Ancient Egyptian pharaoh
One of only a few known ancient Egyptian female pharaohs, Hatshepsut reigned in her own right from c1473–58 BC. However, Hatshepsut’s royal reign really began in c1479 BC when she acted as regent for her infant stepson, Thutmose III. By the end of his seventh regnal year, Hatshepsut had been crowned king and had adopted all pharaonic titles and regalia, co-ruling with her stepson. In images, she was depicted with a male body wearing the traditional pharaonic kilt, crown and false beard.
William the Conqueror (c1028–87)
First Norman king of England
The first Norman king of England, William the Conqueror (previously William, Duke of Normandy) defeated the Anglo-Saxon king Harold II at the battle of Hastings on 14 October 1066 – a triumph famously recorded in the Bayeux Tapestry. William the Conqueror transformed the face of Anglo-Saxon England: he secured his hold on the lands he had invaded, replacing the English ruling class with Norman counterparts and building defensive fortresses at strategic points throughout the kingdom. Under William the feudal system [a hierarchical system in which people held lands in return for providing loyalty or services to a lord] was introduced; the church was reorganised and England’s links to Europe were strengthened. But no one at the time called William ‘the Conqueror’ – the earliest recorded use of that nickname occurred in the 1120s, and the name didn’t become commonplace until the 13th century.
Alexander the Great (356 BC–323 BC)
King of Macedonia
When the son of Philip II of Macedon inherited the throne in 336 BC, he set about reasserting Macedonian authority in Greece, aiming to conquer the Persian empire. By the time of his death in Babylon at the age of 32, Alexander had created an empire that spanned three continents and covered around 2 million square miles. Commenting on what makes Alexander the Great such a ‘great’ leader, historian Professor Paul Cartledge said: “He combined immense personal charisma and bravery (he often led his troops from the front). Plus he had a priceless ability to identify the key moment in a battle and act decisively to ensure he won that moment.”
Julius Caesar (100 BC–44 BC)
Roman ruler, general and statesman
A successful politician and general who greatly expanded the extent of the Roman republic, Julius Caesar seized power in 44 BC, naming himself consul and dictator. He implemented a number of wide-ranging reforms – including the introduction of the Julian calendar – and is considered to have been a great military leader who conquered Gaul and invaded Britain twice. Caesar’s assassination, carried out by a group of republican senators on the Ides of March, was to become the focal point of one of William Shakespeare’s most famous history plays.
Cleopatra (69 BC–30 BC)
Last active pharaoh of ancient Egypt
The last active pharaoh of Egypt, Cleopatra helped bring prosperity to a divided country but is more often remembered for relationships with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, her alleged beauty and her suicide – possibly by snake bite – after defeat by Octavian. She assumed control of Egypt in 51 BC following the death of her father and initially co-ruled with her brother, Ptolemy XII.
Caesar Augustus (63 BC–AD 14)
Considered the first Roman emperor
The man born Gaius Octavius and known as Octavian was adopted by Julius Caesar as his heir. After defeating Antony and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium in 31 BC, he took the name Augustus and became Rome’s first emperor in 27 BC. Read more about Augustus’s bloody rise to power by Adrian Goldsworthy, author of a biography of the emperor.
Jesus Christ (c6-4 BC–30 AD)
Religious leader central to Christianity
Much of the information we have about the life of Jesus comes from the four Gospels, written between c60 and 90 AD – decades after his death. They tell us that Jesus was the son of God, born to the wife of a carpenter in Nazareth, crucified in Jerusalem. Christianity, based on the teachings of Jesus, is the world’s biggest religion with more than 2 billion followers. It originated in the Middle East, and spread across Europe, Syria, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor and Egypt, becoming the Roman empire’s official religion in AD 380.
Ancient British queen of the Iceni tribe
Queen of the Iceni people living in what is now Norfolk and parts of Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, Boudica (also called Boudicca or Boadicea) led a daring revolt against the Romans who invaded Britain in AD 43. Her forces destroyed Colchester – capital of Roman Britain – as well as London and St Albans.
King Arthur (possibly sixth century)
Legendary British warrior and king
This legendary British king takes centre stage in a plethora of TV dramas, film adaptations and novels. Although he is largely considered to be a figure of folklore, some historians – notably archaeologist Miles Russell – suggest that he is a composite of several real medieval characters.
Alfred the Great (849–899)
King of Wessex
Best known for his defeat of the Danish king Guthrum’s Viking forces in 878 at the battle of Edington, Alfred is also remembered for his social and educational reforms. “There are many Anglo-Saxon kings who were great military commanders – what makes Alfred stand out is that he was also interested in learning, and in the promotion of English as a written language,” says Barbara Yorke, professor emerita of early medieval history at the University of Winchester. Part of a pelvic bone thought to belong to the Wessex king was discovered in a box at Winchester Museum in 2014. He is also the only English monarch known as ‘the Great’.
Anglo-Saxon ruler of Mercia
There is little information on Æthelflæd’s childhood; she first appears in the historical record as an adult married to Æthelred of Mercia, who had served King Alfred as a loyal lieutenant. Their marriage brought together the kingdoms of Wessex and the newly reclaimed Mercia. “Æthelflæd is one of the few known women who not only held a role within the household as mother and lady, but also wielded power on the battlefield,” says historian Janina Ramirez. “She went on to secure some of the most significant victories in battle of the early 10th century.”
