Best historical dramas on Netflix: 13 series worth your time

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From Barbarians to The Last Kingdom, these are the historical dramas worth getting stuck into on Netflix.

When it comes to getting lost in a TV series, there’s nothing quite like a historical drama.

From the lavish costumes to the spellbinding stories, these shows create something more than a new world for us to slip into; they send us hurtling backwards through time, too. And so, often without trying very hard, we find ourselves learning at least one or two historical facts as we binge episode after episode after episode.

As we’ve all got a bit more time on our hands than usual, (thanks again, Covid), we’ve done you a favour and pulled together a list of the best historical dramas available on Netflix.

Which will you be watching first?

Barbarians

If you loved Game Of Thrones (or, rather, if you loved Game Of Thrones right up until that disappointing series finale), then you’ll 100% want to give Barbarians a whirl.

The show takes us back to the Roman occupation of Magna Germania in AD9, when three friends have come together in a desperate bid to unite the warring Germanic tribes to revolt against their Roman oppressors. 

Fair warning, though: much like the aforementioned Game Of Thrones, Barbarians delivers the goods when it comes to bloody battles, emotional tangles, steamy sex scenes, and rich characters. It also, though, features a few disturbing scenes (including one instance of assault) which some viewers may find distasteful or offensive. 

That being said, the show has been praised for its attention to detail, its rooting in historical fact, and its manageable six-episode run. And, with a 100% ‘fresh’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes, we reckon it’s well worth your attention.

The Crown

Emma Corrin stars as Princess Diana in The Crown

It’s the lavish Netflix Original that needs no introduction. For those who have somehow missed The Crown up until now, though, know this: it chronicles the life of Queen Elizabeth II (Emmy winner Claire Foy/Olivia Colman) from the 1940s to modern times. 

And it is… well, it’s compelling, to say the least. Even more so once you hit the Princess Diana years.

Narcos

Prefer your historical dramas on the rawer, grittier side of the scale? Then Narcos, starring The Mandolorian’s Pedro Pascal, is the one for you.

Chronicling the rise of the cocaine trade in Colombia in the late 80s, the popular series throws us headfirst into the war on drugs, as police work round the clock to bring down Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura). 

There are few sympathetic characters to be found, mind you, so don’t go in expecting to root for anyone; all you can hope for is an intensely unnerving and enlightening look at a side of history we’re never taught about in school…

Medici

Pay a trip to Renaissance Florence via Medici, a star-studded TV series that follows one family’s rise to power during great social upheavals throughout medieval Italy. Critics weren’t exactly fans (OK, fine – they absolutely roasted it), but viewers quickly fell in love with the dynastic drama thanks to its soapy storylines, stellar soundtrack, heavy focus on art and politics, and the mere presence of Richard Madden.

Peaky Blinders

Polly in Peaky Blinders
Peaky Blinders is well worth your time.

Who hasn’t heard of Peaky Blinders by this point? Really? 

A favourite of Stylist’s Felicity Thistlethwaite, the riveting series follows the exploits of the Shelby crime family (that’s right; it’s a period drama about gangsters!) in the direct aftermath of the First World War.

With a bevy of awards to its name and an incredibly talented cast – think Cillian Murphy, Helen McCrory, Tom Hardy, and Sam Neill, to name just a few – Peaky Blinders has won the hearts of critics and fans alike.

And, with a sixth and final season on the way, as well as a movie, now’s the perfect time to get stuck into the smart, stylish, and fast-paced drama. 

Mr Sunshine

Mr Sunshine tells the story of Eugene Choi (Lee Byung-hun), a young boy who ends up in the US after the 1871 Shinmiyangyo incident.

Now an officer with the American military, he returns to Korea at a historical turning point, and finds himself falling for a young noblewoman named Ae-sin (Kim Tae-ri). But, when he uncovers a dark plan to colonise the country he once fled, Eugene is faced with a seemingly impossible choice…

It’s worth noting, though, that while the series has received critical acclaim for its cinematography and storytelling, some have accused it of taking a “pro-Japanese” approach to Korean history.

