On these days in history 26 May to 1 June

Sunday 26 May 1940 – The outnumbered British forces at Dunkirk had been ordered to be taken off by sea on Friday 24th May 1940. However, Winston Churchill considered this madness, adding that it smacked of a streak of defeatism in the general staff – and countermanded the order. The defenders were signalled to ‘perform an exploit worthy of the British name.’ Twice on the Saturday the defenders were called on to surrender – and twice the commanding officer, Brigadier Nicholson, refused. The war diary of the German 10th Panzer division records that ‘The enemy fights with hitherto unheard of obstinacy. They are English, extremely brave, and tenacious.’ This day – Sunday 26th May 1940 – found:- Calais burning after attacks by tanks and Stuka dive bombers; the defenders out of ammunition and their commander captured. The centre of the old town was full of refugees and wounded soldiers – their food all gone and with no running water because the water mains had been destroyed. At 4 o’clock on this Sunday afternoon the order was finally given for any survivors that could, should escape. It is recorded that six of every ten men in the rifle battalions were killed or wounded with the rest being taken prisoner. The Navy managed to bring just 30 survivors away. It was a black day.

Thursday 27 May 1199 saw, at Westminster Abbey, John crowned King of a kingdom that stretched from Berwick in the north to Bordeaux in the south – the great Angevin Empire. The youngest of the eight children of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine John came last in the pecking order and received none of the family wealth. As a result he lacked both money and land he was nicknamed ‘Lackland.’ In reality John should not have been made king – the true next in line was Arthur of Brittany, the son of John’s elder brother Geoffrey. However, the English power brokers had no wish for that – but were not united in the choice of John. The Archbishop of York absented himself from the coronation and the Bishop of Durham protested on his behalf that the Archbishop of Canterbury was going ahead with this Coronation without unity of agreement. The coronation was the start of a new tradition that applies to this day. As a reward for the help given to John in his frequent journeys to and from Normandy the five Barons of the Cinque Ports were granted the honour of carrying a canopy over him as he entered Westminster Abbey – and to also hold it over him when he was unclothed for the anointing. This duty has remained to this day. Another ‘first’ was his decision not to partake of the holy bread and wine during the coronation service. This was perceived as tantamount to an open display of Godlessness and – almost certainly – set him off on the wrong foot with many powerful men in England.

Tuesday 28 May 1907 saw the first race of a new event on the Isle of Man called the International Auto-Cycle Tourist Trophy. The race was a time-trial on public roads temporarily closed for racing by the provisions of an Act of Tynwald – the Isle of Man Parliament. The event was over 10 laps of just under 16 miles each with only road-legal touring motorcycles with exhaust silencers, saddles, pedals and mud-guards allowed. The 25 entrants started off in pairs and the winner of the single-cylinder class, and overall winner of this first event, in a time of 4 hours, 8 minutes and 8 seconds – an average race speed of 38.21 mph was Charlie Collier riding a Matchless motorcycle. The twin-cylinder class was won by Rem Fowler riding a Peugeot powered Norton. His time was 4 hours 21 minutes and 52 seconds at an average race speed of 36.21 mph. However, he suffered a number of challenges during his run with drive belt and sparking-plug problems and, on lap 7, a crash at nearly 60 mph at the “Devil’s Elbow” hairpin bend when a tyre burst. He nearly gave up, but was told by a spectator that he led the twin-cylinder class by 30 minutes. As a result he re-mounted and went on to win the class at an average race speed of 36.22 mph, setting the fastest lap of the whole meeting at 42.91 mph.

29 May is Oak Apple Day – but it has absolutely nothing to do with apples! (‘Oak apple’ is the common name for a 2-5 cm round, vaguely apple-like gall found on many species of Oak trees.) From the late seventeenth century until the mid-nineteenth century it was one of the most important holidays of the year. Variously called ‘Oak Apple Day’ or ‘Royal Oak Day’ it commemorated the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660 – the descriptive reference resulting from his clever escape from capture by the Roundheads in September 1651 after the battle of Worcester, by hiding up in an oak tree at Boscobel in Staffordshire. As a result of this the oak became a symbol of Royalist sympathisers and upon Oak Apple Day it was customary to show support for the King by wearing a sprig of oak leaves with some oak apples attached. Some ardent supporters even went so far as to cover their oak leaves with gold leaf! Anybody not decorated was viewed as a nonconforming anti-Royalist and was often beaten with stinging nettles and ‘bonneted’ by having their hat pulled violently down over their eyes.

Friday 30 May 1800 was the day of the third reading in the House of Lords of the Divorce Bill. At this time – following marriage – the husband and wife became one person in law. Or put another way – the very being and legal existence of the woman was suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs everything. It was also on this day that Mary Robinson wrote to her friend William Godwin from prison where she was held for debt. ‘The fact is simply this,’ she wrote, ‘were I to resist the action as a married woman, I might set it aside, and recover damages from my persecutor, because the arrest is for necessaries, and my husband is therefore by law obliged to pay the debt, there being no kind of legal separation between us. But then, I should involve that husband, and act, as I should feel, dishonestly towards my creditors. I therefore submit patiently. I have had various proposals from many friends to settle the business, but I am too proud to borrow, while the arrears now due on my annuity from the Prince of Wales would doubly pay the sum for which I am arrested. I have written to the Prince, and his answer is that there is no money at Carlton House– that he is very sorry for my situation, but that his own is equally distressing!! You will smile at such paltry excuses, as I do. But I am determined to persist in my demand, half a year’s annuity being really due, which is two hundred and fifty pounds, and I am in custody for sixty-three pounds only! So circumstanced I will neither borrow, beg, nor steal. I owe very little in the world, and still less to the world, and it is unimportant to me where I pass my days, if I possess the esteem and friendship of its best ornaments, among which I consider you,– Most sincerely, I am, dear Sir, your obliged and humble servant, M. ROBINSON. Mary died on 26 December 1800.

Friday 31 May 1669 – due to his failing eyesight this was the last day Samuel Pepys made an entry in his diary. It’s a rather sad end to a diary in which he has left such a fascinating story of his life and times. But I’m not going to dwell on this day but hark back to his diary entry on Tuesday 31st May 1661. There he writes: ‘I went to my father’s, but to my great grief I found my father and mother in a great deal of discontent one with another, and indeed my mother is grown now so pettish that I know not how my father is able to bear with it. I did talk to her so as did not indeed become me, but I could not help it, she being so unsufferably foolish and simple, so that my father, poor man, is become a very unhappy man.’

Thursday 1 June 1967 saw the release of the Beatles’ eighth studio album – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It was an immediate commercial and critical success, spending 22 weeks at the top of the albums chart in the UK and 15 weeks at number one in the US. Positive responses came from some unexpected sources. Time Magazine described it as “a historic departure in the progress of music” while the New Statesman viewed it as ‘an elevation of pop (music) to the level of fine art!” In 1968 the album picked up four Grammy Awards. These included the Album of the Year accolade – making it the first Rock Music LP to gain that award. What was NOT known was that the original intention had been to record an album of material that was thematically linked to their individual childhoods. What changed it? Paul had an idea for a song imitating an Edwardian military band. That led to name discussions which resulted in ‘the band’ being led by Sergeant Pepper. This took it to another level because whatever the result – it wasn’t down to them! The rest, as they say, is history.


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