The real history behind Becoming Elizabeth
Becoming Elizabeth tells the story of the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn before she became Elizabeth I, as she navigated the tumultuous reigns of her half-siblings. But how historically accurate is the drama? Discover the real history behind the show and the life of the teenage Princess Elizabeth
What is Becoming Elizabeth about?
Becoming Elizabeth dramatises the life of the young Elizabeth I, daughter of King Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. The princess was born on September 1533 as heir-presumptive. Three years later, she was declared illegitimate and ousted from the succession, after her mother was executed on fabricated charges of adultery. From there on, she was largely ignored by her father, permitted to see him on only a handful of special occasions.
But, against all expectations – and Henry’s best-laid plans – Elizabeth did eventually become Queen of England. And she would be arguably the greatest monarch of the entire Tudor dynasty.
That is another story. Becoming Elizabeth is a tale of Elizabeth’s days before the throne, before she became the Virgin Queen, Gloriana or Good Queen Bess. It is the story of her precarious life during the reigns of her step-siblings, Edward VI and Mary I, during a period of polarising religious tensions. The drama begins in the immediate aftermath of Henry VIII’s death when Elizabeth is sent to live with dowager queen and Henry’s sixth wife Katherine Parr, and her new husband – the rakish Thomas Seymour (brother of Edward’s mother Jane Seymour).
Below we explore the real history behind the drama. What was the true nature of Elizabeth’s relationship with Thomas Seymour? What did Elizabeth really think of her mother, Anne Boleyn? And could she really trust her stepmother, Katherine Parr? Read on for the real history behind Becoming Elizabeth – warning, there will be spoilers.
How to watch Becoming Elizabeth
Becoming Elizabeth was first broadcast on Starz in the US and STARZPLAY in the UK in June 2022.
The series is currently airing weekly on Channel 4 in the UK, with new episodes available stream on Channel4.com shortly after.
Becoming Elizabeth is still available to stream in full on Lionsgate+, the new name for STARZPLAY, which is available as an add-on channel for Amazon Prime Video.
If you don't have Prime Video, you can sign up for a 30-day trial of Amazon Prime.
Is Becoming Elizabeth a true story? The real history behind the drama
What was Elizabeth’s relationship with Thomas Seymour?
When Elizabeth is sent to live in Chelsea with Katherine Parr (an event that occurs both in the drama and real history), the princess comes into the orbit of Thomas Seymour – brother of the Lord Protector, uncle to the King, and Parr’s new husband. He is 25 years her senior.
Elizabeth, we see, holds some infatuation for the dashing Thomas, and Thomas returns those affections. There are lingering looks, and stolen glances. “We’re not meant to marry princesses,” his brother Edward, Earl of Hertford (later the Duke of Somerset) intones to his brother, serious as a death knell. Thomas, we are soon to learn, cares little for whom that bell tolls.
To modern sensibilities, what follows is uncomfortable viewing. More than once we see Thomas stride into Elizabeth’s bedchamber in his underclothes. There are quiet rendezvous in hidden corners, and in one particularly unsettling scene, Katherine Parr joins in with Thomas to rip a dress from Elizabeth’s body piece by piece.
It is left ambiguous as to the extent of Elizabeth’s willingness throughout these events, but much of what is portrayed is rooted in the truth, as much as sources suggest.
Most of the detail come from Elizabeth’s own servants, who gave evidence to a Privy Council investigation after Thomas was caught in the act of attempting to kidnap Edward VI – a 1549 inquiry that ultimately concluded that Thomas was also planning to wed Elizabeth without the council’s consent, and culminated in his execution.
The servants told of how Thomas would “strike her on the back or the buttocks familiarly”, how sometimes she would shrink from him, and how he would climb into her bed to tickle her, and that sometimes Katherine would join in.
The scene in which Thomas shreds Elizabeth’s dress with a sword within the halls of Chelsea is in reality said to have taken place in the gardens at Hanworth Park, one source stating (as portrayed in Becoming Elizabeth) that Katherine “held her” as Thomas savaged her finery.
“The nature of Katherine’s holding is not clear,” notes historian Suzannah Lipscomb. “Held her down? Held her to protect her? Laughingly participated in mere horseplay? We don’t know how Elizabeth reacted.”
As to whether Elizabeth returned any of Thomas’s attentions, Lipscomb adds: “Kat Ashley [Elizabeth’s governess] said that Elizabeth blushed when Seymour was spoken of, but this might not indicate affection, or fancy, so much as shame.”
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Though as historian Helen Castor points out, there may have been a reason for Elizabeth engaging with Seymour’s advances: “If this was an adolescent crush on a handsome and attentive older man – a father-figure who was not sexually out of bounds, should he ask for her hand – it is only likely to have been intensified by the fact that the prospect of marrying Seymour would spare Elizabeth the usual fate of royal daughters: to be sent abroad, in permanent exile from all that was familiar, to make a new life with a stranger for a husband.”
