British Royal TV Dramas Ranked by Level of Scandalous Content

History tends to show that reality was often more risqué than standard textbooks let on. In recent decades, television has taken notice. Period dramas about English and British monarchs dating back to the Middle Ages have given an endless stream promising to reveal what truly happened in the courts—and especially the bedrooms—of palaces. These shows could be plotted on a graph, with one axis ranging from high-brow to low-brow and the other from modest to explicit. Each title’s position would represent an overall level of risquéness, with the most educational in one corner and the steamiest in the opposite corner.

What follows is a ranking of TV shows about British royalty from least to most risqué, considering both luridness and seriousness. The list is made in honor of Starz’s brazenly scandalous, enjoyably fun new series Mary & George, staring as a minor 17th century aristocrat and as the devastatingly handsome son she’s scheming to get into King James I’s bed, though there’s no doubt more entries can be added in the future. Six centuries of Elizabeths and Annes, Henrys and Thomases await your judgment below.

Victoria (PBS, 2016-2019)

When we meet the teenager soon to be crowned Queen Victoria (Jenna Coleman), in this ITV import that aired under the Masterpiece banner in the U.S., she still keeps a beloved doll by her side and seems unaware that sex is needed for pregnancy. So it makes sense that, which traces her first couple of decades on the throne, feels more like a fairy tale than a soap opera. Though innocent, Coleman’s Victoria is a willful young woman determined to prove herself an effective monarch, even as jealous relatives and ambitious politicians plot to sideline her. While there’s plenty of palace gossip—infidelity, same-sex affairs, bitter rivalries—the series is (fully clothed wedding-night love scene aside) about as chaste as it gets.

Wolf Hall (PBS, 2015)

, which tracks the rise and fall of through the machinations of wily statesman Thomas Cromwell, certainly has a more worldly perspective than Victoria. Cromwell, played by the great , is a master of realpolitik, capable of manipulating and emboldening Henry VIII (Damian Lewis) to murderous effect. So there’s quite a bit of violence and death in the six-part series, though not much in the way of sex. But it’s also (sorry, The Crown) the best royal drama of our time, adapted from two Booker-winning novels by the late doyenne of historical fiction and boasting many BAFTAs, Globes, and Emmy nominations. A sequel, currently in the works, that wraps up Cromwell’s story, Wolf Hall: The Mirror and the Light, is sure to deliver more eloquently scripted, brilliantly acted court intrigue from the high-minded folks at BBC Two.

The Crown (Netflix, 2016-2023)

In part because contemporary royals have less real power and must show more restraint than their pre-tabloid ancestors, and in part because creator Peter Morgan chose to be relatively polite to his subjects, many of whom are still alive, ’s portrait of Queen Elizabeth II and her family could feel pretty tame. Sure, we hear about quite a bit of infidelity. Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) has her with Lord Snowdon (Matthew Goode). Charles (Dominic West) and Camilla’s (Olivia Williams) are reenacted in lurid detail. But you’d be hard pressed to find R-rated sex scenes, much less the kind of violence a Henry VIII unleashed within his palace walls as well as beyond them.

Elizabeth I (HBO, 2005)

There have been two ruling British monarchs named Elizabeth, and played both of them in the mid-aughts—the second in Morgan and his Crown collaborator Stephen Frears’ film The Queen, and the first in this two-parter that originally aired on Channel 4 in the UK. Opening in 1579, when Elizabeth was in her mid-40s and searching for a husband in a last-ditch effort to produce an heir, it pays no lip service to her Virgin Queen nickname. Mirren’s libidinous sovereign consorts with ’ silver-fox Earl of Leicester—until she learns he’s secretly married and orders him to get out of her sight. A decade later, in Part 2, she obsesses over a new favorite: Leicester’s stepson, the Earl of Essex (Hugh Dancy), who’s a good 32 years her junior. There’s lots of substantive history here, surrounding a Protestant woman’s struggle to retain her throne as Catholic leaders at home and abroad plotted her overthrow. And it should go without saying that Mirren is magnificent. Elizabeth I practically swept the Emmys. But between the emphasis on torrid love affairs and a good deal of gorily rendered, period-appropriate torture, E. Tudor edges out E. Windsor on the salaciousness scale.

The White Queen, The White Princess, and The Spanish Princess (Starz, 2013-2020)

I’m grouping these three Starz titles together because they follow three consecutive generations of English queens, beginning during the War of the Roses, and are all adapted from the prolific author Philippa Gregory’s Plantagenet and Tudor novels. The first and most romantic show in the trilogy, The White Queen, casts as Elizabeth Woodville, the young Lancastrian widow who wins the heart of the Yorkist monarch Edward IV. The White