Producer Melissa requested we cover the movie Elizabeth, so pack your bags and travel back in time to the days just after King Henry VIII as we compare the movie with history.
KEEP LEARNING WITH MORE RESOURCES
- Elizabeth – Movie Synopsis, Summary, Plot & Film Details
- Elizabeth (1998) – Plot Summary – IMDb
- Elizabeth (1998) Synopsis | Fandango
- Elizabeth Movie Review & Film Summary (1998) | Roger Ebert
- Queen Elizabeth I: Biography, Facts, Portraits & Information
- Elizabeth I of England – Wikipedia
- Elizabeth I | Biography, Facts, Mother, & Death | Britannica.com
- Queen Elizabeth I : Biography : Page 1
- Queen Elizabeth I | History TV
- Elizabeth I Biography – Biography
- Amazon.com: The First Elizabeth eBook: Carolly Erickson: Kindle Store
- Amazon.com: Queen Elizabeth I: A Life From Beginning to End (Royalty Biography Book 3) eBook: Hourly History: Kindle Store
- Amazon.com: Queen Elizabeth: A Biography Of The Legendary Queen Of England eBook: Patrick Auerbach: Kindle Store
- Queen Mary’s False Pregnancies – Tudors Dynasty
- Doctor’s Review | An heir-raising experience
- Lettice Knollys – Wikipedia
- Review – Elizabeth
- Wyatt’s rebellion – Wikipedia
- BOURNE, John I (by 1518-75), of Battenhall and Holt, Worcs. | History of Parliament Online
- The Woodland Trust | Ancient Tree Hunt | Tree details
- Queen Elizabeth’s Oak, Greenwich Park
- The Elizabeth Files » The Imprisonment of Elizabeth
- Lord Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester 1532-1588 – MaryQueenofScots.net
- Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (c.1533-1588) : Page 1
- Robert DUDLEY (1º E. Leicester)
- Amy Robsart – Wikipedia
- The Ridolfi Plot, 1571 | History Today
- John Ballard (Jesuit) – Wikipedia
- The Ridolfi Plot
- Ridolfi Plot | English history | Britannica.com
- Ridolfi plot – Oxford Reference
- The National Archives | Research, education & online exhibitions | Exhibitions | Secrets and Spies
- Roberto Ridolfi | Italian conspirator | Britannica.com
- Regnans in Excelsis – Papal Encyclicals
- History Undressed: Elizabeth I & Her Lovers
- The James Ford Lectures in British History | Faculty of History
- Queen Elizabeth and the Revolt of the Netherlands: Charles Wilson: 9789024722730: Amazon.com: Books
- Queen Elizabeth and the Making of Policy, 1572-88 | History Today
- Queen Elizabeth and the revolt of the Netherlands: Charles Wilson: 9780520017443: Amazon.com: Books
- Dudley’s Last Letter to Queen Elizabeth I
- Why Queen Elizabeth I Never Married
- The Letters of Queen Elizabeth. To Queen Mary. 1554.
- Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (c.1531-1588)
- Last Letter of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (c.1533-1588)
About the movie Elizabeth
On March 3rd, 2013, a new TV show premiered on the History channel. It marked a bit of, well, history, as the first fully scripted series by the History channel. Vikings is still in production today, and while it is based on one of the best-known Norse legends, it’s one of those TV shows that I’ve always wanted to watch but never gotten around to checking out.
So, if you’re a fan of Vikings, I’d love to hear what you think!
History channel’s Vikings was created by and written by Michael Hirst. While I haven’t checked that one out yet, I have watched one of Michael’s earlier shows—Showtime’s The Tudors.
As the name implies, The Tudors tells the story of the royalty in England—Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and the stories of their salacious courts. That brings us to our movie today, which is very much in line with The Tudors.
Before working on either The Tudors or Vikings, Michael Hirst wrote two movies that together told the story of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I.
Today we’re going to be looking at the first of those movies released in 1998 simply called, Elizabeth.
