The Finest Kings and Queens of Television
Fascination with the British royal family is nothing new among television fans. The aristocracy has been portrayed far and wide in pop culture, but while most of us are pretty familiar with the stories of Henry VIII and The Virgin Queen (Elizabeth I), other monarchs are less widely depicted. So, organized chronologically, here’s a brief overview of some of the greats to carry the crown, as seen on TV. (Note: Any dramatic jumps in the timeline indicates kings and queens who must not have been exciting enough to grab the attention of television producers.)
King Alfred the Great
Depicted on: BBC America’s The Last Kingdom
When he reigned: April 871 – October 899
Why he makes for royally good television: He spent years dealing with Viking invasions and Vikings always look cool on TV. They didn’t call him “The Great” for nothing: Alfred was successful in defending his kingdom against the Viking’s attempted conquest. He was also a big fan of education and encouraged the primary education to be taught in English rather than Latin. He may have started out as King of Wessex but by the end of his reign he was the dominant ruler in England – at that time divided into 7 kingdoms.
Watch this series if: You like men with long hair and beards.
John, King of England
Depicted on: The BBC’s Robin Hood — Netflix streams all three seasons.
When he reigned: John was King of England from 1167-1216. He was known as Prince John during the reigns of his father and older brother, Richard the Lionheart.
Why he makes for royally good television: Because Robin Hood needs a nemesis and the Sheriff of Nottingham (Prince John’s henchman) isn’t always menacing enough alone — remember the Disney adaptation when he was portrayed as an overweight, pompous wolf? Plus, the eventual king falls into the same late-medieval period as the folkloric outlaw. Since the tale of Robin Hood is often intended for a younger audience, the negative aspects of the king’s character (cowardly, spiteful, and generally lacking any sense of piety) are often amplified in on-screen portrayals. Yet, some historians agree that it’s an accurate depiction.
Watch this series if: You really enjoy seeing the good guy win in the most unlikely of circumstances and aren’t holding out for the monarch to shine. If you’re a stickler for historical accuracies, however, watch at your own peril.
King Edward IV
Depicted on: The BBC drama The White Queen, available to stream on starz.com.
When he reigned: Twice in his lifetime, from 1461 to 1470, when he was briefly overthrown, and then again from 1471 until his death in 1483.
Why he makes for royally good television: Maybe his story wouldn’t make for such avid viewing if Philippa Gregory (author of The Other Boleyn Girl) hadn’t written a fictionalized account of his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville in her novel The White Queen. Nonetheless, the “Wars of the Roses” fought between the Houses of Lancaster and York for control of the throne were bloody and violent and Edwards’ wife was a beauty. Take some rich, attractive people, put them in peril, and you’ve got some stellar televised drama.
Watch this series if: Historical accuracy bores you, and Max Irons (Dorian Gray, The Host) excites you.
King Richard III
Depicted on: The BBC’s The Hollow Crown, an adaptation of the Shakespeare play.
When he reigned: 1483-1485
Why he makes for royally good television: Because a certain English playwright, Mr. William Shakespeare, thought he was worthy of play in his honor and we all know that man can pen a good tale. The play Richard III sees the conniving and power-hungry Richard woo his wife at a funeral (cute) and murder a whole bunch of people, including his young nephews — don’t worry, all his victims come back later to haunt him as ghosts on the eve of battle. It’s worth noting that Shakespeare might’ve been a little liberal with the truth. You might also be familiar with the play’s opening line, “Now is the winter of our discontent.” It’s pretty much the opposite of “Winter is coming.” If that hopeful note isn’t enough to make you tune in, what is?
Watch this series if: You have good taste in actors. Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Richard III and Judi Dench as Cecily, Duchess of York.
King Henry VII of England
Depicted on: The White Princess when it premieres on Starz in early 2017.
When he reigned: Henry VII seized the crown in 1485 and ruled as the first monarch of the House of Tudor until his death in 1509.
Why he makes for royally good television: He killed Richard III to gain the throne. Not novel enough of a reason to watch? Then let’s turn to the novel for some inspiration. Again, we have to credit Philippa Gregory for making Henry’s story more viewable. Her book, The White Princess, paints the king with all the regular insecurities of a reigning male monarch — his fear of being overthrown leads to him imprisoning his nephews (and heirs to the throne) in the Tower of London — and a moody and entitled ass. But the romance, secrets and deception between the king and his queen keep the story moving at a riveting pace.
Watch this series if: You’re a fan of The White Queen or Henry VIII generally and want to see what he was like as a child.
King Henry VIII
Depicted on: Seasons 1-4 of Showtime’s The Tudors, available to stream on showtime.com and on Netflix
When he reigned: King Henry VIII of England reigned from 1509-1547 and, boy, did he make the most of his time in power.
Why he makes for royally good television: He had six wives, two he eventually had beheaded. Henry VIII is pretty much the most famous king in English history. He’s responsible for the separation of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church — kind of a big deal — began the Reformation, and he loved to dance. To call King Henry a womanizer would be to downplay his lothario status, the dude made himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England so that he could legally divorce two of his wives and remarry. Most relationships have enough drama to carry a television show, so just imagine how juicy it gets with six wives, status, scandal and seduction involved.
Watch this series if: You find Jonathan Rhys Meyers attractive, because there are a lot of love scenes — as one might expect with six marriages (plus multiple extra-marital affairs) to get through.
Mary Queen of Scots
Depicted on: The CW’s Reign returns for its fourth season in 2017; the first three seasons are available on Netflix.
