History is hard without visual references. Here are all the English monarchs between the
Norman Conquest (1066) and the Acts of Unification (1707). Media is selected more-or-less arbitrarily. The linked depictions might not be
the best available, but they’re the ones that stuck in my head. Your mileage
may vary. Images were selected based on era-appropriate portraits wherever
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You’d think William the Conqueror would have a classic film about his life, but
no, apparently not. There’s a French documentary with dramatic re-enactments
that’s pretty decent, but (perhaps sadly), the picture in my head comes from a
four minute comedy sketch. There’s a 1990 film where Michael Gambon plays
William and Brian Blessed has a role, but for the life of me I can’t find a copy
I can’t picture William II. He reigns for 13 years, dies in a mysterious
hunting accident, and vanishes from the scene like smoke. There are no plays or
films about him.
Prophecies! Political machinations involving fleece fairs! Diocese vs priory,
relics, painted statues construction equipment! Hairy pigs! Sure, the politics
is mostly flim-flammery and some of the minor characters are hastily sketched,
but the series is still well worth watching.
Henry tried to console himself for his loss by eating a surfeit of palfreys.
This was a Bad Thing, since he died of it and never smiled again.
-1066 and All That
Tony Curran does an excellent job as a precariously balanced king. He’s a major
antagonist in the series, without a lot of redeeming qualities. In reality, he
was probably a decent king.
Matilda, empress at 15, victor in an unusually bloody civil war and a
reasonably shrewd leader, makes Stephen look like a wilted salad. By rights,
her son should have turned out weak or incompetent or died young, but for once
in history things worked out.
The Pillars of the
Earth flows nicely into Beckett.
In Beckett, Matilda (played by Martita
Hunt) is still alive, still doing needlepoint and trying to keep her son off
the rocks. Her character is much more poignant with the added context of The Pillars of the Earth.
Of all the monarchs on this list, Henry II has the most advantages. He has two
films, both based on plays, and both with the same actor; the superb Peter
O’Toole. Becket is by far the weaker
of the two plays, both historically and dramatically. The Lion in Winter should be mandatory viewing. It’s a masterwork.
I watch it at least once every three months. If you watch nothing else on this
list, please watch The Lion in Winter.
Every line is quotable. Every scene is memorable.
My life, when it is written, will read better than it lived. Henry
Fitz-Empress, first Plantagenet, king at 21, the ablest soldier of an able
time. He led men well, he cared for justice when he could and ruled for thirty
years a state as great as Charlemagne's. He married out of love a woman out of
legend. Not in Alexandria, or Rome, or Camelot has there been such a queen. She
bore him many children... but no sons. King Henry had no sons. He had three
whiskered things but he disowned them.
Henry appears in Beckett but doesn’t
speak. He’s not even in the credits. In a way, that’s how I see him in my head.
A silent figure, rebellious but beloved, in the shadow of his domineering
parents, dead and gone before all the fun really starts.
-The Lion In Winter
There are other portrayals of Richard the Lionheart, but the image in my head
is Hopkins. Sometimes it’s older Hopkins, weathered by foreign suns, but often
it’s just the young, tormented, bellicose Richard of The Lion in Winter. Sweating as he holds a dented sword over a
fallen knight, his blood pounding in his ears.
Christ, Henry... is that all? You never called me. You never said my name. I’d
have walked, I’d have crawled. I’d have done anything.
-The Lion in Winter
None of the endless Robin Hood films made an impression. John even gets a
Shakespeare play... which is mostly
full of cuckolding jokes, as I recall. Not really worth it. It’s still from The Lion in Winter, biting his lips and
scratching himself and constantly, endlessly failing.
I’m not a fool. I read three languages. I’ve studied law. What plan?
-The Lion in Winter
Another non-entity when it comes to film and television.
Why? He ruled for sixty years, he fought on the continent, he was captured and
escaped, and he was a candidate for canonization. Is he just too pious and
bland? Is the unrest during his rule “mere anarchy” loosed upon the world? Or
does he just the ill luck of coming between two more interesting and lively
Yeah yeah, I know. Braveheart. It’s the image in my head; beyond that, I can’t
say much in its defence. Patrick McGoohan has an icy stare and a firm command
of his role. Forget historical accuracy.
Peter Hanly get a mention for his role in Braveheart, but
his portrayal has to compete with the 1970 production of Marlowe’s Edward II. Ian McKellen is very young in
this production. Everyone’s in V-necks. There are lots of embraces, hugs,
longing gazes, and other fairly obvious overtones.
