Some people learn about history in school, which is fine if you’re into that sort of thing. But for those of you who consider yourselves a Netflix intellectual, there’s no better way to fill your head with the knowledge of important events of yesteryear than through the stylish and fictionalized accounts of TV’s hottest scripted shows.
While historical dramas might not be super accurate — hey, at least The Tudors covered the basics in between those steamy love scenes — they make history exciting with high-stakes drama and opulent costumes that are most certainly way out of your budget. If you’re among those who can’t get enough of these racy period pieces, grab a cup of tea and settle in for some quality entertainment. We’ve got you covered with a list of the best historical dramas currently streaming on Netflix. Plus, if you’re looking for recommendations on other shows and movies to watch while hanging out in quarantine, we’ve got a whole bunch of lists for every mood.
Diana Gabaldon’s bestselling books come to life in this breathtaking series starring Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe. When Claire Randall, a combat nurse in WWII, is suddenly transported to 1743, she finds herself navigating a dangerous new reality where her life is constantly threatened. Forced to wed the Scottish warrior Jamie out of safety, their arranged marriage turns into a passionate love affair that transcends time and space. Catch the first three seasons on Netflix. Meanwhile, new episodes of the series, which is currently airing in its fifth season, drop on Sundays at 8/7c on Starz.
This South Korean drama set around 1592 is like Game of Thrones, only better. A king falls ill and sparks a plague that finds people rising from the dead. With the disease starting to spread, it’s up to the Crown Prince Lee Chang (Ju Ji-hoon) to not only protect his father’s deadly secret but also find a way to keep the plague from advancing toward the capital while thwarting a coup against his family. Season 2, which is now streaming, picks up with the undead now roaming freely and the Crown Prince working to gain allies to help him reclaim the throne while the Queen Consort Cho (Kim Hye-jun) plots to control the undead.
This lavish series offers an intimate look at Queen Elizabeth’s reign, chronicling her personal drama, romances, political rivalries and the historical events that shaped not only her life but that of the latter half of the 20th century. Netflix announced in January that the series will come to an end after Season 5, with Imelda Staunton serving as the eponymous monarch. Seasons 1-2, which explore the early years of Elizabeth’s reign, starred Claire Foy in the titular role. Olivia Colman took over for Foy in Season 3 as the queen entered middle age. Season 4 will again star Colman and a premiere date has not yet been released.
Based on Margaret Atwood’s novel of the same name, this Canadian limited series centers on Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon), an Irish immigrant and domestic servant accused of murdering her boss and his housekeeper. It’s a gripping crime drama with biting social commentary as a psychologist weighs in on whether or not Grace, who’d been subjected to abuse at the hands of her wealthy overlord, should be pardoned by reason of insanity.
In the aftermath of WWI, Britain is a hotbed for despair and criminal acts as returning soldiers, regular citizens, and local gangs fight for survival in the midst of economic upheaval. This drama set in 1919 centers on the infamous Peaky Blinders gang led by Thomas Shelby (Cillian Murphy), a war hero who aspires to someday go legitimate. His daily operations are threatened by the arrival of Inspector Chester Campbell, a hotshot out of Belfast looking to rid Britain’s streets of the rampant crime.
This steamy take on the early years of Henry VIII’s reign ran for four seasons starting in 2007 and serves up political intrigue and explicit scenes that are sure to make you blush, so maybe don’t watch with your parents. The series covered the king’s political conflicts, but more importantly, his romantic relationships with Catherine of Aragorn and Anne Boleyn. Featuring a swoon-worthy cast that includes Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Henry Cavill, this one’s a feast for the eyes.
Luxurious digs, perfectly coifed wigs and fancy attire adorn this ambitious 2015 French drama about King Louis XIV of France. With the nobles on the brink of rebelling against the monarchy, the mustached king moves French court out of Paris to Versailles, the home of his father’s old hunting lodge, in an effort to control them. But it’s quickly realized that their stunning new home is nothing more than a gilded cage full of secrets, lies and vicious politics.
