100 Greatest Britons

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

100 Greatest Britons is a television series that was broadcast by the BBC in 2002. It was based on a television poll conducted to determine who the British people at that time considered the greatest Britons in history.[1][2] The series included individual programmes featuring the top ten, with viewers having further opportunity to vote after each programme.[3] It concluded with a debate and final determination of the ranking of the top ten. Although many living people were included among the top 100, all of the top ten were deceased.


The poll resulted in nominees including Guy Fawkes, who was executed because of his role in the plot to blow up the Parliament of England; Oliver Cromwell, who created a republican British state (the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland); Richard III, suspected of murdering his nephews; James Connolly, an Irish nationalist and socialist who was executed by the Crown due to his part in the 1916 Easter Rising; Thomas Paine, who wrote against the British crown before and during the American Revolution; and a surprisingly high ranking of 17th for actor and singer Michael Crawford, the second-highest-ranked entertainer, after John Lennon. Diana, Princess of Wales, was judged to be a greater historical figure than Isaac Newton, William Shakespeare, and Charles Darwin by BBC respondents to the survey.

One of the more controversial figures to be included on the list was the occultist Aleister Crowley. His works had a direct influence on the rise in popular occultism and some forms of Neopaganism in the 20th century. In addition to the Britons, some notable non-British entrants were listed, including two Irish nationals, the philanthropic musicians Bono and Bob Geldof. The top 19 entries were people of English origin, though Sir Ernest Shackleton and Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, were both born into Anglo-Irish families in what is now the Republic of Ireland when all of Ireland was part of the United Kingdom. The highest-placed Scottish entry was Alexander Fleming in 20th place, and the highest Welsh entry was Owain Glyndŵr in 23rd place.[4]

Sixty had lived in the 20th century. The highest-ranked living person was Margaret Thatcher, placed 16th.[5] Ringo Starr was the only member of the Beatles not on the list. Isambard Kingdom Brunel occupied the top spot in the polls for some time thanks largely to "students from Brunel University who have been campaigning vigorously for the engineer for weeks." However, a late surge in the final week of voting put Churchill into first place.[6] Of the top 100, only 13 were women, and only one entry was from the BAME community (Freddie Mercury).

Reaction of black Britons[edit]

There were no black Britons voted on the list, prompting consternation from members of the black British community that their contribution and history in the United Kingdom were not being sufficiently recognised. A separate three-month survey was conducted among the public, resulting in the publication of 100 Great Black Britons, a list of the 100 greatest black Britons as judged by the British public.[7][8] In 2004, two years after the 100 Greatest Britons list was voted on, social campaigner Patrick Vernon created a similar poll exclusively voted upon by members of the black British community, with Mary Seacole being named the greatest black Briton for her actions during the Crimean War with Russia.[9]

The inclusion of Queen Philippa of Hainault on the list was criticised, as historians dispute that she was "black" in any modern sense.[10][11] She was of predominantly European ancestry, with remote Armenian ancestry on her father's side, and Cuman (Turkic/Asian) ancestry on her mother's side. A report written by Bishop Walter de Stapledon in c.1319 describes either Philippa (then a child) or one of her sisters as "brown of skin all over", with hair "betwixt blue-black and brown"; but, aside from the confusion over who is being described, it is unclear precisely what these terms imply.[12][13][11] All known portraits appear to show Philippa as white.[10] Historian Kathryn Warner concludes that she was "a European woman and emphatically not of African ancestry".[11]

The list[edit]

Although the BBC's original ranked list has been removed from their web server and what remains is only an alphabetical list of the Top 100,[14] several other sources have preserved the original ranked list.[15][16][17]

There was some question as to whether the Richard Burton listed at No. 96 was the actor or the explorer.[citation needed] A BBC press release makes clear that the actor was intended.[18]

Top 10[edit]

Rank Name Notability Advocate Ref.
1 Winston Churchill


Sir Winston S Churchill.jpg Prime Minister (1940–1945, 1951–1955). Historically ranked as one of the greatest British prime ministers. Led the nation during World War II, when the country defended itself against a planned German invasion. He was an important figure in post-war national and international politics. Received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953. Mo Mowlam, British politician.[19] [20]
2 Isambard Kingdom Brunel


IKBrunelChains.jpg Mechanical and civil engineer, designer of the Great Western Railway, Clifton Suspension Bridge, SS Great Britain and numerous significant ships, tunnels and bridges. A prominent figure during the Industrial Revolution which began in Britain, he revolutionised public transport and modern engineering.[21] Jeremy Clarkson, TV presenter.[19] [20]
3 Diana, Princess of Wales


Diana, Princess of Wales 1997 (2).jpg First wife of Charles III (marriage 1981–1996), and mother of the Prince of Wales, and Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex. Admired for her philanthropic deeds. Rosie Boycott, journalist and feminist activist.[19] [20]
4 Charles Darwin


Darwin restored2.jpg Biologist, geologist and naturalist. Originator of the theory of evolution through natural selection and author of On the Origin of Species. Andrew Marr, journalist and TV presenter.[19] [20]
5 William Shakespeare