Harold II c1022–1066
England’s last Anglo-Saxon king
Harold II, also called Harold Godwinson, was the last crowned Anglo-Saxon king of England. He held the crown for nine months before he was killed by Norman invaders under William the Conqueror at the battle of Hastings.
Empress Matilda (1102–67)
Claimant to the English throne
Named heir to the throne by her father, Henry I, Matilda would have been England’s first queen regnant after his death. Instead, however, her cousin Stephen of Blois seized the throne. In the resulting civil war Matilda came within days of coronation before being forced to abandon her claim. Her son was later crowned Henry II.
Eleanor of Aquitaine (c1122–1204)
Queen of France, Queen of England, mother of Richard I and John
Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine, became one of the most powerful women in Europe when she married Louis, heir to Louis VI of France in late July 1137. The French king died the following month and Eleanor became queen of France, a title she would hold for 15 years. Her second marriage to the future Henry II saw her become queen of England. Two of her sons, Richard and John, would go on to become kings of England, while Eleanor herself played a key role in the successful running of Henry’s empire, managing territories in England and France. In 1189 she acted as regent for Richard I when he departed for the Middle East to join the Third Crusade, despite being in her mid-sixties.
Henry II (1133–89)
First Plantagenet king of England
The son of Empress Matilda continued his mother’s fight for the English throne, winning the crown in 1154 following the death of Stephen. Henry II’s feud with Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, ended with Becket’s murder in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170, allegedly on the king’s orders.
William Marshal (c1146/47–1219)
Anglo-Norman soldier and statesman
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.”
His services to the crown included becoming guardian to Prince Henry (later Henry the Young King) and serving as King John’s closest advisor. After John’s death in 1216, Marshal became regent for nine-year-old Henry III. Marshal is seen by many as the architect of Magna Carta.
Richard I (1157–99)
English king, known as ‘the Lionheart’
An expert military tactician, Richard I – also known as Richard the Lionheart – is perhaps the most famous crusader of the Middle Ages (although he ultimately failed to take Jerusalem). He is most notably remembered for his confrontation with the Muslim leader Saladin during the Third Crusade, as well as for rebelling against his father, Henry II (1133–89).
Genghis Khan (1162–1227)
Founder of the Mongol empire
Genghis Khan wasn’t always known as such; he was born in c1162, the son of a tribal warrior chief, and named Temujin. Over the course of a century, Khan and his successors built the largest contiguous empire in the history of the world – the Mongol Empire, a 12-million-square-mile swathe of land that stretched from the Sea of Japan to the grasslands of Hungary in the heart of Europe.
King John (1166/67–1216)
King of England who sealed Magna Carta
King John is perhaps best known as being the king who sealed the historic document Magna Carta. His reign was blighted by civil war, a French invasion and numerous acts of cruelty and betrayal – so it’s no wonder that John remains a controversial monarch. “Many argue that Magna Carta was a long time in gestation, and that many of the grievances expressed in 1215 had been brewing for decades,” says Marc Morris, author of a biography on the much-maligned king. “My view is that more blame should be placed on King John himself.”
Simon de Montfort (c1208–65)
Rebel baron and early of Leicester
French-born nobleman Simon de Montfort came to England in 1229. He quickly became one of King Henry III’s favourites – and was even married to the king’s sister, Eleanor – but went on to lead a revolt against Henry III during the Second Barons’ War. His victory against Henry in May 1264 at the battle of Lewes made him the most powerful man in the kingdom.
Edward I (1239–1307)
King of England
Edward I is considered one of the great medieval kings, credited not just with beginning the unification of the British Isles, but also for masterminding vast improvements to England’s legal system. Son of King Henry III, he was crowned king of England at Westminster Abbey on 19 August 1274.
Isabella of France (1295–1358)
Queen consort of Edward II
Isabella of France married King Edward II of England in Boulogne, northern France, on 25 January 1308 when she was 12 and he was 23. She went on to lead an invasion of England that ultimately resulted in the deposition of her king and husband in January 1327 – the first ever abdication of a king in England.
John of Gaunt (1340–99)
Third surviving son of Edward III
John of Gaunt, third surviving son of King Edward III of England, is notable for being a commander in the Hundred Years’ War. Following the death of his father and his brother Edward the Black Prince, John became effective regent of England during the minority reign of his nephew, Richard II. In October 1399, after overthrowing Richard II, John’s eldest son was crowned Henry IV, the first Lancastrian king of England.
Katherine Swynford (1350–1403)
Third wife of John of Gaunt
In 1396, John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, made the somewhat surprising decision to marry his children’s governess, Katherine Swynford. Katherine – a widow – had previously been the wife of one of Gaunt’s retainers, Hugh Swynford, with whom she had two or possibly three children. She gave birth to four children with John of Gaunt, who were subsequently legitimised under the name ‘Beaufort’ and would go on to found the most famous dynasty in British history: the Tudors.
Owain Glyndwr (c1350–c1416)
Welsh ruler and rebel
Owain Glyndwr was a Welsh leader who instigated a long-running rebellion against English rule in Wales in the 14th century. On 16 September 1400, Glyndŵr was proclaimed Prince of Wales – the last native Welsh person to do so. His fate is uncertain, though one chronicler recorded that he died in 1415. He is considered a Welsh national hero.
