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Are these the most overrated people in history?

We asked a panel of expert historians to reveal who they consider to be the most overvalued personalities from the past. Some of them may well surprise you...

Winston Churchill, former prime minister of the United Kingdom, gives his 'victory' sign while making a polling day tour of his constituency during an election. (Getty Images)
Published: January 5, 2013 at 1:11 pm
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Spartacus (died 71 BC)

Chosen by Peter Jones


From Private Eye’s Dave Spart and the numerous Spartak soccer teams, through movies to Khachaturian’s opera ballet Spartacus, the slave who in 73 BC masterminded a break-out from a gladiatorial school in Capua has justifiably been celebrated as a hero of the oppressed.

Like Hannibal, a superb general and leader of men, defeating Roman army after army, Spartacus guided his raggle-taggle collection of slaves to the very borders of Gaul to disperse into freedom. But no. They turned back into Italy. Fatal error.

Spartacus, a Thracian, had served in the Roman army. He should have known that Romans never gave up. The worse they were beaten, the harder they always came back – as Hannibal also, too late, had found out. In 71 BC Spartacus’s army was trapped and annihilated, the survivors crucified along the Appian Way. All that – for nothing.

Peter Jones is the author of Vote for Caesar (Orion, 2009)


Matilda (1102-67)

Chosen by Anna Whitelock

Matilda was the daughter of Henry I and the mother of Henry II of England, who many claim to have been the first queen regnant of England. She wasn’t. Though named to succeed her father she failed to overcome obstacles to female succession in the 12th century and so never became a reigning queen. Her cousin Stephen won the throne instead.

Matilda did secure the accession of her son, Henry, and did show how much could, and could not, be achieved by a female heir to the throne in the 12th century. Lady of the English, yes, but not queen of England.

Anna Whitelock is author of Mary Tudor: England’s First Queen (Bloomsbury, 2009)


Henry V (1387-1422)

Chosen by Tom Holland

Thanks to William Shakespeare, Henry V enjoys a greater aura of heroism than any other British monarch. The reality, almost by definition, is a good deal less dramatic. Henry V was as disastrous a king as any who has sat on the throne of England. His decision to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels, and renew a war that had appeared ended, was sordid and opportunistic. Agincourt itself, a victory won by a combination of French incompetence and English technological prowess, was a triumph snatched from the jaws of the disaster into which Henry had almost led his army. His subsequent campaigns brought wolves to the outskirts of Paris, and blowback to England.

For a century and a half after his death, the mirage of winning a second Agincourt continued to tantalise a succession of English kings – with unfailingly disastrous consequences. England, and France as well, could have done without the touch of Harry.

Tom Holland is author of The Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire (Doubleday, 2011)


Edward IV (1442-83)

Chosen by Nigel Saul

Long praised for his reassertion of order after Henry VI’s chaotic rule and – unsurprisingly – for his success in restoring royal finances, Edward IV actually achieved very little. His reign provides a classic case of the triumph of style over substance.

It is true that his court was magnificent, and he cut a fine figure as a ruler. Moreover, he knew how to build, as his magnificent remodelling of St George’s Chapel, Windsor, shows. But think of his legacy. Abroad, when he had the chance to emulate the successes in France of his predecessor Edward III, he backed off, choosing instead to take a pension from the French king. At home, by his ill-judged marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, he divided the nobility, sowing the seeds for his brother’s usurpation and ultimately for the overthrow of the house of York.

Edward IV’s failings were those of Charles II two centuries later: laziness, superficiality and self-indulgence. Like him, he was simply a merry monarch determined never to go on his travels again.

Nigel Saul is the author of For Honour and Fame: Chivalry in England, 1066–1500 (The Bodley Head, 2011)


Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-87)

Chosen by Tracy Borman

Mary, Queen of Scots is commonly viewed as one of the most tragic heroines in history. Ousted queen, ill-treated wife and long-term prisoner of Elizabeth I, she has been hailed as a Catholic martyr.

Poor Mary? Rubbish! She was a pampered princess, whose privileged upbringing at the French court gave her no idea of what was needed to rule effectively. Contrast this with her great rival, Elizabeth, who was raised in the school of hard knocks, which included having her mother executed and enduring numerous brushes with the Tower herself. Little wonder that Elizabeth ruled with the head, not the heart.

