8 famous figures who changed the course of history

In this post meet 8 famous historical figures who changed the course of history and check out courses to help you get to know them or their times better.

Bonnie Prince Charlie

Bonnie Prince Charlie Illustration

Full name: Charles Edward Louis John Casimir Sylvester Severino Maria Stuart

Occupation: Aristocrat

Also known as: The Young Pretender, The Young Chevalier

Time period: 1720 – 1788

Famous for: trying to reclaim the British throne for his exiled family (the Stuarts) by leading an uprising in 1745, failing and running away to France

Quick fire facts:

  • Born in Rome
  • Catholic
  • Firm believer in the divine right of kings

Discover more about Bonnie Prince Charlie with the course Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites

Humphry Davy

Humphry Davy Illustration

Full name: Sir Humphry Davy, 1st Baronet

Occupation: Chemist, Inventor, Poet

Time period: 1778 – 1850

Famous for: All sorts. He invented the Davy lamp and an early form of incandescent light bulb, isolated many chemical elements and invented the field of electrochemistry

Quick fire facts:

  • First ever scientist to be awarded a baronetcy
  • His lab assistant was Michael Faraday
  • Born and raised in Cornwall

Learn more about Humphry Davy’s fascinating life with the course Humphry Davy: Laughing Gas, Literature, and the Lamp


Hadrian Illustration

Full name: Publius Aelius Hadrianus Augustus (Latin)

Also known as: third of the five good emperors

Occupation: Emperor of Rome

Time period: AD 117 – AD 138

Famous for: Building a pretty big wall which partitioned the northern part of Roman Britain

Quick fire facts:

  • Helped beards become fashionable again (the only emperor, other than Nero, to not be clean-shaven)
  • Travelled all over the Roman empire during his reign
  • A ‘philhellene’ also known as a big fan of the Greeks

Visit Hadrian’s namesake with the course Hadrian’s Wall: Life on the Roman Frontier

W.T. Cosgrave

Full name: William Thomas Cosgrave

Also known as: Liam Tomás Mac Cosgair (Irish)

Occupation: Irish politician

Time period: 1880-1965

Famous for: Being the Chairman of the first provisional government of Ireland

Quick fire facts:

  • Become politically active when he attended a Sinn Féin conference aged 25
  • Originally sentenced to death for his part in the Easter Rising
  • Has a controversial legacy due to him turning on former republican allies

Explore more Irish history with the course Irish Lives in War and Revolution: Exploring Ireland’s History 1912-1923

Agrippina the Younger

Full name: Julia Agrippina

Also known as: Agrippina Minor, Julia Augusta Agrippina

Occupation: Roman Empress

Time period: AD 49 – AD 54

Famous for: Being part of the Ancient Roman Julio-Claudian dynasty (she was related to five different emperors, and might have poisoned one of them)

Quick fire facts:

  • Exiled at a young age for her involvement in a murder plot
  • Feuded with Emperor Nero, her son, who may have executed her
  • Suspected to have been involved in multiple murders to ensure her powerful position as Empress of Rome

Travel back to Ancient Rome with the course Rome: a Virtual Tour of the Ancient City


Shakespeare illustration

Full name: William Shakespeare

Also known as: The Bard of Avon

Occupation: Playwright, poet, actor

Time period: 1564 – 1616

Famous for: writing some of the best known plays ever written. Many even consider him the greatest writer in the English language

Quick fire facts:

  • Wrote 38 plays
  • Estimated to have contributed thousands of new words to the English language including ‘scuffle’, ‘addiction’ and ‘puking’
  • Left Anne, his wife, his ‘second best bed’ in his will

Examine Shakespeare’s enduring influence with the course Shakespeare: Print and Performance

Adelina Patti

Adelina-Patti Illustration

Full name: Adelina Patti

Occupation: Coloratura soprano (opera singer)

Time period: 1848 – 1919

Famous for: having one of the most beautiful voices in history, as endorsed by composer Verdi

Quick fire facts:

  • Began her opera career aged 16 in New York
  • Commanded huge fees
  • Her great-grand niece is another musical legend: Patti LuPone

Delve further into the world of opera with the course Inside Opera: Why Does It Matter?

