Queen Elizabeth I. Elizabeth, 1998
Queen Elizabeth I has been portrayed in film many times, with varying degrees of historical accuracy. Perhaps the most famous portrayal was by Bette Davis, who played the Queen twice; in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex in 1939 and in The Virgin Queen in 1955. Both presented heavily fictionalized stories of Elizabeth, a tradition which continued in 1998s Elizabeth.
The film alters historical events and presents others out of context to further its story, which tells of the Queen’s overcoming many plots and intrigues designed to control England’s destiny by an advantageous marriage to a powerful ally. Elizabeth, in the end, overcomes all of them and expresses herself as married to England, determined to remain its Virgin Queen, beholden to no one.
The film wrongly attributes the false pregnancy of Elizabeth’s half-sister Mary to a cancerous tumor. In reality, Mary had a second false pregnancy in late 1557; the cause of neither is unknown beyond speculation, but there was no tumor reported, cancerous or otherwise. Mary of Guise is shown as having been assassinated by Francis Walsingham, she, in fact, died in 1560 of dropsy, although some scholars suggest she may have ingested a poison which led to a swelling of limbs known as edema.
The Earl of Leicester, Robert Dudley, did not plot against Elizabeth and he remained a close friend and confidant of the Queen until his death in 1588. The Queen’s use of white facial paint only began after recovering from smallpox, which left her with a pitted face and a receding hairline in 1563.
Finally, Elizabeth I never announced her determination to remain unmarried as England’s Virgin Queen. The political ramifications of a marriage with one continental power or another were too valuable to be so publicly discarded. Negotiations and intrigues pitting one royal house against another continued until Elizabeth was well beyond the age of marrying and bearing children. Potential suitors which English diplomats – and the Queen – played against each other included the Kings of Spain and Sweden, Philip II and Eric XIV, the Archduke of Austria, and the Duke of Holstein. The heir to the throne of France and eventual King of France and Poland, Henry III, remained on Elizabeth’s string for many years as well.