Henry V (1387–1422)
King of England and victor at Agincourt
Created Prince of Wales at his father’s coronation in 1399, young Henry’s military prowess was noted at the battle of Shrewsbury in which he fought, aged just 16. Henry V owes much of his reputation as one of England’s greatest medieval warrior kings to William Shakespeare. Henry V (c1599) depicts the transformation of the young prince from wayward youth to heroic ruler, leading England and Wales to victory against the French at the battle of Agincourt – a significant encounter in an era of conflict between the two countries known as the Hundred Years’ War. Henry became heir to the French throne in 1420 but died, probably of dysentery, just two years later, leaving his nine-month-old son to rule as Henry VI.
Joan of Arc (1412–31)
French martyr, saint and military leader
Joan of Arc (c1412–31) became a heroine of the Hundred Years’ War thanks to her actions at the siege of Orléans, only to be executed as a heretic two years later. “Her tale is both profoundly familiar and endlessly startling: the peasant girl sent by God to save France, dressed in armour as though she were a man; the martyr who became a legend – and later a saint – when she was burned at the stake by the English enemy,” says Helen Castor.
Cecily Neville (1415–95)
Mother of Edward IV and Richard III
Cecily Neville, mother of Richard III, is typically glossed over in the story of the Wars of Roses. But behind the scenes, she fought her own war, using intrigue, manipulation and the power of words to support her family’s struggle for power.
Vlad the Impaler (1431–76)
Prince of Wallachia, Romania
Vlad the Impaler – or Vlad III – was prince of Walachia (now in Romania). His methods of punishment – impaling his enemies on stakes – gained him notoriety in 15th century Europe and it is suggested that he may have served as inspiration for Bram Stoker’s acclaimed gothic novel Dracula.
Elizabeth Woodville (1437–92)
Queen consort of Edward IV
A widow and a commoner, Elizabeth Woodville married Edward IV in secret. She was crowned queen in 1465, whereupon she promoted many members of her family to positions of power. Her story was the focus of the 2013 BBC drama The White Queen, based on Philippa Gregory’s historical novel series The Cousins’ War.
Edward IV (1442–83)
First Yorkist king of England
Edward IV became king in 1461 after his Yorkist forces defeated the Lancastrian king Henry VI at the battle of Towton. His reign was interrupted in 1470 when Margaret of Anjou reclaimed the throne for her husband, Henry VI. The remainder of Edward’s rule was fairly peaceful but after his death his sons, Edward and Richard (the ‘princes in the Tower’), disappeared in mysterious circumstances during the reign of his younger brother, Richard III.
Margaret Beaufort (1443–1509)
Mother of King Henry VII
Born in 1443, Margaret Beaufort belonged to a Lancastrian noble family with royal ancestry. By age 13, she had been married twice, widowed and given birth to a son, Henry Tudor. Margaret went on to marry two more times and survived several regime changes during the Wars of the Roses, as Lancastrian Henry VI was deposed by Yorkist Edward IV, before Edward’s brother Richard III eventually took the throne. After the battle of Tewkesbury in 1471, her son Henry Tudor went into exile, returning to England in 1485 to defeat Richard at the battle of Bosworth and claim the crown as Henry VII. “Margaret played the 15th-century game of power-politics with bravery and determination,” says historian Michael Jones. “On 22 August 1485, her perseverance was rewarded when her son, Henry Tudor, defeated Richard III at the battle of Bosworth to become king.”
Christopher Columbus (c1451–1506)
Italian explorer and navigator
Christopher Columbus was an Italian explorer and navigator long credited with the discovery of the New World (although Vikings had technically visited North America many centuries previously). His transatlantic adventures were sponsored by Ferdinand II and Isabella I of Spain.
Isabella I of Castile (1451–1504)
Queen of Castile and Aragon
Isabella of Castile was one half of a 15th-century power couple that united Spain and helped propel the west towards global dominance. Married to Ferdinand of Aragon – whom she had been betrothed to since the age of six – she became queen in December 1474. “he impact of her legacy on Spain was significant and she is today considered one of Spain’s most revered monarchs.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519)
Italian Renaissance polymath
The illegitimate son of a Tuscan lawyer, Leonardo da Vinci became one of the most influential artists, sculptors, engineers, scientists and inventors of the Renaissance. The parachute and the helicopter are just two of many inventions credited to the Italian genius, while his painting known as Mona Lisa remains one of the most recognisable, and reproduced, portraits in the world.
Richard III (1452–85)
King of England
He’s loved, he’s loathed, he’s been dug up and reburied: it’s the divisive Plantagenet king Richard III (1452–85). Interest in the Yorkist king reached fever pitch in 2012 when his remains were found beneath a Leicester car park. Mystery still surrounds Richard, not least whether he was responsible for the deaths of his nephews – the princes in the tower – who mysteriously disappeared from the Tower of London in the summer of 1483.
Richard III’s death at the battle of Bosworth heralded the dawn of the Tudor dynasty as Henry Tudor took the throne of England, marrying Richard’s niece, Elizabeth of York. Five monarchs would sit on the throne for more than a century of Tudor rule.
