What makes a king? Inaccurate movies about kings peddle tired tropes that misrepresent what it means to be a king and what the lives and reigns of rulers from the past were really like.
Films have disproportionately shaped what most people believe about kings, especially since high-profile actors like Sir Laurence Olivier, Colin Firth, and Peter O'Toole have each brought something unique - if not necessarily accurate - to the historical kings they've portrayed. Even in the case of relatively realistic royal biopics, historical accuracy is always up for debate.
Films and television shows often deploy inaccurate tropes that reinforce rigid, old-fashioned, and overly simplistic ideas about historical kings. While tropes may provide easy, recognizable storylines, historical reality proves again and again that fact is wilder than fiction.
- Photo: Hamilton / Disney+
The Trope: King George III was a "mad" tyrant who didn't believe in liberty.
Why It's Inaccurate: King George III certainly didn't want to lose the American colonies and he really did suffer from an unknown - though much speculated - mental and physical illness for several years.
But George wasn't a "tyrannical nincompoop," as historian Rick Atkinson believes many people imagine him. George ruled over a constitutional monarchy, which means he didn't engineer the policies that enraged so many American colonists on the eve of revolution. Far from a tyrant, he almost offered to abdicate the throne in exasperation over all that had happened.
Notable Offenders: This representation of George III has a long history. Pro-independence Americans painted George as a tyrant before and during the American Revolution to justify their break with the British Empire.
That tradition has continued. The Broadway musical Hamilton depicts King George III as an entitled, cold tyrant. The Madness of King George defines George through his struggle with mental and physical health in 1787.
- Photo: Braveheart / Paramount Pictures2101 VOTES
Edward I Encouraged English Nobles To Claim A Scottish Bride's Wedding Night
The Trope: King Edward I invoked the ancient right of prima nocta so that the English could "breed" out Scots in Scotland.
Why It's Inaccurate: Edward I - who was known as "Hammer of the Scots" - really acted like a bully to Scotland (and Wales too). But there is nothing to suggest that Edward encouraged English nobles to claim a bride on her wedding night as a strategy to dominate and subordinate Scotland. In fact, historians question whether "prima nocta" was ever actually a thing outside of literature.
Notable Offenders: Edward's supposed implementation of this policy is a critical plot point in the wildly inaccurate film Braveheart.
- Photo: The Man in the Iron Mask / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer377 VOTES
The Trope: Louis XIV liked to do nothing more than sleep with a woman.
Why It's Inaccurate: Louis XIV's love life was certainly active, and he kept a number of mistresses throughout his reign. But Louis' libido wasn't a mark of his unsuitability as a king. On the contrary, who the king slept with was often a political matter.
Notable Offenders: The Man in the Iron Mask and Versailles sensationalize and fixate on Louis XIV's romantic life.
- Photo: Aladdin / Walt Disney Studio Motion Pictures462 VOTES
Scheming Advisors Often Preyed Upon Kings
The Trope: Ambitious and unwilling to settle for second-fiddle, scheming advisors were the real powers behind the throne. They did what they could to manipulate the king, amass power for themselves, and eventually usurp the throne.
Why It's Inaccurate: Advisors have played a complex role in various monarchies. Some advisors really did try and usurp the throne, like when Count von Struensee consolidated authority over King Christian VII of Denmark. Advisors weren't always evil schemers though; some jived well with their kings. Cardinal Richelieu, for example, set the tone for Louis XIV's reign.
Notable Offenders: Roose Bolton is the ultimate scheming advisor in Game of Thrones. Robert Cecil tries to control James I in Anonymous. Aladdin also plays up this theme by making Jafar the main villain.
On the other end of the scale, Hilary Mantel's trilogy about Thomas Cromwell paints Henry VIII's advisor as a hero, rather than the deeply controversial man he really was.
- Photo: Game of Thrones / HBO5152 VOTES
Kings Were Drunk And Uninterested In The Business Of Ruling
The Trope: Jovial and always up for a good time, kings would rather drink than rule.
Notable Offenders: In Netflix's The King, Prince Hal's immaturity is signaled by his drinking. King Robert Baratheon in Game of Thrones would rather drink and hunt than rule the Seven Kingdoms.
- Photo: The Crown / Netflix
The Trope: Wallis Simpson so bewitched Edward VIII that he gave up the throne for her.
Why It's Inaccurate: In 1936, King Edward VIII took control of the narrative, addressed the British nation on the radio, and abdicated the throne. He announced it had become "impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as king as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love."
Rather than selflessly setting aside the throne for the woman he loved, Edward probably did it for himself. According to journalist John Crace, Edward likely "saw Wallis, a divorcée, as a way out of becoming king and handing over the responsibility to his brother." Giving up the throne also may have been a ploy to get Simpson to marry him.
Notable Offenders: The King's Speech and The Crown both depict Wallis Simpson as an untrustworthy schemer and portray Edward as blinded by love.