20 Best Portrayals of Monarchs in Movies and TV Shows

From Game of Thrones to Rome, we list our favorite portrayals of (mostly) non-Shakespearean monarchs in movies and TV.

Forget democracy, the Divine Right is back with a vengeance! Look around at television like The Crown or movies like The FavouriteAnd now, with Game of Thrones about to settle its game of thrones once and for all in its final season, several of its characters have bargained their way into the best of pop culture’s monarchs, which is no small feat.

Thus, we at Den of Geek have decided to explore exactly that with a list of the 20 best kings, queens, emperors, monarchs or whoever else may wear a pointy hat.

NOTE: We are intentionally leaving off kings whose films are based on plays and productions intended for the theatre. Otherwise, this whole list would be Shakespeare and/or Greek to me.

Queen Anne in The Favourite (2018)

20. Queen Anne

Film: The Favourite (2018)

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Actress: Olivia Colman

It’s a relatively recent development that sees woman actors having the opportunity to take on starring roles that allow them to play up the ugly, gross, or feral qualities of the female characters they are playing in complex, nuanced ways—and then to see them positively recognized for their performance. Olivia Colman’s Oscar-winning turn as Queen Anne in 2018’s The Favourite is one such example, forever putting her in the category of our favorite pop culture monarchs.

read more: The Crown Season 3 — Everything We Know

One doesn’t need to know much about real-life 18th century English monarch Queen Anne to sympathize with, be entertained by, or be disgusted by Colman’s performance as the gout-stricken ruler who suffered at least 17 miscarriages and ruled an empire. The story centers around the monarch’s love/lust triangle with lifelong friend and advisor Lady Sarah Churchill and Sarah’s newly-arrived-to-court cousin Abigail Hill, a web of interpersonal drama defined by Anne’s fierce insecurity and the disproportionate power she wields. The weird, taut, resulting drama makes for one of the zaniest and most fascinating court period pieces ever made.

– Kayti Burt

19. Caligula

Film: Caligula (1979)

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Actor: Malcolm McDowell

Meet the most bat-poop crazy man who ever attempted to make his horse a senator and god (it’s a short list). Caligula is a figure whose lecherous depravity has been the stuff of Hollywood and literary legend for ages. However, no interpretation of the golden-haired sociopath lives on in more infamy than when Malcolm McDowell played him with an operatic lust.

read more: Game of Thrones Season 8 Episode 5 Predictions

In a film (hilariously) written by Gore Vidal, attempting to make the “sensual Ben-Hur,” this Roman Emperor oversees orgies, bestiality, the rape of both brides and grooms at weddings and the most bizarre executions ever filmed. He is so out there that his most endearing quality is his undying love for ill-fated sister, Drusilla.

Honestly, the movie is trash. But glorious trash that only Helen Mirren, a member of the cast, will triumphantly defend. “I’m certainly not ashamed of Caligula,” says the actress. “In fact, I’ve always been very proud of it. Within its form, there’s a really great movie about Rome in there.” I wouldn’t go that far, but it certainly left an impression and Dame Helen Mirren is the one who has met actual royalty, so…

– David Crow

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18. Queen Elizabeth II

Film: The Queen (2006)

Actress: Helen Mirren

Where else to go, but Helen Mirren’s take on her homeland’s most famous family. The Queen is the kind of political biopic that I like: cynical and with a tongue firmly planted in its cheek. Mirren’s take on the seemingly immortal British monarch is one of both respect and satire.

read more: Game of Thrones – Missandei and the Meaning of Dracarys

This is a woman who will not publicly release a statement for the death of the mother of her grandchildren (one of whom is the future King of Britain), but will go hunting and fret as Tony Blair calmly explains to her how the 20th century media works.

Still, there is something regal and awe-inspiring about this buttoned down woman who has been the figurehead of her nation for so long that I am beginning to think that she is willing herself to outlive Charles. This performance alone certainly will.

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– David Crow

17. Mance Rayder

Series: Game of Thrones

Actor: Ciarán Hinds

Known by the Wildlings as the King Beyond the Wall and the leader of the Free Peoples (seems kind of oxymoronic), this one-time “Crow” unified the barbaric anarchy that is the Wilding Civilization (I use that second word loosely). The giants, the cavemen and even hipster Ygritte paid homage to this badass with a garbled brogue.

read more: Game of Thrones Season 4 Finale Review

It helps that the character is played by Ciarán Hinds, the actor who brilliantly realized Gaius Julius Caesar in HBO’s Rome. Unfortunately, given how history worked out, he never got to play king. In Game of Thrones, he finally took on that rule with the kind of authority to even shut Jon Snow up.

