You might have seen them co-presenting Channel 5’s 2016 series Henry VIII and His Six Wives, and now historians Suzannah Lipscomb and Dan Jones – the Early Modern Mulder and Scully – are back for a new docu-drama exploring the reign of Elizabeth I, the threats posed by her enemies, and just how close the Virgin Queen came to being toppled from her throne.
With Elizabeth I airing on Channel 5, Tuesdays at 9pm, and starring Lily Cole as the last and arguably greatest of the Tudors, we caught up with Suzannah and Dan…
Was Elizabeth I that great Gloriana figure that we have all come to know?
Suzannah: It’s the perspective of looking back over 45 years of a reign where she survived threats like the Armada, that she’s lived out past the deaths of many of her enemies, the executions of others, and it’s from that perspective when, even if England is not thoroughly established, in religious terms, much as a kind of middle-way has been reached. Much has been settled. But actually during the course of it being lived out, things don’t look that glorious. And it looks pretty dangerous to be Elizabeth as a princess and then as a queen. We now know that she lives for this great period of time and it’s all wonderful, but there are distinct moments, where it’s very likely (if you were placing bets at the time) that Elizabeth wouldn’t live. And yet, she did. So it’s both true and not true.
Dan: Whenever you’re looking at particular history with an established and rich mythology around it, the simplest thing you can do to understand it is just play the story forwards, and lock out any prior knowledge and look at things in sequence. And you often find, we made a show about Henry VIII and this was absolutely the case, when you make shows about the Wars of the Roses – you play the story forwards, and what you usually see is a completely different view of the story. The trouble with Elizabeth is you’re always looking through the lens of Gloriana, always looking through the lens of the Great Portraits, you’re looking through the lens of the Armada having been defeated. Take that away and you just see something completely different. You see chaos, you see danger, you see betrayal, uncertainty, all the things that are gifts in TV terms, and fascinating when you look into the history.
Suzannah: Also, thinking about her as a human rather than just a great monarch, y’know…
Dan: Close your eyes and who do you see? You don’t see the young, vulnerable Elizabeth, trying to navigate through the years after her father’s death, her sister’s queen – you don’t see that picture, you see the picture you wanted her to see. “It’s a fake nose!”
Suzannah: This picture, this still that you’ve got here, which is based on the portrait from 1600 which shows her coronation, we’ve got some multiple layers here, because that actually is being painted in 1600, she was crowned in 1559, many years earlier, but this is a picture that is being passed down. By the time it’s painted, she’s a haggard old woman, with blackened teeth and wrinkly chest and has got wigs to cover up her balding head! But we’ve got this powerful image, meant to be powerful, and we’ve bought into it. It’s exactly the same as her father, which we’ve bought into, which is also peddling a lie, so actually in both cases, we’re trying to fight against both of those images to find the real people.
Dan: The first question you ask when presented with an astonishing image, you know, is why am I being shown this? And who is showing it to me? And why would you paint a picture of Elizabeth being crowned in 16—if not to in some way either mask or hark back to a time very different?
Would this have been Elizabeth’s own decision to get the portrait painted?
Suzannah: That’s not something we can know.
What was Elizabeth’s perception of her own enemies? (If this is something we can know or reliably guess at) Did she feel secure on the throne or did she feel the threats?
Dan: Well, there is evidence you can read. In the first episode of the show, we look at a young Elizabeth, her rise to the crown, the years after her father’s death. And we have testimony from Kat Ashley, her governess, companion. You have sufficient insight into the personal to make judgements about what she was most-likely feeling or thinking. I’m judging those words carefully because obviously we don’t want to say ‘Yeah, we worked out exactly how scared on a scale of one to ten how scared Elizabeth was, as ship one of the Armada sailed through!’ – that’s absurd. But you can make informed and reasoned judgements, as historians, that’s our job.
Suzannah: And you can also read letters from her, there’s a letter that she sent to her sister when her sister was queen and Elizabeth was suspected of being involved in a rebellion. And Elizabeth is laying out her case of why she hasn’t been and how great a supporter she is of her sister Mary, and obviously there’s a rhetoric there that has a purpose – “Please don’t kill me” – but underneath that, there’s the elegance of the way it’s written, the persuasiveness of how it’s written, all testify to her knowing that there is a threat. So, of course we don’t know what she is thinking or feeling most of the time, but what we do have is these clues, and our job as historians is to try and put the story together from those clues.