Learn the true story behind Elizabeth
The movie opens with a bit of text to set the scene. We’re in England in the year 1554. King Henry VIII is dead. England is divided between Catholics and Protestants and the new Queen is Henry’s oldest daughter, Mary, who is a devoted Catholic.
What strikes fear into the heart of the Catholics in power is that Mary doesn’t have a child, meaning should she pass, then the line of succession would go to Mary’s Protestant half-sister, Elizabeth.
That’s all true, although it is greatly simplified—and for good reason.
It’s a very complex, and fascinating tale of politics that we don’t have time to cover in a ton of depth on this episode, but if you haven’t already I’d recommend checking out the episode about the movie The Other Boleyn Girl where we learned about King Henry VIII and one of his wives, Anne Boleyn.
In a nutshell for our story today, though, King Henry VIII wanted an heir—a male heir. Henry and Catherine did have a daughter, Mary, who was born in 1516.
The movie doesn’t mention this at all, but it was the very following year, in 1517, when Martin Luther pinned his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of All Saints’ Church. Well, there’s been some dispute among historians about whether or not he actually did that, but what we do know is that he sent them to the Archbishop of Mainz on October 31st, 1517, a day that has since become known as Reformation Day.
The Ninety-Five Theses were essentially what kicked off the Protestant Reformation. We can get as deep as we want into the theology of religion, but let me try to give a brief overview of the basic concept of the Reformation.
It was a stand against the Catholic Church.
So, the Catholic Church at the time believed and preached that the Pope was God’s representative on Earth. As such, for the most part anything the Pope said was taken as God’s Word. Most people at the time couldn’t read, so they relied very heavily on what their priests told them—even more so than today.
But with Johannes Gutenberg inventing the printing press in 1436, more and more people had access to writings. More people started being able to read, and one of the most popular things people wanted to read was the Bible—God’s Word.
The Reformation, then, was a change of thought that spread across Europe challenging the power of the Catholic Church. Instead of relying on the Pope and the priests to interpret God’s Word, one of the key threads to the Protestant Reformation was the concept that good works didn’t buy your way into heaven, but rather it was faith in Jesus that did it. And along a similar line was the concept of sola scriptura—the Bible is the only source of proper belief.
Both of these, in particular the last one, were quite different than what the Catholic Church taught at the time.
It meant the people were responsible for reading the Bible themselves and wouldn’t necessarily believe whatever the priest said no matter what. It also meant you didn’t necessarily have to do the good works the priests told you to do as you repented of your sins. As you can probably imagine, that meant quite a bit of power being taken out of the hands of those priests.
And no one likes losing power.
So Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses were first published in 1517 and began spreading like wildfire across Europe thanks to the printing press.
As history would have it, as part of his attempt at validating his six marriages in the eyes of the Church—which was even more heavily involved in marriages then as they are now—King Henry VIII and the Pope didn’t really see eye to eye on things.
Most historians agree King Henry VIII started what we now know as the English Reformation in 1527 after he first asked the Pope for an annulment from his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. The Pope refused. King Henry VIII wasn’t dissuaded and continued the annulment, something that would eventually lead to the Church of England separating from the Catholic Church.
In 1533, he pretty much ignored what the Pope said when he left his wife of 24 years, Catherine of Aragon, because she couldn’t provide him with a son. As if she had control over that.
King Henry VIII took it out on her, causing all sorts of controversy when he annulled his marriage to Catherine, turning right around to marry Anne Boleyn. They set about trying to have a son, but their firstborn was a girl—Elizabeth.
She was born on September 7th, 1533 and was a disappointment to King Henry because she wasn’t the male heir he wanted. With Anne, too, failing to produce a son, Henry again took it out on her. This time finding out a way to legally behead Anne, so he could turn around and marry Jane Seymour.
Jane did give Henry the son he wanted when Edward was born on October 12th, 1537, but then Jane died just two weeks after giving birth—most likely due to some complications with the birth.
