On the 30th May 1431, Joan of Arc was executed by being burned at the stake.  The Maid of Orleans had been found guilty of heresy for a second time, which made it a capital offence.

Although Joan was accused of being a witch and a heretic due to the voices she heard and visions she witnessed, the crime that condemned her to death was that of wearing men’s clothing.  Joan had worn male military clothing and armour during campaigns against the English army in the Hundred Years War, and this was deemed heretical.

At trial, Joan faced 70 charges relating to heresy and witchcraft.  These gradually dwindled to 12 but, having been found guilty of these crimes and afraid of immediate execution if she continued to plead innocence, Joan admitted her guilt and also promised to stop wearing men’s clothing.

However, a few days later Joan said the voices told her she had made a mistake.  Additionally, although she began to wear female clothing again in prison, she said that someone had attempted to rape her in her cell and so began to again wear men’s clothing to deter further attacks. Combined with the voices this was interpreted as a relapse into heresy, and she was condemned to death.

Joan died of smoke inhalation before the flames fully consumed her, but her remains were burned a further two times to reduce them to ashes. They were scattered in the River Seine. On the 7th July 1456, after a retrial, Joan was declared to have been innocent.

Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first people to reach the summit of Mount Everest.

The two mountaineering pioneers were part of the ninth British Mount Everest expedition that had sought to reach the summit of the world’s highest mountain. At the time only the Nepalese approach to Everest was open to climbers, but the government in Kathmandu only granted permission to one expedition a year.

With a British team unlikely to be granted another attempt until at least 1956, the Joint Himalayan Committee who oversaw British expeditions believed it was vital that the 1953 expedition was a success. They made the decision to appoint British Army Colonel John Hunt as the leader of the expedition, although his appointment was opposed by some other members of the team. Hillary himself was initially unhappy as he was fiercely loyal to Eric Shipton, the climber who had previously led expeditions for the Committee.

The 400-strong team of British climbers, Sherpa guides and porters set up base camp in March 1953 and established advanced camps further up the mountain throughout April and early May. A first attempt was made on the summit by Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans on 26 May, but they were defeated by problems with their oxygen equipment.

Hillary and Norgay were directed to begin their attempt the next day. Poor weather meant that they began their final ascent on the morning of 29 May, reaching the summit at 11:30 am where Hillary took a photo of Norgay, alongside a series of other shots looking down the mountain as proof that they had reached the summit. News of their achievement reached Britain on the morning of 2 June, the day of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation.

On the 28th May 1987, an eighteen year-old amateur pilot from Hamburg in West Germany illegally landed a private aircraft near Moscow’s Red Square. Mathias Rust had clocked up only 50 hours of flying time before commencing his journey that took in the Shetland and Faroe Islands, Iceland, Bergen and Helsinki before flying to Moscow.

Rust’s flight was risky.  Just five years earlier a South Korean commercial plane had been shot down after it strayed into Soviet airspace.  Rust himself was tracked by three separate surface-to-air missile units and a total of four fighter planes were sent to monitor him, but none of them were given permission to attack.

Rust approached Moscow in the early evening, and after passing the “Ring of Steel” anti-aircraft defences continued towards the city centre.  Abandoning his idea of landing in the Kremlin, he instead touched down on a bridge next to St Basil’s Cathedral and taxied into Red Square.  Within two hours he had been arrested.  He was sentenced to four years in a labour camp for violating international flight rules and illegally entering the Soviet Union, but was released after serving 14 months in jail.

In a 2007 interview, Rust claimed that he hoped his flight would build an ‘imaginary bridge’ between east and west. What it actually did was massively damage the reputation of the Soviet military for failing to stop him. This in turn led to the largest dismissal of Soviet military personnel since Stalin’s purges, and allowed Gorbachev to push ahead with his reforms.






Peter the Great had become Tsar in 1682 and his rule is characterised by immense cultural and political changes in Russia that saw the country transformed into a modern world power. Keen to replace Sweden as the leading power in the Baltic, Peter began the Great Northern War that was fought from 1700 to 1721.

In 1703 Peter’s forces captured Swedish possessions at the mouth of the Neva river, and it was here that he laid the foundation stone for the Peter and Paul Fortress on Zayachy Island. This marked the beginning of the construction of St. Petersburg, although the first residential building to be completed was a small log cabin built for the Tsar that stands today inside a protective pavilion. Peter wanted his new city to be built entirely of stone and brick, so he ordered this first house to be painted red with white detailing to appear like brick.

