Fun with History!

Promotional image, CW Network

I saw a post on Facebook yesterday criticizing the TV show Reign for its historical inaccuracies. For those who don’t know, it’s a teen-targeted show on the CW network about Mary, Queen of Scots and her relationship with and eventual marriage to Francis, the dauphin of France. Are there big historical inaccuracies in the show? Yes. But I argue that it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Let me explain.

Reign isn’t meant to be a history documentary full of facts. It’s basically a teen drama with pretty clothes against a historical backdrop. If the show followed what really happened between Mary and Francis, I venture to guess not many teens would watch it. And thus an opportunity would be lost to actually interest them enough in the real people that they would go and read about them. I’ll admit that I did some research about Mary and Francis, as well as Catherine de Medici (mother to Francis), after I started watching the show.

I did the same thing while watching The Tudors, another program that got complaints because of historical in accuracies. More pretty people in pretty clothes that took a lot of artistic liberties with the history of King Henry VIII and his wives. But after I became a fan of the show, I read more about Henry and his various ill-fated wives. Whereas I couldn’t name Henry’s wives before I started watching The Tudors, now I can — and realize just how popular the names Catherine and Anne must have been in the 1500s.

When I started watching The Borgias, yet another drama to be heaped with criticism from history lovers, I knew basically nothing about the Borgia family and its ties to the papacy. After watching episodes, I would go online and start reading about the family and other characters in the show to see who was real and who wasn’t, what events actually occurred and which were fabrications.

Eva Green as Artemisia in 300: Rise of an Empire (Warner Brothers promotional image)

I’ve done much the same after watching various movies, including 300 and 300: Rise of an Empire, which I saw yesterday. I read about the Battle of Thermopylae (where the 300 Spartans fell) led by King Leonidas after seeing the first movie. When I started seeing the previews for the sequel, I read about Artemisia (played by Eva Green), who really was a naval commander in the Persian navy during the invasion of Greece. Again, a good amount of artistic license was taken, but her story in the movie was interesting enough that I sought out the truth about her.

Have you ever watched a movie or TV show loosely based on historical figures and events that led you to read more about the real people and events? If so, what was it?



  • Jane says:

    Hello Trish,
    I read a bit about the Borgias before watching the show, but I gave up after the first season. I love “Spartacus” and became interested in learning more about him leading the slave revolt.

    • I actually meant to put Spartacus in my post since it’s one of my favorite shows, but I got interrupted while I was writing the post and then forgot. I read a fair amount about Spartacus and slave revolt too since I was really interested which of the characters were based on real people (Crixus, Oenomaus, Gannicus). They had to take some license with that show because very little is recorded about Spartacus himself.

  • Elvira says:

    I have seen the History Channel do shows and have inaccurate history about events. It’s not just TV shows. Best quote I ever saw was “history was written to make the white European look good” and while I enjoy watching some of these shows, I know they are inaccurate. I do, however, hope they will spark people to look up the truth.

    • That’s my hope, too. We can take them for entertainment purposes while watching and seek out the truth behind the story later. Yep, even the History Channel cannot be depended on to present things that are totally factual.

  • Wow, Trish, you sparked me to look up Artemisia. I would have thought a female commander of the Persian army was complete fiction and it turns out she’s real! How cool is that? Go, Arty!

    I’ve watched historical movies all my life – and believe me, Hollywood usually got it wrong at least in details. But like you, that then meant I looked up the real people. The first occasion that I can think of is becoming really interested in the real Elizabeth I after seeing the very romanticized Young Bess which was one of my fave movies when I was a kidlet.

    Sometimes, too, I think historical accuracies can give an interpretation which brings us closer to the spirit of the age than something laden with accurate detail. An example – and I seem to be on Liz I today – was the first Elizabeth movie with Cate Blanchett. The Pope really did have what was to all intents and purpose a fatwah out against Elizabeth – guaranteed trip to heaven for anyone who killed her. I think they conveyed just how dangerous life was for her really well.

    • I loved Elizabeth with Cate Blanchett. And I’m pretty sure I looked up info about Elizabeth I after watching that. That and The Tudors led to me reading more about that era in English history than I ever learned in history classes. Watching historical dramas and reading historical novels have made me realize that even with a minor in history in college, there are huge swaths of history about which I know very little.

  • Helen says:


    I too hope that these types of shows would get people interested in looking up facts one of the movies I saw and loved and checked out a few things was Brave heart and William Wallace who apparently was not the hero he was made out to be in the movie

    Have fun

    • Ah yes, Braveheart got me interested in some Scottish history. I “think” my father’s line might be traced back to Scotland, and I’ve always loved all things Scottish (and Irish, where another line comes from), so it’s almost like there’s ancestral memory or something.

