Filmographic Timeline of English Monarchs (1066-1707)

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 possible.

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William IJames Fleet in The Nearly Complete and Utter History of Everything (1999)

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 anywhere. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xtzu2Dxh4oQ

William II – ???

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.

Henry IClive Wood in The Pillars of the Earth (2010)

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

StephenTony Curran in The Pillars of the Earth (2010)

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.

MatildaAlison Pill in The Pillars of the Earth (2010)

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.


Henry IIPeter O'Toole in Becket (1964) & The Lion in Winter (1968)

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.

-The Lion In Winter

Henry the Young KingRiggs O'Hara in Becket (1968)

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.

Richard IAnthony Hopkins in The Lion in Winter (1968)

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

JohnNigel Terry in The Lion in Winter (1968)

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

Henry III – ???

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 monarchs?

Edward IPatrick McGoohan in Braveheart (1995)

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.

Edward IIPeter Hanly in Braveheart (1995) & Ian McKellen in Edward II (1970)

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.

Edward IIIMichael Hordern in The Dark Avenger (1955)

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 doesn’t work.

Richard IIBen Whishaw in The Hollow Crown (2012)

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 perfectly.
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;
All murder'd.
-Richard II

House of Lancaster

Henry IV – Jeremy Irons in The Hollow Crown (2012)

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.
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

Henry VKenneth Branagh in Henry V (1989)

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.

Side Note: Simon Russell Beale does a superb job as Falstaff in the Hollow Crown series.

Henry VI – Tom Sturridge in The Hollow Crown, Part II (2016)

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

Edward IV – Geoffrey Streatfeild in The Hollow Crown, Part II (2016) & JohnWood in Richard III (1995)

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.

Edward VMarco Williamson in Richard III (1995)

In the Shakespeare version of this story, the Edward V appears mostly as a ghost.

Geoffrey: We are extra princes now. You know where extra princes go?
John: Down.
-The Lion in Winter

Richard IIIIan McKellen in Richard III (1995)

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.


Henry VIIDominic West in Richard III (1995)

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 VIIIRichard Burton in Anne of the Thousand Days (1969)

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.
-Anne of a Thousand Days

Edward VI – Warren Saire in Lady Jane (1986)

Much like Henry the Young King or Edward V, Edward VI is a transitory figure, an inciting incident to larger troubles.

JaneHelena Bonham Carter in Lady Jane (1986)

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.

Mary IJoanne Whalley in The Virgin Queen (2005)

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.

Elizabeth ICate Blanchett in Elizabeth (1998) & Elizabeth: The GoldenAge (2007)

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.


James IDudley Sutton in Orlando (1992)

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.

Charles IAlec Guinness in Cromwell (1970)

The perfect subtle hand gestures, the slight slip of accent and hesitation in speech; Alec Guinness outshines all other portrayals of Charles I.


Oliver CromwellRichard Harris in Cromwell (1970)

A superbly bellicose portrayal, owing very little to history perhaps but a great deal to Richard Harris.

Richard CromwellAnthony May in Cromwell (1970)

Richard’s part isn’t large in Cromwell, but the scene is set.


Charles IIJohn Malkovich in The Libertine (2004)

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.

James IIVernon Steele in Captain Blood (1935)

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 III and Mary IIThom Hoffman & Sarah Crowden in Orlando (1992)

William and Mary appear for only one scene in Orlando, but that's the best they get in terms of film coverage.

AnneOlivia Colman in The Favourite (2018)

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 feel wrong?

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 pictures.

Condensed Format

Dynasty Monarch Dates of Reign Actor Media
Normans William I 1066-1087 James Fleet The Nearly Complete and Utter History of Everything (1999)
William II 1087-1100 ??? ???
Henry I 1100-1135 Clive Wood The Pillars of the Earth (2010)
Stephen 1135-1154 Tony Curran
Matilda 1141-1148 Alison Pill
Plantagenets Henry II 1154-1189 Peter O'Toole  Becket (1964) & The Lion in Winter (1968)
Henry the Young King 1170-1183 Riggs O'Hara Becket (1964)
Richard I 1189-1199 Anthony Hopkins The Lion in Winter (1968)
John 1199-1216 Nigel Terry
Henry III 1216-1272 ??? ???
Edward I 1272-1307 Patrick McGoohan Braveheart (1995)
Edward II 1307-1327 Peter Hanly
Ian McKellen Edward II (1970)
Edward III 1327-1377 Michael Hordern The Dark Avenger (1955)
Richard II 1377-1399 Ben Whishaw The Hollow Crown (2012)
House of Lancaster Henry IV 1399-1413 Jeremy Irons
Henry V 1413-1422 Kenneth Branagh Henry V (1989)
Henry VI 1422-1461 Tom Sturridge The Hollow Crown, Part II (2016)
House of York Edward IV 1461-1483 Geoffrey Streatfeild
John Wood Richard III (1995)
Edward V 04/1483-06/1483 Marco Williamson
Richard III 1483-1485 Ian McKellen
Tudors Henry VII 1485-1509 Dominic West
Henry VIII 1509-1547 Richard Burton Anne of a Thousand Days (1969)
Edward VI 1547-1553 Warren Saire  Lady Jane (1986)
Jane 07/1553 Helena Bonham Carter
Mary I 1553-1558 Joanne Whalley The Virgin Queen (2005)
Elizabeth I 1558-1603 Cate Blanchett  Elizabeth (1998) & Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)
Stuarts James I 1603-1625 Dudley Sutton Orlando (1992)
Charles I 1625-1649 Alec Guinness Cromwell (1970)
Commonwealth Oliver Cromwell 1653-1658 Richard Harris
Richard Cromwell 1658-1659 Anthony May
Stuarts Charles II 1660-1685 John Malkovich The Libertine (2004)
James II 1685-1688 Vernon Steele Captain Blood (1935)
William III and Mary II 1689-1702 Thom Hoffman & Sarah Crowden Orlando (1992)
Anne 1702-1707 Olivia Colman The Favourite (2018)

