10 Baddest Brits In History (Or Popular Legend)

The statue of William Wallace in Aberdeen, Scotland

Baddism can take many forms. You can be a badass, bad-meaning-good, bad-meaning-cool or even just plain bad. And British history being what it is, some of our baddest characters have also been pretty awful, and some of our most noble countrymen have also been total badasses. It’s confusing.

Here follows, then, a ragbag collection, a motley crew (no umlauts, we don’t want to be pronouncing it “mertley croyah,” do we?), of historical baddies, badasses and badassesses. And if you can’t get enough baddery after this, watch The Brit List: 20 Baddest tonight at 10/9C on BBC America.

Ian Dury

Sometimes bad, sometimes rotten, but always a badass, Ian Dury is one of Britain’s best loved lyricists, with a neat line in florid smut and a menacingly theatrical presentation style akin to being mugged by a juggler. That his band, the Blockheads, specialised in a very muscular form of greasy funk did not hurt matters one smidge. Ian, who had suffered a debilitating bout of polio as a child, also earned the undying respect of every disabled person ever when, after being asked to write a song for the Year of the Disabled, turned in the scathing, self-lacerating ‘Spasticus Autisticus,’ a two-finger assault on patronising gesture politics.

Emmeline Pankhurst

Speaking of which, here’s our hero of universal suffrage, and someone with a similar attitude towards being patronised. Emmeline’s skilful approach to demanding votes for women took her from peaceful protest to violent insurrection and assaults on the police, then hunger strikes in prison, but stopped short of continuing to campaign when the First World War broke out, a gesture which earned the cause of women’s suffrage some much-needed respect and consideration once hostilities had ceased. Oh, and she had ten children. TEN, THOUGH!

Dick Turpin

Fabled romantic highwayman, who rode a horse called Black Bess and only stole from those who could afford it. Oh except that’s bull. He stole from anyone he could, was a rogue through and through (and not a charming one), and he didn’t have a specific horse, much less one called Black Bess. Adam Ant fans, check out this song from the BBC’s Horrible Histories, it should put you right:

Lord Byron

Another very busy Brit, Lord Byron died aged 36, but managed to find time to fight against the Ottoman Empire in the Greek War of Independence (he killed 23 sofas and a footrest *rimshot*), conduct innumerable love affairs (including a scandalous romp with his half-sister), run up enormous debts by spending money like it was about to be made illegal, and of course, write a ton of poetry. If the buccaneering rock star of the ’70s has any role model (beyond the one staring back at him in the mirror, and winking) it’s Lord Byron.

Blackbeard

Dammit, I had to mention buccaneering… OK, so Blackbeard’s reputation was at least closer to the truth than that of Dick Turpin. A rotter through and through, and fond of shooting members of his own crew when they got a bit lippy, Edward Teach remains a shadowy figure. It’s though he was born in Bristol (which would explain some of the accent, if indeed he really spoke like that, and that he moved to the caribbean when he realised that was where the best loot was. It’s reported that he did hide lit lengths of fuse in his hat to for a theatrically scary effect, but it’s not clear whether the stories of him shooting his own crew (or indeed the people he intended to rob) were true or just historical fancy.

Siouxsie Sioux

If the history of punk rock gave more credit to the freaks, posers and WOMEN involved at the beginning of things, and less to the urban realists and their fetishisation of the (male) kids, just imagine what punk would look like nowadays? Green Day, Rancid and the Offspring would automatically be 100% more interesting than they are, if nothing else. And if you could bottle that wayward, playful spirit into one genie figure, it would be Siouxsie. Not only did she dress more provocatively than anyone, during the oh-so-provocative swastika armband years, and depart the Sex Pistols inner circle as soon as punk stopped being glam and fun, and started becoming grunty and spitty, she was the person who sparked off the Bill Grundy TV episode that made the band public enemy number 1 in the first place. Oh and she pioneered goth (just don’t tell her I said that, OK?)

The Sheriff of Nottingham

Here’s where we do part company with history, and why not? The real Sheriff of Nottingham (or at least any person who held the office of High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and the Royal Forests during the period covered by the legend of Robin Hood) will have been an officious lord, no friend to the poacher or serf, but probably not the embodiment of evil that has been portrayed in the Robin Hood stories over the years. So, given the choice between the mundane truth and Alan Rickman, you KNOW who we’re going to plump for, right?

Sir William Wallace

Ignore Braveheart, which seemed to need to make the insurrection against the 13th Century English invasion of Scotland a matter of personal revenge, rather than a point of nationalist principle. William Wallace was the leader of a guerilla army against the English kind Edward I, who had refused to recognise the Scottish king John Balliol and even tried him as a commoner, before steaming in with a full army. Wallace, an impressively tall longbowman, fought tactical battles based on favorable terrain for his warriors. The English, used to chivalric battles involving strength in numbers, were at a loss how to deal with these tactics. That he eventually lost, was captured (after 6 years in hiding) and killed has done little to diminish his totemic status as a symbol of righteous fury.

Margaret Thatcher

The ’80s were the decade in which media coverage of politics set the agenda for the politicians for the first time. Strength of vision, lack of doubt, surety of purpose, these were the things that came across well on TV, whereas consultation, review and recommendation (the meat and potatoes of governance) did not. So Margaret Thatcher’s rule as Prime Minister was a period in which her personal vision of a free market-dominated society, free of any interference from unions or criticism from concerned community leaders, no matter what, became a doctrine that was impossible to deviate from: Thatcherism. They called her the Iron Lady, and not without good reason.

Keith Richards

It’s funny how Keith, a very thoughtful and moral man in a lot of ways, gets all the credit for attitude, while Mick Jagger, a man who has proved on countless occasions that he’s capable of being cold and dismissive, is considered the appeaser of the Glimmer Twins. Nevertheless, it’s Keith we regard as the acme of roguish rockstar badassery, a walking cadaver, carrying the stench of brimstone in his wake and a burnt spoon in his back pocket. He scores extra points for being the heartbeat of his band, and having the constitution of two oxes (and a rhinoceros). Oh and the guitar solo (and bassline) from “Sympathy For The Devil.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RK23GQo7q6E

Fraser McAlpine

Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2.

He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.

Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic

See more posts by Fraser McAlpine