Maharaja Ranjit Singh, leader of the Sikh empire in the early 19th century, has topped a poll of the greatest leaders in world history.
At the beginning of this year, BBC World Histories Magazine asked historians including Rana Mitter, Margaret MacMillan and Gus Casely-Hayford to nominate their ‘greatest leader’ – someone who exercised power and had a positive impact on humanity – and to explore their achievements and legacy. The list was voted on by more than 5,000 readers, and Singh has been named history’s greatest leader. You can read more about Singh’s life, successes and failures here.
Taking more than 38 per cent of the vote, Maharaja Ranjit Singh was described by nominating historian Matthew Lockwood as a modernising and uniting force, whose reign “marked a golden age for Punjab and north-west India”.
A 19th-century depiction of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images via Getty Images)
In second place, with 25 per cent of the vote, is African independence fighter Amílcar Cabral (nominated by Hakim Adi), who united more than one million Guineans to free themselves from Portuguese occupation and in turn propelled many other colonised African countries to rise and fight for independence. British prime minister Winston Churchill (nominated by Andrew Roberts) is in third position with 7 per cent of the vote for his sharp political manoeuvring that kept Britain in the war.
Further down the list, American president Abraham Lincoln (nominated by Adam I P Smith) is in fourth place and British monarch Elizabeth I (nominated by Tracy Borman) is the highest ranked female leader in fifth position, with 4 per cent of the vote.
Who were the other nominees? Read more about the other great leaders below:
Pharaoh of Egypt c1390–1352 BC
Great because… he was Egypt’s greatest pharaoh when Egypt ruled the ancient world
Chosen by Joann Fletcher
A red quartzite sculpture of Amenhotep III wearing the blue crown. (Image by Bridgeman)
During his long reign, Amenhotep III presided over a golden age during the 18th dynasty when Egypt was the most powerful nation on Earth. And, although his grandson Tutankhamun is far more widely known today, it is Amenhotep III who was taken as the ultimate role model by subsequent monarchs.
Drawing inspiration from the earlier Pyramid Age, when solar worship had dominated religious life, Amenhotep declared himself the living sun god, to outmanoeuvre and transcend the political ambitions of the Egyptian clergy. The ‘Sun King’ further augmented his power through his control of the gold mines of Nubia (modern Sudan), then part of Egypt’s vast empire, which stretched as far north as Syria and with its influence felt as far away as Mycenae in Greece.
In a world then briefly at peace, tribute nonetheless poured into Egypt from neighbouring powers, all keen to gain the favour of a pharaoh who was then the world’s richest man. Surviving diplomatic correspondence (the ‘Amarna Letters’) also reveals Amenhotep as a consummate politician, able to maintain peace and the power balance through his canny use of Egyptian gold and his own dry wit to counter the actions of those failing to achieve his own high standards.
The finest Egyptian craftsmanship was created under his personal patronage, as was the ambitious construction programme that made him the most prolific builder in Egyptian history. Fully deserving his title Menwy (‘Monument Man’), Amenhotep clad the walls of Karnak temple in gem-studded gold, and there erected Egypt’s tallest statue, his own image standing well over 20 metres tall. Directly across the Nile, his funerary temple at Kom el-Hetan was the largest royal temple ever built in Egypt, fronted by the twin statues known as the Colossi of Memnon, and once accompanied by hundreds more in the largest sculptural programme in history.
As more statues re-emerge in ongoing excavations at the site, so does the legacy of a king who was not only Egypt’s greatest pharaoh but, in my opinion, the greatest leader in world history.
Joann Fletcher is honorary visiting professor at the University of York. Her latest book is The Story of Egypt (Hodder & Stoughton, 2015)
Isabella of Castile
Queen of Castile 1474–1504
Great because… her influence reshaped the western world
Chosen by Sarah Gristwood
Isabella of Castile, depicted in a Spanish painting of around 1500. Her influence changed the pattern of the globe to this day. (Image by Alamy)
When Isabella took the throne of Castile in 1474, she did so largely by her own efforts, in the teeth of a rival faction. Even her marriage to Ferdinand of Aragon, who provided the military expertise for her endeavour, had been of her own making. Together they completed the Reconquest from the Moors of the Iberian peninsula, laid the foundations of the Spanish and, indeed, Habsburg empires, and reshaped the western world.
Isabella’s career illustrates the dark side of power as well as the light. She is remembered for the expulsion of the Jews from the reorganised Spain, and for the introduction of the Inquisition. Even her sponsorship of Christopher Columbus’s 1492 expedition to the New World had (contrary to Isabella’s own wishes) dreadful consequences for the indigenous peoples of that region.
But Isabella’s influence changed the pattern of the globe – something few women of past centuries could say. And the working partnership she achieved, with a husband to whom she’d never cede pre-eminence, provides a notable example even for today.
Sarah Gristwood is a historian and writer whose books include Game of Queens: The Women who Made Sixteenth-Century Europe (Oneworld, 2016)
Japanese feudal lord, 16th century
Great because… he succeeded in unifying Japan
Chosen by Christopher Harding
Oda Nobunaga rides a piebald horse in a print of c1847–52 by Utagawa Kuniyoshi. Oda used firearms and surprise tactics to defeat his enemies, using the power he gained to unify Japan. (Image by Bridgeman)
Oda Nobunaga was born in 1534 into a country at war with itself. Once ruled by emperors and later by shoguns, Japan was by then split into fiefdoms whose samurai fought endless battles with one another. Inheriting a fief in central Japan, Oda spent 30 years trying to put the situation right. He was not an altruist, a pacifist or a diplomat. There was only one way of unifying Japan, he thought, and he made of it a motto: “Rule the realm by force.”
In battle after battle, Oda proved to be a first-class tactician. He defeated far larger forces than his own using surprise attacks. On land, he had his engineers widen roads and build pontoon bridges ahead of him to accommodate the rapid movement of enormous numbers of troops. On sea, he was the first in Japan – perhaps in the world – to send iron-clad ships against his enemies.
