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Florence Nightingale

British women who changed the world

To celebrate Women's History Month, we recognise some of those British women from history who influenced the lives of a great many people and helped shape the world we live in today.

Photograph of Florence Nightingale | Wikimedia Commons

Royalty and warriors

Boudicca (Died c.60 - 61 AD)

She was the rebel queen of the ancient British Celtic Iceni tribe, who led an army against the Romans in AD 60/61, securing her place in the history books as one of Britain’s most iconic rulers. After suffering a public flogging and witnessing the rape of her two daughters, Boudicca raised an army that destroyed Roman strongholds at Colchester, London and St Albans, killing between 70-80,000 people in the process. Eventually, Boudicca’s rebellion was put down and she apparently poisoned herself, along with her two daughters.

Æthelflæd - Lady of the Mercians (c.870 – 918 AD)

The eldest daughter of Alfred the Great, king of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex, Æthelflæd helped lead the fight against the Vikings and lay the foundations for England. After her husband passed away, Æthelflæd took over the governing of the kingdom of Mercia, becoming the Lady of the Mercians - a truly remarkable accomplishment given the male-dominated times in which she lived. She went on the offensive against the Vikings and over the coming years played a significant role in the conquest of Danelaw, the Viking kingdom in England.

Margaret Beaufort (1443 - 1509)

A period of bloody civil strife known as the Wars of the Roses saw two royal houses vie for the English throne. Right in the middle of the conflict was Margaret Beaufort, whose life can best be surmised as a real-world Game of Thrones.

A carrier of the Lancastrian bloodline, Beaufort was born into top nobility. A skilled politician, Beaufort spent her life brokering deals; she was the power behind the scenes, she was a Kingmaker. Never far from rumour and hearsay, Beaufort has been connected to the infamous disappearance of the Princes in the Tower.

After the House of York claimed the English throne, Beaufort sent her only son, Henry Tudor, away to France for his own safety in 1471. Supporting him from afar for the next decade she encouraged his return and invasion of England in 1485.

Henry claimed victory at the Battle of Bosworth and ushered in the royal House of Tudor. He owed it all to his mother.

Anne Boleyn (c.1501/07 – 1536)

The second wife of Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn was a key player in the English reformation – a series of events that saw the Church of England break away from the Roman Catholic Church and the authority of the Pope. Henry wished to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that he could be free to marry Anne. When Pope Clement VII declined Henry’s wishes, Henry began the separation of the Church of England from Rome. Anne would go on to be Queen of England for three years and give birth to one of the country’s greatest monarchs, Elizabeth I, before being beheaded for treason.

Elizabeth I (1533 – 1603) & Catherine Parr (1512 – 1548)

The Virgin Queen is one of Britain’s most successful and popular rulers. The daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth I was the last of the monarchs from the house of Tudor. Her reign (known as the Elizabethan era) lasted 44 years, heralding in a period of relative stability and economic prosperity, which gave rise to a golden age in exploration and the arts. She established Protestantism in England and defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588, one of the greatest military victories in English history.

Catherine Parr, the last wife of Henry VIII, played a significant role in Elizabeth’s personal education, shaping the beliefs and convictions of the future Queen. Catherine also helped to influence Henry’s passing of the Third Succession Act in 1543, which restored his daughters into the line of succession. Without Catherine, Elizabeth might never have ascended to the throne.

Queen Anne (1665 - 1714)

All too often overlooked by historians, the reign of Queen Anne might have been short when compared to others, but it was no less eventful.

Becoming queen in 1702 at the age of 37, Anne was the last of the Stuarts and achieved several notable markers in British history. In 1707, she oversaw the unification of England and Scotland, laying the foundations for the United Kingdom, an achievement that had been sought after for centuries.

Gibraltar came under British ownership during her reign, whilst back at home Anne oversaw huge developments in Britain’s two-party political system.

Queen Victoria (1819 – 1901)

Her reign (known as the Victorian era) lasted 63 years, longer than any of her predecessors and was a period of great change within the UK. Coming to the throne at just 18, Victoria would preside over the political, social, cultural and industrial transformation of the country, along with the expansion of the British Empire. She became the most powerful woman in the world and helped to restore the reputation of the monarchy after it had been tarnished by the extravagance of her uncles.

Princess Diana (1961 - 1997)

From the moment Diana Spencer began dating a young Prince Charles, the world became captivated with her every move. When the pair married in 1981, her fame reached dizzying heights from which she never came down.

