Are these the 10 worst Britons?

Winston Churchill was voted Greatest Briton. Now the search is on for the most dastardly inhabitant of these isles. The BBC's History Magazine has asked historians to make their selections, and now the public can vote. Ian Herbert examines the front-runners

Tuesday 27 December 2005 01:00 GMT

Twentieth Century: Oswald Mosley, British Fascist Leader

Mosley paved the way for far-right organisations today by founding the British Union of Fascists in 1932 after meeting Mussolini. With it came a private army, which attacked communists, Jews and blacks. Mosley's proposals for economic revival based on government spending and protectionism struck a chord with many, A J P Taylor considering them "a blueprint for most of the constructive advances in economic policy to the present day". But they were accompanied by anti-Semitism. In 1934 Mosley was banned from fighting a general election after a mass brawl in London. Rioting followed his party's marches through London's Jewish districts in 1940. He was jailed the same year for treason but returned to contest the 1959 and 1966 elections, retiring when his policies proved unsuccessful.

Nominated by Professor Joanna Bourke, of Birkbeck College, London: "Mosley remains the inspiration for far-right groups in Britain and continues to have a pernicious impact on our society."

Nineteenth Century: Jack the Ripper, serial killer

A dreaded and as yet unidentified individual who brought hell to the impoverished streets of London's Whitechapel, where he stalked and murdered prostitutes in the second half of 1888. Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly: these were the vulnerable women whom the Ripper slashed with a meat cleaver, cut open and sometimes mutilated before stealing their organs. The murders were committed in public or semi-public places. Extracting sense from the labyrinth of historical fact and dubious folklore has never been easy, though it does seem that the victims may have first been strangled to silence them. The 19th, 20th and 21st centuries have known many more prolific killers but few more brutal than this one who, by dint of the organs' removal, may have had a degree of surgical or medical skill.

Nominated by Professor Clive Emsley, of the Open University. He said: "No one can touch the Ripper for sheer wickedness. Firstly, because he preyed on the most vulnerable women and secondly for the sheer horror of his crimes."

Eighteenth Century: Duke of Cumberland, scourge of the Jacobites

William, Duke of Cumberland, put paid to the Jacobite uprising in truly ruthless fashion. After Cumberland had led the English army to a particularly brutal victory over the rebellious Scots in the Battle of Culloden in 1746, his troops asked him for orders. "No quarter," he wrote in reply on the back of a playing card - the nine of diamonds, which from that day to this is known north of the border as the "curse of Scotland". Cumberland slaughtered every Scottish Highlander he could find who had been a member of Bonnie Prince Charlie's Jacobite army and even apprehended Highland women and children who had joined the rebellion.

Nominated by Rab Houston, chair of modern history at St Andrews University: "In effect he used the full power of the fiscal-military British state to commit genocide on mainland Britain."

Seventeenth Century: Titus Oates, anti-Catholic fanatic

When clergyman's son Titus Oates arrived at Cambridge in the 1660s he was described as "the most illiterate dunce, incapable of improvement". Kicked out of Cambridge before taking his degree, Oates took Holy Orders in the Church of England, where he developed into a serial con artist, fabricating stories of Catholic plots against Charles II. Oates claimed in 1678 that random individuals were planning to assassinate Charles and replace him with his Catholic brother James. Oates was given a squad of troops to round up traitors, some of whom met a decidedly sticky end. He was eventually arrested for sedition and thrown into prison.

Nominated by John Adamson of Peterhouse College, Cambridge: "Oates was in a league of his own in the depths of his vileness."

Sixteenth Century: Sir Richard Rich, Lord Chancellor

Sir Richard, who was even more vile than his Dickensian-sounding name suggests, stamped on anyone who got in his way - even kings and queens. He eventually became Lord Chancellor of England under Edward VI and, despite being Roman Catholic, passed laws to crush the religion's freedoms. Then he turned on his Catholic friends Thomas More and Bishop Fisher in exchange for money and titles. He was equally transient in his royal affections, first supporting Jane Grey as Queen but then moving to Mary, during whose reign he persecuted the Protestants. Machiavellian barely describes him.

Nominated by David Loades of the University of Wales: "Richard Rich seems to have had no principles, political or religious, but joined whichever side seemed likeliest to further his career."

