Top 10 Most Misunderstood Figures in History

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The heroes and villains of popular history are rarely what they seem. One man’s crusader is another man’s murderer.

It is never easy to judge a person, even with all of the facts in place. And so we often leave it to history to make the final judgments. But history rarely gets things right. Although the science of history is all about facts, the modern conception of history is rarely accurate. The perception of past events is so tainted by centuries old propaganda that it can be difficult to discern the truth from our society’s own, colored interpretations. Fortunately, true historians never give up the search from the truth, and are now challenging the long held beliefs of pub quiz experts and so called ‘folk’ history. New evidence is continually dispelling our common misconceptions about legendary figures and painting them in new lights. I say let history judge these people no longer, but let us judge them on the facts instead.

Here are history’s most misunderstood figures. They are all people who have been inaccurately portrayed by the public consciousness.

10. Saint Patrick

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Legend portrays Saint Patrick as an Irishman who banished all the snakes from Ireland. In fact he was born in Cumbria, England and was first taken to Ireland as a slave. After several years of servitude he escaped and returned to Cumbria and was ordained as a priest but traveled back to Ireland as a missionary. In fact there were no snakes in Ireland at that time and this part of the legend may in fact refer to the druids who used a serpent as their symbol.

Saint Patrick converted several thousand people in Ireland and Scotland to Christianity, most notably the ‘sons of Irish kings’. However, he was not solely responsibly for the conversion as is commonly believed.

9. Pontius Pilate

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Pontius Pilate was the Roman Prefect of Judea from 26–36 AD. Many people have blamed Pilate for the crucifixion of Jesus, being the man who officially sentenced him. However, the bible clearly ascertains that he defended Jesus and believed him to be innocent. Pilate said that he saw nothing treasonous in Jesus’ actions. He gave the populous of the city a chance to free him, offering a choice between him and the criminal Barabbas. Unfortunately, his plan backfired slightly. The claims of treason had been made by the Jewish population and Pilate was politically powerless to do anything about it.

8. Ulysses S. Grant

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One of the most celebrated Generals of the American Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant was well respected, even adored by the American public in the years before his election as U.S President. However, his presidency was marred by corruption and scandal. Grant’s reputation was destroyed and history recorded him as one of America’s worst presidents as well as a drunkard.

In recent years, however, historians have begun to clear Grant’s name. Although his presidency clearly was a disaster, the rest of his career, particularly his military career, was outstanding. Grant has been highlighted as a military genius. What’s more, personal accounts of his character suggest that he was not a drunkard but a very polite and clever man, if a little shy.

Grant was once accused of being an anti-Semite but later cleared his name. In fact he was an outspoken supporter of the civil rights movement.

7. La Malinche

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Dora Marina, or La Malinche, is one of the most mysterious and intriguing figures in Mexican history. As both translator and mistress to Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez she played a controversial role in the Spanish invasion of Mexico and the defeat of the Aztecs.

La Malinche was the daughter of a Mayan tribal leader. She was taken captive by enemies of her father and sold into slavery. It was as a slave that she was presented to Cortez and given to him as a gift. It is said that Cortez could not resist her beauty and took her as his companion and advisor. It is in this respect that she has become an icon of feminine power. Her command of several native Mexican languages was useful to the Spanish who used her as a translator during their expedition, but La Malinche is said to have held a power of Cortez, approaching mythical proportions.

La Malinche has been portrayed in various ways in Mexican history and opinion varies over her importance and her intentions. Some describe her as a traitor to the native Mexicans, even saying that she was an evil woman. Her arrival with Cortez seemed to fit the prophecy of the downfall of the Aztec, leading to her portrayal as a goddess, even as a whore of Babylon type figure. Some suggest that she had a personal grudge against the Aztec and actively plotted their downfall with Cortez for this reason. It is possible that she felt betrayed by the native population herself and that she had become embittered by her slavery.

Others see her very differently, suggesting that she was a calming influence on Cortez. It is said that the destruction of the Aztecs and the outlying peoples would have been much more severe were it not for La Malinche. In this respect she can be seen as a savior, often compared to the Virgin Mary.

