Elizabeth is a 1998 British biographical film written by Michael Hirst, directed by Shekhar
Kapur, and starring Cate Blanchett in the title role of Queen Elizabeth I of England, alongside
Geoffrey Rush, Christopher Eccleston, Joseph Fiennes, John Gielgud, Fanny Ardant and Richard
Attenborough. The film is loosely based on the early years of Elizabeth’s reign. Blanchett and
Rush reprised their roles in the sequel, Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007), covering the later
part of her reign.
The film brought Australian actress Blanchett to international attention. She won several awards
for her portrayal of Elizabeth, notably a BAFTA and a Golden Globe in 1998. The film was named
the 1998 BAFTA Award for Best British Film and was nominated for seven awards at the 71st Academy
Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actress, winning Best Makeup.
The film sees a young Elizabeth elevated to the throne on the death of her half-sister Mary I,
who had imprisoned her. Elizabeth’s reign over the divided and bankrupt realm is perceived as
weak and under threat of invasion by France or Spain. For the future stability and security of
the crown she is urged by advisor William Cecil to marry; she has suitors in the Catholic Philip
II of Spain and the French Henri, Duc d’Anjou. However, she instead embarks on an affair with the
wholly unsuitable Robert Dudley.
Elizabeth must counter threats from within, such as the powerful Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of
Norfolk, and from the armies of Mary of Guise garrisoned in Scotland. She also faces plots from
Rome directed by Pope Pius V. Assisted by her “spymaster” Francis Walsingham, she puts down the
threats both internal and external, ruthlessly executing the plotters. Elizabeth eventually ends
her and Robert’s affair and resolves to marry nobody except England. The film ends with Elizabeth
assuming the persona of the “Virgin Queen”, and saying: “I am married to England,” initiating
England’s Golden Age.
In 1558, Catholic Queen Mary dies of a uterine tumour. Mary’s Protestant half-sister, Elizabeth,
under house arrest for conspiracy charges, is freed and crowned the Queen of England.
As briefed by her adviser William Cecil, Elizabeth inherits a distressed England besieged by
debts, crumbling infrastructure, hostile neighbours and treasonous nobles within her
administration, chief among them the Duke of Norfolk. Cecil advises Elizabeth to marry, produce
an heir, and secure her rule. Unimpressed with her suitors, Elizabeth delays her decision and
continues her secret affair with Lord Robert Dudley while Cecil appoints Francis Walsingham, a
Protestant exile returned from France, to act as Elizabeth’s bodyguard and adviser.
Mary of Guise lands an additional 4,000 French troops in neighbouring Scotland. Unfamiliar with
military strategy and browbeaten by Norfolk at the war council, Elizabeth orders a military
response, which proves disastrous when the younger, ill-trained English forces are defeated by
the professional French soldiers. Walsingham tells Elizabeth that Catholic lords and priests
intentionally deprived Elizabeth’s army of proper soldiers and used their defeat to argue for
Elizabeth’s removal. Realizing the depth of the conspiracy against her and her dwindling options,
Elizabeth accepts Mary of Guise’s conditions, to consider marrying her nephew Henry of France.
To stabilize her rule and heal England’s religious divisions, Elizabeth proposes the Act of
Uniformity, which unites English Christians under the Church of England and severs their
connection to the Vatican. In response to the Act’s passage, the Vatican sends a priest to
England to aid Norfolk and his cohorts in their growing plot to overthrow Elizabeth. Unaware of
the plot, Elizabeth meets Henry of France but ignores his advances in favour of Lord Robert.
William Cecil confronts Elizabeth over her indecisiveness about marrying and reveals Lord Robert
is married to another woman. Elizabeth rejects Henry’s marriage proposal when she discovers he is
a cross-dresser and confronts Lord Robert about his secrets, fracturing their idyllic affair and
banishing him from her private residence.
Elizabeth survives an assassination attempt, whose evidence implicates Mary of Guise. Elizabeth
sends Walsingham to secretly meet with Mary in Scotland, under the guise of once again planning
to marry Henry. Instead, Walsingham assassinates Guise, inciting French enmity against Elizabeth.
