Girl Power: The Top Ladies of Period Dramas

Before I dazzle you all with another Anglo Saxons post I thought I’d do a fun post! Today I’m counting down my top 5 ladies in period drama/films (with honourable mentions as I’m indecisive). The top 5 aren’t necessarily the nicest of women but they’re the women who keep our attention the longest…so I’ll be looking at performance, plots and of course general badass-ness! Lets take a spin around Ancient Rome, Tudor England, medieval France and Renaissance Italy!



5: Livia (Sian Phillips) I, Claudius:

This woman is just so EVIL. Livia is one of the main antagonists in the star-studded drama I, Claudius. Set in Ancient Rome the drama covers the life of Claudius the 5th Emperor in the Julio-Claudian dynasty. The show stretches through the reigns of Emperor Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius himself. While Livia only stick around for a few episodes her impact is pretty darn important. Ruthless and willing to leave any principles at the door, Livia poisons, bribes and abuses anyone who will stand in the way of her son Tiberius becoming the next Emperor. Livia is Augustus’s second wife and spends a huge amount of time trying to coax her hubby to name Tiberius as Emperor in-waiting…spoiler alert Livia gets her way. When she’s not poisoning, berating and scheming Livia often victimises the show’s hero for his stutter and general social problems. Claudius was famous for having a speech impediment and was often the butt of the family’s jokes and Livia is not stranger to the odd verbal take-down, at one point saying:

“If that head of yours doesn’t stop twitching, I’ll have it off and stuck on a pole”
What a nice lady. Yes, Livia is not the most sympathetic of characters but her intimidating stare and cold-blooded actions make her one of the series most magnetic draws.
VERDICT: Don’t drink anything this lady offers you.


4: Vanozza Cattaneo (Joanne Whalley) The Borgias:

Vanozza is the head matriarch of the Showtime’s The Borgias and, while you all know I think the series went down hill, Vanozza was one of the few things that kept me watching (seriously I sat through season 3 for her).  Vanozza starts the show as the long suffering courtesan and mother to Rodrigo Borgia’s children, however in s1 her role in somewhat usurped by the doe eyed/nasal woman that is Giulia Farnese. Quickly Rodrigo swaps Vanozza for a younger model but you can’t keep a strong gal down and Vanozza fights back, publically humiliating the sleazy new Pope. Nice. Throughout s1 and 2 Vanozza readjusts to the role of family sage, Papa Borgia is too caught up in making rousing speeches and shagging barely legal ladies to care, so it’s up to Vanozza to deal with their wayward kids….with varied success. Later on in the show arc Vanozza almost befriends her love rival and becomes a mentor to the Giulia, classy as always. Maybe Vanny seems like such a knock out because the other female characters are severely lacking the personality department. While they are defined by men-I don’t care what Showtime have said about Lucrezia’s rise to power, spoiler it’s bullshit-Vanozza manages to carve out a new role for herself after being defined by Rodrigo for almost 20 odd years. It speaks volumes that I was WAAAAY more interested in whatever she was doing than I was with Lucrezia’s various men folk/Cesare’s romances/Giulia. A side character? I don’t think so!

VERDICT: Brains over beauty EVERY SINGLE TIME.

3: Anne Boleyn (Natalie Dormer) The Tudors:

Ok I’ll admit it, I am a Natalie fan and am aware this may be a little controversial but hear me out. The first two seasons of The Tudors were actually attempts at serious drama (it only goes all soapy by s3) and Natalie Dormer along with Sam Neil (Wolsey) and Jeremy Northam (More) were absolutely splendid as supporting characters to the swaggering Henry. The Anne we’re presented with in The Tudors was like Anne herself: not conventionally beautiful but magnetic, charismatic,  intelligent and witty but by no means perfect. Anne’s progression from the in control mistress to entirely out of control queen is built up slowly throughout the first two seasons. Anne’s love affair pans out over s1 while she treats Henry (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) mean to keep him keen, a brush with the sweats/plague betrays a genuine love between the two, which is why Henry’s betrayal of her is just so damn heart-wrenching. Throughout s2 constant paranoia and Henry’s cold indifference chips away at the once confident Anne until she is nothing but a quivering wreck, the shadow of the woman we meet in s1. The transformation of Anne and her effect on Henry warp the relationships and fates of the secondary characters, Henry often blaming Anne for his own mistakes (see headless Thomas More).  Anne’s demise is marked with brutal scenes in which Dormer pleads with Henry to see sense, throwing herself to the floor. We all know it doesn’t end well but that makes it no less emotive. Anne’s departure marked the end of s2 and the end of the ‘drama’ the show produced. Yes, it was still entertaining but the quality of the acting certainly went downhill.

