The images and characters of the Middle Ages are iconic and have long made for gripping backdrops to addicting movies and TV shows.
Knights in shining armor atop charging war horses. Imperious kings and queens dripping with jewels and wrapped in fine silks, lording over their lands from imposing stone castles. The images and characters of the Middle Ages are iconic and have long made for gripping backdrops to addicting movies and TV shows. Iconography, customs, and technology from the Middle Ages have also served as the foundation for a number of fantasy works such as Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings.
The collection of movies and TV shows in this list may all take place in the Middle Ages, but they represent a wide variety of genres and styles. There are classic period dramas dripping with high-stakes politics and thrilling battles, but there is also a murder mystery, a comedy, and even a sports movie, proving that the Middle Ages can be used to tell any type of story. Here are the Top 10 medieval movies and TV shows.
Sean Connery’s post-Bond career was replete with excellent performances in memorable films – The Untouchables, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and The Hunt for Red October the first that often spring to mind. But his turn as Franciscan friar William of Baskerville in the 1986 adaptation of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose is often unfairly overlooked. William possesses a Sherlockian intellect, one he uses to investigate a series of mysterious deaths that occur during a Church conference in an isolated Italian abbey. But his inquiries are put in jeopardy by the fanatical Bernardo Gui (F. Murray Abraham) and the fearful tactics of the Inquisition.
Connery gives an assured performance, inhabiting the gravity and intellect of William with ease, while Abraham and Ron Perlman highlight a strong supporting cast. A captivating medieval murder mystery, The Name of the Rose is a perfect blend of intellectual stimulation and emotional resonance.
The most recent entry on the list, Vikings: Valhalla released its second season in early 2023 and picks up where its predecessor Vikings left off. Set 100 years after the events of its parent show, Vikings: Valhalla dramatizes the Norse’s reinvigorated quest to conquer England following the brutal St. Brice’s Day massacre in 1002 A.D. The narrative centers on the journeys of legendary Vikings Harald Sigurdsson, Leif Erikson, and Freydis Eirsdottir. Harald must find a new path to glory after being passed over for the throne of Norway while Greenlanders Leif and Freydis battle with a more existential threat. What does it mean to be Norse? Can the new ways ever be reconciled with the old? Big personalities and high-stakes drama blend with sumptuous production and exciting battle sequences to create high-octane entertainment.
The most cerebral entry on the list, Valhalla Rising is Nicolas Winding Refn’s (Drive) take on an adventure film. Mads Mikkelsen gives a stirring performance as One-Eye, a mute thrall (Norse slave) who escapes his captors with a local Boy and joins a group of Christian Norseman on their way to the Holy Land. The pilgrims become lost at sea, however, and are stranded in a strange land constantly under threat from both the elements and the locals. The very definition of a slow burn, the film uses subtle moments to build tension to an almost unbearable level. Refn creates an eerie, hypnotic tone piece that captures the brutality and the beauty of the period while exploring characters on an existential journey at the edge of the world.
William Shakespeare. The name understandably sparks conflicted feelings in anyone who has ever taken a high school English class. Yet the Bard, among other gifts, had an unerring eye for conspiracy and the problems of power, which came in handy when he penned his histories. And while many filmmakers, Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh chief among them, have made wonderful adaptations of Shakespeare’s medieval-set works, The Hollow Crown is unique in its scope and depth of creative talent. Spanning Richard II to Richard III (a period of about 100 years), the anthology series feature all the high-stakes court politics you could ever want, elevated by Shakespeare’s keen eye for the human condition. Ben Whishaw, Jeremy Irons, Tom Hiddleston, Tom Sturridge, and Benedict Cumberbatch all put on their crowns and breath new life into the long-dead kings.
A Knight’s Tale is a perfect blend of fresh and familiar. Brian Helgeland’s (L.A. Confidential, Mystic River) rollicking adventure injects contemporary humor and rock n’ roll into the classic tale of a lowborn boy trying to change his stars. William Thatcher, played with charm and enthusiasm by the late Heath Ledger, is a humble squire who dreams of becoming a knight. He seizes this chance when his master dies, forging a noble lineage that allows him to smash his way through Europe’s jousting circuit.
Accompanied by his loyal sidekicks Roland and Wat (Mark Addy and Alan Tudyk in a lovable double act), William bluffs his way through high society, falling in love with the effervescent Lady Jocelyn and angering the dastardly Count Adhemar. Helgeland cleverly hit on jousting being the medieval equivalent of professional sports and structured his film as a sports movie, a unique tactic among period pieces set in the Middle Ages. It may not have won Oscars or was revered by critics, but A Knight’s Tale is arguably the most entertaining entry on this list and is certainly the most rewatchable.
