Illustrations by Andy Tuohy.
Here are the top 10 historical figures that were grabbing your attention in 2016. Starting with…
10) Adolf Hitler
Our Hot 100 survey features the historical figures that most interested you, which does not mean that they were liked – a fact perhaps most strikingly illustrated in 2016’s 10th-highest entry.
“Hitler is profoundly significant historically, and a recent biography and revelations about his private life mean that he has not been far from the news recently,” says expert Roger Moorhouse. And interest in the Nazi leader shows no signs of abating: indeed, in 2016 he finished five places higher than in the previous year.
9) William Marshal
Knight, advisor, tournament fighter: William Marshal (c1147–1219) had quite the CV – not to mention the five kings he called employers (Henry II, Henry the Young King, Richard, John and Henry III).
“Two aspects of his life stand out,” says Thomas Asbridge, author of the Marshal biography The Greatest Knight (Simon & Schuster, 2015). “Firstly, his unprecedented rise to the heights of power and social status, and secondly, the abiding sense that he believed in the value of chivalry and honour.”
8) Thomas Cromwell
Henry VIII’s chief statesman Thomas Cromwell (c1485–1540) fell four places from 2015, perhaps because the TV adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall was then fresher in our minds. A skilled adviser, Cromwell was still executed for treason (one of the many people in this list to meet a sticky end).
“Cromwell masterminded some of the most seismic events in our history, from the break with Rome to the revolution in government,” says historian Tracy Borman. “Far more than a cynical bureaucrat in search of personal gain, he was committed to reform, and undoubtedly Henry VIII’s most faithful servant.”
7) Eleanor of Aquitaine
One of the wealthiest, most powerful European women of her time, Eleanor of Aquitaine (c1122–1204) was queen consort of Louis VII of France, wife of Henry II and queen of England.
Several voters cited her status as a female role model as their reason for her nomination. “Arguably the most powerful woman of the High Middle Ages, and a great historical figure for young girls to look up to,” said Noelle Greenwood, while Wendy Ruocco enthused about “a woman who survived in a man’s world, not merely because of beauty but for her brain, to equal and even surpass the difficult men in her life”.
June Purvis, emeritus professor of women’s and gender history at the University of Portsmouth, comments:
“Thirty per cent of the 2016 list is made up of women. The female figures in the list are overwhelmingly queens or members of the landed gentry, giving us a lopsided view of women in the past. Some important social reformers, such as Constance Markievicz and Emmeline Pankhurst, do feature. Yet other remarkable women do not: Mary Carpenter, who set up schools for children of the street, and Marie Stopes, who worked to free women from unwanted pregnancies. Mary Wollstonecraft, founder of Anglo-American feminism, does not make it in either, while Karl Marx does. It will be interesting to see how things develop next year.”
6) Winston Churchill
Along with Adolf Hitler, British prime minister Winston Churchill (1874–1965) is the only other figure in the top 10 to have been alive within the past century – suggesting that the Second World War remains the event from the modern era that stands out most in people’s minds.
“Churchill is a hardy perennial on lists such as these,” says historian Andrew Roberts. “It seems like much less than half a century ago since he died, so ever-present is he in the national consciousness. Both sides in last year’s EU referendum have argued he would have supported their position, underlining his continued ubiquity.”
5) Henry VIII
He may be one of the most famous kings in history, yet Henry VIII (1491–1547) was not nominated by any of the experts who took part in this poll – making him the highest-placed individual to achieve this dubious honour. So why is he so fascinating? Some of you noted the theory, made in 2016, that a jousting injury had permanently affected his character. Others cited his “fearsome temper” and “hideous personal life”. Of course Henry’s reign also led to seismic and permanent changes to the role of parliament, the nation’s religious identity and relationship with the rest of the world.
Tudor historian Tracy Borman comments:
“The tales of the Tudors are so remarkable, they read like a far-fetched soap opera. So the Tudors have, once again, stolen nearly all of the top slots. They dominate the bestseller lists, are rarely off our screens, and make people flock to places such as Hampton Court. I freely admit to suffering from what one journalist recently termed ‘Tudormania’. So what is it about these monarchs that continue to hold us in such thrall 500 years later?
Much of the appeal is obvious. The tales of these larger-than-life characters are so remarkable that they read like a far-fetched soap opera. And in the background are seismic events: the Reformation, revolution in government, overseas exploration and unprecedented vibrancy in the arts. It was a stridently self-confident era.
Yet for me, one of the most compelling reasons for our love of all things Tudor is the portraiture. Thanks to the rise of realism in art during the Renaissance, we can get a clear sense not only of their appearance and the magnificence of their dress, but of their character too. It brings long-dead monarchs tantalisingly close.