Van Meegeren

Full name: Han van Meegeren

Occupation: Forger, artist

Time period: 1889 – 1947

Famous for: producing impeccable forgeries of famous artists including Vermeer

Quick fire facts:

  • His forgeries earned him around $30million
  • He once sold a forgery to Hermann Göring
  • Used Bakelite, an early plastic, to ‘age’ his forgeries

Uncover more of the art world’s dark underbelly with the course Antiquities Trafficking and Art Crime

Category Learning

Comments (28)


  • Miss sara hide

    Am interested why there are no people of colour featured on this course? Western history is problematic as most literature does not document people of colour, I thought future learn would be keen to be ensure that they allies also for people of colour.. so many key historical figures who are not white is a shame

  • Patrick Coleman

    What an Anglo, white, male, British centred list of people who are claimed to have “changed the world!”. All are interesting and worth studying,but I do think that the claim is much overstated!

  • Igiri Sunday

    they are all great in did, i also believe that one day i will be greater than them, is just a matter of time.

  • Ebosele Monica

    I have been missing a lot at future learn. See my lovely shakespear and others especially the lady with the best voice ever. Am knowing this for the first time. Thanks a lot.

  • Amanda

    A wonderful, innovative way to market courses.
    Well done! We can all learn from this marketing style.

  • shamshad mohamed

    I think this man deserves to be in the top 8.

    Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edition.

    Indeed, never in history has a man influenced mankind, even beyond his death, so deeply and so pervasively as Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) has. He brings light and peace to countless hearts and lives. They love him more dearly than their own selves. In him they find their greatest source of inspiration and guidance. He is the ultimate norm and the perfect example for them……………. He has always inspired them to greater and greater heights of spiritual and moral upliftment and civilizational achievements. And he still does-

    • Alan

      I would agree with you if this was a ‘top 8’, but it isn’t – it is just an interesting list of 8 people who have influenced history. Probably the only one from this list who would make it into a ‘top 8’ would be Shakespeare. A top 8 would also have to include Buddha

  • Trizah KIHIKO

    I am excited to read about one of my best literature character when I was in high school. I read many of his books and they influenced me to be an actor in school. Those characters have influenced me to love studies even when I am over 60 6ears.

  • Judy

    Van Meegeren is not ‘one of histories most famous forgers’; you mean “history’s”. Likewise, of Cosgrave, you write, ‘has a controversial legacy due to him turning on former republican allies’ is rife with errors. You need a literate proofreader! You represent a university, yet you slaughter the English language.

    • Jim Wood

      An excellent comment Judy. I suspect that you may be of an earlier generation.

  • latu wakum Turi

    good to now all thiy

  • Matala

    This eight great personalities of the ancient time has marked the history of the United kingdom. Among this people ,William Shakespeare seems to be the famous and more important one . He is comparable to Molière in French literature by both their incredible contribution to the respective world.
    Surprisingly, There is no considerable women representation . only one women!Just to confirm that this world has been very patriarchal over the years.

    • Hugh

      Certainly Shakespeare is comparable to Moliere ,if only for his comedies. If the look for further comparisons with French Literature, we have to include both Racine and Corneille.

  • Hope Olawole

    I love this expository aspect of history
    It broaden my mind on certain basic facts and their origin
    I thing its a good thing to know

  • İntizar

    İ only knew Shakespeare and Hadrian . Thanks this information. Because i didn’know much more about this.

  • Shazada Kudiyarova

    I know and read about William Shakespeare but about the others I have no information but today’s course I have got a lot of information.

  • Janet Holland

    What about a series of famous women who changed history, a la Jenni Murray book?

    • Yes, a great idea Janet.
      Jess @ FutureLearn

  • Janet Holland

    Only two females. Need I say more?

  • Louisa Warburton

    Wow ! So many amazing people !

  • Narinder kaur

    Good to know all this..

  • Jess Sansara

    Not a black / Asian person in sight.. come on!! 🙁

    • Agreed Jess, frustrating! We were limited to our current history courses and the figures they focus on. Luckily we always have more courses being added to FutureLearn so we will should have a far more diverse, and representative, set of figures on the blog in the future. Jess @ FutureLearn

  • Rosie Godfrey

    And out of the 8 only one of them a woman!! Disappointing.

    • Sean Ward

      2 women actually, Rosie. Agrippina and Adelina Patti but still disappointing. What about the brilliant self-taught astronomer Caroline Herschel; and Marie Cure? Then we might include Elizabeth I and Catherine the Great both skilled politicians and highly educated, cultured women. And the great female poets and novelists?
      But I guess this is about the courses that FutureLearn has on offer at present. Perhaps there will be courses featuring the important contribution of women coming along soon.

      • Sean’s right, each of these figures are related to our current courses so we were a bit limited. But thankfully we’ve got more courses on the horizon so expect so see more amazing women from history on the blog soon!

        Jess @ FutureLearn

    • Jason M.C.,Han

      Wonderful material to understand views of historical issues in Westen eyes

      • Yaroslav

        Great facts to learn History that teaches us all! Thanks