Through her charitable work and philanthropy, Diana became known as the ‘People’s Princess’. She captured the hearts of the nation, using her platform for good and raising awareness of a multitude of causes.

Diana was a global superstar whose untimely death from a car crash in Paris at the age of 36 saw an outpouring of emotion from the public. Over 25 years after her death, Diana remains a popular figure in Britain and across the world.

Elizabeth II (1926 - 2022)

Like Victoria and Elizabeth I before her, Britain’s former Queen was not expected to rule. When her uncle King Edward VIII abdicated the throne, it thrust Elizabeth’s father George VI to the top spot and placed Elizabeth in the direct line of succession. She ascended to the throne at age 25 and has gone on to become Britain’s longest-lived and longest-serving monarch. Her reign has lasted over 70 years, a period that witnessed remarkable societal, technological, scientific and political changes.

Politicians and activists

Suffragists and suffragettes

Democracy in Victorian Britain is not what it is today. Women were effectively treated as second-class citizens - unable to vote, sue or even own property. In the middle of the 19th century, things began to change and organised campaigns for ‘suffrage’ or the right to vote began to be seen. In 1897, the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies was formed and its leader was Millicent Fawcett. Fawcett led the peaceful suffragist movement, which soon became the biggest women’s rights organisation in Britain.

In 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union under the motto ‘Deeds, not words’. She believed stronger more militant methods were required to gain the vote and so her group began disruptive, violent and noisy demonstration’s to raise public awareness. They soon became known as suffragettes.

These advocates of women’s rights along with countless others past and present - Josephine Butler, Mary Stopes, Mary Wollstonecraftto name but a few - would help women eventually gain the right to vote. In 1918, women over 30 were granted that right. In 1928, all women over 21 could vote, giving women complete voting equality with men.

Margaret Thatcher (1925 – 2013)

No one on this list divides opinion like Margaret Thatcher. Love her or loath her, the Iron lady was a trailblazer becoming Britain’s first female prime minister in 1979, as well as the longest-serving PM of the 20th century – 11 consecutive years. Through her unwavering leadership style and policies known as Thatcherism, she cemented her place as one of the most dominant figures in modern politics.

Authors and Scientists

Anne Lister (1791 - 1840)

Heralded as ‘the first modern lesbian’, Anne Lister kept an extensive diary that revealed her affairs with women as she attempted to understand and interpret her own gay identity.

Challenging the gender expectations of women in 1800s Britain, Lister lived in a world where lesbianism was unrecognised. Such sexual relationships had no cultural understanding during that time. Lister, however, determinedly lived her life truthfully to who she was.

Her writings have a significant place in history and remain inspirational to many in today’s world.

Mary Anning (1799 – 1847)

Through her findings, fossil collector and palaeontologist Mary Anning changed the way we perceive our world. Anning resided in the seaside town of Lyme Regis in Dorset and would spend her days searching the coast for what she called 'curiosities'. She soon realised these were fossils and during her lifetime she made some significant discoveries. Although ineligible to join the Geological Society of London due to the fact she was a woman, Anning’s findings made a tremendous impact on the scientific world, leading to important changes in our knowledge of prehistoric life as well as the history of the Earth.

Jane Austen (1775 – 1817)

Known for her six major novels including Pride & Prejudice and Emma, Austen helped shape the literary world into the one we have today. With her sharp wit and strong female characters, Austen's books have inspired countless other novels, TV adaptations and movies. Dying at the age of just 41, Austen wouldn't live to see the impact and legacy her works would have on British culture.

Ada Lovelace (1815 – 1852)

The only legitimate child of famed poet Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace has been called the world’s first computer programmer. A keen mathematician and scientist, Ada began working with Charles Babbage in her late teens. Babbage is regarded by some as the ‘father of computers’ since he is credited as inventing the first mechanical computer known as the Analytical Engine. Ada worked with Babbage and wrote an algorithm for the Engine to carry out, in other words, the worlds first computer program. She also noted that computers could go beyond just number crunching, realising their full potential before anyone else. She died aged just 36 of uterine cancer.

Florence Nightingale (1820 – 1910) & Mary Seacole (1805 – 1881)

Known as the ‘The Lady with the Lamp’, Florence Nightingale was the remarkable founder of modern nursing. Born into a wealthy family, Nightingale went against what was expected of her and dedicated her life to a profession that was seen at the time as less than respectable. During the Crimean War, she improved the unsanitary conditions of the military hospital in which she worked and provided the soldiers with quality care. After the war, she set up the first secular nursing school in the world. It not only made nursing a respectable career for women but it also made it a professional one, forever changing the face of healthcare.

