Philippa Gregory has written a series of historical biographical books that sell like hotcakes and are accurate, well-written, and interesting. It is not for nothing that she is known as “the queen of British historical fiction”. Her bestseller, The Other Boleyn Girl became a BBC series and then a film starring Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson (about Anne Boleyn and her sister, Mary, who was also Henry VIII‘s lover). Building on this success, author Gregory has also published a series of books on the Plantagenets, the ruling houses that preceded the Tudors, and the Wars of the Roses. His books were the basis for The White Queen, The White Princess, and The Spanish Princess series, all of which were turned into series by the Starz platform. Having stopped at the Catherine of Aragon story, we have skipped the Anne Boleyn part and are now straight into her daughter Elizabeth I‘s youth with the series Becoming Elizabeth.
The series now strays from Philippa’s content and is authored by playwright Anya Reiss, who has written the critically acclaimed plays and is known for the BBC’s EastEnders hit. Becoming Elizabeth features female screenwriters in addition to the author, Anya, such as Emily Ballou (Taboo), Anna Jordan (Succession), and Suhayla El-Bushra (Ackley Bridge) and explores a less well-known period, Elizabeth’s adolescence, when she became – apparently – was far from the throne in the midst of the succession dispute of his brothers, Mary (daughter of Catherine of Aragon) and Edward (son of Jane Seymour), precisely because she is the daughter of a traitor. That’s why the series is, in fact, about “the young Elizabeth Tudor, an orphan teenager who becomes involved in the political and sexual politics of the English court in her quest to secure the crown”.
More specifically, Becoming Elizabeth showcases one of the Court’s biggest scandals that not only nearly cost the future Queen her life, but tarnished her reputation. Unsurprisingly, although cited by historians, it is the period that Elizabeth I made a point of omitting and almost erasing from the books so that her image (and brand) of the Virgin Queen was unshaken. At age 13, when she was adopted by her stepmother Catherine Parr, the princess would have been “seduced” by her husband, Thomas Seymour (Edward’s uncle), shocking British society in what seemed to have been a dangerous ménage a trois.
To make it clear, at that time 13-year-old girls got married, and there was talk of “seduction”, but today we know that it is a crime, and what happened was “rape”. The princess’s apparent consent to the sexual and power games of the time does not alter the fact that she was a girl still entering adolescence and was used and abused by adults. That’s why what the series emphasizes, the theme of consent and power, is still contemporary in its very nature, hence the relevance of revisiting history. According to the authors, we will enter the mind of a teenager who “pretends to be mature and strong enough to generate herself in a world of male-dominated politics that is dangerously harmful to a person her age and especially a girl.”
The first two episodes are exciting, due to the reenactment of the period and the performances of the cast. They depict what happened immediately after Henry VIII‘s death and how the Seymours took over the regency, using Edward and Elizabeth as mere pieces on a board. Interestingly, we see how the children of the King, although each from a different mother (and enemies with each other) have a bond of fear and insecurity, even stronger than the blood bond of the same father. Eventually, they will drift away from each other, suspicious and used to questions of the religious conflicts that marked the reign of the Tudors.
The German Alicia von Rittberg as the young Elizabeth I mixes the innocence and curiosity inherent in the character’s age at the time but also highlights the sagacity that would later mark Elizabeth’s reign. Tom Cullen, who became known for the series Knightfall, also brings context to the complex, sexy, and vain Thomas Seymour, whose political ambition was immoral and limitless. Married to Henry VIII’s widow Catherine Parr (Jessica Raine), the two took advantage of the lack of heirs to control their positions at court, including not only raising Elizabeth, who was orphaned and marked as a Boleyn but as well as Jane Grey (Bella Ramsey), who will be one of the biggest victims of the whole setup.
Becoming Elizabeth promises to be a hit, and, for history fans, a delight!.