The History Hot 100

History hot 100 2015

This year’s History Hot 100 was the product of six weeks of voting by readers and historians who were asked to nominate the historical figures they are most interested in at the moment. The only caveat was that the individuals nominated had to have died before 1 January 1985. Everyone who took part in the poll was given an opportunity to provide reasons for their nomination if they wished. Some of their comments are included in the entries over the next few pages…

Richard III 1452-85

Dubbed the ‘king in the car park’ after his remains were discovered in Leicester in 2012, Richard III has seldom been out of the news ever since.

Killed at the battle of Bosworth in 1485, which saw Henry Tudor take the throne as Henry VII, Richard’s body was hastily buried at the Franciscan friary, Grey Friars, in Leicester. But an archaeological dig, carried out by the Looking for Richard Project and the University of Leicester, uncovered a skeleton that DNA tests later confirmed as the vanquished king.

Thousands queued for hours to view Richard’s coffin as he lay in state, while his recent burial in Leicester Cathedral reached a television audience of millions. Outside, 20,000 more watched the funeral cortège as it pro¬gressed through the city.

Richard III remains one of Britain’s most controversial monarchs. Vilified by Shake¬speare in his c1592 history play, and long suspected of being behind the disappearance of his nephews, the princes in the Tower, controversy has raged over his reputation for centuries.

“He is a king who remains controversial in both life and death,” says historian John Morrill. “Was he a good king traduced by Shakespeare and by Tudor propagandists or a bad king who met his Waterloo at Bosworth Field?”

Many nominators agree. “To find out who Richard III really was is a fascinating mystery that will continue to interest people for years to come,” concludes Shelley Woodward.

Winston Churchill 1874-1965

Voted the Greatest Briton in a 2002 BBC poll, storming home with just over 28 per cent of the votes, Churchill is remembered as the man who led Britain to victory during the Second World War. He was prime minister from 1940–45 and again from 1951–55, standing down as an MP in 1964 after a political career spanning more than six decades.

His speeches, delivered during some of Britain’s darkest days, are rated among the most rousing in history, but many of his strategic decisions – particularly the blanket bombing of German cities – continue to divide opinion.

Churchill was also a talented artist and exhibited some 50 works at the British Academy. A keen writer, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953 for, in the judges’ words, “his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values”.

Historian Andrew Roberts says: “The 50th anniversaries of Churchill’s death and funeral this year have focused attention on this extraordinary, multi-faceted statesman.”

Elizabeth I 1533-1603

Elizabeth I is one of England’s best-loved monarchs. Her refusal to dilute her power through marriage earned her the soubriquet the Virgin Queen, while her navy’s famous victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588 won her the adulation of her nation. Elizabeth’s reign also heralded an age of exploration and discovery in the New World.

“The 2016 US elections may make the most powerful figure in the world a woman,” says historian Sarah Gristwood. “As a woman who held power so successfully – albeit 500 years earlier – Elizabeth has never been more relevant than she is today.”

Thomas Cromwell 1485-1540

The star of Wolf Hall – the 2015 BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s prize-winning novels, which focuses on his relationship with Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn – Thomas Cromwell rose from blacksmith’s son to Henry VIII’s right-hand man. After six years as chief minister, he was executed for treason, without trial. “He was a fascinating man who held sway at court for a decade and changed England’s religious and political life forever,” says Tracy Borman, author of a 2014 biography on the controversial politician.

Anne Boleyn c1501-36

Anne was Henry VIII’s second wife, and mother to one of England’s greatest queens – Elizabeth I. The king’s determination to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon to marry a woman with whom he was infatuated, sparked the English Reformation and a break with the church of Rome. But after failing to give Henry the son he craved, Anne was sentenced to death, having been charged with adultery, incest and conspiring the king’s death. Debate still rages as to whether she was the victim of a court conspiracy or actually guilty.

“She seems to have been the victim of a plot to remove her from political influence”, claims nominator Moira Walshe. “But the recent BBC dramatisation, Wolf Hall, shows that Anne’s powers to fascinate have not diminished”.

Henry VIII 1491-1547

One of the most famous kings in British history, Henry became heir to the throne after the death of his brother, Arthur, in 1502. Known for his six wives, two of whom were beheaded, Henry is also remembered as the father of the English Reformation, which saw the country break with the Catholic church in Rome and establish its own Church of England.

Henry’s 37-year rule also saw permanent changes to the nature and role of parliament, wars with Scotland and France, and the creation of the Royal Navy.

Henry was “one of the most powerful and headstrong men in history”, asserts Matilda Lora.

King John 1167-1216

With the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta being celebrated this year, King John, who sealed the historic document, has once more been thrust into the limelight. His reign was blighted by civil war, a French invasion and numerous acts of cruelty and betrayal – so it’s no wonder that John remains a controversial monarch.

“Many argue that Magna Carta was a long time in gestation, and that many of the grievances expressed in 1215 had been brewing for decades,” says Marc Morris, author of a recent biography on the much-maligned king. “My view is that more blame should be placed on King John himself.”

