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Interview with Nigel Williams

Elizabeth I seated with members of court watching event

HBO

Take us back to the beginning of Elizabeth's life, prior to her ascension to the throne.

Nigel Williams

I think it's really important to remember that Elizabeth is the daughter of Anne Boleyn, one of the many wives of Henry VIII who was beheaded as part of a court intrigue. It's always difficult to talk about memory in relation to historical character, but one must suppose one of her earliest memories was this huge insecurity. Her father had her mother executed. She was brought up in the Protestant religion by some of the great Protestant minds of the 16th century. She came to womanhood, if you like, under the rule of her sister, Mary.

So, not only is she brought up with a certain fear of her father who must have been a terrifying figure to her, she also comes to maturity under the Catholic rule of her sister Mary. And during this period her life is so dangerous because she's a Protestant and Mary is a Catholic. There's a vile repression of the English Protestant Church under Mary.

HBO

This is Mary the 1st of England?

Nigel Williams

Yes, "Bloody Mary" as we sometimes call her. Not like the drink, but because she burned a number of eminent Protestants. She was a very heavy lady indeed, and had she ended up marrying Philip of Spain, and had she had a Catholic heir, the whole history of England, and of America, would have been completely different because Protestantism, the religion of England in the 16th century, and indeed of the New World, all the Founding Fathers of the U. S. are of course Protestants at war with that Catholic strand in English life.

So Mary is a very dangerous creature, and during her rule, Elizabeth is confined to the Tower of London under suspicion of plotting against her, and is really in fear for her life. So, Elizabeth only comes to the throne after an incredibly risk-fraught childhood, and strong danger of official execution and a period of house imprisonment. And indeed literal imprisonment in the Tower.

So the background of her coming to power is out of somebody who probably never expected to become queen. It's only a remarkable series of accidents: the early death of Mary, and nobody else deciding to intervene on behalf of the Catholic faith that brings her to the throne at all. And that's terribly important to remember because her incredibly acute political sense is borne out of an awareness of how quickly power and vanity and pomp and circumstance can disappear, and how very easy it is to move from being a King to being a victim, a prisoner.

1558 Princess Elizabeth, aged twenty-five, is crowned Queen of England.

HBO

So Elizabeth's mother is put to death by her father?

Nigel Williams

Yes, by Henry VIII. There was an alleged conspiracy. It's a complex collection of things. Number one, she gave birth to a girl. What Kings wanted in Tudor England was a male heir to secure the succession. And you can't understand Elizabeth's reign without that. A male heir to secure the succession means that you're not going to have every Tom, Dick and Harry deciding that maybe he'll be the next person to step in. And a girl is just not good enough. So, number one, Anne Boleyn doesn't deliver an heir.

Number two, there seems to have been some evidence of sexual problems between her and Henry VIII, and of a possible affair. Either way she becomes the victim of him wanting a new wife, and of a breakdown in the relationship. And she is beheaded.

Henry was not an easy guy. He had six wives, and they were all either divorced or beheaded up until the last one who managed to be lucky enough to outlive him. So he was a terrifying individual and you can imagine Elizabeth's very early childhood; being sent away from London; being the daughter of this executed traitor. But he was her father, and she did keep a picture of him in front of her private apartments in the palace. And there is an element of her father's crazy temper in her.

HBO

Explain how the Protestant movement came about.

1566 Parliament refuses to grant Elizabeth further funding until the matter of her marriage and an heir are settled.

Nigel Williams

Two things happened: Henry VIII has a famous disagreement with the Pope on the question of his marriage. So, he divorces and wants to get rid of Catherine of Aragon, who's a posh Catholic, a potent, European potentate. And he wants a child and he wants to get rid of her. And when the Pope won't give him a divorce, he just says, alright, screw you. I'll go it on my own. And he creates the English Church. He sacks the monasteries, gets rid of the monks, gets rid of the apparatus of Catholic power and the universal power of the Pope.

