Airing now, Starz’ Becoming Elizabeth, an historical drama series about the teen years of Elizabeth I, gives us the rarest of gifts — a fair look at the other side of the Tudor monarch’s story.
What We Usually Get With Elizabeth I
In almost all dramas about Elizabeth I, she’s a free-spirited young heroine who grows up to be England’s most celebrated queen (until her namesake).
She bravely fights to survive the reign of her crazy Catholic sister Mary, followed by the knives and plots of more evil Catholics, finally dispatches her rival, the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, then ultimately destroys the Catholic Spanish Armada (that was actually the wind, but hey) to save Protestant England from the Papist menace.
If history is written by the winners, British history is written by the Protestants — conveniently ignoring that every monarch, up to and including Henry VIII, was Catholic.
Then There Was The Tudors and The Spanish Princess
For all its historical shortcomings, Showtime’s The Tudors gave full due to Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s discarded and much-abused, devoutly Catholic first wife. She’s usually an afterthought in stories of Henry’s six wives, thrown aside quickly for the sexier and more enticing Anne Boleyn.
But, The Tudors portrayed her strength, piety, persecution, trial, and determination to defend her honor and rights as Henry’s true wife until her death.
Then, Starz’s The Spanish Princess blew that to bits. As I wrote in 2019, that series (and the Philippa Gregory novels it was based on), decided that Catherine did indeed consummate her brief marriage to Henry’s sickly older brother Arthur — despite her lifelong insistence that she remained a virgin.
That meant her sacramental marriage to Henry was invalid — as Henry later claimed, when trying to get rid of her — and that all the time she spent defending herself, she was actually lying.
I suppose this calumny made for a juicier storyline, but it did her legacy a grave injustice.
(We’re not even going to talk about PBS’ Wolf Hall, which besmirched Saint Thomas More, but if you must, you can read about it here.)
What About Becoming Elizabeth?
So, I came to Becoming Elizabeth, created by Anya Reiss, with fear in my heart. I’ve screened four episodes (two have come out so far on Starz) and found myself pleasantly surprised.
As bookends, you have the newly crowned boy-King Edward VI (Oliver Zetterström), who’s way more of a zealous Protestant than his father (who basically ripped England from Rome just so he could father a son), and Catholic Princess Mary (Romola Garai), who spent her youth watching her mother abandoned and accused.
Then, presented as being in the middle is Elizabeth (Alicia von Rittberg). And, truth be told, while Catholics had a miserable time under her reign, they had a vastly more miserable time under Edward’s (and his Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cramner).
Acting on his own principles, Edward VI led the comprehensive dismantling — and desecration — of Catholic England.
But, the series has sympathy for all three half-siblings, who find themselves in precarious and perilous circumstances. In particular, Mary is shown as an older voice of wisdom and temperance, not as the usual half-bonkers harridan.
The Brothers Seymour
The show also dives into the machinations of the king’s uncles, the Seymour brothers: Edward (John Heffernan), Duke of Somerset, the king’s Lord Protector, and Thomas (Tom Cullen), Baron Seymour of Sudeley.
Thomas marries Henry VIII’s widow, Catherine Parr (Jessica Raine), with whom he had a longstanding romance (at least on her part, it was romance).
But, when 14-year-old Elizabeth moves into Thomas and Catherine’s household, all sorts of hijinks ensue. History has long speculated that Thomas, then in his late 30s, bedded the teen Elizabeth, but Becoming Elizabeth says it actually happened. Other than this bit of, in this case, acceptable, creative license, the storyline tracks close to reality.
And, you have young royal cousin Lady Jane Grey (Bella Ramsey) circling around, waiting to cause all the trouble she ultimately does.
Justice for Princess Mary (And a Friend)
Meanwhile, Mary encounters Spanish mercenary Sir Pedro (Ekow Quartey), a Catholic of African descent, who becomes a friend and confidante.
Sometimes, attempts to add diversity to historical dramas like these can feel forced and awkward, but Pedro slides in seamlessly. There’s a lovely quality to his conversations with Mary, as one of the few people around the royal court with whom she can share her faith.
Sir Pedro is also based on a real Spanish soldier who served both Henry VIII and Edward VI. There’s no record of him being African, but since Spain long had a trading and cultural relationship with northern Africa, it’s perfectly plausible.
Mary is seen being horrified and humiliated at a viciously anti-Catholic play at court, but it’s only the beginning of the indignities she’s made to suffer.
Too often, Mary’s religious zealotry when she becomes queen is seen as madness or wanton cruelty, rather than the reaction of a woman who’s seen everyone and everything she treasures ripped away and destroyed.
And, in the end, she did no worse than her brother or sister (that’s not a justification of any of them, just an observation).
In Conclusion …
Becoming Elizabeth features occasional profanity and nudity (Tom Cullen’s backside is a favorite), so the show isn’t suitable for children — although it’s far less salacious than The Tudors. But, older teens and up should enjoy it, along with indulging in the sport of Googling-as-you-go to find out what’s true and what’s not.
Despite trodding on oft-dramatized ground, Becoming Elizabeth feels fresh, interesting … and fair.
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