The construction of St. Petersburg at the mouth of the Neva was an enormous undertaking. The Tsar had to hire large numbers of European engineers and architects to drain the marshland and develop the city. He banned the creation of other stone buildings in Russia so that all the country’s stonemasons and artisans could be used to construct its buildings, and he ordered the conscription of 40,000 serfs a year to work as labourers in the harsh conditions.

St. Petersburg went on to become the capital of Russia for two centuries, and was the location for numerous notable events that helped to shape world history. Its historic centre is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it houses one of the world’s largest art collections in the Hermitage Museum that was founded by Catherine the Great in 1754.

On the 26th May 1897, Bram Stoker’s Gothic horror novel Dracula was first published.  Although not the first vampire novel, Dracula was certainly responsible for defining modern ideas of vampires and for forever associating them with Romania.

Vlad III was king of Romania before it was Romania, and he had such an enormous bloodlust that he was given the epithet ‘the Impaler’.  However, during his lifetime he also had another name.  He was known as Dracula.  Many people therefore believe that Stoker based his character on a real historical prince.  But he didn’t.

Vlad III’s father, Vlad II, was a member of the Order of the Dragon, a chivalric order charged with fighting the enemies of Christianity.  In the case of Vlad, this meant the Turks on his southern border.  As a member of the Order of the Dragon, Vlad added the Romanian word for dragon – dracul –to his name, and so he became known as Vlad Dracul.  As son of the dragon, Vlad III was known as Vlad Dracula.  However, the word dracul also has another meaning in the Romanian language: it means devil.

We know from his notes that Bram Stoker read the 19th Century British Consul William Wilkinson’s book about life in Romania, the snazzily titled, Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia”, and that he came across various references to the term Dracula.  However, Stoker’s only interest in the word Dracula was that it was associated with people who portrayed devilish or cruel behaviour.  The name fitted his literary creation perfectly.

The first instalment of the Star Wars film series was released in cinemas in the United States of America.

The iconic space opera was written and directed by the American filmmaker George Lucas. His directional debut, the dystopian science fiction film THX 1138 was not received well by critics or filmgoers. However his second release, American Graffiti, was much more successful and was a key factor in securing financial support for Star Wars from 20th Century Fox President Alan Ladd, Jr.

Lucas himself has often presented conflicting accounts of the film’s development, but what is clear is that it took him over three years to write the screenplay. Yet despite the significant time spent crafting both the script and the universe in which it was set, Lucas continued to rewrite the script while shooting.

External scenes for the film were filmed in Tunisia, Guatemala and Death Valley while the internal shots were completed on sets based at the massive sound stages of Elstree and Shepperton Studios near London. Within a week of the start of filming, the production had already begun to run behind schedule, and Star Wars ended up going nearly a third over its original $8 million budget.

Demand for the finished film from theatres was initially so low that 20th Century Fox forced them to show it in return for copies of the more eagerly anticipated The Other Side of Midnight. Despite this difficult start, when adjusted for inflation the science fiction epic went on to become the third highest-grossing film in the world.

Star Wars was nominated for ten Academy Awards of which it won six, alongside a Special Achievement for Sound Effects Editing. However, the film’s impact on both popular culture and the development of cinema is immeasurable.

On the 24th May 1956, the first Eurovision Song Contest took place in Lugano, Switzerland.  It has since grown to be one of the most watched non-sporting events in the world.

The idea for the contest came from Marcel Bezençon, chairman of the European Broadcasting Union, at a meeting of the in Monaco in 1955.  Founded in 1950, the EBU was looking for a way to bring the countries of Europe together after the devastation of the Second World War.  However, of the 23 member countries at the time only seven countries participated in the first Eurovision competition, with just three more broadcasting the show.

Highlighting just how far communication technology has come, it’s worth noting that the first Eurovision Song Contest took place over a year before Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, was put into orbit.  The first competitions were relayed across Europe using a terrestrial microwave network that linked the countries of Europe together like an invisible spider’s web.

Although the contest is now as much about geopolitics as music, the geography of Eurovision is fascinating.  Countries do not have to be within the continent of Europe to be eligible to enter, nor do they need to be members of the European Union.  Eligibility is actually based on the European Broadcasting Area which – even more confusingly – covers an area extending into North Africa and the Middle East.  This helps to explain the regular appearance of Israel, and also Morocco’s entry in 1980 that finished second-to-last with only 7 points.






