The Top 10: Historical Figures Undeservedly Rescued by Fiction | John Rentoul

The Top 10: Historical Figures Undeservedly Rescued by Fiction | John Rentoul
Characters unjustifiably beatified

Graham Kirby suggested this list: everyone knows about Richard III, unfairly demonised by Shakespeare, but what about the opposite: characters unjustifiably beatified in fiction?

1. Thomas More, persecutor of Protestants, was hardly the reasonable man of A Man for all Seasons. Graham Kirby’s opening bid. And Thomas Cromwell, More’s rival, was not exactly the tolerant and wise public servant portrayed by Hilary Mantel. Nominated by John Meredith and James Hannam.

2. Richard I. A warrior who spent most of his time abroad and used England as a source of revenue. Gets a good press mainly via the Robin Hood story (no 8). Nominated by Cole Davis, Don Brown London and Adam.

3. King John, as portrayed by AA Milne in Now We Are Six. “While he is admitted to have ‘had his little ways’, he is badly treated by his family and neighbours, when all he needed to make him happy was an india-rubber ball. Further, he is kind enough to send his condolences to the bereaved James James Morrison Morrison,” said Robert Gould.

4. Bonnie and Clyde. Ruthless violent criminals who killed nine police officers and four civilians, so less romantic than as depicted by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. Thanks to Conor Downey.

5. The Great Train Robbers, romanticised by Buster with Phil Collins. “A nasty crime in which a railway worker was so badly beaten with a metal bar that he never worked again.” Another from Conor Downey.

6. Gordon Brown. “The Deal portrays Brown as a dignified man of substance rather than a sore loser unfit for high office,” said John Fuchs, who also nominated the Queen in The Crown. “I know this nomination will be enormously popular so I’m glad I got in first,” he added.

7. David Cameron. His autobiography, For the Record, fits the fiction category, according to Robert Boston. “However, I doubt if it will, in any tangible sense, rescue the former prime minister’s reputation.”

8. Dick Turpin, leading a subcategory of historical or legendary cutthroats, including Rob Roy (romanticised in Rookwood, the 1834 novel) and Robin Hood. Nominated by Allan Holloway, Phil Riley, Rob Jackson and Darren Sugg.

9. Aaron Burr, bad boy of the founding fathers and US vice president 1801-05, presented in a more flattering light as the narrator of Burr, Gore Vidal’s 1973 novel. “Although that light has dimmed again after the musical Hamilton,” noted Steven Fogel.

10. Richard III. Traduced by Tudor propagandists including Shakespeare, thus inspiring this list of opposites, but he was also heroised by Josephine Tey in A Daughter of Time, as pointed out by Chris Skidmore, Conservative MP and historian, Cole Davis and Stephen Date.

Next week: Silliest policies ever proposed, after the idea of a bank holiday if England won the Euros.

Coming soon: False details of true events, such as John Stonehouse leaving his clothes on the Miami beach; they were in fact stowed away in a beachside cabana.

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