Duke of Wellington 1769-1852

Irish-born Arthur Wesley (Duke of Wellington from 1814) joined the army in 1787, and subsequently demonstrated his military talents. He is best known for his victory against Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo in June 1815, a triumph that is in the spotlight in this, the 200th anniversary year of the great clash.

“Victory at Waterloo ushered in decades of peace for Europe, brought a long overdue end to the Napoleonic Wars and snuffed out Napoleon’s extraordinary, expansionist career for good,” says historian Justin Marozzi, who nominated the ‘Iron Duke’.

Eleanor of Aquitaine c1122-1204

Duchess of Aquitaine, queen consort of Louis VII of France and later wife of Henry II and queen of England, Eleanor was one of the most powerful women of the Middle Ages. Two of her sons, Richard and John, would go on to become kings of England, while Eleanor (below) herself played a key role in the successful running of Henry’s empire, managing territories in England and France. In 1189 she acted as regent for Richard I when he departed for the Middle East to join the Third Crusade, despite being in her mid-sixties.

“She was a force to be reckoned with,” observes Hannah Elford.

William Marshal 1147-1219

Born during the civil war fought between King Stephen and Empress Matilda, Marshal – who became Earl of Pembroke in 1199 – went on to serve five kings of England: Henry II, Henry the Young King, Richard I, King John and Henry III. His services to the crown included becoming guardian to Prince Henry (later Henry the Young King) and serving as King John’s closest advisor. After John’s death in 1216, Marshal became regent for nine-year-old Henry III.

Marshal is seen by many as the architect of Magna Carta, which sees its 800th anniversary celebrated this year, and he was the focus of a 2015 biography and 2014 BBC TV show.

“His name became a byword for loyalty,” says Sandra Rabiasz.

William Shakespeare 1564-1616

William Shakespeare, Stratford-upon-Avon’s most famous son, remains one of the world’s most well known yet enigmatic authors. His works have been translated into some 80 languages, and the Oxford English Dictionary credits him with introducing almost 3,000 words to the English vocabulary. As well as writing 37 plays and 154 sonnets, Shakespeare was also an established actor who performed before James VI and I.

“He was the greatest writer Britain has produced. Even now, we are talking about his plays,” says James Connelly.

Benjamin Disraeli 1804–81

Twice prime minister, Disraeli was a key player in the creation of the modern Conservative party. The first Jewish-born prime minister (although he was baptised a Christian during childhood), Disraeli was a staunch opponent of Liberal William Gladstone, and their mutual loathing was well known.

A firm favourite of Queen Victoria, Disraeli did much to improve public health in Britain, and passed laws to prevent labour xploitation. “He was a man who was decidedly different from Victorian accepted standards but who dominated his day nevertheless,” says Alex Wakefield.

Abraham Lincoln 1809-65

Lincoln, who became the 16th US president in 1861, led the Union to victory in the American Civil War of 1861–65 and introduced the 13th Amendment of 1865, which abolished slavery in the US. But although he managed to prevent the fragmentation of the country, Lincoln saw only six weeks of peace during his tenure. This year sees the 150th anniversary of his assassination and the end of the Civil War. “He used his words and political guile to end the scourge of slavery,” says Annette Jalsevac.

Napoleon Bonaparte 1769-1821

Described by many as one of the greatest military leaders in history, Napoleon rose to prominence in the wake of the French Revolution, becoming commander of the French army in Italy in 1796. His talents as a commander and strategist saw Napoleon win a number of battles during the French Revolutionary Wars of 1792–1802, conflicts fought between the French Republic and several European powers. In 1799, Napoleon was made First Consul of France, and crowned himself emperor in 1804.

“He was a towering historical figure and military genius,” says historian Professor Peter Hart. This year marks 200 years since Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo.

Adolf Hitler 1889-1945

Hitler joined the German Workers’ Party, later known as the Nazi Party, after Germany’s surrender at the end of the First World War. Identifying with the party’s nationalist, anti-Semitic beliefs, in 1921 he became its leader.

In 1933 he was appointed chancellor of Germany, and began to mandate1 the exclusion of Jews and other ‘undesirables’ from public life, a process that would lead to the deaths of millions in concentration camps. In 1939 Hitler’s Germany invaded Poland, triggering the Second World War – a conflict that resulted in the deaths of more than 60 million people. This year marks 70 years since his death.

Jesus c4 BC-c30 AD

Much of the information we have about the life of Jesus comes from the four Gospels, written between c60 and 90 AD – decades after his death. They tell us that Jesus was the son of God, born to the wife of a carpenter in Nazareth, crucified in Jerusalem.

Christianity, based on the teachings of Jesus, is the world’s biggest religion with more than 2 billion followers. It originated in the Middle East, and spread across Europe, Syria, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor and Egypt, becoming the Roman empire’s official religion in AD 380.

