Trigger alert: This post is on the topic of abuse and grooming.
If you’ve watched my video on the second episode of the Starz series “Becoming Elizabeth”, you will know just how angry I was at how the series has presented Thomas Seymour’s treatment of 14-year-old Elizabeth, the future Queen Elizabeth I while she was living with him and his wife, Catherine Parr, the dowager queen, in 1548.
I was angry as I felt it was a lost opportunity to educate viewers about what was said to have happened to Elizabeth, which had a huge impact on her, and that it was being romanticised with Elizabeth being a willing participant. That was my point of view and you can watch my video here.
I received many comments from people who agreed with me, but also people who didn’t, and one of those in the latter group was from actor Tom Cullen, who, as you’re probably aware, plays Thomas Seymour in Becoming Elizabeth. I’m so very grateful to Tom for taking the time to comment, not once, but twice. Tom obviously knows where this storyline is going in the series – and he’s clearly done his research too – so I found his comments very helpful. Tom gave me permission to use his words in a blog post, so here goes…
“Hi Claire, my name is Tom Cullen and I actually play Thomas Seymour on Becoming Elizabeth. I would never normally comment on a video like this because I believe the viewer interpretation is sacred, but in this instance you’re talking about something I care deeply about, so felt compelled to set the record straight. I’m not sure how many episodes you’ve watched but you have misread the dynamic and if you continue to watch the show, you will realise this is a storyline about power, grooming and abuse. The show is told from Elizabeth’s POV, therefore the show at first allows you fall in love with Thomas just as the young Elizabeth has. But let’s not beat around the bush. Thomas is a 40 year old man exerting his power over a 14 year old Elizabeth. It is heinous and wrong. As you continue to watch the show, you will realise this is a very nuanced and complex story of abuse told from a teenagers point of view. Thanks for your time in reading this. I hope you carry on watching and are vindicated in your very righteous anger. Kind regards, Tom.”
And in response to a comment from me explaining more about why I felt the way I do and mentioning the testimonies of Kat Ashley and Thomas Parry:
“Claire, firstly, thank you so much for your response.
I’ll start with how the abuse has been handled so far in the show: I really don’t think you can describe Elizabeth as a willing participant.
Ep One: What I see is a young girl with an innocent crush over a charming man who is wilfully leading her on. Elizabeth, full of the confidence of a young person stepping into the world for the first time but who doesn’t yet know herself. Elizabeth, an orphan, enters into the terrifying void Henry’s death has left behind, a world that is circled with sharks. She is alone and scared. Thomas is the only character of any power that truly listens to her. She misinterprets his charm and ability to emotionally empathise as attraction. As for Thomas, it is quite clearly a sport of sorts for him. He knows it’s a potential advantageous move but also he’s probably enjoying the attention (Thomas is a man of great ego and insecurity).
Episode Two: It distorts; Elizabeth is still a young girl out of her depth, scared and confused but now the person she thought she was safe with has manipulated her into a false sense of love. She clearly feels unsafe with him and vulnerable. She is utterly powerless and Thomas knows exactly what he is doing; he is a powerful man who destabilises her very existence by taking what is arguably most precious to her. Anya Reiss, our incredible female show-runner, has decided to show that this specific kind of abuse is not always black and white for the person being abused. It is grey and murky. As I previously said, this is abuse through the gaze of the abused. It is easy and righteous for us from the outside to be appalled but for Elizabeth, she is in the thick of it and she cannot see it. She confuses his attention as love and care but it is anything but that. It is volatile and violent. Personally, I think this is a version of abuse that will resonate and hopefully help people who have been abused be seen. Elizabeth is a VICTIM and in no way is her relationship with Thomas consensual, even if she were to utter the words “Yes”. Thomas is an adult. Elizabeth is not.
As for the history and whether this abuse happened in the way it did, did it? You will know better than me that history is interpretation. Nobody can say for sure what happened. But it is quite feasible that whatever evidence there was written down in regards to Elizabeth rejecting Thomas’ advances was a lie to protect Elizabeth. She could have lost her life for her relationship with Thomas. Kat Ashley would have said anything to protect her. What we do know, is that Thomas did make advances. He DID go into her bedroom in the morning and in front everyone rip the covers from her bed (there is also a very uncomfortable scene in Ep 3, that all the history buffs will recognise as historical truth). In my opinion, of course Thomas was funny, charming and intoxicating to be around. That’s sometimes what abuse looks like. Reports state that Thomas was very popular with the women of court. Catherine Parr (an utterly extraordinary and frustratingly overlooked woman) loved Thomas so much that her passion for him lasted through her unwilling marriage to Henry. The point being; abuse can often be the most charismatic person in the room, wielding their power to take advantage of those with admiring glances, no matter how young. Couldn’t this storyline quite easily be ripped from the pages of the #MeToo movement. This is why I was so compelled to write. I felt so strongly about the importance of this story. About it’s nuance. About Anya’s extraordinary writing. About powerful men taking from others what is not theirs to take.
Lastly, I’ve greatly enjoyed this interaction. I’m so moved by your righteous anger at the abuse suffered by Elizabeth. I have no doubt that as the show unfolds that anger will be vindicated.
Thank you for your time. Kindest regards, Tom.”
What wonderful answers!
Now, I’m perfectly happy to be proved wrong in this and to have to eat my words. I’m not a person that digs my heels in and won’t accept when I’m wrong (my mother and husband will be raising their eyebrows if they read this!), so I’ll be the first to admit that in subsequent videos. At the moment, I’m still having problems with it. I think it was the whole cockerel idea that got to me. That’s not true to the testimonies. This man had a key to Elizabeth’s room and he focused on visiting Elizabeth, not rousing the whole household. That was too lighthearted for me. Possessing the key and unlocking her door is sinister and predatory. However, I’m willing to take on board Tom’s words about the series showing Elizabeth being groomed and manipulated, and how these situations often aren’t black and white, and also how I’ve missed the “nuance”. A young girl can be flattered by the attentions of a good-looking and charming older man, she can fall under his spell and feel that she’s in love with him, and it would still be wrong for that man to use her vulnerability and to take advantage of her when she’s not mature enough to deal with her feelings and what’s happening. If it happened like that, I can imagine the confusion, the guilt, the dirtiness that Elizabeth would have felt and it’s little wonder that she was so ill that summer.
So, I’ll wait and see how this plays out.
Another big thank you to Tom Cullen.
Oh, and for the record, I’m one of those who does believe the testimonies of Thomas Parry and Katherine Ashley. I don’t see any reason to doubt them. In my eyes, Elizabeth was abused.
Elizabeth I Online Event
As part of my online event “Elizabeth I: The Life of Gloriana, the Virgin Queen”, I’m holding weekly discussions on the “Becoming Elizabeth” series. Last week’s was brilliant. It’s always fun to talk Tudor and it was lovely to all share our views on both the series and the real historical events. Last week’s was in our private online chatroom, but I’m doing a zoom group discussion this week – fun!
Find out more about the event and register at https://claireridgway.com/events/elizabeth-i-the-life-of-gloriana-the-virgin-queen-online-event-7-16-september-2022/. The chat will take place at 10pm UK/ 5pm New York.
Photo: Tom Cullen, Wikipedia