So, Henry becomes as he said on his coin, "defender of the faith." He executes Thomas More, the first martyr of the Catholic Church in England who says, "No you can't do this." And he says, "I am the supreme head of the Church." It's a fantastic nationalist statement. And it's a very radical and dangerous thing to do as far as Catholicism is concerned because almost every single crowned head of Europe is Catholic, and in league with the Pope.

HBO

How then does Elizabeth become queen?

Nigel Williams

Well, what happens is Mary proves to be an extremely unpopular and unsuccessful ruler of England. She dies young, and since succession was through the children of Henry VIII, the only logical successor is Elizabeth. So, this happens in 1559 when Elizabeth is 25. She's a young and extremely vulnerable woman. And I think probably everybody thinks when she ascends to the throne that she's not going to last. And one of the first things that happens is everybody says, well she's gotta get married. I mean, how can you have a single woman on the throne of England?

HBO

Which creates enormous personal and political difficulties for Elizabeth throughout her life and reign.

1572 Elizabeth makes an alliance with France. The St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, in which thousands of French Protestants were killed, strains the alliance but does not break it.

Nigel Williams

Yes. You've got to understand that if you are a royal person-and I think it's as true in the 21st century as it was in the 16th, but it was even more true in the 16th- you're marriage was a very important political statement. It was a way of creating an alliance, and of deciding which way the fortunes of the country would go. So, for example, a marriage with the Duke of Anjou, who is the brother of the King of France, but thought to be sympathetic to the Protestant cause, because you can't understand these events without remembering things like the Bartholomew's Day Massacre, a very famous and hideous massacre of Protestants in Paris. And it was thought that the Duke of Anjou was more sympathetic to the Protestants.

There was some doubt about that in Elizabeth's mind and her advisors, but in getting together with the Duke of Anjou, Elizabeth would tie England to the Royal House of France, and therefore, secure itself against the threat of Spain, who was a most dangerous and powerful figure in Europe with an avowed hatred of heresy and heretics such as Elizabeth, and indeed her father Henry VIII. And you would, at a stroke get, rid of the risk of war. So ran the theory.

So, the issue of the French marriage became an issue of politics on the one hand, and of her own tempestuous feelings on the other. And there was a case for saying that it would be dangerous for English Protestants like the Earl of Leicester who was also most certainly Elizabeth's lover. It might have meant his death. So it's incredibly risky business. It's like Stalin; it's really heavy, heavy duty. But ultimately the decision to wed or not to wed is the queen's.

HBO

She appears that she wanted to wed Anjou. What went wrong?

Nigel Williams

I think she did actually. I think, there's a lot of performance and pet names, and sort of acting, will I go this way, will I go that way for the benefit of European politics. But there is also strong evidence that she really did find Anjou an attractive and interesting person. He was a very personable guy. And you've got to remember that marriage for somebody in her situation--it's a bit like Lady Di. There are only one or two people your family will allow you to marry.

And so there's suddenly the possibility of real sexual love and sexual politics, and it's only in realizing the upsurge of Protestant hatred against Catholic Europe that makes her realize that she just can't do this. Her feelings are secondary. She's a queen first, and a woman second.

By marrying this guy, she was in danger of going against Protestant feeling in the country. So this is a bit like a pop star alienating their audience. Do my fans still love me, you know what I mean? And the mood of the population is very, very important to gauge. So, I think when she realized that this was not a popular marriage, there wasn't really anywhere for her to go. And so it doesn't work out.

1587 Mary Queen of Scots is beheaded in the Great Hall at Fotheringhay Castle.

HBO

What were the political ramifications of that?

Nigel Williams

Well, when the French marriage dissolves, combined with the execution Mary Queen of Scots, it means that a conflict with Spain is more or less inevitable. So both these things are incredibly personal, but also incredibly political. She doesn't want to execute Mary, although it's proved that Mary is plotting against her, and very keen to overthrow her, and the whole of Catholic Europe wants to overthrow her, but she doesn't want to execute Mary, but in the end, she's forced into a position where she has to.

