Dominic Sandbrook highlights events that took place in March in history…
This article was first published in the March 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine
11 March AD 222: Rome’s emperor of excess meets a bloody end
Even in the lurid parade of Roman emperors, Elagabalus stands out. Born into the imperial Severan dynasty in c203 AD, he found himself catapulted to supreme power in his early teens and soon began to court controversy.
To the horror of the Roman elite, their teenage emperor – whose real name was Marcus Aurelius Antoninus – had signed up to the cult of the Syrian sun god Elagabalus, after whom he now named himself. Once emperor, he renamed his god Deus Sol Invictus – God the Undefeated Sun – and installed him at the head of the Roman pantheon. Then he declared himself high priest, had himself publicly circumcised and made the city’s bigwigs watch while he danced around the Sun’s new altar.
A contemporary sculpture of Elagabalus, an emperor known for his excesses. © AKG
In the meantime, Elagabalus’s sexual conduct was raising eyebrows across the city. In total he married and divorced five women, but his chief relationships seem to have been with his chariot-driver, a male slave called Hierocles, and an athlete from Asia Minor called Zoticus. According to gossip, the emperor “set aside a room in the palace and there committed his indecencies, always standing nude at the door of the room, as the harlots do… while in a soft and melting voice he solicited the passers-by”. If any doctor could give him female genitalia, he said, he would give him a fortune.
Eventually, the Praetorian Guard, sick of their emperor’s excesses, switched their allegiance to his cousin Severus Alexander and turned on Elagabalus.
As the historian Cassius Dio recorded, there was no mercy for either Elagabalus or his mother: “Their heads were cut off and their bodies, after being stripped naked, were first dragged all over the city, and then the mother’s body was cast aside somewhere or other while his was thrown into the river.”
31 March 1889: France’s iconic tower opens
The Eiffel Tower had a troubled birth. Conceived by engineers Maurice Koechlin and Emile Nouguier as the centrepiece of the 1889 Paris Universal Exposition, it was built by the celebrated bridge-maker Gustave Eiffel, who claimed it would celebrate “not only the art of the modern engineer, but also the century of Industry and Science in which we are living, and for which the way was prepared by the great scientific movement of the 18th century and by the Revolution of 1789”.
Most of the French intellectual establishment hated the idea. It would be “useless and monstrous”, a “hateful column of bolted sheet metal”, claimed a petition signed by some 300 writers and artists. But Eiffel was having none of it, even comparing his new structure to the pyramids of Egypt. “My tower will be the tallest edifice ever erected by man,” he wrote. “Will it not also be grandiose in its way? And why would something admirable in Egypt become hideous and ridiculous in Paris?”
A poster advertising reduced train tickets to the Exposition Universelle of 1889. The Eiffel Tower was the crowning glory of the exhibition, but the first visitors needed to be fit: on its opening, none of the lifts were working. © Bridgeman
In fact, when the tower was finally opened to the government and press on 31 March 1889, it was not quite finished. Crucially, the lifts were not yet working, so the visiting party had to trudge up the stairs on foot. Most gave up and remained on the lower levels; only a handful made it to the top, where Eiffel hoisted a gigantic French flag, greeted by fireworks and a 21-gun salute.
The tower was an instant hit: illuminated every night by gas lamps, it dominated not just the Exposition, but Paris itself. When the public were finally allowed in, the lifts were still not working. Yet in the first week alone, almost 30,000 people climbed to the top – a sign of how completely it had caught the world’s imagination.
5 March 1946: Churchill warns of an ‘iron curtain’ falling across Europe
In the spring of 1946, Winston Churchill arrived in Fulton, Missouri. The little Midwestern town seemed an unlikely destination for the man who, until the previous summer, had been leading the world’s largest empire. But Churchill, rejected by the British electorate, was in the doldrums. When President Harry Truman invited him to give a lecture at a little college in his home state, Churchill saw it as a chance to revive his American reputation.
Churchill and Truman travelled to Fulton by train and on the way the president read a draft of the former prime minister’s talk. It was, he declared, excellent. But when Churchill stood up on 5 March, in the packed gymnasium at Westminster College, few could have expected that his words would resound in history.
