With new medieval comedy Catherine, Called Birdy now streaming, our guest writer Matthew Abel brings us a selection of the best period dramas set in the Middle Ages.
Based on the children’s book by Karen Cushman, Catherine, Called Birdy is set in 13th Century England and stars Bella Ramsey (Game of Thrones) as Lady Catherine or “Birdy”, the daughter of an impoverished lord (Andrew Scott from Sherlock) who repeatedly resists her father’s attempts to marry her to a wealthy suitor.
The cast also includes Joe Alwyn (The Favourite), Billie Piper (Doctor Who) and Dean-Charles Chapman (1917).
Watch the trailer:
Let’s celebrate the film’s release with a look back at some of our favourite medieval period dramas:
The Last Kingdom (2015-2022)
Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories are the basis for this earthy and bloody series set during the reigns of King Alfred the Great (David Dawson) and his successors.
In a land torn between Christian Saxons and Pagan Danes, Saxon-born but Danish-reared warrior Uhtred of Bebbanburg (Alexander Dreymon) fights to reclaim his ancestral home, protect his family and forge a lasting peace.
The fifth and final season dropped in 2022, but a movie subtitled Seven Kings Must Die is due to conclude the story in 2023.
The Last Kingdom is available on DVD on Amazon.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
In 932AD, Britain’s legendary King Arthur (Graham Chapman) and his Knights of the Round Table are charged by God with a sacred quest to find the Holy Grail.
Among the perilous obstacles they encounter on their journey are the Knights Who Say ‘Ni!’, the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog and the French.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail is available on DVD on Amazon.
The Pillars of the Earth (2010)
Ken Follett’s epic historical novel was a departure from his usual genre, but this story about the building of an English cathedral during The Anarchy of the 12th century is as gripping as any thriller.
The TV adaption often deviates from the book, but the love between builder Jack (Eddie Redmayne) and Lady Aliena (Hayley Atwell) remains at the heart of the story, as does the devout struggle of Prior Philip (Matthew Macfadyen) and the people of Kingsbridge to build their cathedral against all the odds.
Pillars of the Earth is available to watch on Amazon Prime Video.
Ellis Peters’ Cadfael Chronicles novels were among the earliest examples of the ‘historical mystery’ genre which has become increasingly popular in recent years.
Most of her 21 books were adapted in this TV series starring Derek Jacobi as Brother Cadfael, a 12th-century monk at Shrewsbury Abbey who helps his friend Sheriff Hugh Beringar (Sean Pertwee/Eoin McCarthy/Anthony Green) investigate murders.
Cadfael was a knight and a sailor before entering the monastery and draws on his worldly knowledge and experience to crack his cases.
The complete Cadfael collection is available on DVD on Amazon.
A romanticised but impressive dramatisation of the conflict between King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) and his ‘turbulent priest’ Thomas Becket (Richard Burton).
When the King appoints his youthful roistering partner as Lord Chancellor and later Archbishop of Canterbury, he thinks he has both Church and State under his thumb. But as an increasingly pious Becket’s loyalty shifts towards the Church, he soon becomes a thorn in his old friend’s side.
Peter O’Toole later reprised his role as Henry II in The Lion in Winter (1968) alongside Katherine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Becket is available on DVD on Amazon.
Kingdom of Heaven (2005)
This sweeping Ridley Scott epic is loosely based on real events and individuals.
In 1184, French blacksmith Balian (Orlando Bloom) travels to Jerusalem to claim the estate of his Crusader father Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson) and seek absolution for his wife’s suicide.
There, he is drawn into the court of the leprous King Baldwin IV (Edward Norton) and the interminable holy war against Muslim leader Saladin (Ghassan Massoud). The brilliant Director’s Cut runs to over three hours but includes important details and subplots which had to be dropped from the theatrical release.
Kingdom of Heaven is available on DVD on Amazon.
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)
The legend of Robin Hood has been played out on screen countless times and this ’90s offering has become an unlikely classic of the genre.
Kevin Costner made no attempt at an English accent in the lead role, Alan Rickman was cartoonishly evil as the Satan-worshipping Sheriff of Nottingham, and the film was swiftly parodied in 1993’s Robin Hood: Men in Tights.
Nevertheless, it was a huge box office success and Bryan Adams’ soundtrack single ‘(Everything I Do) I Do It for You’ still holds the record for the longest uninterrupted run at No. 1 in the UK Singles Chart.
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is available on DVD on Amazon.
The Name of the Rose (1986)
Based on Umberto Eco’s dark, cryptic novel, the film follows Franciscan friar William of Baskerville (Sean Connery) and his novice assistant Adso of Melk (Christian Slater) as they investigate the suspicious death of a monk in an Italian monastery in 1327.
As further deaths occur, William’s investigations are hindered by the evasiveness of the other monks and the arrival of his old adversary, Inquisitor Bernard Gui (F. Murray Abraham).
A TV adaption was released in 2019 with John Turturro as William, Damian Hardung as Adso and Rupert Everett as Gui.
The Name of the Rose is available on DVD on Amazon.
The Hollow Crown (2012-2016)
Certain Shakespeare plays appear on screen more than others, so this BBC adaption of the lesser-performed Henriad tetralogies is a refreshing change.
The first season stars Ben Whishaw as Richard II, Rory Kinnear and Jeremy Irons as Henry IV and Tom Hiddleston as Henry V, while the second features Tom Sturridge as Henry VI and Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III.
In a series already dripping with British acting talent, Simon Russell Beale and Sophie Okonedo also shine as Falstaff as Margaret of Anjou respectively.
The Hollow Crown is available on DVD on Amazon.
The Black Adder (1983)
The first season of Blackadder is generally considered the weakest, with the main characters yet to develop into their familiar incarnations – here, Edmund (Rowan Atkinson) is a snivelling idiot while Baldrick (Tony Robinson) is the smarter of the two.
Nevertheless, this run – set in an alternate 15th century England in which Richard III defeats Henry Tudor at Bosworth, only to be killed accidentally by his great-nephew Edmund – was the most expensive to produce and features great performances from the likes of Brian Blessed, Peter Cook, Jim Broadbent and Miriam Margolyes.
The complete Blackadder collection is available on DVD on Amazon.