Elizabeth The 1998 movie Elizabeth, directed by Shekhar Kapur, from a script by Michael Hirst, is a historical epic that takes place during and after the mid-16th-century period when Englands Princess Elizabeth was nearly eliminated by her half-sister, Queen Mary. It portrays the events of Marys death, Elizabeths ascension to the throne, and the struggles and events that she must overcome in order to preserve the strength of the English Monarchy, and establish Protestantism as the chief English religion. She must also maintain her stability and safety as a female ruler in a male-dominated society.
The movie is beautifully made, with eloquent and realistic costumes, and prominent actors, and it successfully turns an important historical period into a riveting drama filled with action and romance. However, looking at Elizabeth from a historical standpoint, it is lacking in terms of accuracy. The chronological events in the movie do not follow with the historical events, and instances that happened over many years are crammed into a short period of time.
Also, many events are exaggerated, or even completely made up in order to add to the dramatic appeal of the movie. Despite these flaws, Elizabeth does correctly relate the main aspects of Queen Elizabeth Is rule. Elizabeth was born in 1533, the daughter of the infamous Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. When Elizabeth was three, her mother was beheaded for treason and adultery, and Parliament declared her marriage to Henry invalid, which made Elizabeth illegitimate. Her chances of ever ascending the throne were again thwarted by the birth of Edward, the son of Henry and his third wife. When Edward, a Protestant, died in 1553, his older half-sister, Mary, a Catholic, took the throne.
Mary always held bitter feelings toward Elizabeth because Anne Boleyn treated Catherine of Aragon, Marys mother, badly. To avoid angering Mary, Elizabeth conformed outwardly to Catholicism, but she secretly hoped and plotted to restore Protestantism. She was briefly locked up in the Tower of London, and was almost executed.
The movie begins with the execution of three Protestant activists, ordered by Mary, illustrating her hatred and intolerance for Protestants. In order to avoid angering Mary, Elizabeth continually had to proclaim her pious distaste for heresy.(Jagger) In the movie, Mary meets with her advisors, including the Duke of Norfolk, who advises her to arrest Elizabeth for treason, and possibly execute her. They believe that she is part of a conspiracy to kill Mary, ascend the throne, and reinstate Protestantism. The movie shows Elizabeth being captured and taken to the Tower of London, where she is kept for short period of time.
During the time when she is imprisoned, Marys advisors, namely Norfolk, attempt to persuade her to put Elizabeth to death, but Mary is reluctant to do so. Elizabeth is taken to see Mary, who at this point knows that she is dying of ovarian cancer. Mary begs Elizabeth to promise that when she becomes Queen, she will preserve Catholicism in England. Elizabeth promises only to do as her heart tells her to do, which angers Mary, and she is then put under house arrest at the royal manor of Woodstock in Oxfordshire, where she stays until Marys death. In reality, these events followed somewhat of a different course. Elizabeth was suspected of plotting the reinstatement of Protestantism with a French ambassador and other Protestant activists, and Marys advisors suggested that Elizabeth be put under surveillance, as it might be then possible to find reasons for sending her to the tower.
Investigations proceeded, and Elizabeth was finally sent to the tower, where she was held for two months in a suite of four rooms, where only her servants could visit her. When she was released from the tower, she was taken to the estate at Woodstock, and kept there for nine months under house arrest. During this time, she was allowed no visitors. In the movie, Robert Dudley frequently visited her. In reality, this would never have been allowed. The confrontation with Mary is inaccurate as well.
Instead of a face-to-face confrontation about preserving Catholicism, Mary wrote her dying wish in a letter, and had it sent to Woodstock, where Elizabeth in turn replied back with the same message that the movie shows. These inaccuracies in the movie can be attributed to the filmmakers lack of film time, as well as the drama factor. A face-to-face confrontation is much more dramatic and entertaining than a mail correspondence. Another inaccuracy in the movie is the role of Norfolk. The movie shows him as a loyal servant to Mary, and a strong supporter of the execution of Elizabeth. Actually, Norfolk was not a key character in English political history until Elizabeth had been on the throne for some years.(Thomas) His role in the movie is almost entirely false, although he was eventually put to death due to his role in a conspiracy against Elizabeth.
Again, this can be attributed to the drama factor in the movie. Norfolk assumes the role of the main bad guy, and heightens the suspense of the movie. When Mary finally dies due to ovarian cancer, Elizabeth is notified at Woodstock, and travels to England, where she takes the crown amid great public rejoicing. At this time, the movie shows Sir Francis Walsingham, a Protestant activist who had been hiding out in France awaiting the death of Mary, returning to England to council Elizabeth, and the ascension of Elizabeth to the throne. In reality, Walsingham did not become a key figure in English politics until the second decade of Elizabeths reign, although Elizabeth did maintain correspondence with him throughout the early years of her reign. During the first few weeks of her reign, Elizabeth reduced the size of her council in order to get rid of several Catholic members, and appointed several new ones.
