When The Brit List counts down the 20 coolest UK celebrities Tuesday night (June 19) at 10/9c, they’ll tackle a very contemporary British cool. The alien cool of Tilda Swinton. The effortless suavity of 007. The wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey cool of the Time Lord.
But the Brits have owned the idea of “cool” before there was even a word for it, as these ten historical figures ably demonstrate. Vote for your favorite from our list or suggest your own picks in the comments below.
Side note: one of the people below is not like the others. But we doubt anyone will seriously object.
1. William Shakespeare
Had such an astonishing effect on the English language that we all use phrases that he invented every day, without realising it. Whether he wrote his plays in person or they came from a collective working under his name, his is the greatest body of theatrical writing ever created, and so persuasively presented that we still tend to believe Shakespeare’s version of his own country’s recent history – specifically with reference to Richard III – even when the facts don’t support it.
PS: He even invented the word anchovy, apparently. No pizza would be complete without him.
You’ve seen Braveheart? Well imagine it’s Britain under Roman rule, instead of Scotland under English rule. Now take William Wallace and make him female. That’s Boudicca, and she did it first. Here, in musical form, is a brief summary of her bad-assery in action, taken from the BBC’s Horrible Histories:
3. George Orwell
A writer whose life encompassed both extreme privilege – private school educated, worked in colonial India – and extreme poverty. A man whose political principles – a profound loathing of totalitarianism of all forms – saw him voluntarily take arms against the fascist government in Spain, and write two scathing political allegories: Animal Farm and 1984. Both of these continue to resound down the ages, whether in snarky blog comments about some people being more equal than others, or in the titles of popular TV shows like Big Brother or Room 101.
4. Jane Austen
Also quite good at writing, it is fair to say. The pioneer of the novel as an art form, and another heroic British female, if only for continuing to bother writing such pithy novels about well-to-do families even though her books had to be published anonymously during her lifetime. If it were me, I’d have followed Sense and Sensibility with a proto-feminist pamphlet called Nonsense and Femininity, but I suppose Pride and Prejudice will suffice instead.
5. Sir Isaac Newton
Knew a thing or two, it’s fair to say. He’s best known for working out how gravity works (and not with the help of an apple, actually), but he also invented the reflecting telescope, split white light into its constituent colors and developed three laws of motion. That’s scientific laws, so they can’t be revoked.
6. Joanna Lumley
Not just cool because she’s an actress of rare poise, not just cool because she chucks that poise out of the window in order to play Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous, and not just cool because of her charity work, Joanna is cool because her support helped win the right for Gurka veterans to settle in the country they helped defend. This wasn’t a well-known or popular cause before Joanna got involved, and she not only helped publicised it, she was there making the speech that shamed the government that made sure they won. And win they did.
7. Charles Dickens
Dickens had the wit of Oscar Wilde, the social conscience of John Steinbeck and the popular touch of a soap opera. Another writer who knew both poverty and privilege, Dickens wrote massive, multi-threaded novels, delivered one dramatic chapter at a time, which showed London to be a thrilling city, full of opportunity, albeit one populated by corrupt officials and evil cutpurses. And he invented A Christmas Carol. the story of Scrooge, without which no Christmas would be complete.
8. Queen Elizabeth I
Her dad was King Henry VIII, a man who had so little respect for women that he killed two of his wives for failing to bring him a son and heir. Her elder sister was Mary, the Catholic queen that prosecuted anyone who followed Henry’s lead into protestantism. She had to resist an invasion attempt from the King of Spain, and endless speculation about who she should marry. That she managed to turn this into a kind of English golden age is testament to her extraordinary gifts of charisma and courage.
PS: Here she is being played by Dame Judi Dench, who is also very, very cool.
9. Winston Churchill
A controversial figure, and not always the nation’s favorite as a hot-headed younger man, but Churchill lead Britain during World War II, at a time when it looked very likely that the German army would invade. That they didn’t manage it is partly due to the RAF and the British Navy under his command, and partly due to the deal he brokered with America which eventually lead to an Allied victory. So he’s the man we have to thank. Plus his wit was sharper than a woodpecker’s needle, and that’s always cool.
10. Charles Darwin
You’ve got to admire a man who is so driven in his quest to work out a problem that he doggedly follows it beyond the boundaries of his own faith. Darwin’s Origin of Species caused him a great deal of internal conflict, as well as the actual conflict it caused among the scientific and church-going communities of the late 1800s. And yet it’s hard to imagine modern thought on any issue without the concept of evolution. Everything from language to MRSA is subject to natural selection, so that even if you don’t subscribe to Darwin’s theories, you’re still viewing the world through his eyes.
Who’s the coolest Brit in your eyes?