The most popular historical figures you've (probably) never heard of
Earlier this year we asked you to vote for the historical figures you’ve been talking about, in our History Hot 100 poll. After being tallied, examined and analysed, the results are in. While the list is dominated by well-known names, some more unusual entries also got your votes. Here we investigate some of the most fascinating but (perhaps) unfamiliar figures that made it into this year’s list…
Charlotte of Wales
The beloved heir to the English throne, who died tragically young
Princess Charlotte of Wales (1796–1817) was the only child of the future king George IV and his wife, Caroline of Brunswick. During Charlotte’s lifetime her grandfather George III was king, placing her second in line to the throne.
Charlotte’s parents had a notoriously tempestuous marriage, separating when she was a child. She was prevented from regular contact with her mother and had a stormy relationship with her father, who placed strict rules on her conduct. Charlotte, however, proved far from easy to control. In one memorable dispute, the wilful young princess came to blows with her father when she broke off an engagement he had arranged. Her intended husband, the future king of the Netherlands, had stated that Charlotte’s mother, due to her disreputable reputation, would not be welcome in their marital home. Scandal ensued as Charlotte ran away from her father’s house, to much public excitement.
Following this furore, the princess was eventually allowed to marry a prince of her own choosing — Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. It was a happy marriage and Charlotte described her husband as “the perfection of a lover”. The glamorous royal couple proved immensely popular and Charlotte soon fell pregnant. Hopes for a healthy heir were not fulfilled, however. Charlotte’s son was stillborn, and she herself died soon after, aged just 21.
Charlotte’s death prompted an outpouring of public grief. In contrast to her unpopular father and grandfather she was loved by the British people and had been a beacon of hope for the regeneration of the monarchy. Following the death of Charlotte and her son, the line of royal inheritance was redirected to George IV’s niece, Victoria.
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An Irish nationalist countess known for her role in the 1916 Easter Rising
On paper, Constance Markievicz (1868–1927) was an unlikely candidate for a violent revolutionary. Born into a wealthy landowning family, in 1901 Constance married a Polish count. She went on to forge a career as a respected landscape artist.
By 1908, however, Markievicz had left the art world behind to participate in the politics of Irish nationalism. She was involved in several different organisations, including Sinn Féin and Daughters of Ireland, a militant Irish suffragette movement. Markievitz also helped to found Na Fianna Éireann – a militaristic and nationalistic form of Boy Scouts – and was involved in community projects to help Dublin’s needy.
By engaging in Irish nationalism the countess was playing a dangerous game. In 1911 she was arrested for taking part in an anti-royalist demonstration, but it is for her involvement in the 1916 Easter Rising that she is most renowned. This year marks the centenary of the Rising, which could partly explain Markievicz’s place in our 2016 History Hot 100 poll.
As Ireland was plunged into revolution in 1916, Markievicz became a figurehead for home rule and took an active role in the fighting. After it became clear that the rebellion was doomed, the countess reportedly kissed her revolver before surrendering it to the English. She was the only woman to be court-martialed for insurrection and found guilty; she was condemned to “death by being shot”. The penalty was, however, commuted to penal servitude for life “solely and only on account of her sex”, and Markievicz served just 13 months in prison.
This close call did not put an end to Markievicz’s political activism, though. In the 1918 general election she became the first woman ever elected to the House of Commons. Markievicz did not take her seat however - as a member of Sinn Féin, she refused to swear allegiance to the English king.
The revolutionary countess Constance Markievicz. (Bettman/Getty)
The pharaoh who tried to revolutionise Egyptian religion
Pharaoh Akhenaten (c1353–1336 BC) was most notable for his unprecedented attempts to revolutionise Egypt’s entire belief system. After centuries of polytheism [the worship of more than one god], Akhenaten asserted that the Egyptian people should worship only one god – the sun god Aten. This was possibly a power play from the pharaoh intended to undermine Egypt’s powerful priests by establishing himself as the primary channel for reaching God. He threw all his might behind the effort, building an entire city named Akhetaten, with a population of more than 20,000, as a centre for the worship of Aten.
Later generations vilified Akhenaten for his attempts to enforce monotheism and his successors were quick to backtrack on the changes he had made. The temples he had closed were re-established and the city of Akhetaten was dismantled and abandoned.
