Blackadder II: The Renaissance Years

By: Sara E. Baker

In the 1980s, the British Broadcasting Company saw one of its most popular sitcoms produced: the unique and twisted historical comedy, the Blackadder series. Written and directed by Richard Curtis, Ben Elton and Rowan Atkinson, the series each season follows the fictional and treacherous Blackadder dynasty in different periods. The second series, and arguably the best, takes place in sixteenth century England, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

While set in a period of great historical value and cultural progress, Blackadder II focuses rather narrowly on one man. Lord Edmund Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson), a clever, witty, and vindictive man of the queen's court, is just powerful enough to want more power, and not influential enough to keep himself from getting into trouble. His aims in life are primarily to gain money and power, through whatever deceitful means necessary, while constantly fighting to earn Queen Elizabeth's favor.

It should be noted here that Queen Elizabeth I (Miranda Richardson) is portrayed in a most unrealistic, though thoroughly entertaining, manner. Unlike the intelligent, diplomatic queen who reigned for forty-five years of relative prosperity, Blackadder's Elizabeth is childlike, spoiled and fickle. She is simultaneously jealous and endearing, and is just as eager to execute her friends as she is her enemies. It is this Elizabeth whom Blackadder is constantly trying to please, as he competes with her advisor, Lord Melchett (Stephen Fry), for her favor. She is constantly flanked b the intelligent but sycophantic Melchett and her nurse maid since childhood, the daft Nursie (Patsy Byrne). Nursie is one of the many characters on the show who are lacking in intelligence and common sense. She helped raise the queen as a baby, and she still operates in that frame of mind. She is fixed on breastfeeding and diapers.  

It is a challenge, therefore, for the very intelligent Lord Blackadder to tolerate these friends of the queen and cater to her juvenile impulses in order to remain in her good graces. Blackadder is also plagued by imbeciles at home, including his suggestible servant Baldrick and his dense, awkward friend Lord Percy. The two are constant butts of Blackadder's jests and abuse, but remain almost obnoxiously loyal to him. They are always read to help, useless though their help may be.

In the first of the six episodes, Bells , a young lady is pressured by her father to become a prostitute and ease their financial woes. She decides instead to disguise herself as a boy and become a servant. She enters Lord Blackadder's service and, much to Blackadder's confusion, they fall in love. In this installment, Blackadder struggles with what is apparently his own homosexuality. When he seeks the help of a doctor, the show pokes fun at Tudor medicine, which left a great deal to be desired. The doctor he sees apparently treats no disease without the aid of leeches, and casually condemns Blackadder's behavior. This is one aspect which Blackadder does little to exaggerate. In the early Renaissance there was not much in the way of medical enlightenment. Medications were rather scarce because chemistry was just beginning to develop, and the only thing close to it was alchemy. Illnesses were believed to be caused by "black bile" in the blood, leading doctors to apply leeches to their patients.  

The subject of marriage brings Queen Elizabeth to sulk a bit because she is not married.   In reality, however, the Queen made it a point not to marry.  Although she had many suitors and she made various plans to marry, Elizabeth decided that, in the interest of her country, she should not marry. She did not want England to be vulnerable to any foreign claim, and her decision earned her the nickname, "The Virgin Queen."

The second episode, Head, is truly unique to the Blackadder series. Much to his dismay, Lord Blackadder is appointed Lord High Executioner. During the volatile times in Europe between Catholics and Protestants, the position was not a popular one. In this historical comedy, it does not seem absurd at all for the subject matter to include beheadings and treason. While this episode portrays Queen Elizabeth as being keen to execute Catholics and traitors, the real Queen Elizabeth was not so harsh. The characterization is derived from Elizabeth's half-sister Mary's policy of burning Catholics and their father Henry VIII's notorious reputation for executions. Elizabeth was actually instrumental in creating a more secure Church of England and creating a compromise between Catholics and Protestants. Unlike her predecessors Edward VI and Mary, who were radically opposed on the issue, Elizabeth was not fanatically devoted to either side. The informed viewer will notice a mistake in this episode.  

Nursie, in on of her illogical rants, says that when Elizabeth's sister Mary's head was now cut off, she gave her ointment.   The trouble is, Elizabeth's sister Mary's head was not cut off.   She ruled with ruthless policies towards Catholics and was living in a time of conflict and rebellions, but she died of natural causes.   Elizabeth's cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, was young and made unwise decisions. Mary planned to marry and unite France and Scotland. The Catholic French government supported Mary, but many of her people in Scotland were Protestants. Rebellions, battles, and badly chosen marriages led Mary to alienate her people on both sides of the Catholic-Protestant conflict. Imprisoned by Elizabeth I, supposedly for her protection from Protestants, she was eventually executed for her involvement in schemes designed to depose the Queen. Elizabeth's sister Mary ("Bloody" Mary) and Mary, Queen of Scots are often mistaken as the same person.