  • Ki Pha says:

    Hey Trish!!! I have to say I have watched all of these shows and really liked them. I never finished them but will one day. I didn’t mind the Historically inaccuracies because they’re ment to be “entertainments” of sorts to viewers who could care less about the history and more about the drama, so I thought it was great.

    Prior to watching the shows I already knew a good amount about the Tudors and the Borgias because I had done research on them for French class and for my own personal knowledge. So I knew a bit before the show but I enjoyed it.

    Reign was one I had to do research on just like you. I found it just as fascinating.

    LOL I did research the history of “Doctor Who?”
    I thought it was crazy how people were so crazy for it and having been on air for like 60 years was what caught my attention. It was great! Though I heard many folks isn’t happy for the current new and older Doctor Who, Peter Capaldi, but he might change minds. David Tennant and Matt Smith, now they were some good looking Doctor.

    • I think that the new reboot of Doctor Who trended young, and for people who didn’t watch the original series, they don’t realize that some of the earlier Doctors were older. They’re used to Tennant and Matt Smith, who is the youngest Doctor ever. I love Matt and his incarnation of the Doctor, but I think Capaldi will be great too. Each time a Doctor regenerates, you wonder if you’ll ever love another Doctor as much as you loved the one on the way out, but usually within 2-3 episodes you love the new one too.

      • Ki Pha says:

        Yes, I thought it was crazy that many viewers were the young folks because I was like, “Doctor Who? has been on forever!” But I guess the young Doctors were the ones to attract the young generation~

        Should I be glad I haven’t jumped on board the Doctor Who? craze? πŸ™‚

  • Amy Conley says:

    I do it all the time, but I’ve always been a history geek anyway, so I would usually know just from watching what was true and what wasn’t. But if there was a secondary character I didn’t know much about, I woukld research them.
    I know I did this a lot during THE TUDORS, but I don’t think I’ve done it much since then.
    Now about this show, The Reign, what day, time, channel might I find this show? Mary Queen of Scots is one of my favorite historical people, so I know this would go under “don’t miss” tv.

    • Reign is on The CW on Thursday at 9 p.m. Eastern/8 p.m. Central. The do make lots of changes to true history, but I still find the show enjoyable in its alternate history sort of way.

  • Mary Preston says:

    I’m more than happy to watch any kind of historical movie or TV show.

    The inaccuracies don’t bother me, because I generally know the true history, so just enjoy the show.

    My Mother loathes all the inaccuracies & will just sit & pull a show apart.

    • I always say that I’m easily entertained. Something has to be truly dreadful for me to start picking it apart. If something has interesting performances against an interesting backdrop, I’m okay with it. It’s almost like it’s a sneaky gateway drug to perhaps turn some viewers on to learning more about various historical periods.

      There’s a new show coming on sometime this spring (on AMC, I think) called Turn, about America’s first spy ring during the Revolution. I have no idea about its historical accuracy or lack thereof, but I’m already intrigued, particularly because I really enjoy things set during the Revolutionary era.

      • I hadn’t heard about “Turn” and will have to check that one out. I don’t know anything about the American Revolution beyond what I learned in public school (previous little, I’m afraid). But some research into my father’s family history a few years ago revealed that one of my great-etc. grandfathers spied on Cornwallis and his troops. That probably isn’t the type of spying that the show has in mind, but I thought it was interesting!

        • That is really interesting. Genealogy is a particularly interesting way of digging into real history. I had ancestors who fought in the Revolution, too.

  • Laurie G says:

    English Captain Horatio Hornblower – Checked into after seeing the movie with Gregory Peck.

    I like reading the background stories for:

    Myth/Legend- CAMELOT – King Arthur & The Knights of the round table and the search for the Holy Grail

    Myth/Legend-ROBIN HOOD & Maid Marion & his Merrymen
    Checked out King Richard the Lionhearted and the Crusades and Prince John who became King John

  • D.B. Sieders says:

    Hi Trish! What a great post – now I’m going to have to look up everyone you mentioned, especially Artemisia πŸ™‚

    It is great fun to use film and television portrayals as a springboard for digging deeper into history. I spent some really fun afternoons with my daughter doing research on the real Pocahontas and Mulan after watching the Disney flicks (talk about some broad artistic license!).

    She’s also the type to go and Google her favorite characters and is delighted when she finds that some really lived once! So that means I can file all of those DVD nights under ‘educational,’ right?

    • Cool. I hadn’t really thought about it much with animated films, but you’re right. I hate to admit it, but I didn’t realize Mulan was a real person. Just looked her up.