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– David Crow

16. Anne Boleyn

Film: Anne of the Thousand Days (1969)

Actress: Genevieve Bujold

If ever there was a woman wronged by bad press, it is Anne Boleyn. The girl who supposedly inspired “Green Sleeves” is also the face that incidentally caused the English Reformation. King Henry VIII divorced his wife, angered Spain and broke off all ties with the Catholic Church just so he could have Anne in his wedding bed. And then when she gave him a daughter and stillborn son, he cut off her head and accused her of incest.

read more: Game of Thrones Season 8 Predictions and Theories

Fortunately, the 19th and 20th centuries have seen a re-examination of the mother of the greatest monarch in British history. She gave the world Elizabeth (one of Henry’s sole positive contributions) and helped spread Protestantism. Plus, she made Henry look the merry fool both during her life and at her death. For that she received the feminist revisionism that is Anne of the Thousand Days, in which she did love Henry but loved the knowledge that her daughter would grow to be the greatest leader Britain has ever known more.

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Wishful thinking for a woman who was truly offered no reprieve by the rotund king? Probably. Great drama? Definitely. Anne was a woman before her time, simply because she refused to sit idly in the background. It may have cost her a head, but it made her a legend for centuries to come.

– David Crow


15. King Danny (Sikander II)

Film: The Man Who Would Be King (1975)

Actor: Sean Connery

As Peaches might say, this Danny is an interesting bloke. An ex-British officer of Her Queen Majesty, Danny follows the path of many Rudyard Kipling heroes. He’s in colonial India and he is at his best when he is unashamedly British.

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read more: Game of Thrones – Will Jaime Kill Cersei?

In the John Huston classic, Danny and best bud Peaches (Michael Caine) get embroiled in the affairs of a local tribe for whom they will fight. When Danny’s armor stops an arrow during the battle, the locals assume he must be a god because he doesn’t bleed. When his Masonic symbol under the shirt matches that of the ancient warrior king, Sikander (Alexander the Great), he must be a descendant god of this great king. And after all of the village’s enemies bow down and start paying homage to Sikander II, he believes it himself.

Well, if you’ve seen Gunga Din or any Kipling story about a hero caught between India and Britain, you can guess how this ends, but by Sikander, it would have been great if Danny met Queen Victoria as an equal like he dreamed!

– David Crow

14. Lord Hidetora Ichimonji

Film: Ran (1985)

Actor: Tatsuya Nakadai

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I know that I said there would be no Shakespearian films on this list and there are not…but films made by Akira Kurosawa that are based on Shakespeare? Okay fine, that seems reasonably sparse enough.

further reading: Game of Thrones Season 8: Melisandre’s Return and the Azor Ahai Prophecy Explained

In this Japanese epic, Hidetora acts the role of King Leer. He has carved out his kingdom for his three sons and unwisely puts his faith in the wrong person. He is honestly a very poor ruler in every regard and leaves his legacy to ruin and chaos. But he makes for a fascinating character study in Kurosawa’s last masterpiece.

– David Crow

13. Claudius

Mini-Series: I, Claudius (1976)

Actor: Derek Jacobi

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This BBC classic consisted of small sets and even smaller budgets, but it made up for that in amazing acting and writing. At the center of this 13-episode epic was the perpetually misunderstood Claudius.

Surrounded by cutthroats and murderers who would just as soon smash their cousin’s babies across palace walls as give each other hugs, Claudius had the advantageous disadvantage early on of being neglected. His ineffectual stammer led all around him, including his several wives, to ignore the fool as they schemed for power.

read more – Game of Thrones Season 8: What’s Next for Sansa and Tyrion?

In reality, Claudius was a brilliant mind trapped behind a meager speech impediment. By the time Rome has practically burned under the rule of Tiberius and Caligula, it is little wonder that the military thinks a puppet emperor under Claudius the Idiot would be preferable.

Instead, they received one of the most cunning and prosperous dictators that Rome ever saw and one that could outmaneuver everyone, including his duplicitous brides. Jacobi became BBC royalty with this production, which still holds a special place in the hearts of backstabbers everywhere.

