Emily Cunningham

    The 1998 movie Elizabeth is a history lesson with just enough sex and intrigue to entertain the masses. The sets were very elaborate. Director, Shekhar Kapur creatively used lighting to help the audience have an understanding for which people supported Elizabeth, and which were against. Cate Blanchett, a virtually unknown actress at the time, leads as Elizabeth. She delivers a superb performance, worthy of the Golden Globe Award she received for Best Actress in 1999. Supported by a cast of Geoffrey Rush as Walsingham, Christopher Eccleston as the Duke of Norfolk, Joseph Fiennes as Lord Dudley, and Richard Attenborough as Sir William Cecil, Kapur took a historical event of a young woman who is thrust into a position of power and learns to become queen, and created a masterful and entertaining movie.

     Historically, Elizabeth was never meant to be Queen. Henry VIII, Elizabeth's father, knew that the key to peace in England was to have an undisputed heir. Henry VIII fought obsessively for a male heir. Henry created an Act of Supremacy placing himself above the Catholic Church allowing him to take wives as he chose in order to give himself maximum opportunity to produce a male heir.   Henry established his own church, based on Catholicism, and it became known as the Church of England. Henry had a bad habit of killing or divorcing his wives to get an undisputed heir. He had a total of six marriages; and three children, from three different mothers, survived him; Mary, Elizabeth, and one son, Edward. Elizabeth was born of Henry's second wife, Ann Boleyn, who was beheaded on the grounds of alleged adultery. Mary at age 17 when Elizabeth was born and the only of his Henry's first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was stripped of her title when Elizabeth was born, and made to serve her. In 1547 when Henry died, he was succeeded by his only son, Edward VI, who was ten years old. Edward was born of Henry's fourth wife, Jane Seymour.   Edward died six years after becoming King. Rather than search for a suitable male heir (and even though she was a woman,) England preferred to crown Mary, as she was the legitimate heir, in the hope of avoiding civil turmoil and a divided kingdom.   Mary was chosen over Elizabeth as Henry had created a line of succession to the throne, starting with Edward.  

     The movie opens with bells ringing as Mary announces she is pregnant. This is questioned, however, as Mary has had many previous false pregnancies and is apparently unable to conceive. It is eventually determined that Mary has a tumor, which is causing her belly to protrude and her menses to cease, rather than a pregnancy. Mary is expected to die from this illness so Mary's followers set out to kill Elizabeth, as they do not want her to succeed Mary to the throne.

     Mary was a fervent Catholic, who followed the Pope. Henry VIII, was a Protestant, as were Edward and Elizabeth.   Henry VIII and Edward kept up with Protestant policies and religion but when they died and left Mary on the throne, everyone who was unhappy with Protestantism jumped to aid and advise Mary.   She got the nickname Bloody Mary from the number of Protestants persecuted.   Mary married Phillip II, King of Spain, one of the most aggressive and devout enemies of Protestantism.  

     During this time Elizabeth, who was just a young girl, conformed with the religion of the    court, attended mass, and was a faithful servant to the queen.   She was carefree, and in love with Lord Robert, a member of the court.   At the same time there was a rebellion against Mary.   Mary's advisors convinced her that Elizabeth was behind the rebellion so Mary had Elizabeth jailed in the Tower of London.   Eventually Mary called for Elizabeth when she knew she was dying.   Mary pleaded with Elizabeth to embrace Catholicism, and to keep it as the religion of England.   Elizabeth told her that she would follow her heart.

     At twenty-five years of age Elizabeth became Queen of England upon Mary's death. Mary had created quite a bit of turmoil around the kingdom with her persecution and wars. She depleted all the resources of the national treasure, leaving Elizabeth with nothing.   For almost ten years, Catholic fanatics had surrounded the English court, and were to be replaced by Elizabeth's more liberal supporters. These supporters were all Protestants, the sort of people Mary had been beheading, and burning at the stake for almost a decade. The English nation was in disarray. There was no standing army, the navy was in disrepair, and no military outpost could be defended if attacked. The French were trying to make a stronghold in Scotland and Elizabeth's advisors were telling her to go to war in order to show her strength. Elizabeth preferred to keep peace and wanted to send emissaries to address and abate the conflict, anything to avoid war with its unknown outcome.