Oda changed forever the sound of battle in Japan, becoming the first leader to make systematic use of the firearms brought to the country by Portuguese traders in the 1540s. Whereas proud samurai fought from horseback, using swords and bows that took long years to master, Oda trained peasant foot soldiers to fire muskets in rotating ranks. Load, point, shoot, repeat: simple, yet so effective in bringing down a cavalry charge that samurai began seeking out pock-marked armour – when it came to stopping a bullet, they preferred battlefield proof to a forger’s promise.
In this way, Oda dispensed with secular and religious enemies, the latter taking the form of Buddhist sects boasting their own armies, rural guerrillas and towering fortresses. Oda used fire, starvation and mass execution against monks and laypeople alike – to impressive strategic and psychological effect, but also to satisfy a more personal lust. At one New Year banquet he threw, the centrepieces were the skullcaps of two enemy warlords lacquered in silver and gold for use as sake cups; these grisly vessels were passed around while a celebratory song was sung.
In 1568, Oda fought his way into Japan’s capital city, Kyoto. There he bent a powerless shogun to his will and used a penniless imperial family to provide fig-leaf legitimacy for a dictatorship that covered the heartlands of Japan’s main island of Honshū. As his grip tightened, Oda turned warlord after warlord effectively into his vassal, and began the process of restoring trade, agriculture and taxation in support of his newly united nation.
On his way west in 1582, preparing to claim yet more of Japan for himself, Oda was surrounded in a temple by allies-turned-traitors who attacked him. He died as many of his victims had: in pain and confusion, engulfed in flames. But his project lived on. A humble foot soldier called Toyotomi Hideyoshi had risen through the ranks to become a trusted general. He picked up where his boss left off, with an Oda ally, Tokugawa Ieyasu, completing the job in 1600 and bringing to Japan a peace that lasted well into the 19th century.
Japanese schoolchildren learn about these men, Oda foremost among them, as the ‘three unifiers’, using a little ditty to tell a great tale: Nobunaga pounded the rice.
Christopher Harding is senior lecturer in Asian history at the University of Edinburgh, author of Japan Story: In Search of a Nation, 1850 to the Present (Allen Lane, 2018) and presenter of the BBC Radio 3 series Dark Blossoms.
Queen of the Iceni, first century AD
Great because… her rebellion inspired women leaders across the centuries
Chosen by Vanessa Collingridge
Boudica rides into battle on her scythed charity in the sculpture ‘Boadicea and her Daughters’ by Thomas Thornycroft, erected in 1902 in London. (Image by Dreamstime)
Relatively few women make it into the history books, and even fewer do so for being a leader in their own right. Kudos, then, to Boudica – that terrifying, kick-ass, carrot-top queen who in AD 60 or 61 almost drove the Romans out of Britain. At least, that’s the version of history that the Romans would have us believe.
According to their written accounts, Boudica’s vast army of barbarians – the Iceni tribe of what’s now largely Norfolk – rose up against their foreign overlords, destroying the three most important towns of the new Roman province of Britannia: Camulodunum (Colchester, the Roman capital), Londinium (London, their trading centre) and Verulamium (St Albans), a key pro-Roman settlement. It was only in a final pitched battle that Boudica’s army was ultimately defeated by the strategic military brilliance of the Romans. Although the site of that battle has never been located, archaeologists have found supporting evidence for the Boudica story, including thick burnt layers in the soil of the three towns.
Boudica’s uprising profoundly shocked the Romans, who hated the idea of women rulers. Tales of the eventual downfall of such female leaders comprised an important cultural message, warning: “Don’t mess with the (male) establishment”! So Queen Boudica was either ignored or vilified in the west for the next 1,500 years. But when Elizabeth I needed to shore up her right to rule – and to go to war – she turned to Boudica as a role model, just as Queen Victoria and Margaret Thatcher did in the centuries to follow.
The image of this ‘Warrior Queen’ has been used to threaten, to inspire, and to shore up Britain’s identity as an imperial power. She is portrayed as protecting its citizens like a loving mother – a mother who would fight for liberty, bringer of both life and death. Her story has been continually recast over the past 2,000 years to suit changing political and social agendas but, whether viewed as a ‘treacherous lioness’ or ‘Braveheart in a bra’, Boudica remains one of our most beguiling historical figures.
Vanessa Collingridge is a writer and broadcaster, author of Boudica (Ebury, 2005)
Maharaja Ranjit Singh
Ruler of the Sikh empire 1801–39
Great because… he forged a modern empire of toleration
Chosen by Matthew Lockwood
Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the ‘Lion of Punjab’, sits before ministers, an astrologer and holy men in an idealised depiction of the Sikh court from c1830. (Image by Bridgeman)
For most of the 18th century, India was a fractured and war-torn place. As the once-dominant Mughal empire entered its period of terminal decline, it left behind a power vacuum. Punjab was not exempt from this problem. By the time Ranjit Singh was born in 1780, Afghan raids, chronic infighting among Punjab’s various misls (sovereign states) and the looming presence of British expansion left the region politically fragile, economically weak and religiously splintered. All this changed with the rise of Singh, the ‘Lion of Punjab’.
By the early decades of the 19th century, he had modernised the Sikh Khalsa army, embraced western innovations without abandoning local forms and institutions, unified the fractious misls, stabilised the frontier with Afghanistan, and reached a mutually beneficial detente with the British East India Company. Singh, however, was more than a mere conqueror. While the Indian subcontinent was riven with imperial competition, religious strife and wars of conquest, Singh was, almost uniquely, a unifier – a force for stability, prosperity and tolerance.
His reign marked a golden age for Punjab and north-west India. Though a devoted Sikh who embarked on a campaign to restore the great monuments of his religion – including the Harmandir Sahib or ‘Golden Temple’ at Amritsar – he also went to great lengths to ensure religious freedom within his lands. He patronised Hindu temples and Sufi shrines, attended Muslim and Hindu ceremonies, married Hindu and Muslim women, and even banned the slaughter of cows to protect the religious sensitivities of Hindus. Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Europeans were all employed in the modernised army and administration of his empire. Under his leadership, infrastructure was improved, commerce opened and expanded, and the arts flourished.
This golden age would not survive him. After his death in 1839, Ranjit Singh’s empire of toleration unravelled. The British invaded, the Sikh empire collapsed and instability returned to the region. Though certainly an imperialist, Ranjit Singh represented a different, more enlightened, more inclusive model of state-building, and a much-needed path towards unity and toleration. We could still benefit from his example.
