The first queen of spin

Elizabeth I has probably inspired more plays, films and operas than any other monarch. Dame Flora Robson, Bette Davis, Glenda Jackson and Miranda Richardson have all played the Virgin Queen, and new ways of looking at Elizabeth's remarkable life are still emerging. Now Australian film star Cate Blanchett offers yet another version, with the release this month of Elizabeth.

Elizabeth Tudor was a remarkable woman. Declared illegitimate after the execution of her mother, Anne Boleyn, and sent to the Tower by her sister Mary, she nevertheless became queen at the age of 25. She spoke several European languages, including Welsh, and was one of the brightest minds of her day.

That we have such a clear picture of Elizabeth today is probably due to her pioneering discovery of the value of controlling her public image. Official portraits were strictly scrutinised and full of allegorical significance.

There probably isn't a primary school that does not teach the Tudors between Year 4 and 6. It's a colourful period, and there are plenty of places to visit, such as Hampton Court in London and the National Trust's Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, and Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire.

Paul Noble, headteacher at St Andrews Church of England primary school in Blunsdon, Swindon, and author of primary history books, says: "The primary curriculum encourages classes to look at famous people via their portraits, and Elizabeth is really worth studying in this respect - children like seeing how she was depicted with eyes and ears on her costume to show she was watching and listening. They also enjoy pin-pricking the outline of Elizabeth's image from her official portrait, as painters in the 16th century had to.

"A key element in the curriculum, 'interpretations', involves looking at how one thing can be depicted in a variety of ways. Elizabeth is a good example because the accounts of her appearance at the end of her reign, as an old woman, differ so completely from her official portraits."

Part of our fascination with Elizabeth undoubtedly stems from the times in which she lived. She presided over the opening up of America, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the voyages of Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh, and the flowering of the English Renaissance in painting, architecture and drama. She is even said to have requested that Shakespeare write The Merry Wives Of Windsor.

But it isn't just the backdrop to her reign that makes Elizabeth so interesting. There are first-class stories associated with her life - stories of intrigue, romance, adventure and heartbreak.

The early years, when her life hung by a thread, are an exciting prelude to the unexpected turn of events that made her queen at such a young age. Elizabeth's long-term onoff romance with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester is another good tale.

Then there is the great threat to Britain from Elizabeth's brother-in-law, Philip of Spain, which has provided the setting for several adventure tales. The conflict between Elizabeth and her headstrong Catholic cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, has inspired dramatists for almost two centuries. Finally, in old age, there is the sad story of how Elizabeth became captivated by a younger man, the Earl of Essex, whom she eventually had executed.

Probably more than any monarch before her, she was aware of her position as an actress within these dramas. She promoted herself and spent a pile of other people's money on pageants and clothes so that she, in contrast to her dowdy sister Mary, would look like a queen.

Despite her strong passions she was politically astute, and turned her refusal to share power with a husband into a great PR exercise. Elizabeth became the Virgin Queen, married to her people. Never before - or since - has the public imagination been so captivated by the question of whom a monarch might marry. Elizabeth's triumph was to keep people guessing for 40 years and to turn her selfish and irresponsible decision not to provide a successor into a virtue.

Sir Roy Strong, the writer and historian, fell in love with Elizabeth when he was 15. "I'm a sucker for her," he says. "A wonderful teacher taught me Tudor history. Elizabeth is permanently fascinating. But she was not a warm personality - she was vain and capricious, highly educated and intelligent, and quite vulnerable. She was a supreme actress."

But Sir Roy says she would have made a "ghastly mother". And, on the question of love and marriage, he says: "We have no idea whether she really had a sex life, and, in any case, it is a gigantic irrelevance because she was enormously successful." His favourite Elizabeth is Quentin Crisp in Sally Potter's 1993 film Orlando.

It was in 19th-century Europe that Elizabeth first became popular as a dramatic character; Schiller, Rossini and Donizetti all depicted her. In Britain she stepped into the limelight only this century.