Ten years later, Edward was coronated, making him King Edward VI. In 1553, at age 15, Edward became ill and died. We don’t really know why he died, but most historians believe it was probably tuberculosis.
Normally, the heir to the throne on Edward’s passing would’ve been Mary, the daughter of Henry and Catherine, since she was the oldest. If not Mary, then it would’ve been Elizabeth since she, too, was born of a king and queen—Henry and Anne.
But before he died, Edward named his cousin, Lady Jane Grey, as his heir.
That didn’t seem to go over too well for many, especially Mary, who asserted her right to the throne. Nine days, and after plenty more political factors that could be an entire episode in and of itself, Mary became Queen Mary I of England.
And that brings us to where the movie begins.
In the opening sequence, we see chains. A table with cuffs. Then we see prison guards cutting prisoner’s hair—extremely rough, there’s blood on their heads as the guards carelessly chop off the hair with a knife. One of the prisoners, a woman, is moaning a prayer. It’s almost crying, but not really…it’s a very sad prayer.
After this, we see the three prisoners, two women and a man, being marched under armed guard. In front of them are a series of priests leading the way. Then the scene cuts and we see the three bound to a pile of branches.
One of the priests speaks, exclaiming that the prisoners are Protestant heretics who have rejected the one true Catholic Church and His Holiness the Pope. For this, they’ll burn forever in hell—beginning today as they burn at the stake.
That scene is all fictionalized for the film, but it sets up an important point that is very true. By that, what I mean is that the Catholics burned Protestants at the stake. In today’s world, at least here in the United States where I am, it’s common to see churches of numerous denominations right next to each other. This is like if those churches went to war and started burning each other at the stake because their God isn’t the right God. My God is the right God, a God of peace and love…now die because you worship a different God.
That sort of thing happened then, and while it may not be one Christian denomination against another in the same sort of rage as it was back then, all we need to do is look at today’s news to see there are still wars being fought over religion.
Going back to the movie, after the burning at the stake, we see the Duke of Norfolk as played by Christopher Eccleston walking through luxurious stone halls. In the distance there’s bells ringing, something he scolds a nearby man for doing without his permission. According to the Duke, they should’ve asked him before ringing the bells to announce the Queen’s pregnancy.
Then he enters a more private room to chat with Amanda Ryan’s character, Lettice Howard.
As a quick little side note, I should point out that Lettice Howard wasn’t her real name. We can tell from their conversation that the Duke of Norfolk is sleeping with Lettice, so the real person was Lettice Knollys. The surname the movie gives her comes from the fact that the Duke of Norfolk’s real name was Thomas Howard. He inherited the Dukedom of Norfolk in 1554 at the age of 18.
So assuming Lettice Knollys and Thomas Howard were married, her name would’ve been Lettice Howard, right? Well, in truth, even though Lettice Knollys was a real person, she married a man named Walter Devereux, the Earl of Essex in 1560 and, while this is getting ahead of our story a bit, after the Earl of Essex died, she married Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, in 1578. If that name sounds familiar it’s because Robert Dudley is the character played by Joseph Fiennes—someone we see Cate Blanchett’s version of Elizabeth be infatuated with in the film. And that bit is true.
The movie doesn’t mention this at all, but Lettice’s mother was none other than Catherine Carey. If you’ve seen The Other Boleyn Girl, that name might ring a bell. She was the little girl that was born to Anne Boleyn’s sister, Mary, and one that many suspected was fathered by King Henry VIII himself. Although that has never been proven, nevertheless, because of their relationship, Elizabeth and Catherine were close friends.
Catherine, or Lady Knollys, as she became known after her 1547 marriage to Sir Francis Knollys, was living in Germany during the reign of Queen Mary I. That was because she was a staunch Protestant and, well, we just learned what life was like for Protestants in England during Mary’s reign.
And while some of their children went with them, in truth, we don’t really know of Lettice was one of them. The movie would seem to suggest that she wasn’t. We just don’t know.
