For British actors working on that side of the pond, bringing their nation’s royalty to screens big and small is a rite of artistic passage — and audiences eat it up. Television’s latest royal incarnations appear in Netflix’s The Crown and Victoria, which debuts on PBS on January 15. In honor of the new releases, we’ve rounded up 20 of our favorite series and specials featuring actors portraying real-life kings and queens.
Claire Foy (who also appears on this list for her turn as Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall) stars in a breakout role as the young Queen Elizabeth II — the same character that led Helen Mirren to an Oscar for her film portrayal in The Queen. The entire series, from showrunner Peter Morgan (The Queen) and director Stephen Daldry (The Hours), premieres November 4 and recounts the early rise of a 25-year-old Queen Elizabeth II. Also on hand are Matt Smith as Elizabeth’s new husband, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh; Jared Harris as King George VI; and Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret.
Another new entry, Daisy Goodwin’s soapy royal drama has already garnered an audience thanks to Doctor Who vet Jenna Coleman’s seamless transition to leading lady and the seven-part miniseries’ airing on Britain’s ITV channel in 2016. Coleman plays the titular Queen Victoria, the fresh-faced 18-year-old ruler of the land and wife to her first cousin Prince Albert (Tom Hughes). The series airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on PBS starting Jan. 15, 2017.
Patrick Stewart appeared as King Henry II opposite Glenn Close’s Queen Eleanor in roles made famous by Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn in the Academy Award-winning 1968 film based on the play by James Goldman. The story depicts the personal and political strife the monarch faces near the end of his reign.
After two acclaimed tours with the Prospect Theatre Company in 1968 and 1969, Ian McKellen (who would go on to portray Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings film franchise) appeared as the titular Richard in a BBC Television studio production of William Shakespeare’s play directed by Toby Robertson. McKellen is pictured above in London in January 1970.
You thought we’d include Sir Ian only once!? King Edward II was the second role that helped propel the actor to stardom in British theater. Bringing the king’s homosexuality to the forefront, the production of the 1594 play by Christopher Marlowe from got its TV movie treatment under Richard Marquand and Toby Robertson’s direction.
Talk about a stacked cast. This miniseries adaptation of William Shakespeare’s historical plays is broken into four parts and first boasts Ben Whishaw as King Richard II, then Jeremy Irons as King Henry IV, then Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal-turned-King Henry V. Its forthcoming follow-up, The War of the Roses, tapped Benedict Cumberbatch to play Richard III, Sophie Okonedo to play Queen Margaret, and Keeley Hawes to play Queen Elizabeth.
This series got a lot of flack for being racy, but you can’t accuse it of lacking entertainment value. Jonathan Rhys Meyers stars in the role of his career as King Henry VIII and Natalie Dormer as his second wife, Anne Boleyn, who — spoiler alert — is eventually beheaded.
Damian Lewis earned a best supporting actor Emmy nomination in 2015 for his take on King Henry VIII in this series depicting Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance) and his unenviable task of being one of Henry’s closest advisers. Claire Foy appears as Anne Boleyn.
Has there ever been an actor who seems so naturally a royal on camera and off? No matter — Helen Mirren starred in the title role of Tom Hopper’s miniseries as an aging Elizabeth, bringing the last 24 years of her 25-year reign to the screen. Paired with Jeremy Irons as the Earl of Leicester, it’s an embarrassment of riches.
By its narrative nature, this award-winning miniseries, which also aired on Channel 4 in the U.K., only allowed a brief meet cute with Tom Hollander’s King Edward VIII, Duke of Windsor, but he fits perfectly with the other great British royal roles. Gillian Anderson plays his American socialite wife, Wallis Simpson, for whom Edward abdicated the throne.
The early British monarchy is not exactly the focus of Michael Hirst’s hit historical series set in 793 A.D., but early monarchs are found here in the form of King Ecbert of Wessex (played by Linus Roache). Moe Dunford appears as Ecbert’s son Aethelwulf, and Conor O’Hanlon plays his young son, Prince Alfred of Wessex (later known as Alfred the Great).
This series based on The Saxon Stories novels follows fictional Saxon Uhtred of Bebbanburg (Alexander Dreymon), who was torn away from his family as a child and raised by Vikings. As an adult, his loyalties are tested in times of war. David Dawson appears as an adult King Alfred of Wessex.
Mary, Queen of Scots, is the central character of this CW melodrama starring Adelaide Kane. Mary claimed the English throne — and had the support of many English Catholics — but did not possess it. She did, of course, cross paths with the British monarchs of her time, including King Henry II (played here by Alan Van Sprang) and Queen Elizabeth I (Rachel Skarsten).
Set during the War of the Roses, the series stars Rebecca Ferguson as the titular Queen Elizabeth, consort to King Edward IV (Max Irons). Sonny Ashbourne Serkis is their son, the Prince of Wales (later King Edward V) — one of the famous Princes in the Tower, imprisoned by their uncle King Richard III (Aneurin Barnard). Just like in the Philippa Gregory book series that serves as source material, two other women vie for the throne: Lady Anne Neville (Faye Marsay), the queen consort to Richard III, and Lady Margaret Beaufort (Amanda Hale), mother to King Henry VII (Michael Marcus). Look out for this series’ follow-up, The White Princess, in spring 2017.
It’s a bit surprising that royalty didn’t get more airtime during Downton Abbey’s six-season run, but King George V, played by Guy Williams, showed up in the series’ 2014 Christmas special. The Prince of Wales (Oliver Dinsdale) — the future Edward VIII, who later abdicated the throne to marry American divorcée Wallis Simpson — then attends the debutante ball of Lady Rose MacClare (Lily James).
Based on Ken Follett’s acclaimed novel of the same name, this eight-episode miniseries charts 12th century England during The Anarchy and features Clive Wood as King Henry I; Tony Curran as King Stephen, Henry’s nephew; and Alison Pill as Empress Matilda (formerly Maud), Henry’s daughter.
Blake Ritson appears in this eight-episode miniseries as King Edward III. Aure Atika plays his mother Queen Isabella. Set in the early 14th century, this sequel to Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, fictionalizes the beginning the Hundred Years’ War with France. The miniseries starred Ben Chaplin, Peter Firth, Cynthia Nixon, Miranda Richardson, Charlotte Riley, and Tom Weston-Jones.
In the ongoing tale of time-traveler Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) and her great love Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), Andrew Gower appears as Prince Charles Stuart, the heir to the exiled Catholic royal dynasty who plots his return to the throne. Another spoiler: He fails.
And last but not least, an unexpected twist: Did you know a depiction of British royalty appears in Star Trek: The Next Generation? In season 3 episode “The Defector” (1990), Data (Brent Spiner) performed as King Henry V on the Holodeck and is encouraged by Captain Jean-Luc Picard, who was played by a guy who knows exactly how “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown”: former member of the Royal Shakespeare Company and frequent portrayer of monarchs, Patrick Stewart.