The most skillful of her new advisors was William Cecil, who was later made Lord Burghley. In the movie, Richard Attenborough, an elderly man, plays Sir William. The real Sir William was only thirty years of age when Elizabeth was crowned, and he served under her for forty years. She never forced him to retire, as the movie later shows. At the very start of her reign, Elizabeth faced pressures from both her advisors and Parliament to marry and produce an heir. Her suitors included Philip II of Spain, Archduke Charles of Austria, Eric XIV of Sweden, the Duke d Anjou, the Duke of Alencon, and many others. However, she was reluctant to marry from the beginning, and told Parliament that in the end this shall be sufficient, that a marble stone shall declare that a Queen, having reigned such a time, lived and died a virgin(Ridley).
She was, in fact, probably in love with Robert Dudley, known also as the Earl of Leicester. The movie manipulates several facts about Elizabeth and Dudleys relationship. It shows Elizabeth and Dudley engaging in sexual activity, which historians are very skeptical about. Jagger states, It is unlikely that Robert Dudley and the Queen had a sexual relationship, for various reasons, and their love affair had not begun at the time of her coronation. In all probability, the Queen was the virgin she claimed to be. Dudley and Elizabeth are constantly shown together, which holds some historical accuracy.
The two had a very close and affectionate relationship, and Elizabeth frequently turned to Dudley for political advice. Rumors of a romantic involvement between the two spread around Europe, and damaged her reputation to some extent. However, unlike the movie shows, Elizabeth knew very well that Dudley was married, while she had attended his wedding in 1550, so he could not very well hide the marriage from her. One very large falsification on the filmmakers part is Dudleys involvement in the conspiracy to have Elizabeth killed. However, he did conspire with several outside forces in an effort to gain support for a marriage between him and Elizabeth.
Dudley met with the Spanish ambassador, and told him to tell Philip II that he was prepared to restore religion by way of Council in return for Philip IIs support of the marriage(Doran). However, he had no intention of keeping these promises once the wedding had taken place. Although she may have wanted to, Elizabeth refused to marry Dudley because her main advisors objected to it, but she let him continue his intrigues with the Spaniards, and her encouragement probably gave him hope that she would eventually marry him. Dudley continued to pursue Elizabeth, although it never worked out for him.
On one occasion, Elizabeth stated that she would have here but one mistress and no master(Jagger). Eventually, as it became apparent that Elizabeth was not going to marry, the House of Commons and House of Lords preferred a Dudley match to her continuing a life of celibacy and to the threat of civil war on her death. This evidence of Parliamentary approval for a marriage to her favorite came too late, for by 1563 she had apparently little desire and certainly no intention of taking Dudley as a husband(Doran). As for the conspiracy, Robert had been involved with a plan for Norfolk to marry Mary Stuart, but this had nothing to do with a plot to kill Elizabeth.
He had only supported it in order to get Norfolk out of England, which may have worked on Elizabeths behalf, while Norfolk conspired against her in later years. When the plan started to turn in a negative way towards Elizabeth, Robert immediately confessed to her, and she did not lose any favor to him. In fact, the two remained very close throughout her entire reign, and his death devastated her. However, there is no evidence that she spoke his name on her deathbed, as the movie suggests.
Dudleys role is an essential one in the movie. Almost every good movie has a love story, and this one is between Elizabeth and Dudley. Although somewhat inaccurate and embellished, their relationship does not deviate too far from the truth, while the two were very close and acted affectionately towards one another. The added love scenes and quarrels again add to the movies drama, and romance appeal. Another main event in the movie is the proposal to Elizabeth by the French Duke of Anjou.
This proposal starts with Mary of Guise, Anjous aunt. She tells the English that she will take her French troops out of Scotland, and cease her planned attack on England if Elizabeth will consider marrying her nephew. Anjou comes to England to see Elizabeth, and he is portrayed as a loud and obnoxious little man, not to mention a cross-dresser.
In reality, the Duke of Anjou did not come to England at all. His brother, the Duke of Alcenon, came twenty years later, and Elizabeth seriously considered marrying him (he was not a cross-dresser). The Duke of Anjou was one of Elizabeths suitors, however, although she never had any intention to marry him. The films portrayal of these events is inaccurate, but it serves the purpose of showing the viewers the many attempts of suitors to marry Elizabeth and her reluctance to succumb to these proposals. Another inaccurate event in the movie is the assassination of Mary of Guise.
The movie shows Mary of Guise plotting to kill Elizabeth, and Walsingham goes to Scotland and poisons her. As aforementioned, Walsingham was not even a key figure in English politics yet. He never murdered her, while he was a greatly religious man. The movie portrays him as a homosexual who murders a young boy, which is entirely inaccurate, but again incorporates heightened drama into the film.
Historians believe that Mary of Guise died of natural causes. The movie is mostly inaccurate in its portrayal of the assassination attempts on Elizabeth, the conspiracies against her, and her handling of these conspiracies. In the film, during the Duke of Anjous (fictional) visit, an assassination attempt is made on Elizabeth.
