With Elizabeth: The Golden Age opening today, I have decided that now is a good time to post about Shekhar Kapur’s first installment, the 1998 film Elizabeth. Researching Midnight Never Come gave me an interesting perspective on it; I can now recognize what is and is not historically accurate in it. (Short form is: much of what happens is true, but not in that order and at that time.)
So for the curious, I offer up this glossing of the film’s historical accuracy, with footnotes and educational precepts for the wise.
(I shouldn’t have to say it, but I will: here be spoilers aplenty. Don’t read on if you don’t want to see them.)
First, a note on the visuals. Kapur’s commentary track on the DVD is very interesting, and chock-full of information on such things. He recognizes that the Elizabethans did not in fact live in bare stone rooms (they preferred wood well-padded with tapestries and rush matting), and also that fashion did not follow precisely that trajectory. Those elements are as they are for thematic reasons.
Now, going more or less sequentially through the film:
The opening execution scene is apparently meant to be that of Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley on October 16th, 1555. (I’m not sure who the woman is meant to be, but she wasn’t there.) This is one of the better-known Protestant burnings that can be laid at Mary’s feet; she earned her nickname of “Bloody Mary” for the many martyrs who died under her rule.
Mary suffered a false pregnancy in 1554-1555, which was either caused by her desperate hope for a child (she was already thirty-nine) or by the cancer that killed her. They finally had to admit she would bear no child in June of 1555, and her husband, Philip of Spain, left England in September. (There was a second false pregnancy in 1558, but the chronology of the film — tortured as it admittedly is — makes more sense if this is the first one.) The later scene makes it look like Mary was in London — probably Whitehall Palace — at the time of the loss, but she had removed elsewhere for the supposed birth.
The rebellion here is that of Sir Thomas Wyatt and others, which took place in 1554, provoked by Mary’s decision to wed Philip. Elizabeth was indeed implicated, and imprisoned in the Tower of London in March; in May they moved her to Woodstock (not Hatfield, as it says in the film). She was indeed questioned, and more than once, by the privy council, which would have included some of the men you see in that scene.
Popular legend has it that she came in by the Traitor’s Gate (the water gate to the fortress), and was held in the Bell Tower; Kapur seems to run with both of these ideas, as the room is bare enough to be the Bell Tower, though the exterior shot given is of the White Tower. In truth, it’s more likely that she came in by the Byward Postern and was held in the old medieval palace that is no longer there.
The woman in the boat with her, who you see repeatedly throughout the film, is variously known as Kat Astley or Kat Ashley, though her married name was Katherine Champernowne. She was a close companion of Elizabeth’s from about 1536 until her death in 1565. I mention this mostly because you’re never really told who she is.
Regarding the introduction of Walsingham: he was in exile during Mary’s reign, but he wouldn’t have been the bugbear of Catholics he’s presented as here; his prominence came rather later. (Though he seems to have been involved in some conspiracies on the continent.) The big misstep here is the suggestion that he’s a borderline atheist: in truth, he was a Puritan.
Mary died on the 17th of November, 1558. She’d acknowledged Elizabeth as her heir on the 6th, despite Elizabeth’s protestantism and (in the eyes of Catholics) illegitimacy; since Henry had to break with Rome to get his divorce, that meant the divorce wasn’t real, which meant that any subsequent children were bastards. Elizabeth was indeed at Hatfield when news came of her elevation to the crown.
Side note: I think this may be the only time in English history it’s literally been “The Queen is dead; long live the Queen.” The only other time I can think of that one queen succeeded another is the abortive nine- or fourteen-day rule of Jane, before Mary took over, but a) she’s not acknowledged as a real queen, and b) she didn’t get executed until later.
Moving on. Elizabeth is “Queen of England, Ireland, and France” because English monarchs still laid claims to Calais and other lands in France — even at times when they didn’t actually possess those lands. I forget when France was dropped from the title, though. Elizabeth’s coronation took place in Westminster Abbey on the fifteenth of January. (Other side note: in the old English calendar, that was still 1558, the new year falling in March back then. I gloss over this in Midnight Never Come because I don’t want to confuse readers.)