When William Cecil orders her to solidify relations with the Spanish, Elizabeth dismisses him
from her service, choosing instead to follow her own counsel.
Walsingham warns of another plot to kill Elizabeth, spearheaded by the priest from Rome carrying
letters of conspiracy. Under Elizabeth’s orders, Walsingham apprehends the priest, from whom he
learns the names of the conspirators and a Vatican agreement to elevate Norfolk to the English
crown if he weds Mary, Queen of Scots. Walsingham arrests Norfolk, and executes him and every
conspirator except Lord Robert, whom Elizabeth allows to live, as a reminder to never be blinded
by romance again.
Drawing inspiration from the divine, Elizabeth cuts her hair and models her appearance after the
Virgin Mary. Proclaiming herself married to England, she ascends the throne as “the Virgin
The costuming and shot composition of the coronation scene are based on Elizabeth’s coronation
This portrait “The Coronation of Elizabeth” was used as the basis for the photography and costume
of Cate Blanchett during the coronation scene in the film. This is a copy of a now lost original,
this copy attrib. Nicholas Hilliard
Kapur’s original choice for the role was Emily Watson, however she turned it down. Cate Blanchett
was chosen to play Elizabeth after Kapur saw a trailer of Oscar and Lucinda. According to the
director’s commentary, Kapur mentioned that the role of the Pope (played by Sir John Gielgud) was
originally offered to, and accepted by, Marlon Brando. However, plans changed when Kapur noted
that many on set would probably be concerned that Brando would be sharing the set with them for
two days. Later, when Gielgud had taken the role, Kapur at one point suggested (in vain) that the
Pope’s accent should be Italian; he added that every British actor within earshot was horrified
that any director was asking Sir John Gielgud to speak in an accent that “wasn’t John
A large proportion of the indoor filming, representing the royal palace, was conducted in various
corners of Durham Cathedral—its unique nave pillars are clearly identifiable.
The film was received well by critics and the public, it holds an 81% “fresh” rating on film
aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes based on 59 film critic reviews. The site’s consensus was: “No
mere historical drama, Elizabeth is a rich, suspenseful journey into the heart of British Royal
politics and features a typically outstanding performance from Cate Blanchett.”
The film takes considerable factual liberties and misconstrues several historic events to depict
them as having occurred in the early years of Elizabeth’s reign. Furthermore, the timeline of
events prior to her accession is also inaccurate. For instance, the film depicts Mary I of
England as being pregnant prior to Elizabeth’s imprisonment. In actuality, Elizabeth was
imprisoned on 18 March 1554 whereas it was not announced that the Queen was believed to be
pregnant until September of that same year. Elizabeth was also released from the Tower of London
in May, again, before Mary was thought to be pregnant.
Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester was also imprisoned in the Tower under suspicion of involvement
with the Wyatt Revolt. However, he was imprisoned before Elizabeth.
Elizabeth was put under house arrest at Woodstock, not Hatfield, and did not remain there until
her sister’s death. On 17 April 1555 she was summoned from this location to Hampton Court to be
with Mary during the Queen’s delivery. When the Queen did not deliver, Elizabeth remained at
court though 18 October 1555 until after it had become apparent that Mary was not pregnant and
after the Queen’s husband Philip II of Spain had gone abroad. It was only after this time that
Elizabeth was finally able to return to Hatfield.
Mary’s false pregnancy was not caused by a cancerous tumor or a tumor of any kind. Mary had
another false pregnancy between the fall of 1557, and March 1558 that is not mentioned in the
movie, and she died on the 17 November 1558, four years after Elizabeth’s imprisonment in the
The Papist Ridolfi Plot to assassinate Elizabeth and place Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk on
the throne did not take place until 1571, 12 years into her reign. There is no mention of Mary,
Queen of Scots, who was implicated in the plot, nor of the eponymous Roberto Ridolfi, who was a