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In 2007, Shekhar Kapur returned to the life of Queen Elizabeth I, making Elizabeth: the Golden Age as a sequel Elizabeth (1998, dir. Shekhar Kapur). The film brought back Cate Blanchett in the title role and Geoffrey Rush as her loyal spymaster Francis Walsingham, and added Clive Owen as Sir Walter Raleigh. Despite the fact that the two films were shot in a very similar style, had the same director, and had Michael Hirst, the screenwriter from the first film assisting with the script, EtGA did much more poorly at the box office, not even breaking into the top 100 films of the year, whereas Elizabeth was 65 the year it was released, and its lifetime gross has been less than half the first film’s. It also received much less love from the critics. In an overall sense, it’s actually better history, because it hews a little more closely to the facts than Elizabeth did, although that’s not really saying that much.


The Babington Plot

Like Elizabeth, EtGA intertwines the story of Elizabeth I’s love life (or lack thereof) with a story about a Catholic plot to depose her and Walsingham’s efforts to protect her. In fact, it actually recycles part of the first film’s plot. Elizabeth features a plot against the queen that is a composite of the actual Ridolfi and Babington Plots, with the Jesuit John Ballard featuring as the assassin. EtGA shows us the Babington Plot somewhat more accurately, but since John Ballard was already killed in the first film, they decided to rename the Jesuit orchestrater of the plot Robert Reston.

The historical Babington Plot involved a Catholic effort to assassinate Elizabeth and replace her on the throne with her Catholic cousin Mary I of Scotland, who had been captured and held in genteel confinement in England for 19 years. Walsingham understood that Mary was the focus of numerous plots, since as Elizabeth’s closest living relative she was naturally a factor in Catholic plots to remove Elizabeth. Her letters show that Mary was extremely well-informed about multiple conspiracies, but Elizabeth was deeply reluctant to take action against Mary. Since Mary was a crowned queen in her own right, executing her would provide precedent for executing Elizabeth, and it would undermine the mystique that Elizabeth felt was essential to her rule. Walsingham tried without success to get his queen to take decisive action about her cousin.

So when Walsingham captured an English Catholic named Gilbert Gifford who was conspiring to assassinate Elizabeth, he saw an opportunity to eliminate Mary. Gifford agreed to act as a double agent. He met with Mary and arranged to have letters smuggled to her in beer barrels.

As the plot developed, it came to focus around a wealthy Catholic named Anthony Babington, who was in what he thought was secret coded communication with Mary via those beer barrels, never realizing that Gifford and another member of the plot were letting Walsingham decode and read the letters. The Jesuit priest John Ballard was working to gain Spanish agreement to launch an invasion on England in Mary’s name, while Babington was being maneuvered to win Mary’s assent to a scheme in which Babington was to assassinate Elizabeth, Mary would be rescued from confinement, and then placed on the throne. Mary eventually sent Babington a letter laying out what she saw as necessary for any plot to rescue her from captivity. This letter on its own was probably enough to implicate Mary in the whole plot, but one of the spies copied it and added a postscript in which Mary appeared to agree to the effort to kill Elizabeth. That was enough to let Walsingham arrest Ballard and Babington, who were subsequently executed.

Mary Queen of Scots

Mary Queen of Scots

The Execution of Mary

Mary was put on trial in 1586, based on a Bond of Association passed by the Privy Council in 1584. This bond, which Mary among many others signed, allowed for the execution of anyone in the line of succession (read: Mary) who was aware of any plot to kill the queen, even if they were not actively involved in the plotting. Parliament followed this up with an Act of Association that provided for the execution of anyone who stood to benefit from a plot against the queen. So despite Mary’s insistence that she was not subject to English law, and despite the fact (or rather because of the fact) that she was allowed neither legal counsel nor defense witnesses nor access to the evidence against her, Mary was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death.

Elizabeth hesitated to sign the death warrant. She understood that executing Mary would certainly outrage France and Spain, and would remove one of the few active deterrents to a Catholic invasion. She also recognized that it would be very hard for her to control the perceptions and meaning of the execution. Nevertheless, driven by pressure from both Walsingham and the general English population, she eventually gave in and reluctantly signed the warrant. (Walsingham reported eased her discomfort by including the warrant in a stack of other documents that needed her signature.) Then Walsingham conveniently ‘fell ill’, leaving it up to a deputy to dispatch the warrant to Mary’s jailer. Elizabeth was furious at the poor deputy for having sent the warrant without her permission; like Walsingham’s illness, this too was probably a fiction, to provide her with some degree of deniability.

