We’ve talked about this series before. We’ve praised Glenda Jackson for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I. But we have yet to do a proper deep-dive into Elizabeth R (1971) — the BBC miniseries that aired on PBS Masterpiece Theatre and was the gateway drug for me and countless other fans of 16th-century costume and history.
What is so great about this old series? Let me sum up: Six well-written, well-acted episodes that tell the story of Elizabeth’s ascension and reign in a factual and dramatic fashion, plus hundreds of costumes that meticulously recreate portraits of Queen Elizabeth. If there’s anything wrong with it, well, I guess you could complain that it’s on video not film, most of it is shot with tight interiors, and a total 510 minutes is a little short for over 50 years of history, plus one woman, even the great Glenda, kind of stretches credulity at looking both 16 and 70 (she was in her 30s at the time). But that’s all you can nitpick, fuckers! Otherwise, this miniseries is the gold standard against which all historical TV and most historical movies should be judged. Here’s why…
It’s all about the accuracy and research. Being Frock Flicks, I’ll focus on the costumes, but the history itself is spot-on, as various interviews with Glenda Jackson testify to. In a BAFTA guide, Jackson is quoted as saying:
“Elizabeth R was the BBC at its best. Everything was very thorough in those days. I was taught how to write Elizabeth’s signature, I was taught to ride side-saddle. I was even taught how to fire a bow and arrow.”
Senses of Cinema reported:
“For her performance in the six-part BBC television serial Elizabeth R (1971) Jackson did her due diligence by going through several biographies of the Queen. This research is on display in the final scene of the series: originally written with the dying Elizabeth clutching her sceptre, Jackson told the director “we can’t do this” and produced an account of the Queen sucking her thumb. In this moment of vulnerability, ‘the part came to together.'”
And Glenda Jackson was committed to the accuracy of the costuming too, having her head shaved (as Bette Davis did years before). She said in the L.A. Times:
“I didn’t see any point in attempting to convince people that I was trying to play another character when the top six inches of my forehead would wrinkle in an unnatural way because it wasn’t skin but plastic. I was told a) it would never grow back or b) it would grow back curly. Neither of those were true statements.”
I’m more shocked that Glenda Jackson isn’t wearing a smock than by the cigarettes– the later is so very ’70s.
For the later episodes, she spent hours having makeup and prosthetics applied for Elizabeth’s aging face — there’s some interesting analysis on The Makeup Gallery. I don’t know if this is as unconvincing as Keith Michell’s aging in The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970). Maybe this is because Elizabeth is also wearing the elaborate white face / rouge / painted brows to create the “mask of youth” that was emphasized in her portraits from the 1590s on. It’s an intentionally artificial look and works as such.
Fittings by Carolyn Hutchings & Jean Hunnisett.
According to “Elizabeth I and the Life of Visual Culture” by Homer B. Petty in the anthology Rule, Britannia!: The Biopic and British National Identity, the same portraits are used or referred to in most biopics of Queen Elizabeth I. This didn’t start with Elizabeth R, but the miniseries does use at least six of the most popular ones: Elizabeth when a princess, Darnley, Siena, Phoenix, Armada, and Ditchley. I would add that this TV series does a more meticulous job at recreating portraits than any other biopic, particularly the Darnley, Phoenix, Armada, and Ditchley. Looking up close at these episodes, I can see where some shortcuts were taken for budget reasons, but the overall historical effect is not sacrificed.
Really don’t understand the lack of chemises! So ouchy! That said, this is Jean Hunnisett’s wheel farthingale design, in her book, & I’ve used it, so I can report it’s awesome.
So let’s go chronologically through the six 90-minute episodes and look at the main costumes for QEI. I’m going to skip over the other characters because, while the costumes are generally of the same quality, I don’t feel like there’s much specific to point out. And I’ve already noted that this series has the most accurate versions of Mary Queen of Scots‘ wardrobe onscreen too ;)
Episode 1, “The Lion’s Cub”
The series begins during Edward VI’s reign in 1549 with the arrest of Thomas Seymour for treason, which casts suspicion on cast on Elizabeth as well. She’s supposed to be a teenager here, which 30-something Glenda Jackson gives a valiant shot at — and she’s shown with her hair down for the first 20 minutes to emphasize the character’s youth.
