The final meeting of the League of Nations was held on this day 67 years ago. The League of Nations had been formed just 27 years earlier at the end of the First World War, with the aim of changing the way international relations were conducted to prevent the recurrence of a similar war. It was hoped that war could be prevented through disarmament, open diplomacy, international co-operation, restrictions on the right to wage war, and penalties for violations.
The establishment of the League of Nations was approved at the Paris Peace Conference in January 1919, and 44 countries signed the Covenant of the League of Nations in June 1919. However, although the US president was a key promoter of the League, the US government refused to ratify the agreement, and never became a member. The first meeting of the League was in January 1920, and the headquarters was established in Geneva later that year.
The League of Nations was successful at adjudicating on a number of minor territorial disputes, but member countries were reluctant to get involved in more complex disputes, disarmament did not proceed as envisaged, and the pursuit of pacifism at any cost meant that flagrant violations were not confronted. The Second World War proved the failure of the League, and it was dissolved in 1946, to be replaced by the United Nations.
On this day 465 years ago, Easter Day, the Order of the Communion was first used in English churches. Authorised church services had been in Latin, but Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and other prominent church leaders strongly believed in the importance of holding worship services in a language which the people could understand, and so the Order of the Communion consisted of key parts of the Mass in English. The rest of the service was still in Latin.
Later the same year, 1548, the English Parliament authorised the establishment of a Book of Common Prayer, and the following year the Book of Common Prayer was published, including daily offices, readings for Sundays and holy days, and services for Communion, Baptism, Confirmation, Matrimony, Visitation of the Sick, and Burial, derived from a variety of sources, but all now printed in the English language.
The German reformer Martin Bucer made detailed suggestions for improvements, and many of these were taken into account in the 1552 revised edition, removing a number of Roman Catholic practices from the Communion service. However, when Mary I became queen in 1553 Roman Catholic practices were re-established and Thomas Cranmer was burned at the stake, but the Book of Common Prayer was revived after Mary’s death in 1558.
On this day 206 years ago, the Slave Trade Act 1807, with the long title “An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade”, received Royal Assent and passed into law, ending the slave trade in the British Empire, although not ending slavery itself. The anti-slavery lobby had been working towards this end for 20 years, starting in earnest in 1787 when a group of Evangelical Christians had formed the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.
The parliamentarian William Wilberforce became a leading advocate of the abolition cause, and in 1791 he introduced a Bill to abolish the slave trade, which was defeated by 163 votes to 88. The following year he introduced another Bill, but it was amended to a compromise solution of gradual abolition over a number of years, rendering it ineffective. In 1793 another Bill was defeated by just 8 votes.
In subsequent years, progress was slow because of war with France. In 1804 another Bill to abolish the slave trade passed through the House of Commons but ran out of time to be passed through the House of Lords, and the Bill was defeated in 1805 when reintroduced. A breakthrough was achieved in 1806 with an Act outlawing the supply of slaves to French colonies, and in 1807 the Slave Trade Bill finally passed through both the House of Lords and the House of Commons by a large margin.
Many people who want to migrate to Australia face tough entry restrictions, but it was not so long ago that people were being sent to Australia against their will. On this day 179 years ago, James Brine, James Hammett, George Loveless, James Loveless, Thomas Standfield and John Standfield were sentenced by Judge Baron John Williams to transportation to Australia, for the offence of swearing oaths to each other to form a Friendly Society.
The six farm labourers, under the leadership of George Loveless, who was a lay preacher, had founded the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers in 1832 to campaign against lowering of labourers’ wages following the introduction of farm machinery. Trade Unions were legal, so the prosecution was based on a law prohibiting people from swearing oaths to each other. The six were convicted and sent to Australia in 1834.
Subsequently, a petition calling for their release was signed by 800,000 people and a public march was held to show popular support for their cause. The campaign was successful, and five of the six were released in 1836, with four of them returning to England. Most of them subsequently migrated to Canada. There is now a Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum in Dorset commemorating their story and their impact on trade unionism.
Sir Alexander Fleming died of a heart attack on this day 58 years ago, at the age of 73. Born in Ayrshire, Scotland, he worked in a shipping office until an inheritance enabled him to enrol in St Mary’s Hospital Medical School in Paddington, where he subsequently became a researcher, before serving as a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps during the First World War, working in battlefield hospitals at the Western Front.
Having observed many soldiers die from infected wounds, Fleming began a search for anti-bacterial agents. In 1928, he became Professor of Bacteriology at the University of London, and later that year he noticed that a fungus had contaminated a culture of staphylococci that he was growing, and some of the staphylococci had been killed. He identified the mould as coming from the penicillium genus, and he subsequently called the substance which it released penicillin.
However, it was difficult to grow the mould and isolate the antibiotic agent, and initial clinical trials were inconclusive, so Fleming eventually abandoned his research. Fortunately, others continued the research and discovered ways to mass-produce the drug, so the penicillin became the most effective known infection-fighting agent, which could for the first time provide cures for diseases such as tuberculosis and gangrene.
