Become Elizabeth is Starz’s new epic drama based on the life of one of England’s most famous queens, Elizabeth I. Although there have been many films and TV series about Elizabeth I, Become Elizabeth tells the story of the young years of the future queen, when her accession to the throne was only a fantasy.
Featuring Alicia von Rittberg like Elizabeth, the series begins in 1547 with the death of Henry VIII, her father and father of Mary Tudor (Romola Garai) and Edward VI (Olivier Zetterstrom), all born to a different mother. Indeed, King Henry VIII is known to have been married to six different women throughout his life, and for the extreme violence with which he treated almost all of them.
In the first episode, we clearly see that the three children care about each other. Edward is 9, Elizabeth 14 and Mary is about to turn 31. When Edward is crowned king, the young boy feels upset and worried about being separated from his sister Elizabeth. The two sisters, Mary Tudor and Elizabeth, also get along; however, the relationship between the three siblings is soon clouded not only by the schemes and lies of the Royal Court, but also by a war of religion and ideology between Catholics and Protestants. In the Starz series, this complex relationship is portrayed extremely well, and while we see things take a turn for the two sisters in the second episode, their sisterhood will only get worse from there.
Mary I and Elizabeth I in history
In order to fully understand the relationship of Mary and Elizabeth in the television series, we must go back in history, study the past of these three characters, and we must keep it simple!
Mary’s mother was Katherine of Aragon, a Spanish princess who was first married to Henry VIII’s older brother Arthur, who died shortly after their marriage. Henry VIII eventually married Katherine and had many children together. However, only Mary survived, born in 1516. But the king desperately needed a male heir. Henry then met Anne Boleyn and fell completely in love with her (and the idea that he might have a boy with her).
He decided to divorce Katherine, but the queen was a Roman Catholic and divorce was not an option, especially since the pope would not agree to this separation. After a long battle between the king and queen, Henry VIII finally overruled the decision of the pope who the king said had no say in what happened at the English court. After about 24 years of marriage, Katherine was finally exiled and cruelly separated from her daughter. Marie was no longer a princess, but only a Lady.
From his marriage to Anne Boleyn, Henry had one daughter, Elizabeth. But the king doubted his wife’s fidelity and Anne Boleyn was executed by order of the king for adultery and treason, when Elizabeth was barely 3 years old. Anne Boleyn’s reputation played a major role in Elizabeth’s upbringing and the legitimacy of her ascension to the throne. Many people believed that she was not actually Henry’s daughter, but one of Anne’s lovers. She was also considered illegitimate because the majority of Catholics would not recognize the divorce and believed that Henry VIII was not actually married to Anne Boleyn after his divorce from Katherine of Aragon.
Finally, Henry VIII had a boy, Edward VI, with Jane Seymour in 1537. The boy was crowned king at age 9. As Edward VI died a few years later, aged 15, he laid the foundations for the English Reformation, one of England’s greatest social and religious changes, which established Protestantism as “the true faith” and repudiated Catholicism, much to the dismay of his sister, the very Catholic Mary Tudor.
In episode 2 of Become Elizabeth, we have a very clear look at the unstable relationship of Elizabeth and Mary. Living with Catherine Parr (Henry’s last wife portrayed by Jessica Raine) and her new husband, Thomas Seymour (Tom Cullen), Elizabeth is caught up in the rise of Protestantism and the fall of Catholicism. After Edward asks her to reject her faith and convert to Protestantism, Mary decides to return to the countryside. Mary desperately wants Elizabeth to come live with her and “save her soul”. However, the young woman decides to stay at court and join her brother in his Protestant reform.
In the third episode of Become Elizabeth, Mary Tudor feels threatened by her siblings and their religion, which becomes a concern for the Court, since Mary has strong Catholic support who may very well try to oust the current king, as well as his faith. Mary Tudor isn’t even invited to Elizabeth’s birthday party. It’s the beginning of the end of their brotherhood, if there really was one.
Over the years, the relationship of the two sisters will be worn down by doubts and betrayals. When Edward VI died at the age of 15, he tried to leave the crown to his Protestant cousin, Lady Jane Grey, represented by Bella Ramsey in Become Elizabeth. Mary and Elizabeth have joined forces in what could be interpreted as a once-in-a-lifetime act of brotherly and feminine solidarity, to claim their right to the throne. Together they marched on London with their own army. Mary I was the new queen and Elizabeth was the queen-in-waiting. Mary I ruled for five years and was later given the infamous nickname Bloody Mary. Indeed, the Queen put her Catholic faith first and attempted to restore the Catholic Church in England. She ordered hundreds of Protestants to be burned at the stake as heretics.
Elizabeth and Mary’s relationship was again in jeopardy, as Elizabeth still remained Protestant and in contention for the throne. In short, Elizabeth was a threat both to Mary and to the future of Catholicism. The young woman retires to the countryside to stay away from the plots and intrigues of the Court.
A Protestant rebellion erupted, after it was announced that Mary I was to marry a fanatical Catholic, King Philip II of Spain, which would mean the arrival of the Spanish Inquisition in England, as well as the potential birth of a new Catholic heir.
After many conspiracies against Mary were averted, Elizabeth was caught up in a gigantic scheme to undo Mary, who eventually ordered her half-sister to be arrested and taken to the Tower of London in 1554, where she had to enter through the traitor’s door. She was finally released after eight weeks (on terms that she had to convert to Catholicism, which Elizabeth had no choice but to accept). She was then kept in a remand center, released again and even “reconciled” with her sister Mary, advised by her husband. In 1558, Mary I died after her health had become increasingly fragile. Elizabeth was finally able to ascend to the throne during what is known as the Elizabethan era, which lasted 45 years. She quickly reestablished a Protestant majority at court, though she was known to be a bit more tolerant of religion (only if it wasn’t a direct threat to her and her power, of course).
Throughout her life, her position as Queen of England was questioned by many people who still did not believe that she was Henry’s legitimate daughter. One woman in particular was a serious threat to Elizabeth’s sovereignty: Mary Stuart, aka Mary Queen Of Scots, Catholic, cousin of Elizabeth and granddaughter of Margaret, King Henry VIII’s older sister. Interestingly, in the first episode of Become Elizabeth, you can actually hear the young King Edward VI claiming that he will not marry a 5-year-old Mary Queen of Scots. This scene is a direct reference to an arrangement made by Henry VIII that his son would marry Mary Stuart. This plan, however, has been contested by Scottish Catholics since England had separated from the Catholic Church.
There is no doubt that the next episodes of Become Elizabeth will show Mary and Elizabeth’s relationship in dangerous decline and growing tensions between Catholics and Protestants.