William Gladstone 1809-98

Liberal politician William Gladstone served as British prime minister four times – more than any other – and campaigned on a variety of issues including reforms to the justice system and the civil service.

Gladstone was regarded as a champion of the working classes, spent large amounts of his own money on what he saw as the rescue and rehabilitation of prostitutes, and spoke out against slavery. But his views provoked strong reactions, and he was not always popular. Queen Victoria disliked him immensely, describing him as a “half-mad firebrand”.

One of Gladstone’s major acts was the Representation of the People Act of 1884, which increased the number of men who were eligible to vote in an election. But his proposed bills to allow a system of home rule in Ireland never became law.

Horatio Nelson 1758-1805

Nelson’s naval career began when he was 12. By the age of 21 he had become a captain, seeing service in the West Indies, the Baltic and Canada. But it was during the Napoleonic Wars that Nelson’s extraordinary talents as a commander and tactician came to the fore, notably at the battle of the Nile in 1798, during which he completely destroyed Napoleon’s French fleet.

Between 1794 and 1805 Nelson contributed to a number of naval victories against the French – losing both the sight in one eye and an arm in the process – but it was the battle of Trafalgar, on 21 October 1805, that propelled him into the history books. Victory in that battle saved Britain from the threat of invasion, but cost Nelson his life.

“He created the model for the navy which enabled it to extend the British empire worldwide and preserve peace for nearly a century,” says Colin Bullen.

Henry V c1387-1422

Created Prince of Wales at his father’s coronation in 1399, young Henry’s military prowess was noted at the battle of Shrewsbury in which he fought, aged just 16. Henry owes much of his reputation as one of England’s greatest medieval warrior kings to William Shakespeare. Henry V (c1599) depicts the transformation of the young prince from wayward youth to heroic ruler, leading England and Wales to victory against the French at the battle of Agincourt – a significant encounter in an era of conflict between the two countries known as the Hundred Years’ War. Henry became heir to the French throne in 1420 but died, probably of dysentery, just two years later, leaving his nine-month-old son to rule as Henry VI.

This year sees the 600th anniversary of both the battle itself and Henry’s capture of the French port of Harfleur – milestones that will be commemorated through a range of exhibitions and events in England, Wales and France. For details see

Oliver Cromwell 1599-1658

Cromwell appeared on the political scene in 1628 when he became MP for Huntingdon, and opposed Charles I’s interpretation of Protestantism, which clashed with his own strict Puritan views. During the Civil War, Cromwell became one of the commanders of parliament’s New Model Army, and in 1649 was one of 59 signatories on Charles I’s death warrant. In December 1653 he became lord protector of England, Scotland and Ireland; his brutal treatment of Irish Catholics remains controversial.

Charles Darwin 1809-82

Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection – that the varying survival of individual organisms with different characteristics in specific environments results in the promotion of those traits – brought him into conflict with the Anglican church. His groundbreaking work The Origin of Species was published in 1859, provoking outrage among creationists. But his 1871 Descent of Man caused even more controversy with its claims that humans and apes were descended from a common ancestor. “He revolutionised our view of the whole world,” claims Michel Kruijk.

Henry VII 1457-1509

Born to the teenage Lancastrian Margaret Beaufort, Henry’s claim to the throne lay in a distant kinship to Edward III. In 1471, when Edward IV’s Yorkist forces defeated the Lancastrians at the battle of Tewkesbury, Henry was forced to flee to France but after Edward’s death he returned to claim the throne. Henry’s victory over the usurper king Richard III at the battle of Bosworth in 1485 saw a new dynasty ascend to the throne of England, the unification of the houses of Lancaster and York, and an end to the Wars of the Roses.

Mary I 1516-58

The only child of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, Mary became England’s first queen regnant in 1553 after the death of her half-brother, Edward VI. Declared illegitimate after her her parent’s marriage was annulled, Mary was later named Edward’s heir in 1547. Her aim to restore Catholicism in England led to the execution of some 300 Protestants, earning her the nickname ‘Bloody Mary’. “There is still so much to tell about England’s first crowned queen,” says historian Anna Whitelock.

Alan Turing 1912-54

Turing – the subject of the 2014 film The Imitation Game – is hailed as the creator of modern computing, and for his crucial contribution to British codebreaking operations during the Second World War. In 1952 Turing was convicted of gross indecency – the charge resulting from a homosexual affair. He chose chemical castration over imprisonment but committed suicide in 1954. “Turing has become the figurehead of a campaign to pardon 49,000 gay men convicted of gross indecency in the UK,” says nominator Lauren.

Alexander the Great 356-323 BC

When the son of Philip II of Macedon inherited the throne in 336 BC, he set about reasserting Macedonian authority in Greece, aiming to conquer the Persian empire. By the time of his death in Babylon at the age of 32, Alexander had created an empire that spanned three continents and covered around 2 million square miles. “Figures like Alexander show us the impact an extraordinary individual can make on the course of history,” says Michael Pallett.

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