Historical dramas have always been a favorite of mine. After all, they have a lot to love, from lavish costumes and opulent settings to sumptuous storylines and loads of drama. Many times, they’re not exactly accurate – from fictional characters to entirely fictional events – but that’s not what we’re here for. We want to be transported to another era for the ultimate escape.
Really, the only question is which era do you want to escape to? This list features shows from as far back as the early 1500s, and as recent as the 20th century. Some are fairly new shows, such as the wildly popular Bridgerton and 2022’s The Gilded Age. Classics like Downton Abbey are also on here, too. And while some of these have already ended, there are some that we can expect new seasons of!
Like I said, these aren’t non-fictional retellings of history. We’re looking for an escape, not a history lesson. That being said, you’ll find some true-life historical characters here. You’ll find them woven into stories inspired by real-life events and fictional stories adapted from novels or written just for TV. All of them will bring plenty of sweeping romances, thrilling intrigue, and juicy drama. There might even be a few plans for murder!
Bridgerton, based on Julia Quinn’s historical romance novels, is Shonda Rhimes’ first Netflix original. The show’s creators did admit to the press that the Regency-era series was not exactly historically accurate. In any case, with lush sets and elaborate costumes, the series is undeniably a time machine of sorts.
One of the more romantic entries on this list, the series focuses on the siblings of the Bridgerton family as they look for love in London’s high society. In season 1, Daphne makes a deal with Simon Bassett, the Duke of Hastings, to pretend to be engaged during courting season. Of course, they eventually fall in love with each other. Season 2 picked up where Season 1 left off, with Daphne’s brother, Anthony, finding true love. If you’ve already burned through the first two seasons, I have good news! Season 3 is currently underway and will center on one of Daphne’s younger brothers, Colin.
Downton Abbey is an iconic period drama that really needs no introduction. I feel like it’s one of the more popular historical dramas out there. But even if you’ve seen it already, there is plenty of content to revisit!
The show, which spans from 1912 to 1926, depicts the bustling activity at Downton Abbey, the aristocratic home of the Crawley family in the English countryside. The show emphasizes both the “upstairs” and “downstairs” of the mansion — focusing on both the Crawley family and the staff who keep their home operating smoothly. Throughout the series, the outside world is changing, with society shifting away from the importance of the aristocrats and the middle class rising.
After Downton Abbey aired 52 episodes, the cast returned for two feature films.
The Gilded Age
Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes is back with a new historical drama, The Gilded Age. This one focuses on the booming 1880s in New York City, during a time when the United States was experiencing rapid growth and an influx of “new money.” The “nouveau rich” are fighting for status within the old-money families of Manhattan.
After the death of her father, Marian Brook moves from rural Pennsylvania to New York City to live with her traditional aunts. She finds herself caught up in a social war between her old-money aunt and her new-money neighbors trying to break into high society.
When talking about historical dramas, I always mention The Tudors. Although there is plenty here that isn’t historically accurate, it’s a juicy drama filled with lust, intrigue, and (of course) spectacular costuming. It’s also worth noting that there are four seasons to keep you entertained for a bit.
This historical fiction series is set in 16th-century England and focuses on King Henry VIII. He infamously broke away from the Catholic Church and founded the Church of England, setting the English Reformation into motion. Hey, he really wanted that divorce from his first wife. As the series continues, it delves into Henry’s reign, several marriages, and his relationships with other important figures.
The Spanish Princess
King Henry VIII had a nearly 40-year reign and forever altered the course of history when he broke from the Catholic Church. Oh, and the six wives. But we always hear the tales centered on Henry and rarely hear history from the perspective of those six wives. Created by Emma Frost and Matthew Graham, The Spanish Princess takes viewers back to the world of the Tudor royal court but gives a radically different look at the infamous monarch.
The series is told from the perspective of Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife. Initially engaged and married to English Prince Arthur, her throne seems lost when he dies suddenly. She sets her sights on the new heir, his younger brother Prince Harry. The series is based on Philippa Gregory’s historical fiction novel, The Constant Princess.
I’ll tell anyone who will listen to watch Versailles. There are three seasons of it. Full of ornate costuming, gorgeous hair (no, really), lush gardens, and tons of drama, Versailles chronicles the rise of King Louis XIV as he turned the lavish Palace of Versailles into the de facto capital of France. The show was frequently shot on set, both at Versailles and at other palaces and chateaux.
Of course, the show is filled to the brim with intrigue, mystery, and betrayals. After all, the young king only moved the court to Versailles in an effort to control the French nobility, who have started defying the monarchy.
If you’re hoping for a longer escape, Outlander boasts six seasons, plus a seventh on the way. That’s enough to keep you entertained for a bit, right? And while it is a historical drama, it’s also got plenty of science fiction elements, too. That’s because it involves time travel.
A former WWII military nurse is on a second honeymoon in Scotland. But when she touches ancient, enchanted stones, she finds herself transported back in time to 1743. And so begins an unforgettable adventure and romance! She falls in love with a Highland warrior and ends up deeply involved in the Jacobite rising of 1745.
There are plenty of historical dramas that are set during the 18th century, but The Great stands out from the rest. That’s because it is a satirical dark comedy that diverges wildly from other stories set during the same time period. At the same time, you’ll still find all the lavish costumes, grand feasts, and opulent palaces that you expect from period pieces.
The Great is about Catherine the Great’s rise to prominence in Russia, and her relationship with hubby Peter, the Emperor. Spoiler alert: she’s plotting to kill her depraved husband. At one point, there is a crocodile let loose in the palace. It’s not a retelling of real history, but it is definitely a lavishly filthy, funny romp that is occasionally based on historical fact.
PBS’s Victoria centers on the life of Britain’s long-ruling Queen Victoria, who reigned for almost 64 years. She was actually the longest-reigning monarch until Queen Elizabeth II. The series follows Victoria as she ascends the throne at only 18 years old, finds true love with Prince Albert, and raises a family while running the British Empire.
The series has plenty of romance and intrigue, though admittedly, some of it’s been fudged for drama. It doesn’t really matter because it makes for juicy TV. Many of the surrounding events are real, such as the Anglo-Afghan War and the 1840s famine in Ireland.
This lavish Netflix Original has been really popular since its release in 2016, and I feel like it’s only become more popular in the wake of Queen Elizabeth II’s passing. The real-life royal family has consistently said it’s not a true representation of history, but I don’t think any of us are watching for a history lesson.
This fictional dramatization tells the story of Queen Elizabeth II, who ascended the throne at 25 years old. It features decades of personal intrigues, romances, and political rivalries that shaped her reign and the lives of many others. We’re currently awaiting the sixth and final season, which is expected to be released in 2023.
Sanditon was an unfinished book by Jane Austen, which was started only months before her death in 1817. It introduces Charlotte Heywood, along with a large cast of characters in a fictional seaside resort town named Sanditon. It’s a small fishing town on the cusp of a dramatic social change. When Charlotte moves to the town, she’s shocked to find that everything isn’t as idyllic as it seems.
Because the novel was unfinished, let’s call this series “Austenesque.” Showrunner Andrew Davies (who also gifted us 2008’s Sense and Sensibility and 1995’s Pride and Prejudice) used the existing material as a jumping-off point to tell his own story. There are currently two seasons to indulge in, and the third and final season will arrive in March 2023.