  • Hi Trish, what a great post. I only watched an episode or two of Reign and not from the beginning so I never really got hooked. Maybe I’ll see if it’s on NetFlix or Amazon yet. I did watch the Tudors and enjoyed it in spite of the historical inaccuracies. I haven’t checked out The Borgias yet but maybe I will now.

    • I tend to like teen-centric shows, so it’s probably one of the reasons I like Reign. I’m probably a bit out of the age range for the CW demographic, but I do watch a lot of shows on there. I guess I’m a teenager at heart. πŸ™‚

  • Becke says:

    Interesting discussion. To me, the fact that a teen-targeted TV show is historically inaccurate is a lost opportunity. Why not teach through entertainment? In fact that’s the best way to learn.

    In Donna’s blog she mentioned The Big Bang hired a physicist. Why would historicals be different?

    When fiction is inaccurate, the author loses credibility for me. I watched the movie where the couple was accidently abandoned on a dive in the Caribbean and died. I investigated to make sure I didn’t make their mistake! But many take media as gospel.

    Why shouldn’t all forms of entertainment research the topic the same as authors?


    • I understand where you’re coming from, but I believe if they portrayed the story of Mary and Francis as it really happened, much of the intended audience just wouldn’t watch. As they’ve set it up, it’s a love triangle between Mary, Francis and a bastard brother. That’s something that will draw teen girls, the intended audience. The reality that Francis was short and sickly instead of a dashing, handsome young man full of vigor wouldn’t really make for a show most teen girls would watch. And if they don’t watch, the show doesn’t get aired, and the number that would have watched and gone on to research the real people and happenings might have been lost. Do I wish more people would watch shows that are historically accurate? Yes, of course. But the reality is that many would not.

  • Kathleen says:

    I love watching historical movies/series. Sometimes I do look up more about the era or characters, but other times, I just want to enjoy the story that’s told. Much like reading a book for pleasure. It doesn’t have to be 100% historically accurate. Authors can change to the story to make it more interesting, I know it isn’t a text book.

    If you’ve never seen the series Sharp’s Rifles with Sean Bean, you should. Sean is incredible !

  • Trish,

    Love seeing historical pieces, even with all their inaccuracies, finding their way onto TV. And yes, I did go and look up all the characters on the Borgias, too!

    But for the TUDORS I knew all the names of all Henry’s wives and how they were disposed of. πŸ™‚ I was a bit of a royal fangirl as a teen.

    Two historical mini series that had me recently looking up events was HATFIELD & MCCOY and KLONDIKE.

    Yeah, you pop one of those historically based shows in front of me and I will go look up stuff.

    • Oh, I loved Hatfield & McCoy and Klondike, and I did the same thing. We actually know one of the Hatfield descendants. He’s the son of hubby’s aunt from her first marriage. But then we are from Kentucky. πŸ™‚

      And wasn’t the scenery in Klondike gorgeous? Just stunningly beautiful.

  • Anna Sugden says:

    I have to say that while historical inaccuracies don’t make me rabid and we all make mistakes, I do think there is a difference between artistic licence and shoddy research. Something that is factually wrong is poor IMHO. Just as it infuriates me in both historical and contemporary novels when English characters say and do things which are blatantly wrong. [though I will say that having had things in my own books edited to ensure an American audience can understand them, I’m less rabid about that too!].

    But honestly, I’m happy to watch entertainment and give it some leeway.

    I love anything to do with the World Wars and that period of history – especially ordinary people who did extraordinary things for freedom, which you can pick up from films and TV programs. eg Secret Army, Wish Me Luck, Danger UXB, A Town Like Alice and Call the Midwife (thought that’s a bit later).

    • I understand, Anna. I do personally draw a line between something that is purported to be historically accurate and isn’t and something that comes in saying it’s very loosely based on historical events and people (like Reign).

      I like WWII era fiction, too. Have you ever read Sentimetal Journey by Jill Barnett? I really enjoyed it.

  • Dianna aka Hrdwrkdmom says:

    I am not a big tv watcher but I have been known to look us historical facts on my reading material, one of the quickest ways to make me put down a book never to be reopened is a glaring error speech patterns. Just brings the whole story to a screeching halt if a regency character says “okay” or “huh?” or “yeah” among less obvious errors. I read the last page sometimes more closelythan I read the book to see what the author had in mind when they wrote it. I love it when an author give a little history lesson at the end. In the story they may have used something of historical importance and at the end the author explains that yes in fact it did happen but they site the real peoples names and circumstances. That will cause me to go read more about it.

    • Dianna, I like those little history lessons at the end of books, too. But then I’m a history fan from way back. My fascination with learning more about historical people and events based on watching TV programs goes all the way back to a mini-series I saw as a kid about Marco Polo. I was so fascinated that I ended up doing a paper about him for school. I still have it.

