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

Updated November 5, 2020 3.4k votes 718 voters 190.7k 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: Gladiator / DreamWorks Pictures
    5

    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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    • Photo: The Man in the Iron Mask / MGM
      6

      The Right Of Succession Was Often Challenged If The Heir Was Unfit To Rule

      The Trope: Virtuous emperors and kings who see that their heir isn't a good fit for the job ignore the line of succession to ensure that a better candidate will take their place.

      Why It's Inaccurate: Rulers who may have been deemed "unfit" inherited the throne all the time. Ancient Romans, for instance, experienced a string of terrible emperors because the political system enabled their power.

      Sometimes, advisers or relatives labeled a ruler unfit to take power for themselves, as was the case with Spain's Joanna of Castile

      Lines of succession weren't always ironclad. In the context of Great Britain, the line of succession was manipulated to ensure that a Protestant rather than Catholic monarch took the throne in 1714. But in this case, the ultimate successor - George I - was still in the line of succession, just much, much further down.

      Notable Offenders: In both The Man in the Iron Mask and Gladiator, civic-minded leaders step in to protect the kingdom or empire from cruel rulers. 

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      • Photo: Braveheart / Paramount Pictures
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        Royal Spouses Had Very Little Power

        The Trope: Royal consorts - usually women who appear in the background or as window dressing - have no real authority in the kingdom and exist solely to support their spouse.

        Why It's Inaccurate: Some royal consorts have been politically significant, for better or for worse. George II's wife Caroline of Ansbach arguably had greater influence in Great Britain than the king. On the other end of the spectrum, royal consorts weren't always supportive of their spouses. One of the most famous rulers of all time, Russia's Catherine the Great, actually began her imperial career as a royal spouse who took the throne from her husband.

        Notable Offenders: In Braveheart, the future Queen Isabella is shown as a passive royal whose one - wildly inaccurate - act of defiance is to have a fling with Scottish leader William Wallace. In fact, Isabella made her mark in history as one of the most consequential royal spouses of all time - she overthrew her husband in 1327.

        The Young Victoria and the television series Victoria downplay the extent to which Prince Albert took advantage of his wife's frequent pregnancies to leverage authority for himself.

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        • Photo: The Scarlet Empress / Paramount Pictures

          The Trope: Catherine the Great's defining feature was her sexuality - and she certainly overdid it.

          Why It's Inaccurate: The trope of Catherine the Great as a scarlet woman can be traced all the way back to her own reign, when political rivals - including her own son - attempted to discredit her by claiming she was immoral and even slept with a horse.

          In actuality, she likely had 12 to 22 lovers throughout her life, a number not unlike the amount of mistresses taken by some kings throughout history. She wasn't just interested in hooking up, either. Historian Simon Sebag Montefiore describes the empress as "an obsessional serial monogamist who adored sharing card games in her cozy apartments and discussing her literary and artistic interests with her beloved."

          Notable Offenders: Films like The Scarlet Empress picked up on these unfounded allegations, thus turning the historical figure into a fictional jezebel.

          More recent biopics - like HBO's Catherine the Great and Hulu's The Great - give a more complete portrait of Catherine, an intelligent ruler whose love life was only part of her story.

          • Category: Notable Figure
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