Anne Neville (1456–85)
Queen consort of Richard III
Anne Neville was wife to both the last Lancastrian heir to the throne of England and later the last Yorkist king, Richard III. She married the latter in the spring of 1472, when she was still in her mid-teens, and had a son with him named Edward. In 1483 Richard was appointed Lord Protector of his 12-year-old nephew Edward V, who had become king following the death of his father. However Edward and his younger brother were soon declared illegitimate and thrown into the Tower of London. They disappeared shortly afterwards, in what is considered as one of history’s enduring mysteries. Richard ascended the throne and, with Anne, was crowned in 1483 in the first joint coronation in 175 years. Anne died at the age of 28, due to tuberculosis.
Henry VII (1457–1509)
First Tudor king of England
Born to the teenage Lancastrian Margaret Beaufort, Henry VII’s claim to the throne lay in a distant kinship to Edward III. In 1471, when Edward IV’s Yorkist forces defeated the Lancastrians at the battle of Tewkesbury, Henry was forced to flee to France but after Edward’s death he returned to claim the throne. Henry’s victory over the usurper king Richard III at the battle of Bosworth in 1485 saw a new dynasty ascend to the throne of England, the unification of the houses of Lancaster and York, and an end to the Wars of the Roses.
Elizabeth of York (1466–1503)
Queen consort of Henry VII
The eldest daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, Elizabeth of York united the houses of York and Lancaster with her marriage to Henry VII in 1486 – helping to end the dynastic conflict known as the Wars of the Roses. The first Tudor queen, Elizabeth was mother to Henry VIII, founding a dynasty that ruled for 118 years. Next year will see the 550th anniversary of her birth.
Thomas More (1478–1535)
Tudor statesman and author
Thomas More was a Tudor statesman who rose rapidly to prominence in the court of Henry VIII, where he succeeded Thomas Wolsey as Lord Chancellor. He was executed for refusing to accept Henry VIII as head of the church of England and is recognised as a saint by the Catholic Church.
Martin Luther (1483–1546)
On 31 October 1517, after witnessing corruption in the Catholic church, German theologian Martin Luther supposedly nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church. In them, he condemned the practice of selling ‘indulgences’ to absolve sin and stated that salvation could be reached by faith, not deeds. Luther was condemned by the Catholic church but his work sparked the Protestant Reformation.
Catherine of Aragon (1485–1536)
Spanish-born first wife of Henry VIII
Catherine of Aragon was the first wife of Henry VIII. Their marriage was eventually annulled on the grounds that she had previously been married to his late brother, Arthur – allowing the king to remarry Anne Boleyn. “[Catherine] was a woman of great integrity who put principle before pragmatism and, in defying Henry VIII, showed great courage,” says Alison Weir.
Thomas Cromwell (1485–1540)
The star of Wolf Hall – the 2015 BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s prize-winning novels, which focuses on his relationship with Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn – Thomas Cromwell rose from blacksmith’s son to Henry VIII’s right-hand man. After six years as chief minister, he was executed for treason, without trial.
“Cromwell was a fascinating man who held sway at court for a decade and changed England’s religious and political life forever,” says historian Tracy Borman, author of a 2014 biography on the controversial politician. “He masterminded some of the most seismic events in our history, from the break with Rome to the revolution in government. Far more than a cynical bureaucrat in search of personal gain, he was committed to reform, and undoubtedly Henry VIII’s most faithful servant.”
Margaret Tudor (1489–1541)
Daughter of Henry VII, sister of Henry VIII
Margaret Tudor, the eldest daughter of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, is almost forgotten compared with other members of her famous family. And yet she briefly presided over a golden period in Scottish history as the wife of James IV.
Henry VIII (1491–1547)
King of England
One of the most famous kings in British history, Henry became heir to the throne after the death of his brother, Arthur, in 1502. Known for his six wives, two of whom were beheaded, Henry VIII is also remembered as the father of the English Reformation, which saw the country break with the Catholic church in Rome and establish its own Church of England. Henry’s 37-year rule also saw permanent changes to the nature and role of parliament, wars with Scotland and France, and the creation of the Royal Navy.
Anne Boleyn (c1501–36)
Wife of Henry VIII and mother of Elizabeth I
Anne Boleyn was Henry VIII’s second wife, and mother to one of England’s greatest queens – Elizabeth I. The king’s determination to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon to marry a woman with whom he was infatuated, sparked the English Reformation and a break with the church of Rome. But after failing to give Henry the son he craved, Anne was sentenced to death, having been charged with adultery, incest and conspiring the king’s death. Debate still rages as to whether she was the victim of a court conspiracy or actually guilty.
Katherine Parr (1512–48)
Sixth and last wife of Henry VIII
The sixth and last wife of Henry VIII, Katherine Parr has gone down in history as the wife who ‘survived’. But according to historian Derek Wilson, she “was the cleverest, most devout and passionate of Henry VIII’s bedfellows”, holding an important place in the history of the English Reformation.
Anne of Cleves (1515–57)
German-born fourth wife of Henry VIII
Anne of Cleves was Henry VIII’s fourth wife. The royal couple were married for just six months, making her the shortest reigning of all Henry’s queens. She is often referred to as the ‘ugly wife’ – according to reports, Henry VIII was so revolted when he first clapped eyes on Anne that he immediately instructed his lawyers to find a way to end the marriage.
