The month of May has witnessed many significant events and turning points throughout history, from the end of World War II in Europe to Nelson Mandela’s inauguration as the first black president of South Africa.

With stories of medieval warriors all the way through to the founding of modern-day human rights organisations, here are 21 historic events that happened in May.

21 historic events that happened in May

21 historic events that happened in May

1st May, 1707

The Union between England and Scotland was proclaimed, forming the United Kingdom of Great Britain. The union included Wales, which had been part of England since the 16th century.

Today, the UK consists of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

2nd May, 2011

U.S. Special Operations Forces killed Osama bin Laden during a raid on his secret compound in Abottabad, Pakistan.

This marked the end of a decade-long manhunt for the leader of the terrorist organisation al-Qaeda, based in the Middle East.

Bin Laden had ordered and arranged the September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks in which four American passenger jets were hijacked and crashed, killing nearly 3,000 people.

3rd May, 1841

New Zealand was declared a British colony. However, just 12 years later, in 1853, the British Parliament passed the New Zealand Constitution Act which granted the colony’s settlers the right to self-govern.

As a result, New Zealand was essentially independent in domestic matters from its earliest days as a British colony.

While there’s no fixed date of New Zealand’s independence from the UK, the first step towards nationhood came in 1919 when New Zealand was given a seat in the newly founded League of Nations.

New Zealand

4th May, 1471

King Edward IV’s Yorkists defeated the Lancastrian force led by Margaret of Anjou at the Battle of Tewkesbury.

Among those killed was Margaret’s son Edward Prince of Wales, heir to the House of Lancaster – leaving Yorkist King Edward IV free to continue his reign unopposed.

5th May, 1818

Founder of communism, Karl Marx, was born in Treves, Germany.

Marx was co-author of Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto, both of which advocated for the end to private property. In its place, Marx suggested a system in which all workers owned all means of production, land, factories, and machinery.

5th May, 1821

French military leader, Napolean Bonaparte, died in exile on the remote British island of St Helena at the age of 51.

6th May, 1954

Twenty-five-year-old medical student Roger Bannister became the first man to run a mile in under four minutes at the Iffley Road Sports Ground in Oxford. Bannister’s finishing time was 3 minutes and 59.4 seconds.

Until this time, so many athletes had tried and failed to run a mile in less than four minutes that people had concluded it to be an impossibility. Before Bannister, the world record for one mile was 4 minutes and 1.3 seconds, set by Gunder Hagg of Sweden in 1945.

man to run a mile

7th May, 1915

British passenger ship Lusitania was attacked and torpedoed by a German submarine off the Irish coast, six days after leaving New York for Liverpool.

The ship sunk within 20 minutes of being hit and lost 1,198 of its 1,924 passengers. This included 114 Americans, which heightened anti-German sentiment in America and hastened America’s entry into World War I.

7th May, 1945

Nazi Germany surrendered to the Allies at Rheims and World War II ended. VE (Victory in Europe) Day was celebrated across Europe and North America the following day.

However, the conflict wasn’t over yet as the war against Japan didn’t end until August 1945 and the political, social, and economic impact of World War II was felt long after Germany and Japan had surrendered.

8th May, 1429

During the Hundred Years’ War, 17-year-old French warrior maiden, Joan of Arc, led French forces to victory, relieving the city of Orleans which had been besieged by the English since October.

At the age of 16, Joan said she heard the ‘voices’ of Christian saints telling her to help Charles (the French dauphin, who was the eldest son of the king of France) gain the French throne and expel the English from France. She went on to lead French forces into a number of great victories.

In May 1430, Joan was captured and sold to the English. After being tried and convicted as a nonconformist and a witch, she was burnt at the stake. In 1920, Joan of Arc was recognised as a Christian saint by the Roman Catholic Church.

Joan of Arc

10th May, 1994

Nelson Mandela became the first black president of South Africa. Two week prior, more than 22 million people had casted ballots in South Africa’s first ever multiracial parliamentary elections.

For 27 years of his life, Mandela had been a political prisoner of the South African government. In his inaugural address, Mandela declared that “the time for the healing of wounds has come”.

