Another random question from WordPress.
I’ve always been intrigued by the 16th century because it was when England was on the cusp of change. The late Middle Ages – themselves full of divers alarums – ended around 1500, giving way to the Early modern period which takes us up to the Age of Revolutions (c 1800).
The previous century had seen Richard III and the mystery of the Princes in the Tower, the ascent of Henry VII, and with him the reign of the House of Tudor. Henry VIII (1491-1547) succeeded him – a monarch most famous for his six marriages and the establishment of the Church of England. In his prime, he was described as attractive, charismatic, educated and an accomplished author and composer – though I’m pretty sure that at no point did he resemble Jonathan Rhys-Meyers. (Seriously, why does Hollywood have such difficulty remembering that Henry was a redhead?)
So fascinating is Henry’s tale (or, rather, tail-chasing) that two adaptations have been made of The Other Boleyn Girl, a best-selling novel by Philippa Gregory about Ann Boleyn’s sister, Mary. I’ve still not seen the American version, but though the bizarre reality-television approach to the 2003 version is distracting at first, the performances by Natascha McElhone, Jodhi May and Jared Harris are excellent.
For just nine days in 1553, Lady Jane Grey was de facto Queen of England. She was the great-granddaughter of Henry VII, and cousin of Edward VI.
Edward had succeeded Henry VIII in 1547 at the age of nine, though a Regency Council governed the country because he was under-age. The Council was led by his uncle Edward Seymour, and then by John Dudley. It was during this reign that the Anglican Church was established, since though Henry had split the Church from Rome, Catholic doctrine still prevailed. For this new Reformation, The Book of Common Prayer was written, containing the full services for baptism, confirmation, marriages and funerals. It has had a significant impact on the English language.
At the age of 15, Edward became terminally ill and named Lady Jane Grey as his successor – overlooking his half-sisters Mary and Elizabeth – which didn’t go down very well.
In May of 1553, Jane married John Dudley’s younger son, and in July she inherited the throne. The 16 year-old lived in the Tower of London for her short reign, and was considered one of the most learned young women of her day. As a Protestant, she was convicted of high treason when Mary I successfully challenged the throne, though she was not involved with Thomas Wyatt’s rebellion against the Catholic queen.
A film starring a rather young Helena Bonham Carter was made of Jane Grey’s life, which I remember enjoying, but I only caught half of it and I’ve never seen it repeated on TV. The entire film is on Youtube – though here’s a clip.
Queen Mary’s habit of burning almost 300 religious dissenters burnt at the stake earned her the nickname “Bloody Mary”. She needn’t have bothered: as soon as Elizabeth inherited the throne she undid all of Mary’s changes.
Elizabeth I assumed the throne in 1533 and held it until her death, aged 69, in 1603. Elizabeth spent her early life labelled illegitimate (following her mother Anne Boleyn’s execution) and a year of Mary’s reign imprisoned as a suspected dissident. In contrast, Elizabeth was a moderate and tolerant queen. She was politically cautious and only entered into war with Spain when, in 1588, she saw no alternative. The defeat of the invading Spanish Armada is viewed as one of England’s greatest victories.
Elizabeth’s reign was marked by near-endless intrigue. She refused to marry despite many courtships and survived many assassination attempts of both the literal and political kind. It was the grand age of adventure with the voyages of Sir Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh, and the grand age of the theatre, with the likes of Shakespeare and Marlowe. Of course, the latter was simply coincidence – she was no great patron of the arts – but what Elizabeth did bring was a 44-year span of stability, following many years of turmoil and uncertainty.
There have been many, many portrayals of Elizabeth in film and television. I like Miranda Richardson’s the best.