falling out. Becket excommunicated a number of Henry’s supporters; the king flew into a rage, and four enthusiastically loyal but dim-witted barons of the royal household dashed to Canterbury Cathedral, intimidated Becket and his monks, and then murdered him as he was saying Mass.

This dramatic atrocity made a deep impact on the age. Becket was regarded as a martyr; miracles were alleged to have occurred at his tomb, and he was quickly canonized. For the remainder of the Middle Ages, Canterbury was a major pilgrimage center, and the cult of St. Thomas enjoyed immense popularity. Henry, who had not ordered the killing but whose anger had prompted it, suffered acute embarrassment. He was obliged to do penance by walking barefoot through the streets of Canterbury and submitting to a flogging by the Canterbury monks (who seem to have enjoyed the episode immensely).

December 28

catastrophe_du_pont_sur_le_tay_-_1879_-_illustration1879, The Tay Bridge Disaster

On the evening of December 28, 1879 an unexpectedly strong wind struck the bridge over the Firth of Tay in Scotland at the same moment that a passenger train heading north to Dundee was on the structure. The bridge collapsed, sending the train hurtling into the water, killed all of its passengers and crew. Only 46 bodies were recovered but it was feared as there may have been as many as 70 to 75 dead. Subsequent investigations revealed a number of design flaws, particularly regarding wind loading, poor maintenance, and excessive train speed.

Today the disaster is known best for the commemorative piece written in 1880 by William McGonnagal, possibly the world’s worst poet. A section of this masterpiece is included.

Beautiful railway bridge of the silv’ry Tay
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last sabbath day of 1879
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.
Oh! Ill-fated bridge of the silv’ry Tay,
I now must conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.

December 27

The Feast of St John

December 27 is the feast day of Saint John the Evangelist, the son of Zebedee, companion of Jesus and reputed author of the Fourth Gospel. In the Middle Ages the day was marked by a blessing of the wine, derived from the legend that John had drunk poisoned wine and not been harmed. As Barnaby Googe in the sixteenth century related:


Nexte John, the sonne of Zebedee

hath his appointed day,

Who once by cruell tyraunts will,

constrayned was they say

Strong poison up to drinke, therefore

the papistes doe beleeve

That whoso puts their trust in him,

no poyson them can greeve.

The wine beside that halowed is

in worship of his name,

The prestes doe give the people

that bring money for the same.

And after with the self same wine

are little manchets made

Agaynst the boysterous winter stormes

and sundrie such like trade.

The men upon this solemne day

do take this holy wine

To make them strong. So do the maydes

to make them faire and fine.


It was also a custom for people to bring wine or cider to the church on December 27 to be blessed and then to take this liquor home to be poured back in the barrels. This “St. John’s Wine” was considered a protection for travellers setting out on a journey or for those near death. Because the gospel of John proclaims Jesus as the light of the world, a German custom allowed children named John or Joan to be the first to light the Advent candle.

December 26


The Feast of St Stephen

December 26 is the feast day of the first martyr of the Christian church, St Stephen. What little we know about him can be found in the Book of Acts where we learn that he had been chosen one of the seven deacons in Jerusalem and that his defence of Christianity resulted in his being stoned to death for blasphemy. Legend, however, has surrounded the protomartyr with a host of stories which link him to Herod’s household at the time of the birth of Jesus, to horses and to the stoning of the tiny wren.

Ever since the tenth century Stephen’s Day has been associated with horses, probably because the season was a time of horse sacrifice in pagan northern Europe and a time of rest from agricultural work for both man and beast. In England it is a time to bleed horses to ensure their health for the coming year. In the sixteenth century Tusser noted:

Yer Christmas be passed,

let Horsse be lett blood,

For many a purpose

it dooth him much good:

The day of St. Steeven,

old fathers did use.

If that do mislike thee,

some other day chuse.

Across Europe December 26 is a time for horses to be fed extra food, raced, decorated, blessed by the priest or ridden in ceremonies honouring their species. This is particulalry true in Sweden where “Staffan Riders” would race from village to village and sing songs in honour of the saint. Some have tried (not very successfully) to explain the connection between horses and St Stephen’s Day by claiming it has stemmed from confusion between the martyr in the Book of Acts and a later saint, Stephen of Corvey, martyred c. 1075, whose feast day June 2. This Stephen was a lover of horses and was said to ride five of them in turn. When he was murdered his unbroken colt took him home to Norrtalje which became a shrine for horse-healing.