When she reigned: Queen Mary ruled Scotland (not England) from 1542, when her father died and she ascended to the throne at just six days old, until 1567 when she was forced to abdicate in favor of her one-year-old son, James VI.
Why she makes for royally good television: Her story is bursting with drama. After spending her childhood in France and marrying Francis II, the heir to the French throne, Mary became queen consort of the country until her husband’s death in 1560. She then returned to Scotland and married her first cousin, Lord Darnley. They were not a happy couple and then Darnley curiously died after his home exploded and he was found murdered in the garden. The man suspected of causing his death, James Hepburn, married Mary a month later. People weren’t too happy about this and Mary was forced to abdicate and flee to England to seek protection from her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I. Unfortunately there was some beef between the ladies, (Mary had previously tried to claim Elizabeth’s throne as her own) and the English queen had Mary locked up for nearly 19 years before she was found guilty of plotting to assassinate Elizabeth and promptly beheaded.
Watch this series if: If you like your royals sexy and with plenty of teenage drama.
Queen Elizabeth I
Depicted on: HBO’s miniseries Elizabeth I, where she’s portrayed by Helen Mirren and wooed by Jeremy Irons and Hugh Dancy. Available to stream on hbo.com.
When she reigned: 1558-1603: The epoch known now as the Elizabethan era.
Why she makes for royally good television: Her nickname was The Virgin Queen. Okay, maybe that doesn’t sound like the most, ahem, action-packed TV fodder ever, but there was still plenty of drama during her rule. Queen Elizabeth I spent time in prison (prior to her reign), enjoyed various courtships, and, in the end, refused to marry and produce an heir as was expected of her, thereby ending the reign of the House of Tudor. She also imprisoned her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, and ultimately had her executed — family feuds get bloody when there’s a crown involved.
Watch this series if: Good acting and award-winning drama impress you.
Depicted on: The upcoming series Victoria staring Dr. Who’s Jenna Coleman as the young queen, available on PBS starting Jan. 15.
When she reigned: FOREVER, but really just 1837-1901.
Why she makes for royally good television: Until her great-great granddaughter Queen Elizabeth II surpassed Victoria’s reign in 2015, Queen Victoria was the longest reigning monarch at 64 years, and all those years wearing the crown make for some quality viewing. Queen Elizabeth was devoted to her handsome (as TV and film tell it) husband, Prince Albert, and the couple had nine children together. After Albert’s death, at the young age of just 42, Victoria went into deep mourning, wearing black for the rest of her life and becoming somewhat of a recluse. Nonetheless, she remains one of the most beloved monarchs of all time and has been depicted countless times on television and in movies.
Watch this series if: You’re a sucker for a good love story and pretty period costumes.
Depicted on: The season 4 Christmas special of Downton Abbey, available to buy on DVD, and also on The Crown, available to stream on Netflix
When he reigned: Jan. 20-Dec. 11, 1936. Yes, you read that correctly, and no, he didn’t die of some obscure disease shortly after his succession.
Why he makes for royally good television: King Edward VIII abdicated the throne less than a year after he ascended — he didn’t even get a coronation — and what a scandal it caused. Refused permission by church and state to marry a twice-divorced American woman, Wallis Simpson, Edward renounced his throne, titles, and family opting to follow his heart instead and marry Simpson. In a worldwide radio broadcast, he told the public, “I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as king as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.” The disgrace rocked the royal family and permanently damaged relations between Edward and his mother and brother, who succeeded to the throne in his place. He is one of the shortest-reigning monarchs in British history.
Watch this series if: You enjoy basking in the opulence and finery of the British aristocracy.
King George VI
Watch this royal on: Netflix’sThe Crown, available to stream now
When he reigned: From his brother’s abdication in 1936 to his death in 1952 at age 56.
Why he makes for royally good television: He never wanted to be king, he actually loved his wife, and he overcame a stutter so he could make all the royal speeches expected of him (as detailed in the movie, The King’s Speech, staring Colin Firth as King George). Forced to ascend to the throne after his brother’s abdication, Bertie (as he was known affectionately by his family before he took on the regal title of King George) was popular among his subjects and known as a loving and attentive husband and father. His death deeply shook the family. He also played tennis in the Wimbledon men’s doubles competition one year!
Watch this series if: You’re fascinated by the current queen and want to know more about her background.
Queen Elizabeth II
Watch this royal on: Netflix’s The Crown, staring period-drama pro Claire Foy as the current monarch. Matt Smith (Dr. Who) portrays her at-times surly yet charismatic husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, who feels emasculated by his position and struggles to accept his role in his wife’s shadow. The first season is available to stream in its entirety on Netflix now.
When she reigned: After the premature death of her father, Elizabeth was crowned Queen of England at just 25 years old in 1952. She celebrated her Diamond Jubilee (60 years on the throne) in 2012 and is the longest reigning monarch to date.
Why she makes for royally good television: From her tumultuous romance with Prince Philip to her sister, Princess Margaret’s flare for drama and wild-child attitude towards her position, Queen Elizabeth’s nearly 65-year reign provides plenty of fodder for good storytelling — speculated or otherwise. In later years, there was also the death of her son’s ex-wife, Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997, and let’s not forget all the (mostly innocent) trouble caused by her rebellious grandson (and everyone’s favorite royal) Prince Harry.
Watch this series if: You want a deep dive into the current monarchy from the first season’s exploration of the Queen’s early days on the throne.