MAD, BAD & BRITISH; Mass Murderers, Torturers, Tyrants ...Our History Is Littered with Truly Evil Men and Women. So Why Does the List of Worst-Ever Britons, Picked by Historians This Week, Leave out So Many of the REAL Villains?

Article excerpt

Byline: MAX HASTINGS

HOW we love a villain. 'When you grow up, my son, I hope you're a bum like your father was,' urged one of Rodgers and Hammerstein's characters in Carousel, 'cos a good man ain't no fun.' These days, the Christian saints rouse little enthusiasm, even among believers.

But scoundrels send a frisson of excitement through almost all of us.

This week, the BBC History Magazine has published a list of allegedly the ten worst people in Britain during the past 1,000 years - one for each century - as nominated by some tame historians. The roster includes King John, Thomas Becket, Jack The Ripper and Oswald Mosley.

Many of the figures chosen reflect the fatuous judgment of the academics concerned, rather than the shortcomings of their subjects. Thomas Becket may have been a bad Archbishop of Canterbury, but it is hard to suggest convincingly that he was the embodiment of evil.

Oswald Mosley, founder of the Blackshirts, was an ugly phenomenon - but the wickedest Briton of the 20th century?

Surely only an especially silly feminist Leftie could say so. Mosley never gained widespread public support, and ended his public life where he deserved, in Wormwood Scrubs.

Kim Philby, who betrayed countless British agents to the Soviets during the Cold War, was responsible for far more deaths than Mosley.

If criminals such as Jack The Ripper are eligible, the past 100 years have produced plenty of mass murderers. Some terrible people have done terrible things in our various wars.

Yet the interesting questions for our purposes are: what makes us judge some people to be villains, and why do we cherish their memories? 'History is not what you thought. It is what you can remember,' declared Sellar and Yeatman in 1066 And All That.

If we recall the lives of any Roman emperors, it is much more likely to be monsters of iniquity such as Nero or Caligula than good chaps such as Hadrian, who merely built walls.

Hollywood has made endless movies about Captain Bligh of the Bounty - the cruise ship captain from hell whose crew mutineered - and none that I can recall about Captain Cook, a good person who discovered lots of places including Australia, which we should forgive him for.

THANKS to the performances of Charles Laughton and Robert Shaw on screen, we are happy to take to our hearts Henry VIII, who would nowadays be up to his neck in prosecutions for wife murder and writs from the Child Support Agency.

But we take no interest in, say, Queen Anne, who had lots of babies who died and sponsored a rather nice line in homes and furniture.

It is amazing how popular a villain you can be if you are good at something people admire, such as football. Then you will be forgiven every other kind of failing, as George Best would testify.

Take the knights of the Middle Ages. Forget about fluttering banners and the Round Table - they were brutal thugs who tried to behave honourably to each other, but treated everyone else appallingly. Any prisoner they captured who was unlikely to fetch a ransom was killed on the spot.

In battle, they could whack away merrily at each other, safe behind all that armour, while massacring underfoot any number of hapless peasants who could not afford breastplates.

The biggest beneficiary of this chivalry nonsense was Richard I, the so- called Lionheart. His brother, King John, is widely thought to have ruled England rather better than Richard.

John was uncommonly clean, for one thing. We know that in 1209, he took eight baths in five months, during an era when even most monarchs thought once a year was enough.

But John has been roundly rubbished by history, because he was a rotten games player and not much use with a lance.

By contrast, Richard - who almost ruined England to pay for his Crusades and then his ransom after carelessly getting captured in Austria - became tremendously popular because of his prowess in armour. …