If you think that history drama shows are boring, you’re not alone. Up until a couple of months ago, I watched maybe 3 in my life, and one of them starred Heath Ledger and was filled with anachronisms. I don’t know if that counts! Then about two months ago or so, I was looking for something new to binge watch. I already burned through all of my usual “go to” shows. I re-watched Pretty Little Liars, Lost, Vampire Diaries…I’m going to stop there before I give away just how much time I spend watching TV. You get the point. I needed something that would hook me in and keep me enthralled. So how did I arrive at historical dramas. One word. Reign.
As much as I loved history in school, I was always more interested in WAY ancient history. The BCE stuff. You know, back when people like the Egyptians and the Mayans were building crazy cool stuff that still leaves us baffled today. I had zero interest in royals. I didn’t watch either of the royal weddings that took place in my lifetime. I don’t drool over news about Kate Middleton (although I do think she’s a lovely woman). I thought the War of the Roses was literally a war over roses (hey, they are expensive flowers!) and all I knew about Henry VII was that being married to him was a death sentence.
Then Reign happened. Yes, I know, it’s FAR, FAR from being historically accurate. It’s more of a teen soap than a period piece. I only started watching it because I read that it was like a historical Vampire Diaries. Still, I was hooked within the first ten minutes. I watched the entire series over the next few weeks. When it was over, I had a craving for more historical drama. Kind of like how I wouldn’t eat sweet potatoes for the first 25 years of my life, but once I did, I was all “sweet potato everything!!”
20 History Drama Shows & Movies that Aren’t Boring
*Affiliate links included below. Also, I realize that “boring” is a subjective term, so I crowd-sourced a bit. The first few shows are ones that I have watched or am currently watching. The rest are on my watch list and were recommended by friends who eat history for breakfast. For the most part, I tried to keep this list to shows about European history and before the 19th century (with one exception under TV shows).
The show that started it all is anything but boring. It’s also anything but historically accurate, BUT it made me want to learn the facts. While it does stay semi-true to the major events, it definitely takes a massive detour and fills in the unknowns with its own version of events. Think of it has history fan fiction. I’ve never cared about Mary Queen of Scots before, but this show made me want to learn everything about not just her, but French and English queens and kings. You’ll find Reign on Netflix.
2. The White Queen
After Reign, I went back in time just a little bit to learn more about the War of the Roses. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that it had nothing to do with actual roses and was in fact a Hatfield and McCoy type feud of epic proportions, between the Lancasters and the Yorks. Interesting, we have both a Lancaster and a York here in PA, and they aren’t all that far apart from each other. Okay, so two things about this show. First, it does take some creative liberties with history. Elizabeth (not THE Elizabeth, but two Elizabeths before her) had magical powers, which I believe is totally possible but it’s not exactly something one can prove, so it’s not a historical fact.
Second, there are NO protagonists in this story. None. Every single character at some point will make you cheer for them, then later make you hope they end up on the chopping block. In the words of a friend of mine, they were all a hot mess. Still, it was far from boring! It’s only 10 episodes long, so you don’t have to wait years to find out what happened to everyone. This show is included with your Amazon Prime membership.
3. The Tudors
I just started the Tudors, so I don’t have a complete opinion of it. I actually watched the first ten minutes and turned it off because I thought it was just a gratuitous nudity show. I have no issues with steamy scenes, as long as there is substance. After asking my Facebook pals what they thought of it, though, I gave it a second chance. I’m glad I did because so far it’s very intriguing. The show centers around Henry VIII, his reign, and of course, his many wives. It’s stunningly done, but keep in mind that it is a premium network show, so you might not want to watch it when kids can walk into the room. The Tudors in on Netflix.
4. The Last Kingdom
This is on my to-watch list. I did watch the first two episodes, but I was more in the mood for a Tudor-era history drama, so I will go back to it when I’m ready to jump back in time. My uncle, who watches a lot of historical dramas, said that while the main character is fictional, pretty much everything else is based on carefully researched history. It takes place way back in 872 and follows the story of the clash between the Danes (Vikings) and the Saxons (the people who would become the English). If you ever wondered how England came to be, this is a great place to start learning. Find it on Netflix.
Okay, I might be pushing it here calling Merlin a historical drama, but bear with me for a minute. Yes, it’s about a guy who may or may not have been a real wizard (depending on what you believe) and a legendary court that may or may not have existing quite like its pictured in stories, BUT it still teaches you a bit about what life was like back in the 12th century and creates a thirst to learn more. I don’t love the characterization of Morgan as evil because I’m in the school that believes she got a bad rep just for being a strong woman (I prefer the Mists of Avalons’ version of her), but the rest of the characters are just so much fun to watch.
We’re moving into shows that I haven’t watched yet, so I can’t tell you much about this one from a personal point of view. As I said, I love really ancient history, so this one is definitely on my watch list. I am really interested in Rome right now because I see history repeating itself with another “empire” that hits a little closer to home. From everything I’ve read about it, Rome does stick pretty close to the facts. Of course, “historical facts” is kind of an oxymoron because, as we all know, history is written by the victors so we can never be 100% certain what actually happened.
I’ve always been fascinated by the Vikings. I know that they weren’t always the nicest of people, what with their raiding and pillaging, but really, that doesn’t make them any different than other groups throughout history. The Norse religion fascinates me. I even have a dog named Freya. This one is included with Prime Video, but I think Hulu might also have it.
Outlander sounds like the perfect show if you like your history with a side of more modern times. It centers on a a 1945 nurse who ends up going back in time to 18th century Scotland, during the times of Jacobite risings. It’s kind of a sci-fi history show, from what I understand. Everyone talks about it all of the time, so I’m definitely adding it to my to-watch list…as soon as I can find it streaming for free somewhere. For now, if you want to watch, you can grab an Amazon Channels Free Trial. It’s on Starz.
9. The Crown
The Crown, available on Netflix, is the one exception to my “before the 19th century” rule. If you’ve ever wondered what life was like for the current Queen Elizabeth when she was young, this is the show to watch. It not only chronicles her life, but also the events of the mid to late 20th century. I think this is a good place to start if you have an interest in more recent royal affairs. Use it as a launching point to get you excited about the earlier royals.
Let’s head back over to France (which, FYI, is where this list started), and jump ahead about 100 years to 1667. Versailles chronicles the Louis XIV journey to build the greatest palace the world has ever seen. As you can imagine, that’s not a cheap feat! Obviously he eventually succeeded because the palace exists. Whether it’s the most amazing ever, I couldn’t tell you. I haven’t lived in many castles in my lifetime. Sadly, I haven’t lived in ANY castles. Find this one on Netflix.
If investing 10 to 50 hours in a historical drama TV show isn’t your thing, try these movies. Some of them are crazy long, but still way shorter than a 4-season show. Like the shows, the run the gamut from way ancient Roman times to slightly more “modern” new world times. I’ve noted where you can find it streaming if it’s available anywhere.
- Braveheart – Included with Prime
- A Knights Tale- Not on the big three, but DirectTV and XFinity both have it listed as available to stream.
- Shakespeare in Love – XFinity
- Joan of Arc (the one with LeeLee, not Milla)
- Robin Hood – RedBox, I think streaming
- Marie Antoinette
- King Arthur – Netflix
- The Other Boleyn Girl
- The New World
If you can think of any other great historical shows- especially pre-19th century- that I would like, I’d love to hear about them!