Modern History Topics:

  • Martin Luther posts his 95 Theses and starts the Protestant Reformation (1517) – Martin Luther was a German monk and professor at Wittenberg whose Ninety-Five Theses, a criticism of the church’s sale of indulgences, began the Protestant Reformation. Initially a student of law at the University of Erfurt, Luther’s entry into monastic life was a result of a vow made to God during a life-threatening thunderstorm. He was excommunicated by Pope Leo X and then summoned to the Diet of Worms to defend himself after posting his controversial Theses on a Wittenberg church door; after being condemned by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Luther went into religious exile. The Ninety-Five Theses kickstarted the Protestant Reformation, which emphasized God’s power over that of the pope, priests, and church bureaucracy. The Reformation gave rise to Lutheranism, which was made Germany’s state religion by the Peace of Augsburg, Calvinism, which took root in Switzerland under John Calvin, and the Anglican Church and Puritanism in England. The Reformation also inspired a Counter-Reformation in the Catholic Church, which convened the Council of Trent to address the reformers.
  • Babur establishes the Mughal Empire (1526) – Founded by Mongol leader Babur in 1526 after defeating Ibrahim Lodi at the First Battle of Panipat, the Mughal Empire was a Muslim dynasty that ruled the Indian subcontinent until 1857. Babur’s grandson Akbar the Great further expanded the empire, defeating Hindu pretender Hemu at the Second Battle of Panipat. He abolished the jizya tax on non-Muslims, promoted religious unity between Muslims and Hindus, and was a patron of the arts, sponsoring the navratna (Nine Gems). The Mughal Empire also featured Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal to commemorate his deceased wife Mumtaz Mahal, and Aurangzeb, who reintroduced the jizya tax and prohibited music under his strict Islamism. Bahadur Shah Zafar was its last ruler; he was exiled to Myanmar by the British East India Company in 1857.
  • King Henry VIII establishes the Church of England (1531) – King Henry VIII led England during the Protestant Reformation. Henry initially denounced Protestant reformer Martin Luther’s teachings, leading him to be called “defender of the faith” by Pope Leo X, but eventually split with the Catholic Church, established the Church of England, and closed all English monasteries. He had six wives; two annulled their marriages, two died of natural causes, and two were executed: Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard, and Catherine Parr. Thomas Cranmer served under him as the first Protestant archbishop of Canterbury. King Henry’s physical decline began after he injured his leg in a 1536 jousting accident, which made him obese, paranoid, and temperamental. He died in 1547.
  • Francisco Pizarro captures Atahualpa and conquers the Incan Empire (1532) – The Inca Empire was founded in Cusco, modern-day Peru, in around 1100, and reached its zenith under the Sapa Inca (ruler) Pachacuti in the 15th century. During this time, they also built the Machu Picchu, which was rediscovered by American explorer Hiram Bingham in 1911. Lacking a writing system, the Incas used knotted string called quipu to record information, and governed their vast territory largely through force. The precariousness of their rule contributed to their downfall to Spanish conquistadores led by Francisco Pizarro: the brothers Huascar and Atahualpa fought a civil war over the throne that greatly weakened their empire just as European explorers began their conquest.
  • Ivan the Terrible becomes the first Tsar of Russia (1547) – The first Tsar of Russia and among the last members of the Rurik dynasty, Ivan the Terrible created a unified empire from scattered medieval states in 1547. Ivan was born to Vasili III, the Grand Prince of Moscow, and Elena Glinskaya; both his parents died while he was still a child and he was crowned the Tsar of all Russia at the Cathedral of the Dormition at age 16. He also ordered the sack of Novgorod in 1570 for fear of its defection to Lithuania, torturing and executing its citizens. Ivan, in a fit of paranoia, mental instability, and old age, killed his trained successor son, leaving behind the childless, incompetent Feodor I to rule; under Feodor, the Time of Troubles began, which would not end until the Romanov dynasty took over.
