"Married to England"

by Grayson Meek

The 1998 film "Elizabeth" was directed by Indian director Shekhar Kapur and he frequently expressed his longtime fascination with English history and the Elizabethan era specifically. His admiration for the spirit of his legendary main character and the grandiosity of 16th century Europe is evident in his direction and his primary actress, Cate Blanchett infuses her portrayal of the queen with strength and icy dignity. However, despite the wonderful performances of the film's actors, it lacks historical accuracy. Kapur has compressed many of the events that occurred prior to and during Elizabeth's reign into a five year period. This creates some discrepancies in what most historians agree upon as the actuality of Elizabeth's personality and that of the Elizabeth represented in the film. For example, Kapur's Elizabeth is portrayed in the film as being almost timid at times and positively flighty at others. In the film we are shown that Elizabeth was unaware of her lover, Lord Dudley's marital status. We know this to be absolutely false and it is therefore a rather nonsensical license to take. The whole of England knew of Dudley's wife and her subsequent, suspicious death. Also, in the interest of expedient and easily comprehensible filmmaking Kapur has created a kind of time warp within Elizabeth's reign so that we can see all that is relevant in a short period. This is an understandable liberty for the film to take as Elizabeth's reign was long and full of notable events.

The aim of this examination is to take the Elizabeth of the film and compare her not only to her real life counterpart, but with the politics and characteristics of the two other reigning English queens of her time; her sister, Queen Mary, and her cousin, Mary of Scotland. The latter two could not have been more different from each other, and certainly could not have been more disparate to Elizabeth's own character. Perhaps the only similarity between the two Marys was their shared Catholic faith. There is even less commonality amongst the women when Elizabeth is added to the mix and perhaps the only similarity is simply that they were women in positions of incomparable power in a time when the majority of women had little power at all. It should be mentioned that there were other women ruling across Europe who also had varying degrees of uncommon power, but for the purposes of this examination it will be limited to a discussion of English women. A great disparity between Elizabeth and her sister ancd cousin was how each used her power. An evaluation of the peripheral influences in Elizabeth's life is extremely relevant and useful to remember while considering her development as a ruler. The impact of having most of the female figures in her life die, become imprisoned, or suffer execution at her father's orders must have been immeasurable.

It is essential to constrast the Elizabeth that history attests to and the Elizabeth portrayed in the film. Kapur's Elizabeth is seen at the age of twenty-five as a woman of unrealized, even squandered potential. She shows little interest in her country at first and relies extensively on her male advisors; correspondingly, they treat her in a decidedly patronizing manner. Elizabeth is represented as unsure, indecisive, and vacillating. This is completely false and slightly offensive to the memory of the real Elizabeth. The idea that she would have been childlike at twenty-five and would allow that or any other weakness to be seen in public is untenable. When Elizabeth ascended to the throne she had had the benefit of unparalleled scholastic education and had excelled.She also had the indispensable lessons gleaned from a tumultuous childhood. In her formative years, her father, Henry VIII could be a cold and exacting man often in pain from an ulcerated leg and a shadow of his former self due to his bloated body. During his reign he had capriciously declared Elizabeth illegitimate, executed her mother as well as her cousin Catherine Howard, and cruelly discarded Catherine of Aragon. By the time Elizabeth was crowned she knew the world she was entering only too well. Elizabeth had been imprisoned and knew she had only narrowly escaped execution at the command of her own sister. She was no naive child when she gained the throne. Elizabeth was delighted to get her hands on the crown and allow herself to master her own destiny. Upon finding out that her sister had died, leaving her the heir apparent to the throne, Elizabeth is reputed to have said, "This is the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes".

Since Elizabeth did not marry, it is usually assumed that she never intended to do so. However, to presume that Elizabeth never seriously considered that idea is perhaps too facile an explanation. Much has been made of the fact that Elizabeth may have remarked as a child that she would never marry. After witnessing all that she had in her childhood, this would be a perfectly understandable position and may have been partially valid but by the time Elizabeth gained her crown she knew that the most politically advisable thing to do would be to marry so that a legitimate child of the Tudor line would secure the succession. Certainly her councilors never tired of explaining this reasoning to her. However, it was an incredibly difficult task to find an appropriate match for a reigning queen. The major players of Europe feverishly sought her hand. Her sister Mary's widower, Philip of Spain actively pursued the match. Erik of Denmark offered an enormous treasury but his kingdom was considered too far away and too far removed from English interests on the Continent. Besides, Elizabath was reputed to have thought him both unattractive and stupid. Marriage might mean an amazing consolidation of power and wealth but Elizabeth was rightly wary. She did not want to relinquish any control over English affairs. Moreover, marrying a monarch of France or Spain harbored a danger that Catholicism could become the dominant religion of England. These were very real risks that Elizabeth was unwilling to take; they effectively ruled out many of the major kings and princes of Europe. Other nobles were considered less dangerous to Elizabeth's rule itself but a match here would surely have created chaos amongst the nobility and that was not an acceptable option. Elizabeth needed her nobles on equal footing. To elevate one above the others, even Dudley, would have been foolish.