But her daughter, Lettice, was the grandniece of Anne Boleyn—her mother was Anne’s sister, Mary Boleyn’s, daughter—and that relationship was something that helped her befriend Elizabeth early in life. But then Lettice’s marriage to someone Elizabeth liked, Robert Dudley, soured that relationship some.
But we’re getting sidetracked from our story. That’s easy to do with all of these characters! The point here is that Lettice Knollys and Thomas Howard were never married.
Thomas had three wives in his lifetime. Mary FitzAlan, Margaret Audley and Elizabeth Leyburne.
Despite this little inaccuracy, going back to the film, we see Amanda Ryan’s version of Lettice Howard explain that the Queen’s showing all the symptoms. As she explains flatly, the Queen hasn’t bled, her breasts are producing milk and her stomach is swollen. She must be pregnant.
Again, this scene is a fictional one, but again it’s pointing out something in history that’s true.
By that, what I mean is that it was true that Queen Mary showed the signs of being pregnant.
This was in September of 1554, and some of the symptoms the movie didn’t mention are that Mary had morning sickness as well. Everyone in the court was convinced she was pregnant, even her doctors. Looking back at it through the lens of history, we know now that she wasn’t…but they didn’t know it at the time. And a pregnancy could’ve meant a new heir, which surely would’ve extended the Catholic hold on the throne. A big deal.
But, as it turns out, she wasn’t pregnant. We’ll learn more about this in a moment, but let’s hop back into the movie because the timeline in the film switches things around here.
The next major plot point in the film happens when we see Cate Blanchett’s version of Elizabeth get imprisoned. She’s locked away and accused of being a Protestant and conspiring against the crown. When we see her brought before her sister, Queen Mary, even her sister tries to get Elizabeth to confess her crimes.
She doesn’t, and one of the next scenes we see is a very ill Mary on her bed. The Duke of Norfolk comes, trying to convince Mary to sign something that we can only assume is a document condemning Elizabeth to death. Mary refuses and passes away—making Elizabeth the successor to the throne.
A bit ago, I mentioned the timeline being off. So, let’s unravel this.
It is true that Elizabeth was imprisoned. But if you remember, Mary started showing signs of pregnancy sometime in September of 1554. It was well before that, on March 18th, 1554, when Elizabeth was imprisoned in the Tower of London. That’s the same tower that Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, was taken to before she was executed.
Imagine what that must’ve been like for her. Elizabeth was only three years old when her mother was executed, but she must’ve heard stories.
The imprisonment was for the same reason the movie suggests, though. We see the man coming to arrest Elizabeth accuse her of conspiring with Sir Thomas Wyatt and others against the crown. That was something we now know as Wyatt’s rebellion, named after, well, Sir Thomas Wyatt.
That involved some 90 or so people, many of them of nobility, who rebelled against Queen Mary. We don’t really know why, but many historians believe it was an attempt to prevent Mary’s proposed marriage to Prince Philip of Spain. Whatever the reason for the rebellion, by the time February of 1554 rolled around, it had been quelled.
The rebels themselves were sentenced and imprisoned. But this rebellion was used for other purposes than those directly involved in the plot.
Lord Guildford Dudley, for example, had been charged with high treason on November 13th, 1553, along with his wife, Jane. You might know her as Lady Jane Grey.
Despite both being locked up at the time of the rebellion, Jane’s father, Henry Grey, was involved in the rebellion. So after the rebellion was crushed, the fate of Henry’s daughter was sealed. On February 12th, Jane’s husband, Guildford, was beheaded. Immediately upon returning his remains to the Tower of London where Jane was being held, she saw his body just before being taken herself. She was beheaded the same day.
Oh, and you guessed it—Lady Jane Grey was a Protestant, something that clearly worked against her.
