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100 Greatest Britons was a 2002 BBC TV series to elect the 100 greatest Britons of all time. The poll gave viewers the opportunity to vote their candidates to the top.

Naturally the election was not without controversy. A few people on the list were not even British, in that they had been born elsewhere (ie. Ireland) and were not British citizens. With other names there was the discussion whether they could really be considered "great", seeing that they were either just popular entertainers, well-known celebrities at the time of the survey or people whose lives weren't exactly beneficial to all of their fellow men.


The 100 Greatest Britons

  1. Winston Churchill — Prime Minister during the Second World War.
  2. Isambard Kingdom Brunel — civil engineer and architect. Invented the first modern steamship.
  3. Diana, Princess of Wales — royal consort.
  4. Charles Darwin — biologist. Came up with the theory of evolution by natural selection.
  5. William Shakespeare — poet and playwright. Hamlet, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Macbeth, etc, etc.
  6. Isaac Newton — physicist and astronomer. Theorized gravity as a force between bodies with mass.
  7. Elizabeth I — Queen of England (1558-1603). Easily one of the most famous and significant monarchs England has ever had.
  8. John Lennon — rock singer. One of The Beatles.
  9. Horatio Nelson — sailor whose naval victories in the Napoleonic Wars saved Britain from the threat of a French invasion.
  10. Oliver Cromwell — soldier and politician. Parliamentarian leader in the Civil War and ruler of Britain during the subsequent Commonwealth period.
  11. Ernest Shackleton — explorer. Made important contributions to the exploration of Antarctica.
  12. James Cook — sailor and explorer. Achieved the first recorded European contact with the eastern coastline of Australia and the Hawaiian Islands, as well as the first recorded circumnavigation of New Zealand.
  13. Robert Baden-Powell — soldier and founder of the Scouts.
  14. Alfred the Great — King of Wessex (871-899); began the unification of England.
  15. The Duke of Wellington — soldier who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo; later became Prime Minister.
  16. Margaret Thatcher — Prime Minister (1979-1990).
  17. Michael Crawford — actor. Best known for Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em and The Phantom of the Opera.
  18. Victoria — Queen of Great Britain (1837-1901).
  19. Paul McCartney — rock singer. One of The Beatles.
  20. Alexander Fleming — physician and chemist. Discovered penicillin.
  21. Alan Turing — computer scientist and mathematician. Devised cryptanalytical techniques, including those that cracked the ENIGMA machine. Also invented the Turing Test.
  22. Michael Faraday — physicist. Discovered electromagnetic induction, diamagnetism and electrolysis.
  23. Owain Glyndŵr — Welsh rebel leader who fought against the English.
  24. Elizabeth II — Queen since 1952. For more than one generation, the Queen.
  25. Stephen Hawking — astrophysicist. Provided ground-breaking work on black holes, theoretical cosmology, and quantum gravity.
  26. William Tyndale — scholar. Translated The Bible into English.
  27. Emmeline Pankhurst — political activist. Campaigned for women's right to vote and achieved it.
  28. William Wilberforce — politician. Lead the anti-slavery movement.
  29. David Bowie — rock singer, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
  30. Guy Fawkes — criminal and (by modern standards) would-be terrorist. Tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament, but failed. Is now burned in effigy annually.