Much like Henry III, Edward III gets very little screen time. He reigned for
fifty years through the Black Death and the start of the Hundred Years War,
fought everywhere, displayed interesting bouts of temper and remorse, and
generally did everything a king could do to deserve a favourable portrayal. There’s
a semi-apocryphal Shakespeare play about him but I’ve never seen it. The only
film portrayal that springs to mind is a mediocre costume drama. The great
Michael Hordern does his best to give the role some gravitas, but it just
After a run of shaky portrayals and films of dubious
quality, we’re back on solid ground. The
Hollow Crown miniseries is excellent. This is the first Shakespeare play on
the list. Richard II, in the play, is a fascinating character. The peculiar
blend of piety and egomania, or fatalism, courage, and cowardice, makes the
role difficult to play, but soft-spoken and dreaming Ben Whishaw carries it off
Let's talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,
Let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison'd by their wives: some sleeping kill'd;
House of Lancaster
Rory Kinnear played Henry IV in the first episode (Richard II) of the series
and did a very good job, but it’s Jeremy Irons’ portrayal that sticks in my
head. Old, concerned, and simply dressed, he’s a king who feels both the weight
of his past misdeeds and the weight of his current responsibilities.
Tom Hiddleston plays the role in the Hollow Crown series, but he winks at the
camera bit too much. He does a good job, but in my head, it’s Branagh. He
catches a few jokes these days, but in 1989 all he had was ambition and good
luck. The film starts off slow and soft and gradually builds. It’s got wonderful
tracking shots, costumes, and edits in all the right places. The LaurenceOlivier version from 1944 is a classic.
Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude,
And in the calmest and most stillest night,
With all appliances and means to boot,
Deny it to a king? Then happy low, lie down!
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.
-Henry IV, Part II
Side Note: Simon Russell Beale does a superb job as Falstaff in the Hollow Crown series.
Young, easily steered, impulsive, and slightly dim. It’s not the best portrayal
on this list, but it’s still quite good.
House of York
I’m not a huge fan of the Hollow Crown’s adaptation of Richard III. It’s
exceptionally well shot, but the script isn’t as well edited as other
adaptations. The wheezing, unhappy Edward IV in the 1995 modernized version is
the one that sticks in my memory, costuming aside.
In the Shakespeare version of this story, the Edward V appears mostly as a
Geoffrey: We are extra princes now. You know where extra
-The Lion in Winter
Aside from the intriguing alt-history angle, this adaptation also has an
excellent script. Richard III is a surprisingly hard play to wrangle into
shape. Compare Clarence’s speech in the original to the version in this film.
Elizabethan gothic at its finest.
O, I have pass'd a miserable night,
I thought that I had broken from the Tower,
And was embark'd to cross to Burgundy;
And, in my company, my brother Richard;
Who from my cabin tempted me to walk
Upon the hatches. As we paced along
I thought that Gloucester stumbled; and, in falling,
Struck me overboard,
Into the tumbling billows of the main.
I thought what pain it was to drown.
What dreadful noise of waters in my ears.
What sights of ugly death before my eyes.
I thought I saw a thousand fearful wrecks;
A thousand men that fishes gnaw'd upon;
Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl,
Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels,
All scatter'd in the bottom of the sea:
Some lay in dead men's skulls; and, in those holes
Where eyes did once inhabit, there were crept,
As it were in scorn of eyes, reflecting gems,
That woo'd the slimy bottom of the deep,
And mock'd the dead bones that lay scatter'd by.
My dream was lengthen'd after life;
O, then began the tempest to my soul,
With that, methoughts, a legion of foul fiends
Environ'd me, and howled in mine ears
Such hideous cries, that with the very noise
I trembling waked, and for a season after
Could not believe but that I was in hell,
Such terrible impression made the dream.
Better known for his work in The Wire, Dominic West does a very decent job as a minor character
in the play. Once again, as a king between two interesting and turbulent figures,
he’s generally overlooked.
Henry VIII probably has the most screen time of any monarch on this list? So
why Anne of the Thousand Days? First,
because it focuses on the moment when Henry decides to cross the Rubicon and
commit himself. Second, because there probably will never be an actor better
suited in temperament to play the king. And third, because my mental image of
Henry VIII comes from his portrait, not a play or film.
