Television Series Review: “Becoming Elizabeth”

MV5BZjYxNWQxMzctZjA2MC00ZTkxLTg4MTQtMDE3M2E3YTE5MzFhXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTM1MTE1NDMx._V1_FMjpg_UX1000_The year is 1547, and the infamous King Henry VIII is dead. The throne is left to his young son Edward VI while his half-sisters Mary and Elizabeth wait in the wing. Without their powerful father to look after their well-being, his children must navigate the tumultuous Tudor court with powerful men who desire to use them as mere pawns in their game to influence how England is ruled. Throw in some romantic drama and the ever-changing religious landscape with the clash between Protestants and Catholics. This is the premise of the latest Tudor drama on Starz, “Becoming Elizabeth,” which follows the titular Princess Elizabeth Tudor during the reign of the third Tudor king.

Before we begin, I want to provide a little context before I dive into this review. As many of you know, I am incredibly picky about Tudor dramas; shocker, I know. I will watch trailers for new dramas, but after Reign (which, after watching the show for five minutes, I had to turn it off because of the costume design), I have been highly wary about committing to sitting down each week to watch a new show about historical figures I know pretty well.

The story of Princess Elizabeth is what got me interested in studying history after reading The Royal Diaries book series, so when I heard about this series, I wanted to know more. When I first saw the trailer for “Becoming Elizabeth, ” I decided to take the plunge and watch the first episode, which turned into watching every episode every Sunday.

Now let’s get to my thoughts about the series “Becoming Elizabeth.” I will be discussing the plot points of this series, so if you have not watched this show before reading this review, I would highly recommend you do.

There are a few aspects that I want to touch on before we take a deeper dive into this series, which have to do with the settings, costumes, music, and other details that will delight Tudor nerds. The location of “Becoming Elizabeth” is spot on, immersing the audience in Tudor England, which includes using candles for lighting instead of torches (which was a thrilling addition). I congratulate the costume and make-up crew from this drama as they are the best replications of Tudor gowns and outfits I have ever seen in a Tudor drama. They used the Tudor portraits of the time to replicate specific dresses and jewelry used in the show (including the famous “B” necklace most associated with Anne Boleyn) was a lovely and thoughtful touch. The only exception was the lead women’s riding gowns in this series. I did not like that they rode astride and had pants under their skirts. Let them ride side saddle and wear the same dresses they do at court but in those brown and green tones.

The little touches like having servants sleeping in the rooms of the royalty/ nobility and the masques to show significant events were viewed at court were nice touches for Tudor nerds. I also appreciated the small nods in the dialogue to elements that those who know Tudor history would understand, like the Queen’s jewels and the foreshadowing of Edward VI’s dog. Finally, the music in this show was decent, but some soundtracks felt a tad too modern and took away from the whole escapism element you want in a historical drama.

Now, let’s get into the most critical points of this show: the acting, the actors, and the plot points.

becoming-elizabeth-tudors-1655065913770The cast of “Becoming Elizabeth” is a plethora of talented actors and actresses who remarkably bring the treacherous Tudor court to life. The titular role of Princess Elizabeth was played by Alicia von Rittberg, who portrays the young woman’s naivety and eventual strength in love and court politics. Oliver Zetterstrom is the young King Edward VI who struggles to find his identity as a reformer king while navigating the drama of his court and Lord Protectors. Finally, we have Romola Garai, who revolutionized how Princess Mary Tudor was portrayed on television. Garai gives the audience a more sympathetic and vibrant woman trying to hold her family together while defiantly standing up for her Catholic faith in a Protestant court.

A story like this would not be complete without a group of star-studded actors and actresses to help the trio of Tudor heirs shine. We have the vivacious Catherine Parr, played by Jessica Rayne, and her fourth husband, the sly Thomas Seymour, played by Tom Cullen, Thomas’ brother, and Edward VI’s first Lord Protector Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset is played by John Heffernan. We also have the Grey family, led by Henry Grey, played by Leo Bill, and the shy and studious Lady Jane Grey, played by Bella Ramsey. Finally, we have the Dudley family with the ambitious John Dudley, played by Jamie Parker, and the youthful Robert Dudley, played by Jamie Blackley. Along with the prominent families, we have Kat Ashley, the loyal servant to Princess Elizabeth, played by Alexandra Gilbreath, and the Spanish soldier Pedro who helps guide Princess Mary, played by Ekow Quartey. The interactions between this cast are so believable and passionately performed that it feels like you have been transported into the 16th century in the reign of King Edward VI.

