May 27th 1564: Calvin dies


John Calvin (1509 – 1564)


On this day in 1564, the French theologian John Calvin died in Geneva aged 54. Calvin, born in France in 1509, is best known for his formulation of the Protestant doctrine known as Calvinism. Calvinism advocates the view of predestination – that God chooses who will be saved and who will be damned even before their birth; there is thus nothing one can do in this life to alter their fate in the next. Whilst there is nothing one can do to alter their fate, Calvinists hold that those who live a godly life show evidence of being one of God’s elect, and so there is a point to living righteously. The elect had to prove their status by giving a narrative of their conversion before the church (which at this point meant the congregation of the elect). It was these views that provided the foundation of Puritan belief in Britain and colonial America. Calvin’s views made him a controversial figure in his lifetime, and he was an early supporter of Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation. In the last years of his life, Calvin was the ruler of Geneva where he relentlessly promoted Protestantism, even resorting to executing and exiling religious dissenters.



The exact location of Calvin’s grave is unknown, but this site in Geneva is the traditional site


“We call predestination God’s eternal decree, by which He determined what He willed to become of each man. For all are not created in equal condition; rather, eternal life is ordained for some, eternal damnation for others.”
– John Calvin


May 23rd 1701: Captain Kidd executed


Willliam “Captain” Kidd (c.1654 – 1701)


On this day in 1701 the Scottish pirate William Kidd was executed in England. Kidd, born in Dundee around 1654, enjoyed a successful career as a seaman before his turn to piracy. In May 1696 Kidd set sail charged with the job of hunting pirates and attacking enemy French ships as a privateer. However whilst on this voyage around the Indian Ocean, Kidd and his crew began plundering treasure ships. During his time, Kidd killed a mutinous gunner on his ship, contributing to his fearsome piratical reputation. Their main prize was the Quedagh Merchant which carried a wealth of gold, silk and spices – the haul from this came to around £15,000, a huge amount of money for this period. As news broke in England of Kidd’s activities, his wealthy and powerful patrons at home scrambled to condemn him.



William Kidd’s body hanging in a cage on the River Thames – from ‘The Pirates Own Book’ by Charles Ellms (source:


Kidd was eventually arrested in New York, where he had gone with hopes of support from his powerful contacts there, insisting he was innocent and had acted only as a privateer. Whilst he gave up some of his buried treasure on Gardiners Island, he claimed he had more buried somewhere else; would-be treasure hunters have been searching for his haul ever since. Kidd was put on trial for piracy in England, in what became a public spectacle due to his prominent connections, where he was found guilty and sentenced to death. On May 23rd, Kidd was hanged on the River Thames in London and his body encased in an iron cage and left to rot as a warning to other pirates.

May 14th 1881: Mary Seacole dies


Mary Seacole (1805 – 1881)


On this day in 1881 the nurse Mary Seacole died in London aged 76. Originally from Jamaica, the young Mary was taught her nursing skills by her mother. When war broke out in the Crimea, she applied to give medical assistance to wounded servicemen but was refused, and so gave treatment independently. Her patients admired ‘Mother Seacole’ and helped raised money for her after the war when she was left destitute. Despite her exemplary national service and popularity in Britain, Seacole faced discrimination at home due to her race and was unable to vote or hold public office.



Blue plaque outside Seacole’s London home


She has often been forgotten and placed in the shadow of famous Crimean War nurse Florence Nightingale, a phenomenon which some critics consider a ‘whitewashing’ of British history. Seacole should be the household name that Nightingale is – they each were heroines of the Crimean War who put themselves in danger to help their country. However it should be noted that in 2004 Seacole was voted the greatest Black Briton, so she certainly is beginning to receive the attention a woman like her deserves.

May 2nd 1972: J. Edgar Hoover dies


J. Edgar Hoover (1895 – 1972)


On this day in 1972 the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, John Edgar Hoover, died aged 77. Despite a difficult childhood, Hoover secured a law degree from George Washington University and in 1917 found work in the Justice Department. His initial roles centered around tackling the threat of communism within America, but this came to encompass anyone with a left-wing viewpoint. He famously secured the deportation of anarchist Emma Goldman. Hoover spent some time working at the FBI’s predecessor, the Bureau of Investigation, and went on to help found the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935. Under Hoover the FBI grew into the sophisticated crime-fighting agency we know today, as he instituted forensic and fingerprint technology and initiated intense background checks and physical tests in appointing new agents. He was a controversial figure, and has been accused of using the FBI to harass political dissenters and blackmail politicians. Upon his death, J. Edgar Hoover had led the FBI for 48 years; he was succeeded by L. Patrick Gray upon his death.



Hoover family grave in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington D.C.

March 12th 1507: Cesare Borgia dies


Cesare Borgia (1475 – 1507)

On this day in 1507, the Italian nobleman Cesare Borgia died aged 31. His parents were Rodrigo Borgia (who went on to become Pope Alexander VI 1492) and his mistress Vannozza dei Cattanei. Cesare’s siblings were Lucrezia, Giovanni and Gioffre. Due to his high birth and rank Cesare Borgia held multiple prominent positions throughout his life, including positions as Duke of Valentinois, Vatican cardinal, and general of the church’s armies. Often portrayed as a vicious man notorious for womanising and cruelty, Borgia was hungry for power and had numerous people assassinated to secure his position.



Pope Alexander VI (1431 – 1503)


After his father’s death he lost the protection of the Vatican and was arrested for refusing to cooperate with the new Pope. Spending some years evading papal forces, Borgia was eventually killed trying to storm a castle in Viana, Spain. Cesare Borgia features heavily in Niccolò Machiavelli’s famous 1532 work ‘The Prince’ which discusses the nature of political power. Machiavelli admired Borgia, and in ‘The Prince’ advised politicians to follow his example. Perhaps due to this infamy, Cesare Borgia has been a popular figure in fiction. He is one of the characters of the TV series ‘The Borgias’ and is one of the main antagonists of the videogame ‘Assassin’s Creed II’. I have to admit that I first came across the Borgias through playing the latter. As a history nerd, that game remains one of my favourites. Aside from the amazing gameplay, you genuinely do learn things about the period of the Italian Renaissance. Of course you have to take these things with a pinch of salt – I highly doubt the real Rodrigo Borgia/Pope Alexander VI, was a Templar who found the magical Apple of Eden and wielded it on a staff on a rampage in the Sistine Chapel. However I would still recommend these games to history fans – Cesare Borgia is featured heavily in all his evil glory.

“Here lies in little earth one who was feared by all, who held peace and war in his hand”
– inscription on Borgia’s tomb in Viana (which has since been demolished and his remains moved by bishops who were horrified by his sins)