– David Crow

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12. Emperor Palpatine

Film: Return of the Jedi (1983)

Actor: Ian McDiarmid

But enough talk about these Roman Emperors. What about the galactic ones? When Palpatine first appeared, as simply “The Emperor,” he had a face that looked liked Hell Warmed Over and a voice as comforting as a glass of arsenic. Literally evil incarnate, this hooded monster made Darth Vader look like a tool way before Hayden Christensen came into the picture.

read more: Why Emperor Palpatine is the Saga’s Most Interesting Character

Just as he turned the father, he would turn the son, no matter how many underlings have to die in his wake. Sure, Luke gets to proudly smirk, “I’m a Jedi like my father before me.” But so what? All that cockiness got him was a lightning bolt to the face for his LACK OF VISION. If daddy hadn’t bailed him out, young Skywalker would be sky dust. Palpatine is such a BAMF, even the prequels couldn’t ruin him.

With the character set to return for Star Wars: Episode IX, this galactic monarch’s story is far from over.

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– David Crow

11. King Henry VIII

Series: The Tudors (2007-2010)

Actor: Jonathan Rhys Meyers

There have been many film, television and probably even comic book portrayals of the portly Henry VIII. Yet, for us, the best interpretation of the insatiable ruler is in Showtime’s historical soap opera, The Tudors.

Yes, Meyers is grossly miscast as the king who broke from the Catholic Church to marry a woman he’d later behead. And yeah, the show put the “bod” in bodice ripping. However, it is also a rip-roaring entertainment that is unapologetic about what a douchenozzle the father of Elizabeth was.

read more: The Real History of Game of Thrones — Daenerys Targaryen

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Usually, due to siring Britain’s greatest monarch, fiction wants to paint him in a sympathetic or understanding light. But Showtime? They went four seasons with Henry growing from a petulant jerk to a tyrannical, hypocritical jerk. In the same period as the show, Hollywood’s lousy The Other Boleyn Girl (2008) gave Henry a free pass by believing his claims of incest and other sordid details thrown at his second wife Anne Boleyn.

Sorry, Henry’s greatest achievements (reformation and Elizabeth) were accidents caused by him thinking with his uncrowned head. Thank goodness premium cable has no problems showing him (kind of) in all his glory. It is almost impossible to think of a king we love to hate more on television…

– David Crow

11. King Leonidas

Film: 300 (2007)

Actor: Gerard Butler

What better place to start the real Top 10 than with the Ancient Greek king who had to decry the name of his land (“This is SPARTA!”) every five seconds like an aging senior looking for his car keys?

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King Leonidas is the historical patron badass for lost causes as he was the original “brave white man” who got massacred while standing against an unbelievable force. Sure, the real Leondias likely didn’t fight 7-foot mutants at Thermopylae, nor did he represent Frank Miller’s bizarre fantasy of Western civilization vs. the Mystic East (ever heard of Greek mythology or, hell, the DARK Ages, Frank?).

read more The Real History of Game of Thrones – The Sparrows

But whatever you think of the movie’s odd views on history and politics, this star-making turn for Butler is one of the most memorable cinematic kings of all time. He is willing to fight 200,000 Persian soldiers in his beachwear for goodness sake. When he says, “Tonight, WE DINE IN HELL,” we also know he is not picky about the service.

– David Crow

9. King Joffrey “Baratheon”

Series: Game of Thrones

Actor: Jack Gleeson

Game of Thrones fans hated this kid so much that we tuned in every week hoping to see the boy king meet a gruesome, painful and all around unpleasant end. That passionate hate is the mark of a great character. This pint-sized golden locked incest-baby makes Caligula look like Aslan in comparison.

read more: Game of Thrones Season 8 – Predictions and Theories

The way Gleeson played the pompous twirp with a perpetual smug grin on his face sent waves of furious anger through the hearts of countless HBO viewers. He and his shrill mother have Sansa’s direwolf killed in the second episode, murder Sean Bean’s heroic Ned Stark in the ninth and start a generational war with the North simply because he’s a fool borne of ignorance and entitlement.

As Joff’s Uncle Tyrion would say, “We’ve had vicious kings and we’ve had idiot kings, but I don’t know if we’ve ever been cursed with a viscious idiot for a king!” Nor has film or television; at least not on this level, which made him the ultimate royal pain in the ass.

– David Crow

8. Baldwin IV

Film: Kingdom of Heaven (2005)

Actor: Edward Norton

Ridley Scott’s crusader epic has developed a bit of a cult following since its release. Despite being a box office bomb, the much superior Director’s Cut DVD/Blu-Ray has become a big seller for those looking for an intriguing cinematic impression of a haunting period in the Holy Land’s history. And it feels just as pertinent today as it did 1,000 years ago.