We begin this series with the death of King Henry VIII. Prince Edward is now King Edward VI, and he and his sisters must learn to live without their infamous father. Mary goes to her own home while Elizabeth joins the household of Catherine Parr and her new husband (the man she truly loves), Thomas Seymour. While Mary and Edward VI argue vehemently over the matters of religion, Catholics vs. Protestants, Elizabeth navigates the unusual attention that Thomas Seymour is giving the young princess as she wonders if this is true love or something more sinister.

In addition to Princess Elizabeth, Catherine Parr and Thomas Seymour welcome the daughter of Henry Grey, Lady Jane Grey, to their household. Elizabeth and Jane do not seem to get along very well, and it feels like the only ones that Elizabeth can turn to when times get rough are Kat Ashley and the caring Robert Dudley. Mary may seem alone, but Pedro, a man who was supposed to spy on the Catholic princess, becomes her friend and ally. Unfortunately for Edward, he is stuck between factions of Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, and John Dudley as they fight to influence the young king and the direction he wants to take his kingdom. It was a time of rebellions, betrayals, executions, and moments behind closed doors that would forever shape these three Tudor heirs, especially Elizabeth Tudor.

ELI1_060521_0739_a_1900x1500While most of the storylines are engaging, and I found them rather enjoyable, one got under my skin: the intimate relationship between Princess Elizabeth and Thomas Seymour. Now I know it was the central storyline for the first half of this show, but it made my skin crawl. I know that Tom Cullen has discussed this issue with fans, and I think his portrayal of Thomas is spectacular. My problem is with Princess Elizabeth and how she goes along with the relationship to the point of no return. I feel like Princess Elizabeth was much stronger than how she was portrayed during those moments in the show, and she would have turned Thomas down, knowing the false allegations against her mother, Anne Boleyn. I do not think she slept with Thomas Seymour, but I do believe there were elements of flirting between the two, which could have been seen as them having an intimate relationship.

The creator of “Becoming Elizabeth,” Anya Reiss, has done a magnificent job telling the Tudor dynasty’s tale after Henry VIII’s death. The cast and crew are spectacular, the gowns and costumes are gorgeous, and there are so many Easter eggs that Tudor nerds will geek over. There will be moments that will make you laugh, cry, want to throw a book at your TV or laptop, and breathe a sigh of relief. I may not have seen many Tudor dramas in the past, but this is far and away one of my favorite shows about the 16th century. I hope we will get a second season of “Becoming Elizabeth,”, especially with how they closed the finale.

What are your opinions about “Becoming Elizabeth,” and who is your favorite character from this Tudor drama?

Sources for Images and Cast Information:

https://www.glamour.com/story/becoming-elizabeth-on-starz-everything-we-know-about-the-british-period-drama

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt11444366/

Book Review: “Crown of Blood: The Deadly Inheritance of Lady Jane Grey” by Nicola Tallis

39330966._SY475_“Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” This famous quote from William Shakespeare’s play Henry IV, Part III has been used throughout the centuries to describe how difficult it is to rule a country for any duration of time. Most kings and queens of the past lasted for a few years, but there was one queen who lasted for a handful of days. She was the successor of Henry VIII’s only male son, King Edward VI, and was meant to replace his eldest half-sister, who would become Queen Mary I. It was a battle between Protestantism and Catholicism with a 17-year-old scholar caught in the middle. Her name was Lady Jane Grey, but many refer to her as the “Nine Day Queen of England”. Lady Jane Grey’s tragically short story, how she became queen, and the consequences of her reign are discussed thoroughly in Nicola Tallis’ beautifully written debut biography, “Crown of Blood: The Deadly Inheritance of Lady Jane Grey”.

I have been a fan of Nicola Tallis’ other biographies, “Uncrowned Queen: The Fateful Life of Margaret Beaufort, Tudor Monarch” and “Elizabeth’s Rival: The Tumultuous Life of the Countess of Leicester: The Romance and Conspiracy that Threatened Queen Elizabeth’s Court”. I had heard about this one through recommendations from other Tudor history fans, so naturally, I wanted to give it a try. Lady Jane Grey has been one of those historical figures that I have felt sympathy for in the past and I wanted to learn more about her life.