During part of the interrogation about Seymour and when she hears of his execution, she wears a red gown reminiscent of the 1546-1547 portrait attributed to William Scrots. She wears this again during another interrogation, when she’s sent to the Tower of London, and in the final scene of the episode.
1546-1547 – Elizabeth I when a Princess attributed to William Scrots
This isn’t an exact repro — there’s no gold contrast in the sleeves or forepart, no jewels, and the white partlet is added. But the shape is correct.
This promo closeup shows how they used inexpensive trim to mimic the look of blackwork embroidery. Back in the era before big-screen HD TVs, it worked just fine!
Another trim faking blackwork. Passes the 5-foot rule / early TV rule ;)
For her sister Mary’s coronation, she wears white and has her hair down. Now Mary, as the anointed queen wearing her crown, has her hair down, so fine, but it seems that Elizabeth’s hair and wearing all white emphasize her young, virginal state. The ermine fur on her sleeves reminds everyone she is of royal blood too.
Mary is small and dark, Elizabeth is tall & light.
Ermine fur on both, as royal sisters.
At the end of the episode, she wears this gown with a rather shitty French hood when she’s accosted by Philip of Spain.
At least it’s not sticky-uppy? And maybe the gold lamé didn’t look as bad on ’70s TV?
There’s one other outfit Elizabeth wears at various points in this episode, a fur-trimmed loose gown over a burgundy kirtle. This loose gown was a popular fashion in the 1550s across Europe and called by various names, such as ropa in Spain and zimmara in Italy. It continued to be fashionable through the early 17th century.
1570-1580 – Loose gown in Patterns of Fashion by Janet Arnold — Later date, but the style didn’t change dramatically over the second half of the 16th century; it’d be the trims and accessories that changed.
Episode 2, “The Marriage Game”
Queen Elizabeth I’s coronation isn’t shown, and the second episode throws us right into some juicy politics circa 1559, which is going to involve the delightful Robert Hardy as Robert Dudley, who she’ll raise to Earl of Leicester in due course. She wears the red “princess” dress at first, hinting at her youth and inexperience as queen. Then she gets a new ensemble in bright green velvet and damask. It’s another loose gown, but more richly decorated, she’s wearing jewels, and her hair is in a fashionable style. She’s set to command her Privy Council and wears this throughout the episode.
Black & gold trim on the sides, paned sleeves, high collar.
1560 – Elizabeth I, the Clopton portrait by unknown artist — There’s a bunch of portraits of QEI of this era and wearing loose gowns.
1563 – Elizabeth I, the Gripsholm portrait by unknown artist — Most are in black (black and white being favorites in her wardrobe), but here’s a rare one in color. I can understand why the TV series used more color because it just looks better onscreen.
View from the back — look at how much fullness is pleated in there; accurate and dramatic! Also, I love Robert Hardy :)
Great hair with jewel. Watch for her hairline and how it will recede from episode to episode as QEI ages.
Then she rewears that burgundy loose gown outfit from the last ep, but now with tons of jewelry and a fancy hairstyle.
The re-wears throughout the series are really well done & give even the Queen — who used her clothes as theater and artifice — a sense of lived-in clothing.
This still photo shows more of the fur details on the surcote, as well as the velvet & satin fabric of the sleeves.
As Elizabeth gets more serious about her role and flexes her muscle against her advisors, she wears this more formal, structured gown in a very pale green and trimmed with jewels and gold. The colors tread between virginal and fecund, but the style is severe.
The skirt has a less full sweep than her episode 1 white gown, which I feel is less due to the passage of time than her change in rank.
Totally bedazzled, as she should be!
Hard to see, but I don’t think these are metal grommets. Yay!
To impress the French ambassador, she wears what she calls an Italian gown. I’m not sure why that line of dialog is thrown in, other than to make her seem cosmopolitan in her wardrobe. Because the dress is not especially “Italian” in style.
The sleeves are puffier than she’s worn previously and her partlet is not as covered up as before, so maybe that’s meant to be “Italian”?