The water and salt blessed by the priest on St Stephen’s Day would be set aside and used as medicine for horses should they fall ill during the rest of the year or to sprinkle liberally about the barn and yard to bring prosperity. The salt could also be thrown in the fire to avert danger from thunder-storms. In some places the blood drawn from horses on this day was thought to have healing powers. In Poland, the blessing of food for horses led to other peculiar rituals on St Stephen’s Day. In what has been interpreted either as a remnant of pagan fertility rites or a re-enactment of the stoning of Stephen, people would throw the consecrated oats at each other and their animals. Moreover, it was customary on December 26 for boys and girls to throw walnuts at one another.

St Stephen’s Day is also marked in Ireland and other parts of Britain by hunting a bird considered protected every other the day of the year, the wren, and parading about with its body. Wren Boys used to carry a dead wren on a branch from house to house, and sing an appropriate song which solicited money:

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,

On St. Stephen’s day was caught in the furze;

Though is body is small, his family is great,

So, if you please, your honour, give us a treat.

On Christmas Day I turned a spit;

I burned my finger; I feel it yet,

Up with the kettle, and down with the pan:

Give us some money to bury the wren.

Other customs associated with St Stephens’s Day include holming. In Wales holming or holly-beating was the practice for young men to beat each other (or female servants) with holly branches on December 26. In Britain generally December 26 is a day for sporting events and hunting and the day observed as Boxing Day.

December 24

19th-century illustration, "Boniface Struck by Colonna," drawn by Vierge. In an incident that is probably popular lore rather than factual, Sciarra Colonna slaps Pope Boniface VIII. in 1303 during a conflict over the extent of papal authority.


The election of a dreadful pope

Benedetto Caetani (1230-1303) was an ambitious Italian churchman, serving the papacy as a diplomat, lawyer and cardinal. In 1294 he convinced the unworldly (or perhaps simple-minded) Pope Celestine V to resign and was elected pope in his place, taking the name Boniface VIII. Celestine was arrested and soon died in jail. At his coronation two kings led the pope’s horse and later served him at the banquet – symbolic to Boniface of papal superiority over mere monarchs. His reign was marked by quarrels with political leaders in Italy and with cardinals who opposed his election – he excommunicated some of them and ordered their home town burnt down and the land sown with salt.. He interfered in the politics of Scotland, Germany and Hungary and excommunicated the King of Denmark. But Boniface’s biggest fight would come in his struggle with England and France.

One of the most jealously guarded privileges of the medieval church was its claim to be exempt from local taxation. This claim always infuriated kings and other secular rulers — the church was by far the biggest landowner in most countries and always one of the wealthiest components in the economy, why should it not pay its fair share of taxes? Because, said the church, we are doing God’s work: we are the ones running the schools and the welfare system; we operate the orphanages and hospitals and leper asylums; we ransom Christian prisoners from the Muslims. The more money kings take from us in taxes is that much less money for the poor.

In the 1290s both the kings of England and France began to tax the holdings of the church in their countries. They were at war with each other, always an expensive business, and both were running larger bureaucracies and court systems than their predecessors, so the need of these nations for cash was greater than ever.

In 1294, Edward I sequestered all moneys found in the treasuries of all churches and monasteries. Soon he bullied the English clergy into giving him one half their incomes. In the following year he called for a third or a fourth, but they refused to pay more than a tenth. When, at the 1296 Convocation of Canterbury the king demanded a fifth of their income, the archbishop, Robert of Winchelsea, in keeping with the new legislation of Boniface, offered to consult the pope, whereupon the king outlawed the clergy, and seized all their property. In France Philip IV seized money set aside by the church for a crusade and instead used it to make war on English holdings in southern France.

Boniface replied in 1296 with a papal bull Clericis laicos which restated the immunity of the church from unwilling taxation (the church often paid “voluntary” donations when under real pressure — in France for example it was customary for the pope to agree to a 10% tax on church income to go to the king) and the automatic excommunication of anyone who tried to enforce it.