  31. Leonard Cheshire VC — RAF pilot and philanthropist.
  32. Eric Morecambe — comedian. One half of Morecambe and Wise.
  33. David Beckham — football player.
  34. Thomas Paine — philosopher, pamphleteer and polemicist. Writer of Common Sense and The Age of Reason.
  35. Boudica, a.k.a. Boadicea — Queen of the Iceni, led the Britons in rebellion against the Romans.
  36. Steve Redgrave — rower. Five-times Olympic gold medallist.
  37. Thomas More — politician, lawyer, and philosopher. Wrote Utopia. Martyred by King Henry VIII.
  38. William Blake — poet and painter. Writer of Songs of Innocence and of Experience.
  39. John Harrison — inventor of the marine chronometer.
  40. Henry VIII — King of England (1509-1547). Probably the most well-known historical English monarch.
  41. Charles Dickens — author. Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol, etc.
  42. Frank Whittle — inventor of the turbojet engine.
  43. John Peel — radio presenter.
  44. John Logie Baird — inventor of the television.note 
  45. Aneurin Bevan — politician.
  46. Boy George — pop singer. Culture Club.
  47. Douglas Bader — RAF pilot.
  48. William Wallace — Scottish rebel leader who fought against the English. Life story inspired Braveheart.
  49. Sir Francis Drake — sailor and explorer. Saved England from invasion by defeating the Spanish Armada.
  50. John Wesley — religious activist, founder of Methodism.
  51. King Arthur — mythical Once and Future King of the Britons.
  52. Florence Nightingale — nurse.
  53. Thomas Edward Lawrence, a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia — soldier.
  54. Robert Falcon Scott — sailor and explorer. Failed to reach the South Pole before Roald Amundsen.
  55. Enoch Powell — politician.
  56. Cliff Richard — pop singer.
  57. Alexander Graham Bell — inventor of the telephone.
  58. Freddie Mercury — rock singer, Queen.
  59. Julie Andrews — actress. Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music.
  60. Edward Elgar — composer. "Pomp & Circumstance".
  61. Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother — consort of George VI.
  62. George Harrison— rock singer, The Beatles.
  63. David Attenborough — biologist and TV presenter.
  64. James Connolly — politician.
  65. George Stephenson — civil engineer. Built first practical steam locomotive.
  66. Charlie Chaplin — actor and comedian. The Gold Rush, City Lights, Modern Times, etc.
  67. Tony Blair — Prime Minister (1997-2007).
  68. William Caxton — printer. First to introduce printing in England.
  69. Bobby Moore — football player.
  70. Jane Austen — novelist. Pride and Prejudice.
  71. William Booth — humanitarian activist. Founder of the Salvation Army.
  72. Henry V — King of England (1413-1422).
  73. Aleister Crowley — poet and occultist.
  74. Robert the Bruce — King of Scotland (1306-1329).
  75. Bob Geldof — pop singer and humanitarian activist. Boomtown Rats, the Live-Aid concerts.
  76. The Unknown Warrior — soldier.
  77. Robbie Williams — pop singer.
  78. Edward Jenner — physician. Invented the smallpox vaccine.
  79. David Lloyd George — Prime Minister during the First World War.
  80. Charles Babbage — inventor of the first programmable computer.
  81. Geoffrey Chaucer— poet. The Canterbury Tales.
  82. Richard III — King of England (1483-1485).
  83. J. K. Rowling — novelist. Harry Potter.
  84. James Watt — inventor of the first practical steam machine.
  85. Richard Branson — businessman.
  86. Paul Hewson, a.k.a. Bono — rock singer. U2. note 
  87. John Lydon a.k.a. Johnny Rotten — rock singer, Sex Pistols.
  88. Bernard Law Montgomery — soldier.
  89. Donald Campbell — racing driver and speed record holder.
  90. Henry the Second — King of England (1154-1189).
  91. James Clerk Maxwell — physicist. Developed theory of electromagnetic radiation.
  92. J. R. R. Tolkien — novelist. The Lord of the Rings.
  93. Walter Raleigh — sailor and explorer.
  94. Edward I — King of England (1272-1307).
  95. Barnes Wallis — engineer and inventor.
  96. Richard Burton — could be either the actor or the explorer, writer, soldier, spy, etc.
  97. Tony Benn — politician.
  98. David Livingstone — explorer.
  99. Tim Berners-Lee — computer scientist. Inventor of the world wide web.
  100. Marie Stopes — author and eugenicist. Pioneer in the field of birth control.

"One Hundred Greatest Britons" provides examples of:

  • Ace Pilot: Douglas Bader at #47.
  • Audience Participation: British viewers were allowed to vote their candidates to the top.
  • Brave Scot: William Wallace at #48 and Robert the Bruce at #74.
