Royals on TV: a ranking of the most memorable on-screen British kings and queens

BBC's Wolf Hall starring Mark Rylance and Claire Foy (BBC/Company Productions Ltd)
BBC's Wolf Hall starring Mark Rylance and Claire Foy (BBC/Company Productions Ltd)

Whatever your thoughts on the royals, there’s no denying that Britain’s most famous family make good TV.

From Wolf Hall to Victoria, many of the most talked-about (and critically acclaimed) series of recent years have all taken inspiration from royal history, be it centuries old or within living memory.

With the sixth season of The Crown coming soon (part one will land on Netflix on November 16), our fascination with what goes on behind palace doors shows no sign of waning.

So given that there’s just over a month to wait now until the final season of The Crown lands on our screens, we've ranked some recent royal performances, in ascending order, from the barely middling to the truly unforgettable.

Adelaide Kane as Mary, Queen of Scots, Reign (Netflix)

One of the most, ahem, creative re-imaginings of British royal history comes courtesy of Reign, The CW and Netflix’s soapy historical series. Starring Australian actress Adelaide Kane as Mary, Queen of Scots, it focuses on the early life and loves of the teenage monarch.

With little-to-no regard for historical accuracy, Kane’s character and her ladies-in-waiting are presented as the 15th century versions of Gossip Girl’s Serena van der Woodsen and her coterie of hangers on – complete with Topshop-esque costumes that stretch verisimilitude to its limits. Watch if you’re after a twist-laden teen drama, rather than a traditional period piece.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry VIII, The Tudors (BBC)

Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Natalie Dormer play Henry III and Anne Boleyn (BBC / SONY)
Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Natalie Dormer play Henry III and Anne Boleyn (BBC / SONY)

Speaking of historical verisimilitude, Rhys Meyers’ portrayal of Henry VIII in BBC Two’s controversy-courting drama laughs in the face of accuracy.

It’s pretty unlikely that the King spoke with a faint Irish accent at times, and the show’s biggest talking point seemed to be its gratuitous sex scenes rather than its character development or grasp of Tudor politics, but that didn’t seem to put viewers off.

The Tudors ran for four seasons, and while that didn’t give writers enough time to introduce all six of Henry’s wives, it did necessitate an inexplicable cameo from Joss Stone as Anne of Cleves.

Elizabeth Hurley as Queen Helena, The Royals (E!)

E!’s glossy guilty pleasure-drama, The Royals, imagines a parallel universe in which Elizabeth Hurley is our reigning Queen – or, at least, in which our reigning Queen is an immaculately coiffed woman named Helena, as played by Hurley.

The actress tackles the enjoyably camp role with her usual gusto – but perhaps the show (which was axed last year after four seasons) would have been spared cancellation if they’d masterminded a crossover episode featuring Hugh Grant’s Love Actually Prime Minister.

Hugh Skinner as Prince William, The Windsors (Channel 4)

From W1A’s bumbling intern Will to Fleabag’s dependably dull on-off boyfriend, Hugh Skinner excels at playing a very specific type of hapless but loveable upper class chap.

It was inevitable, then, that he’d do a jolly good job of portraying a parodic Prince William in Channel 4’s royal comedy The Windsors – though his exaggerated RP accent arguably tips the balance from posh to downright incomprehensible at times.

Matt Smith as Prince Philip, The Crown (Netflix)

By the age of 36, Matt Smith had already embodied two British icons on the small screen: Doctor Who and Prince Philip.

Though it’s hard to compete with Foy’s jaw-dropping performance as the Queen, Smith does a good job, and viewers will often find themselves rooting for (or at least, mildly sympathising with) the Queen’s consort as he struggles to come to terms with the stultifying decorum of royal life.

Smith was succeeded in the role by Game of Thrones and Outlander star Tobias Menzies, while he went on to play a very different kind of royal: Prince Daemon Targaryen in House of the Dragon.

Damien Lewis as Henry VIII, Wolf Hall (BBC)

Damien Lewis as Henry VIII (BBC)
Damien Lewis as Henry VIII (BBC)

Though Mark Rylance’s captivating turn as Thomas Cromwell became the major talking point of the 2015 adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, he was admirably supported by Lewis as Henry VIII.

Worlds away from Rhys Meyers’ incarnation of the divorce-loving King, the actor sought to humanise the larger-than-life monarch. It’s since been reported that Lewis is “eager” to return to the role, should Mantel’s third instalment in the Cromwell trilogy be optioned for TV.

Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria, Victoria (ITV)

Before this series landed in ITV’s Sunday night slot (formerly occupied by Downton Abbey), you’d be forgiven for immediately associating the name Queen Victoria with the monarch at the end of her reign: dressed in black mourning and famously less than amused.

Coleman’s engaging portrayal of Victoria as a young royal – coming to the throne at the age of just 18 – has gone a long way in shifting those associations, showing the Queen as a young woman subject to love, loss and heartbreak while ruling in a time of immense upheaval. The show is a little soapy at times, but aren’t all the best period dramas?

Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn, Wolf Hall (BBC)

Damien Lewis as Henry VIII, and Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall (BBC/Company Productions Ltd)
Damien Lewis as Henry VIII, and Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall (BBC/Company Productions Ltd)

Before she became a household name as The Crown’s reigning monarch, Foy cut her teeth on another royal role, playing the ill-fated Anne Boleyn in the BBC’s critically acclaimed adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.

The actress brought her trademark understated approach to the role (and perhaps fine-tuned the inscrutable expression she put to such good use on the Netflix show) to humanise one of history’s most maligned women.

She picked up a TV BAFTA nomination for her efforts, and if you missed out on the series back in 2015 (or if you’re yet to tackle Mantel’s mammoth novels) it’s well worth a stream.

Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret, The Crown (Netflix)

Though she’s the spare to Foy’s heir on the hit Netflix show, Kirby never failed to steal a scene on The Crown with her winning portrayal of Princess Margaret, the Queen’s capricious younger sister.

Charming one moment, scathing the next and always armed with a barbed one liner, her explosive romances and party-loving ways provide the perfect contrast to her royal sibling’s more sedate persona.

​​Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II, The Crown (Netflix)

​​Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II (Alex Bailey/Netflix)
​​Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II (Alex Bailey/Netflix)

Foy’s performance as a younger Queen Elizabeth rightly brought her international acclaim. Faced with the undeniably difficult task of portraying one of the most famous yet unknowable women in the world, she makes playing the monarch look easy – from the distinctive clipped pronunciation to her otherworldly poise.

Though she’s often the quietest person in any given scene on the lavish Netflix drama, her silence and stillness tends to speak volumes.

The Crown part one will be released on Netflix on November 16