     Those surrounding Elizabeth pressed her to marry a suitor from Spain or France to gain an alliance, and a legitimate heir to the throne.   Mary of Guise wanted Elizabeth to marry her nephew, the Duke of Anjou, and promised that if she did, there would never be another problem between them.   Elizabeth was in love with Lord Robert, however, whom she had appointed as an advisor.   Elizabeth's infatuation with Lord Robert was obvious to everyone around her, including the foreign ambassadors who represented their respective suitors.

     An attempt was made on the queen's life shortly after she meets the Duke of Anjou. Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth's personal protector, investigated the plot and found a complex conspiracy. The Pope denounced the queen as a heretic and therefore, an illegitimate ruler of England. He also decreed that whoever removed her from the throne would be granted a place in heaven.   The Catholic clergy, who had lost power when Elizabeth was made queen, supported an assassin who had been given the "holy" mission. The Duke of Norfolk also communicated with the Vatican and with Mary, Queen of Scots, to marry her and claim the English throne.   Several court members, including the Spanish ambassador and Lord Robert, were also implicated in letters the assassin carried from Rome. All those implicated in treason were executed except for Lord Robert Dudley.  Elizabeth says, "Lord Dudley I shall keep alive, so I should look at him and remember how close I was to danger." The Queen then deems herself a virgin and she then 'marries' England. The movie portrays her as a woman of stone. She shows no emotion, and does not speak of herself as a woman but as the queen. She continues to rule for 40 years, keeping Walsingham at her side. When she dies, England is the most powerful country in Europe and so ends the Golden Age.

     In the 16 th century, men had more power, opportunities and influence on society than women did. Women did not have equal rights and were seen as possessions rather than people. A girl or woman of this time period had little or no opportunity to make decisions of her own.  When she was a young girl, her parents controlled her decisions and life;   once the girl became a woman and was married, her husband controlled her. Women in their husband's or their father's household were expected to behave accordingly, obeying their husbands or fathers. The role of a wife would be to comply with thehusband's decisions and bear him a family. At this time, women knew no other way of life, and so generally women complied with the traditions. Elizabeth was in a bad situation. She was treated as a simple woman with no intelligence or talent to make her own decisions. Her refusal to marry added more turmoil to the traditional beliefs that fueled the growing discontent with her court. But, Elizabeth was Queen, and she knew what was right for her people. In the 16 th century, especially in a monarchy, marriage, land, titles meant power and position. Elizabeth might have married if her parliament could have chosen a suitor. Of the two suitors presented in the movie neither wants anything from Elizabeth but her throne, but in the beginning I think Elizabeth is so daunted by the power that she would have considered the proposals for love or at least respect.   It is not until all parties show their deceitful ways that she declared she will not be ruled and will be no man's mistress.

     The movie's basic premise is accurate. Most of the events did occur. The characters are real and the basic attitudes are authentic.   The writer of the screen play, Michael Hirst added enough sex, scandal, and deceit to entice the masses that claim to be bored by history. But the real purpose of the 1998 Elizabeth was to give an imaginative idea of how a woman in the 16 th century could cope with power. It wasn't that she was a lesser being than a king; it was that everyone thought of her as a lesser being, a mere woman. I believe that this could be an accurate depiction of Elizabeth's personality. We know she was a strong and intelligent woman. We also know that she overcame the stereotype that women were worthless. The way she must close her self off, recreate her person, and stifle all the wants and desires of a human is almost divine. "Her people must be able to touch the divine in her," so says Walsingham.

     As Elizabeth grew from a young woman to a strong ruler, her values and attitudes toward herself, her confidantes and her nation, as well as to her friends and allies, changed greatly and developed her identity.