The leader of the rebellion, Thomas Wyatt, was also being held in the Tower, and on March 14th, he was put on trial. The prosecutors tried their best to implicate Elizabeth in the plot. They even racked Thomas, torturing him in an attempt to bring Elizabeth’s name into it. According to records of the trial, Sir John Bourne said he had, “…labored to make Sir Thomas Wyatt confess concerning the Lady Elizabeth…but unsuccessfully, though torture had been applied.”
Despite lacking proof, as it turns out when the Queen and the Catholic Church are coming after you, proof isn’t always needed.
On March 18th, 1554, Mary used this as an excuse to arrest her Protestant half-sister, Elizabeth on the charges of being involved in Wyatt’s rebellion.
For a couple months, Elizabeth was in the Tower of London. On May 22nd, she was placed under the watch of Sir Henry Bedingfield. He was the Lieutenant of the Tower of London at the time—the captain of the guard. For the next year or so, Elizabeth was under house arrest with Sir Bedingfield at the Royal Palace of Hatfield
In the meantime, Mary dealt with her pregnancy. Well, what she thought was pregnancy, at least.
It was almost exactly a year later, in April of 1555, when Elizabeth pops back into the picture. After apparently restoring favor, Elizabeth was invited back to Mary’s court to help tend to what must be the late stages of her half-sister’s pregnancy.
In July of 1555, Mary’s stomach stopped swelling. She wasn’t pregnant. Moreover, Mary turned this into an opportunity to punish the heretic Protestants even more by convincing herself that her inability to have a child was punishment from God for allowing Protestants in her kingdom.
Things must’ve gotten tense again for Elizabeth.
While the movie makes it seem like things were happening quickly here, it wasn’t until years later that Mary fell ill. Mary’s husband, Prince Philip of Spain, visited Mary in 1557. This led Mary to believe she was pregnant yet again, and she decreed that after her baby was born the following year, Philip would be regent until their child grew to be of age. On the other hand, if the child didn’t survive, Elizabeth would take over.
In May of 1558, Mary fell ill and on November 17th, 1558, Mary passed away. As it turned out, she wasn’t pregnant after all which meant Elizabeth officially began her reign that same day.
Going back to the movie, we see this happen when Cate Blanchett’s version of Elizabeth receives notice that the Earl of Sussex has arrived. She goes out to meet him in a beautiful green meadow underneath a massive tree. It’s here that Sussex gives Elizabeth the ring that was on Mary’s finger—an indication that Mary has passed. After handing her the ring, Sussex and all those witnessing the event bow and exclaim, “Long live the Queen!”
Elizabeth then said, “This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.”
That’s a quote from the Bible—Psalm 118:23, to be more precise.
And it is a common belief that these were the very first words Elizabeth uttered upon hearing of Mary’s death—the first words of Elizabeth’s reign.
As for whether this scene is true, well, that’s a little hard to prove. Remember this was happening in November of 1558, and while I couldn’t find the weather records for 1558 in the town of Hatfield in Hertfordshire, England where the Royal Palace of Hatfield was located, I highly doubt it was that beautiful scene we saw in the film.
However, just like Psalm 118:23 is commonly thought to have been Elizabeth’s first words as Queen, so, too, is the belief that she uttered them underneath the massive oak now known as the Queen Elizabeth’s Oak.
I say, “now known as”, because that tree is still there. Some legends suggest the tree was already about 400 years old when King Henry VIII danced around it with Anne Boleyn. If you visit the grounds of Greenwich Park today, you’ll find this plaque alongside the remains of the oak lying on the ground:
This ancient tree known as Queen Elizabeth’s Oak is thought to have been planted in the 12th Century and it has been hollow for many hundreds of years. It has traditions linking it with Queen Elizabeth I, King Henry VIII and his Queen Anne Boleyn, it may also have been a lock-up for offenders against park rules.
It died in the late 19th Century and a strong growth of ivy supported it until it collapsed in June 1991.
The English Oak alongside was planted by His Royal Highness the Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, KG, KT Baron Greenwich on 3rd December 1992.
The tree was donated by the Greenwich Historical Society to mark the 40 years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.
