A History of Britain in Period Dramas

Daniel Hautzinger
The Hollow Crown, Poldark, Victoria, and Downton Abbey.

If you hadn’t noticed, British period dramas are big. In fact, they’re so popular that enough of them have been made in the past few years to provide a decent history of England, or at least of specific populations. Explore a timeline of Britain from the 14th century to the near future, with recent and upcoming Masterpiece and other dramas as examples.

14th – 15th Centuries

Hollow Crown – This seven-part series adapts Shakespeare history plays, beginning with Richard II, continuing through the multiple parts of Henry IV, V, and VI, and ending with Richard III. It dramatizes the various political calamities that wracked England from the overthrow of Richard II at the very end of the 14th century to the War of the Roses and resulting rise of Henry VII following Richard III’s death in 1485.

Keeley Hawes, Judi Dench, and Phoebe Fox in 'The Hollow Crown.' Photo: Robert Viglasky © 2015 Carnival Film & Television LtdKeeley Hawes, Judi Dench, and Phoebe Fox in 'The Hollow Crown.' Photo: Robert Viglasky © 2015 Carnival Film & Television Ltd 16th Century

Wolf Hall – Following Henry VII’s reign, his son Henry VIII took up the throne in 1509 and eventually thrust England into turmoil once again by separating the Church of England from the Catholic Church, a major part of the Protestant Reformation. Wolf Hall, based on two novels by Hilary Mantel, focuses on Henry’s cunning advisor Thomas Cromwell, who helped engineer several of Henry’s marriages before being executed in 1540.

18th​ Century

Poldark – Leaping ahead two centuries, we arrive at Poldark, whose third season premieres in October. Ross Poldark was a British officer who fought in the American Revolution. Returning home to Cornwall and his father’s copper mines, he attempts to put his estate and affairs in order. The Industrial Revolution is on full display through the lens of Poldark’s mines, such a necessary part of the increased industry of the time.

Joann Froggatt as Mary Ann Cotton in 'Dark Angel.' Photo: Justin Slee Photography 2015/MASTERPIECEJoann Froggatt as Mary Ann Cotton in 'Dark Angel.' Photo: Justin Slee Photography 2015/MASTERPIECE 19th​ Century

Victoria – Skip a few decades and industry is in full bloom – just witness the thrilling ride Queen Victoria and Prince Albert take on a newfangled locomotive. Victoria assumed the throne in 1837 and reigned for the rest of the 19th century, overseeing the expansion of the British Empire but also the decline of direct monarchal power. The show covers the Queen’s early years, and has already been renewed for a second season in Britain.

Dark Angel – This upcoming special, airing May 21 at 8:00 pm, spotlights Mary Ann Cotton, Britain’s first female serial killer. Poisoning three of her four husbands and murdering as many as twenty-one people, Cotton was hanged in 1873. Cotton’s story touches on Victorian poverty and squalor, of the kind Charles Dickens inveighed against: Cotton probably killed her husbands to collect on their insurance policies.

20th​ Century

Downton Abbey – The beloved series begins on the eve of the First World War and ends during the interwar period as the aristocracy begins to head towards its decline. Need we go into detail?

Home Fires – Currently airing Sundays at 8:00 pm, Home Fires was discontinued after this season. But it covers the British home front during World War II, as civilians deal with the loss of husbands and sons to the army as well as the constant threat of bombing as the Battle of Britain drags on.

Aaron Staton, Hattie Morahan, and Owen McDonnell in 'My Mother and Other Strangers.' Photo: Steffan Hill/BBC 2016 for MASTERPIECEAaron Staton, Hattie Morahan, and Owen McDonnell in 'My Mother and Other Strangers.' Photo: Steffan Hill/BBC 2016 for MASTERPIECE My Mother and Other Strangers – Another World War II drama, My Mother and Other Strangers is the one show on this list to leave Britain, taking place in Northern Ireland in a small village near a U.S. bomber base. The beginning of the predominance of American pop culture is shown, as the American men bring jazz and more to Ireland. It airs in five parts, starting June 18.

Roger Allam as DI Thursday and Shaun Evans as DC Morse in 'Endeavour.' Photo: Mammoth Screen/MASTERPIECE/ITV StudiosRoger Allam as DI Thursday and Shaun Evans as DC Morse in 'Endeavour.' Photo: Mammoth Screen/MASTERPIECE/ITV Studios Grantchester ­– Set in a quaint village in the postwar years of the early 1950s, Grantchester pairs an Anglican vicar with a working-class detective to solve crimes. Class conflict, prejudice against homosexuality, communism, the effects of World War II on veterans: it’s all here. The third season begins June 18.

Call the Midwife – Another show that tackles the issues of the postwar years, Call the Midwife begins in 1957 and has now reached 1962, in a season currently airing at 7:00 pm on Sundays. Both medical and social changes are present, from the introduction of the birth control pill to the threat of nuclear warfare, from the use of anesthesia in birth to prejudice against immigrants in London.

Endeavour – Picking up almost immediately after Call the Midwife, Endeavour is a prequel to the long-running mystery series Inspector Morse. Both the Cold War and sixties counterculture provide the backdrop to Endeavour Morse’s crime-solving, which he resumes in a fourth season that begins airing on August 20.

21st Century

King Charles III – And finally, we race past the present and reach the near future. Queen Elizabeth has died, and her son Prince Charles has ascended to the throne. This special, which airs May 14 at 8:00 pm, is an adaptation of a play by Mike Bartlett. Full of Shakespearean resonance, it imagines a constitutional crisis in the early days of King Charles III’s reign. Thus, we begin and end with tastes of Shakespeare.

Tim Pigott-Smith as Charles in 'King Charles III.' Photo: Drama Republic for BBC and MASTERPIECETim Pigott-Smith as Charles in 'King Charles III.' Photo: Drama Republic for BBC and MASTERPIECE

masterpiece
Hollow Crown
Call the Midwife