Was Katherine Parr a friend or foe to Elizabeth?
Katherine Parr is largely given short shrift in Becoming Elizabeth. Perhaps the most misunderstood of Henry VIII’s six wives, she is often relegated to being ‘the one who survived’ – when in fact, she thrived. During Henry’s lifetime, she played a prominent role in state affairs and published books under her own name.
Here, the view we are given is she was in love with someone else at the time of Henry’s demise – Thomas Seymour, with whom she was smitten in real history long before the king called upon her to be his sixth wife. Her intentions surrounding Elizabeth’s wellbeing once she engages in Thomas’s horseplay are portrayed as clouded, to say the least.
“Was she jealous,” asks Lipscomb. “Did she think Elizabeth was just a young girl infatuated with her handsome husband? Did she see it as mere high jinks? Or did she resist seeing what was happening in front of her face?”
As with Elizabeth herself, it is impossible to say how Katherine truly felt, but the result was the same – the princess was ultimately sent away from Parr’s household in May 1548.
“It is possible that Katherine sent Elizabeth away in order to protect her, as the heavily pregnant Katherine knew that she would soon have been going into confinement and would not be able to stop Seymour’s advances,” says Lipscomb.
It’s also not apparent in the show, but before the period portrayed, it was Katherine Parr who was responsible for rekindling the relationship between Elizabeth and her father, and for convincing Henry to restore both Elizabeth and Mary to the line of succession.
Katherine became queen in July 1543. “Within a few months she arranged for Henry's children to pay visits to their father and thus provide him with some semblance of the home life he had never had,” writes historian Derek Wilson.
“Extant letters, written between 1544 and 1547, bear witness to a very warm relationship between the royal children and their stepmother. Whether sending a court musician to perform for Mary or correcting the Latin exercises of Edward and Elizabeth, Katherine took a keen interest in their wellbeing.”
- Read more | Did Henry VIII love Katherine Parr?
Was there a rumour that Elizabeth became pregnant by Thomas Seymour?
“I’m late,” the drama’s Elizabeth announces flatly to her governess and confidant, Kat Ashley. Not long after, she asks: “Shall we fetch a woman?”
It is never stated what the ‘woman’ might do. Nothing is explicitly shown as having happened between Thomas and the teenage princess, nor is anything explicitly said. But the significance Elizabeth puts on her lateness – and the extent of her relief when her period arrives – is intended to speak louder than words.
As she waits, the story is put out that Elizabeth, who by this point has left Parr’s household, is unwell.
In reality, Elizabeth was certainly ill during the summer of 1548, after she had been sent away from Chelsea – but the suggestion that she might have been pregnant was not contemporary, emerging some 60 years later.
“The evidence [for a pregnancy] is laughably slender and easily refuted,” writes Lipscomb. “It seems more likely that Elizabeth was stressed and traumatised by the separation from her stepmother and the sexual harassment by her stepfather.”
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Did Thomas Seymour really try to marry Elizabeth?
Following Katherine Parr’s death after childbirth, the drama has the grasping Thomas Seymour asking Elizabeth to marry him. But did it ever happen?
It is plausible. The same Privy Council investigation into Thomas Seymour’s attempt to kidnap Edward VI concluded that Thomas had conspired to marry the princess in secret. Whether the real Elizabeth knew the extent of Thomas’s machinations is unclear.
There is one significant detail that the show omits: Thomas had asked Elizabeth to marry him once before, prior to his marriage to Katherine Parr.
“Thomas Seymour asked the 13-year-old Princess Elizabeth to marry him by letter in February 1547, within a month of Henry VIII’s death,” writes Lipscomb. “Elizabeth rejected his proposal elegantly, also by letter, saying she was too young and would be in mourning for her father for two years.”
Within a month or so, Thomas was married to Katherine Parr. “Katherine had been in love with him since before her marriage to Henry, but it is possible that Thomas married her to get closer to Elizabeth,” Lipscomb adds.
What did Elizabeth think of her mother, Anne Boleyn?
In the drama, Anne Boleyn casts a long shadow over the teenage Elizabeth. History may have rehabilitated the second of Henry VIII’s six wives, but in Becoming Elizabeth, Anne is almost universally reviled as “the Great Whore”. And with rumours of affections between Elizabeth and Thomas Seymour, that shadow comes into even sharper relief.
Elizabeth seems sanguine about her mother and her reputation, at one point threatening to visit court wearing Boleyn’s now-iconic ‘B’ necklace – an act of provocation that draws shock from both Katherine Parr and governess Kat Ashley.
But do we have any idea of what Elizabeth made of her mother?
“The popular misconception is that Elizabeth didn't really regard her mother at all,” and that “she only mentioned twice in her life,” writes Tracy Borman. “In fact, Elizabeth mentioned her a good deal more than that.”