Like Edward I, Philip the Fair was constantly in need of money for his wars. And he was prepared to raise it by almost any means. In 1306 he arrested all the Jews in his dominions, and after seizing their property and loan accounts, he had them expelled from France. Edward I had treated English Jews in the same cruel fashion and for similar reasons. Philip likewise despoiled his Lombard bankers. Another of his targets was the rich crusading order of Knights Templars, from whom he had been borrowing heavily. He darkened their reputation by a campaign of malicious propaganda, much of which he may actually have believed. His charge that the Templars venerated the devil was repeated by Edward II of England, and even by the papacy. Philip had more than fifty Templars burned at the stake as heretics, and some of their wealth trickled into the royal treasury – though the papacy was able to keep Philip from most of it and diverted it to the Hospitallers. He launched a similar propaganda campaign, as we will see, against Pope Boniface VIII.

When Boniface issued Clericis laicos, Philip replied by forbidding the export of any money outside the country — if Philip couldn’t get any money out of the French church the pope wasn’t going to be able to either. Philip continued to tax his clergy. At the same time he set his agents to work spreading scandalous rumors about the pope’s morals and exerted financial pressure on Rome by cutting off all papal taxes from the French realm, forcing Boniface to submit for the moment. But a vast influx of pilgrims into Rome in the Jubilee Year of 1300 restored the pope’s confidence. He warned Philip in 1301 that the pope was the Vicar of Christ, who is placed over kings and kingdoms . He is the keeper of the keys, the judge of the living and the dead, and sits on the throne of justice, with power to extirpate all iniquity. He is the head of the Church, which is one and stainless, and not a many-headed monster, and has full Divine authority to pluck out and tear down, to build up and plant. Let not the king imagine that he has no superior, and is not subject to the highest authority in the Church. The French took this as a threat that the pope might depose Philip and throw the French throne open to someone else – an established right of the pope in the Middle Ages – and they cranked up a vicious campaign against Boniface including circulating forged documents.

He withdrew his concession to Philip the Fair on clerical taxation and in 1302 issued the bull Unam Sanctam, which asserted the doctrine of papal monarchy in uncompromising terms in 5 elements: (1) There is but one true Church, outside of which there is no salvation; but one body of Christ with one head and not two. (2) That head is Christ and His representative, the Roman pope; whoever refuses the pastoral care of Peter belongs not to the flock of Christ. (3) There are two swords (i.e., powers), the spiritual and the temporal; the first borne by the Church, the second for the Church; the first by the hand of the priest, the second by that of the king, but under the direction of the priest (ad nutum et patientiam sacerdotis). (4) Since there must be a co-ordination of members from the lowest to the highest, it follows that the spiritual power is above the temporal and has the right to instruct (or establish–instituere) the latter regarding its highest end and to judge it when it does evil; whoever resists the highest power ordained of God resists God himself.  (5) It is necessary for salvation that all men should be subject to the Roman Pontiff. No pope had ever before enunciated such claims to power.

Philip the Fair now summoned a kingdom-wide assembly, and before it he accused Boniface of every imaginable crime from murder to black magic to sodomy to keeping a demon as a pet. A small French military force crossed into Italy in 1303 and took Boniface prisoner at his palace at Anagni with the intention of bringing him to France for trial. Anagni, symbolized the humiliation of the medieval papacy. The French plan failed—local townspeople freed Boniface a couple of days later—but the proud old pope died shortly thereafter, outraged and chagrined that armed Frenchmen had dared to lay hands on his sacred person. (His assault is pictured above). Contemporaries found it significant that his burial was cut short by a furious electrical storm.

In Dante’s Inferno Boniface VIII is found in the circle of Hell reserved for the punishment of the financially corrupt.

December 23

The passing of four notorious characters


1948 Hideki Tojo

Tojo was the unacceptable face of Japanese militarism. A veteran of the campaigns in China, Tojo urged war on the USA when America imposed an embargo on Japan because of its expansion on the Asian mainland. He was Army Minister during the decision to attack Pearl Harbor and eventually rose to the position of Prime Minister and Chief of the General Staff. After Japan’s defeat Tojo was arrested for war crimes but failed in a suicide attempt. He was found guilty and executed on this day in 1948.


1953 Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria

Beria (1899-1953) was a brilliant and much-feared apparatchik in the Stalin regime. At the age of 20 Beria, born a Georgian, joined the Soviet secret police, the Cheka, and participated in the crushing of Georgian independence. He rose through the Party ranks and by 1934 was one of Stalin’s most trusted advisors. As deputy head of the NKVD he helped carry out the purges of the late 1930s and was rewarded with the top NKVD post and a place on the Politburo. He was responsible for the Katyn massacre of the Polish officer class, and aided the success of the anti-Nazi partisan effort, and the development of the Soviet atomic bomb program. When Stalin died, Beria tried to gain popularity by carrying out liberalization but was arrested by his fellows at the top of the Communist Party and shot. He is a central character in the very black comedy The Death of Stalin.


