HistoryExtra’s most-read articles of 2021

As 2021 draws to a close, we’ve rounded up the most-read stories we’ve published on HistoryExtra in the past 12 months – featuring Vikings, hermits, an Ethiopian emperor and the most famous secret society of them all…

HistoryExtra's most read articles of 2021
1

Why do Napoleon’s portraits often show him with one hand inside his shirt?

Napoleon portrait by Jacques-Louis David shows is perhaps the most famous painting of the French emperor with one hand tucked out of sight
Napoleon portrait by Jacques-Louis David shows is perhaps the most famous painting of the French emperor with one hand tucked out of sight (Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)

The urban legends surrounding Napoleon Bonaparte loom large – much like the erroneous idea that the Emperor of the French was of particularly short stature. But the one question about the namesake of the Napoleonic Wars that really grabbed HistoryExtra readers in 2021 had nothing at all to do with grand battles and European politics.

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Some of the most famous paintings of Napoleon share a common trait – they depict the man nicknamed ‘The Bat’ with one hand seemingly tucked inside his shirt. But why? The rumours ranged from a stomach complaint to whispers that he might have lost it in battle… | Read more

2

The real history of The Serpent: the true story of Charles Sobhraj

Charles Sobhraj (centre) pictured in 2011, while trying to sue the Nepalese government for unlawful imprisonment
Charles Sobhraj (centre) pictured in 2011, while trying to sue the Nepalese government for unlawful imprisonment (Photo credit should read PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP via Getty Images)(Photo credit should read PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP via Getty Images)

Currently incarcerated in a Nepalese prison, Charles Sobhraj was one of the most wanted serial killers of the 1970s, whose uncanny ability to evade the police earned him the nickname ‘the Serpent’.

He stalked his victims along the Hippy Trail in Asia, posing variously as a drug dealer and a jewel salesman. It was here he used his good looks and charm to befriend travellers before murdering them – often in cahoots with a partner, Marie-Andrée Leclerc – and, sometimes, stealing their identities. How he was finally caught is an incredible tale. | Read more

3

Edith Cavell: how the executed British First World War nurse became a symbol of peace

Portrait of First World War nurse Edith Cavell with one of her dogs
Portrait of First World War nurse Edith Cavell with one of her dogs (Photo by Getty)

A pioneering British nurse, Edith Cavell took an egalitarian approach to healthcare in occupied Belgium during WW1 – she would treat any solider, regardless of which side they fought for. Her desire to save as many lives as possible also drew her into the Belgian underground network, and she helped as many as 200 Allied soldiers escape to the neutral Netherlands before she was caught and executed by German forces.

Her reputation was already formidable – she was the matron of Belgium’s first nursing school, and such was Cavell’s status that when the queen of Belgium broke her arm, she demanded a nurse trained by Cavell to treat her. In death, she became something more: an almost saint-like figure. | Read more

4

Historical figures: 100+ of the most famous people through history – in chronological order

Colourful illustration of 12 historical figures's heads (Winston Churchill, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Thomas Cromwell, Richard III, Elizabeth I, William Shakespeare, Anne Boleyn, William Marshal, Jane Austen, Hatshepsut, Gandhi and Catherine the Great) shown in a grid pattern.
Significant historical figures: Winston Churchill, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Thomas Cromwell, Richard III, Elizabeth I, William Shakespeare, Anne Boleyn, William Marshal, Jane Austen, Hatshepsut, Gandhi and Catherine the Great. (Illustration by Andy Tuohy)

Who are some of the most significant figures in history? We introduce 100+ notable historical figures – from medieval monarchs you have probably heard quite a lot about to an Indian emperor of the Maurya Dynasty, a Renaissance polymath, a Japanese feudal lord, writers, engineers, physicists and beyond | Read more

5

The Illuminati: 13 questions about the clandestine secret society answered

The ‘Eye of Providence’, a symbol linked to the Illuminati, stares out from the reverse side of all US one-dollar bills
The ‘Eye of Providence’, a symbol linked to the Illuminati, stares out from the reverse side of all US one-dollar bills (Photo by Alamy)

That our article on the Illuminati made our most-read should come as no surprise – this famous secret society allegedly runs the world after all.