The Last Kingdom is Netflix’s second entry on this list and for good reason, the five-season drama combines high-stakes politics, passion, and warfare, adding up to an addicting medieval TV show. Based on Bernard Cornwell’s book series, The Saxon Stories, the show follows Uhtred of Bebbanburg, the Saxon heir to a Northumbrian castle who is robbed of his birthright and raised by the invading Danes. Split between these two warring cultures, Uthred is pulled in both directions throughout the series as he fights to reclaim his destiny.
This is a classic hero's journey that loves to live in gray areas. The Danes are not wholly evil while the Saxons, despite their posturing, and not wholly virtuous. As a result, Uthred, a lethal but headstrong warrior, consistently finds that the throne room can be far more dangerous than the battlefield. A deft combination of political drama and war drama, The Last Kingdom is a grounded, historical complement to Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings. Though the series is finished, a feature film, The Last Kingdom: Seven Kings Must Die, is slated for a 2023 release.
Vikings is the best medieval show on this list, and it is not even close. History Channel’s six-season odyssey follows the legendary Ragnar Lothbrok, a Norse farmer and adventurer who raids England, kick-starts the Viking Age, and eventually becomes the King of Denmark. Created by Michael Hirst (The Tudors, Elizabeth), Vikings presents a sprawling cast of dynamic, gripping characters rising and falling like the waves of the North Sea.
Travis Fimmel’s tour de force as the ambitious and mercurial Ragnar takes center stage but almost every actor shines in their roles. Katheryn Winnick as the fierce and intelligent Lagertha and George Blagden, as the conflicted English monk Athelstan, are particular standouts. The latter’s odd couple friendship with Ragnar forms one of the most beautiful and devastating relationships in the entire series. Dripping with drama and bursting with battles, Vikings delves deep into Norse culture to create a vivid and authentic world that viewers will never want to leave.
Not many people can make the Middle Ages funny, but perhaps it is not surprising that the lads from Monty Python succeed in their narrative feature debut, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Using the legend of King Arthur’s search for the Holy Grail as a foundation, Monty Python traipses through medieval England with their usual subversiveness and love of the absurd.
The film parodies everything from the political underpinnings of kingship to the Black Death, creating memes and iconic comedy moments at a lightning pace. All the Pythons shine but John Cleese is the clear standout of the bunch. His hilarious portrayal of the unflaggingly persistent Black Knight and Sir Lancelot’s mistaken murderous rampage through an unsuspecting wedding party are guaranteed to make even the most humorless viewer burst into hysterics. Fun fact, the film was only possible because of an eclectic clutch of investors that included Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and Elton John.
It’s hard to argue with four Oscars (including Best Picture) and over $400 million at the box office (adjusted for inflation). Mel Gibson directed and starred in this soaring drama that follows Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace (Gibson) and his quest to avenge the murder of his beloved while freeing Scotland from English tyranny.
Though Wallace never dons plate armor, Braveheartre-imagines the knight in shining armor archetype as a Scottish revolutionary. The film plays like an Arthurian legend as heroism, chivalry, and romance abound. This is classic Hollywood storytelling at its best, bringing to mind epics of old such as Doctor Zhivago and Gonewith the Wind. The battle sequences are thrilling and cleverly written so that they each have their own unique flavor. The Battle of Stirling is a particular highlight in this, and any, medieval film.
Ridley Scott’s 2005 epic may be a surprise at the top of the list given the initially mixed reviews and the mediocre box office returns, but Scott’s director’s cut adds spectacle and depth, making it an all-time classic medieval movie. Set in the late 12th century, Kingdom of Heaven follows Balian (Orlando Bloom) as he travels to Jerusalem after learning he is the bastard son of a powerful local baron (Liam Neeson). Yearning for both spiritual and temporal salvation, Balian joins the Crusader forces defending Jerusalem, only to find the fanatical and power-hungry nobles to be more dangerous than the enemy outside the city walls.
Scott’s brilliance as a cinematic artist and his meticulous eye for mise-en-scene (the flag budget alone was a staggering $250,000) are at the fore as he crafts a visually stunning adventure complimented by a poignant emotional core. Bloom portrays the virtuous Balian with poise and authenticity while scene-stealing performances by Edward Norton, Brendan Gleeson, and Ghassan Massoud highlight the stellar supporting cast. With pulse-pounding battle scenes and a vibrant world, the director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven is a masterpiece of a medieval movie.