Some of the colourful characters that make up the history of Britain seem as if they’ve just jumped off the pages of a storybook. Making great strides in the worlds of culture, engineering, science and more, here are some of key figures that have made their mark on Britain in years gone by.
Queen Boudica (Around 60 AD)
Boudica was the Queen of the Iceni, an ancient Brittonic tribe that lived in what we know now as East Anglia. When her husband died, Roman leaders brought their armies to seize Boudica’s kingdom. Boudica responded by gathering her people to stage a rebellion; capturing the Roman settlement of Camulodunum (now known as Colchester) and burning the Roman capital, Londinium, to the ground. Boudica is remembered as a fierce warrior Queen that had the courage to face the might of Rome, and in 1902, a bronze statue of her in her chariot was placed on the Thames embankment in London.
King Henry VIII (1491 – 1547)
King Henry VIII is one of the most infamous characters in British history. Desperate for a male heir, Henry asked the Pope to annul his marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, who had failed to produce a son. When this was refused, Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church and married Catherine’s lady-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn, starting the Protestant Church of England and beginning the English reformation. Henry married three times before a son was born, and in total married six times. “Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived” is a quick rhyme used to remember the fates of Henry’s wives.
Queen Elizabeth I (1533 – 1603)
The daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife Anne Boleyn, Queen Elizabeth I ruled England for 44 years. She is considered by many as one of the greatest monarchs in English history, and the time of her reign is often referred to as The Golden Age. Inheriting a troubled kingdom, Elizabeth saw the country through religious unrest, expanded the influence of the empire overseas and supported the blossoming of theatre and culture. Her penchant for knowledge and interest in courtly and extravagant dress brought fashion and education to the fore. Refusing to marry despite pressure from Parliament, she became known as ‘The Virgin Queen’, and died at the age of 69, much beloved by her people.
William Shakespeare (Birth date Unknown, Baptised 1564 – 1616)
Often heralded as one of the world’s greatest writers, William Shakespeare’s plays are still celebrated and performed to this day. His impact upon the English language is unprecedented, and many modern words and phrases that are still commonly used were coined in his writing. The universal themes and insights into the human condition have allowed his works to transcend the time they were written, and are still relevant to an audience more than 400 years later. Some of his most famous works are Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Macbeth.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806 – 1859)
One of the most famous engineers that ever lived, Isambard Kingdom Brunel was responsible for the design of ships, tunnels, railway lines and bridges – many of which you can still see today. His work allowed people to travel faster and trade more efficiently. Brunel designed the railway line between Bristol and London, and built a ship that only took 15 days to get from Liverpool to New York. The Clifton Suspension Bridge that crosses the River Avon was built from Brunel’s design, and is still operational to this day.
Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882)
Charles Darwin was a naturalist, most famous for establishing the theory of evolution. His book, On the Origin of Species, made us rethink our place in the world by putting forward the idea that humans shared a common ancestor with apes. In 1831, Darwin embarked on a voyage aboard the HMS Beagle. On this trip, he amassed a great collection of natural specimens from all around the world, and was able to witness first-hand the principles of zoology, botany and geology. Gathering together all of the evidence he had seen during his travels, he came to believe that species survived through a process called natural selection. His views were illustrated in his book On the Origin of Species, which despite the controversy it faced at the time, has become a cornerstone of evolutionary science.
Queen Victoria (1819 – 1901)
Queen Victoria is associated with a great age of industrial revolution, economic progress and the expansion of empire. She ascended the throne at the modest age of 18, and became the second longest reigning monarch in British history, beaten only by her great-great-granddaughter, the current Queen, Elizabeth II. In 1840 she married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha; when he died in 1861 she sank into a deep depression, and wore only black for the rest of her reign. Under Victoria’s rule there were advances in science and technology, and Britain’s empire expanded to encompass Canada, Australia, India and various countries in Africa and the South Pacific. Victoria became the Empress of India in 1877, and was hugely popular with her people, as she became a symbol of empire and progress for the country.
Emmeline Pankhurst (1858 – 1928)
Emmeline Pankhurst was a leading women’s rights advocate who played a key role in the suffrage movement. In 1903, she created the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), focused on securing women’s right to vote. The group’s members were the first to be dubbed suffragettes, and the group gained notoriety throughout the country for its activities. Pankhurst was arrested for her demonstrations on many occasions throughout the years, and was subject to violent force-feeding by the government after going on hunger strikes. When the country went to war in 1914 Pankhurst encouraged women to support the war effort. Women’s contributions during this time lead the British government to give them limited voting rights. Pankhurst did not live to see it, but on July 2 1928, Parliament finally gave women voting rights on a par with men’s.
Sir Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965)
As Prime Minister during WWII, Winston Churchill led the country to victory against Adolf Hitler and his forces. He was part of a minority that disagreed with the government’s original policy of appeasement towards Hitler, voicing concern about the militarisation of the German army and demanding action be taken. In 1940 he became Prime Minister, his speeches kept morale around the country high in the face of invasion. He led Britain through the Blitz and the Battle of Britain, meeting with soldiers and factory workers and visiting towns that had been damaged by bombs. In 1945, Nazi Germany was defeated, and Churchill’s legacy still stands as Britain’s greatest wartime leader.
Diana, Princess Of Wales (1961 – 1997)
Known as The People’s Princess, Diana married the heir to the British throne, Prince Charles, in 1981. In many ways Diana encompassed the burgeoning age of celebrity, as she lived and died at the scrutiny of an increasingly intrusive media presence. Loved by the public for her down-to-earth attitude and the sense of accessibility she brought to the royal family, Diana was involved with dozens of charities. She was famous for her work in publicising the plight of people with AIDS, and championing the cause to end the use of landmines. The breakup of her marriage to Prince Charles in 1996 was highly publicised in the media. Diana died in a car crash whilst being chased by paparazzi at the age of 36. She is survived by her two sons, William and Harry.
If you’re interested in learning more about English culture and history, you can study in the country’s capital, London, with The Language Gallery. See if any of TLG’s courses based at our London school suit you.