Matthew Lockwood is assistant professor of history at the University of Alabama
King of England, Scotland and Ireland 1689–1702
Great because… he freed Europe from French hegemony
Chosen by Philip Mansel
An 18th-century portrait of William III and his wife and consort, Mary II. William strengthened England both militarily and economically. (Image by Bridgeman)
The prince of Orange, a small principality in southern France, became Stadholder (governor) and commander-in-chief of the Nether-lands in 1672 at the age of just 21 in circumstances that would have daunted most other leaders. William (1650–1702) was descended from earlier Dutch leaders and, through his mother, Mary Henrietta (daughter of Charles I), from the kings of England, but faced a hostile ruling class and an Anglo-French invasion by land and sea. Rather than surrender, he resolved to “die in the last ditch”, a phrase that he invented.
Through a combination of acumen, persistence and courage, by 1689 he transformed himself into the political master of the Netherlands, king of England, Scotland and Ireland, and leader of a European alliance against his cousin and deadliest enemy, Louis XIV. He was braver than Louis XIV, too, often joining in cavalry charges on the battlefield.
In November 1688 he invaded England, backed by a force of 400 ships and 15,000 troops mustered from throughout Protestant Europe, and marched on London almost without a shot being fired in anger – a masterpiece of political and strategic planning, unequalled until D-Day.
His ruthlessness towards political enemies was felt in Holland and Ireland. Nevertheless, though often exasperated by English insularity and unpopular with part of the English ruling class, he successfully harnessed English wealth and power to the common cause of the freedom of Europe from French hegemony.
Everything he touched turned to gold. He helped found the Bank of England in 1694. He permanently enlarged the British army. He established Protestant supremacy in Ireland – which he thought in that island’s best interests – and the Protestant succession in all three kingdoms. And it was he who, by the Act of Settlement (1701), ensured that George I would succeed to the throne in 1714.
If William III and his popular consort and cousin Mary II, elder daughter of James II and VII (whom they had deposed), had had children then England would have had a stronger, more popular and more confident monarchy, with a taste for splendour suggested by the palace Wren built for them after 1689 at Hampton Court.
William III was also personally tolerant: he dined in Richmond in 1699 with the Jewish entrepreneur Solomon de Medina, whom he knighted at Hampton Court in 1700, some 130 years before the creation of the next Jewish knight in England. A world figure, above many of the national and religious prejudices of his time, William III showed that a European could be a more successful ruler of England than local politicians.
Philip Mansel is a historian and writer. His latest book is King of the World: The Life of Louis XIV (Allen Lane, 2019)
Emperor of China 690–705
Great because… she was the most powerful woman in Chinese history
Chosen by Rana Mitter
A portrait of Wu Zetian, who ruled China as emperor from 690 to 705. She was ruthless in her quest for power – but no more so than many male emperors in China. (Image by Bridgeman)
What does greatness mean? Sometimes it is something inherent within a person. Sometimes it’s the nature of their achievements. For example, regardless of their own records, Barack Obama and Margaret Thatcher are transformative figures in national and global terms because they represented important ‘firsts’.
So, whatever what you may think of her personal record – and I’ll say more about a record that was both benevolent and bloody – Wu Zetian (also known as Wu Zhao) recorded one incontestable achievement: in the history of China, a country containing a huge proportion of humankind, she is the single most powerful woman ever to have held office. In the thousands of years of recorded Chinese history, from the far-off Shang dynasty (c1600–1046 BC) to the current People’s Republic, no other woman has wielded the same level of direct control over so many people.
Wu Zetian, born in AD 624, is the only woman ever to have sat as emperor of China in her own right. She ruled during one of the most glorious periods in Chinese history – the Tang dynasty. To get there, she had to overcome not only the abiding prejudice in traditional Confucian thinking, that a woman could never be a ruler, but also had to remove the numerous rivals who stood in her way.
Wu Zetian was recruited to the Chinese imperial court in a role not much more senior than a high-class domestic serving woman, but she took advantage of her position to get close to her emperor, Taizong, by changing his bedsheets. When he died in 649, her chance of preferment seemed to have ended, and she was sent to a Buddhist nunnery, but she made her escape, returning to court as a concubine of the new emperor, Gaozong. She had much bigger ideas on her mind, however – a quest to reach the very highest levels of power.
Her methods of reaching that position could have inspired Shakespeare, if he had ever heard of her. While the emperor’s concubine, she killed her own (and the emperor’s) newborn child, and framed the empress for the murder. That rival was lucky only to be exiled, leaving the way clear for Wu Zetian to take her place at court. Still she felt, perhaps with justification, that living enemies would always be a threat, so she ordered the limbs of her rivals to be cut off, before those rivals were placed in a vat of wine and left to drown.
In some respects, the level of intrigue and violence at court during her tenure was not so unusual. What was astounding was her next step. In 690, after the emperor and then his sons had died, Wu Zetian declared herself the new emperor, at the age of 65. “The heart of a serpent and the nature of a wolf,” was the verdict of one contemporary critic on her unprecedented action.
Let’s ignore, if we can, the pools of blood and screams of dissected concubines, and turn instead to the female emperor’s political record. The territories she ruled stretched from central Asia in the west to the borders of the Himalayas in the south and the breadbasket provinces of central and eastern China.
Some historians have argued that her rule helped to strengthen the Tang Dynasty when it was under threat from ethnic groups from the north and west. Their general verdict is that during her reign the empire was well-run and its people well fed and relatively content. Wu Zetian may not have been the most magnificent ruler to have sat on the Dragon Throne, but she was in the top tier when it came to competence, and certainly the equal of many of her male peers.
So why did her name become a byword for vice and degradation? Essentially, because she was a woman. Ruling queens, such as Mary and Elizabeth of England, were rare but not illegitimate in Europe. In contrast, traditional Confucian thinking argued that having a woman in power in China was deeply unnatural.
Of course, Wu Zetian was clearly a dangerous person to know, particularly if you were standing in the way of her route to power. But countless male emperors who had been equally ruthless weren’t treated as anomalies or monsters. Wu Zetian was criticised for promoting Buddhism, an import from India, above the indigenous Chinese systems of thought and faith. Yet Buddhism also gave more space to women than Confucian thinking – so her interest in it may have been perfectly natural in the circumstances.