12th May, 1820

British nurse and public health activist Florence Nightingale was born in Florence, Italy. She volunteered to aid British troops in Turkey where she helped to significantly reduce the death rate for wounded and sick soldiers by improving hospital sanitary conditions.

Florence Nightingale became acclaimed worldwide for her selfless devotion to nursing, her contributions to the development of modern nursing procedures, and for highlighting the dignity of nursing as a profession for women.

Florence Nightingale

14th May, 1796

A smallpox vaccine was developed by a physician in rural England, Dr Edward Jenner. Jenner coined the term ‘vaccination’ for the new method of injecting a milder form of the disease into healthy people, resulting in immunity.

Within 18 months, around 12,000 people in England had been vaccinated and the number of deaths caused by smallpox dropped by two-thirds.

14th May, 1686

German physiscist Gabriel Fahrenheit was borin in Danzig, Germany. Fahrenheit greatly improved the accuracy of thermometers by introducing the use of mercury to temperature reading.

As a result, his familiar surname is now attached to one of the major temperature measurements scales.

19th May, 1536

Henry VIII’s third wife Anne Boleyn was executed at the Tower of London after just three years on marriage on charges on adultery, incest, and conspiracy against the king.

Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn changed the course of British history as, in order to divorce his first wife Catherone of Aragon, Henry broke with the Roman Catholic Church and named himself as the Supreme Head of what would become the Church of England.

Just eleven days after Anne Boleyn was executed, King Henry VIII married Jane Seymour, a former lady-in-waitng to Anne.

Tower of London

26th May, 735

The Venerable Bede – English monk, scholar, historian, and writer – died. Bede wrote or translated around 40 books on practically every area of knowledge – from nature, to astronomy and poetry.

He is known as the ‘Father of English History’ and is recognised today as the earliest English historian. The Venerable Bede’s most famous work is The Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

26th May, 1940

The evacuation of Dunkirk began in order the save British troops trapped by advancing German armies on the North Coast of France.

By 2nd June, boats and vessels of all shapes and sizes had ferried 200,000 British and 140,000 French and Belgian soldiers across the English Channel.

27th May, 1657

Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell refused parliament’s offer of the title of King of England. It’s not known for sure why Cronwell did this, but historians have a few theories.

While most MPs wanted Cromwell to accept the crown, the majority of army officers and soldiers didn’t. Some historians think this influenced Cromwell’s decision, while others believe he refused the crown because he thought a show of pride and ambition would offend God.

28th May, 1961

Amnesty International was founded by London lawyer Peter Berenson. Berenson read about the arrest of a group of students in Portugal before launching a one-year campaign to free them, which he called an Appeal for Amnesty.

Today, Amnesty International has over one million members in 150 countries. The organisation works to free prisoners of conscience, stop the use of torute and death penality, and guarantee human rights for women.

29th May, 1660

With the crowning of Charles II, the English was monarchy restored. With the execution of Charles I in 1649, Parliament had got rid of the monarchy and formed a new republic under the leadership of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell.

Two notable historical events happened during Charles II’s reign including a terrible plague in 1665, which was brought to an end by the Great Fire of London in 1666. The king was notorious for having many mistresses and is thought to have fathered 12 illegitimate children.

31st May, 1902

The Peace of Vereeniging ended the bitter colonial Boer War between the British Army and the Boers in South Africa, which involved 450,000 British troops fighting against 80,000 Boers.

The war began with Britain’s desire to unite the British territories in South Africa with the Boer Republic’s, because the Boers (Afrikaans-speaking farmers) wanted to maintain their independence.

The Peace of Vereeniging recognised British military administration over Boer territories and authorised a general amnesty for Boer troops.

Final thoughts….

Some fairly transformative historical events happened in the month of May. From the execution of queens to the surrender of Nazi Germany, it’s fascinating to wonder how things could so easily have turned out differently.

If you’re hungry for more history, head over to the art and culture section of our website. Here you’ll find everything from must-see history films and cultural hotspots, to historical events from others months.

Which of the events mentioned above do you find most interesting? What is your favourite period of history and why? We’d love to hear from you. Join the conversation on the history and nostalgia section of the Rest Less community forum, or leave a comment below.


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