Elizabeth I Portrayals

Posted By claire on August 27, 2009

ElizabethElizabeth I has been portrayed by so many actresses:-

  • Ellen Compton
  • Sarah Bernhardt
  • Flora Robson
  • Bette Davis
  • Jean Simmons
  • Glenda Jackson
  • Dame Judi Dench
  • Miranda Richardson (Blackadder)
  • Cate Blanchett
  • Anne Marie Duff
  • Helen Mirren
  • Dame Josephine Barstow

But many of these productions have been criticised for the liberties they have taken with Elizabeth’s story and English history.

I’ve just posted on The Anne Boleyn Files about “The Tudors” and Tudor historian Dr Tracy Borman’s thoughts on the show. Unlike many historians, Borman loves “The Tudors” for its entertainment, for its colourful recreation of the “drama and atmosphere of Henry VIII’s court” and for the way that it acts as a “way into history” for people who would not normally be interested in the Tudor era. She feels that series like this have their place.

If you Google for a list of inaccuracies in the Cate Blanchett Elizabeth movies, you will find lots of sites discussing them and tearing apart Shekhar Kapur’s movies “Elizabeth” and “Elizabeth: The Golden Age”. Inaccuracies include:-

  • The age of William Cecil when Elizabeth comes to the throne – He was not as old as Richard Attenborough who portrays him. He was, in fact, only 13 years older than Elizabeth.
  • The implication that Dudley and Elizabeth did have a sexual relationship – There is actually no evidence of this, although it was rumoured.
  • The murder of Mary of Guise – It is implied that she has been murdered by Sir Francis Walsingham on the orders of Elizabeth, yet she died of dropsy in real life.
  • Robert Dudley’s secret wife – Elizabeth I was actually well aware that Dudley was married to Amy Robsart, as she attended the wedding, however, she was angry with him for his later “secret” marriage to Lettice Knollys.
  • The age of Sir Francis Walsingham – He was, in reality, only a year older than Elizabeth.
  • Elizabeth was kept at Woodstock, not Hatfield, while she was out of favour with Mary I.
  • Elizabeth did not cut her hair off and start whitening her face to appear as the “Virgin Queen”. She wore wigs because they were fashionable and wore heavy make-up to cover smallpox scars.
  • Kat Ashley was Elizabeth’s governess and friend when Elizabeth was growing up, she was therefore much older than the Queen and not a young girl.
  • The wrong Duke of Anjou is portrayed as being a transvestite in the film!
  • Robert Dudley was never under threat of execution for plotting against the Queen, although he did take many liberties!

These are just a few of the “mistakes” in the first film, but do they matter?

Do they seriously mislead people?

Should we only make films and series that are 100% historically accurate?

But, how can we do that when eminent historians can’t even agree on people and events? It seems to me that historians can look at the same source and come up with completely different theories that they can back up in their own way. So, do inaccuracies matter in movies?

If we are serious about researching a period of history, do we get a Cate Blanchett movie? No! We go on Amazon and order some proper text books and biogarphies that are by well-known historians and that have good reviews. We then double check theories and events between books and then come to our own theories and opinions. We certainly do not trust a movie director who is in the business of entertaining, not educating!

I’m not criticising the films in any way. I believe that they, just like “The Tudors”, have their place. They entertain, they cause people to ask questions about history, they leave people hungry for information and they bring events, characters and eras alive to people in a way that books just cannot do. If a person watches an Elizabeth movie and then buys a David Starkey, Alison Weir or Alison Plowden book, or simply “Googles” Elizabeth I then I think it’s brilliant. People may say we’re “dumbing down” history but perhaps we’re not giving the public enough credit, I’m sure that they know the difference between movies and documentaries.

Who’s your favourite Elizabeth I actress? Who do you think captures the qualities of this iconic Queen?


12 Responses to “Elizabeth I Portrayals”

  1. Laurel says:

    I just love Glenda Jackson in her protrayals of Elizabeth I. I think that looks wise and every wise she epitomizes what we know of Elizabeth I. she is tres formidable just like the Queen she portrays. And I recommedn everyone get ahold of the old BBC series Elizabeth R and watch it and the film “Mary Queen of Scots”.