After Wu Zetian died in 705, the court hierarchy refused to carve any record of her achievements on her tomb – a final rejection of the anomalous emperor. Yet she has become a figure of fascination to later generations in China, even inspiring a multi-part soap opera in recent years. For even though China has progressed hugely over the past 1,300 years, no other woman in the country’s history has ever had such direct influence over so many of her compatriots, nor used it so effectively.
Rana Mitter is professor of the history and politics of modern China at the University of Oxford
Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland 1653–58
Great because… he was a parliamentary champion whose ideas defined Britain
Chosen by Dominic Sandbrook
Joseph Wilton’s 1762 bust of Oliver Cromwell – the only non-royal head of state in British history. (Image by Bridgeman)
Nobody in British history has a personal story to match that of Oliver Cromwell. Born in Huntingdon in 1599, he spent much of his first four decades as an obscure farmer (with a brief stint as MP for Huntingdon in 1628–29). Yet at the age of 50 he was the most powerful man in the country, and in 1653 became Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland – the first and only non-royal head of state in British history.
A man of burning religious passion, Cromwell believed that God had chosen him to guide his country through the horrors of the Civil War. As the Irish discovered, he could be a robust antagonist. But he was remarkably tolerant by the standards of the age, and his deep personal self-doubt meant he never became a dictator. For 300 years after his death in 1658, the things Oliver Cromwell stood for – the rule of parliament, the importance of commerce, the rise of sea power, freedom of religious belief and, above all, the extraordinary moral, cultural and economic energy of the Protestant middle classes – defined Britain itself.
Dominic Sandbrook’s latest book is Who Dares Wins: Britain, 1979–1982 (Allen Lane, 2019)
Joan of Arc
French military leader, 15th century
Great because… she led an army to triumph by sheer force of will and belief
Chosen by Laura Ashe
Joan of Arc, from a miniature of c1485. The ‘Maid of Orleans’ was canonised in 1920, nearly five centuries after her execution. (Image by AKG Images)
On 29 April 1429, dressed as a soldier in full armour at the head of an army, ‘La Pucelle’ (‘The Maiden’) reached Orléans, coming to save the French city besieged by the English. Within a week, the invaders from across the channel had been defeated and forced into retreat – the major turning point of the Hundred Years’ War. Joan (1412–31) had declared to the English that she was “sent here by God, the king of heaven, to drive you all out of France” and, though she did not live to see it, she was the inspiration who turned the tide.
Joan, a woman from a peasant family, could not lead an army by any normal means. But her sheer force of will and belief transfixed her followers: they praised her as a gift from God, pure as the Virgin Mary and powerful before their enemies as Christ. She proved herself as a battle leader and campaign strategist, promising “a war cry that will be remembered forever”, repeatedly defeating the English and leading her prince to his coronation as Charles VII. Captured in May 1430, she was tried and, a year later, executed for crimes against the faith in an attempt to break her powerful spell – but her work was done.
Laura Ashe is professor of English literature at Worcester College, University of Oxford
Queen of England and Ireland 1558–1603
Great because… she reestablished peace and built national power after tumult
Chosen by Tracy Borman
Elizabeth I holds an olive branch in the so-called ‘Peace Portrait’ painted by Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder in c1580. (Image by Bridgeman)
Upon Elizabeth’s accession, firebrand Reformation leader and minister John Knox declared that: “It is more than a monster in nature that a Woman shall reign and have empire above a Man.” But the new queen, born to Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn in 1533, confounded all expectations. Rather than fight against the misogyny of her male advisers, she pretended to share their regret that she had been born “a weak and feeble woman” – but used her feminine wiles to devastating effect.
A master of pragmatism, she settled the vexed question of religion and established much-needed peace and stability after one of the most turbulent half-centuries in England’s history. During her long reign, England emerged as a world power, defeating the Spanish Armada and laying the foundations of an empire.
An exceptionally intelligent and cultured woman, Elizabeth ushered in a golden age of the arts, patronising the likes of Shakespeare and Spenser. More than any monarch before or since, Elizabeth appreciated the power of PR and crafted her public image so effectively that she was lionised as the ‘Virgin Queen’ both during her lifetime and for centuries after her death.
Tracy Borman is a historian, writer and joint chief curator for Historic Royal Palaces. Her latest book is The Devil’s Slave (Hodder and Stoughton, 2019)
Emperor of Mali c1312–c1337
Great because… he used his wealth to enlighten his people
Chosen by Gus Casely-Hayford
Mansa Musa, emperor of Mali, c1312–c1337. (Image by Bridgeman)
Mansa (emperor) Musa I (c1280– 1337), who ruled the Mali empire for 25 years from about 1312, has a claim to being the richest person who has ever lived. He inherited a throne that was incredibly stable and an empire that was hugely, unprecedentedly wealthy. But, rather than dedicating his life to putting his feet up, he decided to try to enlighten himself and his people.
He set about creating a great body of written material and assembling some of the greatest thinkers. For the site of this new centre of knowledge he chose Timbuktu, a city right on the far eastern fringe of his empire.
Taking his retinue and followers on pilgrimage, when he arrived in Mecca he was met by great intellectuals from the university in Salamanca and from places as far afield as Venice and south Asia. Some of these people, including the great architect Al-Sahili, agreed to travel back to Timbuktu with Musa. As a result, the city became a great centre of learning, and transformed the way in which people understood Mali. It grew into a place driven not by money but by the exchange of knowledge, with dozens and dozens of archives and a mosque at its heart.
What’s incredible about this story is that Musa ruled with absolute power – yet, by focusing on learning and on writing things down, he divested some of that power. Whereas, in the oral societies of the past, rulers could craft histories in ways that purely suited them, the fact that there were now documents meant that people could both build a historical narrative with a level of objectivity and contest that narrative. It became possible to create a legal system featuring such things as mechanics of ownership – and, as a result, separation from power. This was the beginning of a kind of democratisation of learning that was, I think, the most generous thing he did during a reign that also distinguished him as inordinately clever and thoughtful.