Mary’s last letter shows her being at peace with her impending death, and understanding herself as a Catholic martyr. The execution itself, in February of 1587, was less clean than was desired. The executioner failed to deliver a clean blow and had to take a second stroke. Her pet dog ran up to the body and got itself covered in her blood. When her head was held up, her wig either slipped off or was pulled off (accounts differ), revealing that she had gone grey (Mary, like Elizabeth, was well-known for her red hair). In later Catholic propaganda these details were elaborated to make the execution seem even more horrific than it was; it was claimed that the executioner took three strokes to kill her, so that her death was more like the torture of an early Christian martyr. The dog supposedly howled loudly and ran about the room getting blood everywhere. When the executioner picked up the head, he supposedly grabbed the wig by mistake, so that the head fell out and rolled across the floor. Elizabeth’s concerns were proven correct; she could not control the propaganda generated by the execution, and it triggered the Spanish Armada the next year.

The Death of Mary Queen of Scots

The Death of Mary Queen of Scots

The Plot and Execution in Elizabeth: the Golden Age

EtGA follows the basic facts of the Babington plot, but it does make a few key changes. As noted, Ballard was renamed so as not to conflict with the first movie. The film lays out the messages being smuggled to Mary in beer barrels and Walsingham’s monitoring of the plot, although how he discovers the plot is wrong. In the film, he simply arrests some Catholics who give him the lead he needs; also his (I think fictitious) brother William is a Catholic entangled in the plot.

In reality, the plot never got anywhere near coming to fruition, but in the film, Babington (Eddie Redmayne) bursts into Elizabeth’s chapel and draws a pistol. He hesitates to shoot her but eventually pulls the trigger. It’s unclear at first but eventually it emerges that he was given a pistol that was loaded with powder but no bullet.

Redmayne as Babbington, pointing his pistol at Elizabeth

Redmayne as Babington, pointing his pistol at Elizabeth

The assassination attempt gives Walsingham enough leverage to persuade Elizabeth to try and execute Mary (Samantha Morton, in a very small but moving performance). Elizabeth is shown waffling before the trial, and has to be persuaded by Walsingham that she has a duty to protect her people by execution Mary. Elizabeth eventually agrees and Mary is put on trial and executed. The emphasis is mostly on the execution, which is shown without anyone of the unpleasantness. The sequence is quite sympathetic to Mary, who appears serene as she goes to her death, whereas Elizabeth is shown to be deeply agitated.

Morton as Mary; note that red is the liturgical color of martyrs.

Morton as Mary; note that red is the liturgical color of martyrs.

Perhaps the biggest change that the film makes, however, comes immediately after the execution. Philip II of Spain declares war on England, and Walsingham suddenly realizes that Philip was behind the whole plot in the first place., because the Spanish king has been reading Mary’s correspondence. Babington’s gun was unloaded so that Elizabeth would survive, execute Mary and give Philip the justification to invade. Walsingham begs the queen’s forgiveness for misunderstanding the whole situation, and Elizabeth admits that she has erred in executing Mary.

Upon examination, this plot doesn’t work. If Elizabeth had been assassinated, Mary would have automatically become queen, and there would have been no need for a Spanish invasion. Executing Mary was the last thing Philip wanted to happen, because it meant that there was no Catholic heir to the throne (the new heir, Mary’s son James, having been raised as a Protestant), which would make controlling England after the conquest a bigger problem, since there is no Catholic heir to put on the throne as a Spanish puppet (although as the widower of Elizabeth’s older sister Mary I, Philip had his own very weak claim). Had Philip simply been waiting for an excuse, Mary’s imprisonment would probably have been enough on its own. In actuality, the execution of Mary forced Philip to take action when he was probably reluctant to do so.

Furthermore, Babington never actually attempted to shoot Elizabeth, and it’s not clear how Philip would have been able to read Mary’s correspondence, since it was passing through Walsingham’s hands.

So the film essentially inverts the relationship between the execution of Mary Stuart and the Spanish invasion. The actual invasion was a reaction to Mary’s execution, whereas in the film, the execution is part of the scheme to set up the invasion. What the film gets right is the broad sequence of events, showing how the Babington Plot led to Mary’s death, which in turn led to the Armada War. With the exception of the detail about the pistol being unloaded as part of a deeper plot, the film’s changes to history are mostly in the way of simplifying the complex details of the plot and making the narrative  clear to the audience. In that sense, I think this part of the film works better as history than Elizabeth does. But as we shall see next time, there are other problems with EtGA.

Want to Know More?

Elizabeth: The Golden Ageis available on Amazon.

Like biographies about Elizabeth I, there are a lot of not very good biographies of Mary Stuart. John Guy’s biography on Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuartis probably definitive for scholarly works. But if you’re not up for 600+ pages, try Rosalind K. Marshall’s much shorter Mary Queen of Scots: Truth or Lies(Kindle edition), which focuses on answering the key questions about this famous but somewhat misunderstood woman. The Trial of Mary Queen of Scots: A Brief History with Documents (Bedford Series in History & Culture)is a short classroom textbook that addresses her trial and execution and offers the primary sources for those events.