Catherine de Medici (1519–89)
Italian noblewoman and queen of France
Catherine de Medici was the queen mother of France during the reign of her three sons: Francis II of France, Charles IX of France, and Henry III of France. She is remembered for being one of the most powerful French queens of the early modern period. However, none of her sons were able to secure the dynasty and Catherine was ultimately blamed for many of the atrocities that occurred during their reigns.
Catherine Howard (c1524–42)
Fifth wife of Henry VIII
Catherine Howard was the fifth wife of Tudor king Henry VIII. They married on 28 July 1540, just three weeks after the annulment of the king’s brief marriage to Anne of Cleves. At nearly 50 years old at the time of their wedding, Henry was at least 30 years older than the teenage Catherine. Their relationship ended in tragedy when Henry discovered information about Catherine’s sexual past – including an affair with Thomas Culpeper. She was charged with adultery and treason, and executed at the Tower of London on 13 February 1542.
Bess of Hardwick (1527–1608)
Elizabeth ‘Bess’ of Hardwick was the richest woman in England after Queen Elizabeth I towards the end of her life, and yet she hailed from comparatively humble beginnings. Born to a moderately prosperous Derbyshire gentry family, Bess accumulated her wealth through a series of marriages that propelled her into aristocratic and royal circles. She had a somewhat tumultuous relationship with the queen, particularly when Bess began grooming her granddaughter Arbella to succeed to the crown.
Elizabeth I (1533–1603)
Queen of England
Elizabeth I is one of England’s best-loved monarchs. Her refusal to dilute her power through marriage earned her the soubriquet ‘the Virgin Queen’, while her navy’s famous victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588 won her the adulation of her nation. Elizabeth’s reign also heralded an age of exploration and discovery in the New World.
Lady Jane Grey (1537–54)
Queen of England for nine days
Named queen on 9 July 1553 in a bid to prevent the Catholic Mary Tudor acceding the throne after the death of Edward VI, the ‘Nine Day Queen’ is often seen as a victim of her power-hungry family. She was charged with high treason and executed in 1554. But was Lady Jane Grey really an innocent victim? Read more about her tragic story here
Francis Drake (c1540–1596)
English admiral and navigator
One of the most famous seamen of the 16th century, Sir Francis Drake is best known for being the first Englishman to circumnavigate the earth. Sponsored by Queen Elizabeth I, Drake initially attempted the feat in November 1577, although bad weather forced him to turn back. He tried again in December 1577, beginning his venture from Plymouth and setting sail for the Pacific coast on his ship the Pelican. Drake and his men returned to Plymouth, England, on 26 September 1580, after successfully circumnavigating the earth. He was knighted for his efforts.
Mary, Queen of Scots (1542–87)
Scottish queen and French queen consort
Having become queen of Scotland at just six days old, Mary returned to her homeland in 1561 after the death of her husband, the French king Francis II. She became the focus of several plots to place her on the English throne and was eventually sentenced to death by her cousin, Elizabeth I.
William Shakespeare (1564–1616)
English poet, playwright and actor
William Shakespeare, Stratford-upon-Avon’s most famous son, remains one of the world’s most well-known yet enigmatic authors. His works have been translated into some 80 languages, and the Oxford English Dictionary credits him with introducing almost 3,000 words to the English vocabulary. As well as writing 37 plays and 154 sonnets, Shakespeare was also an established actor who performed before James VI and I.
Born 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.
Lady Arbella Stuart (1575–1615)
First cousin twice removed to Elizabeth I, Arbella was at one time considered a possible heir to the Virgin Queen. She was executed in the Tower of London after being imprisoned there by King James VI and I for marrying without his permission.
Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658)
English soldier and statesman
Oliver Cromwell appeared on the political scene in 1628 when he became MP for Huntingdon, and opposed Charles I’s interpretation of Protestantism, which clashed with his own strict Puritan views. During the Civil War, Cromwell became one of the commanders of parliament’s New Model Army, and in 1649 was one of 59 signatories on Charles I’s death warrant. In December 1653 he became lord protector of England, Scotland and Ireland; his brutal treatment of Irish Catholics remains controversial.
Charles I (1600–49)
King of England, Scotland and Ireland
Charles I is remembered for his belief in the divine right of kings (the idea that a monarch’s authority is bestowed by God). His clash with parliament resulted in the Civil Wars, the conflict between Royalists and Parliamentarians that wracked the British Isles in the middle of the 17th century.
Charles II (1630–85)
King of England, Scotland and Ireland
Charles II was the first surviving son of King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria, born on 29 May 1630 – the first child to be born as heir to the three crowns of England, Scotland and Ireland. The so-called ‘Merry Monarch’ was restored to the throne in 1660, marking the end of 11 years of republican rule that followed the execution of his father, Charles I. His reign saw London engulfed in flames, thousands die from plague, and a financially crippling war with the Dutch.
Louis XIV (1638–1715)
French monarch, known as the Sun King
“Louis is best remembered today for his domestic achievements,” says historian Philip Mansel. “He earned his place among the pantheon of French monarchs through his actions on the home front – ruthlessly consolidating his control of an increasingly centralised France; weakening the influence of the Paris parlement and the military might of great nobles to give himself a secure power base. And he was a master at projecting that power – most notably through the enormous palace of Versailles, which he completed between 1666 and 1688.”