And that leads as night follows day into the Spanish Armada, which is one of the riskiest moments in England's history--a moment of absolute decision and absolute drama. And it comes directly out of these events. And as we see, they win. England is victorious, and we have the famous scene where all the flags are draped behind her at St. Paul's. But the conflicts aren't over.

1588 England defeats the Spanish Armada and Elizabeth's favorite, Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, dies.

HBO

What happens then?    

Nigel Williams

I think what happens to Elizabeth in the second half of her reign--and we see it all the time with politicians--that from the moment of supreme power and supreme authority when she seemed absolutely unchallengeable, that's when things start to slip. And the story of the last ten years of her reign is one of faction, and of conflict, and of somebody trying to hold on to the glory of her court, and the glory of that Armada victory, and it all turning sour; especially via the Earl of Essex who is almost a replay of her relationship with the Earl of Leicester, who is a Protestant patron and indeed almost certainly Elizabeth's lover. It's an attempt to keep something warm, something alive and yet, not being able quite to do it really.

HBO

What were the other elements at play during that time period?

Nigel Williams

Well, I think what happened was that there was a sort of split between the Essex faction and her traditional advisors like Lord Burghley and Robert Cecil who are very experienced politicians who are constantly cautioning prudence and saying, watch it, don't do this, don't do that, and the more extreme Protestant element led by Leceister. And of course, what happens is the older and wiser politicians are the ones who win out. And indeed it's Cecil who goes on to survive into James I reign after Elizabeth dies.

The second part of the movie is all about Elizabeth and Essex which is one of the great doomed love stories of all time for my money. An older woman infatuated with a younger man, but unable to hold on to him. She holds onto her power, but she loses him.

1601 The Earl of Essex is beheaded at Tower Hill, London.

HBO

And in terms of the Protestant Church at that last stage, how strong was it?

Nigel Williams

I think the centrist Protestant Church represented by Henry and Elizabeth was being threatened on both sides. On the one side by Catholicism, on the other the Puritans who in the next century go off on the Mayflower because they're in such violent conflict with James and Charles, the Founding Fathers of America. The Puritan Church is attacking her from the other side. So she's trying to hold onto the center really. You know, the central fact of the Protestant revolution in England really being about the authority of the monarchy and the control of the monarchy, and she's trying to hold onto that, which of course her successors don't manage to do because by the middle of the 17th century, that's when we execute our King.

HBO

What is Elizabeth's legacy in terms of her effect on the history of England?

1603 Elizabeth I dies at age 69, the oldest English Sovereign ever to have reigned.

Nigel Williams

I think she is a fantastically interesting intellectual figure. Wonderful writer, wonderful poet. Wonderful speaker. Incredibly intelligent. And by the standards of the time, incredibly merciful. She doesn't shed blood willingly, she's not a cruel woman like Mary, she's a politician with, I think, real compassion and feeling for the ordinary people of her nation.

She's a woman with a sense of humor, and a sense of tolerance. And I think she is the focus of a sort of nationalism that's not too crude and jingoistic, but rather sympathetic. William Byrd, one of the great Tudor composers, was a Catholic. She tolerated him. She was fascinated by artists and writers, not only Shakespeare who is one example, but there are many others. She left a legacy of tolerance and cultural passion and positiveness that I think for everybody is very, very enriching really.

If you look at the settlements in Virginia or the speeches of the early colonists, her influence stretches beyond England to America. The influence of her language and her passion and her feelings are for all time.

There's a great dignity about somebody who takes those risks, who is the boss, who makes those decisions. She isn't a mere figurehead. She is the queen in every sense of the word, and she's also a woman of the 16th century. I still stop and really think about that. Surrounded by men, she was absolutely extraordinary. All you need to do is look at the pictures of her red hair, her incredibly mobile face, eyes that could scare you or inflame you to make you feel that this was a very remarkable woman indeed. So, I think her principal legacy is herself as a model of how to behave as a monarch. You know, she could be vulgar and stupid the way anybody can be. But in the case of Elizabeth, that seems to me to be an aspect of her humanity, not a portrait of weakness.

Elizabeth I

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