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When Elizabeth ((1998, dir. Shekhar Kapur) came out, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights accused it of anti-Catholic bias, and it’s worth considering whether the film can reasonably be accused of hostility to Catholicism. (Full disclosure: I’m a Lutheran, which obviously influences how I view the events of the Reformation.)

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The 16th century was a genuinely brutal time for religious tensions, and the film is correct that Catholics participated in the brutality with considerable zeal. The opening scene shows three anonymous Protestants executed under Mary I, out of an actual total of 283. Both the Ridolfi and Babington plots were very substantially driven by Catholic hostilities toward Elizabeth, who for much of her reign was the target of plans by Catholic rulers to remove her from office and replace her with her Catholic cousin, Mary of Scotland. Pope Pius V did support the Ridolfi plot (he made Ridolfi his agent in England, and gave him a letter of support for the plot), and John Ballard really was a Jesuit priest, though he does not seem to have enjoyed papal support for his scheme. So the Catholic League’s complaint about a “scheming pope who sends a priest to plot against and assassinate Elizabeth” is a reasonable only because Pius didn’t send John Ballard; but both details they complain about are historically true when taken separately.

The heart of the Catholic League’s complaint, however, is that the film doesn’t give equal time to Protestant atrocities against Catholics. They object that the movie says nothing about Henry VIII or the execution of Sir Thomas More, an odd argument to make about a film that begins more than a decade after Henry’s death. More was executed by Henry VIII in 1535, and thus can reasonably be considered a victim of Protestant hostility to Catholicism, but More was also an enthusiastic proponent of the public execution of Protestants, so citing his (again, not relevant to a film set twenty years later) example is something of a double-edged sword. This complaint feels like they are simply looking for something to complain about.

Elizabeth did persecute Catholics in the later part of her reign, but she did so largely in response to Pius V’s excommunication of her, which had the unfortunate effect of meaning that a devout Catholic could not be trusted to support Elizabeth as monarch (which is not to say that all Catholics opposed her, only that they almost automatically came under suspicion). The early part of her reign was marked by attempts to reach religious unity between Protestants and Catholics, which the film also largely glosses over. However, later in her reign, some Catholics were executed, such as Cuthbert Maine, and the film entirely fails to acknowledge this. An argument could be made that the film is focusing entirely on court life and therefore the execution of Cuthbert Maine in Cornwall is not relevant, but it’s undeniable that the film does present almost all of the aggression as coming from Catholics.

Another reasonable point is the League’s objection that the film depicts its Catholic characters negatively. Mary I is shown as harsh, fanatical, and somewhat unstable. Norfolk is a sneering villain. De la Quadra is dark and creepy, Henri d’Anjou is just weird, and Stephen Gardiner is given a disturbing cataract in one eye. The film’s chief villain, Norfolk, was not in fact Catholic at all, so making him a scheming Catholic is hard to justify from the standpoint of historical accuracy, even if it does make the narrative simpler. Nor did the earl of Leicester convert to Catholicism. And the film treats the priest Ballard as if he were personally an assassin, for which there is no evidence; in Ballard’s plot, he was the organizer, not the killer. So the film’s strong tendency to associate Catholicism with villainous behavior is definitely a problem. As the Catholic League points out, the film suggests that all the religious tension in England was driven by Catholics, which is not true. There were most definitely Protestants who enthusiastically called for the death of Catholics.

But it is not true that every Catholic in the film is depicted negatively. Arundel is shown as being kind to Elizabeth when he is ordered by Mary to imprison her, and when Arundel is caught during the plot, Elizabeth makes a point of saying that she will remember his earlier kindness to her. Unlike the creepy Spanish ambassador, the French ambassador comes across as a fairly decent man. And of course Leicester, who supposedly converted to Catholicism, is given sympathetic treatment; his conversion is presented as an expression of his frustrated love for her.

The film distorts historical facts in a way that negatively depicts Catholicism. Is the motive for that anti-Catholic bigotry? Obviously that’s hard to know, since only Shekhar Kapur could answer that for certain, but I think it’s important to acknowledge the film’s perspective. Elizabeth and Walsingham are the heroes of the film, and about half the film’s plot revolves around attempts to assassinate her. Having decided to build the film around that aspect of Elizabeth’s reign, it’s easy to see why the Catholics became the villains of the story; from Elizabeth’s viewpoint, the Catholics are the bad guys, and I think that much of the film’s negative depiction of Catholics is driven chiefly by the desire to have clear villains and a simple narrative rather than any strong animus against Catholics. That doesn’t exonerate the film from its strongly anti-Catholic stance, but I do think it helps explain it.

So while a lot of the Catholic League’s charges are, in my opinion, unreasonable, it is certainly true that the film largely makes the Catholics the villains, in a way that distorts the facts. In part this is because the Protestant position is represented by Elizabeth, the heroine of the film and Catholic efforts to kill or depose her must therefore be presented negatively. But the film makes little attempt to explain the Catholic position or explore the deeper religious or moral issues at stake. In fact, the film makes virtually no attempt to explore what the Protestant/Catholic divide was about at all. In that sense, the film could just as easily have been Democrats vs Republicans. The Catholics in Elizabeth are evil mostly because they’re Catholics and Catholicism is bad in this film. So in the end, I think we have to admit that Elizabeth is anti-Catholic the way that Braveheart is anti-English or 300 is anti-non-straight-white-physically-perfect-people. The factual distortions required for the plot create a bias even if there was no actual hostility there.

Patterns mean something, and the meaning of a film emerges from the patterns it creates. This, more than anything, is what I try to teach my students about how to read historical films. The Catholic devil is in the Protestant details, I guess.

Want to Know More?

Elizabeth is available on Amazon.

Norman Jones’ The English Reformation: Religion and Cultural Adaptation focuses on the ways that families tried to manage the challenges of the Reformation over the course of the 16th century. He looks at the ways that families sought to overlook or rewrite the religious differences between three generations while remaining families. It’s a book that really changed my view of the English Reformation.

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.

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