1550-1560s – Eleonora di Toledo gown, Patterns of Fashion by Janet Arnold — Maybe QEI’s gown is referencing this one? The bodice shape (if not closure) is similar and there’s some of the sleeve puffs.
1571 – Elisabeth of Austria by François Clouet — But the outfit looks more like this well-known portrait to me because of the neckline and the puffy sleeves. Which is French, not Italian.
Again, no grommets! Also, spiral lacing! Double yay!
Much of the episode focuses on Elizabeth and Dudley’s romance. Which is addressed in probably the most historically accurate manner in Elizabeth R than in any other biopic, and I say this having read a stack of Queen Elizabeth biographies, plus a shelf or two of general histories of the period. And it’s beautiful, delicious, bittersweet, and absolutely wonderful to watch! There’s a scene where the pair go shooting that’s just adorable.
So much detail in these costumes — little jewels on her hat, gold trim and silver tassels on her gloves, edging on the ruffs, pinked leather on her sleeves, plus leather trim on her gown.
I simply don’t have time for it, so I’ll just note that the men’s costumes are also pretty damn good and the extras are almost uniformly fantastic scene to scene.
But WTfrock is going on with this hat? It’s an unholy cross between a flat cap and a coif, and that ain’t right!
Episode 3, “Shadow in the Sun”
This one opens in 1572 with news of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in Paris sending Queen Elizabeth’s court into “mourning.” Her first gown is modeled after the 1583 Siena sieve portrait. But the French Duke of Anjou is pursuing marriage with Elizabeth, so mourning doesn’t last for long.
This is *such* a dramatic scene! The use of black costumes is so purposefully done, and it underlines everything the Queen says.
Notice her hairline is moving a tiny bit back. While yes, it shows age, it also emphasizes the elaborate period hairstyle.
1583 – Elizabeth I, the Siena sieve portrait by Quentin Metsys the Younger
While this episode is a decade earlier than the Sieve portrait, the gown’s shape isn’t exaggerated so it still works.
I couldn’t find a screen credit for ‘Quentin Metsys,’ but it’s still cool that the episode shows the Queen being sketched for a painting.
Side view shows how her large ruff is being held up — called a picadil, supportasse, or supporter, it was made of pasteboard covered with fabric.
1600-1615 – Picadil at V&A Museum — The theatrical one is probably made in a similar manner as this extant one, because it works!
Her next new gown is white with blue and trimmed in pearls, in the same basic style as the pale green one.
I wonder if that blue petticoat was a sari, given the gold trim?
Loaded with pearl trim!
This is the classic “Elizabethan gown” you think of in shape, style, and materials.
Trimmed down to the tabs around the bodice, no skimping.
Slashed white shoes, fit for a queen. Again, details!
There’s more re-wears, but they get interesting. The green velvet robe is worn over an orange damask gown, which makes it look quite different and equally grand.
Full-length view. The orange damask is so rich.
Back view shows the elegant sweep of all that fabric pleated into the top.
It kind of looks like much of this small trim is gold rick-rack — a budget option that really works onscreen.
She wears the Italian gown again and adds a pink loose gown (which previously she’d been wearing in bedroom scenes over naught but a smock).
A very feminine look for flirting with the French duke.
So much fabric! So historically accurate!
1610-1615 – Loose gown at V&A Museum — Just one extant example similar to these robes and overgowns the Queen wears throughout the series.
When the Duke of Anjou at last leaves Elizabeth’s court, she first wears the Phoenix gown — formal, exquisitely decorated, rather dark, yet symbolic as she may burn but will rise from the ashes.
Fitting the Phoenix gown.
Episode 4, “Horrible Conspiracies”
With thoughts of marriage essentially over, Queen Elizabeth solidifies into the strictly controlled image conveyed in her portraiture, and Glenda Jackson has aging makeup rather skillfully applied starting here to help show the progress of time. She wears the Phoenix gown a lot in this episode.
Full view — if you read this excellent page with details about the making of this gown for the series, you’ll hear how the embroidered fabric ended up too short. So the gold corded hem is not intentional, but it looks great and is reasonable for the period.
The series’ Phoenix gown on display.
1575-1576 – Elizabeth I, the Phoenix portrait attributed to Nicholas Hilliard.