Winston Churchill delivers his speech alongside President Harry Truman in Fulton, Missouri. His words herald a new era of Cold War across Europe and an end to good relations with the Soviet Union. © Getty
A shadow, he explained, had fallen “upon the scenes so lately lighted by the Allied victory” – thanks entirely to Stalin’s Soviet Union. “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic,” he declared, “an iron curtain has descended across the continent.” That made Anglo-American co-operation all the more important. Theirs, Churchill added, was a “special relationship”.
Churchill was not the first man to use the words ‘iron curtain’, but he was unquestionably the most famous. After that day in Fulton, there was no doubt that the alliance between Stalin’s Soviet Union and the two great western powers was over – and that the Cold War had begun.
21 March 1556: Thomas Cranmer burns at the stake
By the early 1550s, Thomas Cranmer had a good claim to be one of the most influential men in English history.
As archbishop of Canterbury, he had laid the foundations for the new Church of England, attacking monasticism and the doctrine of the Mass, compiling the Book of Common Prayer and establishing the king, not the pope, as head of the church. But when the Catholic Mary succeeded her brother, young Edward VI in 1553, Cranmer was in trouble. Arrested that autumn, he publicly recanted in an attempt to save his skin. But it was no good. Even though he had abjured all his Protestant views, Mary wanted him to burn.
On 21 March 1556, the day scheduled for his execution, Cranmer was ordered to make a final recantation at the University Church in Oxford. He wrote out his text and submitted it to the authorities. But then, once in the pulpit, he did something quite extraordinary. Unexpectedly abandoning his text, Cranmer withdrew all that he had “written for fear of death, and to save my life”.
“And forasmuch as my hand offended in writing contrary to my heart,” he added, “therefore my hand shall first be punished: for if I may come to the fire, it shall be first burned. And as for the pope, I refuse him, as Christ’s enemy and Antichrist, with all his false doctrine.”
By now the place was in uproar. Guards dragged Cranmer from the pulpit to the spot at St Giles where other martyrs had been burned. And there, “apparently insensible of pain”, this exceptionally courageous man met his end, plunging his right hand into the flames first, as he had promised. His last words were a cry almost of exaltation: “I see the heavens open, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.”
Expert comment – Dr Linda Porter:
For the beleaguered Protestants of Mary I’s England, the burning at the stake of Thomas Cranmer must have seemed a moment of both despair and triumph. They had lost their spiritual leader and yet the drama surrounding his death denied Catholicism a victory.
Uncertainty, even ambiguity, had long been present in Cranmer’s own life. He pronounced the end of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, yet could not save Anne Boleyn. He was present at the king’s deathbed, exhorting him to put his trust in Christ, although Henry had continued to hear Mass throughout his reign.
As mentor to both Katherine Parr and Edward VI, Cranmer encouraged religious reform, but was willing to deny it all rather than be burned alive. His sisters, one Catholic, the other Protestant, fought for his soul in 1556. It was then that he discovered that the agonies of indecision, of abjuring the work of a lifetime, were worse than the ordeal in the flames. Cranmer chose to follow his beliefs in the most dramatic way, by unexpectedly upholding them with superb timing and oratory on the day of his death.
Thomas Cromwell may be the Tudor man of the moment, but it is to Cranmer that we owe the liturgy of the Church of England. His 1552 prayer book remains one of the glories of the English language. In its beauty, we can still know this complex and deeply learned man.
Dr Linda Porter is the author of three books on the Tudor period. She is currently writing a book about the children of Charles I and the Civil War.
Three other notable March anniversaries
19 March 1649
Having executed Charles I, the House of Commons passes an act abolishing the House of Lords, which it calls “useless and dangerous to the people of England”.
23 March 1801
In St Petersburg, Tsar Paul I is attacked by disgruntled Russian officers, who strike him down with a sword before strangling and stamping him to death.
29 March 1461
At Towton in Yorkshire, Edward IV leads the Yorkists to victory over the Lancastrian army – led by the Duke of Somerset – in the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil.
Dominic Sandbrook recently presented Tomorrow’s Worlds: The Unearthly History of Science Fiction on BBC Two.