It seems to me that she must have been constantly aware of the threat. I don’t think she could have been in any way oblivious to it, especially when she is reigning monarch, having intelligence reports brought to her all the time. I think she absolutely knew, and I think that informs much of her decision- making – or lack of decision making. One thing Elizabeth was famous for is her indecisiveness, and quite often, she used that as a way of exercising control, but also I think sometimes she uses it because she’s paralysed. The options are difficult to choose between.
Dan: I think that’s a well reasoned argument as always. Mary, Queen of Scots example is a good one. Elizabeth manifestly has her cousin executed. Therefore, in simple answer, of course she is aware of the threat. But, layer two, she takes her time about it, which indicates not only an awareness, but also agonising over it. Layer three, we know there is a recurrent tension between Elizabeth and the people who are in some sense governing England for her, and are her eyes and ears of the queen. Walsingham and Cecil are much more in favour of doing away with Mary, Queen of Scots than Elizabeth.
Suzannah: Really, “off with her head”.
Dan: So there, you have a degree of part-knowledge, because they are obviously trying to manipulate her. In the way that we know from looking at any other period, historical court, that we have a dominant person and the top and people below attempting to manipulate them, whilst at the same time doing what they have been told. So there are layers of knowledge.
Off all of the enemies who we meet in the new series, are there any who you particularly engaged with?
Suzannah: Essex is a really intriguing character because he stages this ludicrous coup that could have never in any way have succeeded, which suggests that perhaps he didn’t plan it to succeed. That it had a different purpose. It’s a real threat in terms of being close to home. It’s a coup in London that people are staging, that must have seemed terrifying at the time, so, I think he’s intriguing because he’s very close to her before it all happens, and it’s a very nuanced story, and he’s a bit of a nutter.
Dan: I quite like the early stuff. Like the family stuff. I think you know, you get peak Tudor dysfunction, 1540s and 50s. And that sort of period where Henry VIII is after Elizabeth’s mother’s head – that’s the 30s, but it’s the prequel – to the brother and sisters having the most weird sequence of interactions and relations with one another, culminating with Mary I ‘umming and ahhing’ over whether to chop off her own sister’s head. I see that as peak Tudor dysfunction and it’s extraordinary. What’s good about that and what’s good about the Henry VIII series we did before this, again from an ‘amazing TV point of view’, is that we have that lovely sweet spot of storytelling where family, feuding, family disagreement, is national history at the same time. It’s beautiful.
Who came the closest to knocking Elizabeth off the throne?
Suzannah: It’s got to be Philip, really.
Dan: It has to be Philip.
Suzannah: Because if the Duke of Parma had been ready on the other side of the channel, to meet Philip’s ships coming up from Spain, picked them up and dropped them off in England, then everything would have gone wrong. Robert Hutchinson put it like this: he said that the English militia at the time made Dad’s Army look like a highly honed war machine. There’s no way that they could have succeeded on land, there was just nothing organised at all. So, it’s just pure luck that Parma’s not there, and it’s just by luck that the weather works in the favour of the English.
Dan: No, it’s God!
Suzannah: By providence or by luck.
Dan: God willed it.
Suzannah: That’s certainly what they believed at the time.
Dan: Today we call it luck, and at the time, they thought it was God.
Suzannah: But the problem historically is that suggestion that they would have been saved either way, and my point is that it was by the merest breath that they escaped with their lives.
It’s always interesting to think about gender when looking at Elizabeth I and Mary I. How do you think the threats might have differed were Elizabeth a king, rather than a queen?
Dan: Well I think Elizabeth’s certainly thought so or acted like she thought other people thought so. The heart of the Tilbury speech: Weak and feeble body of a woman…
Suzannah: Heart and stomach of a king.
Dan: Thank you. You were supposed to finish my sentence, so thank you. Which tells you that either, she feels the pressure because she is a queen, or, she feels that this is something she needs to say because that’s what other people are thinking. So, manifestly, it’s a central part of the story.
Suzannah: But I think the question is really whether if there had been a king, would he also have been a protestant? Because much of the threat from the pope, from Philip II, comes not from the fact that Elizabeth is a woman, but from the fact that she’s not a Catholic. So that’s crucial. And also being a woman gives her some mechanisms for dealing with things that, if she were a man, she would not have had. She has the men she surround herself with, brilliant men, but she keeps them at her beck and call, with this sort of game of courtly love, there is rhetoric about weakness that she can play to when she doesn’t want to make a decision when that is actually the politic thing to do, you know, those sort of things, so that she uses the conceit of what womanliness means at the time, to her advantage.