So, even though the tree isn’t alive anymore, it’s still resting on its side near the place it once stood.
Oh, and I should probably point out that Queen Elizabeth’s Oak is some 21 miles, or about 34 kilometers, to the south of the Hatfield House—the current house that stands on the grounds of where the Royal Palace of Hatfield was during Elizabeth’s time.
If the events we see in the movie were true, that means Elizabeth would’ve found out about Earl of Sussex while inside then travel 20 miles or so from the north side of London to the southeast side to meet the Earl.
While it’s possible she made that trip…the distance coupled with the timing being in November make me tend to think that scene is not likely to have happened the way we see in the film.
Speaking of which, going back to the movie, the next major plot point happens when we see Elizabeth dancing with Joseph Fiennes’ character, Robert Dudley. After the two dance together in the center of a crowd in the ballroom, we see Robert and Elizabeth sleep together.
As we’ve seen happen multiple times throughout the film so far, those two scenes are fictional but they’re depicting something that was very real. By that, what I mean is that it is true that Queen Elizabeth had a romantic interest in a man named Robert Dudley.
We’ve already talked about him a little bit, but this whole romance between Elizabeth and Robert was true. Or was it? The truth is we don’t really know for sure the extent of their relationship.
One thing we do know is that Elizabeth and Robert were good friends. It’s been said that Robert claimed, “he knew her better than anyone else from when she was eight years old.”
We also know that eight years before Elizabeth became queen, when Robert was just 18 years old in the year 1550, something happened that the movie doesn’t really mention—he married the daughter of a Norfolk gentleman named Amy Robsart.
Despite this, there were still plenty of rumors of a relationship between Elizabeth and Robert, who became her Master of the Horse upon her ascension to the throne. That’s mostly ceremonial today, but during Robert’s day was an important position.
Even though the movie doesn’t really mention dates, by the time 1559 rolled around it was clear to almost anyone in the court that Elizabeth and Robert were in love.
During all of this, Robert was still married to Amy, although she didn’t follow him to court. Oh, and not to get too far ahead of our story, but Amy Dudley died in 1560 when she fell down some stairs and broke her neck. At the time there weren’t any charges pressed, but many historians consider her death to be…well, suspicious.
Back in the movie, despite what we see of the relationship with Robert and Elizabeth, it’s clear that most of the people in her court expect her to marry a royal partner from another country. The two primary ones we see in the film are George Antoni’s character, King Philip II of Spain, who sends an ambassador to propose, and Vincent Cassel’s character, the Duke of Anjou.
Naturally there’s going to be quite a few details in there fictionalized for the film, but the basic gist of that is true.
It was in early 1559 when Elizabeth turned down the hand of King Philip II of Spain. But the pressure from many around her continued to not only form a bond with an external ally, but to solidify the chance for a male heir to the throne through a royal marriage.
And yet, just like the movie shows, Elizabeth remained single.
But that brings us to the Duke of Anjou. In the movie, we see this relationship breaking off when we see Vincent Cassel’s version of Anjou crossdressing. When Cate Blanchett’s version of Elizabeth walks in, she laughs and leaves—effectively ending her courtship with Anjou.
That specific scene isn’t necessarily one pulled straight from history, but it illustrates a point that some historians believe to be true. Simply put, the idea that the Duke of Anjou both was a suitor for Queen Elizabeth I and might’ve been gay.
But there’s a lot more to the story.
Let’s start by clarifying which Duke of Anjou we’re referring to since that’s a title that’s been held by multiple people. In this particular case, it could be confusing because there were two different people who held that title that proposed to Elizabeth. Not at the same time of course, and that there were multiple suitors for the Queen of England wasn’t that uncommon.
I couldn’t find a verified number in my research, but some places said she had 12 suitors, others said 20 to 30 while still others just left it at the vague, “several.”
As for the Duke of Anjou, though, there were two—Francis and Henry. Since the movie doesn’t really give dates, we can’t know for sure when these scenes with Vincent Cassel’s version of the Duke of Anjou are happening, but the movie’s version of Anjou was Henry.