Here, we pick apart 13 questions about the ‘world leading’ clandestine group, from its links to the Freemasons and the symbolism of the all-seeing eye to the biggest question of all: how do you join? | Read more

6

 Israel and the Palestinians: a history of conflict

Men from Bethlehem in Jerusalem in 1894, when the territory identified as Palestine was part of the Ottoman empire. At the start of the 19th century Palestine's population was mostly Arab, with a small Jewish minority, but from the 1880s waves of settlers rapidly augmented the Jewish population (Culture Club/Getty Images)
Men from Bethlehem in Jerusalem in 1894, when the territory identified as Palestine was part of the Ottoman empire. At the start of the 19th century Palestine’s population was mostly Arab, with a small Jewish minority, but from the 1880s waves of settlers rapidly augmented the Jewish population (Culture Club/Getty Images)

Political tensions between Israel and Palestine escalated into the worst violence for several years in May 2021, but the enmity that led to this spell of violence has been fostered over decades.

In this piece, professor of military history Matthew Hughes considers the key episodes behind the longstanding hostility, from early Jewish settlement in Palestine in the wake of WW1 to the Six Day War of 1967, and onto modern tensions surrounding the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. | Read more

7

Why did Japan attack Pearl Harbor in 1941?

Crossing the line: Japanese soldiers seize a railway during the invasion of Manchuria in 1931 – prompted by a staged bombing near the city of Mukden. (Photo by adoc-photos/Corbis via Getty Images)
Crossing the line: Japanese soldiers seize a railway during the invasion of Manchuria in 1931 – prompted by a staged bombing near the city of Mukden. (Photo by adoc-photos/Corbis via Getty Images)

December 2021 marked the 80th anniversary of the Japanese aerial assault on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 – goading the US to finally declare war on Japan, and ultimately culminating with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

But why did Japan take the fight to the US in the first place? Historian Francis Pike considers the tensions that led up to that fateful day, immortally labelled by US president Franklin D Roosevelt as “a date which will live in infamy”. | Read more

8

Haile Selassie, last emperor of Ethiopia and architect of modern Africa

Haile Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia
Haile Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

Haile Selassie was born in a mud-and-wattle hut in 1892 as Tafari Makonnen Woldemikael, circumstances that belied his genealogy and pedigree. Taking a new name when he became emperor of Ethiopia in 1930, he was a member of the Solomonic dynasty descended from King Solomon of Israel. He would introduce Ethiopia’s first written constitution, was forced into exile by Benito Mussolini, and became the inspiration for a new religion – Rastafarianism. This is the story of his incredible life. | Read more

9

“His flesh had rotted, and his bed was full of worms”: 5 of history’s most eccentric hermits

American billionaire Howard Hughes (shown here in a car in 1947) went from a visionary filmmaker to a germ-obsessed recluse, dying in 1976. (Photo by Getty Images)
American billionaire Howard Hughes (shown here in a car in 1947) went from a visionary filmmaker to a germ-obsessed recluse, dying in 1976. (Photo by Getty Images)

In a world of coronavirus-induced restrictions and intermittent lockdowns (not a new state of affairs by any means), solitude is something many of us have experienced more than we might have liked. But throughout history there have been those who have sought isolation intentionally – even going so far as to becoming hermits.

Here are five famous examples from the past, from the ‘hermit fo hire’ who was employed to add a certain je ne sais quoi in one Georgian-era property, to the Welsh holy man who died of shock when subjected to a bath. | Read more

10

The secrets of the Viking Great Army

Ivar the Bonelss arrives in England
This illuminated manuscript (c1130) depicts the arrival of Ivar the Boneless and the Great Heathen Army in England (Photo by Alamy)

The Viking Great Army – sometimes called the Great Heathen Army – caused chaos and confusion as it cleaved through the kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England in the latter half of the 9th century, presaging the creation of the Danelaw and famously forcing Alfred the Great to hide in the Somerset Levels (where he, equally famously, ‘burned the cakes’).

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It’s also steeped in myth, tied to the legends of famous Vikings such as Ivar the Boneless and embellished by shows such as The Last Kingdom and Michael Hirst’s Vikings. What do we know for certain? Professor Julian Richards of the University of York investigates why the Great Army was unlike any previously known Viking force, why it was not an ‘army’ in the modern sense, and why it was probably much bigger than is commonly believed. | Read more