By contrast, statecraft always took second place for Mary. An appalling judge of character, she married the preening Lord Darnley and then complained when he turned out to be a bad lot. She promptly married the chief suspect in his murder, Lord Bothwell. By then, most of the Scots were fed up with her, so they kicked her out and she threw herself on the mercy of her cousin Elizabeth. Bad move. Elizabeth wasted no time in placing her rival under house arrest. Mary languished in prison until she was silly enough to involve herself in a conspiracy to overthrow the English queen. She had effectively signed her own death warrant.

Tracy Borman is the author of Matilda: Queen of the Conqueror (Jonathan Cape, 2011)


John Locke (1632-1704)

Chosen by Justin Champion

Locke was lucky. Like many of his more interesting contemporaries, he was well connected and wrote and thought a good deal. But his good fortune was to have left a well-preserved archive. Volumes of letters, numerous drafts of his works, commonplace books and other notebooks, as well as a number of bestselling works on philosophy, political theory and religion have meant that subsequent historians of ideas have confected a massive ‘Locke industry’. He sells more books globally now than he ever did.

Locke’s versions of the origins of government, the nature of knowledge, and the grounds for religious toleration have come to dominate accounts of 18th‑century ideas, arguably out of all proportion to the understanding of his contemporaries. His arguments about the nature of political obligation have distorted modern accounts of liberty; his defence of tolerance – essentially a theological position – is regarded as the best defence of liberty of thought (despite it being fundamentally a Christian argument). The hegemony of the legacy of Lockean liberalism has warped our understanding of the 17th and 18th centuries: arguably it has also defined the shape of the political discourse of the modern world.

Without Locke, more time and energy, and hopefully veneration, might have been devoted to his contemporaries – the worlds of the Ranters and Levellers, of the Republican traditions of John Milton, James Harrington and later Benedict Spinoza. For many historians, Locke has been a safe pair of hands, uncontaminated by radical commitments. A nice chap, but definitely overrated.

Justin Champion is professor of the history of early modern ideas at Royal Holloway, University of London


Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821)

Chosen by Saul David

Napoleon, emperor of France from 1804 to 1814 and again, briefly, during the Hundred Days of 1815, is considered the finest military commander of his era, and one of the greatest of all time. Does he deserve to be ranked alongside Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Julius Caesar, Gustavus Adolphus? Was he a better general than, say, Suvorov or the Duke of Wellington? Not in my opinion.

Few of those generals lost a major engagement. Napoleon, on the other hand, was bested in at least three – Caldiero, Aspern-Essling and Waterloo – and even some of his greatest victories, like Austerlitz and Marengo, were close-run affairs, won more by luck than judgement. But the greatest stain on his record was the Russian campaign of 1812 when he was undone not by the enemy commanders – though Borodino, where he lost 35,000 men, was as close as any ‘victory’ comes to being pyrrhic – but by General Winter and a failure of logistics. He marched in with 400,000 men and left with fewer than 10,000 effectives. Enough said.

Saul David is the author of All The King’s Men: The British Soldier from the Restoration to Waterloo (Viking, 2012)


William Wilberforce (1759-1833)

Chosen by Edward Vallance

William Wilberforce has been the subject of popular biographies and Hollywood blockbusters (2007’s Amazing Grace). Doubtless Wilberforce was the most prominent and influential British advocate of the abolition of the slave trade. However, many of the recent depictions and commemorations of his life obscure the less appealing aspects of his character. Wilberforce was a social and moral conservative who supported Christian missionary activity in India in order to combat the “ignorance and degradation” of Hinduism and who opposed significant democratic reform of the British political system at the same time as he campaigned tirelessly for the emancipation of slaves.

In respect of these beliefs, Wilberforce was like many men of his class who engaged in philanthropic activity at the same time as preaching up socio-economic inequality as divinely ordained. This doesn’t make Wilberforce a historically insignificant figure but it does make him less than a saint.

Edward Vallance is the author of A Radical History of Britain (Abacus, 2010)


Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

Chosen by Andrew Roberts

I’ve never been able to fathom the secular deity accorded to Oscar Wilde. So many of his gags seem simply to be mere inversions of popular saws of the day. His decision to sue the Marquess of Queensberry for libel, when Queensberry had accurately accused him of sodomy, was a disgracefully dishonest thing to do; yet Wilde is always held up as a monument to Truth.

His essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism is naive and even ludicrous. Doubtless he was wonderfully funny company, and some of his books and plays are sublime, but he doesn’t strike me as the admirable, almost saint-like figure that his supporters promote.

Andrew Roberts is the author of The Storm of War (Penguin, 2010)


Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

Chosen by Patricia Fara 

Showing great forethought for anniversary organisers of the future, Charles Darwin wrote his most famous book when he was exactly 50 years old. On the Origin of Species (1859) is expertly argued, beautifully written and packed with convincing, meticulous evidence. But… Darwin did not invent evolution, his opponents were not all religious bigots insisting that the Earth was created 6,000 years ago, he avoided mentioning how life might have been created in the first place, and he did not include human beings in his scheme.

A sloppy collector, Darwin tossed unlabelled finches from neighbouring islands into the same bag to be sorted out later by somebody else; and while he was dithering about whether to publish, a young naturalist working in Malaysia came up with natural selection independently. The world, wrote Darwin, resembles “one great slaughter-house, one universal scene of rapacity and injustice” – but that eloquent evocation of the ruthless competition for survival was written not by Charles Darwin, but by his grandfather Erasmus.

Patricia Fara is the author of Science: A Four Thousand Year History (OUP, 2010)


Lord Baden-Powell (1857-1941)

Chosen by Denis Judd

Baden-Powell became internationally famous on two counts: one was as the charismatic commanding officer at the siege of Mafeking during the Boer War; the other was as the founder of the worldwide scouting movement.

Yet, from the beginning of his fame, his reputation has been attacked and subject to much criticism. He has long been accused of being conceited, cranky and too opinionated. He was also a tireless self-publicist, something laconically noted by The Times correspondent covering the siege of Mafeking. A controversy still rages as to whether he caused the deaths of many Africans there by denying them adequate rations and driving them out of the town to fend for themselves. He later played down the African contribution to Mafeking’s defence, even falsely claiming: “At the first shots they ran away.”

As founder of the Boy Scouts he seemed unduly concerned with the ‘sin’ of masturbation. Finally, he was initially an admirer of fascism, describing Mein Kampf as “a wonderful book”. All in all, a very mixed record indeed.

Denis Judd’s Empire: The British Imperial Experience from 1765 to the Present has recently been republished by IB Tauris


Winston Churchill (1874-1965)

Chosen by Christopher Lee

My father called Churchill the Greatest Englishman. Certainly he was a very British Bulldog war leader. But what else? As Asquith’s president of the board of trade, apart from Labour Exchanges he created little. As home secretary he was over zealous in using the military. In the Admiralty, his Dardanelles campaign demonstrated hopeless judgement. When secretary for war and air, he was all for intervening in the aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution. Thank goodness Lloyd George said no.

As colonial secretary he cared little for the consequences of his ambitions in the carving up of Mesopotamia. Baldwin made him chancellor. Five budgets and returning to the Gold Standard demonstrated little economic scholarship. His opposition to Indian independence did no service to the people of the subcontinent. In 1951, he was too ill to fulfil his obligations as prime minister. He was not big enough to say so.

If it had not been for the fact that he led Britain to victory in the Second World War, we would have scant memory of Churchill. My late father would cuff me for saying so, but Churchill’s reputation is overrated. He changed nothing.

Christopher Lee is editor of the abridged edition of Churchill’s A History of the English-Speaking Peoples (Skyhorse, 2011)


Malcolm X (1925-1965)

Chosen by Amanda Foreman

Malcolm X is often considered more ‘real’ than his peaceful counterpart, Martin Luther King, and certainly his equal in the civil rights movement. But the truth is, Malcolm X was a brilliant public speaker who squandered his influence by championing the Nation of Islam (NOI), a black separatist movement that was accused of espousing a creed full of bigotry and violence. The NOI was conspicuously absent at the famous March on Washington organised by King in 1963. A year later, an increasingly disillusioned Malcolm X renounced the NOI, and in 1965 began preaching a new message of hope for social change and integration. This infuriated his former colleagues; he was shot and killed while addressing an audience in Manhattan.

Though a fascinating and tragic figure, Malcolm X should not be credited with the great changes achieved by Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Thurgood Marshall or Medgar Evers, and does not deserve to be placed among their ranks.

Amanda Foreman is the author of A World on Fire (Allen Lane, 2010)


This article was first published in the January 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine


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