Self-Made: Inspired By The Life Of Madam C. J. Walker

Best ever period dramas streaming now
Octavia Spencer and Blair Underwood star in Self-Made: Inspired By The Life Of Madam C. J. Walker.

Self-Made: Inspired By The Life Of Madam C. J. Walker brings the inspiring true story of trailblazing African American entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker (Octavia Spencer) to our screens for the first time.

For those who don’t know the name, Walker is the very same woman who overcame the odds to eventually become the richest self-made woman in America of her time. And, while some have said her story is overly simplified in this TV show, others have praised it for being both involving and accessible.

Give it a go, if only for Spencer’s restrained performance.

Empress Ki

Starring Ha Ji-won, this historical drama series sees a young woman navigate her way through love, war, politics, and national loyalties to become a powerful empress in China’s Yuan dynasty.

As such, Empress Ki is just as beloved for its gorgeous cinematography and lavish costumes as it is the story at its heart. And it’s picked up more than its fair share of awards, too; Ji-won was awarded the Grand Prize at the MBC Drama Awards for her performance, and the series was given the Golden Bird Prize for Serial Drama at the 9th Seoul International Drama Awards, too.

Frontier

A still from Frontier.
A still from Frontier.

The North American fur trade in the late 18th century might not sound like it’s ripe for riveting drama, but… well, Frontier manages to make it just that.

In this action-packed adventure, we are thrown headfirst into a world where business negotiations might be resolved with close-quarter hatchet fights, and where delicate relations between Native tribes and Europeans can spark bloody conflicts. 

Trust us when we say it’s dark, dark, brutal stuff.

Cable Girls

Set in the 1920s, this critically-acclaimed series (Cable Girls boasts a 100% ‘fresh’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes) is set in Spain’s first national telephone company, located in Madrid.

For the young women who get jobs there, though, it’s more than just work. Cue them ringing in revolution as they manage romance, friendship and the modern workplace.

Rise Of Empires: Ottoman

Rise Of Empires: Ottoman isn’t just entertaining; it’s educational, too.
Rise Of Empires: Ottoman isn’t just entertaining; it’s educational, too.

Starring Cem Yiğit Üzümoğlu, Selim Bayraktar, Birkan Sokullu, Osman Sonant, and Tuba Büyüküstün, Rise of Empires: Ottoman is part documentary, part drama. But, judging by the glowing audience reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, it seems the series has managed to be not just entertaining and super-violent, but actually educational, too.

All about Mehmed II’s epic campaign to take the Byzantine capital of Constantinople, the six-episode series details how, in doing so, he shapes the course of history for centuries.

Call The Midwife

Call The Midwife series 4
Call The Midwife is absolutely brilliant.

This writer has waxed lyrical about Call The Midwife before and for good reason. Because, based on the bestselling memoirs of real-life nurse and midwife Jennifer Worth, the critically acclaimed series shows viewers what life was really like for women of the East End back in the 1950s. By which we mean, of course, the work they did, the friends they made, the lives they led, and the myriad issues they faced.

With an outstanding cast and the sort of storylines that make you cry every single time, be it for sheer happiness or because your heart is breaking, this is the sort of show you can dive into and get lost in for hours on end.

The Last Kingdom

In The Last Kingdom, Uhtred, born a Saxon but raised by Vikings, finds his loyalties tested as he tries to claim his birthright and help create a new nation.
In The Last Kingdom, Uhtred, born a Saxon but raised by Vikings, finds his loyalties tested as he tries to claim his birthright and help create a new nation.

Breathtaking photography, glorious fight scenes, and fantastical story? It can only be Netflix’s The Last Kingdom.

The series follows the journey of a would-be king named Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon), who is sold into slavery to the Vikings and raised among their ranks. 

Over the course of the series, though, the sword-wielding lothario becomes a major player in the battle for English supremacy, fighting both Saxons and Vikings alike in order to return home and become the king he was destined to be. 

But he’s not the one you should be watching, quite frankly; instead, be prepared to lose your heart to Brida of Dunholm (Emily Cox), a fierce warrior who doesn’t have time for anyone’s shit, quite frankly. Least of all Uhtred’s.

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Images: Netflix, BBC, ITV

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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