Elizabeth - Film and History

Howard Schumann

Talking Pictures alias talkingpix.co.uk






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Review of Elizabeth
Directed by Shekhar Kapur. UK. 1998.

Elizabeth. All
                    Rights Reserved.The 1998 film Elizabeth by Shekhar Kapur depicts the early years in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I known as "The Virgin Queen". This is not some stuffy "Masterpiece Theater" presentation but a rousing piece of entertainment that is colorful and involving. The film is greatly assisted by excellent performances from Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth and Joseph Fiennes as her lover Robert Dudley. Cate Blanchett makes Elizabeth come alive as a real woman facing an uphill battle to establish her rule. Her faithful protector William Cecil (Richard Attenborough) and the cunning Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush) support Elizabeth in her struggles with potential usurpers. The other characters, however, are little more than stereotypes: the noble protector, the wily servant, the arch villain, the usurper, and so forth. If you do not care about fully developed characters or historical accuracy and are interested in period melodrama with plots, romance, some nice Elizabethan music, and lots of intrigue, Elizabeth is for you.

Historical Background

In the sixteenth century, England was divided along lines of wealth and religion. The independence of the English church from Rome asserted by Henry VIII and retracted under Mary had been re-instituted under Elizabeth, who was excommunicated by Rome. Apparently almost half the population, however, including the older nobility remained Roman Catholic. This was in large part due to the resentment of the new mercantile class which was largely Protestant. As a ruler, Elizabeth was pragmatic, allowed Masses to be performed and even allowed the practice of Judaism, which was outlawed by the realm. For the first thirty years of her reign, the focus of the chronic plotting against her was centred on the Catholic Queen of Scots, Mary Stuart. The story picks up when Princess Elizabeth is thrown into the Tower of London, accused of plotting against her "sister" Queen Mary of England.

How The Movie Tells It

The film dramatizes Elizabeth's succession to the throne and the first several years of her reign as Queen of England. It centres on conflicts between the ruling Protestants and the Catholics who have excommunicated Elizabeth and are out to regain control. One of the turning points is where she musters her courage to take on the Catholic bishops and persuades them to accept her religious settlement, known as the Elizabethan Settlement. This declared that she did not care what men believed, just so long as they attended the Church of England. The film also deals mainly with the rebellion against Elizabeth's rule, supposedly instigated by Thomas Howard, the 4th Duke of Norfolk and others, though in fact the Duke of Norfolk was not beheaded until 1572, or 14 years into Elizabeth's reign. 

Marriage is likewise an issue as the struggle for succession was a preoccupation for many. Robert Dudley, a childhood friend, is her lover who proposes marriage (even though he is already married to Amy Robsart). Elizabeth must also deal with marriage proposals from the King of Spain and the French Duc d'Anjou (Vincent Cassel) depicted as a ludicrous cross-dresser. If Elizabeth married a foreigner, she would hand Englandís rule over to that country as well. If she married domestically, her husband would have become de facto King. She handles this by rejecting them all and proclaiming herself "The Virgin Queen", married only to England. Elizabeth emerges as the dedicated public servant whose devotion to England was boundless. 

The next few sections provide a few of my thoughts on the period. I do admit that some of it is highly speculative, but given the paltry historical record of the time that may be all we can ever do. 

Like A Virgin

Elizabeth. All
                    Rights Reserved.Elizabeth I, Queen of England from 1558 to 1603, was the "Virgin Queen", and we all know that the Easter Bunny hides all those eggs. To characterize Elizabeth as the Virgin Queen is to read her press releases. It cannot be expected that there would be any honest record of the Queen's affairs since there were no newspapers at the time and the Crown controlled the press. To think that she did not have children because they were not documented is to contradict the realities of the time she lived in. The record of the history of the period was under the direction of the chief architect of Tudor chicanery, William Cecil. It is quite plausible that the Virgin Queen moniker was a piece of clever propaganda dedicated to enhancing the Tudor cause. In most accounts of the period, the sexual involvement of Elizabeth with Robert Dudley is played down despite the fact that they had adjoining apartments in various castles and could freely see each other day and night. The possibility that they not only slept together but had children is never mentioned. 