  • Elizabeth I executes Mary, Queen of Scots (1567) – Elizabeth I, who styled herself the Virgin Queen, was the daughter of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn and the last Tudor ruler of England. After her Catholic sister Queen Mary I’s death in 1558, Elizabeth ascended to the throne, bringing with her a series of diplomatic, social, and religious reforms. She restored Protestantism with the Act of Supremacy, sponsored privateer Francis Drake, and under increasing religious and violent pressure with the Ridolfi Plot, executed her Catholic cousin Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots.England’s Protestantism sparked conflict with Catholic Spain, which, under King Philip II, deployed the Spanish Armada in an attempt to conquer England; the Armada was defeated with the help of a storm known as the Protestant Wind. Elizabeth died in 1603 after leading England in an era of glory now known as the Elizabethan Age.
  • Robert Catesby attempts to blow up James I’s parliament in the Gunpowder Plot (1605) – A conspiracy by English Catholics to blow up King James I’s Protestant Parliament, the Gunpowder Plot was masterminded by Robert Catesby and ended when its participants were caught and executed for treason. The plot was a response to the Penal Laws, which criminalized Catholicism, and notably involved Guy Fawkes, Thomas Winter, Thomas Percy, and John Wright, who rented a cellar in the English Parliament to store and detonate gunpowder. An anonymous letter sent to Lord Monteagle alerted authorities to the conspiracy, resulting in a search of the Parliament’s cellar that led to the discovery of Guy Fawkes, who was guarding the gunpowder. The remaining conspirators escaped to Holbeche House to make a stand, and were killed or arrested and executed.
  • The English Civil War ends with the execution of Charles I by Oliver Cromwell (1649) – The English Civil War was a conflict fought over control of the English government between King Charles I’s royalists and Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarians. King Charles I began tensions with his Eleven Years of Tyranny, during which he repeatedly dissolved Parliament, eventually stopping them altogether, and introduced outdated taxes like ship money to fund his reign. Desperately short of funds while a Scottish invasion seemed imminent, Charles convened the Short Parliament, which he dissolved after a month, but following a Scottish advance, he was forced to reconvene it as the Long Parliament (it lasted until 1660). King Charles and Parliament were unable to come to any resolution, which led to the Battle of Edgefield. Parliament then allied with the Scottish to form the Solemn League and Covenant and won the Battle of Marston Moor; later, Charles surrendered at Southwell to the Scottish. King Charles was tried for treason by the Rump Parliament and beheaded in 1649, and Oliver Cromwell finished off the remainder of the Loyalist forces at Worcester, after which King Charles’ son Charles II went into exile. After the Parliamentary victory, the Commonwealth of England was formed and power was passed to Cromwell as the Lord Protector.
  • The Great Fire of London (1666) – First sparked in London’s Pudding Lane when royal baker Thomas Farrinor accidentally left his oven unextinguished, the Great Fire of London destroyed 13,000 houses and dozens of civic buildings. It was detailed in Samuel PepysDiary and led to the redesign and rebuilding of St. Paul’s Cathedral by Sir Christopher Wren, and is commemorated by a column known as the Monument.
  • William and Mary ascend to the English throne after the Glorious Revolution (1688) – The Glorious Revolution was the (supposedly) bloodless deposition of Catholic King James II and his replacement by the Protestant Dutch prince William of Orange and his wife, Mary. Discontent with King James came to a head in after his queen Mary Modena gave birth to a successor; meanwhile, the Immortal Seven petitioned William to marshal troops against James’ Catholic agenda and his Declaration of Indulgence. After William landed at Brixham with his army, James fled to France and allowed William to convene the Convention Parliament, which produced a Bill of Rights against absolute kingship and set the foundation for a more democratic rule of England.