Musa did make mistakes. Early in his reign, he tried to force Mali’s gold miners to adopt Islam rather than any other religion. They essentially rebelled by reducing production, which taught him a valuable lesson about moderating his thinking on certain issues to allow for a kind of liberal state that included a variety of possibilities. That really marks out his reign and his kingdom: it was a state in which there was acceptance and tolerance. After all, learning from mistakes is the mark of a great leader. He recognised that he had to change paths, and that he was not omnipotent. His rule was not just about the personality of the ruler.
Today, we know little about African history. But it’s a region with a hugely complex, rich, deep historical narrative, and Mansa Musa – who was deeply invested in trying to save and preserve that narrative – is indicative of that. Those histories are still very present in Timbuktu today. When the militant Islamist group Ansar Dine attacked Timbuktu recently, ordinary Malians put themselves in the line of fire to try to protect the amazing medieval archives. These histories remain critically important to understanding not just the region but also the identity of many Malians today. One of Musa’s great legacies is that he enshrined a set of values that continue to infuse the cultures of west Africa into the 21st century.
Gus Casely-Hayford is director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC. For more details of the museum’s current exhibition Heroes: Principles of African Greatness
UK prime minister 1940–45 & 1951–55
Great because… he refused to accept capitulation to Hitler
Chosen by Andrew Roberts
Winston Churchill paces the deck of HMS Prince of Wales off the Newfoundland coast during the Atlantic Conference with US President Franklin D Roosevelt in August 1941. (Image by Alamy)
On Saturday 25 May 1940, as the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was being flung back towards Dunkirk before being expelled from the continent by the Wehrmacht, the British foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, suggested to the five-man War Cabinet in London that peace negotiations be initiated with Adolf Hitler via the (then neutral) Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.
Over the next three days, while the BEF started to be evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk, the Cabinet discussed the pros and cons of ending a war Britain seemed to have comprehensively lost. The subject was brought up at no fewer than eight successive meetings, several times dominating the agenda. An initial meeting was even held between Halifax and Giuseppe Bastianini, the Italian ambassador in London.
It seemed only logical: the French were being knocked out of the war (they capitulated in mid-June); the Russians had been effectively allied to Hitler since the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939; the Poles had been annihilated by the twin German and Russian attacks of September 1939; and isolationist sentiment in America meant that the United States was not about to enter the war anytime soon. Halifax’s stance seemed the rational one.
Furthermore, it was probable that, in his desire to avoid a war on two fronts, Hitler would have offered Britain a generous peace deal, allowing her to retain her sovereignty, Royal Navy and empire. His main ambition was to attack the Russians, and he would most probably have been highly amenable to an arrangement in the west that meant that he did not need to station troops there. The leaflets advocating peace that the Luftwaffe were to drop across southern England and south Wales in August 1940 were testament to his eagerness on that score.
A large number of Britons, especially in the Communist Party, the British Union of Fascists and the pacifist movement, were vocally in favour of peace. However, Winston Churchill (1874–1965), by then prime minister for only 15 days, was utterly opposed. In eight cabinet meetings, he made argument after argument against the proposed deal – some of which were pretty flimsy, considering how dire the situation was for the BEF, which started to embark from Dunkirk on 26 May, with evacuation not completed until 4 June 1940. He even suggested at one point that he was not ideologically opposed to the idea of peace negotiations, and might consider giving up Gibraltar or Malta in order to extricate Britain from the coming calamity.
In fact, this was merely a negotiating tactic to outmanoeuvre Halifax politically in cabinet: pretending that Churchill’s mind was not closed to the possibility of listening to an offer, were one presented. The truth was that he had spent his ‘wilderness years’ of the 1930s watching Hitler and correctly predicting his moves in a way that Halifax and their colleague in the War Cabinet, the ex-premier Neville Chamberlain, never could or did. He knew that Hitler could not be trusted, and that anyhow if Britain negotiated peace it would be disastrous for domestic morale and her reputation in the world, especially in the United States.
It would also have allowed Hitler to invade the USSR with his entire military might and at a time of his own choosing. He would not have needed to waste six precious weeks knocking Yugoslavia and Greece out of the war in April and May 1941, but would have been able to launch Operation Barbarossa against Russia much earlier in the year. Bearing in mind that German forces reached the underground stations on the Moscow subway by early October 1941, before the front solidified for the winter, that extra time could have proved fatal for the Soviet Union.
Even more importantly, if Britain had made peace with the Nazis in May or June 1940, Hitler would have been able to concentrate his entire army and air force on Russia; as it was, some 25% of it was needed to stand guard in western Europe, to fight the British in north Africa, and to protect German cities from RAF bombing. Considering that, with three-quarters of his forces in the east, Hitler managed to subject Leningrad (now St Petersburg) to a gruelling 872-day siege, nearly captured Moscow and almost seized central Stalingrad, it is impossible to know what he might have achieved had he been able to move his entire force on Russia. As it was, on 18 October 1941 Josef Stalin’s personal train was ready in Moscow to evacuate him behind the Urals in case he needed to flee a successful German assault.
It was Churchill’s decision and sharp political manoeuvring in the War Cabinet that kept Britain in the war, meaning that the nation could eventually be used as the unsinkable aircraft carrier for the Allied invasion of the western part of Nazi-dominated Europe in 1944. Through his inspiring leadership and indomitable moral and physical courage, Winston Churchill saved the world from the most evil regime in history – surely the mark of the greatest leader.
Andrew Roberts is a historian and writer. His latest book is Leadership in War: Lessons from Those Who Made History (Allen Lane, 2019)
Great because… he redrew the map of Europe
Chosen by Sophie Thérèse Ambler
Pope Innocent III was great because he redrew the map of Europe. (Photo by Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images)
The medieval popes wielded vast spiritual and political power, and Innocent III was arguably the most influential of them all.
Born Lotario di Segni near Rome, he was elected pope at the age of just 37 or 38. He reformed church law and spiritual life, tightening the laws on marriage, prescribing annual confession and helping launch the Franciscan order. He banned the involvement of churchmen in trial by ordeal, on the basis that it was superstitious and unjust (because it was not the duty of the accused to prove their innocence) – a decision with huge ramifications for the development of European legal systems.