In the third episode, Potato, we meet the famous explorer and courtier of Elizabeth's court, Sir Walter Raleigh (Simon Jones). Ever cynical and unwelcoming of competition, Blackadder is not impressed while the rest of the court celebrates the explorer's return. Raleigh is portrayed as arrogant and obnoxious in this show. In truth, he was rather arrogant, but he was tall, handsome, an able soldier, author, poet and favorite of the Queen. Raleigh is credited with bringing tobacco to Europe, and was a well-known adventurer. Out of jealousy, Blackadder attempts a voyage of his own and, with every intention of cheating and spending a few moths in France; he inadvertently finds himself at the then unsettled continent of Australia. Before long, Sir Walter Raleigh has lost favor with the Queen and he becomes little more than a jester to her. In reality, Raleigh did lose favor with the Queen, but his fall was a bit more complicated.

Raleigh is more importantly known for making the first British attempts to colonize the Americas. Present-day Virginia is named for Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen. Raleigh made three attempts to colonize, but each failed, resulting in the "lost colony" of Roanoke. It was not these failures, however, which lost him favor with the Queen. Although Elizabeth, never married, she had many suitors and was, by all accounts, somewhat flirtatious. Raleigh was tall, handsome and able soldier who had a talent for writing poetry, and he easily won favor with the Queen. However, when he secretly married one of Elizabeth's maids of honor, Bessie Throckmorton, the jealous Queen reacted angrily and had the couple imprisoned in the Tower of London. Raleigh would be released and imprisoned several times for various reasons. He did most of his writing while in the Tower. In 1918, his once-reprieved death sentence was reinstated and he was executed under the rule of James I.

In the fourth episode, Money, Blackadder falls on money troubles. His deceitful ways and greedy spending habits proved to be a problem when the sadistic Bishop of Bath and Wells (Ronald Lacey) appears, demanding repayment of a loan on pain of death.

While the focus in this episode is clearly corruption of church officials and their insatiable desire for money, some interesting references are made during the episode. Blackadder, while in bed with a prostitute, makes a glib reference to Martin Luther, major figure in the development of Protestantism. The subject of Tudor sanitation comes up briefly when Blackadder is trying to sell his home. The "system" used at the time consisted of open sewers along the length of the streets, which were used for refuse of any kind.

In the same episode, Lord Percy attempts to solve Blackadder's financial problems by discovering the secret to alchemy. Alchemy was practiced for centuries before and after the time, and its major purposes were to create precious metal and to come up with an elixir to prolong life. Eventually, medicinal chemistry was developed and alchemy began to focus primarily on creating gold from base materials.

The fifth episode, Beer, also deals with the ironic policies of the fanatically religious. Blackadder's Puritan aunt and uncle, Lord and Lady Whiteadder, visit to discuss his inheritance. The extreme and severe couple, constantly scolding Blackadder and condemning him on the most petty behavior flaws, are suspiciously wealthy. Lady Whiteadder's desire to burn Catholics is perhaps exaggerated, but is characteristic of the purification attitudes of the Puritans of the time. Blackadder has also, inconveniently, committed to a drinking party on this visit, and tries to keep the two parties separate from each other. In a particularly mocking jab at the Puritans, the couple winds up as drunk as Blackadder's friends and making vulgar jokes.

In the final episode, Chains, the Queen is receiving various ransom letters for courtiers' lives. After recommending that she ignore the demand for money, Blackadder gets kidnapped himself, along with Lord Melchett. Early on, the viewer is led to believe that they have been kidnapped by the Spanish Inquisition.   The Spanish Inquisition started in the 1400s and was not done away with completely until the nineteenth century. The church in Spain was concerned with ridding the county of Muslims and witches, among other things. However, we find out that Blackadder's captor is not the Spanish Inquisition, but a power-hungry German. The master of disguise, Prince Ludwig (played by a rather severe-looking Hugh Laurie) was a misfit, bullied at school, and is now bent on taking over the English throne. Blackadder's torture is yet another sardonic strike at the more extreme policies carried out by the church.

For me, researching this period was particularly interesting. The Renaissance was a time of cultural, literary and scientific breakthroughs, but also a dangerous and exciting world of exploration and fierce religious conflict. Overall, the Blackadder series remains loosely faithful to history, but is not to be relied upon as a source of historical education. Having admitted the series' faults, I whole-heartedly recommend the work to promote historical knowledge. It is a wonderful way to rouse interest in the history of Tudor England.  Blackadder is not in itself terribly educational, but it is a clever and innovative comedy built on the brilliant and unique concept of an historic sitcom.