Weird History
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11 Of The Dumbest Things Pop Culture Has Us Believe About Historical Royals

Updated November 5, 2020 3.4k votes 716 voters 190.6k views11 items

List RulesVote up the things you actually believed were true about historical royals.

Pop culture loves royals. From biopics about the romantic lives of queens to blockbusters that present monarchs as the bad guys, royalty tropes are everywhere. But just how accurate are these common tropes? Like nobility tropes, tropes about historical royals come in different forms. Some completely misrepresent historical figures, while others peddle inaccurate ideas about the function of royal duties.

One thing royal tropes have in common is that they usually oversimplify the wildly complicated past. Typically, this is done in the interest of telling a specific story, whether the royal is a central character or not. The series The Crown, for example, twists facts to promote the idea that Queen Elizabeth II has struggled to reconcile her personal life and her regal duties.

No matter how they do it or which figure from the past they reimagine, tropes about historical kings and queens sacrifice fact in service of fiction.

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  • Photo: Marie Antoinette / Columbia Pictures

    The Trope: The ill-fated French queen focused on frivolous, personal pleasure, blithely detached from the political tensions that consumed the rest of France in the years before revolution.

    Why It's Inaccurate: Marie Antoinette keenly understood that seemingly frivolous things like fashion weren't detached from politics - they were fundamentally political. As biographer Antonia Fraser pointed out:

    In fact, the role of the queen of France was to be splendid, was to wear beautiful clothes. When she wore cheaper muslins, cottons, people didn't like that at all. They said the queen of France should be dressed magnificently.

    Notable Offenders: Two eponymous Marie Antoinette biopics - one from 1938 and the other from 2006 - largely drain politics from the queen's story to instead focus on her relationships. 

    • Category: Noble person
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    Convincing trope?
  • Photo: The White Princess / Starz
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    Marriages Were Either Arranged Or Exclusively About Political Alliances

    The Trope: Royal marriages were practical and pragmatic. Royals married to build alliances within the kingdom or abroad. They didn't marry for any other reason and never loved their spouses.

    Why It's Inaccurate: Though marriages were a crucial way for royal families to create alliances, many royal marriages were not politically advantageous.

    Some royals, for example, definitely married for love. Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, married Countess Sophia Chotek because he loved her. Because the countess wasn't royal, it meant the marriage was morganatic and their children would lose all inheritance claims over Austria-Hungary.

    Notable Offenders: Television shows like The Borgias and The White Princess present royal marriage as a wholly political negotiation.

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    • Photo: Anastasia / 20th Century Fox

      The Trope: Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra enjoyed a loving, harmonious family life with their five children. 

      Why It's Inaccurate: Though perhaps more close-knit than other royals, the Romanovs were just like any other family, complete with tension, arguments, and grievances. Maria - Nicholas's third child - sometimes worried that nobody cared for her, for example.

      Though he was unsuccessful at the time, Nicholas actually worked to cultivate the image of happy domesticity. As scholar Wendy Slater notes:

      The "aura of violated domesticity" that surrounds the narratives of [the family's execution in 1918] suggests that the perfect family of Romanov propaganda is actually a more iconic image today that it ever was in the early 20th century, even before it shattered under the pressure of war and social unrest.

      Notable Offenders: The film and stage musical Anastasia emphasize domestic bliss in the imperial family before the Russian Revolution comes along and ruins everything. But they also totally sidestep some of the family's difficulties, including the czarevich's struggle with hemophilia.

      • Category: Notable Figure
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    • Photo: Gladiator / DreamWorks Pictures
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      Royals Are Either Universally Hated Or Universally Loved

      The Trope: Royals can be either loved or hated; there is no in between. 

      Why It's Inaccurate: Like the vast majority of humanity, historical royals were complicated people. Few leaders were universally loved or loathed, though some may have been more loved or hated than others.

      Even the most popular, least controversial rulers in history had some detractors. For example, Queen Victoria's popularity fell during her extended retreat from public life after the passing of her husband in 1861. 

      Notable Offenders: Gladiator shows two sides of the royal coin: Marcus Aurelius is a virtuous, beloved ruler, while his son Commodus is a villainous cad who will never claim his subjects' affections. Similarly, Robin Hood stories position King John as a reviled king and his brother King Richard the Lionheart as his popular, nobler foil.

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