The truth behind Dora Marina’s character has been lost to history but she remains a potent figure. Scholars continue to debate her true motivations and the complexities of her relationship with Cortez.

6. King Canute

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Canute the Great to his friends, this Danish king became king of England in 1017. Canute is largely forgotten as an English king and is remembered simply for attempting to hold back the tide. This has forever branded him as an idiot, for obvious reasons.

In actually, Canute the Great was indeed a mighty and wise king. At the height of his power he ruled Denmark, Norway and England, and commanded loyalty from areas of Sweden and Ireland and Scotland. This made him one of the most powerful men in medieval Europe. Apparently the anecdote about holding back the tide is true. Canute never really thought that he could command the forces of nature, in fact he was making a point, saying that no king is as powerful as God. After proclaiming his Christianity in this way, Canute placed his crown atop a crucifix and never wore it again.

5. Saint Nicholas

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Saint Nick, otherwise known as Santa Claus, does not live and never has lived in Lapland or the North Pole. He actually lived in southern Turkey between the years 270 and 346 AD. He is the patron saint of children, amongst other things, and was known for his generosity. With Christmas trees being a German creation, Saint Nick left his gifts in people’s shoes. Usually these were coins left anonymously. Today, the tradition of leaving one’s shoes outside at Christmas is still observed.

The biggest gift he ever gave was to a poor man and his three daughters. The man had no dowry to pay for his daughters and was worried that if they never married they would have no choice but to become prostitutes. Hearing this, Saint Nick visited the poor man at night and anonymously threw three purses filled with gold through his window. Because of this, Saint Nicholas became the patron saint of pawnbrokers. Traditionally, three golden baubles are hung in the window of pawn shops to represent the three purses of money.

On another occasion, Saint Nick rescued two children from an evil butcher who intended to cut them up and sell them as ham.

The association between Saint Nick and Christmas probably developed from Saint Nicholas Day, a traditional day of gift-giving in early December. However, Saint Basil is also often associated with gifts during the Christmas period.

4. Robin Hood

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Tales of Robin hood have been popular in England ever since the Victorian era but have little basis in fact. The Victorians exaggerated an existing myth to include Robin Hood’s support of King Richard against the evil Prince John. This served to promote the positive image of the monarchy and support the heroic ideal of the common man protecting his noble rulers. Even without these additions, the myth seems unlikely and has never found any solid foundation in history. It is widely doubted that there ever was a man named Robin Hood.

Some scholars believe that the name originates from the phrase ‘robbing hodd’, referring to a thieving band of men. It is thought that a number of outlaws did live in the forests of what is now South Yorkshire but whether these men ever stole from the rich to give to the poor is debatable. It is most likely that they stole to support their own families after being forcibly evicted from their homes in Nottinghamshire.

The naming of Robin Hood as the Earl of Loxley is another modern addition to the myth, as is his apparent involvement in the Crusades.

3. Oliver Cromwell

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Oliver Cromwell was a puritanical dictator who ruled England following his victory in the English Civil War. He created the English Commonwealth after deposing the king. Whilst the king had been overthrown for disbanding parliament and imposing his own absolute monarchy, Cromwell, as Lord Protector of England did the same. He famously dissolved the elected parliament claiming them to be corrupt and appointed his own ‘council of saints’ in their place. Whilst he is remembered as a great figure in English democracy it could be said that he was more of a tyrannical puritan than a republican hero.

In Ireland Cromwell is remembered as a butcher and a conqueror following his campaigns to bring the country under English control. He is accused of a number of atrocities against the Irish people, in particular the Catholics, which are often described as genocidal.

On the night of Cromwell’s death, in 1658, a great storm ravaged England. It was said that this was the Devil coming to take his soul. That’s hardly the epitaph of a fair and Godly man. And yet in 2002 a poll undertaken by the BBC voted him as one of the top 10 Britons of all time.

