It cannot be denied that many people have developed an increased interest in the British royal family and royal history since the debut of Netflix‘s The Crown. Focusing initially on the early reign of Elizabeth II, the immensely popular programme has inched closer and closer to the modern age with each passing season. Nonetheless, it is still utilising history, rather than current events, as its primary source material and thus gained press attention due to its dramatisation of real events and people. The more recent the history, the more controversial and sensitive. The phrase ‘too soon’ comes to mind but, then again, this is nothing new. The historical film Sixty Years a Queen (1913), celebrating Victoria’s reign, was released a mere 12 years after the monarch’s passing.
The play Victoria Regina (1935), by Laurence Houseman, has its own interesting history due to the 1937 declaration by the Lord Chamberlain that no British sovereign may be portrayed on the British stage in any capacity until 100 years after his or her accession. Were that the case today, Hamilton and Six would be safe and sound although the Crown and Diana the musical may have raised an eyebrow or two.
Returning to the Netflix show, there has been a certain degree of anguish from royal historians and commentators, as well as ‘keyboard warriors’, towards people who have newly-acquired an interest in ‘their’ thing. The phrase used frequently against Crown fans is ‘…it’s not a documentary’, which rides the fine line of being a fair and unfair comment. Not everyone takes the show’s dramatised events literally although there certainly some that are. In this article, however, are a few recommended documentaries for those of you interested in learning a little more about British and wider-European royal history whether you have seen the Crown or not.
Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy (ITV 2017)
An incredibly personal documentary featuring not only Princes William and Harry but Earl Spencer and Elton John, this would have been a good place to start and end the re-evaluations Diana, Princess of Wales‘s life at least for now. The focus on her early life is a lovely part of this documentary as many ‘before-they-were-famous’ fashion.
Other documentaries may have a greater degree of drama and scandal, as her life in reality did, but this one benefits from the access to the royals and the warmer narrative. Less of a tabloid, more of a tribute. The downside of that is, of course, that it is less critical although it is not hard to find many more documentaries on the ‘People’s Princess’.
The Royal House of Windsor (Channel 4 2017)
The most comprehensive documentary about modern royal history on this list, although broadcast just ahead of the Harry and Meghan saga. This documentary details the history of the House of Windsor, established in 1917 by George V to solidify his public and private loyalty to the British people. The documentary is chronological with each of the six episodes focusing on a different roughly 20-year period.
This documentary is great regardless of your familiarity with the subject matter and perfect for fans of the Crown as the periods line up almost perfectly. The documentary precedes the series by a few decades which itself could prove useful as for context.
Royal Cousins at War (BBC 2014)
This two-part documentary breaks down the immediate descendants of Queen Victoria and their roles in the outbreak of war in 1914. The three main players were King George V of the UK, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany but there were many more pieces on the chessboard. It is often something people find confusing, how the royals are all related and the wider details behind Victoria’s moniker ‘grandmother of Europe’ and this documentary series does a good job at visualising the key information with portraits and a map of the continent with the key respective marriages. It is also fairly consistent when it comes to the nicknames used by historians and the narrator to describe the royals so if you’re not quite sure who is who, this documentary might not fully fix that but it won’t make you more confused.
Primarily based upon Miranda Carter’s book The Three Emperors (2010), the focus on the King, the Kaiser and the Tsar is both a benefit and drawback of the documentary. It keeps things simple and structured for someone looking to delve into the subject matter or refresh themselves on the events and figures however, if you’re curious about Queen Victoria’s other children, grandchildren and crowned descendants then they only get a passing mention here. The documentary does, however, have a good range of historians featured and lists their most relevant work(s) when they first appear for some further reading material.
Princess Margaret: The Rebel Royal (BBC 2018)
The character of Princess Margaret, the real younger daughter of George VI, was brought to life on screen by Vanessa Kirby, Helena Bonham Carter and Lesley Manville across the Crown’s different eras. This documentary details her life, both ups and downs, with help from her friends, including Anne Tennant, Baroness Glenconner author of New York Times bestseller Lady in Waiting: My Extraordinary Life in the Shadow of the Crown (2019).
