Elizabeth's England Wasn't Quite That Way

Nowadays most people learn history from popular culture. Movies, in particular, have become important purveyors of what we think about a specific era in the past. Two hours in a darkened theater, surrounded by other rapt spectators, can leave a deeper imprint on our consciousness than hours spent in a library poring over academic texts. With its close-ups of beautiful people and carefully calibrated emotional climaxes, a well-executed drama or comedy can touch nerves that even the best scholarly arguments or research will never reach.

Most Hollywood productions also work hard at reproducing the visuals of a particular period with great accuracy so that we in the audience becomes convinced we are there. This creates certain dangers from a historical perspective. The visual accuracy may lend an aura of truthfulness to various incidents in the story that, in fact, are completely made up.

Elizabeth is a dark, sumptuous melodrama about England's illustrious 16th-century queen. It focuses primarily on her personal relationships and how she learns to make them secondary to political imperatives in order to succeed as a head of state. Like many movies, it often deviates from the historical record to make its drama more compelling.

As part of this process, the struggle between Protestants and Catholics in Tudor England is reduced to a contest between good guys and bad guys, and the papists are always the villains. While this era in Britain may not have been the Church's finest hour, what the movie's audience will conclude about Catholicism during this period is a radical distortion of history.

The action begins with the burning at the stake of three English Protestants, among them the celebrated Nicholas Ridley. The cruel brutality of the scene is heavily underlined so that the ruler who ordered it will be perceived as a bloodthirsty tyrant.

The Catholic queen, Mary Tudor (Cathy Burke), is not one of history's more attractive figures, but the movie reduces her to a two-dimensional caricature. In reality, she was a devout woman of faith with an interest in theology. Director Shekhar Kapur (The Bandit Queen) and screenwriter Michael Hirst present her Catholicism as nothing more than a narrow species of bigotry which inspires her to execute mindlessly all those who oppose her efforts to impose her religion on the people.

Among those whose lives are threatened is her Protestant half sister, Princess Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett), next in line to the throne. Elizabeth is falsely accused of participating in a plot to overthrow the queen and is imprisoned in the Tower of London. In a dramatic face-to-face encounter, Mary grudgingly accepts her protestations of innocence and refuses to kill her.

Soon thereafter the Catholic monarch is dead, and in 1558 Elizabeth ascends to the throne. The filmmakers present the new queen as something of a skeptic. “This small question of religion,” she asks, “why must we tear ourselves apart?” She is neither ardently pro-Protestant nor anti-Catholic—a stance the movie wholeheartedly endorses.

The Protestant Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush) returns from exile to take charge of her personal security. Adept at political intrigue and a ruthless murderer, he is shown doubting the existence of God, a rare position for any person of that period. The filmmakers give his atheism a positive spin, implying that it made him the only one of Elizabeth's advisers clear-headed enough to take the steps necessary to preserve her sovereignty. There is little historical evidence to support this view.

Elizabeth falls in love with the Protestant Lord Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes), but she is advised to marry Catholic royalty to keep the peace. The favored candidates are the French Duc d'Anjou (Vincent Cassel) and her dead half sister's husband, King Philip II of Spain. As her heart belongs to Lord Robert, she hesitates, and when she learns her true love is already married, she rejects all her suitors. “I will have one mistress here,” she exclaims, “and no master!” The filmmakers consider her desire to rule on her own a kind of 16th-century equivalent of feminism and applaud it.

Scotland is controlled by the Catholic, French-born regent, Mary of Guise (Fanny Ardant), who defeats the English troops by inflicting many casualties. Since Walsingham was the only one of Elizabeth's advisers to counsel against this attack, she decides to listen almost exclusively to him. His solution to her problems is to wipe out all the leading Catholics who oppose her.

The filmmakers take great pains to show how richly the papists deserve their fate. The pope (John Gielgud) is depicted as sending Catholic priests to England solely for the purpose of assassinating its Protestant queen, whom he labels as “illegitimate” and “a heretic.” Those Jesuits such as Edmund Campion who secretly entered England for reasons of faith and were martyred don't exist in the movie—a terrible distortion of the historical record.

In terms of body count, there were more Protestants killed than Catholics during the persecutions in England, and neither Mary Tudor nor Mary of Guise should be held up as role models for Catholic women today. Nevertheless, many Catholics innocent of political intrigue suffered and died for their beliefs. To erase this fact from history is dangerous.

Because Elizabeth has been praised by critics on both sides of the Atlantic, its version of history will be taken seriously. As its makers are dubious about the value of any kind of religion, its anti-Catholicism is almost an afterthought. But Catholics still need to step forward to set the record straight. Otherwise, the film's untruths will be accepted by mass audiences as fact. These, in turn, may have the potential to be used in support of anti-Catholic bias in the future.

John Prizer is currently based in Paris.

Elizabeth is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America.