He redrew the political map of Europe, making England and Aragon vassal states of the papacy and launching an expedition against heresy in southern France that would ultimately bring the region under the French kings.
Having lost control of the Fourth Crusade (during which participants sacked the Byzantine city of Constantinople), he revolutionised the planning and recruitment of crusade expeditions, and helped to reverse the advance of the Islamic conquests by uniting the kings of Spain against the Almohad Caliphate. The resulting vast army won a decisive victory at the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212 – a key date in Spanish history.
Sophie Thérèse Ambler is lecturer in later medieval history and deputy director of the Centre for War and Diplomacy at Lancaster Universit
20th-century African independence fighter
Great because… his struggle for independence in Africa also transformed Portugal
Chosen by Hakim Adi
Amilcar Cabral, pictured with the daughter of a freedom fighter. He strove to liberate Africans from Portuguese colonial rule. (Image by AKG Images)
Greatness is an attribute best judged by circumstances. In every era, humans have had many apparently insuperable problems to overcome. Those who are great are those who can find solutions to these problems, or who can inspire others to solve them.
In the 20th century, most of Africa was faced with the task of liberating itself from foreign colonial rule. In many countries, a form of independence was achieved by the early 1960s. However, the dictatorial government of Portugal refused to acknowledge the rights of Africans to govern themselves in its colonies, which included Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde and Portuguese Guinea (which became Guinea-Bissau after independence).
The struggle for independence in Guinea was led by the great Amílcar Cabral (1924–73), who also played a leading role in the liberation of Portugal’s other colonies in Africa. He was one of the founders of the Movimento Popular Libertação de Angola (MPLA), and founder and leader of the Partido Africano para a Independência da Guiné e Capo-Verde. The armed liberation struggles that he led eventually resulted in revolution in Portugal and the start of a new democratic era in that country, too.
Cabral found ways to unite the nearly one million people of Guinea, women included, even though most were illiterate peasant farmers and they spoke different languages. With limited outside support, the people of Guinea fought to liberate their country and started to build a new society in which they themselves were the decision-makers. They did this even when parts of their country were still occupied by Portugal, which had the military support of Britain, the US and other Nato members.
Under Cabral’s leadership, the people of Guinea achieved great advances – progress that induced the government of Portugal to plot to assassinate him. His murder was carried out in 1973, just before Guinea achieved independence from Portuguese colonial rule.
Many Africans continue to be inspired by Cabral’s great leadership. His life and work show that, whatever the obstacles, the people are capable of being their own liberators.
Hakim Adi is professor of the history of Africa and the African diaspora at the University of Chichester
Catherine the Great
Empress of Russia 1762–96
Great because… she drove Russia into the modern era
Chosen by Margaret MacMillan
Let me start in a disobliging way by saying that there is no greatest figure in history. The past is not an Olympic race: it doesn’t have rules to decide winners or losers. And what is ‘greatness’? Making the biggest impact on politics or science or values? Perpetrating the worst crimes? I can guarantee that whatever name each of us comes up with will be met with cheers, boos or caveats.
Yet it is quite a fun game to play, and gets us thinking about who has made a difference. So what do you say to Catherine the Great as one of the most important figures in history? She was among those few women who managed to achieve real political power when men dominated society. Elizabeth I, Wu Zetian, Maria Theresa of Austria – we remember them partly because of their rarity. And the legends – man-made – accumulated around them, to suggest that they were somehow not proper women. Elizabeth, the ‘Virgin Queen’, was rumoured to be frigid, while Wu Zetian and Catherine were said to possess abnormal and extravagant sexual appetites. Only Maria Theresa, with her exemplary private life and 16 children, managed to escape such comments.
Catherine’s story is extraordinary. Born in 1729 into a small, unimportant German court, she was married off to the heir to the Russian throne at the age of 16. She found herself yoked to an excessively stupid and drunken husband, as well as having to navigate the murky and often brutal politics of the Russian court. Where others would have floundered, Catherine triumphed. She won the approval of Empress Elizabeth, and became deeply, demonstratively Russian. She converted to Orthodoxy, took a series of noble-born Russian lovers and became a firm enemy of the powerful Prussia and its ruler, Frederick the Great.
Unlike her unfortunate husband, Catherine was highly intelligent and formidably energetic. She possessed great charm, winning over many of the Russian elites, including important sections of the military. When Elizabeth died in 1762, the new tsar, Peter, talked openly about replacing Catherine as his consort with one of his mistresses. Catherine encouraged a military coup against him, and was made ruler of Russia. She may have had a hand in the death of Peter soon afterwards, but I suspect she did not suffer a moment’s guilt.
Catherine had great ambitions for Russia, aiming to drag it, as she wrote, “out of its medieval stupor and into the modern world”. Modernisation in those days meant using Europe as a model. She read and admired the works of leading figures of the Enlightenment, with their challenges to tradition. Voltaire praised her as an enlightened despot, calling her the “Star of the North”. Although he – wisely, perhaps – refused Catherine’s invitations to visit St Petersburg, the two conducted a lively correspondence for over a decade.
Catherine reformed the creaky Russian bureaucracy, attempted to rationalise the administration of her huge territories, and created new codes of law. Seeing the landed gentry as key to Russia’s modernisation, she set new standards for their behaviour and obligations to the state, and established state schools to educate their children. She brought the powerful Orthodox church firmly under state control, and gained much-needed funds by expropriating its land and serfs. She encouraged manufacturing and trade, and imported western experts to introduce new ideas and technologies. She herself set an example by having the new inoculation against smallpox, which had been pioneered in Britain, administered to herself, her son and her court.
Her critics say she could have done much more for Russia – that, while St Petersburg became a cultural and intellectual centre, most of Russian society remained untouched by her reforms. She toyed with the idea of abolishing serfdom, which tied millions of Russian peasants to the land, and even drafted a policy. In the end, she not only shrank from carrying it out but extended serfdom to peasants who had previously been free. She may have talked the Enlightenment talk but she also dealt rapidly and ruthlessly with opposition.
Her defenders argue that she did as much as she could have done in the Russia of her day. Her attempts at reform not only roused conservative opposition but risked creating disorder. After she crushed the Pugachev rebellion, which had set vast parts of south-eastern European Russia aflame, she increasingly relied on the nobles for support.