Perhaps the film’s most provocative image is that of the silver and bejeweled mask of Baldwin IV: The Leper King. Based loosely on the real historical personage, Norton’s Baldwin is a tragic philosopher king whose early death and deformities are just as important to his legacy as his ability to maintain a peaceful détente with Kurdish Sultan Saladin.

read more: The Real History of Game of Thrones – Margaery Tyrell

The historical logistics are not so important to the film as the image of a young figure whose beautiful masks and garments on the outside cover up a rotten inside; physical weaknesses that are a manifestation of Scott’s views on the religiosity that rules the lands of Jerusalem.

Despite these allusions, the king’s soul represents the remarkableness of spirituality and understanding. When he goes midway in the film, so goes Jerusalem…and the best part of the movie. Plus, he has got a nasty backhand.

– David Crow

7. Mufasa

Film: The Lion King (1994)

Voice Actor: James Earl Jones

Come on, admit it: you cried when Mufasa died. Like Old Yeller and Bambi’s mother for the generation before, Mufasa’s death marked the first cinematic heartstring-puller for children of the ‘90s.

Based loosely on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Lion King gives much more developmental service to the dead king before he starts haunting his pride lands. Mufasa is the world’s greatest dad. He teaches Simba the difference between right and wrong, grasslands and elephant graveyards, and good predators (lions) and those that need to be segregated (hyenas)..

read more: Disney Remakes & Fairy Tale Movies Schedule

Negative implications aside, he is a fair ruler who is both stern and loving to his son as well as his people. Thus when Scar sends him tumbling into a stampede, every audience cried “Nooo!” along with his cuddly son—and is set to do so again with the live-action remake. But even from the celestial clouds of the Great Beyond, he can still evoke important leadership and lovability. Before disappearing on his son again. Thanks a lot, Disney.

– David Crow

6. Octavian

Series: Rome

Actor(s): Max Pirkis and Simon Woods

Okay, technically speaking Augustus Caesar was Rome’s first emperor and not a king. But can you really tell the difference? Ignoring semantics, the show’s chronicle of Caesar’s rise is a methodical entertainment.

The product of perhaps the worst mother in history and the cunning awareness of an all-too-trusting uncle, Octavian grows from introverted child to cold-blooded tyrant in only two seasons. The way he clears his path first through Brutus and Cassius with a tenuous union to the house of Antony and then through Antony himself is the stuff of chilling foresight.

read more: The Real History of Game of Thrones – Wildfire

Envisioned in the Machiavellian mold, Octavian is the great power-grabber who gets you to first like and pity him before slowly turning you aghast with his blind ambition and cruelty. One could make an argument for Brian Blessed’s more jovial and endearing monarch in the BBC series I, Claudius, but that show’s true power lay with Livia (Sian Phillips).

The series Rome gives us an Octavian who is both brilliant and monstrous enough to succeed where the real Caesar failed…turning the republic into a permanent dictatorship. In the series finale when Octavian sits before his empire and the conquered effigies of Antony and Cleopatra, you know that this is how centuries-long power is forged.

– David Crow

5. Queen Elizabeth I

Film: Elizabeth (1998)

Actress: Cate Blanchett

Britain’s greatest monarch is also their most prolific star. It seems every other year there is another film or television adaptation of her life. She has been played by Mirren, Dench and even Bette Davis. But there is something special about Blanchett’s portrayal.

read more: Arya’s Kill List — Who’s Left?

Better than any other actress, she channels the outrage, indignation and, ultimately, pride that comes with being a “Virgin” Queen. She came into a world that did not want her and from a mother whose name had been covered in dirt. Yet, she rises to be the queen who needs no man to tell her how to rule and the one who oversees Britain into its “golden age.” Even if that 2007 movie was a disappointment…

– David Crow

Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones

4. Daenerys “Stormborn” Targaryen

Series: Game of Thrones

Actress: Emilia Clarke

Daenerys of the House Targaryen, the First of Her Name, The Unburnt, Queen of the Andals, the Rhoynar and the First Men, Queen of Meereen, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Protector of the Realm, Lady Regent of the Seven Kingdoms, Breaker of Chains and Mother of Dragons, Wielder of Coffee Cups.

read more: Game of Thrones and the Importance of Dragons

You can’t have that many names and not make a list like this one. Game of Thrones‘ current frontrunner in the battle to claim the Iron Throne may be going a bit mad like her father before her, but we wouldn’t count her out of the running just yet. We hear Jon Snow knows nothing, and Cersei’s days have been numbered ever since she asked her brother to push poor Bran out that window.

