It’s been over 500 years since King Henry VIII ruled England, and popular culture is still deeply obsessed with the story of the Tudor family. We can’t seem to stop telling (and retelling) their stories—the past two years alone have once again brought the 16th-century royals back to the small screen (AMC+ drama Anne Boleyn), to the page (Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall finale The Mirror and the Light), and even to the stage (Six: The Musical, which is currently nominated for multiple Tony Awards). Basically, we can’t get enough.
At this point, it’s hard to imagine how there could possibly be that much left to say about this larger-than-life mix of historical figures. But Starz is certainly going to try. And its new historical drama Becoming Elizabeth attempts to do something rather remarkable: tell a story of the most famous female ruler in history that hasn’t been done to death before. The series, which focuses on the monarch’s life as a young woman in the wake of her father’s death, aims to explore all the messy bits of Tudor family history we tend to skip over to get to England’s Gloriana bankrolling William Shakespeare and kicking the crap out of the Spanish Armada.
But Starz has spent the better part of the past decade telling stories about the lesser-known female figures of history, using Phillippa Gregory’s best-selling series of novels as a basic roadmap for dramatizing the lives of women like Plantagenet queen Elizabeth Woodville (The White Queen) or her daughter Elizabeth of York (The White Princess). And while The Spanish Princess brought us directly into a more familiar era with its story of Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, the series mixed things up by focusing on her arrival in England as a young, vibrant, and powerful leader in her own right. (A nice change, given that popular culture traditionally loves to portray her as a sad old woman zealously clinging to religion in bulky black gowns.)
In that regard, Becoming Elizabeth feels like a natural next step, another way to wrestle with the ways that history would prefer we remember the women involved in it and truly re-center one of the most famous women in history in her own life. And that’s clearly how the folks behind the scenes see the series as well.
“I think we were both completely blown away when we started exploring the actual history. We all feel we know who Elizabeth is, don’t we?” executive producer George Orman says. “We’ve seen various movies and we all know about the Spanish Armada. But this bit of history is very well documented and has never really been explored on-screen before.”
Part of the reason for that is the murky historical nature of the relationship that occurred between a young Elizabeth (here portrayed with a schemingly winsome charm by Alicia von Rittberg) and her guardian Sir Thomas Seymour (Tom Cullen). The truth about the real-life nature of their relationship varies widely depending on what history you read and ranges from an innocent flirtation to an overtly sexual affair, but here it is made both explicit and deeply uncomfortable in a way that explains a lot about why the adult Elizabeth was the way she was.
“I always thought there was a kind of natural read [of history]: that guy was a good guy and that was the bad one. But then actually reading different historians—I’ve never been a huge history buff so I’ve never read kind of how many different interpretations there are,” series creator Anya Reiss explains. “It really depends on who you are and what’s going on [around you] and who wrote it all down.”
That, unfortunately, is doubly true when we’re talking about history that involves women, whose stories are almost always subsumed into those of the men around them. (Or told by those same men.)
“I think my understanding of Elizabeth, probably like a lot of people, comes from the Golden Age,” Romola Garai, who plays Mary Tudor, says. “And I think it’s interesting to see somebody that is generally thought of and revered, particularly by men, as being a great woman: ‘This is what a great woman looks like.’ It’s interesting to see how that was an artifice that was constructed in order to appeal to men.”
Whether that sanitized ideal had any relation to the actual woman Elizabeth Tudor was—or at least used to be—is one of the questions Becoming Elizabeth seems keen to explore.
“We’re so used to the kind of fireworks of Elizabeth’s story, but I think what this show does is that it really kind of gets into the nitty-gritty of what forms this woman, what drove her, what made her the iconic character that she was,” Cullen says. “And it’s a really exciting interpretation [because] what Anya’s writing does so brilliantly is humanize these characters.”
The series begins with the death of Henry VIII, which kicks off a scramble for power—and for control of his three surviving children. While eleven-year-old Edward (Oliver Zetterström) assumes the throne and is micromanaged by his uncle, the Duke of Somerset (John Heffernan), Elizabeth goes to live with her former stepmother Catherine Parr (Jessica Raine) and her new husband.
“At the center of [this season] is this relationship between a teenage girl who feels she’s an adult but isn’t quite an adult yet, and this powerful older man. He’s incredibly charming, interested in her partly for herself and partly for political gain,” Ormond explains. “It’s a very complex dynamic that allowed Anya to ask really big questions about sex and politics, in a way that felt very contemporary.”
The power vacuum left behind after Henry’s death meant that everyone in the English court was forced to scramble for power and protection, with little idea of who to trust.