Elizabeth had other problems though, and they arrived in the form of her younger cousin, Mary of Scotland. Mary was a completely different character from Elizabeth. Both were intelligent but where Elizabeth was cautious and calculating, Mary was neither. Crowned Queen of Scotland as an infant, just days after James V's death, Mary was born with the halo of power looming over her. Acting in her interests, her regents rejected a marriage proposal from her great uncle, Henry VIII and at the age of five she was sent to France to live at the court of her future in-laws. At seventeen her father-in-law died and she became the Queen of France. This consolidation of Catholic power was troubling to her cousin Elizabeth. Scotland and France had long shared joint enmity against England but for the two countries to have a shared monarch was highly distressing. Elizabeth also knew that Mary had a legitimate claim to the English throne through her grandmother and Elizabeth's aunt, Margaret Tudor. However, Mary's French husband would soon die and the young widow would return to Scotland. She was distinctly unimpressed with the barren Scottish court but initially she would rule fairly. She listened to her advisors and was tolerant of the Calvinist faith. She married Lord Darnley, who also had a claim to the British throne but their marriage was not a happy union.

Soon Mary was making no secret of the fact that she believed the English throne to be hers and that her cousin Elizabeth was nothing more than a bastard. Many Catholics rallied around Mary because of Elizabeth's status at birth. They did not recognize the dissolution of Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon. As early as 1561 the differences between the two cousins were beginning to show. Mary was unabashedly confrontational and argumentative. She was capricious and mercurial, as Elizabeth had been in her youth, but unlike Elizabeth, Mary did not grow out of it. Mary was seldom thoughtful in her actions. When Mary was implicated in the Babington Plot, Elizabeth provided her protection. Elizabeth's motives were not entirely above reproach. She wanted to prevent the example that could be set by regicide. Mary, not a quiet or complacent captive, was as vocal as ever about her claim to the throne. Though there is no evidence that the cousins hated one another, it is probably reasonable to expect dislike or distrust. Finally, Mary was revealed as being complicit in yet another plot against her cousin and was secretly and quietly executed at Fotheringay Castle. Various reports suggested that Elizabeth was livid when she found out the executions had taken place without her knowledge but the veracity of these reports is questionable.

There was another Mary who was an irritating thorn in Elizabeth's side throughout the early part of her life. Mary Tudor had been treated just as callously by their father and had also been forced to admit her own bastard status and the validity of her mother's divorce. She had also been made to swear allegiance to Henry's church. However, she would never abandon her devotion to the Catholic faith and her zealous pursuit of restoring the Catholic Church in England would lead to a decline in popularity. Like Mary of Scotland, her choice of marriage partner would also lead to a sharp dip in her popularity. Her marriage to a prince of Spain was deeply despised and maligned, and when she thought she was pregnant, many despaired because a Catholic heir could solidify that religion's hold on the country. The anomaly of Mary's reign was her brutal treatment of Protestants. Many scholars note her forgiving and sweet-natured disposition and her ruthless suppression of another religion is therefore stranger and more unpleasant. Unlike her sister Elizabeth, she was a weak and distracted ruler, crushed by her inability to provide an heir.

Elizabeth, however, was influenced by both of these women. Each taught her valuable lessons about ruling. From reckless, impulsive Mary she learned to keep her thoughts as inward as possible. She had to be calculating and observant. It is quite possible that Mary reminded her of her own mother, Ann Boleyn. From her sister Mary she learned to be tolerant of both Protestantism and Catholicism and the Elizabethan Compromise was a result of this. Allowing both religions to be practiced earned her the loyalty of her subjects. The deaths of her mother and Catherine Howard and the treatment of Catherine of Aragon perhaps taught Elizabeth to remain as emotionless as possible. Through everything she learned, Elizabeth became that rare being in history: a well-loved monarch who was also a competent monarch.

For Further Reading:

Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne, by David Starkey
The Life of Elizabeth I, by Alison Weir
Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens, by Jane Dunn