Isaac Newton (1643–1727)
Mathematician, astronomer and physicist
Recognised as one of the most influential physicists and mathematicians in history, Isaac Newton was key to the 18th-century scientific revolution. Among many achievements, his work laid the foundations for classical mechanics and calculus. “There are always new stories to tell about the Briton who invented gravity and unwove the colours of the rainbow,” says historian Patricia Fara.
Catherine the Great (1729–96)
The daughter of a minor German prince, Catherine (born Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst) became a member of Russian royalty following her marriage to Grand Duke Peter, heir to the Russian throne. Catherine overthrew her husband shortly after he became tsar in 1762, and was declared empress, a title she would hold for more than 30 years. Expanding the empire was her priority: territories gained during her reign include Crimea, Belarus and Lithuania. She was also a great patron of the arts and education.
George Washington (1732–99)
Founding father and first US president
A founding father of the United States, George Washington commanded the Continental Army that won independence from the British, and stood as the nascent America’s first president. He presided over the Philadelphia Convention that drew up the US Constitution and once declared that “the Constitution is the guide which I will never abandon”.
Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826)
Founding Father and third US president
Thomas Jefferson is one of American history’s greats: he was the 3rd President and the lead author of the Declaration of Independence, the ground-breaking document that laid the foundations for the modern-day United States.
Marie Antoinette (1755–93)
Austrian-born queen of France
Known for her extravagant tastes and lavish spending, Austrian archduchess Marie Antoinette became queen of France and Navarre in 1774 when her husband, Louis XVI, took the throne. She met a bloody end during the French Revolution when she was executed by guillotine.
Alexander Hamilton (c1755/57–1804)
American statesman and politician
Alexander Hamilton came to the attention of George Washington during the American Revolutionary War, becoming the general’s aide-de-camp. After training as a lawyer, he was elected to the lower house of the New York legislature and eventually earned himself a place at the Constitutional Convention as representative for New York. Hamilton was consequently one of the founding fathers of the US Constitution, and had a profound influence on its ratification. When Washington was elected to the presidency, he appointed Hamilton the country’s first secretary of the treasury.
Horatio Nelson (1758–1805)
British naval commander
Horatio Nelson’s naval career began when he was 12. By the age of 21 he had become a captain, seeing service in the West Indies, the Baltic and Canada. But it was during the Napoleonic Wars that Nelson’s extraordinary talents as a commander and tactician came to the fore, notably at the battle of the Nile in 1798, during which he completely destroyed Napoleon’s French fleet. Between 1794 and 1805 Nelson contributed to a number of naval victories against the French – losing both the sight in one eye and an arm in the process – but it was the battle of Trafalgar, on 21 October 1805, that propelled him into the history books. Victory in that battle saved Britain from the threat of invasion, but cost Nelson his life.
1st Duke of Wellington (1769–1852)
British prime minister and military leader
Irish-born Arthur Wesley (Duke of Wellington from 1814) joined the army in 1787, and subsequently demonstrated his military talents. He is best known for his victory against Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo in June 1815. “Victory at Waterloo ushered in decades of peace for Europe, brought a long overdue end to the Napoleonic Wars and snuffed out Napoleon’s extraordinary, expansionist career for good,” says historian Justin Marozzi, who nominated the ‘Iron Duke’.
Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821)
French military and political leader
Described by many as one of the greatest military leaders in history, Napoleon Bonaparte rose to prominence in the wake of the French Revolution, becoming commander of the French army in Italy in 1796. His talents as a commander and strategist saw Napoleon win a number of battles during the French Revolutionary Wars of 1792–1802, conflicts fought between the French Republic and several European powers. In 1799, Napoleon was made First Consul of France, and crowned himself emperor in 1804. “He was a towering historical figure and military genius,” says historian Professor Peter Hart.
Jane Austen (1775–1817)
English novelist Jane Austen’s first known writings date from c1787, with Sense and Sensibility the earliest of her novels to be published in her lifetime, in 1795. Austen, who never married, is celebrated as one of England’s favourite authors: her six novels – all published anonymously at first – are a window into the life of the landed gentry in the 18th and 19th centuries. She is believed to have died of Addison’s disease, an endocrine disorder.
Benjamin Disraeli (1804–81)
British prime minister
Twice prime minister, Disraeli was a key player in the creation of the modern Conservative party. The first Jewish-born prime minister (although he was baptised a Christian during childhood), Disraeli was a staunch opponent of Liberal William Gladstone, and their mutual loathing was well known. A firm favourite of Queen Victoria, Disraeli did much to improve public health in Britain, and passed laws to prevent labour exploitation.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806–59)
British civil and mechanical engineer
Isambard Kingdom Brunel built the most ambitious bridges, ships and railways of the 19th century. From his office at 18, Duke Street, London, he spearheaded an engineering empire involving a professional staff comprising some 30 engineers, clerks and draughtsmen working on multiple projects at a time.
Abraham Lincoln (1809–65)
16th US president and opponent of slavery
Abraham Lincoln, who became the 16th US president in 1861, led the Union to victory in the American Civil War of 1861–65 and introduced the 13th Amendment of 1865, which abolished slavery in the US. But although he managed to prevent the fragmentation of the country, Lincoln saw only six weeks of peace during his tenure and was assassinated in April 1865.
