When my husband is working late at night and Baby Munchkin is sound asleep, I sometimes tune into a show called Reign on The CW. It is a show very loosely based on the life of Mary, Queen of Scots. The series finale is this Friday, June 16th.
I don’t know why I watch it. I am fascinated by that era in history, but the historical flaws really infuriate me. The actress who plays Mary, although beautiful, looks nothing like Mary. I could live with that if that were the only thing. They have changed the characterization of some key historical figures, particularly her first husband Francis II of France and her half-brother James Stuart, Earl of Moray. There is also this really weird storyline about the supernatural (The CW already has a ton of vampire shows). These are a just a couple of the really obvious ones.
Whenever history goes Hollywood, inaccuracies can be expected. Braveheart is one of the most historically inaccurate films ever. The real William Wallace was 6’6″ while Mel Gibson was a foot shorter. Princess Isabella, who Wallace is shown to have an affair, didn’t even come to England until 1308, almost three years after Wallace’s execution. Jonathan Rhys Meyers on The Tudors, although a magnificent actor, was the worst Henry VIII ever. Henry was known for being red-haired and larger than life, not 5’7″ and moody. All this aside, the thing that really irks me about Reign is its portrayal of Mary vs. her cousin and rival, Elizabeth I.
Full Disclosure: I am and always will be team Elizabeth.
On this show, Mary is all things good, and Elizabeth is the evil aggressor who executes Mary’s bff (also fake). The writers try to justify Mary’s claim to the English throne. In my opinion, Mary is the aggressor here, not Elizabeth. But if your only experience with this era of history is this show, you would think “poor Mary, bad Elizabeth.”
Let’s think a moment about who Elizabeth was. Her mother was executed at age three. She saw another stepmother executed. Her place at court depended on the mood of her father, Henry VIII. A scandal in her stepmother’s home almost brought about her ruin at age thirteen. Her brother disinherited her. Her sister, Mary Tudor (different person), imprisoned her in the Tower of London and was thisclose to signing Elizabeth’s death warrant. Additionally, Catholic Europe, especially Spain was gunning for her. The fact that she was a woman didn’t get her any points either.
She could have run away or given up but she survived and THRIVED! What an inspiration she was and could be to a new generation learning to love history.
Elizabeth survived her perilous beginning and her own reign with her intelligence and non-committal attitude. She never knew security, so when Mary attempted to claim the English throne, I can understand why Elizabeth reacted the way she did. I get that it’s “not nice” that Elizabeth ultimately imprisoned and executed Mary. In fact, she didn’t want to do it and was haunted by Mary until her own death in 1603. Understanding Elizabeth’s time period and own upbringing, you can see that she had no choice.
It would have been better to not have Elizabeth on the show at all than to have these superficial plot points involving her. She was much more effective as a mysterious figure in season two. Since Elizabeth and Mary never met in real life, it would have worked!
I know it’s just a show, but I wish they would have focused on the wily queen who would have no master. The girl who survived a terrible childhood to achieve her destiny. The woman who defeated the invincible Armada. The queen who wanted to rule absolutely but was progressive enough to “not make windows into men’s souls.” Maybe she’s not the good guy, but she’s certainly not the antagonist.
Mary followed her heart. Elizabeth honored her duty above all else and learned from her mistakes/past. There is something to be said for that.