With all the jewelry, ruffs, headgear, wig.
Closeup shows the partlet is embroidered, although not as finely as the original. Just enough to evoke the idea.
Back view shows this is still a relatively modest bell-shaped skirt, which will expand in the next decade / episode.
She re-wears some surcotes, Mary Queen of Scots gets a lot of screentime, and then we see Elizabeth in this black gown with embroidered sleeves.
I wonder if this is the Sieve portrait gown with different sleeves. The sleeve style became very popular in the 1580s through the end of this century and is shown in many portraits of women. I also noted this in my review of Anonymous.
1580-1585 – Elizabeth I from the Royal Collection — Similar sleeves and overall look, though the series’ gown doesn’t have any trimming.
1585-1590 – Elizabeth I attributed to John Bettes the Younger — You can see in this portrait how there’s a layer of sheer fabric protecting the blackworked sleeves. This is mimicked in the series, if you look closely.
1590 – Elizabeth I, the portrait at Jesus College of Oxford by unknown artist — Much later, but shows the same embroidery, even on her ruff.
Closeup shows blackworked ruff. The small ruff here is more appropriate to the 1570s as they wouldn’t get huge till the next decade.
This style of sleeve is perhaps my favorite of the 16th century!
The Darnley gown is what she wears to argue with Walsingham about MQoS’s supposed plot against her.
Full view – the fabric is quite close to the portrait, just in a little larger scale and lighter in color.
1575 – Elizabeth I, the Darnley portrait by unknown artist
It’s a beautiful portrait recreation, but the more I look at it, I see a big wrinkle across the front and are those sleeves too long?
Seriously, once you see it, you won’t unsee it.
The bum roll is getting more prominent.
It’s a common fitting problem — the torso is a little too big so the bodice bunches up when you sit.
I guess it’s only noticeable because the other gowns are fit so beautifully. Eh, even the experts have an off day!
I’ve been ignoring the many scenes of Elizabeth in a smock and loose gown or even just a smock because, honestly, big white shirts aren’t exciting even when done in a correct historical fashion. But I have to mention this one scene where she’s having an argument in bed and wearing such perfect headgear — a blackworked coif and a lace-trimmed head rail.
That’s a (faux?) blackworked coif just barely visible. Everything’s edged in lace.
Side view shows the head rail tucked up around Elizabeth’s head. No pins needed or wanted, just the layers of fabric sit together nicely.
Episode 5, “The Enterprise of England”
This episode opens a month after Mary Stuart’s execution, so in March 1587, and Elizabeth is wearing a black gown in mourning. This gown has a wheel farthingale and the huge sleeves fashionable in the 1580s.
Another solid black gown with patterned sleeves, and again I wonder if they reused the gown base and just retrimmed it — that’d be the smart, budget-friendly thing.
The Queen’s forehead is back quite far, for a severe look framed by the high ruff.
OK, I hate the fabric of these sleeves. It looks weird, a bit modern, and just too sparkle-motion for the 16th century!
Soon enough, she’s out of mourning and dealing with Francis Drake’s privateering — and Philip of Spain’s impending Armada. Thus, the Armada gown, which she wears throughout this episode
1588 – Elizabeth I, Armada portrait, Drake version
When she’s walking, you can see the flash of orange lining.
OK, now we’re in legit wheel farthingale times!
So much trim — the bows, the cording, so many kinds of sparkly bits on her sleeves and forepart.
We’ve achieved peak curly wig and pearls here.
From here on, the ruffs are so big, they require wire supporters, often called rebatos.
1610-1620 – Rebato, probably made of iron, wrapped in silver-gilt wire. Patterns of Fashion 4 by Janet Arnold.
Also in this episode, she wears another grand wheel farthingale gown, this one in red with silver trims.
The silver contrast is unusual for the period, but it’s offers a nice visual break onscreen.
1580s – Elizabeth I, the Drewe portrait by George Gower — And this red / silver gown has the trim pattern and general style of this portrait and the black gowns above.
The sleeves are blackwork pattern again, but on a silver/grey fabric. I wonder if it’s different colorway of the above sleeves or overdyed?
Can’t say I’ve seen silver lace used in a 16th-c. ruff, but I still love it.
