It’s Valentine’s Day, and whether you have plans or expect to stay in, it’s a great opportunity to kick back, pop open some bubbly and a box of chocolates, and indulge in a few good old-fashioned romances. Everyone loves a good love story, and if it comes with tiaras, so much the better, so it’s no wonder royal romances have shown up onscreen in dozens (perhaps hundreds) of films and made-for-TV movies. Below are my top ten:
10. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (Victoria Hamilton and Jonathan Firth), Victoria and Albert
One of the most famous royal marriages of all time didn’t start off all bright and shiny, as this film shows. Although Victoria fell in love with Albert from the get-go (after a rocky first meeting before she came to the throne), he kind of went along with it because his family wanted the match, and found himself floundering in England, a useless consort with no real responsibilities. Eventually, Victoria started to bend and allow him to use his brain for something more than reorganizing the household, and Albert began to fall in love with his wife. The romance unfolds slowly, and believably, with the two of them occasionally squabbling like any old married couple, and ultimately coming together. I’ve watched this plenty of times, and I still cry when Albert dies and Victoria totally loses it. Like George and Charlotte (see below), this was less of a crazy passionate and more of a touching royal romance.
9. Princess Ann and Joe Bradley (Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck), Roman Holiday
Ok, so Audrey Hepburn played a princess from an unnamed (probably fake) European country, but she’s still a princess, so it counts. And the relationship between her and newspaperman Joe Bradley is adorable, even if he is just using her for a story—initially. We’ve all seen the film or some variation of it, so I don’t think it’s a spoiler to tell you he doesn’t end up writing his story, and instead enjoys his day and his all too brief with the sweet, innocent Princess Ann.
8. Jane Grey and Guilford Dudley (Helena Bonham Carter and Carey Elwes), Lady Jane
The love story in this film is historically inaccurate—in reality, Jane and Guilford were not well suited to each other, but that doesn’t make for a fun movie, does it? The arranged marriage starts off rocky, but the two finally manage to meet in the middle, fall in love, and get to be happy for all of about a week before the rug gets pulled out from under them. Thanks, dads.
7. King Charles II and Barbara Villiers, Nell Gwynn, and Catherine of Braganza (Rufus Sewell, Helen McCrory, Emma Pierson, and Shirley Henderson), The Last King (Charles II: The Power and the Passion)
Quite a lot was lost in the translation from the British to the American version of this film, but what remained were Charles’s fascinating relationships with these three very different women. We got to see the unbridled lust, conniving, and instability of Barbara Villiers, the laid-back, earthy fun of Nell Gwynn, and the tenderness and earnestness of Catherine of Braganza, Charles’s tolerant queen, with whom he gradually, and rather sweetly, falls in love.
6. Queen Elizabeth and Robert Dudley (Cate Blanchett and Joseph Fiennes), Elizabeth
The relationship (and a lot of the movie) might not have been historically accurate, but it sure was hot. That dancing scene at the beginning set the mood spectacularly, and that mood remained straight through the film. Beautifully shot and excellently executed by the two actors, this is, for me, one of the more memorable royal love stories.
5. Queen Juana of Castile and Felipe, Archduke of Austria (Pilar López de Ayala and Daniele Liotti), Juana La Loca (Mad Love)
Queen Juana of Castile (Katherine of Aragon’s big sister) was known for being obsessively in love with her handsome husband, Felipe, and for going batshit crazy when he died at the age of 28 (although both her passion and her madness are now matters for debate). This film went the “obsessive love” route, and did it very well. Both Juana and Felipe are pretty smitten with each other from the get-go, but Felipe’s infidelity makes things difficult. Still, every scene between them is crackling with chemistry, earning them a definite spot on this list.
4. Bertie, Duke of York (King George VI) and Elizabeth, Duchess of York (Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter), The King’s Speech
Colin Firth got most of the attention for his performance as poor, put-upon Bertie (and rightly so), but the relationship between the future king and his sprightly wife was very important, and beautifully portrayed. The Duchess of York was her husband’s rock, and her strength helped him do what he had to do to become a good king. Their scenes together were sweet, warm, and touching, just as I always imagined the real Bertie and Elizabeth were together.
3. Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine (Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn), The Lion in Winter
Calling it a romance might be a stretch, since these two spend most of the film squabbling and plotting to kill each other, but there was definitely a lot of passion there, as there was in the real-life marriage. And the two even manage to come to an accord by the end (it is Christmas, after all), and part as friends, promising to keep trying to kick each others’ asses all the while. Sparks flew, and the chemistry between these two actors (really, between the whole damn cast) was outstanding.
2. King George and Queen Charlotte (Nigel Hawthorne and Helen Mirren), The Madness of King George
Few arranged marriages are really successful; historically, this one was one of the exceptions. George and Charlotte truly loved each other (and had about a billion children), and the closeness and warmth between “Mr. and Mrs. King” is made touchingly apparent in this film. It’s also kind of tragic for those of us who know that, eventually, King George lost his mind altogether, so the happy ending of the film is pretty bittersweet. Still, Charlotte’s love for her husband is strong and steadfast, even withstanding his insanity, which drives him to constantly sexually assault her lady-in-waiting. She never wavers in her devotion, and even manages to bring him back to lucidity a few times, very sweetly.
1. Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn (Richard Burton and Genevieve Bujold), Anne of the Thousand Days
Hot damn, but you could warm your hands on the sparks flying off of these two. I’ve heard that originally Elizabeth Taylor was supposed to play Anne, but she couldn’t (or maybe the powers that be were afraid of another Cleopatra debacle. She did have a brief non-speaking role, though.). French actress Genevieve Bujold stepped in, and the chemistry between her and Burton was amazing. You really could get a sense of how these people became so obsessed with each other, and how that obsession led the relationship to crash and burn in such a short period. Richard Burton is my favorite Henry VIII of all time, too, which definitely helps. Still, that scene at the end where she lets him have it when he visits her in her jail cell is amazing. I could watch it over and over, and I have. The relationship between these two never gets old, and I find myself watching this again and again, just to watch the sparks fly.