Weird History
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Dumb Things We Believe About Historical Kings Thanks To Movies

November 5, 2020 1.2k votes 246 voters 29.3k views12 items

List RulesVote up the historical king tropes you just can't stand.

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.

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    Edward I Encouraged English Nobles To Claim A Scottish Bride's Wedding Night

    Edward I Encouraged English Nobles To Claim A Scottish Bride's Wedding Night
    Photo: Braveheart / Paramount Pictures

    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.

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  • George III Was A Heartless, Tyrannical Madman
    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.

    George III also had a loving marriage with his wife and took on intellectual and cultural pursuits

    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.

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    Everything About Nicholas II's Family Life Was Perfect

    Everything About Nicholas II's Family Life Was Perfect
    Photo: Anastasia / 20th Century Fox

    The Trope: The Romanovs' tragic end was all the more heartbreaking because their family life was so perfect and happy. 

    Why It's Inaccurate: Family certainly was important to Nicholas II. But it would be disingenuous to call his family life "perfect." One giant cloud over his family life, for example, was the anxiety surrounding the frequently poor health of his hemophiliac son and heir, the Tsarevich Alexei.

    By fixating on Nicholas's family life, fiction sidesteps uncomfortable truths about Nicholas and his politics, such as his anti-Semitic pogroms and commitment to absolutism.

    Notable Offenders: Anastasia - the play, musical, and animated film - emphasize the warm family life of the last Romanovs.

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    Kings Were Drunk And Uninterested In The Business Of Ruling

    Kings Were Drunk And Uninterested In The Business Of Ruling
    Photo: Game of Thrones / HBO

    The Trope: Jovial and always up for a good time, kings would rather drink than rule.

    Why It's Inaccurate: Alcohol certainly played a role in various kingships. Alexander the Great, for example, frequently over-imbibed in wine, which was not uncommon for elite Macedonians. 

    But just because a king drank a lot doesn't mean he was disinterested in ruling. Peter the Great started a drinking club, and it didn't stop him from being intensely involved in his empire.

    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.

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