Viewing Order

(Highly recommended media bolded)

Viewing Order
The Nearly Complete and Utter History of Everything (1999)
The Pillars of the Earth (2010)
Becket (1964)
The Lion in Winter (1968)
Braveheart (1995)
Edward II (1970)
The Dark Avenger (1955)
The Hollow Crown (2012)
Henry V (1989)
The Hollow Crown, Part II (2016)
Richard III (1995)
Anne of a Thousand Days (1969)
Lady Jane (1986)
The Virgin Queen (2005)
Elizabeth (1998) 
Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)
Orlando (1992)
Cromwell (1970)
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.


  1. Just wanted to applaud your taste with regards to "The Lion in Winter." It is annual Christmas viewing for me.

    John: My God, if I went-up in flames there's not a living soul who'd pee on me to put the fire out.
    Richard: Let's strike a flint and see.

  2. I am surprised at how well the movie stills match the paintings.

  3. Time for a substantial comment.

    The Lion in Winter is a wonder. As is the 1995 Richard III. Do you have any kind words for Robert Shaw as Henry VIII in A Man for All Seasons?


    Digging into George McDonald Fraser's The Hollywood History of the World, I find a few titbits.

    The one film specifically devoted to Richard I was The Crusades, 'an artistic and financial disaster'.

    'The most memorable appearance of Cromwell was in the glum, austere shape of John Le Mesurier, seen only in a brief scene of The Moonraker'.

    '[The film] Cromwell is a gallant effort.....It certainly carried conviction to a highly partisan Dublin audience when I first saw it, Charles's progress to the scaffold being accompanied by groans from the stalls, and an answering cry of "Take that, ye swine!" from the balcony.'

    On Captain Blood: 'James II makes a suitably handsome and cruel appearance in the person of Vernon Steele, and the Glorious Revolution of 1688, if unseen, is properly referred to.

    On Vincent Price as Charles II in Hudson's Bay: 'Here at least was an actor who looked reasonably like Old Rowley, and combined the languid style with the athletic presence - one can imagine Price walking ten miles a day for the fun of it as King Charles did'.


    The film of TS Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral had an appearance from Henry II at the beginning, unlike the play - but he doesn't do much beyond preside glowering over a court.


    Mike Walker has done a couple of Radio drama series for the BBC that cover a lot of this ground.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plantagenet_(radio_plays) - David Warner is a memorable aged, harsh Henry II and Luke Tredaway a fine Henry V in the Kenneth Branagh mode (if a bit more calculating).

    The Stuarts - https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b036f9v7/episodes/guide - is perhaps not quite as good, but interestingly follows the Stuarts right into exile. Mark Edel-Hunt is good as William of Orange.

    (If you like these, he also did some of the Roman emperors - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caesar! - and Russia, where the definition of Tsar is stretched to include Lenin, Stalin and Vladimir Putin https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07w0ftm/episodes/guide )

    1. -I really like "A Man for All Seasons" (1966), but it's fundamentally a film about Sir Thomas More, not Henry VIII. Paul Scofield's performance overshadows the rest of the cast in my memory: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d9rjGTOA2NA&feature=youtu.be&t=24s
      -I tried to find a copy of Fraser locally but couldn't get one in time. Gave up, did it manually. :D
      -Never seen "The Crusades"; doesn't matter; still Hopkins.
      -I didn't know Vincent Price took a turn as Charles II. That could be fun.
      -I've only ever read "Murder in the Cathedral", and it might be one of those plays that works better on paper. And yeah, it's not really about Henry II.
      -Oh, radio plays! Yeah! There are a few series I didn't mention either (the BBC Shakespeare play cycle, the "Age of Kings" series, etc.)
      -Maybe I'll do Emperors next.

  4. Have you checked out the Outlaw King (Netflix, 2018)? I thought it was a pretty good portrayal of Edward I and II, and much more historically accurate than Braveheart.

  5. My memory is a bit hazy on this, but I recall the 1971 TV series 'Elizabeth R' as being very good on Elizabeth. It's 1970s British TV, so it's all just people standing around talking to each other in interiors, but I remember it as a sadder and more balanced look at Elizabeth I (and Phillip II) than one normally gets in popular media.

    'I am tired. I am tired. And the case is altered with me.'

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Yes, it's very good. The BBC also did the excellent Six Wives of Henry VIII, with Keith Michel as the king.

  6. James Villiers was an excellent Charles II in the BBC's 1969 series "The First Churchills." Margaret Tyzack was great as Queen Anne as well.

  7. James Villiers was an excellent Charles II in the BBC's 1969 series "The First Churchills." Margaret Tyzack was great as Queen Anne as well.