“I think the most important thing to understand is how brutal and dangerous the world Elizabeth grew up in was. I didn’t expect her to be so lonely and to be so constantly scared for her life,” von Rittberg explains. “She became such a strong leader because she had to fight so hard for her life and her position.”
Von Rittberg also credits Elizabeth’s relationship with Seymour as a formative experience in many uncomfortable ways, a trauma that ultimately helps her craft what her co-star Garai refers to as “the armor of her personality” during her reign.
“To be taken advantage of and manipulated when you’re in such a vulnerable place—that is what I found so fascinating and so painful,” von Rittberg says. “All of a sudden, it makes complete sense that she wanted to be called the Virgin Queen, that she never did marry.”
Von Rittberg specifically praises the show’s decision to allow its young Elizabeth to simply be what she was at the time—a young woman, with all the messiness and emotional volatility that that entails.
“I think we just allowed her to be much softer than you would think she is,” von Rittberg says. “And that’s something I’d like the audience to take away from the show in general: we still accept female leaders nowadays only if they lead in a quite masculine way. Strength is being loud and not vulnerable and not emotional. I think to show a vulnerable and emotional soon-to-be-queen is quite something.”
Though Elizabeth’s relationship with Thomas Seymour looms large in the world of the show, it’s easy to see that for writer Anya Reiss, her focus was squarely on the women of this story. Because while Becoming Elizabeth dramatizes the early years of the girl who would one day grow up to become one of the greatest leaders the world had ever seen, she’s not the only powerful woman at the heart of this tale.
The Starz series also deftly reimagines the lives of the other complex women in her orbit, allowing frequently misunderstood figures like Catherine Parr, Mary Tudor, and Lady Jane Grey to become something much more complex than the stereotypes (survivor, murderer, victim) that history seems generally content to remember them as.
“I think Anya has a huge agenda in rebalancing the narrative for women, but she doesn’t do it in a preachy way,” Jessica Raine, who plays Catherine Parr, says. “It’s very, very rooted in character and just women naturally bossing it. But at the same time, they’re in a world where that’s not really acceptable, so there’s this push-pull going on.”
To hear Reiss tell it, part of the problem is that as a culture, we’ve sort of adopted a philosophy of scarcity when it comes to women in history, assuming that figures like Elizabeth were the rare exception rather than a general rule.
“That’s our society, isn’t it? We’re all-in, we love women!” Reiss says. “We love that [Elizabeth] was the great female leader. But there can [also] only be one at a time.”
According to Reiss, rather than “pretend there were no other women involved” she decided to approach the story of Becoming Elizabeth as “an ensemble piece” that explores the journey of multiple remarkable women simultaneously. Women that, as it turns out, even the actresses playing them weren’t initially that familiar with.
“I think I was very much one of those people who just didn’t really know anything about Mary,” Garai admits. “It’s so easy to go from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I and forget everything in the middle.”
This is even more true for our modern cultural understanding of Catherine Parr, who is largely remembered only for surviving a man who frequently murdered his wives.
“I found Catherine to be extraordinary, and I didn’t really know that much about her when I took on the role,” Raine adds. “She’s a scholar. She’s a devout Protestant. She knows exactly how she’d rule England given half a chance. And she just had so many loveless marriages, was passed from man to man and she survived them all.”
At least Mary Tudor got to be a queen in her own right, even if modern-day society tends to remember her for her worst actions rather than her best.
“[It was] really fascinating to dive into this incredibly complex and quite contradictory legacy,” Garai says. “But there’s been a really fascinating effort in the last 20 years, I think, in academia to restore her legacy. Hopefully, that’s now touching on entertainment, on art, and people are really exploring and looking at her in a new way, because she was certainly not a flawless character. She, obviously, did persecute people in the course of her reign, but no more than her father did. He existed at a time of religious persecution, as well, but somehow their legacies survived in different ways.”
Much of Becoming Elizabeth is also about acknowledging how these women—Catherine and Mary explicitly, but there are also more than a few hints that this is a road Elizabeth herself will one day walk—are truly extraordinary in their own ways, but repeatedly hamstrung by a society and culture that simply refuses to let them be great.
“What makes it so tragic is the way that Alicia’s played it,” Raine says. “[This Elizabeth] is a young girl, and she’s an innocent, but the way she plays it, she’s clearly got fire and intelligence. But at this point in the series, she can do little but watch what’s going on around her, and she’s incredibly frustrated by that. She wants to be part of the Court, but what that means is losing that innocence in every way possible. That’s the great tragedy of her story, but that’s [also] what forms her to become the queen she does.”
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.