I regret, Master Cromwell, that you did not heed my
advice. You have, I believe, told the King not what he ought to do, but what he can
do. Now no man in the world can hold him.
Much like Henry the Young King or Edward V, Edward VI is
a transitory figure, an inciting incident to larger troubles.
-Anne of a Thousand Days
A very young Helena Bonham Carter in a solid middle-of-the-road film. There are
many details of costuming and set dressing that help keep this film on the
list. Every shot is beautifully layered: foreground, midground, background.
Smoke and dust and grease.
All portrayals of Mary I are more-or-less the same, drawn directly from her
portraiture. She’s thin-lipped, paranoid, cruel, and very swiftly dead to make
way for Elizabeth. The Virgin Queen series is well worth watching. It picks up
as the episodes progress.
Despite the many good qualities of The
Virgin Queen series, the image in my head is of Cate Blanchett. The first
film is substantially better than the second, but both are still interesting. The Virgin Queen miniseries covers more historical details with greater accuracy and care.
Each of you must vote according to your conscience. But
remember this. In your hands, upon this moment, lies the future happiness of my
people, and the peace of this realm. Let that be upon your conscience also.
Yes, it’s going to cause a bit of mental whiplash going from Cate Blanchett in
Elizabeth to Cate Blanchett in Orlando, but so it goes. I didn’t watch them in
order. Plenty of other actors in this list take on doubled roles.
The perfect subtle hand gestures, the slight slip of
accent and hesitation in speech; Alec Guinness outshines all other portrayals
of Charles I.
A superbly bellicose portrayal, owing very little to history perhaps but a great
deal to Richard Harris.
Richard’s part isn’t large in Cromwell,
but the scene is set.
To tell you the truth, in my head, Alec Guiness is both
pre-Commonwealth Stuarts; John Malkovich is both post-Commonwealth Stuarts. The
Libertine is a moody, foggy, unpleasant film. It’s excellent.
There are better choices. In fact, almost any choice
would be better. The series Charles II: The Power and the Passion covers this
period. But for reasons I can’t explain, a brief scene in Captain Blood (with
Errol Flynn!) is the source for my mental picture of James II.
William and Mary appear for only one scene in Orlando, but that's the best they get in terms of film coverage.
The costumes and sets are gorgeous (if perhaps slightly
too clean and polished), the camera work is solid, and the acting is very good.
But the film still feels flat to me. Nobody talked the way Shakespeare wrote.
Nobody depicted in The Lion in Winter
spoke like that. So why do they feel “right” while The Favourite and Braveheart
I think it’s because some films play with language and some don’t. In The
Favourite, everyone says what they mean. It doesn’t feel sharp or clever or
quotable. Language is used to haul the plot forward and to show off aspects of
characters, but it feels obligatory. The Favourite makes a silent film; I’ve
tested it with a 1hr loop of Purcell. Even the finest actors can’t make
dialogue sparkle. Most Shakespeare plays, the Lion in Winter, etc. work without
||Dates of Reign
||The Nearly Complete and Utter History of Everything (1999)
||The Pillars of the Earth (2010)
||Becket (1964) & The Lion in Winter (1968)
|Henry the Young King
||The Lion in Winter (1968)
||Edward II (1970)
||The Dark Avenger (1955)
||The Hollow Crown (2012)
|House of Lancaster
||Henry V (1989)
||The Hollow Crown, Part II (2016)
|House of York
||Richard III (1995)
||Anne of a Thousand Days (1969)
||Lady Jane (1986)
||Helena Bonham Carter
||The Virgin Queen (2005)
||Elizabeth (1998) & Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)
||The Libertine (2004)
||Captain Blood (1935)
|William III and Mary II
||Thom Hoffman & Sarah Crowden
||The Favourite (2018)
(Highly recommended media bolded)
|The Nearly Complete and Utter
History of Everything (1999)
|The Pillars of the Earth
|The Lion in Winter (1968)
|Edward II (1970)
|The Dark Avenger (1955)
|The Hollow Crown (2012)
|Henry V (1989)
|The Hollow Crown, Part II
|Richard III (1995)
|Anne of a Thousand Days (1969)
|Lady Jane (1986)
|The Virgin Queen (2005)
|Elizabeth: The Golden Age
|The Libertine (2004)
|Captain Blood (1935)
|The Favourite (2018)
So now you should be able to get a vague sense of English history without leaving your chair.