Two Catholic imperial officials and their secretary were thrown out of the window of the Bohemian Chancellery in the Second Defenestration of Prague.

Prague had witnessed its first defenestration (literally ‘the act of throwing someone or something out of a window’) in 1419, but it is the second event that is perhaps better known since it acted as a catalyst for the Thirty Years War.

Both defenestrations were rooted in religious conflict. The latter came after the newly elected Catholic king, Ferdinand II, encouraged his cousin Matthias, the Holy Roman Emperor, to order the construction of two new Protestant chapels in the Bohemian towns of Broumov and Hrob to stop. The largely Protestant population in Bohemia argued against the order as they believed that it violated the 1609 Letter of Majesty, issued by the earlier Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, which allowed them to freely practise their religion.

In the face of the Protestant opposition, Ferdinand dissolved the assembly of the Bohemian estates. However, this did not stop the Protestant leaders from gathering on the morning of 23 May. They made their way to the Bohemian Chancellery where they put the Catholic imperial regents on trial for disobeying the Letter of Majesty.

Two regents – Count Vilem Slavata of Chlum and Count Jaroslav Borzita of Martinice – were found guilty of violating the Right of Freedom of Religion. The two men, along with the regents’ secretary, were then thrown from the third-floor window. They all survived the fall with only minor injuries. Catholics claimed that they were saved thanks to divine intervention, while Protestants maintained that they fell into a dung heap. In the aftermath, both Catholic and Protestant forces began gathering for war.

The 22nd May 1455 marked the start of the Wars of the Roses, when the First Battle of St Albans was fought between Richard, Duke of York, and King Henry VI.

The Wars of the Roses were fought between the Houses of Lancaster and York, both of whom had claims to the English throne.  Although the Lancastrians had ruled England since 1399, Henry VI had come to the throne in 1422 when he was just 9 months old.  England had therefore been ruled by regents for 15 years, during which time the monarchy was weakened.

The situation didn’t improve after Henry took full control of the country in 1437, since he experienced periods of mental illness that affected his behaviour and decisions.  Having experienced a long period of mental instability from August 1453, the “kingmaker” Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, made Richard, Duke of York, protector of the realm.

When Henry recovered 18 months later, Richard was excluded from the royal court.  In response he led an army to London, but was met by the King’s forces 22 miles north of the city in St Albans.  After many hours of failed negotiations, Richard ordered his troops to attack.  The battle was fought in the streets, and lasted for less than an hour before the Lancastrians were outflanked, key Lancastrian nobles were killed, and Henry was taken prisoner.

Richard was declared Protector of England just a few months later, but the Wars of Roses raged for another three decades.







Hungarian-born geologist Laszlo Toth attacked and seriously damaged Michelangelo’s Pietà statue with a hammer.

The Pietà is a marble sculpture that was created by Michelangelo between 1498 and 1499. It depicts the body of Jesus lying on his mother Mary’s lap shortly after he was taken down from the cross, and is celebrated as one of the greatest pieces of Renaissance sculpture due to its balance of classical beauty and naturalism. Notably the Pietà is also the only piece that Michelangelo ever signed.

Laszlo Toth graduated from a Hungarian university with a degree in geology, after which he spent a number of years in Australia. He moved to Italy in June 1971 where wrote a number of letters to Pope Paul VI in an attempt to meet him. A man who shared a room in a hostel with Toth later claimed that he had found his constant reading of the Bible unusual.

Toth unleashed his act of vandalism on the Pietà on Pentecost Sunday. He entered St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City as part of the crowd attending mass, where he jumped over an altar railing in the chapel that housed the statue. He then set about attacking the huge marble sculpture with a geologist’s hammer while shouting, ‘I am Jesus Christ; I have risen from the dead!’

Toth struck the statue fifteen times before he was wrestled to the ground by bystanders, but his attack severed Mary’s arm at the elbow, removed part of her nose, and damaged one of her eyelids. The attack caused over 100 marble fragments to be strewn over the floor, some of which were taken by the crowd and never returned.

The statue was later successfully repaired, while Toth was found to be insane and was committed to an Italian psychiatric hospital for two years. Following his release he was deported back to Australia.