This event did not take place until 1578, and then in very different circumstances. It was not an assassination attempt at all, but a salute to the Queen that went wrong. No one was killed (Thomas). Also in the film, a great conspiracy to kill Elizabeth and restore Catholicism is started with the Pope. He issues a proclamation stating that Elizabeths subjects need not be loyal to her, while she is a heretic because she does not support Catholicism, nonetheless a bastard. A priest named Lord Aaron carries letters from Rome to Elizabeths enemies, including Norfolk and Dudley.
These letters are intercepted, and Elizabeth has the recipients of the letters eliminated in a power play that might have been lifted from the Godfather (Hartl). This sequence of events is actually a combination of several plots against Elizabeth during her reign, one of them being the Ridolfi Plot, in which Norfolk was involved. Essentially, Ridolfi was a freelance contact-man, working for money, whose object was to coordinate the activities of those anxious to overthrow Elizabeth and replace her with Mary Queen of Scots.
He thus had dealings with Mary herself, Norfolk, the Pope, Alva, and Philip II (Johnson). Lord Burghley revealed the plot and Norfolks involvement when he found letters from Mary to Norfolk. He was tried in 1572, and sentenced to death.
Ironically, Elizabeth was alone in favor of his mercy, and was very reluctant to order him executed. When she finally did, it was to strengthen her determination to keep the fate of Mary entirely in her own hands (Johnson). Elizabeth eventually had Mary executed after the Babington Plot of 1586 to murder her. A papal bull of 1570 did release Elizabeths subjects from their allegiance, which caused Elizabeth to pass harsh laws against Roman Catholics when plots against her life were discovered. The Godfatheresque sequence in Elizabeth is a well-done action sequence that is very entertaining, although inaccurate. Perhaps the filmmakers wanted to culminate all of the conspiracies against Elizabeth into one single conspiracy, in order to create a more powerful climax.
The movie accomplishes in showing that Elizabeth had to be careful whom she trusted, because many people were secretly plotting against her. The involvement of Dudley is exaggerated, and also the film suggests the involvement and execution of the Earl of Sussex, who was actually never involved in any conspiracy against Elizabeth. He was a devoted subject of the Queen and remained so until his (natural) death. The end of the film shows Elizabeth cutting off her long hair, painting herself white, and reluctantly becoming a Virgin Queen, and marrying England. This decision is portrayed as a spur-of-the-moment one resulting from her discovery of the large and elaborate conspiracy against her that includes Dudley.
Her decision seems to come mainly from her realization that a man for whom she loves has plotted to kill her, and she decides that she can trust no man. She keeps Dudley alive and close to her, only to remind herself how close she came to danger. As previously mentioned, Dudley was not involved in a killing conspiracy, and Elizabeth kept a close relationship with him. One major flaw of the movie is that it shows her decision to become a virgin as a spontaneous one, when actually the cult of Elizabeth as the Virgin Queen wedded to her kingdom was a gradual creation that unfolded over many years(Britannica). She was always careful in cultivating her public image, but it is not until about twenty years into her reign, when it is certain she would not marry, that the legend of the Virgin Queen really begins to emerge(Thomas). While the film Elizabeth fails to follow a completely accurate historical timeline, it accurately portrays Queen Elizabeth II as a strong female ruler who bypassed the stereotypes of women and successfully ruled over England from 1558 to her death.
In her lifetime, she made herself a powerful image of female authority, regal magnificence and national pride(Jagger). It also shows how Elizabeth assumed the role of a Virgin Queen to legitimate her status as an independent ruler. She took control of the representations of herself, especially in art, and had herself cast as a supernatural being that he subjects would worship, almost like the Virgin Mary. The film also shows that although Elizabeth was overall a successful ruler, she did have some drawbacks.
After her first meetings with Parliament, Elizabeth questions her ability to rule. The Bishops were against her because they were strongly Catholic, and the strong Catholic minority concerned her. She had to rule over a country with no powerful central state, no army, no police, and not a good financial base. She was also unable to make quick decisions. Her advisors had to pressure her into war, because she was against it, stating that wars have uncertain outcomes.
Her lack of state power made her nervous and politically paralyzed, reluctant to offend the divided kingdom that she ruled. Her servants by no means always trusted her judgment and often despaired at her political behavior(Ridley). However, she was a great short-term politician who knew how to manipulate her image in order to gain more support and power.
The shortcomings of the film can be attributed to several reasons. First of all, successful movies can not run for a long period of time. Essentially, the filmmakers had to condense about two decades into material into about two hours, and make these two hours interesting. To do so, facts had to be manipulated in order to make the movie more interesting and easy to follow. Important characters were omitted, conspiracies grouped together, and people were misrepresented. Elizabeth was portrayed as a happy and fun-loving young woman, when historians describe her as a somewhat cold-hearted woman who shared her fathers nasty temper. The filmmakers turned the history into a drama that has the essential characteristics of any entertaining movie: suspense, good guys and bad guys, and a riveting love story.
They were not attempting to make an accurate documentary of Elizabethan England, but a dramatized interpretation of it that would be enjoyable to viewers, and provoke interest in the Elizabethan era.