  • Brit Com: #17 Michael Crawford, best known as Frank Spencer in Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em and #32 Eric Morecambe from Morecambe and Wise were the only two British TV comedians to make the list, and Crawford no doubt also got a heavy boost from Phantom of the Opera fans as well.
  • British Rock Star: John Lennon at #8, Paul McCartney at #19, David Bowie at #29, Boy George at #46, Cliff Richard at #56, Freddie Mercury at #58, George Harrison at #62, Bob Geldof at #75, Bono at #86 (even though he is in no way British) and John Lydon at #87.
  • The British Royal Family: Princess Diana ended at #3, Elizabeth I at #7, Alfred the Great #14, Queen Victoria #18, Elizabeth II at #24, the Queen Mum at #61, Henry V at #72, Robert the Bruce at #74, Richard III at #82 , Henry the Second at #90 and Edward I at #94.
  • Cannot Tell Fiction from Reality: The inclusion of King Arthur at #51, who is more a legendary character than a historical figure was criticized for being this.
  • Documentary: All Top 10 nominees received their own documentary episode in which a British TV presenter explained why this particular person deserved to win.
  • I Am Very British: Well, with a title like that...
  • Historical Domain Character: Naturally.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: Several of the candidates who ended up in the list weren't free from controversy:
    • Oliver Cromwell: Ended at #10, which was controversial because Cromwell was widely disliked by his own people at the time, not just Royalists but also Parliamentarians who considered him a traitor to their cause, and loathed in Ireland to this day for his war crimes. Clarendon, a prominent Royalist who regarded Cromwell as the most wicked of all men neatly summed up the contradictory nature of Cromwell, noting that "as he had all the wickedness against which damnation is denounced and for which hell fire is prepared, so he had virtues which have caused men in all ages to be celebrated", even praising his industriousness and wisdom even if they were put to what he saw as evil use.
    • #16, Margaret Thatcher was also considered to be a polarizing choice. Her politics and economics weren't exactly considered beneficial to the working class population.
    • #30, Guy Fawkes, tried blowing up the English Parliament and was executed for high treason.
    • #40, Henry VIII, a king who married six times and had two of them decapitated. His personal extravagance brought the country in a lot of financial trouble, to say nothing of his poor record as a war leader.
    • #55, Enoch Powell, is widely regarded as a racist. During his time in government, he was consistently opposed to immigration, especially of Blacks from Britain's former colonies. His "Rivers of Blood" speech in 1968 vehemently criticised both non-white immigration and proposed legislation to outlaw certain racially-discriminatory practices, claiming that it would lead to the eventual destruction of the British way of life. While popular among certain racially-intolerant segments of the public, the speech so shocked the Government that Edward Heath removed Powell from the Cabinet, and he never again held a Cabinet position.
    • #64, James Connolly, an Irish nationalist and socialist, executed (while delirious and already dying of his wounds) by the British Army in 1916. (Naturally, the "upgrade" element only applies in the UK.)
    • #73, Aleister Crowley was a controversial choice for being an occultist, nicknamed "The Wickedest Man Of All Time".
    • #74, Robert the Bruce pillaged Ireland heavily of food to support his war against England. The resulting famine saw, at the time, one of the most significant losses of lives on the island. Upon his death, the Irish Annuals described the event as one of the most incredible things ever done for the Irish nation because it ended the famine and pillaging wrought upon the island.
    • #82, Richard III has long been suspected of having murdered his nephews.
  • Humans Are White: 99 out of 100 nominees are European. The lone exception is #58 Freddie Mercury, who is ethnically Parsi.
  • Men Are Better Than Women: More men made the list than women. The highest woman in the line was Princess Diana, at #3, followed by Margaret Thatcher at #16, Queen Victoria at #18, Elizabeth II at #24, Emmeline Pankhurst at #27, Boudica at #35, Florence Nightingale at #52, Julie Andrews at #59, the Queen Mum at #61, Jane Austen at #70 and Marie Stopes at #100.