Rumours Are Flying

There were indeed rumours that Queen Elizabeth had children both by Robert Dudley and Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. Indeed several people were pilloried or imprisoned for saying that Elizabeth had children by Dudley. It was author Henry Hawkins who said in 1581 "That my lord Robert hath fyve children by the Queene and she never goeth in progress [tour of the countryside] but to be delivered". The rumour is that she had five children by Robert Dudley. The possibilities include Mary Sidney (1561), Robert Cecil (1562), Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex (1566), and Elizabeth Leighton (1568). There is also the rumor that Henry Wriothesley, the young man to whom Shakespeare dedicated his sonnets and his poem Venus and Adonis to, was the son of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford and Elizabeth Tudor. There is also an author, Paul Streitz, who believes that Edward de Vere himself may have been the child of Elizabeth and Thomas Seymour (reference: Oxford, Son of Queen Elizabeth, by Paul Strietz).

Where Did The Children Go?

If Elizabeth did have children, what happened to all of them? The aristocrats of that day were not independently wealthy and owed their holdings and titles to the monarch. Consequently, they were required to do whatever the monarch desired.  No one could object or refuse to obey the dictates of the King or Queen. There is evidence that many unwanted children of royalty were brought up in the house of noblemen upon request by the monarch as "changeling" children. For example, Henry VIII had a variety of children that were raised by a variety of foster parents and did not carry the Tudor name. 

The evidence that these children were in fact Elizabeth's is circumstantial; however, keep in mind that records kept of these events would have been most unlikely given the totalitarian nature of the monarchy.  Nonetheless, it is a fertile avenue for historians to explore. According to author and lecturer, Paul Streitz, the following criteria might be used as a starting point. Was there rumours or gossip at the time about the birth of a child? Was there a period of time when the mother was not in public view? Was there a child raised nearby or at the court that received special or unusual treatment? Did the adult life of the child reveal a relationship to the alleged parents? 

Put Up Your Dukes

The movie portrays Norfolk as a very unpleasant character, full of treasonous thoughts and sour disposition. Far from being the villainous plotter to restore Catholicism, however, Thomas Howard, the 4th Duke of Norfolk may have been just an unlucky man and out of his depth. Marriage was promoted between Mary, Queen of Scots (Elizabeth's cousin) and Norfolk while an army was being massed to move south in the so-called northern rebellion. Norfolk was not Catholic but firmly Protestant and probably thought he could restrain Mary in areas of religion. He made the serious mistake, however, of lying to the Queen when asked if he intended to marry her cousin. Norfolk told the Earls of Northumberland and Westmoreland that the uprising must be postponed but they had already gone ahead. When the time came for his execution in 1572, Elizabeth put off signing the warrant for his execution for months upon requests to spare him from his cousin, Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. He finally went to his end after parliament was recalled and called for Norfolk's head. Denying he ever committed treason (unlike the braggart in the movie), Norfolk is reported to have gone to his death with dignity.

No Babe In The Northumberland Forest

Elizabeth is shown in the film as sweet and so innocent, and how could you not root for Cate Blanchett to conquer that sleazy looking Duke of Norfolk (Christopher Eccleston) and that awful Pope? She is portrayed as a weakling thrown in against conniving men who think they can bully her because she is a woman. The truth is somewhat different. Though she often did vacillate in foreign affairs, Elizabeth was no babe in the woods. She was energetic and vivacious, shrewd and highly intelligent (something she could not possibly have inherited from Henry VIII). Fluent in six languages, including Latin, Greek, French, and Italian, she once remarked to an ambassador that she knew many languages better than her own. She was educated in theology, history, philosophy, and rhetoric and was an accomplished sportswoman. 

The Dark Side Of The Farce

There is a dark side to her character, however. Elizabeth ordered barbarous reprisals against rebel captives during the northern rebellion. Sparing the lives of the propertied and wealthy class, she ordered 800 of the rank and file soldiers to be hanged. According to the Dictionary of National Biography, "Nothing in Elizabeth's life is more dreadful than the callous savagery which she permitted and more than permitted in this slaughter and pillage of the northern rebellion". Another incident may have involved treachery and complicity in murder with Dudley. The film says that Elizabeth did not know that Dudley was married. The facts are somewhat different. 

According to Hugh Ross Williamson in his book, Historical Enigmas, Elizabeth not only knew of his marriage but was present at the wedding. Ms. Robsart was an obstacle that stood in the way of their marriage plans and apparently she was dealt with in true Tudor fashion. On September 8, 1560, Amy Robsart, Dudley's wife was found dead at the foot of a staircase under suspicious circumstances. The implication from dispatches from foreign diplomats indicated that there was prior knowledge of a plot to murder her and that Elizabeth knew of the plans in advance. She intimated that something was going to happen and then she knew the cause of death the next day. This is impossible given the communications of the time (she didn't receive a fax). The marriage to Dudley was to have taken place in 1561 but the intervention of William Cecil who did not want to see Dudley on the throne forever halted these plans.

