World History is often quite fascinating and rich in diversity. Some of the myths and legends have even shaped our beliefs and offered explanations for certain phenomena. They also make for captivating bedtime stories for children as well.
However, there have been some events in world history that have been quite shocking, to say the least.
- The execution of Anne Boleyn
On the morning of 19 May 1536, Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, became the first English queen to be publicly executed. Charged with adultery, incest and conspiring the king’s death, Anne was beheaded on a scaffold erected on Tower Green, within the walls of the Tower of London. According to says historian Suzannah Lipscomb, her death “is so familiar to us that it is hard to imagine how shocking it would have been”.
Reporting on Anne’s execution in 1536, Eustace Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador to Henry’s court, wrote: “No one ever shewed more courage or greater readiness to meet death than she did”.
Today, nearly 500 years after her execution, historians cannot agree why Anne had to die. This episode of Witness explores Anne’s final hours and considers why she was executed…
- The building of the Berlin Wall
In 1963, a huge wall was constructed overnight on 12–13 August by the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), the wall’s official purpose was to stop western “fascists” from entering east Germany and undermining the building of a socialist state. In reality, however, it served to prevent mass defections from east to west.
Berliners awoke on 13 August to find themselves cut off from family, friends, work and in some cases even their homes – it was now impossible to get from east to west. The makeshift wall was soon replaced by a 12ft-tall, 4ft-wide reinforced concrete barrier, heavily guarded and lined with booby traps. In total at least 171 people were killed trying to get over, under or around the Berlin Wall, which stood until 9 November 1989.
- The sinking of the Titanic
Probably one of the most saddening and remembered nights in the history of mankind. On the night of 14 April 1912, the RMS Titanic collided with an iceberg and sank on her maiden voyage. Of the 2,208 people aboard ship – the largest vessel in the world at the time – only 712 survived. It took just two-and-a-half hours for the huge vessel to sink, and amid freezing temperatures many people are likely to have died within minutes of entering the water.
- The Great Fire of London
In 1966, a blaze came up in London that destroyed more than 65,000 homes and 13,000 buildings including the Royal Exchange and the original St Paul’s Cathedral.
The fire began in the early hours of Sunday 2 September 1666 near London Bridge. Helped by a strong easterly wind coupled with dry and dusty air, the Great Fire of London raged for three days, by the end of which 100,000 people had been made homeless.
- The first man in space
A proud moment in the history of mankind. On 12 April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to journey into space, making a 108-minute orbital flight in his Vostok 1 spacecraft.
- The Salem witches
In 1692, around 19 men and women were found guilty of witchcraft and executed in the small religious community of Salem, Massachusetts, in north-eastern America. It was a horror that had shocked the world, later giving rise to hundreds of films, books, scholarly articles and plays.
- The outbreak of the First World War
Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914 after weeks of tension following the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in Sarajevo on 28 June. Over the coming months, as Europe descended into war, it became clear the war would not be “won by Christmas”.
Fought by more than 30 nations on a geographical scale never seen before, the First World War was arguably the first truly global conflict. It claimed the lives of more than nine million soldiers and an unknown number of civilians, and, says the Imperial War Museum, “forever altered the world’s social and political landscape”.
- Jack the Ripper
Within just a few weeks in 1888, a serial killer dubbed ‘Jack the Ripper’ mutilated and killed five prostitutes in London’s East End. Panic gripped the city as police hunted for the killer and speculation was rife as to his – or her – identity.
- Tutankhamun’s tomb
In 1922, British archaeologist Howard Carter and his team found the intact tomb of an Egyptian pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty: Tutankhamun.
The only unplundered tomb of a pharaoh yet found in the Valley of the Kings, the tomb was filled with artefacts including statues and artwork – so many, in fact, that it took 10 years to catalogue them.
10. The bombing of Hiroshima
The day when humans mourned over humanity. On 6 August 1945, America dropped a nuclear bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, killing around 135,000 people. Till date, it remains, one of the worst days in human history. Within the first three seconds, says expert Stephen Walker, thousands were incinerated as the temperature at the burst-point reached 60 million degrees centigrade – 10,000 times hotter than the sun’s surface.
The attack was followed three days later by a second atomic bomb dropped on the city of Nagasaki, which killed at least 50,000 people, although according to some estimates as many as 74,000 died.
Many of the survivors suffered symptoms of radiation sickness, which include vomiting, fever, fatigue, bleeding from the gums, thinning hair, diarrhoea and, in the worst cases, death.
11. The ‘execution’ of Oliver Cromwell
In 1661 the body of Oliver Cromwell was astonishingly dug out from Westminster Abbey to be ‘executed’ for treason.
Just two-and-a-half years earlier, in November 1658, Cromwell had been given a state funeral at Westminster. An officer in the Roundheads (parliamentary army) at the outbreak of the Civil War in the summer of 1642, Cromwell went on to become one of the conflict’s key figures and played a leading role in Charles I’s trial and subsequent beheading. Following the king’s execution a republic was declared, known as the Commonwealth of England.