Hadrian, an officer in the bodyguard of Emperor Galerius Maximian, may have been executed on this day 1707 years ago, after having been a Christian for a short period of time. According to some accounts, Hadrian had been given the job of torturing a group of 21 Christians to get them to recant their faith. When they persisted with their faith, he asked them what reward God would give them, and they responded by quoting 1 Corinthians 2:9:
“What no eye has seen,
what no ear has heard,
and what no human mind has conceived”—
the things God has prepared for those who love him
Awestruck by the courage and witness of the Christians, Hadrian joined them and publicly stated that he too believed in Jesus Christ. He was immediately imprisoned with them and condemned to share their fate; after a brief time in prison, he was executed. His wife Natalia also became a Christian. Hadrian, sometimes called Adrian, is remembered by the Catholic church as the patron saint of old soldiers, arms dealers and butchers.
On this day 443 years ago, Pope Pius V issued a papal bull entitled Regnans in Excelsis, declaring Queen Elizabeth I to be a heretic and threatening anyone who obeyed her orders and laws with excommunication. More than 11 years had passed since the English Parliament had re-established the English church’s separation from the church of Rome, so it seems unlikely that the papal bull was created solely in response to that act. Instead, it was probably an attempt to support Roman Catholic attempts to seize the English throne.
Elizabeth was the daughter of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII. The Pope had never approved the annulment of Henry’s first marriage, and accordingly did not recognise the second marriage, which would have meant that Elizabeth was an illegitimate child, so that the rightful heir to the English throne was the senior descendant of Henry’s sister, namely the Roman Catholic Mary Queen of Scots.
The papal bull had the effect of encouraging plots for the overthrow of the Queen, but it also provoked the English Parliament into taking measures to repress such plots, and the net result was a harder time for Roman Catholics in England. The papal bull was renewed in 1588 by Pope Sixtus in support of the Spanish Armada, but the Spanish Armada was defeated and the Pope never regained political power in England.
The Emperor Kublai Khan died on this day 719 years ago. He was the first non-Chinese Emperor to conquer all of China, and at the height of his power, his territory covered one fifth of the world’s inhabited land area, stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Black Sea. His grandfather Genghis Khan had been the founder and first Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, uniting the nomadic tribes of northeast Asia and conquering most of Eurasia.
Genghis Khan had been succeeded by his third son Ögedei Khan, who had continued the westward expansion of the Mongol Empire. Ögedei was in turn succeeded by his son Güyük who was followed by his cousin Möngke who was succeeded by Kublai, his brother. Kublai Khan was the last Mongol Emperor to conquer new territory, and he became Emperor of China, establishing the Yuan Dynasty.
Marco Polo travelled to China in the 13th Century and met Kublai Khan, whom he described in his book Il Millione. The summer garden of Kublai Khan at Xanadu is the subject of a famous poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
a stately pleasure-dome decree :
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
On this day 482 years ago, the Convocation of the English clergy granted King Henry VIII the title “singular protector, supreme lord, and even, so far as the law of Christ allows, supreme head of the English church and clergy”. This was an awkward political step in the history of the church. Protestantism had been catching on in the church in England, but Henry was a staunch Catholic, even having been granted the title “Defender of the Faith” by the Pope for opposing Protestantism.
However, a political opportunity arose for churchmen of protestant inclination when Henry desperately wanted a son to be his heir. Impatient of his wife Catherine’s inability to produce a son, and attracted to Catherine’s sister Anne, Henry petitioned the Pope for annulment of the marriage so that he could remarry. The Pope refused the petition, but Henry called together the clergy and lawyers to see if the matter could be decided by the Archbishop of Canterbury, in disregard of the Pope’s prohibition.
Partly as a result of pressure applied by Henry, and partly through a desire to distance itself from the church of Rome, Convocation acceded to Henry’s plan which effectively made Henry, rather than the Pope, the head of the church in England. The church then granted Henry his divorce so that he could remarry, and in the years after Henry’s death the English church took on a more Protestant flavour.
The Codex Sinaiticus was “rediscovered” on this day 154 years ago in the monastery of Saint Catherine, which is located at the foot of Mount Sinai in Egypt. The codex is one of the best surviving ancient handwritten copies of the Greek Bible. It is dated to between 325 and 360AD, and some scholars believe that it may have been one of the 50 copies of the Bible that the Emperor Constantine commissioned from the historian Eusebius.
The Codex Sinaiticus was separated into numerous different fragments, but the known parts include parts of the Old Testament including parts of the deuterocanonical apocrypha, almost all of the New Testament starting with the four Gospels, then followed by the epistles of Paul (including Hebrews), then the Acts of the Apostles, then the general epistles (letters of James, Peter, John and Jude), then the Revelation, and finishing with the apocryphal writings the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas.
Like some other early manuscripts, the Codex Sinaiticus omits the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53 to 8:11) and the long ending to the Gospel of Mark (Mark 16:9-20). The manuscript also contains numerous other minor omissions and textual variants when compared with other ancient manuscripts.