This documentary is for those interested in hearing more about Princess Margaret’s colourful life. It does not delve too deeply into rumours and unproven scandals which, really, if you are keen to learn a bit more about royal history it is probably best to steer clear of for now. Woven throughout the two-part documentary are audio clips from the Princess’s appearance on Desert Island Disks. These make for a nice addition and insight into her personality and character, especially as she has not been present for most of our lifetimes’.
Prince Philip: The Royal Family Remembers (BBC 2021)
As the title suggests, this documentary focuses on the life of Prince Philip. Due to be broadcast in commemoration of his 100th birthday in June 2021, some of the clips were from before his passing in April 2021 while some are from after.
What makes this documentary special is that it prominently features fourteen members of the royal family recalling their memories of the late Duke of Edinburgh and discussing aspects of his life and work including his time in the Royal Navy, establishment of his award scheme and initial conservation efforts.
The inclusion of the royals themselves is something which may increase or decrease the appeal of this documentary. While it is interesting to see them slightly less formally and hear many lesser known members speak fondly of their father and grandfather, it may be rather standard (rather than special) for someone not already attached to the figures. It is well worth checking out at least once even if that is just out of curiosity as to who the likes of Lady Louise Mountbatten-Windsor and Sir Timothy Laurence are and what they sound like.
Grace Kelly: Lost Tapes of a Princess (Channel 4 2021)
Focusing on a non-British royal, the Academy Award winning actress Grace Kelly married reigning Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956. The fairytale was much more complex than it seemed, as is often the case, and this documentary delves into the sadder parts of her life. The Grace Kelly story is before many of our lifetimes, with her fatal car accident occurring when most of our parents were still teenagers.
She was made famous and immortalised on screen and the story of her life documented in this matter makes for an engaging watch as the 1982 tragedy looms. This is another documentary which benefits from access to the royals themselves. It tends to add a personal touch – European monarchies are hereditary after all – although documentaries of this nature tend to suffer from the ‘history from above’ approach.
Constantine: A King’s Story (Channel 5 2004)
Detailing the modern history of the now-abolished Greek monarchy from its introduction in 1863 to several revolutions, revivals and republics. The first King of modern Greece was George I (not to be confused with the eighteenth century British monarch), originally a Prince of Denmark and the paternal grandfather of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.
The documentary primarily focuses on Constantine II, the last king who fled the country in 1967 following a political coup and passed away in Athens in January 2023. He features throughout most of the documentary and is rather sympathetic to the then-exiled Constantine. It makes clear his passions, Greek royal history and ongoing connections to the remaining reigning royals of Europe such as the Queen of Denmark (his sister-in-law), Queen Sofia of Spain (his sister) and then-Prince Charles and Prince William (his second cousin and Godson respectively) to name a few.
This documentary is ideal for learning a bit more about one specific royal and royal family. One may be surprised to learn how recently one was abolished (Greece 1973) and restored (Spain 1975) although it may be rather too sympathetic to the cause of a constitutional monarchy for a republican to sit through. It is likely not a documentary the BBC would have made.
Queen Victoria’s Children (BBC 2013)
Once again returning primarily to the British royal family, this documentary delves into the lives of Queen Victoria’s nine children across three episodes. The longer running time allows for each royal to be discussed in detail without compromising the pacing. Firstly is an overview of the situation, Victoria and Albert’s plans for their children, and then the following two episodes focus on the princesses and princes respectively.
BBC documentaries tend to have a certain formula to them and this one is no different. It very much depends on whether the subject matter interests you although as you can tell, there is a lot on this particular era of royal history. Even if there are elements you wish to take a revisionist stance on, it could make for an engaging debate in a know your enemy fashion.
And there are more…
More can be recommended but in this article I sought to put forward some known and lesser known examples. If you wish to learn more about more European monarchies in documentary form then the best series to watch is A Royal Family (2003) which focused on the crowned descendants of Christian IX of Denmark, known as the ‘father-in-law of Europe’, which at the time included Elizabeth II of the UK, Margrethe II of Denmark, Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, Harald V of Norway, Juan Carlos I of Spain and Henri, Grand Duke of Luxembourg.