I’d like to think nobody plans to go down in history as being hated. In a case of life imitating art, it seems history’s worst baddies are the ones who believe in the righteousness of their cause and pursue it without regard for the harm that results. Other times, a figure may simply be demonized because of the politics of the time, with some persons regarding them as a hero and others as a villain. In the end, there is always a portion of the population that considers a historical figure to be pure evil.
1. Guy Fawkes
So reviled a holiday was created just to burn him in effigy. For the 16th and 17th centuries, political lines in Europe and the United Kingdom were drawn based on religion. After Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church when Pope Clement VII denied his request for an annulment, he created the Church of England. This led to a religious tug-of-war for power between Catholics and Protestants in Britain that continued until the 18th century. Despite having the Catholic-friendly James I on the throne in 1605, a small group that included Fawkes decided to assassinate him by blowing up Parliament. The plot was undone when Catholic Lord Monteagle was sent a letter to stay away from Parliament, which he in turn showed to King James. Fawkes was then caught during a search of the basement where he stood watch with the gunpowder. Fawkes and the other conspirators were executed and James’ Council permitted Londoners to celebrate the king’s survival by lighting bonfires on November 5, 1605. Fawkes became synonymous with the assassination plot and the holiday bears his name to this day.
2. Mary I
Also known as “Bloody Mary”, following the Protestant reigns of her father, Henry VIII and brother, Edward VI, Mary successfully took the crown from her cousin, Lady Jayne Grey and proceeded to reassert the Catholic Church by any means necessary. She started off as fairly popular, riding into London to meet a crowd of supporters with her sister Elizabeth (later Elizabeth I), but things began to sour first when she married the Catholic Phillip II of Spain, a marriage opposed by the government for both nationalist and religious reasons. Further, while she initially made a proclamation stating she would not force her subjects to follow Catholicism, she then imprisoned several Protestant reformers, re-legitimized the marriage between her father and Catherine of Aragorn, and undid all of her brother’s religious reforms. Ultimately, she executed 283 Protestants by burning, including Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, earning her famous nickname.
3. William I
King William I is probably best known as the most influential figure in English history, responsible for feudalism, massive castle construction, and the survey of all landholdings known as “The Domesday Book”. However, his defeat of the Anglo-Saxon Harold of Wessex and domination of William’s government with Norman supporters created a deep divide between the two ethnic groups. The obituary for William in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle described him as a “stern and violent man”. During the reign of Elizabeth I, Archbishop Matthew Parker described William’s reign as having “corrupted” the Church in England, while historians in the 17th and 18th centuries described his treatment of Anglo-Saxons as being akin to slavery. Other historians claim he was an enemy to the English constitution, though some feel that he was its creator. Even Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, written in 1820, paints the Normans as thorough villains. With a (very) distant familial connection, I tend to come down more on William’s side, so it was a bit surprising for me to visit Wales in 2004 and still hear him referred to as “William the Bastard” (a true enough title, though, as he really was the bastard son of the previous Duke of Normandy).
4. Oliver Cromwell
“The most interesting thing about King Charles the First was that he was that he was five feet six inches tall at the start of his reign but only four foot eight inches tall at the end of it, because of…Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England.” –Monty Python.
A Puritan and fierce critic of the monarchy, Oliver Cromwell entered the English Civil War on the side of the Parliamentarians in 1642. Rising quickly through the ranks, he became one of the commanders of the New Model Army and led major campaigns to quash Royalist rebellion and revolts in Scotland and Ireland. During these campaigns, Cromwell’s troops killed thousands of people in Ireland, including civilians. Upon the defeat of Irish forces, Catholicism was banned and many priests were executed. After being named to the office of Lord Protector in 1653, he began a series of social and religious reforms that reflected his strict Puritan beliefs. Many inns and theatres were closed, boys could be whipped for playing football on Sunday, makeup was banned, and even going for a walk on Sunday (except for going to church) could be met with a substantial fine. He even banned Christmas and ordered soldiers to go around and seize food prepared for the celebrations. After his death, Charles II was invited to come back to England to rule and Cromwell’s body was exhumed, then given a ceremonial execution.
5. Margaret Thatcher
This is especially controversial given her recent passing, and with all due respect to Lady Thatcher, I have no personal animosity towards her. However, when a politician’s death causes “Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead” from “The Wizard of Oz” to hit no. 2 in the music charts, it signals a deep animosity for that person with the public.
Thatcher became a Member of Parliament in 1959 and proved to be a talented politician, moving up the political ladder despite a heavily-chauvinistic government. In 1975, she defeated Edward Heath for leadership of the Conservative Party and became the first female Prime Minister in 1979. As Prime Minister, Thatcher did much to gain the ire of working-class Britons, supporting indirect taxation instead of taxation of income (increasing sales taxes, Value Added Taxes, and goods and services taxes), reducing the bargaining power of trade unions, and closing many of the country’s mining pits. Privatisation of national industries became a hallmark of her premiership, with her government selling off many of Britain’s utilities. The University of Oxford denied her an honorary degree to protest her cuts to higher education and the Church of England claimed that the increasing deterioration of the inner cities was the result of her economic policies. She also sponsored the creation of the “community charge” (or poll tax) to alleviate what she saw as the unfair burden of property taxes, with the flat rate tax having a greater impact on low-wage earners than it did on the wealthy.
The same resolve that earned her the label of the “Iron Lady” from a Soviet journalist ultimately led to her political downfall as members of her own party turned against her over her policies. She then chose to resign rather than lose a bid for party leadership. Her legacy is terribly divisive, with supporters praising her uncompromising ideology and pragmatism, while detractors highlight her policies promoting greed and selfishness for the upper classes. She is a major figure in British popular culture, having appeared in the James Bond film “For Your Eyes Only” (played by Janet Brown), was the focus of the film “The Iron Lady” (played by Meryl Streep), and even as the subject of a joke in “Love Actually”, amongst other depictions and references. Love her or hate her, she’s forever tied to the image of Britain in the 1980s.