Neurotics And Sociopaths

If an individual tortures and murders people, it is called psychotic and criminal. If a monarch tortures and burns a thousand heretics for believing in a different religion, however, it is called an accepted practice of the times. Calling the Tudors neurotics, sociopaths, or psychotics is not an accepted way or reporting history. In truth during this period, manifestations of sadistic behaviour were expressed as the social norm. It was not uncommon for a monarch to turn against his wife or children on the slightest provocation and have them beheaded, only to remarry the next day. The Tudor monarchs were scared children who grew into frightened rulers, unable to find satisfaction in meaningful relationships. 

That Elizabeth managed to survive the fact that her father murdered her mother (Anne Boleyn) and was constantly placed in physical and emotional jeopardy is a testament to her strength. Perhaps her ability to have intimate relationships was impaired, but she didn't act out her demons on the English people as a whole like other rulers (her sister Mary was known to have executed 300 heretics and was referred to as "Bloody Mary"). Elizabeth was responsible for only five beheadings in her 40 year reign, one of them, however, was the Earl of Essex (who may have been her son by Robert Dudley) an act from which she never recovered emotionally or physically.

Who Was That Shakespeare Fellow?

                    Shakespeare.The history of the Elizabethan age cannot be fully understood without recognizing the role of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. When his father John de Vere died/was murdered when he was 12-years old, Oxford was brought up as a ward of the court under the guidance of William Cecil and the protection of Queen Elizabeth. Educated at Oxford and Cambridge, he also studied law and travelled extensively in Italy and France. Oxford was an acknowledged playwright, poet, theatrical producer, musician, dancer and literary figure of the Elizabethan era. Because it was not considered proper for a nobleman to consort with performers or theatrical types, he wrote under several pen names and under the names of living persons. His most famous pen name may have been William Shakespeare. 

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, not an instrument given to wild speculation, "Edward de Vere is the strongest candidate proposed for the authorship of Shakespeare's plays". If true, Oxford's life at the court would have allowed him to gain tremendous insight into the daily life of royalty that no commoner could possibly have. De Vere's intimate and conflicted relations with powerful persons such as William Cecil or even Queen Elizabeth I, often dramatized or even lampooned in the plays, meant that the plays were a political tinderbox. The plays and poems of Shakespeare indeed seem to describe key figures in the court (for example, Burleigh as Polonius, Ophelia as Oxford's wife, Anne Cecil, the Queen as the "dark lady" of the sonnets, and so forth.), as well as actual events in de Vere's life. 

Unfortunately, this subject, while endlessly fascinating, is massive in scope and beyond the purposes of this essay. Given the popularity of the film Shakespeare in Love, it seems as if the public has a yearning to connect the works of Shakespeare with a real honest-to-goodness person. Perhaps someday someone in Hollywood will realize that the film Oxford in Love would be ten times more dramatic, intriguing, and valid.

The Legacy Of Elizabeth, A Summation

Elizabeth. All
                    Rights Reserved.The film, Elizabeth, completely ignores what the Elizabethan age was about. Its legacy is not plots and intrigue, but the flowering of the arts and the development of a more flexible approach to religion and politics. It was the period of the emergence of a new social class less dependent on conformity to class, religion, and the state. The universities of Cambridge and Oxford were centres of the English Renaissance and aristocrats began to pride themselves on their learning and knowledge. Case in point - the afore-mentioned Edward de Vere, who travelled extensively and brought back to the court the knowledge of Italian literature, music, and art. A new humanism was in the air, nowhere even hinted at in the movie. 

Elizabeth I was a complex individual, a person of high intelligence that could be called the first modern monarch. She could be vacillating and also ruthless but whatever her faults, without Elizabeth there would be no William Shakespeare, no Hamlet or Richard III. Shakespeare's work under another monarch would probably never have been performed at all, much less at the court. It was Elizabeth's desire for theatrical performances that allowed Shakespeare to write and the highest levels of English society to see his plays. That is her enduring legacy, not the melodrama shown in the film.

For some very useful links to material about Shakespeare in the movies and much more visit the 
Mr William Shakespeare and the Internet website at:


Also see Shakespeare In Hollywood by Francis Akputa.






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