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So now that start of the semester stuff is more or less done with, I finally had time to sit down at watch Elizabeth (1998, dir. Shekhar Kapur). The film tells the story of the early years of the famous Queen Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett). Specifically, it focuses on the process by which she went from an extremely emotional young queen to a more mature, emotionally-reserved queen. She has to learn harsh lessons about love and political decision-making over the course of the film.


Let’s Marry the Queen!

After showing the danger Elizabeth was in during her older sister Mary I’s reign, the film largely focuses on two things. The major thread throughout the film, starting once she is queen, is whom she will marry, King Philip II of Spain, the French prince Henri d’Anjou (the future Henri III, played by Vincent Cassel), or Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester (Joseph Fiennes). While she loves Leicester and has sex with him, it gradually becomes clear that he is not good choice for emotional reasons; he is a weak man, not faithful to her, and presumptuous of his rights over her. He is also already married to another woman. The shock of learning this fact drives Elizabeth to end her relationship with him and increasingly shut him out.

In reality, Elizabeth knew all along that Leicester was married (Dudley did in fact marry his second wife in secret though, so the film is collapsing details about two marriages); while she was very intimate with him, she disliked his wife Amy, who only saw Leicester for a few days at a time and lived away from court. In 1560, Amy was found dead at her country house, having apparently fallen down a flight of stairs and broken her neck. There is no evidence that this was anything other than an accident, but speculation immediately began that Leicester had orchestrated Amy’s murder, because her death left Leicester free to marry Elizabeth. But many of Elizabeth’s counselors opposed the match, and argued that she could not afford to risk the scandal that would ensue if she married him. Elizabeth seems to have eventually accepted this fact, although she remained close to him the rest of his life.

Fiennes as Leicester

Fiennes as Leicester

An additional factor in the opposition to Leicester as a suitable husband for Elizabeth was the unfortunate history of his father John Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland. He was Lord Protector of the realm during the short reign of Elizabeth’s young half-brother Edward VI. When Edward died, Northumberland attempted to engineer the accession of Edward’s cousin Jane Grey as queen, having married Jane to his son Guildford Dudley. The scheme collapsed in less than two weeks, Mary I took the throne, and Northumberland and Guildford were both executed. As a result, some English nobles may have feared that if he became king, Leicester would avenge the death of his father and brother on the nobles who had supported Mary.

Elizabeth’s other two suitors both brought with them the prospects of an alliance with a great power, but also the enmity of whichever great power she didn’t choose. As the movie emphasizes, England was not a great power in the 16th century, and Elizabeth was therefore rightfully worried about getting pulled into the orbit of either France or Spain, which would have tended to overshadow her interests. With only a small army, it is unclear whether England could have won if either power had invaded, and France was allied to Scotland, which could easily invade northern England. As one famous British historian remarked, Elizabeth’s marriage was a weapon like a bee sting; it was powerful, but it could only be used once. So Elizabeth adopted a different strategy; instead of marrying, she played France and Spain off against each other, constantly dangling the possibility of marriage before them, but never committing to either side. This strategy kept England out of war for 30 years.

Unfortunately, Elizabeth barely touches on any of these issues. Instead, in general Hollywood fashion, it prefers to explain Elizabeth’s refusal to choose a husband in terms of her personal feelings. She loves Leicester but they are poorly matched as people, and she is shattered by the revelation that he is already married. She is uncomfortable with the prospect of marrying Philip of Spain because he was Mary’s husband. Henri d’Anjou is presented as vulgar, obnoxious, immature, overbearing, and, bizarrely, a transvestite. In reality, Henri never met Elizabeth, and there’s no basis for the film’s depiction of him. While historians have certainly seen deeper feelings in Elizabeth’s indecisiveness, all serious historians agree that her feelings were only one factor, and probably not the major one. By glossing over the political elements of the choice, the film unfortunately reduces Elizabeth to the status of a woman who just can’t make up her mind about whom she wants to marry.

No, Let’s Kill the Queen!

Starting in the second half of the film, a second plot element emerges, dealing with a plot to assassinate Elizabeth. The tension between Catholics and Protestants is a major issue throughout the film (which opens with the burning of three Protestants). Partway through the film, there are two unexplained assassination attempts. The first involves someone shooting crossbow bolts at Elizabeth while she is riding on a barge, although they only manage to kill one of her attendants. The second involves a poisoned silk dress that one of her ladies-in-waiting tries on so she can have sex with Leicester. From that point on, the marriage question gets relegated to the back burner as Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush) works to uncover a wider plot. (The barge incident is basically true, although the would-be assassin used a gun, not a crossbow. Who was behind it does not seem to have ever been found out. The dress incident is completely fabricated, and seems lifted partly from Medea.)