We know this because it was in 1570 when Henry came into the picture as a suitor for Elizabeth as a way of bolstering relations between France and England. But then, after ascending to the throne in France in 1574, there started being reports that the now King Henry III was having sexual encounters with men in his court. It’s not something he was open about because he was quite fervently Catholic and, well, the Catholic Church saw homosexuality as a sin.
And after everything we learned about Elizabeth and her dealings with Catholicism in England didn’t leave a good taste in her mouth for the Catholic faith. So, the religious differences were enough to keep Elizabeth uninterested in Henry and, quite honestly, probably the other way around, too.
There were some reports of Henry even referring to Elizabeth as a whore—not really the kind of thing you’d expect to hear between two lovers. But, I guess, it’s plain that the two weren’t really lovers. It was something led by politics, as were many of the suitors for Elizabeth.
Oh, and even though he doesn’t make his way onto the screen in the movie, the Duke of Anjou named Francis—he got the title after Henry became King—came into the picture as a suitor for Elizabeth in 1578. In fact, it was Francis who was the longest-running suitor for Elizabeth. She considered his proposal for about a decade.
Back in the movie, there’s a couple scenes where we see someone trying to kill Cate Blanchett’s version of Elizabeth. The first scene where we found out the Queen’s life was in danger happened when we saw her riding along with Dudley in a boat. Then, suddenly, a body falls near the Queen. A moment later, an arrow lands just inches from her face.
We never see the shooter, but then later on we do see Daniel Craig’s character, a priest named John Ballard who is there to harm the Queen with help from the Duke of Norfolk. There’s another scene where Daniel Craig’s character nearly gets to the Queen, but she’s pulled away to the scene of one of Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waiting being murdered. It’d seem she wore one of Elizabeth’s dresses that was laced in poison.
As with most of the things we’ve looked at so far, the specifics of these scenes were made up for the film but the overall gist of these plots against the life of Queen Elizabeth have some base in truth.
Even though we don’t really see many of the people driving the plot, there was a plot to kill Elizabeth around this time that we now know as the Ridolfi plot.
It began around 1570 or 1571, the year after Henry entered the picture as a suitor for Elizabeth. The plot got its name from the main conspirator, Roberto Ridolfi, who worked as a banker and merchant, and was trusted by, many of the leaders in Elizabeth’s court. But there’s one thing Roberto didn’t like about Elizabeth. You guessed it, religion. Roberto was Catholic, and he was determined to do something to help regain the English Catholics to their previous stature as the one, true religion in England.
Simply put, the plot was to simultaneously murder Elizabeth to establish a new ruler in the form of Mary Stuart—also known as Mary, Queen of Scots. But killing Elizabeth wouldn’t be enough. They’d need some military backing, so Ridolfi and his co-conspirators reached out to King Philip II of Spain, Pope Pius V and the Spanish governor-general of the Netherlands, the Duke of Alba. It was Roberto’s work as a banker helped him travel internationally so often without much suspicion.
King Philip II, by the way, was also one of Elizabeth’s suitors at one point.
Oh, and although the movie doesn’t mention this at all, Mary, Queen of Scots was imprisoned in England around the year 1568. She was kept imprisoned in various castles around England by Elizabeth for the next 18 or so years until she was executed in 1586.
Of course, the movie doesn’t really mention that because we see more of it in the second movie – Elizabeth: The Golden Age – so we’ll learn more about Mary’s part of the story, and more about yet another plot to work with the Spanish to establish Mary Stuart on the throne of England when we cover that movie.
As for Ridolfi’s plot, though, the point of bringing the Spanish military into the picture wasn’t to have them annex England, but rather help secure the throne would be handed over to Mary Stuart.
For his part in this, the Duke of Norfolk, or Thomas Howard as we learned his real name was, tied himself into the plot by writing a statement to confirm he was indeed a Catholic and would back an English revolt against Elizabeth backed by the Spanish. What he got out of this was that Thomas would be married to Mary Stuart after she was given the throne of England.