  • Peter the Great of Russia embarks on his Grand Embassy (1697) – One of Russia’s greatest rulers and reformers, Peter the Great ruled as its tsar and emperor from 1682 to 1725. Peter was the son of Tsar Alexis and his second wife Natalya Kirillovna, but lost his independent claim to the throne when a revolt by Moscow streltsy (royal bodyguard musketeers) killed his supporters. As a result, Peter ascended to the throne alongside his feeble-minded half-brother Ivan V, and even then was denied his own rule when his sister Sophia became regent. A second streltsy uprising in 1689 led to Sophia’s overthrow as regent, which allowed Peter to take political control. He then maneuvered to win Russia access to the Black Sea and building a large navy. Then, to westernize his country and further Russian diplomatic interests, Peter embarked on his 1697 Grand Embassy, where he travelled undercover around European shipyards under the name Pyotr Mikhaylov. Upon his return to Russia, he disbanded the streltsy corps in 1698 and defeated Charles XII of Sweden in the Great Northern War in 1721. In his late years, Peter also established the city of St. Petersburg, suppressed the Astrakhan revolt, and tortured and executed his son Alexis for treason. Peter died in 1725.
  • Frederick II becomes King of Prussia (1740) – The third Hohenzollern King of Prussia, Frederick the Great hugely influenced modern European politics and warfare. After his teenage plot to escape his father Frederick William I’s authority was discovered, Frederick witnessed the execution of his companion Hans Hermann von Katte. He also entered a bitter political marriage with Austrian noble Elisabeth Christine in 1733. As a ruler, Frederick the Great eagerly thrust his nation into military conflict. He fought and won the War of the Austrian Succession over the ascension of Hapsburg matriarch Maria Theresa to the Austrian throne, entered the Seven Years’ War, and partitioned Poland.
  • The Succession of Maria Theresa leads to the War of the Austrian Succession (1740) – The War of the Austrian Succession was a series of conflicts that stemmed from the death of Hapsburg Holy Roman emperor Charles VI. In it, the French-Spanish-supported Bavarian Charles Albert (later Charles VII) and the Prussians under Frederick II challenged Charles VI’s Pragmatic Sanction, which entitled his Britain-supported daughter Maria Theresa to the Hapsburg lands and imperial throne. The War of Jenkins’ Ear, a conflict between Britain and Spain, also merged into the War of the Austrian Succession, which was finally ended by the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748; mostly indecisive, the War ended with Maria Theresa maintaining most of her territory and Prussia keeping Silesia.
  • Catherine the Great of Russia begins her reign (1762) – The longest reigning female Russian leader ever, Catherine II was born to Prussian royalty in Germany in 1729 as Sophia Frederike Auguste. After marrying Peter III of Russia, unfaithfulness ensued; Catherine had affairs with Polish King Stanislaw Poniatowski and military officer Grigori Orlov, who likely fathered two of her three children. Catherine and Orlov forced Peter to abdicate when he finally ascended the throne while Catherine was crowned Empress; Peter was later assassinated by her supporters. As Empress, Catherine won Russia access to the Black Sea in 1774 in the Russo-Turkish War, crushed a rebellion by the Cossack Yemelyan Pugachov in 1775, strengthened the system of serfdom, began an affair with Grigori Potemkin, and partitioned Poland in 1794. She died in 1796 and was succeeded by her son Paul I.
  • The storming of the Bastille marks the flashpoint of the French Revolution (1789) – The Bastille was a medieval fortress-turned-prison in Paris that symbolized the totalitarianism of the French monarchy in the ideology of the French Revolution. Built as a defensive fortification against the British in 1370 by King Charles V, the Bastille began its history as a prison under Cardinal de Richelieu, who detained political prisoners and insubordinate aristocrats in it. It was stormed in 1789 as the French Revolution reached a boiling point. A mob of Parisians who had armed themselves at Les Invalides demanded the Bastille’s governor Bernard-Rene Jordan de Launay surrender the fort and its weapons; de Launay complied and was then murdered by the mob.