While Catherine struggled, with limited success, to make significant reforms within Russia, she made it respected and feared abroad, transforming it into a formidable military power. In wars against Ottoman Turkey, she extended Russia’s borders south to take in huge stretches of territory including Crimea and southern Ukraine. Before she died in 1796, she colluded with her old enemy, Prussia, and rival, Austria, to divide up Poland. During her reign she added more than 200,000 square miles to Russia. For better or worse, Russia and its neighbours are still dealing with her legacy.
The sharp-eyed French painter Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, who encountered the elderly empress, wrote that Catherine possessed “such an air of majesty that to me she might have been Queen of the World”. For all that she was flawed and inconsistent, Catherine deserves to be remembered.
Margaret MacMillan is a professor of history at the University of Toronto
Alfred the Great
King of Wessex 871–99
Great because… he unified and organised a kingdom of the English
Chosen by Kathleen Burk
A bronze statue of Alfred the Great erected in Winchester in 1899 to mark the millennium since his death. (Image by Dreamstime)
King Alfred – he was not widely referred to as ‘the Great’ until the 16th century – was remarkable for taking the kingdom of Wessex in southern England from a nation of warring ealdormen, the leaders of the shires, to a unified kingdom of the English. With its dependent kingdoms, it incorporated all of southern England including the old Wessex, Kent, the West Country and the western Midlands. Unifying territories into a political whole is not unusual; it was the reorganisation of defence, the law and, especially, education carried out by Alfred that makes him a memorable example of a true leader.
Beginning in the later eighth century, the British Isles were for several centuries subject to raids and invasions by Vikings. Wessex, with its extensive coastline, was frequently the object of raiding parties. Alfred (born c848/9) became king of Wessex in 871 and, after initial defeats, at the battle of Edington in 878 he defeated the most powerful Danish leader and established the boundaries of Wessex.
The most important duty of a leader is the defence of the realm, and Alfred used the relatively quiet years after Edington for military reorganisation. His forces had been based on local levies or fyrds, militia led by the ealdormen; these took time to organise and march to the place of attack, by which time the raiders had often slaughtered, plundered and departed. Alfred created a national, centrally directed force supported by taxation; he also established a network of fortified burghs across his territories, set 30 miles apart and garrisoned for rapid response. Towns grew up within and around the burghs, which encouraged trade and the growth of an urban culture and a middle class. He also reminted a dependable coinage.
Alfred believed a that a kingdom required a law code. He produced one that incorporated his own laws, which included those he approved of from Mercia, Kent and the Church, and appended the law code of his predecessor, King Ine (died c726). These laws were a hodgepodge, but they included a most important one: that “each man keep carefully his oath and pledge”. Since pledges were given within and to every class in society, the implementation of this law would help to ensure its smooth running.
The most revolutionary change was Alfred’s insistence on general literacy in the everyday language, English. Beginning with a school in his court, he decreed that free-born young men were to learn to read, write and speak English. He wanted practical men around the land who could read and carry out his instructions; by this means he would further unify the nation and save it from its enemies. The precedent, if not its range, was set.
To emphasise the responsibilities of both religious and secular men, in his thirties Alfred learned Latin, and translated and ordered to be translated into English great works such as Boethius, and Pope Gregory’s Pastoral Care. He also commissioned the English-language Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
When Alfred died in 899 he was ‘king of the English’, leaving a unified and uniquely organised state and society on which his successors could build. In sum, he was one of few monarchs in world history who have been deemed ‘Great’.
Kathleen Burk is emeritus professor of modern and contemporary history at University College London
St Anthony the Great
Ancient Christian hermit
Great because… he sparked the monastic revolution
Chosen by Catherine Nixey
St Anthony was great because he sparked the monastic revolution. (Image by Bridgeman)
Around 1,700 years ago, a young man left his house in Egypt, walked into a pigsty – and stayed there. It was an act that should have been odd but unremarkable. Yet it was revolutionary. This man’s life would go on to inspire St Augustine, help spark the monastic movement and, thus, change the face of Europe – and the world – for ever. Indeed, this magazine, and the history it celebrates, owes a debt to this man. But his name has been largely forgotten in the modern world.
In a way, that is just how St Anthony (c251–356), as he is now known, would have liked it. One day around AD 270, Anthony was in a church near his home when words from the Gospel of Matthew reached his ears: “If you want to be perfect, go – sell your possessions and give to the poor.” He took them seriously: he gave away his house, sold his possessions and walked into that pigsty (as some writers describe it). The monastic revolution – one that shunned possessions and the city in favour of God, poverty, isolation and religious learning – had gained one of its greatest figures.
After the pigsty, Anthony moved to a cave in the desert then, finally, a remote mountain, suffering ever greater hardship. He ate dry bread, wore rags and faced down demons. Yet, paradoxically, the more Anthony shunned mankind and its baubles, the more mankind admired and followed him until finally, according to Anthony’s biographer Athanasius of Alexandria, “the desert was made a city” populated by young men following Anthony’s example.
It wasn’t merely the desert that was changed. In embracing this odd, austere, isolated life, Anthony helped drive forward the monastic movement. And it was these monasteries and libraries that, in the period once called the Dark Ages, preserved and produced many of the histories that we still read today. Anthony, the leader who never wanted to lead, changed the world for ever.
Catherine Nixey is the author of The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World (Macmillan, 2017)
Blanche of Castile
Queen of France, regent 1226–34 & 1248–52
Great because… she turned the French court into the cultural centre of Europe
Chosen by Lindy Grant
Blanche of Castile directs the education of her son, Louis IX, in an illustration in a 14th-century manuscript. (Image by Bridgeman)
Blanche of Castile, born in 1188 in Palencia (now in north-central Spain), was probably the most successful female ruler of the Middle Ages. Leadership was in her genes: she was the granddaughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II of England, and niece of Richard the Lionheart. When her husband, Louis VIII, died in 1226, leaving a young son to succeed, he appointed Blanche as sole regent; she ruled France until 1234. Then, when her son, Louis IX, went on crusade in 1248, he appointed his mother as sole regent.
