Using historical fiction as a source for movies instead of actual history is nothing new. Don’t blame The Other Boleyn Girl — Young Bess (1953) and similar movies did it long before. This tale of Queen Elizabeth I of England’s youth was actually based on a popular historical romance novel published by Margaret Irwin in 1944. Irwin wrote a series about QEI, as well as novels about Mary Queen of Scots and then various figures during the English Civil War.
Young Bess begins with a series of vignettes of Elizabeth as a little girl basically getting rejected by her father and a series of “step-mothers,” to emphasize her tumultuous childhood. Then she’s a young woman played by Jean Simmons (who was coincidentally married to Stewart Granger, playing Thomas Seymour). Old fat Henry VIII (Charles Laughton, reprising the same act he played in 1933’s Private Life of Henry VIII) has finally gotten around to Catherine Parr (played by Deborah Kerr), who takes Elizabeth under her proverbial wing. That much is all reasonably agreed upon by historical accounts.
It’s the relationship of Lord Admiral Thomas Seymour, who Catherine Parr marries after Henry’s death, that gets complicated in both history and the movies. In both, Elizabeth lives with the newlyweds, Catherine and Thomas. And things get … uncomfortably close … between young Elizabeth and Thomas Seymour. Contemporary accounts speculated everything from a secret marriage between the two and a pregnancy to merely a lecherous older man making passes at an innocent girl (she was 13-15 at the time). The movie Young Bess shrinks the age difference between Elizabeth and Thomas to about 15 years so it’s a bit less inappropriate and turns the plot into unrequited love on Elizabeth’s side.
Biographer Allison Weir in The Life of Elizabeth I (1998) casually assumes that the young Elizabeth had romantic feelings for Thomas Seymour, saying “there is little doubt that she [Elizabeth] had been strongly attracted to him,” and frequently referring to this time in their shared household as her first sexual awakening. Further, Elizabeth’s own cross-examination on the issue hinted at a charged atmosphere, “Kat Ashley [Elizabeth’s governess] told me after that my Lord Admiral was married to the Queen, that if my Lord might have his own Will, he would have had me, afore the Queen” (Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens, by Jane Dunn, 2003). The activities between Elizabeth and Thomas Seymour eventually got to the point that Catherine Parr (then pregnant) was jealous of the pair — her treasurer reported “the Queen, suspecting the often Access of the Admiral to the Lady Elizabeth’s Grace, came suddenly upon them, where they were all alone, wherefore the Queen fell out, both with the Lord Admiral, and with her Grace also.” Thus, Elizabeth was sent away from their house, and soon after Catherine Parr died in childbirth. Seymour was later arrested for treason due to his power struggles with his brother. Elizabeth’s relationship with Seymour was scrutinized during his trial; she came off relatively clean, and he was, of course, executed.
So how does the movie Young Bess stand up to historical facts? It’s a simplification, to be sure. There is little or no complication in the relationship between Elizabeth and Thomas — she’s TOTALLY IN LURVE with him, from the first scene to the last. And it’s not particularly scandalous, it’s just a bit of a love-triangle because Catherine got there first, and gosh darnit, nobody wants to hurt her. Seymour is kind of the dumb good-guy caught in the middle, ‘just don’t know why all the girls fall in love with me!’ Not so much Elizabethan court drama as trying to be a sweeping historical romance, and that’s exactly what the movie set out to be, according to producer Sidney Franklin:
We’re telling an intimate story against a background of sixteenth century court life, as opposed to a historical pageant about royal intrigues. We feel the love story between the Princess and Seymour — actually he was 25 years older than Elizabeth — will be more valid to audiences than a lot of historical detail which has no relation to our customers lives.
Yep, historical nuance and all those details aren’t as important as the love story! Nothing new, folks.
Costumes in Young Bess
The renowned designer William Plunkett created the costumes for Young Bess, and they’re definitely 16th century through a 1950s lens. But they’re not terrible — the materials and trimmings are lush, and the silhouettes are essentially correct for the period. Yeah, there’s a lot of princess seams and WTF headgear, par for the course. Still, I have a certain fondness for 1950s historical costume movies. Hollywood really threw a ton of money at period pieces back then, and it showed. Everything is bedazzled within an inch of its life, no skimping!
Are you a fan of historical fiction in the movies?