This Day in History – June 24th

1314 – Scottish forces defeat the English in the Battle of Bannockburn during the First War of Scottish Independence – England invaded Scotland in 1296, which, as any viewer of Mel Gibson’s award-winning but barely-historically accurate 1995 film “Braveheart” knows, began the wars of Scottish Independence. William Wallace, the main focus of that film, was captured and executed in 1305 as Scotland lay conquered. But he had paved the way for another Scottish war hero, Robert the Bruce, who claimed the Scottish throne the following year. In 1307, England also had a new king, Edward II, who proved to be a less effective leader than his father. In 1314, Robert’s brother besieged Stirling Castle, a strategically important fortification in central Scotland that was held by the English. Edward II assembled a mighty force of cavalry, infantry and longbowmen to defend the castle. The English were far better outfitted than their Scottish counterparts, with heavier armour, more horses, and more experienced archers. Historians also believe the Scottish were outnumbered by several thousand soldiers. The forces came to blows on June 23, 1314 in the Battle of Bannockburn, and though most medieval battles lasted only a few hours, the outcome was not decided until the day, this date in 1314. One legendary highlight of the battle involved Robert the Bruce on horseback armed with only a battle axe, charging Henry de Bohun, the nephew of the Earl of Hereford, who, as part of the English heavy cavalry, was armed with a lance and shield. Robert outmanoeuvred his foe at the last second and split de Bohun’s helmet (and head) in two. King Edward II fled the battle, and their victory at Stirling Castle opened up northern England for a Scottish invasion. In 1328, Robert signed the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton, which compelled England to recognize the full independence of the Kingdom of Scotland. Which it did, for about four years, until the Second War of Scottish Independence began.

1779 – During the American Revolutionary War, Spanish and French forces launch a siege on the British territory of Gibraltar – The imposing 426 metre peak of the Rock of Gibraltar, the monolithic limestone promontory on the southwestern tip of Spain, seemed for early Greeks to be the end of the world, and it still houses the walls of a Moorish Castle built by Moroccan invaders dating back to 711 C.E. But, though it borders Spain, the land surrounding the rock has been known as the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar since 1713. This has never sat that well with the Spanish. In 1779, France signed a treaty with Spain, in which both nations agreed to help the other recover territory they had lost to Britain. While Britain was preoccupied with the American Revolutionary War in North America, France and Spain (who were both aiding the Americans) saw an opportunity to rid Britain of their strategic base at the mouth of the Mediterranean. They expected it to take no time at all. Once they had beaten the British there, the allies thought, they could launch an invasion of Britain. Too bad for them the man in charge of the garrison on Gibraltar was General George Augustus Elliott, one of the most celebrated British generals of the 18th Century. On this date in 1779, when Spain finally began its blockade of Gibraltar and French troops began surrounding Gibraltar with forts and trenches, Elliott had been expecting the siege for some time, and had many supplies stockpiled. He picked off the French with sharpshooters from a distance, as they sustained through three winters, fighting cold and scurvy. They couldn’t have been successful without some outside help, though, as Admiral George Rodney rammed through the blockade in January 1780 to resupply Gibraltar, and Vice Admiral George Darby did the same in April 1781. In September 1782, the allies made one more massive attack by sea, which the British put down by shooting red-hot shot onto their ships, setting them ablaze. France and Spain were defeated, and gave up the siege in February 1783, close to four years after it began. Today, around 32,200 people reside in the territory, which is just under seven sq. km.

1880 – At a banquet in Quebec City, the song “O Canada” is first performed – In 1880, Quebec’s Lieutenant Governor Theodore Robitaille commissioned a song to be written for that year’s Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day, which is a holiday primarily celebrated in Quebec and among French populations elsewhere in Canada and in the U.S. French Canadian musician Calixa Lavallée, who played cornet in the Union Army while living in the United States during the Civil War, composed the music, while Quebec judge and poet Sir Adolphe-Basile Routhier penned the original French lyrics. On this date in 1880, the song was first performed in Quebec City at the National Congress of French Canadians. Though several attempts at converting the song to English followed, it was another Quebec judge and poet, Robert Stanley Weir, who wrote the official and most popular version of the song while living in Montreal in 1908. In the years that followed, Canada remained a nation without an official national anthem, as some preferred “God Save the Queen” and others liked “The Maple Leaf Forever.” Another famous performance of “O Canada” in Ottawa on May 21, 1939, is seen by many as the moment “O Canada” surpassed the others. King George VI was in Ottawa to dedicate the National War Memorial, and chose to stand at attention while the song was being played, something he had seen his brother Edward VIII do while dedicating the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France in 1936. The National Anthem Act of 1980 finally made the song the country’s official national anthem.

Sally_Ride1983 – U.S. astronaut Sally Ride returns to Earth – STS-7, NASA’s seventh Space Shuttle mission is notable for being the first one to carry an American female astronaut into space. That woman was Sally Ride, who was born in Los Angeles on May 26, 1951. As a young woman, besides excelling in physics and science courses at UCLA and Stanford, Ride was a nationally ranked tennis player. She eventually earned her master’s degree and a PhD at Stanford in physics, before applying to join NASA. She was selected in 1978, and she began her time at NASA working in communications on the second and third Space Shuttle missions, as well as doing work on the shuttle’s “Canadarm” robotic arm. She was among the crew of five launched into space on June 18, 1983, becoming the third woman in space, after Soviet cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova in 1963 and Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982. At just 32, she remains the youngest American astronaut to have travelled to space. Their mission, to deploy communications satellites and conduct some science experiments, went off without a hitch, and their shuttle, Challenger, landed safely back at Edwards Air Force Base in California on this date in 1983. Ride made a second space flight in 1984, before becoming a professor of physics and director of the California Space Institute. She died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 61 in 2012.

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