Top 10 Most Misunderstood Historical Figures

The propensity of passing judgment on the actions of other people even in the absence of all details proprietary to the story is not exactly new. Some would go as far as to say that arbitrating someone’s value is in the human nature. However, it’s not exactly easy to accurately evaluate a person we know in real life, let alone a historical figure who lived centuries or even millennium ago.

The main impediment in analyzing the personality of a historical character resides in our lack of perspective and insight of society in that period. In addition, keep in mind that history is written by the winners and many times personages were utilized as propaganda to support a throne claim, a value system or an ideology. Here’s a list of 10 public notions on historical characters which I will share while debunking them to be false.


1. Saint Patrick, the snake banishing monk

This personage is allegedly responsible for banishing the entire snake population in Ireland, but this detail does not really sit well with the fact that the land was not home to any of these reptiles at that time. In fact, the only historically confirmed fact about St. Patrick is that his first visit to Ireland was in chains, when he was taken there to serve as a slave. His missionary acts come much later on, after his escape and return to Cumbria, where his ordainment as priest is performed. In addition to the thousands of people he turns to Christianity, Saint Patrick’s most notable accomplishment includes the conversion of the heirs to the throne of Ireland. However, this missionary did not banish any snakes – the snake is presumed to be a metaphor referring to the Druid cults in the region – and he definitely did not bring Christianity to Ireland by himself.


2. Pontius Pilate, the prefect responsible for the death of Jesus Christ

The prefect of Judea in the 26 A.D. to 36 A.D. period is the perfect example of how the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Even though most Christian who take the story of the Bible literally and confer it a historical significance blame Pilate for the execution of the son of God, it turns out that in fact he did everything in his power to prevent it. Because he was not convinced that Jesus Christ was guilty of crimes against Rome or his own people, the prefect allowed people to choose the convict that would be released: Barabbas or Jesus. Well, you know what happened next.


3. Ulysses S. Grant, the corrupted drunkard

The political career of Ulysses S. Grant just goes to show you that being a military genius does not necessarily make you a good candidate for presidency. In spite of the adoration of the American people that he enjoyed during the Civil War, the corruption and scandals that branded his political career have forever marked the historical records of Ulysses S. Grant. Accused of being an alcoholic and an anti-Semite, historians are only now beginning to uncover more details to the story in an attempt to clear his name. In any case, it appears that Grant did not in fact have a close relationship with the bottle.


4. La Malinche, the real hand on Cortez’s sword hilt

La Malinche was the famous adviser to Cortez in his conquests of the Mayan and Aztec lands, but what makes her intriguing is her improbable origin: she was the offspring of the Mayan tribe ruler. Apparently, Cortez was so infatuated with La Malinche that he restored her freedom and instated her as adviser/translator on his journey. However, the historical opinion towards her varies greatly. While some claim that the brutality of Cortez’s campaign against the Aztec is the result of her hatred towards that civilization, others perceive her as a calming influence and suggest that La Malinche actually defused certain violent intentions of the conquistador.


5. King Canute, the failed elemental master

Even though Canute the Great was an accomplished and wise ruler who managed to control the northern kingdoms (Norway, Sweden and Denmark) as well as the large parts of today’s Great Britain (England, Ireland and Scotland), history only remembers this Danish King as the idiot trying to hold back the tides. This false notion has its origin in the misunderstanding of an anecdote he told. What Canute really meant was that even with his dominion over these lands, no ruler holds power over the elements of nature and none is mightier than God.


6. Saint Nicholas, the jolly fat man who lives at the North Pole (spoiler alert)

Santa Claus represents the combination between Saint Nicholas – a missionary who lived in the southern parts of modern day Turkey – and the gift giving tradition in December proprietary to the Christian faith. However, the only association between this character and the tradition comes from his charitable nature (the dowry of the three daughters). Oh, and the Christmas tree has been adapted from the German traditions.


7. Robin Hood, the only righteous thief in recorded history

What originally started as Victorian propaganda to support the Richards’ claim to the throne in favor of his notoriously evil brother, Prince John, turned out into a popular folk tale and later on, an over-milked Hollywood franchise. Robin Hood’s existence as well as his propensity of robbing corrupted noblemen is seriously doubted by historians. One of the possible explanations for his name comes from adaptation of the phrase “robbing hood”, which meant band of thieves.


8. Oliver Cromwell, the puritanical butcher

The Lord Protector of England may have gone down in history as a militant for democracy based on his decision to dissolve a corrupted parliament, but it appears that he was nothing more than another power-hungry tyrant. Moreover, the Irish remember him as a butcher because of the atrocities he committed during his campaigns.


9. Vlad the Impaler, or as friends call him, Dracula

Just like in the case of Robin Hood, there are no actual facts to support the concept that Vlad the Impaler was a vampire lord, but that did not stop Hollywood from utilizing Bram Stoker’s fiction novel into several box office hits. True, Vlad’s methods of dealing with his enemies were cruel (impalement was the preferred method of execution) but they were also widely practiced in that period. His membership in the Dragon Knights order is what allegedly brought him the name of Dracula.


10. Richard the Lion Heart, Christianity’s iconic paladin

Despite his portrayal as the great hero of Christianity, Richard the Lion Heart did not in fact rise to the morals and values he allegedly defended. He took the throne from his father by force, he had an ego the size of England, he instigated one of the first holocausts in history, he got captured and his country had to pay the ransom by increasing taxes and even resorted to looting and plundering. The only act of genuine kindness of this holy “paladin” was on his deathbed, when Richard pardoned the archer who wounded him. Of course, the archer was executed by flogging right after Richard drew his last breath, but at least his intentions were noble.


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