The BBC History magazine for September, 2017, has revealed this year’s results for the publication’s annual ‘History Hot 100’. The survey is based on the results compiled from UK readers and historians who are invited by the magazine to vote for the historical figures that have most interested them during 2017.
So… who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ (so to speak) this time around? Readers of the magazine were invited to each nominate up to three people from any historical period, as long those people died more than 30 years ago. It is the third year the survey has run, and certain interesting continuities and changes are apparent.
In the Top Ten of the ‘Hot 100’ historical figures, King Richard III (1452-85) has come out at No. 1, holding on to the top spot that he achieved in last year’s 2016 survey. As the magazine puts it, interest in Richard ‘reached fever pitch in 2012 when his remains were found beneath a Leicester car park’ and mystery still surrounds him (was he responsible, for example, for the deaths of his nephews?). He continues to divide opinion but, clearly, he still also captures the popular imagination.
Richard is followed closely in second place by Eleanor of Aquitaine (c. 1122–1204), whose second marriage – to the future Henry II – saw her become Queen of England and, later, mother to Richard I.
Staying with the Top Ten of the magazine’s ‘Hot 100’ for 2017, two figures from the 20th century – Winston Churchill (1874-1965) and Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) – take 6th and 7th places respectively. They evidently remain figures of great fascination for both the UK’s public and its professional historians, while the Second World War still remains very firmly fixed in the UK’s historical and cultural consciousness. Moreover, a number of dictators (or those with dictatorial ambitions) have also entered the Hot 100 for the first time this year: Lenin, Franco, Goebbels and Oswald Mosley.
Interestingly, as per the 2016 survey, British historical fascination with American Presidents appears to remain strong in 2017: Abraham Lincoln (ranked at no. 30), John F. Kennedy (at no. 42), and Franklin D. Roosevelt (at no. 59), for example, are present. Perhaps we are about to witness some new studies of such leaders by British historians, given the recent Presidential elections in the USA, and the huge controversy associated with the Donald Trump Presidency?
Explorers, inventors and scientists (such as Christopher Columbus, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and Charles Darwin) also have a notable presence in the Hot 100 list. As a survey, it’s all very unscientific, of course, and should be treated with great caution by scholars (no distinction seems to have been made between the preferences of professional historians and the wider public in the survey of readers), but it’s also very good fun!
What does the professional historical community itself have to say about the results of the BBC History magazine’s 2017 survey? The publication invited a number of leading British historians for their comments and what the results possibly tell us about the historical discourse in Britain right now.
Predictably, perhaps, there were some mixed feelings. The cultural historian Janina Ramirez, for example, said that the Hot 100 list ‘tells me, sadly, nothing I didn’t already know about how we relate to historical figures. We are drawn in by big events, we are attached to great monarchs and even terrible figures, and we remember a few who made great changes. A list like this risks reducing history to individuals’. Similarly, the historian and broadcaster Dan Jones noted that the Hot 100 list ‘demonstrates unequivocally that people are still intrigued by Kings and Queens, emperors and dictators, generals and prime ministers’.
However, giving his reaction, the historian and broadcaster David Olusoga pointed out that the ‘big story’ for this year ‘has to be the number of women, more than a third of the 100’, which strongly suggests that, in his view, the readers of history books and the audiences that watch history documentaries ‘are after histories that are less male-focused’.
Picking up on possible messages about current-day society, the historian Marc Morris noted the rise of the fascists in the 2017 survey: Mussolini has surged 61 places to no. 13, almost joining Hitler in the Top Ten, while ‘there are strong new entries from Mosley, Franco and Goebbels’. Morris asked: ‘Is this genuine historical curiosity or a worrying reflection of current political fashion?’
The September issue of the magazine also provides (on p.64) a very helpful statistical breakdown of this year’s History Hot 100 results, from the top ten risers to the top ten fallers, together with the gender split and the nations with which the survey is most associated.
Full details of the BBC ‘History Hot 100’ survey for 2017 can be found in BBC History magazine, September, 2017, which is on sale now in all good UK retailers.
(All images: WikiMedia Commons)