  2. Claire says:

    It’s a long time since I’ve seen the Glenda Jackson one but I thought Helen Mirren and Anne-Marie Duff were very good, better than Cate Blanchett. I also found those two series to be much more accurate than the Cate Blanchett movies.
    Thanks for the recommendations, Laurel!

  3. rochie says:

    Yes, it has to be Glenda for me, too, Laurel. She was so good, so very convincing at being the Queen that sometimes you caught youself wondering … Could Elizabeth have been anything like Glenda? Not the other way around!

  4. Rob says:

    Cate is very lovely. But Glenda … yes, I know what you mean, rochie. You felt you had to sit up straight in the chair whenever she came on the TV.

  5. Claire says:

    Glenda Jackson does have that “presence”, doesn’t she? I know what you mean!

  6. lisaannejane says:

    I watched part of “Elizabeth R” on YouTube – I think Glenda Jackson is wonderful and she does have “presence” about her that makes you feel she is channeling the real Elizabeth! The movie with Cate was not as good, in my opinion. I remember almost laughing when the lady died in the dress – how do you make a poisonous dress? And the end of the movie was silly – even I knew that the young Elizabeth did not wear that much make-up and that wigs were in fashion.

  7. Wendy Flay says:

    Glenda Jackson I think is the finest Elizabeth although I think Bette Davis was very good at showing the bluff and jolly side of the queen.

    One of the important things I thought wrong from the Cate Blanchett version was the way she went like a lamb to the Tower. The real Elizabeth sat on a step in the pouring icy rain for hours protesting her innocence rather than go through traitors gate. It showed that although she was young and innocent she already had a will of steel.

  8. Claire says:

    Hi Lisa and Wendy,
    I think Cate Blanchett is a great actress but the script definitely let her down. I suppose the only reason they had the poison dress scene in was to show that Elizabeth’s life was in constant jeopardy but yes, it was a silly scene! I also agree with you Wendy about Elizabeth going to the tower – it must have been a terrifying experience for her but she already had that famous strength of character. I haven’t actually seen Bette Davis as Elizabeth but I agree that Glenda is brilliant but I really love Helen Mirren and Anne-Marie Duff too.

  9. Gillian says:

    Cate all the way!!!

  10. Courtney says:

    I love The Tudors & other TV shows/ movies like them! I know that they are just movies, but they do exactly as Claire said…they make people more interested in history. They also make these people more “human”…the first Anne Boleyn movie I saw was “The Other Boleyn Girl”…a horrible movie historically…but it got me to google her name, find these websites and I also read “The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn” by Eric Ives…so yes, these “historical dramas are what I deem…necessary. They help interest today’s generation in history. Those that watch these movie and do not do their own research…well, thats because they are probably not the “brightest crayons in the box” and are the type of people that take anything they read or see as fact…just because it’s in print.

  11. seashell says:

    Claire I love both the Elizabeth and Anne files as I have been interested in the Tudors from a young age and find your posts and those of your visitors to be more in depth and accurate than those on other pages. However one post I did disagree with on the Anne Boleyn Files was the one where you say you do not like the ‘Other Boleyn Girl’ because too many people believe that it is true and not fiction… yet here you say we are not giving people enough credit by thinking they will accept these films as fact not fiction. Personally I love most books (yes including ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’) and films based on this period (NOT ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’!) and think that artistic licence should be allowed in all films and books to a certain extent and that people should then research it or accept that they dont REALLY know anything from reading/watching fiction.

  12. Lauren Bokman says:

    Judi certainly gave Elizabeth a bemused smile and quite the prophetic intuition and comic relief,
    Agnes was fine and Flora was excellent, Cate wasn’t bad, Vanessa and Joely certainly made Elizabeth a sneaky devil, Helen certainly enlivened her enough to screech banshee in a tantrum, Glenda is certainly worth the watching, Anne is good, haven’t seen Josephine yet but have been trying to get Sarah’s performance as well as Athene’s and Judith’s but I will get them sometime in the future.

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