The announcement of a new show about the Tudors can strike fear into the hearts of historians and Tudors fans alike. Often, when the Tudor family is depicted onscreen, it’s a sensational mess that ignores the more interesting real history in order to play up the sex and drama. However, the first four episodes of Starz’s new show Becoming Elizabeth are surprisingly some of the most thoughtful portrayals of Henry VIII’s three children and how they grew into the rulers they’re now known as that we’ve seen onscreen. The show is a careful consideration of the way that Princess Mary, Princess Elizabeth, and the new King Edward were thrown into political and personal turmoil after their father’s death.
Becoming Elizabeth opens in January 1547, just as King Henry VIII has died and his orphaned children are being gathered together to be told the news. Mary (Romola Garai, Atonement and Suffragette) and Elizabeth (German actress Alicia von Rittberg from NatGeo’s Genius: Einstein) are unsure what their new roles in the court will be, after a lifetime of their legitimacy being thrown back and forth, while vultures already circle around the young King Edward VI (Oliver Zetterström). Edward’s uncles – the brothers of his mother, Jane Seymour – immediately step in to try to gain control, and Edward Seymour (John Heffernan) succeeds in gaining the title of Lord Protector.
His younger brother Thomas Seymour (Weekend‘s Tom Cullen) has another ace up his sleeve though, as he has quickly resumed his relationship with Catherine Parr (Jessica Raine). The king’s widow is thrilled to finally be free of her husband and able to return to the man she loves, but both Thomas and Catherine clearly have ambition as well as passion on the brain. Catherine is determined to continue in her role of mother to her three orphaned stepchildren and calls both Elizabeth and the young Lady Jane Grey (Bella Ramsey of HBO’s Game of Thrones) to live at Chelsea Manor with her.
The show, unlike many that have preceded it, focuses strongly on the court politics and the power vacuum that opened as Henry VIII died and a young boy ascended to the throne. Zetterström does an excellent job of portraying the strange role he has been cast into, as he is both a religious tyrant zealous about the Protestant faith and a child in need of advice from his older family members. This quickly causes problems with his eldest sister Mary, who is trapped in trying to find a way to balance her love for her brother, her Catholic faith, and her own ambitions for the throne. Garai beautifully paints a more sympathetic figure than “Bloody Mary” is typically allowed to be, as her anguish over how to preserve her faith without putting herself into political danger comes to life.
My biggest concern when this project was announced was how they would portray the relationship between Thomas Seymour and Elizabeth. Historic accounts make clear that despite being married to her stepmother, Thomas acted inappropriately towards the teenaged princess and, it was considered alarming even at the time. Films and television shows have often portrayed relationships from this time period – in which there was a clear imbalance of power – as romantic or erotic, but Becoming Elizabeth presents a clearer picture of what likely occurred.
From the moment that Elizabeth arrives at Chelsea Manor, Thomas begins (often drunkenly) flirting with her and courting her favor. His motives are clear: she’s the only remaining Protestant heir to the throne, now that her young brother is on the throne, and he hopes to curry favor with the young king by having Elizabeth in his pocket. After his secret marriage to Catherine becomes public, Thomas’s behavior continues and even intensifies despite calling Elizabeth “daughter.” To the audience, it’s clear that he is bad news for the young princess but Cullen is so charming that it’s also easy to see how Elizabeth would fall into his trap. Becoming Elizabeth manages to show the complicated sexual politics of the relationships between Thomas, Catherine, and Elizabeth while also presenting Thomas as a complicated, often immoral but fully developed character.
Amidst all of this scheming, the teenaged Elizabeth is trying to overcome both her mother Anne Boleyn’s reputation and the courtiers who would rather push her to the side. She wants to make her own decisions, as a princess but also as a young girl. It’s fascinating to see Elizabeth at this stage in her life, trying to navigate her relationships with her siblings and beginning to lean on her friendship with Robert Dudley (Jamie Blackley). While the series does show Elizabeth’s 15th birthday, it would have been better to emphasize earlier just how young she was at this pivotal moment in her life.
Becoming Elizabeth presents all of its female characters, not just Elizabeth, as fully three-dimensional figures, as opposed to the archetypes which these historic figures too often become. Ramsey is a standout as the young Jane Grey, being prepared by Thomas and Catherine to hopefully wed the young king just as she is learning that she is a political pawn. Raine imbues Catherine with the intelligence and fiery spirit that must mark any woman who could survive Henry VIII, but also a weakness where her husband is concerned. Her scene telling Elizabeth what she went through as Henry’s wife, especially at the end of her life, is one of the best of the series thus far.
So what sets Becoming Elizabeth apart from so many of the other shows about the Tudor family? Perhaps we can thank writer Anya Reiss, whose background is as a British playwright and screenwriter for EastEnders. Rather than adapting an historical-inaccuracy-riddled Philippa Gregory novel, she has crafted her scripts based on the actual Tudor history. Thus, the focus is not on erotic scenes (though some do appear,) but on court politics and family relationships.
Reiss seems to assume that viewers already know something about the history behind the story she’s telling. If you don’t, you might get a little bit lost as the character’s names and titles are not always made entirely clear. It seems made for an audience with some interest in this history. But there are other differences, too. The costumes are shockingly historically accurate, compared to other shows, and even the makeup is not blaringly wrong and looks pleasantly natural (the hair, not so much).
Becoming Elizabeth is missing some of the grandeur of other shows set around this time period. While the sets are lovely and it was at least partially filmed on location, a battle scene in Scotland does not look particularly impressive. However, it’s notable that the candlelit scenes in this show manage to feel menacing and ominous, rather than cozy, to remind us that there are dangers lurking that we’re not yet aware of.
The show also includes a character named Pedro (an excellent Ekow Quartey) who becomes close to Mary, bonding over their Catholic faith. He is a Black man from Spain and while some at court react poorly to his skin color, Mary is not phased by it. It’s a reminder that Black people existed during this time period in Europe and even had greater freedom than they would in later centuries, despite what films and television would often have us believe. Quartey plays his character as a man caught between his growing friendship with a princess and his obligations.
Even for an historian’s discerning eye, Becoming Elizabeth is very impressive. Hopefully the second half of the series is able to live up to its first half. It’s not perfect – there is some frankly strange camera work, including some unjustified shaky-cam. But it’s forgivable in light of its strong performances and remarkably smart script that gives us a more frank and honest look at the children of Henry VIII than shows of its ilk typically do. Becoming Elizabeth does an excellent job of what its name promises: showing how a young girl grew into the queen that we’re familiar with today.
Becoming Elizabeth premieres June 12 on Starz.