History in the Movies

Cate Blanchett in "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" Photo courtesy of Universal Studios

‘Elizabeth: The Golden Age’

The best history lesson in “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” is delivered by Cate Blanchett. As she did in 1998’s “Elizabeth,” Blanchett breathes life into the historic ruler, portraying a complex, commanding, thoroughly believable queen struggling to maintain her power and keep her humanity in a perilous age.

But as for the rest of the history depicted by the film? Take it with a large dose of salt. “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” plays fast and loose with many historical details. Here are some examples.

Q. The Catholics are clearly the bad guys in the film. Is that exaggerated?

A. Yes, and it’s the movie’s biggest historical flaw. The film sets up a simplistic tale of Protestants, all reasonable, fair and tolerant, who labor under constant attack by conniving and fanatical Catholics.

In truth, neither faith had a monopoly on fanaticism. And throughout Europe during this era, Catholics and Protestants took turns committing gruesome atrocities on one another. And while it is true that Elizabeth took a more moderate approach than either her father, Henry VIII (who massacred many Catholics) and her sister, Mary (who did the same to Protestants) it was still illegal to openly practice Catholicism during Elizabeth’s reign, and her government tortured and killed many Catholics as suspected spies.

Q. Did Philip II of Spain attack England solely because of religion?

A. No, it went beyond that. Philip was certainly a Catholic zealot. He supported the Inquisition, and backed the Pope in encouraging English Catholics to kill or overthrow Elizabeth. But Philip would probably never have attacked England had not Elizabeth offered some provocation, which the film downplays. Elizabeth coveted Spain’s New World riches, and encouraged privateers like Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh to attack Spanish ships and settlements and plunder their treasures. She also authorized aid to the rebels in the Netherlands, who were struggling to overthrow Spanish rule. To Spain, such provocations warranted an attack.

Q. Did Elizabeth really yearn for the dashing Walter Raleigh?

A. Elizabeth liked men. Throughout her reign she attracted a constant stream of them jockeying to become her latest favorite. Raleigh came to her court as a young man in his 20s, and, as the film shows, Elizabeth was immediately taken with his looks, charm, and wit. But the movie badly misrepresents Raleigh. He was younger than Elizabeth by some 19 years, for one thing. And far from being the cool, sardonic and proud character Clive Owen portrays, the real Raleigh was a major suck-up, constantly seeking financial rewards from the queen. He used the money in part for his lavish wardrobe, which included a pair of gem-encrusted shoes worth 6,000 pounds.

Q. Did Elizabeth really throw him into jail for marrying one of her ladies in waiting?

A. The real story’s a bit more complicated. Raleigh’s relationship with Bess Throckmorten developed some 10 years after he had first drawn the Queen’s eye. Though Elizabeth had other favorites by then, she nevertheless did not take it kindly when Raleigh was accused of seducing young Bess, who as a lady-in-waiting was forbidden to enter a relationship without the Queen’s approval. Elizabeth did indeed put Raleigh in the tower for a time, and expelled Bess from her court. Raleigh and Bess married, though it’s unclear whether that occurred before or after the Queen learned of their relationship.

Q. Did Raleigh get released just in time to save England from the Spanish Armada?

A. The history in that section of the film is a total mishmash. For one thing, Raleigh’s relationship with Bess didn’t take place until years later. For another, Raleigh’s role in the fighting is wildly exaggerated. He did not single-handedly bring down the Armada by maneuvering a fireship into its midst. In fact, most sources say he wasn’t even in the fleet at the time, but was on land helping to organize coastal defenses.

Q. How was the Armada defeated, then?

A. The English did set some of their ships ablaze and steer them into the Armada, but unlike in the film, that alone didn’t end the Spanish threat. The English fleet spent two weeks attacking and chasing the Armada up through the English Channel. Hampered by poor planning, cumbersome vessels and a powerful wind decidedly against them, the Armada was blown far into the North Sea without ever landing a soldier in England.

Q. Why was Mary, Queen of Scots such a threat to Elizabeth?

A. Because to many English Catholics, Mary was the legitimate heir to the throne. A Tudor herself-Henry VIII was her great-uncle-and raised Catholic, Mary was an attractive prospect for English Catholics who had disapproved of Henry VIII’s second marriage, and thus scorned Elizabeth as illegitimate.

For years, plots to kill Elizabeth and enthrone Mary swirled among England’s disaffected Catholics. Aware of the danger, Elizabeth kept Mary under house arrest for 19 years, until finally, after letters were unearthed clearly implicating Mary in a plot to overthrow the government, Elizabeth reluctantly authorized her cousin’s beheading.

But Mary’s story didn’t end there. She had sought the throne -in vain-so that she and her heirs could restore Catholicism to England. And when Elizabeth finally died without an heir, it would be Mary’s son, James, who would inherit the crown. Yet James I was not quite his mother’s son. He is best remembered for commissioning the King James Bible, which helped unite the English people for generations to come in their worship, as Protestants. Turns out Elizabeth had won that round as well.

Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., is a history professor at the University of St. Francis in Illinois and writes a syndicated column on historical films. You can reach her at cschultz@stfrancis.edu