Dan: That’s an extremely important point. No man could have got away with “I’m married to the country”, it doesn’t work. Hillary Mantel was quite interesting – in an article I was reading the other day – about the dual game that women in the 16th century are able to play. On the one hand, actually taking quite an active and engaged role in political or legal disputes. Ranging from noble land disputes, but it works for Elizabeth as well. I think it’s a very important point. I think Elizabeth turns what could be a disadvantage – being a woman in the 16th century, into a massive, massive advantage. Genius!
Speaking of Hillary Mantel, this is a docu-drama, but what do you think of historical dramas?
Suzannah: They are really good for getting people into history.
Dan: Not all of them are brilliant –
Suzannah: The Tudors, for example…
Dan: I thought the adaptation of Wolf Hall was really special. Really, really good. I thought The People Versus OJ Simpson, was great. It’s amazing, because all the way through, there’s 10 episodes, they manage to keep you thinking, surely they’re going to nail him? It’s very well cast, John Travolta is excellent as Rob Shapiro, Cuba Gooding’s exceptional, it’s a fantastic piece of historical drama. It’s better for the fact that it is in recent memory.
Suzannah: The Crown. Really liked that, really enjoyed that. I thought it had amazing casting.
Dan: I worked on a historical drama last year, coming out soon, which is about templars in Paris in the 14th century. It’s very interesting to cross the line and see the process of taking drama into history. It’s very easy to watch historical drama and say “They’ve got that wrong, it wasn’t like that, I can’t believe these idiots in TV!” and think that you can do it better. But actually, when it comes to a 40-50 million dollar show, the pressure coming on to the writers, the directors, on the showrunners, on every department… Working on the show I was working on, there was no department that was not wholeheartedly committed to historical authenticity. But there was also no department that was not committed to making an amazing piece of television. And sometimes, those two things just don’t always work together and you have to make compromises. The challenge isn’t to faithfully recreate events. It’s to capture the spirit, the essence of the story. Staying as true as possible to it, but accepting that you have a medium, you have an audience, and you know, it’s not like writing a history 900 page OUP or Yale book where you’re frankly going to be great if you can get into four-figure sale, you need 7-figure audiences worldwide and that’s a huge challenge. On that basis, I think the work being done on historical dramas at the moment is amazing.
Suzannah: And I can speak for both us of us when I say we both love Game of Thrones, which I know is not a historical drama…
Dan: It’s history ‘ish’
Suzannah: I really enjoy that partly because it isn’t trying to represent a particular historical period, so my pedant brain can just switch off.
How did you come to decide on Elizabeth I and her enemies as the subject for this series?
Dan: Well, Henry VIII and His Six Wives did really well. Audience loved it, channel loved it, we loved it, and so it was natural to do another one. Elizabeth is the obvious second story because it’s got a great span. So then we narrow down, what do we actually want to say about Elizabeth? So we say, well ok, how do we create a show that’s new, that gives us enough to work with, in story terms, in visual terms, that gives us a story that the audience for this channel gives us something to play to six-figure audiences at 8 o’clock? That means drama, you know. So although I’m sure we’d both love to make a show about Elizabeth’s agricultural policy, you have to pick big topics. So with Henry it’s obvious, for Elizabeth it’s not so simple. She is a fairly non-reactive queen, one of her hallmarks is not doing things. The other option was Elizabeth and her lovers, but there’s a problem with both of these, which is a problem with resolution. Elizabeth and her lovers has a problem with resolution which is that there is no climax, so shaping the story is problematic. I think this is less so, because the armada.
Suzannah: But also, there’s not climax.
Dan: The armada fails. So at the end, it’s the same as the beginning…
Suzannah: But there’s a lot of character development along the way.
You visit lots of places relevant to the story, did you have any favourites in this series?
Dan: The Royal Maritime Museum was good.
Suzannah: I did enjoy going to see the Armada portrait, up close and personal. That was special.
Dan: I liked the charts, the series of old charts, showing the progress of the armada round the British Isles, and they’re absolutely beautiful. They bring you right into the story. If we’d had loads of time, we should have shot them graphically and made the ships sail around, Monty-Python style.
Suzannah: Also, you get to go to the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey and all of these places early in the morning, and that’s always lovely to be there, with nobody else there apart from the cleaners and the organists.
Dan: And the last thing they need is another bunch of idiots with cameras getting in the way!
What are you most looking forward to viewers seeing in this series?
Suzannah: There are some real suprises in here, things people don’t know. I think there’s going to be a lot of history that people are unfamiliar with, that are really going to make people sit up and look, and I can’t wait for the reaction when it goes out!
Elizabeth I airs Tuesdays at 9pm on Channel 5 and you can follow both Suzannah Lipscomb and Dan Jones on Twitter. For more on drama from behind the palace walls, subscribe to History of Royals and save 20%.