  • Maximilien Robespierre unleashes the Reign of Terror (1793) – A period of systematic government oppression against suspected political dissenters during the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror was led by the Jacobin Maximilien de Robespierre. Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety quashed opposition from their rivals the leftist Hébertist and rightist Indulgents, took total government control, and killed 30,000 in a span of 11 months. The Reign of Terror finally ended when the Thermidorian Reaction ousted Robespierre from power on July 27, 1794.
  • Napoleon Bonaparte defeats the Russians and Austrians at the Battle of Austerlitz (1805) – Born on the Mediterranean island of Corsica in 1769, Napoleon was a French general, statesman, and emperor who is considered one of history’s greatest military leaders. When the French Revolution began, Napoleon, who had recently graduated from a military academy, joined the pro-democracy Jacobin Club and began serving as an artilleryman under the National Convention government. He played a decisive part in the French victory at the town of Toulon and, winning the favor of revolutionary leader Augustin de Robespierre (Maximilien de Robespierre’s brother), was rewarded with a promotion to the rank of brigadier general. Now a high-ranking officer under the Directory, the new French government, Napoleon negotiated the Treaty of Campo Formio with Austria and led an invasion of Egypt against England. He won the Battle of the Pyramids but suffered a crippling naval defeat to British admiral Horatio Nelson at the Battle of the Nile in 1798. Napoleon then advanced to Acre, Syria, where he was again defeated by the British; he subsequently withdrew to back to France, where he orchestrated the coup of 18 Brumaire against the Directory and founded the Consulate with himself as one of the leaders. As consul, Napoleon defeated the Austrians at the Battle of Marengo in 1800 and implemented the Napoleonic Code in the legal system; in 1804, he was crowned emperor of France and engaged Europe in the Napoleonic Wars until 1815. During this time, he arranged the Louisiana Purchase and lost to the British navy at the Battle of Trafalgar. Napoleon also won his greatest victory in 1805 at the Battle of Austerlitz against Tsar Alexander I and Emperor Francis II’s Russo-Austrian Third Coalition. Austerlitz followed Napoleon’s triumph at Ulm and ended with the Treaty of Pressburg, which sent Austria out of the conflict, dissolved the Holy Roman Empire, and established the Confederation of the Rhine. Napoleon then established the Continental System, a series of blockades against the British, and invaded Russia. After the indecisive Battle of Borodino, Napoleon retreated from Russia, and fought and lost the Peninsular War and the Battle of Leipzig. These military failures led to his forced abdication of the French throne and exile to Elba under the Treaty of Fontainebleau in 1814; he returned to France a year after, retook the throne in the Hundred Days campaign, and was defeated by the British a final time at the Battle of Waterloo. After this, Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled to Saint Helena, where he died in 1521 at the age of 51.
  • Klemens von Metternich orchestrates the Congress of Vienna (1815) – The Congress of Vienna was a conference that organized the overhaul of European politics after the Napoleonic Wars. Hosted by Austrian prince Klemens von Metternich, the Congress involved the four primary powers that defeated Napoleon: Austria, Prussia, Russia, and Great Britain, as well as France, Spain, and other smaller states. They were represented by such diplomats as the Prussian Karl von Hardenberg, the English Viscount Castlereagh and duke of Wellington, and the French Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand. Since the Napoleonic Wars had caused political and territorial upheaval with nearly every country, the Congress aimed to reorganize German states, Central Europe, and Scandinavia, as well as reform the old 1713 Peace of Utrecht system of power balance. After the Congress ended, the Holy Alliance was signed between Prussia, Russia, and Austria, the borders of German states were adjusted, Krakow was made a free town, and the Duchy of Warsaw came under the Russian tsar’s rule, among other territorial compromises.