This Showtime series chronicles Rodrigo’s ascension to popehood through bribery, extortion and torture during the Renaissance era. The series, which boasts an all-star cast anchored by Jeremy Irons as the corrupt cardinal, features sex, drama and blasphemy which means it’s definitely worth checking out.
The Last Kingdom
If you’re really into Game of Thrones, you’ll probably dig this action-packed drama set in 9th-century England when the country was divided into seven kingdoms — all at war. Based on the novel of the same name by Bernard Cornwell, the story follows Uhtred who must walk a dangerous path as he is forced to choose between the nation he was born in and the one in which he was raised. It might not have dragons but you’ll never be bored with the interconnected drama and awesome sword fights. Season 4, which is now streaming, finds our hero the most vulnerable he’s ever been.
This epic original 2014 Netflix drama follows the famed explorer as he navigates risky interpersonal relationships while at the court of Kublai Khan in what is now Beijing. While the series is grounded in political rivalries and sexual intrigue, it also takes you out on the open seas where the explorer finds adventure and, of course, plenty of danger.
Mr. Darcy himself Matthew McFadyen headlines this drama mystery set in the wake of Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror in London in 1888. The 2012 series follows the members of H Division, a special task force trying their best to maintain order in a chaotic city rife with paranoia and the rumblings of a seedy underground criminal network.
Medici: The Magnificent
For those who were devastated over Robb Stark’s untimely end on Game of Thrones, this one’s especially for you. Richard Madden again plays a conflicted heartthrob who must take over the family business upon the sudden death of his father, but you won’t have to worry about any Red Weddings. Instead, the 2016 series serves up family drama, steamy romances and a gorgeous Italian backdrop during the Renaissance. The third and final season, which is now available, will see the Medici fortune threatened by a brewing war.
TURN: Washington’s Spies
Based on the novel of the same name by Alexander Rose, this series — which originally ran on AMC for four seasons starting in 2014 — turns the Revolutionary War into a thrilling spy adventure. Set in a dangerous world filled with double agents, code-breaking and covert operations, the series follows a secretive network charged with uncovering British military strategies. Their exciting adventures serve as the foundation for modern espionage and prove that history is so much cooler when you throw spies into the mix.
Call the Midwife
Perhaps the most modern series on this list, this acclaimed BBC show follows Jenny, a midwife who is surprised to find herself assigned to a convent in London during the 1950s instead of the private hospital she was expecting. Surrounded by nuns, she soon develops close friendships with the other nurses as their lives intersect with the women and families that they treat. If Friends were a period drama, it probably wouldn’t look like this but you should check the series out anyway.
Considered more of a historical fantasy than an accurate depiction of Queen Mary of Scotland’s life at French court, the CW took many liberties with the story — most notably the costumes which included off-the-rack pieces from designers like Steve McQueen. However, the series turned Mary and Francis’ engagement and eventual marriage into an epic tale of romance and tragedy, and kept you on your toes with dangerous liaisons and supernatural mysteries within the confines of a gorgeous castle.
Hell on Wheels
There’s nothing hellish about this Western drama taking place in the wake of the Civil War. With the wounds of that internal conflict still fresh, the series follows the construction of the first transcontinental railroad. At the center of it all is a former Confederate soldier named Bohannon (Anson Mount) who can’t seem to bury his past. But he tries his best while traveling alongside the railroad with a ragtag crew from the town aptly called “Hell on Wheels.”
History, feminism and progress intersect in this Spanish-language drama set just before the financial crisis of 1929. The story explores a world quickly changing through four women from different backgrounds who are hired as telephone operators in what turns out to be a progressive workplace. A tale of sisterhood as they attempt to break through the glass ceiling, the show will leave you feeling every bit empowered and also longing for their stylish threads.
This German-language series follows a World War I vet who uncovers a dangerous conspiracy while investigating a pornography ring in the ’20s. Yep, you read that correctly. Set during a time of great political and social change, this show takes you into the heart of Berlin while delivering some heart-pounding twists and turns.