Lady Jane Grey was born into a royal family full of fighting for the throne of England and for the right to either be Protestant or Catholic. She was the eldest daughter of Henry and Frances Grey. It was through her mother Frances that Jane had a claim to the throne because Frances Grey was the daughter of Mary Tudor, the younger sister of Henry VIII, and Charles Brandon. If Frances and Henry Grey had sons, we would not have to talk about Jane’s claim to the throne, but Jane had two sisters, Katherine and Mary Grey. Jane was a rather unusual royal girl because she was not concerned about who she would one day marry. Lady Jane Grey has been known throughout history as a young scholar and a martyr for Protestantism. Her zeal for learning is so admirable and relatable. It makes you really wonder what her life might have been like if she had not been coerced to become Queen of England.

Unfortunately, on his deathbed Jane’s cousin King Edward VI declared that Lady Jane Grey would be his heir, not his eldest half-sister Mary, who his father had named as Edward’s heir if Edward had no children of his own. Jane never coveted the throne, but her father-in-law, John Dudley 1st Duke of Northumberland saw the opportunity to make his son Guildford king of England. It was not the role that Jane wanted in her life, but she was outspoken and courageous about things that mattered to her, even as she approached the scaffold that would seal her fate on earth.

Tallis’ writing style and her attention to detail brought Jane out of the shadows to uncover the truth behind the myths that surrounded her young life. This biography could have easily become a Mary vs. Jane book, but Tallis took the utmost care to make sure it was balanced for both women. It was dynamic and thoughtful, full of drama and revelations of the life of Lady Jane Grey. In short, it is a magnificent biography of one of the Tudor monarchs whose reign was quickly forgotten. Jane may have been a scholar, a lady, and a martyr, but she should also be remembered for another position she held in life. Jane was a Queen of England. If you want a stunning biography about Lady Jane Grey, I highly suggest you read, “Crown of Blood: The Deadly Inheritance of Lady Jane Grey” by Nicola Tallis.

Book Review: “La Reine Blanche: Mary Tudor, A Life in Letters” by Sarah Bryson

35067557_1710198212397536_7023071200330907648_nWhen we think of the Tudors, we often think of  strong women like Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn,  Elizabeth I, Margaret Beaufort and Mary I. However, there was another Mary who made an impact during this time. She was the daughter of Henry VII, the sister of Henry VIII, and the wife of King Louis XII of France. She was referred to as one of the most beautiful women in the world. She gave away all of her titles to marry the man she loved, even though he was not a king. She took on debt to have a family and helped those who needed help. This is the life of Mary Tudor.  In Sarah Bryson’s debut book, “La Reine Blanche: Mary Tudor, A Life in Letters”, Bryson explores the life of this extraordinary woman through her letters.

Sarah Bryson explains why she decided to include Mary’s letters in this book:

Mary Tudor’s letters are a fascinating and captivating look at how a woman could wield power without publically challenging the patriarchy. They show how Mary was able to manoeuvre those around her to follow her heart- marrying her second husband for love, rather than being dragged back to the international chess game as a marriage pawn. They are also, on occasion, a way of looking into Mary’s life whereby the layers of princess and queen are stripped back and only the woman remain. (Bryson, 11).  

Bryson decides to begin her book not with the birth of Mary, but rather with the Wars of the Roses in order to understand how the Tudors came into power and the importance of the marriages that Henry VII established for his children were. She then moves onto the family aspect of the Tudors and the birth of Mary, which to me was fascinating to understand those early years of a young princess. Unfortunately  Mary’s world was not a picture perfect one as her father was constantly fighting those who wanted to take his throne, including Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck. Her brother Arthur, Prince of Wales, would marry Katherine of Aragon, but only a few months after they were married, Arthur tragically died. Mary’s mother would also pass away while trying to give birth to a baby girl. In order to build a strong alliance, Henry VII made a marriage treaty between Mary and Archduke Charles (later Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor), but it would eventually fall through.