Whether Dany wins the Iron Throne or not, this born conquerer (not to be confused with born ruler) has been one of the most dynamic characters to watch across the eight seasons of this series.

– Kayti Burt

read more: Game of Thrones Season 8 – Everything We Know

3. Aragorn

Film: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2003)

Actor: Viggo Mortensen

No royal list for Den of Geek would be complete without a mention of this Tolkien warrior king. Here is Aragorn, son of Arathorn, descendent of the line of Isildur and heir to the throne of Gondor! If you read the books or even just seen the films once, you’ve probably heard those lines. A lot. But it’s for a good reason.

read more: Lord of Rings TV Show — Everything We Know

Aragorn is a truly great hero whose worth is proven in long sacrifice and fraternal camaraderie. He is the one human who you’d likely trust the Ring of Power to over Frodo and whose steadfastness won over cynics like Boromir and the hopeless like Théoden, King of Rohan.

Most of all, this guy really knows how to kill an Orc. Through three films, he slaughters a whole nation worth of baddies and leads man from his darkest hour to his greatest height. All this while he’s chastely waiting for his Lady Elf’s hand in marriage…after a courtship of some 60 years. Damn, he’s a great guy who earned more than just his Elessar hat.

– David Crow

2. King Arthur

Film: Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail (1975)

Actor: Graham Chapman

There have been many, many interpretations of the Arthurian legend and of the man who wielded Excalibur. Yet without a doubt, Monty Python’s is the best.

Which other Arthur can tell the difference between an African and European Swallow? Here is the definitive Arthur. The one who defeated the Black Knight of the Forest, overcame the Knights Who Say Ni, outsmarted the Bridge Keeper of the Bridge of Death and intended to make those French bastards pay!

read more – Game of Thrones Season 8: Arya Stark is No Mary Sue

Truly, he is the greatest monarch of British history and definitely the best whose coronation in supreme executive power was derived by a mandate from a farcical aquatic ceremony.

– David Crow

King George VI in The King’s Speech (2010)

1. King George VI

Film: The King’s Speech (2010)

Actor: Colin Firth

Like the swells of the second movement in Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, Firth’s George VI (or B-B-Bertie) rises to ecstatic crescendo in this Best Picture Winner.

In the pivotal scene of the film, the British King must declare war on Nazi Germany for his people and do so with the clear and concise conviction of the British resolve. He can only achieve this crucial historic event because of his mighty effort to overcome his speech impediment.

read more – Game of Thrones Season 8: What’s Next for Cersei Lannister?

Moving past award season politics, it is an amazing movie moment that forces the viewer to laboriously listen with minute detail to every vowel that comes out of Bertie’s lips. The exhilaration of his success is a triumphant moment of hagiography in a film that has painstakingly painted this king as a proud man of clay.

Firth’s iconic portrayal is one for the people of wartime Britain as well as for modern audiences. And no one ever laughed at him.

– David Crow

Special Mention: Tyrion Lannister

Series: Game of Thrones

Actor: Peter Dinklage

In an honorary spot, we’d like to tip our hat to Tyrion Lannister. No, he is not a king and likely never will be one, but the dwarf anti-hero still deserves special recognition because he is based on the ever so timely Richard III.

The half-man who is Hand of the King, and slapped the crap out of the king with his own hand to audience applause, bares a remarkable resemblance to the lord of the parking lot. He, like Richard III, is considered by his television and literary contemporaries to be deformed due to his smaller size and facial wound. Also, as many a Richardian will argue, he is a victim of propaganda spread by his enemies and his own distrusting family.

read more: The Real History of Game of Thrones — Tyrion Lannister

In Game of Thrones’ Westeros, he is, when the show begins, known as the Imp and is falsely considered to be a child crippler and murderer in the North. His own nephew and sister despises him, yet he is the only one looking out for the general welfare of the people of King’s Landing despite their hatred.

With all these shortcomings, he, also similar to Richard, will still lead men into battle Hell or High Water. Richard is called the last Medieval English King due to being the final one to fight (and die) on the battlefield. His good deeds were hidden by history and a Tudor family who chose to focus only on the salacious and unproven.

Tyrion is likewise viewed as a tragic hero, and we give a bow and a cheer for the always misunderstood half-man! He surely deserves the crown more than the Henrys of the world.

– David Crow

Read our complete Game of Thrones Season 8 coverage and episode guide here.