It’s so easy to fact-check

…so why don’t more journalists do it? And why on earth do so many make sweeping assertions outside their area of expert knowledge?

In a fairly scathing review of Elizabeth, The Golden Age, a reviewer at Time Magazine says:

But wait, it gets worse. As the computerized Armada heave into sight, Elizabeth, dolled up in Joan of Arc drag “” shining armor, waving a big sword “” takes it into her head to rally her troops, drawn up on the shore, impotently waiting for the naval engagement to begin. She is given a noble rallying speech to sing out “” her St. Crispin’s Day moment “” but, putting this as gently as possible, Nicholson and Hirst are not exactly the Bard of Avon, and Kapur is not exactly Laurence Olivier when it comes to staging this emptily rhetorical, entirely fictional moment.

Entirely fictional, Richard Schickel? Generations of schoolchildren have learned the text of Elizabeth’s speech at Tilbury,and most people who enjoy their history would have been scandalised if the speech had been left out of the movie. The scene of Elizabeth in a breastplate making the speech has been in every other movie and television series of Elizabeth’s life, because it is one of the foundation stories of the Gloriana legend. Ask someone to quote something said by Elizabeth Tudor, and chances are it will be this line:

I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe should dare to invade the borders of my realm;

Whatever the rhetorical shortcomings of the speech, they can hardly be laid at the door of Nicholson and Hirst.

Is the speech itself perhaps an embroidery of history? It’s hard to know, but the historical record that Elizabeth made a stirring speech on the eve of the Armada is long-standing. A transcription of the earliest known record of Elizabeth’s speech at Tilbury “From a letter by Dr. Leonel Sharp to the Duke of Buckingham after 1623”;

The queen the next morning rode through all the squadrons of her army, as armed Pallas, attended by noble footmen, Leicester, Essex, and Norris, then lord marshall, and divers other great lords. Where she made an excellent oration to her army, which the next day after her departure, I was commanded to re-deliver to all the army together, to keep a public fast.

The letter then goes on to quote the queen’s speech as he remembered it. Perhaps the clunkier phrasing that is now part of the public record is the fault of Dr Sharp’s aging memory.

I can understand the temptation to bag historical howlers in films such as these – the first Cate Blanchett Elizabeth was chock full of anachronisms regarding what battles were fought and who came courting Elizabeth when. I’m also perfectly willing to believe the reviewer regarding his criticisms of the directorial choices and script shortcomings of the film in general. But on the evidence of this particular criticism I’m going to have grave reservations on anything he ever writes in the future about history.

He doesn’t have the defense that he meant “apocryphal” either, not when he blames the film’s scriptwriters for the poor quality of the speech. It’s ignorance pure and simple, and so easily remedied. Shickel didn’t even need to ask a historian, just someone who’d actually seen one of the many other dramatisations about the life of Elizabeth, about the scene with her wearing armour and making a speech to her troops on the eve of the Armada, before deriding the scene as “entirely fictional”. Shame on him that he couldn’t be bothered.

Addit: I have the urge to twist the knife.

The BBC refers to Elizabeth’s speech at Tilbury as “as one of the greatest moments in the history of oration”.

The University of Colorado, while noting that the speech is possibly apocryphal, has a document attesting to it as part of its “Gloriana” collection. Here’s an image from a book published in 1681:


In case you can’t read it, the title of this book is Heart and Stomach of A King

Perhaps Schickel would like to argue the point with two grande dames of British thespianism? Wearing their Tilbury armour?


Categories: arts & entertainment, Culture

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9 replies

  1. Hell, it’s so famous, it made it into a Blackadder II episode. Incidentally, one of the things that annoyed me about HBO’s Elizabeth I was that they had Robin I give her the “heart and stomach” line.

  2. I like to think of movies such as these as a kind of fanfic. Not exactly historically accurate at all, but more about recreating the spirit of the events and a sense of the era and various goings on; kind of exploring the mythology of it all. I don’t think the filmmakers are claiming it’s Exactly What Happened either. Hey, Shakespeare did it. “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”, anyone?
    Then you get idiots like James Cameron going about boasting that every single thing in their Titanic movie will be precisely historically accurate and then there are 238764 blindingly obvious fallacies and inaccuracies in the final product.

  3. Viewing these kinds of movies as fanfic is not a bad idea if one is not to allow one’s blood pressure to rise to dangerous heights.
    However, I expect more from the movie critic of Time magazine. Mirren won the Best Actress Emmy for Elizabeth I only last year, FFS. Time’s movie critic can’t be bothered to watch the Emmy award-winners for even the last few years?

  4. Perhaps he’s just chosen an unfortunately dogmatic way of overstating the legitimate doubt around whether Elizabeth ever made this speech, wore armour etc. I was taught that the speech first pops up in the 1620s (maybe that letter you linked to) at a time when there was more than usually foul scorn of Spain in the offing at home. I can’t actually believe that someone as sharp and experienced as Richard Schickel could really not have an inkling of what she’s traditionally supposed to have said. Still, the screenwriting jab seems to imply that this *is* what he means.

  5. I can’t actually believe that someone as sharp and experienced as Richard Schickel could really not have an inkling of what she’s traditionally supposed to have said. Still, the screenwriting jab seems to imply that this *is* what he means.

    I did get quite a jolt when I checked the byline. Schickel has a good reputation, as you say. But it’s impossible to read the jab at the screenwriters any other way, and apocryphal is certainly not equivalent to “entirely fictional”.

  6. The Americans are having a big fat pile on about the Elizabeth film, which seems to go beyond mere dislike.

    Something about the bollywood edge I reckon.

  7. Agreed, David. It seems de rigeur for the “cool kids” circle of critics to hate it, and they’re being so negative that it’s getting rather unbelievable. This review from the International Herald Tribune at least points out that it’s obviously meant to be racy fanfic and succeeds deliciously at being racy fanfic, but again it has a go at the Tilbury speech.

    Declaiming from atop her white horse, her legs now conspicuously parted as she straddles the jittery, stamping animal, she invokes God and country, blood and honor, life and death, bringing to mind at once Joan of Arc, Henry V, Winston Churchill and Tony Blair in one gaspingly unbelievable, cinematically climactic moment. The queenly body quakes as history and fantasy explode.

    This emphasis seems odd. Why do they hate a scene that’s been the over the top culmination of every Gloriana epic ever so much in this particular film?
    At least this review totally made me want to go and see it.

    as played by the irresistibly watchable Cate Blanchett as David Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust period

    Clive Owen makes a dandy Errol Flynn, even if he’s really meant to be Walter Raleigh, the queen’s favorite smoldering slab of man meat

    And apparently he stands in the rigging and all. Bring it on!

  8. This reminded me – last year at the old blog-digs I played in photoshop to produce this little effort:

    Fairly accurate prediction, going from what I’ve seen.

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