Henry VII would die on April 21, 1509, leaving the throne to his son Henry VIII; Henry would marry his brother’s widow Katherine of Aragon on June 11, 1509. Henry arranged Mary’s first marriage with King Louis XII with an enormous dowry, but their marriage would not last long as Louis XII would die on January 1, 1515. Mary would retire from public life and would wear the white mourning clothes of a widow, thus the nickname “La Reine Blanche”, the white queen. Mary would not stay single for long as she married Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. Charles Brandon was a notorious ladies’ man and happened to be one of the people who Henry VIII sent over to France to help Mary. To say that Henry was upset would be an understatement; he refused for the couple to return to England, for a time, and ordered that Charles Brandon would pay off Mary’s dowry. It would leave the couple impoverished for the rest of their lives, but they were happy and in love. It was really during this time that Mary’s letters showed her heart and who she truly was. Mary had to be incredibly strong to show the love that she had for her husband to her brother. Henry eventually accepted the couple and they went on to have four children of their own: Henry, Frances, Eleanor and Henry 1st Earl of Lincoln. Their daughter Frances would marry Henry Grey and would become the mother of Lady Jane Grey, Katherine Grey and Mary Grey. Mary Tudor would die on June 25, 1533, shortly after Anne Boleyn was crowned queen.

 

Mary Tudor’s story is one of tragedy and love. I will be honest and say that I only knew about half of her story, but Sarah Bryson made Mary come alive. “La Reine Blanche: Mary Tudor, a Life in Letters” may be Bryson’s debut book but it feels like she has been writing for a while. This is a lovely book that combines facts and letters in such a way that it is a joy to read. I look forward to reading more from Sarah Bryson in the near future. If you are interested in the life of Mary Tudor, this is a great book about her life through her letters.

Book Review: “The Sisters Who Would Be Queen” by Leanda de Lisle

3980321When we think of the Grey family, we often come up with certain stereotypes. Lady Jane Grey was a passive, obedient girl who did whatever her family and her husband’s family wanted her to do. Frances Grey was a cruel mother. Katherine and Mary lived very uneventful lives. These could not be further from the truth. Leanda de Lisle in her book, “The Sisters Who Would Be Queen” attempts to paint a more realistic of the Grey sisters; Jane, Katherine and Mary.

Leanda de Lisle explains the importance of the Grey sisters:

Dynastic politics, religious propaganda, and sexual prejudice have since buried the stories of the three Grey sisters in legend and obscurity. The eldest, Lady Jane Grey, is mythologized, even fetishized, as an icon of helpless innocence, destroyed by the ambitions of others. The people and events in her life are all distorted to fit this image, but Jane was much more than the victim she is portrayed as being, and the efforts of courtiers and religious factions to seize control of the succession did not end with her death. Jane’s sisters would have to tread carefully to survive: Lady Katherine Grey as the forgotten rival Queen Elizabeth feared most, and Lady Mary Grey as the last of the sisters who were heirs to the throne. (de Lisle, xxx).

These three sisters were the daughters of Henry and Frances Grey. Frances is often viewed as a power hungry mother who didn’t care about Jane, but de Lisle explains why this is merely a stereotype. The Grey’s gave their daughters the best education imaginable for those who were in line for the throne. Jane, Katherine and Mary were raised to be educated and opinionated young ladies, which really defined who Jane was, even when she became queen for a fortnight, not the nine days of the myth. Jane was in fact one of the leaders of the new Protestant movement and she stuck to her beliefs, even when she was facing execution.

It was the memory of Jane that was always in the back of Katherine and Mary’s minds. After Jane’s death, neither girl truly pursued the crown of England. Instead, they wanted to be happy and marry who they wanted for love, no matter what. It started with Katherine, who was going to be next in line to the throne after Elizabeth became queen since Elizabeth never married. Katherine wanted a simple life so she married Edward Seymour, 1st Earl of Hertford without Elizabeth’s knowledge. Elizabeth sent both Katherine and Edward to the Tower where they had two children, Thomas and Edward Lord Beauchamp. Katherine would die sick, impoverished and under house arrest, separated from her husband and her children.

Mary did not fare much better. Mary married Thomas Keyes, a sergeant porter to Elizabeth I, in secret. Unlike Katherine, Mary and Thomas’s marriage ended badly after Thomas was sent to a cramp and dark prison cell. Mary never married again, but she was able to return to court.

This is the story of the Grey family without all the frills. The stories of Jane, Katherine and Mary are stories of heartache and pain. They were too close to the throne to have a normal life that they wanted. When I started reading this book, I will admit that it shocked me. I thought I knew the story of the Grey family, but I was wrong. Leanda de Lisle has opened my eyes to the truth about the Greys with her book “The Sisters Who Would Be Queen”. This book is very well written and so easy to understand. If you are interested in the Grey family and the story of Jane, Katherine and Mary, this is the book for you.