Oh, and maybe it’s just me but I didn’t think the movie did a very good job of explaining Mary, Queen of Scots was the daughter of Mary of Guise, the woman we see running this plot. She’s played by Fanny Ardant in the movie. So the plot of the poisoned dress to kill Elizabeth that the film puts on Mary of Guise was this plot to put her daughter, also named Mary, on the throne of England.
But as we know from history, that didn’t happen.
Roberto Ridolfi’s plot was uncovered in April of 1571 when his messenger was discovered in the English port city of Dover with letters that incriminated a number of people. One of them none other than Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk. Just like the movie shows, he was beheaded for his part in the plot. That happened in June of 1572.
Which brings me to one of the other conspirators we see in the movie, Mary of Guise. The retaliation we see in the film is that Elizabeth orders Geoffrey Rush’s version of Sir Francis Walsingham to kill Mary for her part in the plot.
That’s something people have speculated, but there’s not really enough proof to say one way or another if that’s what happened. Mary herself diagnosed the illness that led to her death as dropsy, or more commonly known today as edema. That’s an excessive accumulation of fluid beneath the skin that’s both quite painful and, in Mary’s case, led to her death.
Although it is true that Mary of Guise was Catholic and wanted her daughter’s claim on the throne to be validated by the Pope denouncing the legitimacy of Elizabeth’s claim to the throne, it’s not likely she had any involvement in Roberto Ridolfi’s plot. Most likely because Mary of Guise died in 1560, about ten years before Ridolfi’s plot was uncovered.
With the plot uncovered and Norfolk’s attempt at taking the throne away from Elizabeth finished, the movie draws to a close as we see Elizabeth declare that she will not take a husband—she will marry England. The text at the end of the movie says that she never saw Dudley in private again, although, on her deathbed, she’s said to have whispered his name. Then it finished by saying that Elizabeth’s reign, which lasted for another 40 years, was called the golden age because it saw England rise to become the richest and most powerful country in Europe.
Like most of the scenes we’ve learned about in the film, the overall gist of this has some basis in truth but there’s more to the story.
It is true that Elizabeth never married. Many historians believe the reason for her refusing to marry one of the numerous suitors who proposed might’ve had more to do with some sort of knowledge that she was infertile. Remember, the whole reason everyone wanted her to get married was so she could secure an heir. If she knew she couldn’t do that, marriage wouldn’t have been as big a deal to her.
But all of that is up for debate. In fact, there have been many debates among historians over the centuries about the real reason why Elizabeth never married. It’s one of those things that’s impossible to know for sure without getting inside the mind of someone in history.
In the end, all we know is that Elizabeth never married despite almost 50 years of considering offers from suitors.
As for whether Elizabeth whispered Robert’s name on her deathbed…that’s something else we don’t really know the truth of. It certainly has been rumored to be true, but that’s not really something we can verify. Just like we don’t really know if they ever saw each other in private. We know they saw each other again publicly—after all Robert became the Earl of Leicester in 1564 and as such worked alongside William Cecil and Francis Walsingham in matters of foreign policy for Elizabeth.
When it comes to their romantic relationship, though, Robert and Elizabeth were never together in any official capacity. Instead, Robert Dudley married Lettice Knollys in 1578, and Elizabeth never really seemed to get over it.
Ten years after marrying Lettice, on September 4th, 1588, Robert Dudley suddenly fell ill and passed away. He had seen the Queen just a week prior. We’re not entirely sure what his cause of death was, but many historians agree it could’ve been some form of stomach cancer. His death was so unexpected, it was said the Queen hid herself in her room for a week—but we don’t really know if that happened.
After Queen Elizabeth died on March 24th, 1603, there was a letter found among her personal belongings on her bedside. On the outside was written in the Queen’s hand, “His Last Letter.”
Inside, was a letter written by Robert to Elizabeth just six days before he passed away.