At that time, kingdoms were usually ruled by regency councils – the sole rule by a queen was unprecedented. But both kings knew that she would be a formidable ruler. There was the inevitable baronial revolt, but Blanche faced down or charmed her baronial foes. One of the barons wrote that: “She knew how to govern a kingdom, while the barons couldn’t run a village.” She wrote music and poetry, and her sophisticated patronage of music, architecture and manuscript painting played a key role in turning the French court into the cultural centre of Europe. And she was the mother of the greatest of medieval European kings, Louis IX – Saint Louis.
Lindy Grant is emeritus professor of medieval history at the University of Reading
Mughal emperor 1556–1605
Great because… he founded a mighty Indian empire infused with tolerance
Chosen by Diana Preston
Mughal Emperor Akbar rides an elephant in a 17th-century miniature. His achievements on the battlefield were matched by those in civil rule. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)
When 16th-century Europeans spoke of ‘The Great Mughal’, they meant Emperor Akbar. Travellers to India brought back fantastical accounts of his vast armies led by trumpeting war elephants, and his treasuries piled with gleaming gems. And Akbar truly was a great leader. During a 50-year reign, this almost exact contemporary of the English queen Elizabeth I transformed a foreign occupation into a strong, cohesive empire of 100 million ethnically and religiously diverse people.
The blood of two great Asian warriors, Genghis Khan and Timur (Tamerlane), ran in Akbar’s veins. Born in 1542, he was the grandson of Babur, founder of the empire, who in 1525 invaded northern India from Afghanistan. When Akbar was only 13, his father Humayun, the second Mughal emperor, died after falling downstairs while hurrying to evening prayers, leaving both Akbar and the fledging empire under threat.
The Mughals followed the takht ya takhta (‘throne or coffin’) code of their central Asian ancestors. By this principle, princes did not inherit by primogeniture but had to fight for the throne. To forestall rivals, loyal courtiers hastily crowned Akbar as third Mughal emperor on a makeshift throne in a Punjab field. For six years, while his mother governed alongside a regent, Akbar lived ‘behind the veil’ in the harem, emerging to take power only at the age of 19 after he thwarted an assassin who entered the harem to kill him.
Determined to extend his empire, Akbar launched wars of conquest against neighbouring rulers. Those he crushed included the saffron-robed Rajputs who, like the Spartans, believed the only alternative to triumphing on the battlefield was to perish there. By the end of his reign, through a combination of daring, imagination – he was a master of the surprise attack – and, on occasion, supreme ruthlessness, Akbar had nearly trebled his territories. His empire stretched north to the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush, west to the desert borders of Persia (Iran), east to the Arakan (now Rakhine state, in Myanmar/Burma) and south to the golden tablelands of the Deccan plateau.
Yet Akbar’s genius extended to matters off the battlefield. He consolidated his conquests and conciliated his subjects. In particular, he reconciled the majority of the inhabitants of an overwhelmingly Hindu empire to Muslim rule, through shrewd political alliances and judicious dynastic marriages, particularly with the martial Hindu Rajputs. When he died, he had more than 300 titular wives. He defied his mullahs to abolish taxes and laws that discriminated against Hindus. He opened his court to people of talent, whatever their background, attracting scholars and holy men from across his empire and beyond – Jains, Christians, Zoroastrians, Jews, Confucians and Sikhs as well as Hindus.
What he learned of other faiths inspired him to inaugurate a new religion, the Din-i Ilahi (Divine Faith) – a distillation of what he perceived as the best of other religions – which he hoped would unite his people without compelling them to forego their original beliefs. Although his religion did not last, it is a remarkable symbol of tolerance at a time when religious wars were dividing Europe.
Like Shakespeare, Akbar died on what’s sometimes said to have been his own birthday, 15 October 1605. Some three decades later, his grandson Shah Jahan built that most potent emblem of the Mughals, the Taj Mahal. Yet none of Akbar’s successors would match the statesmanship, tolerance and vision for which many people in the subcontinent still remember and respect him today.
Diana Preston is a historian and writer. Her latest book is Eight Days at Yalta: How Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin Shaped the Post-War World (Picador, 2019)
US president 1861–65
Great because… he championed working people and the emancipation of slaves
Chosen by Adam IP Smith
Abraham Lincoln championed working people and the emancipation of slaves. (Photo by Oscar White/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)
As a teenager in County Durham in the late 1980s, during the last gloaming of the coal industry, I first encountered Abraham Lincoln (1809–65) in an unexpected place. Browsing in a second-hand bookshop, I found him in the autobiography of John Wilson, the founder of the Durham Miners’ Association. Wilson recounted how, blacklisted for union organising in north-east England in the 1860s, he had been forced to emigrate to western Pennsylvania, where he found himself in the midst of a bloody civil war. Though some of his fellow miners openly cheered when Lincoln was assassinated, Wilson became so enamoured with the Union cause and its martyred leader that, when he wrote his memoirs half a century later, there was to him no greater leader in any time or place than Abraham Lincoln.
It was surprising to me then to discover the strong affinity of a Durham miner for an American president, but today it makes sense. Lincoln had risen from manual labour to the highest office in the land, then used his power to hold together a republic “conceived in liberty”, as he put it, “and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”. These were grandiose words, but they were deeply meaningful to a foreign observer such as Wilson, who saw the American Civil War as a superficially local conflict with global ramifi-cations, in which the forces of freedom were locked in combat with the forces of reaction – much as later labour leaders saw the Spanish Civil War.
Wilson was right to see Lincoln as a champion of the dignity of work and working people. His sincere hatred of slavery was rooted in the injustice of men “wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces”. Lincoln does not deserve all the credit he has sometimes received for being the ‘great emancipator’, yet no white person in a position of power did more than he to ensure that, when the Civil War ended, slavery ended also.
Lincoln’s humility was genuine and his sense of purpose profound. He did not take the easiest course, but acted according to his conception of what was right. He was a man of common origins and uncommon qualities, whose leadership helped transform the lives of millions in his lifetime and, through example, of millions more since.
Adam IP Smith is Edward Orsborn Professor of United States Politics & Political History at the University of Oxford. His books include Abraham Lincoln (History Press, 2014)
Our poll is now closed, the results will be announced soon.
This article was first published in issue 20 of BBC World Histories Magazine