Many actresses have essayed Elizabeth Tudor, each emphasising a different aspect of her character. Ten years ago Miranda Richardson had great fun playing the queen as a capricious and dangerous little girl in the BBC television comedy series Blackadder II.

Fifty years earlier, Dame Flora Robson was Elizabeth twice. Both times she played the queen as headmistress, a strong woman who inspired dashing young men to defend her kingdom. Dame Flora later played the Queen of Hearts in Alice In Wonderland in similar manner.

A contrast was Bette Davis, who had made a name playing bad or difficult women. In two films, 16 years apart, Davis brought her moody, spitfire quality to the role, first toying with the Essex relationship and then with Sir Walter Raleigh.

In 1970, Glenda Jackson played Elizabeth in a six-part BBC TV series, Elizabeth R. In the Seventies, Britain was waking up to the way feminism might change society. Unsurprisingly, Elizabeth R was very much the story of how a woman could hold on to a position of considerable power in a world that expected her to marry, cede authority and produce children. This Elizabeth was clever, hard-working, vain, tough, flirtatious and invariably ahead of the men whose world she had to dominate if she were to survive.

And now we have Elizabeth, which looks at the young princess's survival instincts and how she reinvented herself as a professional monarch after the end of her affair with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester.

Characters most often capture the public imagination when they speak to us about our own times. What kind of Elizabeths will we see in the 21st century?

Sir Roy Strong's 'The Story of Britain' was published in paperback by Pimlico on October 1. Sir Roy is working on another book, 'The Cult of Elizabeth'


Verse drama in German by Friederich Schiller, the father of modern historical drama.

Italian opera by Rossini about Elizabeth's love for the Earl of Leicester, and her violent jealousy.

Italian opera by Donizetti on the same subject.

Another Elizabethan opera by Donizetti, this time based directly on Schiller's play about the rivalry of the two queens.

Donizetti's third opera about Elizabeth based on her ill-fated relationship with Leicester's nephew, Robert, Earl of Essex.

Light opera by Sir Edward German about Elizabeth's love for Sir Walter Raleigh, and Essex's jealousy.

Black and white film about the Armada with Flora Robson and Laurence Olivier (London Films).

The Essex love story with Bette Davis and Errol Flynn (Warner).

1940 l SEA HAWK
Patriotic action movie with Flora Robson as Elizabeth and Errol Flynn fighting the Spanish (Warner).

Patriotic opera written by Benjamin Britten for the coronation of Elizabeth II and once again featuring the tragic Essex relationship.

Film of the ageing Elizabeth's relationship with Sir Walter Raleigh played by Richard Todd (Twentieth Century Fox).

The complete life story in six episodes, with Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth and Robert Hardy as the Earl of Leicester (BBC).

Mary's life and threat to the English throne, with Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth and Vanessa Redgrave as Mary (Universal).

1986 l BLACKADDER II Adventures of Rowan Atkinson at Elizabeth's court, with Miranda Richardson as the Queen (BBC).

1993 ORLAND0
Starring Quentin Crisp as Elizabeth (AdventureLenfilm Mikado Rio Sigma).

Early life story with Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth and Joseph Fiennes as the Earl of Leicester (Polygram).


* Next term the National Portrait Gallery will be running a free teaching service that can be tailored to include depictions of Elizabeth I.Bookings open on October 26 (tel: 0171 306 0555, ext 212). The gallery also offers a Tudor Resource Pack (Pounds 14.95 plus Pounds 3.50pp) which is available from the publications department, National Portrait Gallery, St Martin's Place, London WC2H 0HE.

* Elizabeth was a great letter writer. Pupils might be asked to imagine the plea for mercy she wrote to Queen Mary, her sister, or her letter to Philip of Spain explaining why she could not become his wife, or a letter to Mary Queen of Scots regretting that she had to imprison her own cousin for the safety of England.

* Older pupils might want to consider what kind of written brief Elizabeth might have given someone employed to paint her portrait.

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