  • Napoleon is finally defeated at the Battle of Waterloo by Arthur Wellesley (1815) – The Battle of Waterloo occurred after Napoleon escaped his exile to Elba, retook the throne in mainland France, and invaded Belgium, all during his Hundred Days. Fought by the English Duke of Wellington and the Prussian Gebhard von Blucher’s Seventh Coalition, the Battle of Wellington began after Napoleon won at the Battle of Ligny and drew at Quatre Bras. The Coalition set up on Hougoumont chateau and at Mont Saint Jean, where they were eventually repelled; afterwards, following Napoleon’s failed rally of his Imperial Guards, his army retreated. The Napoleonic Wars were finally over, and Napoleon himself abdicated and was exiled to the island of St. Helena where he died.
  • Shaka’s Zulu Kingdom becomes the largest in Southern Africa (1816) – A Southern African people, the Zulu formed the region’s most dominant empire under Shaka in 1816. Shaka, though the son of the Zulu chieftain Senzangakona, began his military career as a warrior of the Mthethwa clan under Dingiswayo. When he returned to the Zulu to take over as chief, Shaka reorganized the military, introduced the ‘buffalo horn’ tactic, raided rival clans’ kraals, and eventually caused the Mfecane, a period of southern African war and political and social unrest. Upon his mother Nandi’s 1827 death, Shaka in his grief ordered that no crops could be planted and no milk could be used, even executing Zulu and their animals. This mayhem led to his murder by his half-brothers Dingane and Mhlangana in 1828.
  • Simon Bolivar becomes president of Gran Colombia (1821) – Simon Bolivar, a Venezuelan statesman and general, led Latin America’s independence movements against Spanish rule. Bolivar was born to a wealthy Creole family in 1783 and his early life was steeped in liberalist thought. His tutor Simon Rodriguez was a protege of Jean-Jacques Rosseau, and Bolivar immersed himself in rationalist writings when he went to Europe to complete his studies. His political career began as a delegate to England during the junta takeover of Venezuela in 1810, where he was sent to enlist its support; he also recruited the Venezuelan general Francisco de Miranda to join the movement. Defeated in an 1812 resurgence of Spanish royalists, Bolivar went into exile, wrote the Cartagena Manifesto, led the Admirable Campaign, and reconquered Venezuela. He founded the Second Republic but was soon forced out by Tomas Boves’ royalists. Bolivar crossed the Andes in 1819 and into the royalist stronghold of Bogota, where he won the Battle of Boyacá; he then won the Battle of Carabobo and the Battle of Pichincha and declared the founding of Gran Colombia, which included Venezuela, New Grenada, and Ecuador. However, Gran Colombia was marred by discontent and internal conflict, and began a slow dissolution. After liberating Peru and creating the nation of Bolivia, Bolivar died of tuberculosis in 1830 with his Gran Colombia falling apart around him.
  • The Irish Potato Famine leads to the Irish diaspora (1845) – Ireland starved after successive potato crop failures caused by the late blight, or Phytophthora infestans. Conservative Prime Minister Robert Peel’s relief efforts were grossly inadequate, and despite his repeal of the Corn Laws, a huge number of Irish left on ‘coffin ships’ to America. The Irish Potato Famine killed over a million, evicted half a million, and drove immigration to America.
  • Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels publish the Communist Manifesto (1848) – The Communist Manifesto was commissioned by the London Communist League, conceived by German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and written and edited by Marx. Its critique of capitalism played a hugely influential role in modern political theory, and features discussion of the rise of the bourgeoisie and proletarians in place of the system of feudalism.
  • The Battle of Balaclava and the Charge of the Light Brigade occur during the Crimean War (1854) – Great Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire fought the Crimean War to keep Tsar Nicholas I’s Russian expansion in check. Sparked over Russian demands to exercise Orthodox protection onto Christian holy land like Jerusalem, the Crimean War was shaped by the Siege of Sevastopol, the Battle of Balaclava, and the Charge of the Light Brigade, and finally ended withRussian surrender in the 1856 Treaty of Paris. Important figures during it include English commanders the Earl of Cardigan and Colin Campbell, the nurse Florence Nightingale, known as the “Lady with the Lamp”, who made breakthroughs in battlefield medicine, and the poet Alfred Tennyson, who wrote the enduring poem ‘Charge of the Light Brigade”.