1961 Kurt Meyer

Kurt Meyer (1910-1961) was 20 when he joined the SS, the Nazi elite paramilitary. Attached to its Waffen SS units he served in many major campaigns, steadily winning a series of victories and decorations. An enthusiastic Nazi, he seems to have committed war crimes in the invasion of Poland and the Soviet Union, killing Jews and other innocent civilians. In 1944 his regiment was stationed in Normandy during the Allied landings where they massacred Canadian prisoners of war. Meyer was taken prisoner and after the war tried for the murder of those prisoners. He was found guilty and served time in Dorchester prisoner in New Brunswick. On his release he helped perpetrate the myth that the Waffen SS were not murderous fanatics but plain old soldiers with scarcely a blot on their character.


2012 Jean Harris

Jean Harris (1923-2012) was the headmistress of an exclusive private school while she was carrying on an affair with celebrity diet doctor Herman Tarnower. Though she knew that he had often had relations with other women, Harris grew particularly jealous of Tarnower’s latest flame, his much-younger receptionist. On March 10, 1980 she drove to his home and shot him dead. At her trial she claimed that she had intended to commit suicide but in a struggle the gun had accidentally discharged into Tarnower’s body four times. Harris was found guilty of second-degree murder but only served 11 years before being released.

December 22


1095 Birth of Roger II of Sicily

The Normans were a scurvy crew. Essentially Vikings with a haircut, they spread from the territory they had extorted from the King of France in 911 all across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. They were banditti, mercenaries, and crusaders, eventually setting up kingdoms in England, Ireland, southern Italy and the Levant. The most glorious of these was the Kingdom of Sicily, wrested from the Muslims who had invaded the island in the 9th century. For a couple of glorious centuries the Normans ran a nation blending the best of Catholic, Byzantine, Jewish, Lombard and Muslim art, law, architecture and statecraft. Its capital at Palermo was the largest city in Europe and visitors today still marvel at churches such as the Cappella Palatina featured above.


The Capella was commissioned by the first king of Sicily, Roger II, whose birthday is today. His state was multi-relgious and tolerant and to his court came scholars, scientists and artists from around the Mediterranean. His armies and fleets warred against the Byzantine empire and against Arab powers, from whom he successfully conquered a section of the North African coastline. He died in 1154.

December 21


69 AD Vespasian becomes Roman Emperor

The Julio-Claudian family had ruled Rome since 31 BC and in that century only the dynastic founder Caesar Augustus was a success. His heir Tiberius started off well but became a corrupt and murderous tyrant. He was followed by Caligula, a corrupt and murderous madman. Next came Claudius, a well-meaning idiot poisoned by his wife to pave the succession of her son Nero. Nero’s crimes include the murder of his step-brother, mother, two wives and a host of Christians. In the year 68 the armies of Rome rebelled. Nero committed suicide, lamenting that Rome was losing a great poet in him, but no clear successor emerged. This brought about The Year of Four Emperors, as general after general claimed the imperial crown and was defeated by the next army leader. So hail and farewell to Vitellius, Otho, and Galba in short order. Surviving this round of civil wars was Titus Flāvius Caesar Vespasiānus Augustus, the founder of the Flavian dynasty.

Vespasian came from a new-money family with few influential connections. He rose slowly through political office but did better as a general, winning fame in the invasion of Britain and later in putting down the Jewish revolt in 68. The coin above reads “Judea Conquered”. Watching the civil war back in Rome, Vespasian believed that he should try his luck and he moved his army to seize the Egyptian grain supply which fed Rome while other armies of his supporters moved on the capital. On this date in 69 the Senate declared him Emperor.

Vespasian is known as a sane man and careful with money. His tax on urine (used in the tanning business) prompted the charge that an emperor should be above making money out of piss. His reply was pecunia non olet — money has no smell — and to this day urinals in France are called vespasiennes. Loot from Israel and the Jerusalem Temple helped him build the Colosseum, with the help of thousands of Jewish slaves who were killed in celebration of the arena’s opening.

When he was dying, aware that defunct Roman emperors were routinely deified, he cried, “Oh dear. I think I’m becoming a god.”