Elizabeth I Portrayals

Elizabeth 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?