It is true that Mary, Queen of Scots, laid claim to the English throne. She had Tudor blood, by way of her paternal grandmother Margaret, elder sister of Henry VIII. Her mother was Marie de Guise, wife of James V, and that marriage brought (as the movie shows) a great deal of French involvement in Scotland, that plagued England for decades on end.
The recurrent insistence that Elizabeth marry and produce an heir is inaccurate only insofar as they don’t harp on it enough. Her privy councillors were constantly trying to leverage her into it, and Parliament brought it up pretty much every time it met. Elizabeth seemed to consider it from time to time, but she also did make statements in the vein of “I don’t see why a woman need marry at all.”
Walsingham didn’t become closely involved with the royal court until 1568 or so — maybe earlier, but few of his papers survive. He was, however, brought in partly by Sir William Cecil, as the movie indicates.
The relationship with Robert Dudley is interesting. He’s more commonly known as Leicester; he was created earl of Leicester in 1563, partly so they could plot marrying him off to Mary, Queen of Scots. But that never happened, partly because Elizabeth was so deeply attached to him. Did they ever sleep together? Rumour had Elizabeth sleeping with pretty much everybody, but Leicester especially, and having anywhere from one to a dozen secret babies from him. The latter is probably not true, but whether she remained truly a virgin, there’s no proof. (Kapur apparently got into hot water for tarnishing her image, though.) The later comment that “he is a traitor, and his father before him” refers to the ill-starred involvement of the Dudley family in trying to put Jane Grey on the throne in 1553, instead of Mary.
I should mention now that I am in fact looking up relevant dates and details from time to time; I don’t actually have every bit of this info at my fingertips. But I used to; heck, a few months ago I could have scrounged out of my notes the names of about three-quarters of Elizabeth’s privy councillors at the start of her reign. I can’t really do that anymore, but most of the guys in that scene do belong there. Walsingham, as Cecil notes, is not a part of the council; that didn’t happen until 1573, when he was made Principal Secretary. I can’t recall what specific battle they’re fighting in Scotland, though, if indeed it’s supposed to be something specific.
Certainly the bishops did not like her. The government had a damn hard time finding anyone to crown Elizabeth in 1559, and she had to struggle at balancing Protestant reform with Catholic conservatism. The Parliament meeting in 1559 resulted in a declaration that Elizabeth was “supreme governor” (rather than “supreme head”) of the Church of England, and an Act of Uniformity that re-instituted a slightly revised version of her brother Edward’s 1552 Book of Common Prayer. The scene is kind of misleading as to what that argument was about, though it does a good job of showing how Elizabeth used her sex and charm to manipulate the men around her. (Also, certain lines from her speech here, and also elsewhere in the movie, really are attributed to the queen historically.) It was indeed a close vote, but there’s no evidence I recall that Walsingham imprisoned some bishops to achieve it.
Anjou’s visit is where we start to go seriously afield from the straight chronology. (And I more often see him referred to as “Alençon,” not “Anjou;” he didn’t take the latter title until 1582.) The negotiations for Elizabeth’s hand started in . . . 1572. The proper suitor for her early reign would be someone more like the King of Sweden, but he never actually made it to England, despite trying. They probably picked Alençon because he’s the only one who did come visit. Anyway, he showed up in 1579 — twenty years after the supposed time of the movie — when Elizabeth was in her late forties. It was pretty much her last shot at marriage, all the others having failed.
One of the ones that had failed was Leicester. They did consider marrying, especially during the early 1560s, but Burghley and other privy councillors headed that one off at the pass. The poem he recites to her in that scene is a truncated version of a piece by Sir Philip Sidney, who would have written it some years later, since he wasn’t even born until 1554. The later revelation that Leicester’s married is true, but also bogus; there’s no way Elizabeth wouldn’t have known. But Dudley’s wife Amy Robsart died in 1560 anyway — in a fall down the stairs that prompted many people to accuse him of murdering her, to free up his marriage prospects.