VERDICT: Should have stayed with Thomas Wyatt…



2: Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katherine Hepburn) The Lion in Winter

It was a close race for the top spot and believe me Eleanor was in the running but she’s here at number 2 (I swear it’s not because I’m team Henry).  Hepburn’s portrayal of Eleanor in the film adaptation of The Lion in Winter is legendary for its searing arguments-particularly her verbal duals with Henry (Peter O’Toole)-and the sheer majesty and gravitas that Hepburn exudes on-screen. Yes, there are inaccuracies but the audience just doesn’t care, such is the high drama that comes with watching Eleanor and Henry, whose combined threats to destroy each other betray a passionate love. The dynamics between Henry and her sons are one of the things that make Eleanor such a force to be reckoned with. Gone is the romanticised and put upon wife we often see in novels, she is replaced by a cold and ruthless matriarch who is more than happy to tell her precious sons a few home-truths. The point of the film is to expose just how awful every character is and how they infect each other with their mutual hatred, for once Henry isn’t the only bad guy! Eleanor’s casual mentions of child murder, her rejection of her sons and an infamous scene in which she taunts Henry about sleeping with his father, reveal an entirely unlikeable character.  Nobody knows what Eleanor looks like and Hepburn’s personification of her is so iconic that now she has become the face of Eleanor…sounds like a dystopian sci-fi film!

VERDICT: Witches Wear Wimples.


1: Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett) Elizabeth/Elizabeth: The Golden Age

OH MY GOD. She just is Elizabeth. Seriously I challenge anyone to find a better portrayal of England’s bestest queen. Cate Blanchett takes on one hell of challenge, portraying a character who is so inter-woven in British culture. Not only does she look like the Virgin Queen but Blanchett becomes her. Blanchett appeared as the national treasure in the Oscar nominated Elizabeth and the slightly less nominated Elizabeth: The Golden Age, delivering stellar performances in both pictures. While the sequel lacks the punch of the first film, Elizabeth commands every scene she features in, transcending her fellow star studded cast of: Geoffrey Rush, Christopher Eccelston, Kathy Burke, Vincent Cassel, Joseph Fiennes, Richard Attenborough, Eric Cantona…seriously the list goes on. Elizabeth is everything we envisage her to be she is graceful yet brutal, intelligent but indecisive, the balance between the all powerful queen and a lonely young queen is played out throughout the first film and carries onto the second. Blanchett’s character arc is one that is consistently brilliant and sensitively portrayed. As an ardent fan of Lizzie I am a tough person to please and I struggle to fault Blanchett as a Elizabeth, the only problem is that now it’s impossible to find a replacement…




Honourable mentions (because I’m indecisive)

Sancha of Naples (Emmanuelle Chriqui) The Borgias: Home girl was totally robbed of an actual character arc, but the one and half episodes that the princess appeared in were my favourite of s1 (not because I got to see a naked Juan) Historically Sancha was pretty important but showtime appeared to think sibling p*rn was more entertaining. I disagree.

Morgan Le Fay (Helen Mirren) Excalibur: If you are into medieval folklore and crazy 80s fantasy you need to watch Excalibur. With it’s Wagnerian soundtrack, handsome knights and an infamous cobweb dress, Excalibur is a campy romp through Arthurian England with Mirren’s scheming Morgan stealing every scene she was in.

Morgan: modesty optional?
Morgan: modesty optional?

Aliena (Haley Atwell) and Regan Hamleigh (Sarah Parish)Pillars of the Earth: I think everyone who has ever had a conversation with me would know that I am a massive POTE fan and that these ladies need some recognition for some of the most iconic characters in period drama. Lets start with the main female character Aliena. Aliena is at the centre of a love square? Well…if that’s a thing she’s in one, Aliena is the object of desire for romantic lead Jack (Eddie Redmayne) and some not so nice characters. She endures rape, poverty and the brutal murder of her father but still, Aliena preserves and stands on her own two feet. On the other hand EURGH REGAN HAMLEIGH. She is literally the worst, everything about her makes my skin crawl so credits to Sarah Parish for creating such an awful on screen presence. I’m not saying more because literally YOU HAVE TO WATCH THIS SHOW.

Isabel of Castile (Michelle Jenner) Isabel: The beautifully shot Spanish history drama Isabel documents the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabel, the parents of Juana the Mad and Catherine of Aragon. The first series documents a difficult journey to the throne, a troubled marriage and Isabel’s unsteady childhood.

Princess Mary (Sarah Bolger) The Tudors: Another Tudors alumni in the form of Irish actress Sarah Bolger. Normally I’m not Mary’s biggest fan but Bolger’s portrayal of Mary is one of class and true dedication to the character. Bolger’s icy attitude combined with her sharp put downs not only make her very watchable but also give glimpses into a cruelty that develops in Mary’s later life. Also I HAVE to give props to Mary’s perfect resting bitch face…


So who do YOU think is the fiercest lady in period drama? Do you (rightly) agree with me or have I missed somebody out? Let me know in the comments!

Over and out!




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