  • The Middle Ages: Well-represented with: #14 Alfred the Great, #23 Owain Glynŵr, #26 William Tyndale, #37 Thomas More, #48 William Wallace, #51 King Arthur, #68 Wiliam Caxton, #72 Henry V, #74 Robert the Bruce, #81 Geoffrey Chaucer, #82 Richard III, #90 Henry the Second and #94 Edward I.
  • Mistaken Nationality: With some nominees their actual Britishness was questioned. Ernest Shackleton and The Duke of Wellington were mild examples in that they were Anglo-Irish - though both would have considered themselves British in a sense. Irish patriot James Connolly obviously considered himself Irish (he was raised in an Irish slum in Edinburgh, which was as close as he came to "British"). Bono and Bob Geldof are both from Dublin - Geldof admittedly has one British grandparent (already a stretch), but Paul "Bono" Hewson is not British at all. Freddie Mercury was born in Zanzibar and grew up in India.
  • No Name Given: The Unknown Soldier ended at #76.
  • Patriotic Fervor: The competition was held to seek out the most admirable Briton of all time.
  • Pop-Cultural Osmosis: The inclusion of William Wallace at #48 and T.E. Lawrence at #53 probably owes a lot to the biopics based on their lives: Braveheart and Lawrence of Arabia.
  • Quintessential British Gentleman: The winner may be regarded as such.
  • Snub by Omission: Ringo Starr is the only Beatle not to make the Top 100, which certainly falls in line with all the old jokes about him.
  • Spiritual Successor: The format has been bought by several other countries who elected their greatest national heroes: Argentine, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Germany, the USA, South Africa, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Italy, Greece, Spain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Finland, Portugal, Russia, Brazil...
  • Time Marches On: The election is a time capsule of 2002. When held today the list would no doubt look very different:
    • #3 Princess Diana would doubtless make the list were it compiled again today as opposed to just a few years after her tragic death, but she probably wouldn't make the top five. By contrast, her old nemesis #24 HM The Queen would probably have a better showing and might even crack the top 10, given the greatly recovered popularity of the royal family in general and her in particular. In consolation to Diana, both of her sons and especially her daughter-in-law would all have a very good chance of joining her in the Top 100.
    • Thanks to Dead Artists Are Better, David Bowie would probably improve considerably on his already quite high #29 showing. But apart from Bowie it's an open question of how many of the chosen entertainers would survive a new election. (Dead Artists Are Better might have also been the reason why #62 George Harrison placed as high as he did - yes, he's a Beatle, but he had also died the year before.)
    • #67 Tony Blair held that ranking at more or less the very peak of his popularity (the poll was conducted the year after his second general election victory). The Iraq War, which he championed, started the following year, and this ultimately contributed to his fall from grace and his departure from politics.
    • #16 Given how polarizing she is and despite her death in the interim, it's unlikely that Margaret Thatcher would move much in either direction.
    • #2 Isambard Kingdom Brunel would probably see his position plummet with his primary advocate, Jeremy Clarkson, having burned bridges at the BBC and lacking a bully pulpit for him.
    • General societal trends have flipped from judging people based on their accomplishments despite their personal views and actions to judging people based on their personal views and actions despite their accomplishments. People who did things or even just expressed views modern audiences would find repugnant probably wouldn't be given the same pass they were in 2002. This affects a lot of people on the list, ranked as high as #1 Winston Churchill, although the extent varies (Churchill will always compare favourably with Adolf Hitler).
  • Vote Early, Vote Often: The very high ranking of Isambard Kingdom Brunel owed a lot to Jeremy Clarkson (Top Gear) who made a passionate defence of Brunel's greatness in the documentary episode devoted to him. Brunel's inclusion was also supported by lots of engineering students who held a big campaign to give him as many votes as possible.
  • Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters: The list includes a number of people executed by the British Crown, usually for reasons the British public would still disagree with.
    • Guy Fawkes at #30, tried to blow up the English Parliament in 1605. He wanted to restore Catholicism to England.
    • James Connolly, at #64, was executed for treason for his part in the 1916 Rising. He was fighting for an independent, socialist Ireland, and would probably be ambivalent at best about being considered a Briton.