Charles Darwin (1809–82)
British naturalist, geologist and biologist
Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection – that the varying survival of individual organisms with different characteristics in specific environments results in the promotion of those traits – brought him into conflict with the Anglican church. His groundbreaking work The Origin of Species was published in 1859, provoking outrage among creationists. But his 1871 Descent of Man caused even more controversy with its claims that humans and apes were descended from a common ancestor.
William Gladstone (1809–98)
British prime minister
Liberal politician William Gladstone served as British prime minister four times – more than any other – and campaigned on a variety of issues including reforms to the justice system and the civil service. Gladstone was regarded as a champion of the working classes, spent large amounts of his own money on what he saw as the rescue and rehabilitation of prostitutes, and spoke out against slavery. But his views provoked strong reactions, and he was not always popular. Queen Victoria disliked him immensely, describing him as a “half-mad firebrand”. One of Gladstone’s major acts was the Representation of the People Act of 1884, which increased the number of men who were eligible to vote in an election. But his proposed bills to allow a system of home rule in Ireland never became law.
Charles Dickens 1812–70
British writer and social critic
Charles Dickens is widely regarded as the greatest novelist of the Victorian era. He wrote a string of bestselling novels and short stories including The Pickwick Papers, Nicholas Nickleby, A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations and invented some of literature’s best-known characters. His books are still in print and have been adapted for stage and screen. He was buried at London’s Westminster Abbey.
Karl Marx (1818–83)
German philosopher and political theorist
The theories of socialist philosopher Karl Marx on the role of class struggle in economic change have influenced intellectuals, labour unions and political parties across the world. His 1848 work The Communist Manifesto, co-written with Friedrich Engels, has been described as one of history’s most important political manuscripts.
Queen Victoria (1819–1901)
British queen and empress of India
Queen Victoria, the United Kingdom’s former longest-reigning monarch (overtaken by Elizabeth II in September 2015), ruled for more than 63 years. Her empire spanned Canada, New Zealand, Australia and swathes of Africa and she became Empress of India in 1876. Her links with other royal families prompted the nickname ‘grandmother of Europe’.
Florence Nightingale (1820–1910)
Founder of modern nursing
Florence Nightingale led the first official team of British military nurses to Turkey during the Crimean War, fought between Britain and Russia (1853-56). More soldiers died from disease than wounds in this conflict and Nightingale – as well as tending the sick – reported back to the army medical services on how to reduce avoidable deaths. Nicknamed ‘the Lady with the Lamp’ for the night rounds she made tending to the wounded and sick, Nightingale continued in her work after the war and was instrumental in establishing a permanent military nursing service and implementing improvements to the army medical services.
Nikola Tesla (1856–1943)
Inventor and engineer Nikola Tesla first travelled to America in 1884 with just four cents in his pocket and began working at Edison Machine Works improving DC generators. His invention of the induction motor that would work with alternating current (AC) is considered a milestone in modern electrical systems.
Emmeline Pankhurst (1858–1928)
British suffragist and political activist
In 1903, the social reformer Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union to campaign for the parliamentary vote for women in Edwardian Britain, ‘Deeds, not words’ being its motto. A charismatic leader and powerful orator, Pankhurst roused thousands of women to demand, rather than ask politely, for their democratic right in a mass movement that has been unparalleled in British history. Always in the thick of the struggle, she endured 13 imprisonments, her name and cause becoming known throughout the world.
Marie Curie (1867–1934)
Polish-French physicist and chemist
Marie Curie’s discoveries of strange, glowing radioactive elements rocked Victorian Europe. Hailed as a ‘celebrity scientist’ in her lifetime, she was the first female to win the Nobel Prize in 1903 – for her pioneering research on radioactivity – and the first person to win a second Nobel Prize.
Tsar Nicholas II (1868–1918)
Last emperor of Russia
Tsar Nicholas II was the last emperor of Russia until he abdicated under duress during the February Revolution of 1917, amid a military crisis and domestic unrest. By renouncing the throne, he brought an end to the Romanov royal dynasty that had ruled Russia for more than 300 years. Nicholas was replaced by a provisional government until October 1917, when the country was engulfed by revolution once again, as the Bolsheviks – led by Vladimir Lenin – seized control.
Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948)
Born to a wealthy Hindu family in north-west India, Gandhi’s first experiences of nonviolent civil disobedience came while he was practising law in South Africa, in response to the Indian community’s struggle for civil rights. In around 1921 he became leader of the Indian National Congress, leading campaigns for a number of social causes and to end British rule in India. One of his most famous protests was the 240-mile Dandi Salt March of 1930, challenging the British-imposed salt tax. Gandhi was assassinated in 1948.
Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924)
Russian communist revolutionary
Vladimir Ilyich Ulianov was a fanatical Marxist who led the Bolsheviks to power in 1917 and built – on a foundation of war and oppression – the world’s first communist state. He envisioned the end of capitalism at the hands of the working classes of the world and – through a series of revolutions – laid the foundations of communist totalitarianism under Joseph Stalin.