She had to be careful, but Elizabeth expressed her affinity to Anne in subtle ways –promoting her Boleyn relatives at court, for instance. She also possessed a locket ring that contained two portraits, one of herself and the other of Anne.
“That locket ring was kept in a locked casket by Elizabeth until the day she died. It was clearly one of her most treasured possessions,” says Borman.
Learn more about Elizabeth I as Queen of England
Who was Edward Seymour?
In the Parr household, Thomas Seymour looms large, but at court it is his brother who dominates proceedings.
On the night of Henry VIII’s death, it is Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford who rides off in the dead of night to Prince Edward’s side, and in being the first to reach him, cements his position as the new king’s closest confidant. Though Henry envisaged his son ruling under the influence of 16 councillors, Hertford manages to make himself pre-eminent among them, as Edward’s Lord Protector.
“Over the centuries historians have offered many explanations as to why the councillors agreed to Seymour’s power-grab,” writes historian Derek Wilson, “including the need for a strong government to fend off any conservative reaction, the fact that Seymour was Edward VI’s uncle, and the dishing out of sweeteners to pliable supporters.
“Whatever the reason, Seymour was now Protector of the Realm. Soon, he was consulting the council less and less and ruling by decree in his nephew’s name.”
Like so many overmighty subjects, that would prove his undoing – and 1552 the Lord Protector was executed.
Was Edward VI anything like Henry VIII?
In each of the first three episodes, Edward feels the need to exclaim, loudly, “I am the king!” On one occasion, as he adds an intermediary expletive for added emphasis, leading Edward Seymour and his ally Lord Dudley to acknowledge that this new boy king could end up very much like his father – a perspective that historian Tracy Borman agrees with.
Though often regarded as a sickly child, the real Edward VI, writes Borman, was a hearty lad who could have been as terrible as his father had he not died early – at just 15 years old – in 1553.
“Far from being dominated by ambitious councillors such as the Dukes of Somerset and Northumberland [as Dudley was later known], he had strong opinions, ideas of his own and all the makings of a tyrant. In short, he was a chip off the old block.”
- Read more | Why wasn’t Henry VIII’s son crowned as Edward V?
Why is Edward called the new Josiah?
As Edward plunges ahead with religious reform in the guise of the Reformation, the king is hailed, more than once, as the ‘new Josiah’. But why?
Josiah was a young king of ancient Judah, who reigned in the mid-to-late 7th century BC, and took great pains to fight idolatry and ensure that God was truly worshipped. And it was his example that the archbishop Thomas Cranmer is said to have urged Edward to emulate at the young king’s coronation in February 1547.
“Cranmer’s exhortation was a sign of things to come: far from reversing Henry VIII’s break with Rome, Edward would go on to quicken the pace of his father’s religious reforms,” writes Ralph Houlbrooke. “The result was that England would, for the first time, become an officially Protestant country during the six-year reign of the boy king.”
- Read more | Edward VI: boy king and religious zealot
Was there a plot to marry Jane Grey to Edward VI?
A significant subplot in Becoming Elizabeth centres around Thomas Seymour and Katherine Parr’s attempts to gain influence at court by introducing Edward VI to Lady Jane Grey – another ward in their household.
This was yet another charge levied at Thomas Seymour after the Privy Council investigation that ultimately cost him his head, but Jane would get closer to the throne that even Thomas had imagined. For nine days, she would be England’s (disputed) queen.
“The seeds of Jane’s spectacular fall from grace were sown, earlier in 1553, by one of Edward VI’s last acts as king of England, writes Nicola Tallis.
“Championing Protestantism in his lifetime wasn’t enough for Edward. He wanted the work to continue after his death, and that meant preventing his fiercely Catholic elder half-sister, Mary, from succeeding to the throne.
“His solution was to author a famous document, ‘My Devise for the Succession’, in which he excluded both Mary, and his other half-sister, Elizabeth, on the grounds of their illegitimacy (as his father had done before him). Lady Jane Grey, a fellow Protestant who had sat third in the line of succession, suddenly found herself anointed Edward’s heir.”
Edward’s death, in July 1553, thrust Jane into the halls of power, but her reign would be tumultuous and brief.
Why is England at war with Scotland?
In the drama, it seems that no sooner than has Edward Seymour become Lord Protector, that he leaves court to battle the Scots at Pinkie Cleugh – a catastrophic real-life defeat for Scotland that was fought in September 1547 and saw thousands killed, wounded or captured.
That the battle was fought at all was Henry VIII’s doing, who in the last years of his reign tried to break the Auld Alliance between Scotland and France by securing a betrothal between Prince Edward and the infant Mary, Queen of Scots.
When diplomacy failed, Henry turned to war – which would be later romanticised by literary figures such as Walter Scott as the ‘Rough Wooing’. It didn’t work and, fearing for Mary’s life, her guardians arranged for a marriage pact with the French dauphin instead.