​Rock star personalities from history

History's Rock Star leaders: Richard III, Oliver Cromwell, Prince Rupert, Duke of Marlborough
It is certainly the case that several characters from History have a reputation, a persona and an ‘image’ that adherents wish to emulate. For their ‘fans’, these characters can do no wrong. 

This gives the figures the status of a Rock Star - personalities capable of achieving great things and with character traits and consequent actions that take them beyond the reach of mere mortals like ourselves, who can only stand in awe at what these historical heroes  have done or created or destroyed.

‘Seeking the bubble reputation even in the cannon’s mouth.’ This is how Shakespeare’s Jaques in ‘As You Like it’ expresses the motivation of many of the characters we encounter on our history tours. 

Here are just a few examples of leaders from our history tours who we think had the status of Rock Star.

Richard III

Shakespeare makes him a villain. Misshapen, hunchbacked and thereby unattractive to women, so he sets out to overcome his deformities and ‘discontent’ and become King. 

Power is more attractive than physical attributes. Richard III was a short-lived King – the last of the Plantagenets. 

A romantic rebel whose striving to overcome all that Fate had sent him appeals to our modern sensibilities. 

The fact that he died heroically in the battle of Bosworth, and would trade his kingdom for a horse, only adds to his lustre and reputation as a courageous, man of action, bad but good, made of strong stuff.

Oliver Cromwell 

Clarendon called him ‘our chief of men.’ How he rose to power from relative obscurity was described by a contemporary thus: ‘he first achieved the government of himself; and over himself he won the most signal victories, so that the first day he took the field against the external enemy he was already a veteran in arms, consummate in the toils and exigencies of war.’ 

Oliver Cromwell is loved and derided. Democratic and autocratic. 

A man of religion who valued the plain russet-coated Captain who ‘knows what he fights for and loves what he knows’ over the apparent flamboyance of a so-called Gentleman, a Rupert or a cavalier. 

Simplicity, piety and a belief in the will of the people – his statue now stands outside Parliament in Westminster. Yet in Ireland his name is hated and reviled. 

No doubt his impact was great. Whether he wanted or not, on a cold day in January 1649 he brought about the only execution of a King of England and challenged the divine right of kings, thereby laying a platform for the kind of parliamentary democracy England enjoys today.

Prince Rupert

Prince Rupert was a cavalier, a romantic hero. Long trailing hair and a feather in his hat, with his dog Boye with him in every battle. 

He was young, dashing, nephew to a King, good-looking and courageous – he was the lead-guitarist of the Royalist band. 

But is his reckless reputation well deserved? 

Was he not much more a serious soldier who had studied the ‘Art of warre’ whilst fighting abroad in the 30 Year’s War and then incarcerated in Europe. No doubt he was courageous and desperate to win victories and confirmation for his Uncle King Charles 1st.


John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough

Corporal John, the ordinary soldier’s friend, was always concerned for the welfare of his men. 

Tall, good-looking, attractive to court ladies. Yet brave and resolute in his career as a soldier and a diplomat. 

The 1st Duke of Marlborough had personal charm and this  was a key tool he used. That charm seems to speak to us from his portraits and tapestries down the ages. 

Not only was he Captain General (Commander in Chief) but also effectively Secretary of State (Foreign Secretary), managing a range of tricky alliances from the Dutch, ‘German,’ Danish and Austrian Hapsburg courts. 

He achieved astonishing victories against the mighty, unconquered and apparently invincible armies of the French under the direction of the Sun King Louis XIV. 

Churchill was over 50 before the Battle of Blenheim and used to say he had achieved nothing before he was 50. 

He was a fascinating man who built a dynasty through his own efforts, courage and charm and with the endless support and help of his wife Sarah, favourite of Queen Anne before their falling out. 

Churchill made himself the most famous and important family head in Europe, but also the most hated and reviled. 

He was the dominant military and political figure of his day which naturally created envy and opposition all around.

Rock Star leaders

What unites these personalities? What do they have in common? Power and glamour certainly. They were leaders – strong characters all. Their energy, courage and willingness to set a personal example stands out. They gave clear and simple orders so everyone knew what they wanted to achieve.

In their lifetime, everyone one of them was controversial. They were opposed, attacked, derided. 

And they remain controversial to this day.

But leadership unites them. The willingness to put their head above the parapet and say: 'this is what I believe, follow me.'

Want to know more? Our history holidays put you in the footsteps of the past's biggest personalities, with expert guides helping you understand their strengths and flaws, and how these traits impacted on the decisions they made. 


Picture credits: All images used in the post are in the public domain.
  • Portrait of Richard III of England, National Portrait Gallery / Public domain
  • Portrait of Oliver Cromwell, Samuel Cooper (1656) / Public domain
  • Portrait of Prince Rupert, Flickr/Ann Longmore-Etheridge / Public domain
  • Portrait of John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, Godfrey Kneller / Public domain