So that’s one theory: extraordinary characters and events + realistic portraiture = long-lasting popularity. But the true appeal of the Tudors goes beyond this simple formula. They spark an unquantifiable emotional reaction that keeps us coming back for more. And, as far as I’m concerned, long may it continue!”
4) Anne Boleyn
Four of Henry VIII’s six wives make this year’s list, but Anne Boleyn (c1501–1536) stands out for her tumultuous political and personal life. Henry’s infatuation with her sparked the English Reformation, but Anne failed to give him the son he longed for and was executed following charges of conspiracy. Debate about whether she was guilty or the victim of court intrigue still rages, even among those who voted in this poll: “An ambitious climber who won the crown but eventually paid the price,” observed Carol Head, but Laura Emilie argued that Boleyn’s “legacy had been tarnished by the intentions of others”.
3) William Shakespeare
Britain’s most famous writer broke into the top 10 on the back of the 400th anniversary of his death. Shakespeare’s diverse set of plays and sonnets have had an enormous impact on global culture, and many remain as evocative and stirring as they were centuries ago.
Born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564, much about the playwright’s life remains a mystery. Yet the fevered speculation about everything from his authorship to his sexuality is perhaps only a reflection of our fascination with the Bard.
Paul Edmondson, head of learning and research at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, comments:
“Four hundred years after his death, Shakespeare is more popular than ever – as proven by his elevated ranking on 2016’s Hot 100 list. Interestingly, he is only beaten by two individuals who played an important role in his life and career. Elizabeth I, for instance, enjoyed Shakespeare’s plays over the Christmas seasons from 1594. Yet his works aren’t just for kings and queens: everyone who loves Shakespeare throughout the world inherits his legacy and can celebrate his life and works.”
2) Elizabeth I
Often cited by those who nominated her as “England’s best ruler”, Elizabeth I (1533–1603) is hailed for her political prowess, her lengthy reign and her navy’s victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588. Yet many of you also cited her personal attributes and her romantic life as reasons for their choice: “She needed no man!” stressed one voter, while another praised her “tenacity and refusal to compromise”. Whichever aspect most appeals, it seems that much about Elizabeth’s reign – from its imagery and court to its spirit of adventure – continues to grab our imagination.
1) Richard III
He’s loved, he’s loathed, he’s been dug up and reburied: emerging victorious once again, it’s the divisive Plantagenet king Richard III (1452–85). Killed in battle at Bosworth and hastily buried at Grey Friars in Leicester, his remains were uncovered in an archaeological dig in 2012. DNA tests on the skeleton confirmed that it was that of the king, and it was reburied in the city’s cathedral in a service watched by millions.
Yet not all of the attention afforded to Richard is positive. He remains controversial due to his suspected involvement in the disappearance of his nephews, the princes in the tower, who make their first appearance the 2016 list (at number 65). The debate over his role has raged for centuries and, as his continued dominance of this poll suggests, looks set to secure him in the public consciousness for years to come.
Chris Skidmore, author of Richard III: Brother, Protector, King, comments:
“It’s no surprise that Richard continues to capture the popular imagination: even without the discovery of his body and recent reburial, his story is pure drama that rivals his Shakespearean caricature and makes him box-office material. Richard’s life and reign may ultimately have ended in failure, but he has inspired generations to fight against a ‘Tudor version’ of history and clear his name. I’m sure he will continue to fascinate and appeal in equal measure for centuries.”
The best of the rest: entries 11-100
Click here to see a larger version of this table.
Historian and author Dan Jones comments on 2016’s list in full:
It has become a cliché to say that history in Britain, from the classroom to the BBC, is mostly about Tudors and Nazis. As with most clichés, this springs from a truth. The top five entries in 2016’s Hot 100 all have some connection to the Tudors: ranging from Richard III, whom Henry VII knocked off his perch at the battle of Bosworth in 1485, to Shakespeare, who entertained Tudor theatregoers in the 1590s by writing about that same incident. Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, the three lead characters in Wolf Hall, occupy positions four, five and eight.
Hot on their tails are Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler – reflecting our continuing fascination with the Second World War above all other conflicts, despite all the public remembrance that has accompanied the First World War’s centenary.
So it is almost a Tudor-Nazi clean sweep. But not quite. Squeaking into the top 10 are two great figures of the English Middle Ages: the soldier and statesman William Marshal, and Eleanor of Aquitaine, the 12th-century queen whom Marshal served as a young man. The Plantagenets have arrived. I am saying nothing.
The extended list includes some lesser-studied figures: the Hungarian general John Hunyadi and Scottish courtesan Grace Dalrymple Elliott are hardly household names. But they have some way to go to break into next year’s top 10, let alone threaten the dominance of Richard III, who topped the chart for a second year running in 2016. First he helps Leicester City win the Premier League and now this. Is there anything the great man cannot do?
Want to have your say? Cast your vote for 2017’s Hot 100 list here.