Shakespeare.jpg Poet and playwright. Creator of Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and many more. Thought of by many as the greatest of all English-language writers. An influential figure in theatre, his plays have been performed more often than those of any other playwright. His work is praised for its humanity, diversity, psychological depth and countless new words and expressions which have become part of the English language. Fiona Shaw, actress and theatre and opera director.[19] [20]
6 Isaac Newton


GodfreyKneller-IsaacNewton-1689.jpg Physicist, mathematician, astronomer, theologian and natural philosopher. Originator of universal gravitation and laws of classical mechanics and laws of motion. His Principia is one of the most influential works in the history of science. Tristram Hunt, historian.[19] [20]
7 Elizabeth I


Elizabeth I Rainbow Portrait3.jpg Queen of England and Ireland. (1558–1603). Brought a period of relative internal stability, and led England to victory over the Spanish Armada during the Anglo-Spanish War. Her reign is known as the Elizabethan era. Michael Portillo, journalist and politician.[19] [20]
8 John Lennon


John Lennon 1969 (cropped).jpg Pop/rock singer-songwriter, musician, activist and member of music group The Beatles. One of the most famous, successful, influential, covered and admired pop artists of all time. Hailed for his highly personal and experimental music, rebellious free-spirited attitude and peace activism. Alan Davies, comedian and actor.[19] [20]
9 Horatio Nelson


HoratioNelson1.jpg Naval commander, famous for his service in the Royal Navy, particularly during the Napoleonic Wars. His victory during the Battle of Trafalgar was significant in preventing Napoleon's planned invasion of the United Kingdom Lucy Moore, historian.[19] [20]
10 Oliver Cromwell


Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper.jpg 1st Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland (1653–1658). Served as the commander of the New Model Army during the First and Second English Civil Wars against King Charles I. Though praised by historians for moving the country to a more democratic system of government, his nomination was controversial due to his genocidal actions against Irish Catholics[22] during the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland. Richard Holmes, military historian.[19] [20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "100 great British heroes". BBC News. 21 August 2002. (contains the top 100, sorted alphabetically)
  2. ^ "BBC reveals 100 great British heroes". BBC News. 22 August 2002.
  3. ^ "Ten greatest Britons chosen". BBC News. 20 October 2002.[permanent dead link]
  4. ^ Bloomfield, Steve (29 February 2004). "Rebel 'plot' to topple greatest Welshman". The Independent. Archived from the original on 1 May 2022. Retrieved 11 January 2018.
  5. ^ Winnett, Robert (20 October 2002). "Three lead race to be greatest Briton". The Times. Retrieved 11 January 2018.
  6. ^ "Churchill voted greatest Briton". 24 November 2002. Retrieved 8 November 2019.
  7. ^ "Nurse named greatest black Briton". BBC News. 10 February 2004. Retrieved 23 March 2015.
  8. ^ Solambey F. (24 June 2012). "The 100 greatest Black Britons". Afrokanlife. Archived from the original on 2 April 2015. Retrieved 27 March 2015.
  9. ^ "The top 10 black Britons (but one may not be)". The Independent. 8 February 2004. Archived from the original on 1 May 2022. Retrieved 7 June 2020.
  10. ^ a b Bloomfield, Steve (8 February 2004). "The top 10 black Britons (but one may not be)". The Independent. Archived from the original on 1 May 2022. Retrieved 7 June 2020.
  11. ^ a b c Warner, Kathryn (2019). "The Hainault family". Philippa of Hainault: mother of the English nation. Stroud: Amberley Publishing. ISBN 9781445662800. Philippa of Hainault was a European woman and emphatically not of African ancestry, and absolutely no-one in her own lifetime or long afterwards claimed otherwise, either about her or about any of her relatives and descendants.
  12. ^ Hingeston-Randolph, F. C., ed. (1892). The Register of Walter de Stapledon, Bishop of Exeter, 1307–1326. London: Bell. p. 169.
  13. ^ Mortimer, Ian (2006). The Perfect King: the life of Edward III, father of the English nation. London: Jonathan Cape. p. 34. ISBN 022407301X.
  14. ^ "The complete list of the top 100 in alphabetical order" (Press release). BBC. 21 August 2002.
  15. ^ "100 Greatest Britons (BBC Poll, 2002)". Alchemipedia. 8 December 2009.
  16. ^ "Great Britons 1–10". BBC. Archived from the original on 4 February 2004. Retrieved 1 August 2012.
  17. ^ "Great Britons 11–100". BBC. Archived from the original on 4 December 2002. Retrieved 1 August 2012.
  18. ^ "BBC TWO reveals the nation's top 100 Greatest Britons of all time" (Press release). BBC. 21 August 2002.
  19. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "BBC TWO reveals the ten greatest Britons of all time" (Press release). BBC. 19 October 2002. Retrieved 11 October 2015.
  20. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "Great Britons". BBC History. Archived from the original on 4 February 2004. Retrieved 11 October 2015.
  21. ^ "Why the Industrial Revolution Happened Here". BBC. 10 July 2017.
  22. ^ Maxwell, Nick (12 March 2013). "How many died during Cromwell's campaign?". History Ireland. Retrieved 3 November 2022.

External links[edit]