Fifteenth Century: Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury

Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury, was recently accused of the murder, c1402, of England's greatest medieval poet, Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer, so the new historical argument runs, was a secret supporter of Richard II and a closet Catholic, whose Canterbury Tales Arundel found deeply subversive. The reason Chaucer left no will and no record of his death is that he was probably starved to death in Arundel's dungeon or mugged in a dark Westminster alley. This "discovery", by former Python and Chaucer devotee Terry Jones, was based on supposition - but still said everything about the lengths to which Arundel would go to suppress Catholic heresy. From the De heretico comburendo law ("Regarding the heretic who is to be burnt") to passing sentence of degradation on others, no man suppressed religious thought more completely than he.

Nominated by Miri Rubin of Queen Mary, University of London, who said: "He laid the foundations for a system of persecution of religious ideas in England used by rulers for centuries."

Fourteenth Century, Hugh Despenser, courtier to Edward II

There were few lengths to which Hugh Despenser, a dominant courtier in the last years of Edward II's reign, would not go, as he amassed a vast empire in south Wales in the 14th century. He inherited Glamorgan when his wife's brother died in battle but, after inveigling his way into Edward's affections, he browbeated the weak and cheated his sisters-in-law out of land before breaking the arms and legs of one female aristocrat so that she went insane. By 1321, he had so many enemies there was even a bizarre plot to kill him by sticking pins into a waxwork model of him. Edward was finally persuaded to force Despenser and his father into exile - a turn of events which turned our man into a pirate in the English Channel. Father and son were eventually restored to the king's favour, but when Edward was finally deposed Despenser met an end which some might say befitted his life. He was hung, drawn and quartered as a traitor and thief and his testicles were severed and burnt before him. Ouch!

Nominated by Nigel Saul, professor of medieval history at Royal Holloway, London University. He said: "Despenser was pure evil. He browbeated the weak into signing away their estates."

Thirteenth Century: King John, 1167-1216

King John's PR staff would certainly have had their work cut out were he operating 800 years on from his era. The story of how he secured the attentions of his second wife, Isabelle, says a lot: she was 24 years his junior and engaged to Hugh IX of Lusignan, so he simply kidnapped her, later managing to procure five children from their alliance. Few kings had a greater talent for lechery, leading one courtier to substitute a prostitute in his own wife's place when John came calling. John tried to steal the crown from his brother, Richard Lionheart, who was away fighting the Crusades. He was also believed to have murdered his nephew, Arthur of Britanny, to secure his own succession. John, who went by the nickname "soft-sword", later imposed massive taxes to fund a series of military defeats. Then, after being forced to sign the 1215 Magna Carta to protect the rights of his people, he tried to go back on it and triggered a civil war. One of his few positive accreditations is the founding of what came to be the Royal Navy.

Nominated by Mark Morris, writer and presenter of Channel 4's Castle. He said: "John committed some wicked deeds and was a deeply unpleasant person."

Twelfth Century: Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury

As the patron saint of Roman Catholic secular clergy, Becket is nominated for the divisions he caused England. These seemed unlikely when the previously carefree and pleasure-loving courtier Becket became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162. Yet once in office he became an ascetic prelate, devoted to the ecclesiastical hierarchy. In the schism which at that time divided the church, Becket sided with Pope Alexander II, who was devoted to the same strict hierarchical principles and, to the dismay of Henry II, sought to exempt the church from all civil jurisdiction and secure unfettered control for the clergy. After returning from exile, he excommunicated the bishops who had crowned the king and an enraged Henry uttered his fateful plea to be rid of Becket. His subsequent murder brought Becket everlasting revenge on Henry. He was canonised and credited with martyrdom. A shrine to him remains at Canterbury.

Nominated by John Hudson of St Andrews University. He said: "He divided England in a way even many churchmen thought unnecessary."

Eleventh Century: Eadric Streona, 'friend' of King Ethelred

Perhaps Eadric's worst mistake was to get on the wrong side of the Saxon Chronicle because its editors - who are the source of much that we know about him - plainly could not suffer the man. Born of ignoble stock, Eadric advancedby making himself indispensable to the king, Ethelred (right), who gave him his daughter in marriage. It was a bad decision. The Chroniclers suggest Eadric was complicit in a Viking raid against Ethelred - the first of many betrayals. He also murdered members of a council assembled by Ethelred and seized their property before distracting the king by triggering family feuds and abandoning him to join an invader, Cnut. He jumped ship again after Ethelred's death to support his son, Edmund, only to desert a second time for Cnut. When Cnut eventually gave Eadric the earldom of Mercia he asked how he could be sure of his loyalty. Eadric's reply was unconvincing, as Cnut had him executed.

Nominated by Professor Sarah Foot from Sheffield University. She said: "He had a reputation for treachery and murder and grew rich out of the proceeds of royal taxation."

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