Like many people, I fell down a Wikipedia rabbit hole while watching The Crown. So what’s a history nerd to do? Pull together a chronological watch list to help sort out the history of the monarchy in dramatic order, naturally.
As a lover of costume dramas, I was well versed in period films and TV series depicting the British royal family long before Claire Foy and Matt Smith captivated the world with their performances as the young Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in The Crown.
But after watching the Netflix series over the holiday break, there were so many lingering questions of aristocratic family trees that I found myself down a rabbit hole of a different kind. I was bingeing all the royals dramas fit to screen in a way that I hadn’t consumed details about the monarchy since William and Kate’s wedding.
It all started innocently enough, with an Amazon watch list reminder that I had wanted to see the Golden Globe-nominated and Madonna-directed W.E. from 2011, a (now) star-studded and aesthetically stunning if overly sympathetic story told from the viewpoint of Wallis Simpson (played by Bloodline’s Andrea Riseborough), and the 90s-era namesake in New York for whom she becomes an obsession (played by Three Billboards’ Abbie Cornish). If only for the fashion, the vintage barware goals, the celebration of intimate house parties, and the additional cameos (Dunkirk’s James D’arcy! Stranger Things’ David Harbour! Star Wars’ Oscar Isaac! Call the Midwife’s Judy Parfitt!), W.E. is not only a way to keep the storyline of The Crown season one contemporary while waiting for season three — it’s as good a jumping off point as any for drawing you into this watch list in entirety, moving backwards or forwards.
With a base of the Kings and Queens of Britain & Ireland timeline and IMDB as my guide, here’s a stab at putting the best of the big screen narratives about the royals into chronological order —with a few extra credit titles for good measure.
A "Complete" Royals History Streaming Watch List
A decent introduction to the Richard I era and The Crusades, this eight-part Starz miniseries based on the historical fiction of Ken Follett is a reminder of just how far Eddie Redmayne has come in developing his acting craft in the years since.
Perhaps no British monarch had as dramatic a reign as Henry VIII, depicted in all his passionate, tyrannical glory by Jonathan Rhys Meyers — with Natalie Dormer (Game of Thrones) as his Anne Boleyn — in the four seasons of this beloved Showtime series. Additional viewing: The Other Boleyn Girl(Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johannson, Eric Bana).
With all those wives, determining Henry VIII’s rightful heir was sure to be as drama-filled as his house — leaving the kingdom in chaos. This Cary Elwes and Helena Bonham Carter vehicle tries to bring that ensuing chaos to life.
Though an award-nominated 2013 version of the tale of Elizabeth I’s controversial, Catholic half sister (Henry VIII’s first born) exists by the same title, we’re simply chomping at the bit for the upcoming 2018 film release starring Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird) and Margot Robbie (I, Tonya). Additional viewing: The Twisted Tale of Bloody Mary.
The powerhouse, Oscar-nominated costume drama no doubt catapulted Cate Blanchett to superstardom, for good reason — and shows the duality of the public and private life of a young Queen Elizabeth in exactly the same intimate way we get to know her namesake many generations later in The Crown. Additional viewing: Shakespeare in Love(Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, Judi Dench)
Despite being a beloved and scholarly king (and a patron of the arts like his auntie Elizabeth before him), very few modern narratives exist about James VI and I apart from this documentary, focusing on his contributions to Christianity — the driving force behind the first translation of the Bible from Latin into English.
During the reign of Charles I (played by Alec Guinness), the entire ruling class of the aristocracy in Britain was in jeopardy — and was actually lost for a time, thanks to the English Civil War and the rise of Oliver Cromwell (Richard Harris), who installed parliament and The Commonwealth in England.
No film underscores the tension of a United Kingdom from the Scottish point of view quite like the tale of William Wallace (Mel Gibson), a cinematic classic set in the time of King William (William III of Orange).
Strife between Scotland and England continues under the reign of James II and VII, and this time-traveling Starz series does a phenomenal job of contextualizing the history of the Jacobites, George II, and Bonnie Prince Charlie. (It’s not too shabby as a stand-alone, kilted, Harlequin-style romance, either. Catriona Balfe and Sam Heugan, meow.)
Whether due to illness or the loss of the American Colonies in the Revolutionary War, King George III ended up going complete insane towards the end of his life — and this Oscar-winning film starring Helen Mirren, Rupert Graves, and Nigel Hawthorne is a rainy day must for any true royals history buff.
Viewed through the eyes of the (legitimate? illegitimate?) great-granddaughters of King Charles II, this miniseries set in 18th-century England and Ireland centers around the four beautiful high-born sisters: Caroline, Emily, Louisa, and Sarah Lennox.
Historians all agree that the first, true, and perhaps most epic love story in the annals of royal romance was that of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert — and there’s nothing not to love about this Oscar-winning film starring Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend, written by Downton Abbey’s Julian Fellowes. So influential was the Victorian Age on the monarchy (and art and architecture) that this year saw a revival of 19th century royal narratives in Amazon’s Victoria and the award-nominated late-life depiction of the Queen in Judi Dench’s Victoria & Abdul.
Queen Victoria’s son Edward VII was known as the "Peacemaker" and there’s a reason why his reign at the turn of last century, known as the Edwardian Era, was one of prosperity, innovation, and industry. But he was apparently also quite dramatic, with reputations a playboy, a reformer, and an elitist, all of which are explored in this 1970s TV miniseries. Additional period viewing: Downton Abbey, 37 Days, and (from the Irish perspective) Michael Collins.
Nominated for an Oscar in Costume Design, Madonna’s dramatic and shelter-porn big screen biopic of the romance between King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson also uses its storyline and point of view to deal with the constraints of the female position in the upper classes. More of a feminist tale, the narrative is told by flipping between the ’30s and the ’90s and is meant to cast Wallis Simpson as a sympathetic character for the first time, through the near-obsession of a former Sotheby’s researcher.
Queen Elizabeth’s father King George VI is played to empathetic, humanistic perfection (with a slew of Oscars to match) by Colin Firth, with Helena Bonham Carter revisiting a role within the royal family line by portraying his rock as the Queen consort (Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon).
Queen Elizabeth II is the longest-reigning British monarch in history, as well as the oldest and longest-serving current head of state. But her personal history from a young age, and her struggles as a young wife and mother while ascending to the throne, shines as brightly as the cinematography and costume design in this Netflix series, now in its second season, starring Claire Foy and Matt Smith.
Though the only award this biopic was nominated for was a Razzie, Naomi Watts’ turn as Lady Di is some great rainy-day viewing — if only for the rare first-person look at the years and romances of her life after she leaves the palace and Prince Charles.