  • Otto von Bismarck defeats Napoleon III during the Franco-Prussian War (1870) – The “Iron Chancellor”, Otto von Bismarck pioneered Realpolitik, unified 39 German states under Prussian rule, directed numerous wars, and, despite being a conservative, initiated considerable social reforms. Bismarck was born to a Junker (landowning noble) family in 1815, he was educated in Berlin and following an unsuccessful bid as a lawyer, became a diplomat. Appointed by William I as chief minister when he ascended to the Prussian throne in 1861, Bismarck immediately began prosecuting the Second Schleswig War, which led to the 1866 Austro-Prussian War against Franz Josef I. Bismarck then manipulated France into initiating the Franco-Prussian War, which ended with defeat for France and the German acquisition of France’s Alsace and Lorraine. After unifying Germany, he pursued an agenda of internal reform. He began the Kulturkampf against Catholics, created the world’s first welfare state, and hosted the 1885 Berlin Conference that resulted in the “Scramble for Africa”.
  • The First Boer War is fought (1880) – The First Boer War was a South African clash over Boer independence from the British Empire. Originally the Dutch-German settlers of a colony sponsored by the Dutch East India Company, the Boer had moved inland from the Cape with the Great Trek and established two independent republics: the Transvaal and the Orange Free State by 1854. Tensions increased when British settlement reached the Vaal River; English authorities annexed the financially struggling Transvaal, and war broke out with Paul Kruger, Piet Joubert, and M.W. Pretorius spearheading the Boers. During the conflict, the Battles of Bronkhorstspruit, Laingsnek, Ingogo, were fought, and the war ended with British recognition of an independent South African Republic.
  • The RMS Titanic sinks (1912) – Then one of the largest and most luxurious ocean liners in the world, the RMS Titanic was widely believed to be unsinkable. It was commissioned by J. Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line, designed by Thomas Andrews, built in the Irish shipyard of Harland and Wolff, and captained by Edward J. Smith. Its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York City included stops at Cherbourg, France, and Queenstown, Ireland, to pick up millionaires John Jacob Astor and Molly Brown. Throughout the day prior to the collision, radio operators Jack Philips and Harold Bride had received radio warnings for ice fields; an iceberg was finally spotted by lookouts Reginald Lee and Frederick Fleet near midnight. In spite of First Officer William Murdoch’s maneuvers, the ship collided with that iceberg and sank with more than 1,500 deaths due to the lack of lifeboats. The survivors were picked up by the Carpathia, which arrived in New York City on April 18.
  • The Great Depression begins (1929) – The Great Depression was a worldwide economic crisis triggered by the 1929 Black Tuesday stock market crash in the United States. In the US, it began under the presidency of American Herbert Hoover, whose attempts at combatting it with such legislation as the Smoot-Hawley Tariff were ineffective. Franklin D. Roosevelt succeeded Hoover as president and began the New Deal in 1933 to try and salvage the economy, while a vast drought in the Great Plains created the Dust Bowl and worsened the devastation of the market crash. Globally, the hardships of the Depression fostered the rise of fascist and imperialist powers like the Nazi Party and Japan, which eventually led to World War II.
  • Francisco Franco rises to power in the Spanish Civil War (1936) – Known as “El Caudillo”, Francisco Franco won the Spanish Civil War and ruled as the fascist dictator of Spain from 1939 until his death. Franco had an early start in the army; he became the youngest general in Europe at age 33. He was hated by the political left and banished to the Canary Islands after he crushed a rebellion of Asturian miners in 1934. There, he initiated a rightist coup, and after acquiring the support of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, his Nationalists took over the country. As dictator, Francisco Franco kept Spain out of World War II, and because of his fervent anticommunism, became a Western European ally in the Cold War. He also repressed Catalonian and Basque cultures and executed political dissenters. He appointed Prince Juan Carlos his successor who made Spain a modern constitutional monarchy after Franco’s death.