  • catslady says:

    If I know the facts before watching and they are really different, I’m not too happy with the movie. I do better not knowing ahead of time and then finding out what the truth really is.

  • Minna says:

    I’m with catslady, These days, I have often hard time watching something that I KNOW is very different from the real deal -and especially when it seems they haven’t even tried. I did watch The Borgias a bit, but… I much preferred the documentary I once saw. Considering I live in a country that is mostly Lutheran, it was interesting to learn more about one of the biggest reasons for it, the spendthrift Pope Leo X.

    Years ago -when I wasn’t quite so picky- I remember seeing an Italian series about their hero Giuseppe Garibaldi and the Swiss hero William Tell (their very own Robin Hood). That series was called Crossbow. Though that one was not made by the Swiss and Will Lyman certainly was no Swiss.

  • Trish, I’m with you–I find history fascinating but I think modern teens are so far removed from those times it’s hard to get them interested. Anything that provides a context and a gateway to perhaps finding out more is fantastic, in my book. That’s what a lot of historical romances did for me. They brought historical periods alive in a way that dry old history texts never did!

    • I agree, Christina. Fiction in various forms have led me to learning more about all kinds of people and places. Honestly, British history wasn’t one of my top areas of interest until I started watching things like The Tudors and all the BBC costume dramas.

  • Carol Cork says:

    Trish, I have just watched 37 Days on BBC2 which is a dramatisation of the actual political events leading up to the start of World War I. I knew very little about the reasons for World War I and this gave real insight into the causes. In addition, it was brilliantly acted.

  • Trish, you make a great point about these torrid dramas leading people to check out the history. Getting people interested in what actually happened has to be a good thing.

    I got into English history after seeing “When Knighthood Was in Flower” on the Wonderful World of Disney. It was _highly_ fictionalized (though I didn’t realize at the time, being in the second grade and all) account of the romance between Charles Brandon and Mary Tudor, sister of Henry VIII. The Arthurian legends also played a role in sucking me into the whole knighthood and chivalry and medieval England bit.

    Of course, medieval England was not so romantic and chivalrous (and certainly not as clean) as my childish self assumed. By the time I figured that out, though, I was hooked.

  • I loved THE TUDORS. I would lap up the gorgeous people, constumes, and music. After the show, I would google the events featured in the episode for the real story.

    The real story might be too hard to film and might not be as interesting!

    • I think you’re probably right. Even though I find real events interesting, some people might not. And studios are in the business of producing programs that people will actually watch.

  • The most recent movie that sent me researching was “The Young Victoria” (2009) with Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend. I had no idea that Victoria and Albert were married only 21 years and had, I think, 9 children. Those two were certainly busy! Or that most, if not all, of those children married into other royal European houses, extending the influence of Britain far and wide. Before watching the film, I had only a vague image of her as an old lady dressed in widow’s garb and she was so much more than that!

  • Shannon says:

    I taped the Tudor marathon and have watched two episodes so far. At this point, I’m already loving the costumes and the drama, but there were a couple of things that I wondered if they were fact, such as Wolsey giving Henry a house that he admired, grudgingly granting the king the furnishings as well.

    I’m doing history this weekend, visiting a historical site. I cannot believe how much the guides know. They can answer almost every question without a pause.

    • I’ve been in awe of docents at historical sites many times. You can tell many of them have a passion for the history they are sharing with others.

  • Imelda Evans says:

    I’m with you Trish. I love historical TV and novels of all sorts. I expect docos to be accurate but I think fictionalisations have license to make the story more interesting to the audience. If they lead people to learn more about the period, great and if they don’t, they don’t leave any more ignorant than they came! At least they know that the people existed. In any case, as a student of history at university level I know that ‘the truth’ of what happened is almost always debateable, and the further back you go, the more difficult it is to discover what actually happened. Contemporary accounts are limited and are as likely to be impartial as most stories are – which is not at all. History is, as we know, written by the victors. And art about it is influenced by the people paying for it or sanctioning it – note Shakespeare and Richard the 3rd. If modern TV makers need a precedent for tinkering with history to make it more palatable to the audience, they need go no further than the Bard! πŸ™‚ Bring it on, I say. I’d rather people enjoyed some slightly dodgy history in a well-writen drama than they rot their brains on so-called ‘reality TV’!

  • Sigh. Not a fan of any of these. But then, I’m a little obsessive-compulsive about authenticity. (Do NOT get me started on Braveheart!) On the other hand, if a show does get someone interested in history, bravo! If it makes people think they are watching history (sadly, sometimes the case), then thumbs down.