This assassination attempt, and the later poisoned dress, are fictions so far as I know. But there were certainly such threats to Elizabeth’s life. They were stopped by (among other people) Walsingham, who certainly was a spymaster of Elizabeth’s, though not the only one; Cecil and Leicester both had spies of their own.
Alençon’s visit went rather differently than shown here. Elizabeth gave every sign of being utterly infatuated with him — despite the fact that he was little and scarred and kind of froglike; me, I’d rather watch Vincent Cassel — and even exchanged rings with him at one point, declaring he was her husband. As is so often the case, nobody knows how much of that she actually meant, and how much she was manipulating people. Certainly she soured on him in the end. I can’t remember precisely when he left, but he was gone by 1582, and (instead of going to Scotland, like he does here) he went off to fight in the Netherlands, dying in 1584.
Cultural notes: yes, Elizabeth spoke a number of languages. No, that isn’t actually a volta they’re dancing. (I’m told the scene in Shakespeare in Love is a better example of a real volta.)
She was excommunicated in 1570. The priest we see here is never named in the film, so far as I know, but he’s credited as John Ballard, who came to England in 1581. While not specifically an assassin, he was up to his eyeballs in the Babington Plot of 1586, that led to the execution of the Queen of Scots. (I guess he won’t be in the second movie, though.)
Mary of Guise died in 1560. There’s no real evidence she was assassinated.
Sir William Cecil became Lord Burghley in 1571 (and generally gets called by that name; I’ve been calling him Cecil because most of the events of the movie seem to take place sooner). Saying Elizabeth put him out to pasture then, however, is flat wrong. His “retirement” was his death in 1598, and even then he was followed by his son Sir Robert Cecil, who had been at his side in politics for years.
The conspiracy here at the end is an affair that started in 1569, which did include a plan to marry Norfolk to Mary of Scotland. It’s a complicated mess, so I won’t go into the details, but he was executed in 1572, after a lot of waffling on Elizabeth’s part. Arundel was involved, but never executed (he died in 1580). Sussex, on the other hand, got into Elizabeth’s good graces by helping during that period. Leicester, who you would think wasn’t involved, actually was; but he informed on the whole thing before it was over. Again, it’s flat wrong to say that was the end of his association with Elizabeth. She continued to dote on him (when she wasn’t angry with him) for a good decade after that; she sent him to govern the Netherlands in the 1580s, though she recalled him when he botched it, and he was her commander at Tillbury when the Spanish Armada threatened. He died in 1588.
The cult image of Elizabeth that comes at the end of the movie is more or less true, but it didn’t get such a clearly defined start, nor was it Walsingham’s particular brainchild. Instead, it grew out of a need to legitimate Elizabeth as a Protestant and female ruler; they achieved it partly by equating her with the Virgin Mary. The cosmetics and wigs came rather later, in an attempt to hide her aging and loss of beauty. Her statement that she is “married to England” is something she did say, I think more than once.
The closing notes are, as one might expect, kind of misleading. Did she reign for another forty years? Sure, if the movie ends in 1563 — but obviously that’s hardly definitive. Walsingham “served her to the end” if you mean his end, since he died thirteen years before she did. And Dudley, as I’ve noted, didn’t exactly get exiled from Elizabeth’s affections. Whether there really was a rumour she whispered his name on her deathbed, I don’t know, but God knows she saw him in private often enough in the ensuing decades.
That is, I think, most of it. I find it interesting that the biggest inaccuracies — aside from the jigsaw puzzle of the chronology — involve the ends of Elizabeth’s relationships with people. Alençon, Burghley, and Leicester all get falsely clean breaks.
I’m very interested to see the new one: Mary Queen of Scots, the Babington Plot, the Spanish Armada, and a Ralegh who appears to have stolen some of Drake’s glory. The supposed absence of Burghley and Leicester will make it odd going in my head, but truth be told, Walsingham’s the one of the three you really need for those events, so I shan’t be too bothered (I hope). If you’ve seen it already, don’t tell me; I’d rather go into it with a clear head.