2. Dracula

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Vlad the Impaler was a medieval Romanian prince famed for his brutal torture techniques and vicious lust for battle. His family name was Draculea, meaning ‘son of the dragon’. In legend, he is said to have turned against God after the death of his wife, becoming the evil undead. This myth lead to the modern interpretation of Count Dracula and other Vampire stories. In reality, Vlad was not a count but a prince. Whilst he was born in Transylvania, Vlad was Crown Prince of Wallachia, a country in the south of present day Romania, bordering Transylvania. He frequently made attacks on Transylvania, which was a contested region, and slaughtered many there for not accepting his authority.

Whilst Dracula is commonly associated with evil he is sometimes seen as being somewhat of a Christian hero. He was a member of the ‘order of the dragon’, an order of Hungarian knights sworn to protect Christian lands from the Muslim Ottoman Empire. Located between Christian Hungary and the huge Ottoman Empire, Wallachia was on the front line in the Ottoman expansion into Europe. Vlad’s barbarous torture techniques have earned him a place in history but they were not altogether unusual in medieval Europe. They may also have been exaggerated by his enemies. Impalement was supposedly his preferred method of execution, but this was common practice at the time. Reports that he burned entire villages to the ground are also unsurprising. In Western Europe, however, tales of Vlad’s attacks across the Balkans led to him being branded a ‘bloodthirsty’ tyrant. In Russia, on the other hand, stories of his brutality were equally rife, but most portrayed him as being a strong ruler and justified in his actions. These Russian accounts tell that he nailed hats to ambassadors’ heads.

The idea that Dracula was immortal may be derived from his own propaganda or that of the Ottomans, who found it difficult to put an end to his insurgency. When he finally was killed in battle, the Ottomans removed his head and placed it on display as proof of his death. It was impaled on a spike in a final twist of irony.

1. Richard the Lion Heart

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The Coeur de Lion is widely considered to be one of the greatest ever English kings. Not bad to say he was actually French. Of course Richard was a king of England, there’s no denying that. He was one of the great Plantagenet Kings that ruled England and much of France simultaneously. But what is not commonly known is that he stole the throne from his father, in a war of revolt involving his many upstart brothers. After going to such lengths to secure the throne, Richard actually thought very little of England (seeing it as the seat of his title but not of his power) and visited very rarely, preferring to spend his time in his French territories or fighting overseas in the Crusades.

Richard’s role in the Crusades, defending his family’s kingdom in Jerusalem from the Muslim armies of Saladin, is what earned him a place in the history books. He is often portrayed as a paladin, a heroic Christian warrior. This image was largely helped by his own ego, comparing himself to the legendary King Arthur, a mistake that the Victorians would later repeat. Richard’s religious intolerance was not limited to his campaigns in the east, however. At home he was just as vicious, instigating an early holocaust of London’s Jewish population. Thousands of Jews were flogged, beaten to death or burned alive. Others were forcibly baptized. Richard then went on to revoke a decree protecting the Jews, allowing a second massacre in York.

For all his skills as a crusader, Richard was only partially successful in his quest. On his return journey he was also captured, not by the great armies of Saladin, but by the Duke of Austria who accused Richard of murder of his cousin. Richard must have known that the Austrians were out to get him (perhaps he had a guilty conscience) because he attempted to disguise himself as an ordinary knight. Legend tells that Richard disguised himself as a peasant but in reality he was far too vein to be seen without his expensive jewelry. In the end it was his taste for roast chicken (then an expensive delicacy) that gave him away. Richard’s territories were then subject to outrageously high taxes as his mother sought to raise the ransom money and his brother John, in England, attempted to raise enough money to persuade Richard’s captors to keep him locked up.

When Richard eventually did return he spent several years suppressing the revolts that had begun during his captivity. It is believed that this was done through campaigns of incredible violence. In one account, Richard even reduced himself to looting; taking a hoard of Roman gold that had been found by a local peasant.

At least on his deathbed Richard finally found kindness. He had the archer that had shot him brought to his side and personally forgave him. However, as soon as Richard died, the archer was taken outside and flogged to death.

Richard the lion heart is remembered as a Christian hero and a great, iconic English king. If anything, he was a violent egomaniac who struggled to keep order in his realm at the best of times.

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