BBC lists UK’s era-defining ‘new Elizabethans’

Historians have compiled a list of the 60 people who have shaped Britain during the reign of Elizabeth II. But how do these ‘new Elizabethans’ compare to the subjects of Elizabeth I?

Which individuals capture the spirit of Elizabeth II’s Britain? That is the question that BBC Radio 4 is asking to celebrate the Queen’s eagerly-anticipated Diamond Jubilee.

Their answers range from the obvious (Margaret Thatcher, Princess Diana, John Lennon), to the unexpected (DJ and graffiti artist Goldie is there, along with Vladimir Raitz, inventor of the package holiday). It takes in artists, actors, scientists and businessmen; sinners as well as saints. Anti-immigrant politician Enoch Powell claims a spot, as does the embattled media mogul Rupert Murdoch.

These, say historians, are the ‘new Elizabethans’ – successors of the great men and women who lived during the reign of the Tudor queen Elizabeth I. But how do this batch compare to the originals?

When Elizabeth I ascended to the throne in 1558, England was a relatively obscure nation; but over the next 45 years, England burst onto the international stage with a swashbuckling cast of poets and politicians.

It was in this period of bawdiness, violence and intrigue that English literature came of age. Among the squalid streets of London walked two of England’s greatest ever playwrights: William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. Their immortal dramas were written from the belly of a sordid, semi-criminal underworld.

With the recent European discovery of the Americas, it was also a great age of exploration. Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh were ruthless politicians and accomplished seamen; but they were also pioneers in the New World. With their voyages, battles and trade, they laid the foundations for an empire that would become the largest the world has ever known.

Under Elizabeth II, by contrast, the British Empire dwindled almost to nothing. But with imperial decline has come a rising standard of living and education.

UK universities sit at the hub of scientific progress. British cities have spawned wave after wave of musical innovation, from punk to the Beatles. And in Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher, Queen Elizabeth II has had two of the most potent and divisive Prime Ministers in British history.

Which Bess is best?

‘Elizabeth I is number one!’ cry nostalgics. How dull our modern celebrities seem, they say, compared to the dashing adventurers of yore. And as for culture, who would dare cross quills with the great William Shakespeare?

But modernists are unconvinced. Peace and affluence might be bad news for bodice-ripping drama, they say; but Elizabeth II has had more than her share of great subjects. Despite declining power, Britain is still at the centre of the scientific, business and cultural worlds. History, they say, will remember the new Elizabethans more than the old.

You Decide

  1. Would you rather live in the time of Elizabeth I or Elizabeth II?
  2. Which names would you add to the list of new Elizabethans? It could be anybody who has had an influence – politicians, singers, athletes...


  1. Write a list of the top 10 people who have changed Britain since 1952. Compare your answers with the rest of the class – how similar are they?
  2. Pick one great Elizabethan from Tudor times and write a short biography of their life and achievements.

Some People Say...

“The great men and women of the past have no equals today.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What’s the point of making a list of 60 random celebrities?
For a start, it’s notjust a list: it will also form the basis for a radio series, in which each of the 60 will be profiled. Secondly, they’re not just random celebrities. Each was chosen either for the impact they had on Britain, or because they embody something about our culture and society. So this isn’t just about individuals – it’s about the spirit of the age.
And who gets to decide who makes the cut?
Radio 4 listeners made nominations, but the final decisions were taken by experts. Not everybody agrees, of course, but sparking a debate is half the point. The reason people are interested in such projects is because they are, to borrow a phrase, a ‘first draft of history.’

Word Watch

Margaret Thatcher
Britain’s only female Prime Minister was also the longest-serving, leading Parliament from 1979 to 1990. She was a radical free-market conservative who arouses passionate opinions to this day.
John Lennon
The Beatles are probably the most influential pop band of all time, and John Lennon is often considered their most creative member – although Paul McCartney fans would strongly disagree. Lennon’s legend was consolidated after he was shot by a delusional fan in 1980.
Enoch Powell
Enoch Powell started adult life as a brilliant scholar, and ended it as one of Britain’s most controversial politicians. In his famous (and infamous) ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, he predicted interracial warfare as a result of rising immigration.
William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe
Theatre was a disreputable business in Tudor England. We know little about Shakespeare’s life, but he almost certainly had links to criminal gangs. Marlowe, author of Doctor Faustus, was killed in a bar brawl – probably because he was a spy.
Much of it very immoral by modern standards. Drake was a prolific slave trader and privateer – a professional scourge of the seas barely more scrupulous than a pirate.


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