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'Becoming Elizabeth' (2022): Royal History Done Right

Updated: Feb 14, 2023

I’ve just finished the first two episodes of Becoming Elizabeth (2022 - ) and am in complete awe of this show. It’s not just the casting that’s superb, but the story itself and how the history behind it all is treated.

The Tower of London
The Tower of London, where some of the characters ended up

One reviewer called Becoming Elizabeth - ‘A Tudor version of HBO’s Succession’, but that’s to forget that the royal kind was the OG succession crisis. My guess is that the Starz were so inspired by the HBO drama that they decided to make their own succession series, drawing the narrative from history (after all, they’re famous for it); and who can blame them?

The throne of England always draws crowd - it's the most famous monarchy in the world, of the recent jubilee is any indication. It's important who is sitting on the throne now and it's important who was sitting on it in the past, especially if their last name was Tudor...

Hampton Court Palace
Hampton Court Palace

Who sat on the throne of England was always very big deal: the Wars of the Roses - where families fought for the throne and then the Tudors, where each family member had a claim - these were the squabbles the stakes of which any modern drama can only dream of. Drawing TV scripts from history is always a good idea, in my opinion. Which stories were taken; how they’re brought to life and which corners were cut - now that’s where some series sink…Becoming Elizabeth is now one of those shows, for several reasons. The first one is originality, Tudor-wise, which bring me to say the next bit…

I’m very pleased that FINALLY we have a Tudor drama that doesn’t revolve around Henry VIII and his six dogged wives; the story we’ve all seen time and time again. It’s also not the story of Elizabeth I and her feud with Mary Stuart, topped up with Liz’s sexually unsatisfied favourites - we’ve seen that too, more than once. It’s finally the story where, despite the title, it’s actually an ensemble drama, the stakes are high and everyone has an agenda. It’s difficult to pin down the lead character with any certainty. I know what you’re going to say - read the label! - but the lead only technically has to be Elizabeth, because historically, she’s the victor and outlives them all.

St James's Palace
St James's Palace

However, that’s looking retrospectively at the history that the show is bringing to life. If you lived in 1547, you would have no idea who’s going to be sitting on the throne in twelve years’ time. In fact, in the pilot of Becoming Elizabeth, we only know it’s a minority crisis - there is no succession problem until Edward will start getting sick. And that is the premise of Becoming Elizabeth, and in my personal opinion, something that the show is pulling off very well.

It's one of the most exciting times in Tudor history, and yet it's (almost) never been done on screen, at least by giving all the characters a voice. Lady Jane (1986) covers almost the same period as Becoming Elizabeth, but its leading lady is definitely Jane Grey; it's not an ensemble drama and it's presented in the done-and-dusted format of one person's biography.

Can't talk about the show and not mention the bejewelled codpiece in the room: the anti-hero of the first two episodes. That is of course, the character of Thomas Seymour - quite unlike the bland vanilla Tom we saw in The Tudors (2007-2011): this one has charm in spades. In a good way, and in a bad way. Unlike Elizabeth, though, we are clearly shown what’s behind that charm.

The Tower of London
The Tower of London

Tom Cullen’s portrayal of Thomas Seymour stays with you long after the episode is over - and not just because he’s devastatingly handsome. It’s because he’s playing a predator many young women meet. It’s the tall dark handsome stranger who is charming, all-knowing and who appears to be on your side. In truth: a gaslighting, deceiving, sexy as*h*le - someone to avoid at all costs. These predators existed in the 16th century and they exist today - this part of the show feels incredibly modern.

Ten years ago I read Alison Weir’s Children of England, which is focussed specifically on this problem: what happened after Henry VIII died. I remember thinking that, to me, this is what made Tudors so appealing - the aftermath of Henry's death: the religion changing from Protestant to Catholic and back to Protestant again. The children of Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour - what would they talk about, and how warm were their familial affections? Again, why hadn’t this been made into a TV show yet? Finally, it has.

I’m happy with the first two episodes, let’s see what the rest of it brings. Fingers crossed the quality doesn’t drop down and it doesn’t become another Reign (2013 - 2017) or God forbid, the second season of The Spanish Princess (2020)…

Hatfield House
The Old Palace at Hatfield House

Qualms and Fine Points:

  • I like the direction they went with, when it comes to speech - it’s not too elevated, and the frequent swearing doesn’t feel out of place, because they would have had words for whatever are the swear words we use today.

  • Elizabeth rides astride - to my knowledge, she would have ridden side-saddle.

Further reading:

P.S. In my final year of university, as an assignment for my screenwriting class, I wrote a 30 minute script about Christmas 1550 - all Tudor siblings gathered under one roof, and what complications would ensue. Spoiler alert - no film was made off that.

P.S.2. The castles and palaces in the photos above and below have all existed in the times depicted in the show, and would have been frequented by the characters.

Windsor Castle, which has been in steady use as a royal residence from the Norman Conquest
Windsor Castle, which has been in steady use as a royal residence since Norman Conquest

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