Along with Nightingale, Mary Seacole was a pioneering nurse and another heroine of the Crimean War. Daughter of a Scottish soldier and a Jamaican mother, Seacole had to overcome many prejudices in her life. After the War Office declined her request to be sent to the Crimea as a war nurse, Seacole funded her own way there and established the ‘British Hotel’ near Balaclava, which she described as ‘a mess-table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers.’ Although her reputation rivalled that of Nightingale, her great work in nursing was mostly forgotten for almost a century after her death.

Agatha Christie (1890 – 1976)

She is the best selling novelist of all time having sold around 2 billion copies, as well as the most translated author of all time. Penning 66 novels, Christie created the fictional detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. She also wrote The Mousetrap, the world’s longest-running play in history. Her works have spawned more than 30 movies and countless television adaptations.

Rosalind Franklin (1920 – 1958)

Like Lovelace, Rosalind Franklin was another talented young scientist who helped change the world of science forever before succumbing to cancer aged just 37. As a research associate at King's College London, Franklin conducted ground-breaking work on the X-ray diffraction images of DNA. One of her photographs led to the discovery of the DNA double helix, a discovery that would award three others a Noble Prize in 1962. Without her work, one of science’s greatest milestones would never have been reached.


Lily Parr (1905 - 1978)

A pioneer in the early years of women’s football, Lilian Parr went from a working-class girl to an international sporting prodigy, as well as becoming an LGBT+ icon.

Born in Lancashire, by the age of 14 Parr was scouted by a team representing a munitions factory in Preston called Dick, Kerr Ladies. During her first season, the winger scored 43 goals and showed remarkable prowess on the pitch.

Known for her powerful kick, the highlight of Parr’s career came on Boxing Day 1920, when she played in front of 53,000 people at Everton’s Goodison Park. It was the largest crowd that had ever gathered to watch women’s football and remained the record until the London 2012 Olympics.

Parr scored over 900 goals in a career that spanned two World Wars from 1919 to 1951. She was the first woman to be inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame.

The Lionesses (2022)

In 1966, England’s men’s team captured the World Cup at Wembley Stadium after beating West Germany 4-2 in extra time. Little did the country know it would have to wait another 56 years for another senior England team to lift a major trophy.

Football finally came home in 2022 thanks to the England women's football team, aka the Lionesses. Under the helm of Dutch manager Sarina Wiegman, the Lionesses won the UEFA Women's Euro Championship in scenes remarkably reminiscent of 1966.

Not only was the tournament played on home soil with the final being held at Wembley Stadium, but the opponents were once again Germany and extra time was needed to separate the teams. In the end, the final score was 2-1 after Chloe Kelly's sensational 110th-minute winner.

In 2023, the Lionesses reached the FIFA Women's World Cup final, but this time were defeated by Spain. Even so, their achievements have forever changed the landscape of women’s football in this country.

War Heroes

Odette Sansom (1912 - 1995)

Espionage played a pivotal role in the Second World War. Intelligence was vital to planning and preparing military operations, therefore the role of British spies was crucial.

In 1940, British PM Winston Churchill established the Special Operations Executive (SOE), an espionage force tasked to ‘Set Europe ablaze. Odette Sansom was a secret agent whose work for the SOE earned her the highest civilian honour for gallantry, the George Cross.

Although initially evacuated from London with her three daughters at the start of the war, Sansom refused to remain on the sidelines and so signed up to do her part. Her service began in 1942, acting as a courier for a spy network in France.

Captured in 1943, she refused to give her Nazi captors any information, even after receiving horrific torture, constantly repeating the phrase, ‘I have nothing to say’.

Sansom survived the war as the most decorated spy in British history.

Lilian Bader (1918 - 2015)

During both the World Wars, the contributions of British black and ethnic minority individuals have long been overlooked. These trailblazers served their country often in the face of prejudice and discrimination. However, their determination and courage paved the way for others to follow.

One such person was Lilian Bader. Born in Liverpool to a British mother and Barbadian father, Bader volunteered to serve Britain during WWII. She became one of the first black women to join the British armed forces when she enlisted in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) in 1941. Bader was trained in instrument repair, working on Airspeed Oxford light bombers, and was promoted to the rank of Corporal.