Although his reign marked a remarkable period in ancient Egyptian history, Akhenaten has been some what overshadowed by his star-studded relatives. The pharaoh was husband to Queen Nerfertiti and father of the most famous Egyptian of all – Tutankhamun.
While digging in the Valley of the Kings in 1907, archaeologist Edward Ayrton found a royal tomb (KV55) containing a mysterious unidentified mummy. DNA testing later confirmed this body to be the father of Tutankhamun and so it is generally believed to be that of Akhenaten.
Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten. (DEA/G Dagli Orti/De Agostini/Getty Images)
The reforming medieval king remembered for strengthening his nation
You may never have heard of Hungarian king Matthias I (1443–90). But at number 19 in this year’s History Hot 100 poll, he ranked higher than Oliver Cromwell, Queen Victoria and Julius Caesar.
In 1458, Matthias, also known as Matthias Corvinus, was elected king of Hungary. His election was controversial – he was the first noble without dynastic ancestry to become Hungarian king, and there were several other strong contenders for the throne. As a consequence he faced considerable opposition from both foreign enemies and homegrown rivals who aimed to seize his throne.
The Hungarians remember Matthias as a king who asserted the nation’s strength and independence on the global stage. As well as forging strong links with foreign nations, Matthias defended Hungary against the threat of Habsburg expansion and made substantial land conquests. He also led campaigns against the Turks, Frederick III Holy Roman Emperor and the Ottomans.
The king considerably reformed the Hungarian state, raising huge taxes to improve the nation’s administration, judicial systems and army. He was also a patron of science and the arts, founding the Corvina library – one of medieval Europe’s biggest collections of books.
Matthias remains a popular figure in Hungarian folklore. Following his death, his reign was longingly remembered with the popular phrase “Matthias is dead, lost is justice”.
A Georgian lady involved in the courtroom sex scandal of the century
In 1775, the wealthy and desirable heiress Seymour Fleming (1758–1818) married Sir Richard Worsley in an arranged marriage. The couple were poorly suited, however, and it quickly proved to be an unhappy match.
The marriage reached breaking point in 1781. After a string of affairs with various lovers, Lady Worsley eloped with her husband’s friend, Captain George Bisset. Enraged, Lord Worsley filed a criminal conversation case (which sought financial compensation for the seduction of his wife) against Bisset, for a crippling sum of £20,000.
A bitter and salacious courtroom battle ensued. With nothing to lose, Lady Worsley unexpectedly turned the tables on her husband, opening up her sex life to public scrutiny, in defence of her lover: she allowed her doctor and several of her 27 reported lovers to present shocking testimonies about her sex life in order to undermine Lord Worsley’s claim. Scandalous revelations were brought to light proving that Bisset was far from Seymour’s only lover and insinuating that her husband had even encouraged her extra-marital affairs. It emerged that Seymour had contracted venereal disease from the Marquess of Graham and that Lord Worsley had encouraged Bisset to spy on his wife naked at the baths. Lord Worsley’s claim was so badly damaged as a result of these revelations that he was awarded only a shilling in compensation.
After the scandal of the court case, Seymour’s reputation was in tatters. Bisset abandoned her and she was forced to live as a professional mistress, surviving on the generosity of rich men. She was later caught up in the French Revolution and it is thought that she was imprisoned for several months during the reign of terror.
Last year, Seymour’s remarkable story was dramatised in BBC Two’s The Scandalous Lady W.
The 17th-century polymath who wanted to know it all
Polymath Thomas Browne (1605–82) was a remarkable mind who exercised his curiosity far and wide. He investigated many eclectic fields of study, from science and medicine to religion, history and philosophy, and published several works on his varied interests, including Religio Medici and Pseudodoxia Epidemica. Browne was also a prolific collector, antiquarian and ‘zodiographer’ (a word of his own invention, used to describe someone who studies and describes animals).
Known for his remarkably varied, witty and original writing style, Browne introduced a staggering amount of new words to the English language. The Oxford English Dictionary credits him with the first usage of more than 780 words including ‘approximate’, ‘electricity’, ‘medical’ and ‘computer’.
Browne’s position in this year’s Hot 100 could be partly due to the recent publication of The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century by Hugh Aldersey-Williams. In 2017, an exhibition at London’s Royal College of Physicians plans to display Browne’s ‘cabinet of rarities’– a collection of artefacts, books, paintings and animal and plant samples.
