This Day in History – December 16th

1431 – 10-year-old King Henry VI of England is crowned King of France at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris – As the only heir of King Henry V, Henry VI became King of England at the age of nine months when Henry V died in 1422. Several months later, his grandfather, King Charles VI of France, also died, setting young Henry up to also become ruler of the French before his first birthday. At this point in time, the Hundred Years War, a generations-long conflict between the English and French over who would control France, had been raging for almost 90 years. Upon the death of Charles VI, his son, Charles VII, believed that he ought to be the one who gained the French crown – even though he had been disinherited by his father in favour of the English royal family. On Nov. 6, 1429, shortly before his eighth birthday, the coronation for Henry VI was held at Westminster Abbey. Then, at Notre Dame on this date in 1431, he was officially crowned King of France. These ceremonies were held in reaction to the coronation ceremony that had already been held for Charles VII in Reims, France in July 1429. It wasn’t until he turned 16 that Henry actually gained any independent power, as a regency council ruled in his place during his childhood. He attempted to bring about peace with France by marrying Margaret of Anjou, a niece of Charles, but this proved unsuccessful. Soon, England had lost the vast majority of its French territory and Henry began suffering from mental health issues. The belief that Henry was unfit to be king led to a number of conflicts for control of the English throne known as the Wars of the Roses. Henry was killed in the Tower of London on May 21, 1471, possibly on the order of Edward IV, his successor. Henry VI was the subject of a trilogy of historical plays written by William Shakespeare in 1591. Part Three features the longest soliloquy of any of his plays, as well as the most battle scenes of any other Shakespearean play.

1707 – The last recorded eruption of Mount Fuji in Japan begins – At over 3,776 metres (12,389 feet), Mount Fuji on Honshu Island is the highest mountain in Japan. Visible on a clear day from Tokyo, its smooth, snow-capped peak has naturally become one of the most identifiable symbols of Japan. It’s also an active volcano, though it hasn’t erupted for over 300 years. Technically, Mount Fuji is a stratovolcano, meaning it is built up of many layers of hardened lava and ash. The mountain we see today is known as the ‘New Fuji volcano,’ which began to erupt about 10,000 years ago. Before that was the Old Fuji volcano, below the ‘new’ one, which was active beginning about 100,000 years ago. Lower still is the Komitake volcano, which became active about 700,000 years ago. The last recorded eruption of Mount Fuji, known as the Hoei Eruption, began on this date in 1707 and lasted until New Year’s Day 1708. There was no lava flow, but it is estimated that around 800 million cubic metres of volcanic ash was released, travelling as far as 100 km away. It is ranked a ‘5’ on the 7-level Volcanic Explosivity Index. That eruption took place several weeks after a powerful earthquake that severely damaged the city of Osaka. The seismic shifts it caused ultimately led to the eruption. The eruption left a thin layer of ash over many farmers’ fields. Clearing it away, they stacked up the ash in tall piles, which were gradually washed away into nearby rivers, where the ash built up once more along the riverbeds. Heavy rainfall in early August 1708 churned up the ash, causing devastating volcanic ash-mudslides and floods.

1907 – The US Navy’s “Great White Fleet” begins its circumnavigation of the world – In late 1907, near the end of his term in office, US President Theodore Roosevelt had a grand idea: a fleet of US Navy ships should travel around the world. He had several purposes in mind for the trip, including a show of good will to the countries the ships would stop at along the way, as well as, more importantly, a demonstration of US military might. In those days, the USA was still a relative newcomer on the international stage, and nowhere near the superpower it is today. The voyage would demonstrate the modernity of their navy, which had helped them win the Spanish-American War in 1898. Japan, another naval power, was one of the countries Roosevelt hoped would take notice of the ships. The “Great White Fleet,” so-called because the ships’ hulls were painted white as was custom during peacetime back then, consisted of two squadrons of 16 battleships manned by some 14,000 sailors from the Navy’s Atlantic fleet. The ships departed from Hampton Roads, Virginia on this date in 1907. One area of particular concern leading up to the departure of the fleet was making sure the ships would be furnished with enough coal – once they were past the Caribbean, it would be a long way before they came across any friendly ports to resupply themselves. Since the Panama Canal was not yet complete, the first leg of the voyage sent the fleet south to Trinidad and Tobago, then to Brazil, through the Straits of Magellan to Chile, then Peru, Mexico and finally a rest in San Francisco. From there, the ships made their way to Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia, the Philippines, Japan and China before another break in Manila on the Philippines. The final leg sent them west to Sri Lanka, then Egypt where they passed through the Suez Canal. The sailors aided in recovery operations in Sicily after the 1908 Messina earthquake, before continuing on to Gibraltar and then home to greet President Roosevelt in Virginia on Feb. 22, 1909. In all, over the 14-month voyage, the ships covered about 43,000 nautical miles (or 80,000 km).

1969 – In the United Kingom, MPs vote to abolish hanging – On this date in 1969, British MPs voted by a margin of 343 to 185 to abolish the use of the death penalty for those convicted of murder. Until then, hanging had still been the method used for executions in the United Kingdom. The Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, of the Labour Party, as well as Conservative leader Edward Heath and Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe were united in their support of the abolition, but there were many voices against the change. Over seven hours of debate preceded the vote, and one Tory MP from south London presented a petition in favour of the use of hanging he claimed had a million signatures. Home Secretary James Callaghan showed figures that showed during a 10 year period that included five years during which capital punishment was suspended, the murder rate remained stable. “The murder rate is not soaring as a result of the abolition of capital punishment,” he said. According to a BBC article from the time, Callaghan felt conducting research into the cause of violent crimes would offer more hope to society “than the despair of returning to hanging as a method of deterring violence.” Two days later, the House of Lords also voted in favour of abolishing the death penalty for murder by a majority of 46. The death penalty was retained for offences including ‘treason’ and ‘piracy with violence’ through until the late 1990s. In 1999, the United Kingdom became a party to the European Convention of Human Rights, the sixth protocol of which is the permanent abolition of the death penalty. In Canada, the last two executions took place in Toronto on Dec. 11, 1962. The death penalty for murder was formally eliminated in Canada on July 14, 1976.

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