I’ve been watching a lot of documentaries during lockdown so I thought I’d pull together some of my favourites here – not all Tudor so if you’re looking for something different, look no further!
If there are any that you’ve particularly enjoyed watching, please leave a comment, always looking for new things to watch and learn from!
David Starkey’s ‘Monarchy’
Period: Anglo-Saxons to Queen Victoria
David Starkey explores how the British monarchy has evolved over time, from the patchwork of counties that made up Anglo-Saxon England to how they united under a single king, working through the monarchs right up to Queen Victoria. It focuses less on the monarchs themselves but rather how their actions informed the idea of monarchy.
David Starkey has been involved in some controversy over the last few years with some of his comments hitting the news headlines, so I was a bit wary of including this one on my list, but I don’t think that some of his personal opinions affect the historical research that went into this documentary series. I have this on DVD and have watched it several times, making me interested in aspects of our history that I haven’t been before.
Simon Schama’s ‘A History of Britain’
Period: Stone Age to Modern Day
Simon Schama takes a different approach to our history than David Starkey, looking less at the monarchs and more at the general population and how life changed for them from the Stone Age to the modern day through times that have shaped our history.
I have this on DVD as I thought it looked different to other histories of Britain, and I wanted something definitive to widen my area of interest and my knowledge. This certainly didn’t disappoint. It’s not completely definitive, being unable to cover the entire history of Britain in 15 episodes, but it covers some of the most pivotal moments in our history in detail, drawing extensively on primary source research.
Helen Castor’s ‘She-Wolves: England’s Early Queens’
Period: Anarchy to Tudors
Helen Castor explores the lives of seven English queens who wielded power, and provoked controversy – Empress Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France, Margaret of Anjou, Lady Jane Grey, Mary I and Elizabeth I and discusses whether any of them deserve the title of “She-Wolf”.
I first watched this series years ago when it was broadcast on the BBC. During lockdown I have now re-watched it, and still really enjoyed it, refreshing my knowledge of some of these enthralling women. It’s concise and full of information without being confusing. The women are dealt with in order from the earliest (Empress Matilda) to the latest (Elizabeth I) which makes it easy to see the development of female power.
Bettany Hughes’s ‘Eight Days That Made Rome’
Period: Ancient Rome
Not a full history of Rome, but a selection of eight key dates that made the Roman Empire including Hannibal, Spartacus, Boudicca and Nero. The eight days are dealt with chronologically and linked together so we can see how one event led to another.
It is only during lockdown that I discovered this documentary, just browsing through catch-up services on the TV to see if there was anything that I fancied, and this really caught my eye. It was incredibly interesting and well-done. I haven’t really studied the ancients before so this was pretty much all new to me, but I would certainly be interested in finding out more, which is I think what documentaries are great for!
Suzannah Lipscomb and Dan Jones’s ‘Henry VIII and His Six Wives’
A look at Henry VIII and his six wives (Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard and Katherine Parr), demonstrating that each woman was formidable in her own right and each but her own stamp on England, seeing them as more than just wives but powerful women.
This is one of the best explorations of the wives of Henry VIII that I’ve seen. It felt like you were getting the full story, with it told from the point of view of the wives in Lipscomb’s voice and from Henry VIII in Jones’s voice. It’s very clever and it works. Suzannah Lipscomb is one of my favourite historians and if you want more with her then I would also recommend her ‘Hidden Killers’ series. If you want one series that explores Henry VIII and his six wives, I recommend this one.
Laurence Rees’s ‘Auschwitz: The Nazis and the Final Solution’
Period: Second World War
The series follows the concentration camp at Auschwitz from its conception when the leadership had to scrounge for supplies, to the introduction of gas chambers and the mass murder of the Jews to what happened when it was liberated, and the inmates gained their freedom. It is a thorough and intimate look at life under the Nazis for those considered not a part of society.
From what I remember this was one of the very first historical documentaries that I watched in high school, and it remains one of my favourites. It really reminds you of what history can teach us and how we can learn from it. This documentary is heartbreaking in places but incredibly detailed, bringing this awful period to life in ways I haven’t experienced with other documentaries. There is another one-part documentary currently on BBC iPlayer if you’re in the UK which is also worth a watch – ‘1944: Should We Bomb Auschwitz?’.