A few generations of scholars have now demonstrated just how loose the relationship between history and history on film usually is. Grand historical dramas are meant, first of all, to entertain. But a good historical film has a lot of power: to bring the past to life, to give us as sense for the texture of the past, to raise important questions of fact and interpretation.
Take a look at Helen Mirren as Elizabeth I considering the fate of Mary, Queen of Scots. It does reveal the challenge to authority that Elizabeth endured. And why not a quick look at Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth for a dramatic picture of the Spanish-English conflict of the early 17th c.
For a portrait of the religious wars that tore France apart in the 1560s and 70s, see this trailer from “Queen Margot,” based upon the very fictionalized 19th c. novel of Alexandre Dumas. The imagery is stunning.
I held up Michel de Montaigne as a heroic figure of the 16th c, the literary pioneer of the “Essay,” a man who questioned human pretense and certainty before he questioned the ways of others. Kenneth Clark gives a nice portrait of the man and his ideas in his BBC series “Civilisation.”
Finally, for a portrait of Spanish obscurantism, you might take a look at the Spanish Inquisition. The Emperor of Spain – from the 15th c. – used the special power granted by the Pope to root out heresy in Spain. You’ll see an account of the principal features of the Spanish Inquisition here and here.