From our list of thirty, who would you would like to see in the Top Five debated at this year’s Festival?
Everybody has heard of William the Conqueror, though few recall he was known before the Conquest as William the Bastard. I think William the lucky bastard is probably more correct. He was fortunate to win at Hastings against Harold’s better but tired army, which had just marched all the way from Yorkshire. William’s greater impact was cultural, dynastic, and permanent: he gave us stone hearths, the Domesday Book, and a new architecture, and imported his Norman French which in time meshed with Anglo-Saxon. Honest Oliver Cromwell, soldier and statesman, kept Civil War England from many of the extremes which often accompany revolutions, though was no friend to Irish Catholics. With him originated the idea that the army belongs to Parliament, not to the monarch, why is why our land defence force remains the British – not the Royal – Army. Horatio Nelson spectacularly defeated the combined threat of Spain and France at Trafalgar in 1805, removing the threat of invasion by sea, whilst on land Wellington fought the French with a skill unmatched by any contemporary, other than Napoleon, whom he out-generalled at Waterloo. Winston Churchill needs no introduction, other than a reminder of his polymath achievements, leading his nation in war and peace, winning a Nobel Prize for literature, while coping – periodically – with the “black dog” of severe depression. These five were great men, who shaped our nation and made us who we are.
No; greatness comes in all forms; rather than advancing technology or warming our souls, these five gave us something less tangible and often taken for granted – our security.
And who do you think should get the crown?
I’m tempted to say Churchill, but I’m going to say Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington, an outstanding soldier, and a Prime Minister.
What makes him stand above all the others?
Were it not for Wellington and his Peninsular campaign, and then Waterloo, Europe would have been united under a French dictatorship; no room for the rise of a unified Germany, or two world wars – no Kaiser, no Hitler, no need for Mr Winston Churchill.
Did he have any major flaws?
Whilst Wellington remained calm on the battlefield and rarely showed emotion, he treated his wife, Kitty Packenham, abominably, largely ignoring her; psychologically, he remained overawed by Napoleon, to the extent of living in the latter’s house in Paris and bedding his mistresses.
What was his greatest achievement?
Waterloo, the outcome of which remained on a knife-edge for several hours, will remain for ever his defining achievement.