The 17th-century English polymath, Thomas Browne. (Archive Photos/Getty Images)
A medieval lady involved in one of the most remarkable relationships of the 14th century
The most fascinating chapter in Katherine Swynford’s unconventional life (1350–1403) began when she joined the household of John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster and son of King Edward III.
Katherine was a French noblewoman married to one of Gaunt’s tenants, Hugh Swynford, with whom she had two or three children. She was appointed as governess to Gaunt’s daughters. At some point after the death of John’s first wife, Blanche, in 1368, he and Katherine began a romantic affair. Despite John remarrying in 1371, his relationship with Katherine lasted for several years and the couple had four illegitimate children together.
In 1396, two years after the death of John’s second wife, he and Katherine finally married, more than 20 years after the birth of their first child together. Katherine became known as the Duchess of Lancaster and the couple’s children, known as the Beauforts, were retrospectively legitimated, on the provision that they never made a claim for the English throne. Descendants of the Beauforts did eventually take the English throne, however – Katherine and John’s eldest son was an ancestor of Henry VII.
Hungarian premier and leader of the 1956 uprising
Another Hungarian entry on this year’s list, Imre Nagy (1896–1958) was the figurehead of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.
Nagy himself was a communist who had fought for the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution. After returning to his home country, Nagy took on several key political roles in the Hungarian government, becoming premier in 1953. Despite a continued belief in the value of Marxism, Nagy became disillusioned with the Soviet style of communist rule. His relationship with the Soviets became increasingly unstable and he was twice forced out of government.
In 1956, Nagy became the leading figure of the Hungarian Revolution – a nationwide, spontaneous uprising against the country’s Soviet-controlled communist government. After being reinstated as premier, Nagy announced Hungary’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact. However, despite his appeals to the UN and western Europe for support, the uprising was brutally suppressed by a Soviet invasion. When leaving the sanctuary of the Yugoslav embassy he was hiding in following the failed revolt, Nagy was betrayed and captured. He was secretly tried for treason alongside the uprising’s other ringleaders and executed by hanging in June 1958.
Hungarian statesman Imre Nagy. (Ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Patrick and William Pearse
The Irish nationalist brothers involved in the 1916 Easter Rising
Brothers Patrick and William Pearse were two more figures on this year’s Hot 100 list involved in the 1916 Easter Rising.
Elder brother Patrick was a teacher, barrister, poet and writer who became central figure in the Irish nationalist movement. As well as dedicating himself to reforming education and resurrecting the Irish language, he became heavily involved with the more extreme sections of the Irish Volunteers movement and played a key role in organising the 1916 Easter Rising.
Patrick’s younger brother William was a promising sculptor who also joined the fight for home rule. During the Rising, the brothers were stationed together at the rebel headquarters at Dublin’s General Post Office.
After the Rising had failed, Patrick was court-martialled for his role as a ringleader. Despite the fact that he most likely didn’t partake in any actual violence, he had been a strong figurehead for the rebellion and his writing had lent it much support. After pleading guilty and asking for mercy towards the other participants, Patrick was executed by firing squad. William met the same fate. Although he had only played only a minor role in the Rising, he was condemned by his long-lasting involvement with Sinn Féin and his family connection to Patrick.
Patrick Pearse, the Irish writer, educator and nationalist. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The Viking warrior with a cult TV following
To fans of the American network television series Vikings, the name Ragnar Lothbrok will immediately conjure up a familiar hero. The popular show takes Lothbrok as its central protagonist, which probably explains his place in this year’s list.
According to Norse legend, poetry and sagas, Ragnar Lothbrok was a fearsome raider and warrior. He is most famously recorded as the leader of the Viking Siege of Paris in 845, in which 120 Viking longboats sailed up the Seine to sack the city. Lothbrok is also said to have fathered many famous Viking figures including Ubba, Bjorn Ironside and Ivar the Boneless – the leaders of the Great Heathen Army that invaded the British Isles in 865. There are several differing accounts of Ragnar’s death, the most exciting of which sees him thrown into a pit of serpents by his great enemy, Aella of Northumbria.
However, the extent to which Ragnar was a historic figure or legendary character remains unclear. While it’s generally accepted there was at least one real man named Ragnar Lothbrok, the legendary character is most likely a mixture of several different figures and dramatic invention.
You can find the complete History Hot 100 list in BBC History Magazine’s July 2016 issue, which is on sale now.
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