“What about the queens whose lives were equally as exciting as Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots?”: 5 minutes with Ellie Woodacre

Ahead of our 2019 Winchester History Weekend, we spoke to historian Ellie Woodacre about what to expect from her talk on depictions of early modern queens in films including The Favourite and Mary, Queen of Scots

Ellie Woodacre.

What can audiences look forward to in your talk?

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I’ll be discussing the representation of early modern (c1500–1800) queens in modern films. If you enjoyed The Favourite or Mary Queen of Scots earlier this year, this talk is for you! I’ll be looking at the various stereotypes – such as victims and villains – that queens have been boxed into by writers and film producers. These depictions have made these fascinating historical women into more two-dimensional figures and their complicated lives and reigns more approachable and ‘digestible’.

Buy tickets for ‘Early Modern Queens on Screen’

Why are you so fascinated by this topic?

I have a deep interest in how we continually reinterpret and reimagine the lives of queens and other historical figures from the past. Although this particular talk is about modern film specifically, I like to take along-term view of historical figures. I’ll be looking at how successive media such as collective biographies, plays, operas, novels and films have given us very different representations of particular queens over generations and, indeed, centuries. Often these representations tell us more about the era in which they were created rather than the period in which the queen actually lived.

I know that many historians and audiences get very upset when they feel that a particular film or novel is not ‘historically accurate’, but for me I am more fascinated by the choices made by a writer or producer to portray a queen or her life in a certain way. Thinking about why they made these particular decisions as they put together their film, what messages are they trying to get across about this woman’s life, and what that tells us about changing understandings of queenship excites me.

Tell us something that might surprise or shock us about this area of history…

It may not surprise you to say that modern films about queens have often created shock waves or controversies. Recently, there were stories in the media about both Mary Queen of Scots and The Favourite, where historians and film critics debated the accuracy of both films, particularly regarding the representation of Elizabeth I and the sexual nature of Queen Anne’s relationships with her favourites. Controversies about queens on screen also go right back to the golden age of cinema in the 1930s; for example, American-German actor Marlene Dietrich’s biopic of Catherine the Great, The Scarlett Empress, was considered quite steamy and pushed the boundaries of the Hayes censorship code.

Where is your favourite historical place to visit?

A difficult question as there are so many wonderful historical sites that I love to visit. Perhaps one that is very near and dear to my heart is the Palacio Real de Olite in Navarre, Spain. I studied the regnant queens of Navarre for my PhD and published my first book about them. This palace was very important to the history of late medieval Navarre with wonderful additions by Carlos III, including hanging gardens built for his wife, Leonor of Castile. Carlos III was king during Navarre’s golden age –he was the father of Blanca I, one of the regnant queens I studied, and was the brother of Joan of Navarre (wife of Henry IV of England), the queen I’m currently researching. The palace has been heavily restored and is a beautiful site, almost like a fairy tale castle. I’d definitely recommend it if you are ever in the Pyrenean region.

Which history book made the most impact on you?

Another difficult question – so many books have been pivotal to my research over the years. I must say that at the moment, the book on my desk that is most covered in notes is Chris Given-Wilson’s recent biography of Henry IV. My copy of the book looks like a porcupine with sticky notes poking out in every direction! Again, as I’m working on Henry’s wife, Joan of Navarre, this has been a very useful book to contextualise Joan’s time as his queen consort.

Another book that had an impact on me when I first began to study queens seriously as a master’s student is John Carmi Parsons’s collection, Medieval Queenship. There are several excellent case studies in that book – one that was very influential on my career was Armin Wolf’s overview of regnant queens in medieval Europe, which inspired me to work on the Navarrese queens for my PhD. I was surprised that there were so many reigning queens in Navarre in the Middle Ages (five, or even seven if you count the controversial Blanca II and Jeanne d’Albret, who held the title after the Spanish kingdom was annexed by Castile in 1512) – but there was so little written about them.

Which area of history would you like to see made into a film or television series?

Certain queens have had numerous movies or television series made about their lives. Take, for example, the ‘trinity’ of Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. While their lives are fascinating, there are so many more queens whose lives were equally exciting, but we never see on screen. Joan of Navarre doesn’t even get a mention in Shakespeare’s Henry IV and V plays, but her long life was full of controversy and excitement. How many queens can you think of who have been accused of witchcraft and held for several years?

The family infighting between the children of Blanca (Blanche) I of Navarre and her husband Juan (John II) of Aragon after her death in 1441 is like a soap opera – I used to think when I was researching their lives that you couldn’t make up a more exciting plot line if you tried! It was a real Game of Thrones situation, complete with several suspicious deaths. At one point, for example, their daughter Blanca II was vying with her sister Leonor for the Navarrese crown. Blanca was captured and held captive in the tower at Orthez, which belonged to Leonor’s husband, Gaston IV of Foix. Just before a peace conference was due to take place in Navarre to decide whose claim was superior, Blanca was found dead – Leonor has long been accused of her murder, with some claiming that Leonor personally poisoned her sister. It’s been claimed that Blanca still haunts the tower as ‘la Dame Blanche’ to this day – but I didn’t see her when I visited, at least! That’s just the tip of the iceberg; there is much more drama where that came from.

Dr Elena (Ellie) Woodacre is a senior lecturer at the University of Winchester who has published extensively on queenship and royal studies.

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She will be speaking about the stereotypes employed to depict the lives of premodern queens on film at our 2019 History Weekend in Winchester.

Ellie Woodacre's talk at BBC History Magazine's Winchester History Weekend 2019