Winston Churchill (1874–1965)
British wartime prime minister
Voted the Greatest Briton in a 2002 BBC poll, storming home with just over 28 per cent of the votes, Churchill is remembered as the man who led Britain to victory during the Second World War. He was prime minister from 1940–45 and again from 1951–55, standing down as an MP in 1964 after a political career spanning more than six decades. Churchill’s speeches, delivered during some of Britain’s darkest days, are rated among the most rousing in history, but many of his strategic decisions – particularly the blanket bombing of German cities continue to divide opinion. Churchill was also a talented artist and exhibited some 50 works at the British Academy. A keen writer, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953 for, in the judges’ words, “his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values”.
Josef Stalin (1878–1953)
Soviet revolutionary and dictator
Dictator of the USSR from 1929 until his death, Stalin transformed the Soviet Union into an industrial and military superpower. But his was a regime of terror which caused the deaths of millions through famine or in gulags (labour camps). Soviet forces under Stalin’s leadership helped defeat the Nazis during the Second World War.
Albert Einstein (1879–1955)
German-born theoretical physicist
Theoretical physicist Albert Einstein is perhaps best known for his pioneering theory of general relativity. His work established new ideas about the formation of the universe and black holes, revolutionising our knowledge of gravity, time and space.
Franklin D Roosevelt (1882–1945)
32nd US president
The 32nd (and longest-serving) US president, Franklin D Roosevelt took office in 1933 during the Great Depression. He served four terms in the White House, and saw the US through the Second World War, as well as playing a key role in developing the United Nations.
Clement Attlee (1883–1967)
British prime minister
Leader of the Labour party for 20 years, Clement Attlee acted as deputy prime minister to Winston Churchill in the British coalition government of the Second World War before serving as prime minister in his own right between 1945 and 1951. He is credited with creating the NHS and granting independence to India. “Attlee showed that politics can make a difference”, says Francis Beckett, author of a biography on the former Labour leader.
Benito Mussolini 1883–1945
Italian Fascist dictator
Benito Mussolini was 20th-century Europe’s first fascist dictator. He established his regime in the early 1920s, driven by the belief that he was destined to forge a new Roman empire (with himself, a new Caesar, as leader). He died in 1945 when he was captured by anti-fascist partisans.
Adolf Hitler (1889–1945)
Dictator of Nazi Germany
Adolf Hitler joined the German Workers’ Party, later known as the Nazi Party, after Germany’s surrender at the end of the First World War. Identifying with the party’s nationalist, anti-Semitic beliefs, in 1921 he became its leader. In 1933 he was appointed chancellor of Germany, and began to mandate the exclusion of Jews and other ‘undesirables’ from public life, a process that would lead to the deaths of millions in concentration camps. In 1939 Hitler’s Germany invaded Poland, triggering the Second World War – a conflict that resulted in the deaths of more than 60 million people.
Francisco Franco (1892–1975)
Military dictator of Spain
Spanish general Francisco Franco ruled Spain as dictator from 1939 to 1975, following the Spanish Civil War. He was close to both Mussolini and Adolf Hitler – who both provided critical aid to his forces during the Spanish Civil War – although he ultimately wouldn’t officially join the Axis.
Oswald Mosley (1896–1980)
Leader of the British Union of Fascists
Oswald Mosley was the founder of the New Party, which – influenced by Mussolini – morphed into the quasi-military British Union of Fascists in October 1932. The party was notable for adopting Nazi insignia and distributing anti-Semitic propaganda.
Joseph Goebbels (1897–1945)
Propaganda minister for Nazi Germany
Joseph Goebbels – propaganda minister of the Third Reich – is recognised as a key player in the establishment and maintenance of Hitler’s power. A master orator, he is credited for establishing what historian Ian Kershaw describes as “the Hitler myth”, the cult of personality surrounding the German leader.
Alan Turing (1912–54)
Computer scientist and cryptanalyst
Alan Turing – the subject of the 2014 film The Imitation Game – is hailed as the creator of modern computing, and for his crucial contribution to British codebreaking operations during the Second World War. In 1952 Turing was convicted of gross indecency – the charge resulting from a homosexual affair. He chose chemical castration over imprisonment but committed suicide in 1954.
John F Kennedy (1917–63)
35th US president
John F Kennedy – also known as Jack or JFK – was the 35th president of the United States. Elected in 1960, he was assassinated in 1963 in Dallas, Texas. Lee Harvey Oswald was charged with the murder but was himself killed before he could stand trial. JFK’s presidency witnessed serious confrontations with the USSR, leading to the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis. Kennedy served in the US navy in the Second World War. He was married to Jacqueline Bouvier.
Martin Luther King (1929–68)
Religious activist and civil rights leader
In 1956, Baptist preacher Martin Luther King became a leading figure in organising the boycott by African-Americans of buses in Montgomery, Alabama in support of Rosa Parks, who had been arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man. King was a major figure in the US civil rights movement, leading non-violent protests and playing a pivotal role in the ending of the legal segregation of African-American citizens in the US. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 but was assassinated in Memphis on 4 April 1968. The US civil rights marches of 1965 were the focus of the 2014 film Selma.
Anne Frank (1929–45)
German-born Jewish diarist
Anneliese Marie Frank, known as ‘Anne’ to her friends and family, was born in Frankfurt-am-Main on 12 June 1929. She was the second and youngest child of an assimilated Jewish family. Her diary, which was written during the Second World War and covered her experience hiding from the Nazis in an Amsterdam attic, is today one of the most famous and bestselling books of all time.