Richest Briton ever was, er, French

We're used to thinking of today's crop of ultra-rich individuals - Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Ingvar Kamprad, Lakshmi Mittal - as being the wealthiest people ever to draw breath.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010
And - thanks to the post industrial-revolution phenomenon of inflation, they are, in strictly numerical terms at least. But how, in real terms, would they stack up against the richest people in history? It's a terrific pub-debate question that MT contributing editor and wealth-watcher extraordinaire Philip Beresford sets out to answer in his new book The Richest of the Rich - the wealthiest 250 people in Britain since 1066, published next week by Harriman House.

Working with historian William D Rubinstein, Beresford has identified a little-known French immigrant and nephew of William the Conqueror as the wealthiest Brit ever. Alan Rufus was, he estimates, worth a cool £81bn at current money values at the time of his death over 900 years ago. His incredible estate comprised no less than 250,000 acres - nearly 400 square miles if you prefer - of land, from North Yorkshire (he built Richmond castle for his own personal use) through East Anglia and the Midlands to London.

Other historical high-fliers include William of Warenne, Earl of Surrey in the 1050s, who would have been worth some £74bn if he were alive today, and the ‘troublesome priest' Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Beckett, valued at £24bn. Something for the current incumbent Rowan Williams to ponder there. Although hopefully he's a lot less likely to suffer the same fate as his loaded predecessor, murdered in his own cathedral on the orders of Henry II in 1170. As Beresford points out ‘Before the civil war it was safer to be poor than rich. 29 of the 250 died a violent death, but the last one was in 1642. Nowadays it's safer to be rich.'

The richest modern man to make it onto the list is the aforementioned steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, whose £19.2bn fortune only buys him a modest 20th place. And although the work only covers British residents, even today's global moneybags couldn't compete with Alan Rufus. Bill Gates $56bn is a mere £27.3bn at current exchange rates. ‘No-one is likely to be as rich as Alan Rufus again' says Beresford.

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