That wheel farthingale gets a workout! Also, nice use of veils, which are often in portraiture but screen portrayals tend to leave out.
Then there’s her outfit for the Tilbury speech. As I noted in my women wearing armor article, Elizabeth R doesn’t have the most historically accurate costume in this scene. The queen should be wearing a white dress and a breastplate. Instead, the queen merely wears an armored gorget with a dark-colored outfit.
I do like this outfit though.
I think this is gold rick-rack again, and it’s perfectly used.
1585 – Lettice Knollys, attributed to George Gower — The cut of the Tilbury gown is very much like this portrait.
1595 – Frances, Lady Reynell of West Ogwell, Devon, by Robert Peake the Elder — The Tilbury skirt reminds me of this portrait.
Episode 6, “Sweet England’s Pride”
The final episode opens with the camera focused on a curly red hairpiece, then pulls back to show one of Elizabeth’s maids fussing with her gown while the Queen reads a letter from the Earl of Essex. Thus, we’re in the late 1590s, and QEI is old, and it shows.
It’s kind of weird because she’s not wearing it, but there’s a symbolic point made about her age and artifice.
Full promo portrait has slightly different accessories than in the scenes.
The costumes on the extras, such as the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting, do keep up with the times.
In this closeup, you can see a miniature portrait the Queen is wearing. I can’t tell exactly who it is though — either of her favorites, Robert Dudley or Robert Devereux?
1575 – Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, by Nicholas Hilliard; 1596 – Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, by Isaac Oliver — who do you think it is?
Another giant ruff requires another rebato. And this little wrinkle is a pretty natural one as she reaches over.
Her next outfit is even more ostentatious — a recreation of the Ditchley portrait. Essex is wearing a full white suit, he’s such a flatterer, but she’s also succumbed to his charms. They both wear these white outfits in the same scenes throughout this episode, mirroring and teasing each other. Until the end, after he’s executed, and she gives one last grand speech.
Robin Ellis played the Queen’s second favourite, Robert Devereaux, in Elizabeth R. He went on to star as Ross Poldark in the 1975-1977 Poldark series.
There is so much going on here — high forehead, tall wig, crown, open ruff, gown trimmed in puffs and gems, brocade-backed oversleeves, loads of jewelry.
Then she add the giant wing-shaped wired ruff, sometimes called a whisk. This gives the full portrait effect.
1592 – Elizabeth I, the Ditchley portrait by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger
This rare image of the actual costume, on display without the farthingagle, still shows some of the incredible detail that went into the construction.
The winged ruff itself is even jeweled.
This behind-the-scenes image shows the elaborate wire structure being fitted.
Here it is from the back, both strange and elegant.
She wears the gown without the large structure again in this episode.
The back of the oversleeve shape is quite lovely, and I think that fabric is the same as used on the gown worn in episode 3 with the green robe.
Three costumers are required for a fitting of this outfit.
The amount of jewels on this one outfit is staggering.
At a heated Privy Council meeting, Elizabeth is armored in a two-tone gown with a jeweled stomacher and bronze skirt. This becomes her go-to in this episode for the most serious conversations.
The older queen is practically encrusted in jewels. This shows her status at the top of the social order, of course, and serves as armor along with the distance-creating fashions of the period. But this visual heaviness also weighs her down unlike other characters, especially women.
The Queen is wearing another portrait miniature, here of a woman, but I couldn’t find any extant ones like it. No idea who it’s supposed to be!
The contrasting bodice and skirt style was common in the 1590s.
1600 – Unknown lady, called the Parham Park portrait — This white bodice with jeweled stomacher and gold brocade skirt is similar to what the Queen wears.
These gowns fasten in the front by pinning to the stomacher, sometimes with a laced placket underneath.
The very final scene has Queen Elizabeth in a surcote with jewels and her hair styled, on death’s door. While not an elaborate outfit, the hair, in particular, is reminiscent of the Rainbow portrait
Elaborate hair and makeup, but more simple clothes at the end.
1600-1602 – Elizabeth I, the Rainbow portrait attributed to Isaac Oliver
And thus she leaves us.
Is Glenda Jackson your one true queen? What’s your favorite costume in Elizabeth R?