The main assassination plot involves efforts to smuggle a Jesuit priest John Ballard (Daniel Craig) into England so he can murder Elizabeth. The goal of the plot is to replace Elizabeth with Queen Mary of Scotland and to marry her to Thomas Howard, the duke of Norfolk (Christopher Eccleston), the leading Catholic noble in England. It’s a wide ranging plot, including Pope Pius V (John Gielgud) and the Spanish Ambassador Álvaro de la Quadra (James Frain), as well as Bishop Stephen Gardiner, the earl of Arundel, and the earl of Sussex. De la Quadra persuades Leicester to convert to Catholicism secretly and support the plot, apparently out of bitterness toward Elizabeth. Walsingham captures Ballard and Arundel (who is hiding Ballard) and finds a letter proposing the marriage between Norfolk and Queen Mary. He uses one of his spies to pass the letter to Norfolk, who signs it, thus providing Walsingham the evidence he needs to arrest Norfolk and Sussex. For good measure, Walsingham also assassinates Gardiner and de la Quadra. Elizabeth pardons Leicester so he can live on as a reminder to herself about how close she came to danger. Then the film ends in 1563 (as we know from an epilogue text that tells us that Elizabeth reigned for 40 more years).

Eccleston as Norfolk

Eccleston as Norfolk

There’s a lot wrong with this part of the film. Most importantly, it merges two separate plots against Elizabeth, neither of which had happened by 1563. In 1569, the Ridolfi Plot (as it has come to be known) involved a scheme conducted by a Florentine banker, Roberto Ridolfi, to marry Mary of Scotland to Norfolk and land Spanish troops in northern England; these troops would depose Elizabeth in favor of her cousin Mary. He won the support of Pius V and Philip II, as well as Mary and Norfolk, but the whole plot was badly planned out, and Ridolfi failed to discover that Norfolk wasn’t even Catholic but rather a committed Protestant. Several people warned Elizabeth about the plan and Norfolk was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower. He was executed only in 1572. The Spanish ambassador (who was not de la Quadra, who had actually died years earlier) was expelled from the country. Arundel was arrested, spent time in the Tower, but was released and died peacefully in 1580.

In 1586, a different plot emerged, known today as the Babington Plot, after Sir Anthony Babington, one of the chief figures in it. The Jesuit priest John Ballard was seeking to free Queen Mary of Scotland from the house arrest that Elizabeth had placed her in, and he sought to use Babington to get in contact with her. Walsingham figured the plot out and allowed Babington to send a letter to Mary, who responded with a letter authorizing the assassination of Elizabeth. Walsingham used this letter to persuade Elizabeth to execute Mary for treason. Ballard and Babington were executed in such a brutal fashion that Elizabeth agreed to allow a less gruesome execution for the others implicated in the plot, although Mary’s execution also proved a disaster for Elizabeth’s reputation.

Bishop Stephen Gardiner died before Elizabeth even became queen, and de la Quadra died years before either plot. Leicester was never involved in any plot to murder Elizabeth because he was always a supporter of her, and he never became a Catholic. In the film, Ballard gets very close to Elizabeth before a distraction forces him to flee; in reality he got nowhere near the queen.

So the film has basically taken the Ridolfi plot and the Babington plot and just mixed them together. Both involved freeing Mary of Scotland, but the Ridolfi plot involved her marriage, while the Babington plot did not. Pius V and Philip II were involved in the Ridolfi plot, whereas Philip never committed to the Babington plot, and there is no evidence that Pope Sixtus V was involved in it at all. The Ridolfi plan was aimed as militarily deposing Elizabeth, not assassinating her, while the Babington plot involved assassinating Elizabeth but never got close to her. Walsingham was not involved in thwarting the Ridolfi plot at all, and used the Babington plot to entrap Mary, not Norfolk.

So while the first plot thread, about who will marry the queen, is basically accurate but oversimplified, the second plot thread, about efforts to kill her, is badly garbled history, and basically false in the facts it presents. However, the film does manage to tell a coherent story that is true to some of the spirit of Elizabeth’s reign. And it’s the film that brought Cate Blanchett to the attention of American audiences, which is definitely a big mark in its favor.

Want to Know More?

Elizabeth is available on Amazon.

Elizabeth has been the subject of dozens of biographies, many of them not very good. For a current scholarly view of her, try David Loades’ Elizabeth I.

An interesting window into the plots against Elizabeth is Jessie Child’s God’s Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England, which examines the struggles of one Catholic family to navigate the political currents of Tudor religion.