by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the April 1999, A.S. XXXIII issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.
This is another movie review again looking at the historical accuracy of a given film. This time it is the movie “Elizabeth.” Again the point is not to belittle the film for its inaccuracies, it is after all entertainment not a documentary, but to use it as a jumping point to explore history. A film does not have to be accurate to be entertaining, for example “Shakespeare in Love.” What I’ll attempt here is to elucidate some of the aspects the film, that by necessity, were glossed over.
As usual for this films, the time span of the events portrayed is greatly compressed. The end titles state that Elizabeth ruled for another forty years, implying that the events first shown took place in the first five years of her reign. The beheading of the Duke of Norfolk, the climax of the film, actually took place in 1572, just short 14 years after Elizabeth was crowned. The sequence of events were also rearranged. The courtship by the Duc d’Alencon, which takes up the middle part of the film, actually took place in 1579.
The movie does start with the right year, 1554. Mary had ascended the throne and married Philip of Spain. This provoked the revolt of Sir Thomas Wyatt which failed at the gates of London. The film opens with the burning of three people and implies one of them is Sir Thomas. But Sir Thomas was beheaded. People were burned at the stake, beginning in 1555, their crime being their refusal to accept the Catholic Church. The three hundred so victims were clerics and common folks.
Elizabeth was implicated in Sir Thomas’ revolt and was sent to the Tower of London. She was there for two months before she was sent to the palace of Woodstock for a year then to Hatfield. I found no reason way Mary refused to have Elizabeth executed.
Mary did indeed have several false pregnancies and died of a tumor. The bit with the ring was that it was Mary’s engagement ring which she always wore. Elizabeth, circumspect as always during these years, had refused to talk about her ascending to the throne till she saw that ring. Her line upon receiving the ring are the world Elizabeth is recorded as actually saying.
I’m not sure why they threw in the establishing shot of London, but they did get it right. Dominating on the right side is the Tower of London, while to the left center is a boxy tower with spires. That is St. Paul Cathedral as it existed then. The current structure was built by Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of 1666. The crown used in the coronation is pure speculation as the original was broken up by Oliver Cromwell, and there are only vague descriptions remain.
You occasionally do learn something from movies. At first I though the Scottish expedition was another fiction. But after some research I found that the English did indeed send an expedition into Scotland in April of 1560 where it helped the Scottish rebels in the siege of Leith, a castle that protected the harbor for Edinburgh. The English army did perform poorly there, though it was not defeated. Mary of Guise was the mother of Mary Stuart and was acting as regent. She died in June of that year, but apparently not by assassination.
The other main political battle of the movie is the passage of the Act of Uniformity. The purpose of the act was to re-establish Protestant religious practices. There was a companion bill, The Act of Supremacy, which made the ruler of England the head of the church. The Parliamentary action took place January and April of 1559. They easily passed the House of Common, the main battle was in the House of Lords. I found nothing that said that Elizabeth address the House of Lords. At one point there was a public debate which resulted in two bishops being sent to the Tower. At the final vote, the Abbot of Westminster just happened to be absent. The final vote was 21 to 18 in favor. The machinations appeared to be the result of Sir William Cecil and Sir Nicholas Bacon efforts and not Sir Francis Walsingham as the movie had it.
At several points in the movie, dances with Robert Dudley. Each time calling for a Volta. There is such a dance, but the version done in the movie is a much sedate rendition. A true Volta is faster and calls some rather athletic leaps for both partners. It was for this reason that the Volta was considered a scandalous dance. It was Elizabeth’s favorite dance. Dancing was one of her passionate pastimes which she indulged until late in life.
The movie ends with Elizabeth entering as a sort of living marble icon proclaiming that she is married to England. No such scene actually occurred. As late as 1583 when she was 49, the question of marriage was used as a diplomatic ploy. Such a definitive statement was uncharacteristic of Elizabeth. The intent of the scene was to dramatize the endpoint of Elizabeth’s personal evolution.
There are many other aspects of the movie that for lack of space I must pass on, and leave to others to explore. The men who swirled around her each have their own interesting story to tell which is just hinted at in the movie. The movie is not a true biography as the distortions noted above show. What it is, is a character sketch. An exploration of the kind of person Elizabeth was, and why she was that way. As such the movie is true to its subject and very successful.
MacCaffrey, Wallace. The Shaping of the Elizabethan Regime: Elizabethan Politics, 1558-1572. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968.
Morgon, Kenneth, ed. The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Bindoff, S.T. Tudor England. Baltimore: Penguin (Non-Classics) Books, 1950.
Encyclopedia Britannica. ed. Chicago 1986.
Rossaro, Massimo. The Life and Times of Elizabeth. New York: Curtis Publishing Co., 1966.
Wright, Louis B. "The World of Elizabeth I." National Geographic Nov. 1968: 668-709.
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