The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)





Director:    Michael Curtiz

Starring:    Bette Davis (Queen Elizabeth I),  Errol Flynn (Earl of Essex),   Olivia de Haviland (Lady Penelope Gray),  Donald Crisp (Francis Bacon),  Alan Hale (Earl of Tyrone),  Vincent Price (Sir Walter Raleigh),   Henry Stephenson (Lord Burghley),  Henry Daniell (Sir Robert Cecil), James Stephenson (Sir Thomas Egerton), Ralph Forbes (Lord Knollys),  Robert Warwick (Lord Mountjy),  Leo G. Carroll (Sir Edward Coke). 

I hate to use that term "costume drama," but since the events here between Queen Elizabeth (Bette Davis) and Essex (Errol Flynn) are largely fictional, maybe it is not such a bad idea in this case.



Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.


London, 1596. "After defeating the Spanish forces at Cadiz, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, marches in triumph toward Whitehall Palace where Queen Elizabeth awaits him."

Lady Penelope Gray and other women nearly swoon at the sight of the conquering hero in a military parade. Contrast this attitude with that of the men who seem to be a bit envious of Robert Devereux. Sir Robert Cecil says he will not partake of any of this celebration. Lord Edward Coke chides him: "Don't be a fool, Cecil. Elizabeth is difficult, even on good days." But Cecil regards Devereux as a danger to the realm. He wants to do something to tarnish the man's image or "he'll share England's throne."

The Queen tells Francis Bacon that Essex is the man closest to her heart. It seems that Elizabeth has something in common with Cecil. The Queen says: "His ambition has jeopardized the prosperity of the English people. It may endanger the very peace and stability of England."

Along with Essex comes Sir Walter Raleigh and Charles, Baron Howard of Effinghnam (Lord High Admiral of England). The Queen complains to Essex that he said he would bring her back a Spanish treasure fleet. He says that she called the fleet back before he could fully execute his plans. She also says he captured the town for the glory, not of England, but for the glory of Essex.

Essex says he totally destroyed the Spanish fleet, but the Queen says that was thanks to Howard and Raleigh. Essex tells her that personally he had expected a much warmer reception from her. The Queen gives Raleigh the rank of commander of the Queen's guard. Next she appoints Howard as lord lieutenant, general of all England, commander of the army and the fleet and names him the Earl of Nottingham.

Essex speaks up saying: ". . . it's an injustice that you place Howard before me." Essex starts to leave, but Elizabeth stops him. She even slaps him across the face. He refers to her as "a King in petticoats". He leaves the court.

Cecil tells the Queen that Essex is not begging to come back to court and Queen, but just keeps asking why should he apologize for receiving an insult from the Queen? "Let her seek pardon of me!" The Queen is mad at Cecil too calling him a toad and suggesting that he and his clique may have written the letter themselves. She dismisses Cecil.

Wanstead -- Essex's ancestral home, northeast of London. Francis Bacon tells Essex that he makes himself more popular than the Queen and that makes him a threat to her. He also mentions that the Queen loves Essex, ". . . which makes you more to be feared whether you love her or not." Essex says he loves Elizabeth. He thanks Bacon for the good advice, but he admits that he probably won't take the advice.

Elizabeth has a row with Penelope over her knight in shinning armor. Penelope is determined to strike back with a song criticizing the Queen The song is about an older woman in love with a much younger man. The other ladies in waiting keep warning Penelope not to do it, but Penelope will not be stopped. And, of course, Elizabeth becomes furious. She says: "So, you brazen wench, you defy me!" She is mad at everyone for not stopping the song from being played and sung. Elizabeth starts destroying every mirror in the room and tells the women to have all the mirrors in the palace removed. Everyone leaves the room.

Elizabeth hears some crying and finds Miss Margaret still in the room. She says she was crying because she was frightened and lonely. "Because I was lonely, I cried for you too." This last remark softens Elizabeth's heart and the two women go on talking. She asks Margaret who is the man she pines for? Sir Peter Finchley.

Elizabeth says Finchley is currently with Baganold's forces in Ireland. But, for Margaret's sake, she will have Finchley recalled from Ireland. Elizabeth says it's difficult to find true love as a Queen, especially because there are so many ambitious men who will tell her anything she wants to hear.

Elizabeth talks to Francis Bacon about how to get Essex back to court. He is too stubborn and she can't beg his forgiveness or she won't do that.

A courier from Ireland comes to give a message to Elizabeth. He collapses in front of Elizabeth and Bacon. The news is that: "We have been annihilated in Ireland, Your Grace. Tyrone surprised us. Sir William Baganold is dead."

Elizabeth says she will not send another soldier to Ireland. Bacon reminds her that Philip of Spain might use Ireland as a military base. "And whoever holds Ireland points a dagger at the heart of England."

And what of Peter Finchley? He also was struck down.

Elizabeth is a bit depressed, but Bacon gives her a way out of her doldrums. She can built another army and have Essex lead it. This will bring Essex back. Elizabeth tells Bacon to get Essex here.

But now she has to break the bad news to Miss Margaret.

Bacon talks with Essex to get him to return to his Queen. Once Bacon gives him the bad news about Ireland, Essex is keen on coming back to the palace.

Back at court Essex wastes no time making fun of Raleigh with his new silver armor. The two men would have come to blows, if not for the interference of Bacon. Essex goes to see Elizabeth but is intercepted by Penelope. She tells him that he should be with someone who loves him better than the Queen does. She is also afraid that Elizabeth might punish Essex exactly because of her love for him.

Penelope quickly kisses Essex on the lips. Elizabeth is present in the room and saw the kiss. Penelope leaves the room. They start arguing a bit about Penelope, but soon they are horsing around and having fun. They hug and kiss, argue, then hug and kiss.

The Queen asks Essex to promise her not to ask him to be put in command of a group of fighting men. There are many men at court who would like nothing better than to engineer Essex into an embarrassing or disastrous situation. At first Essex is mad, but he does promise her what she wanted.

At a meeting of the council, the men want to know what to do about Tyrone's rebellion in Ulster? And the men want Essex as the leader of the expedition to crush Tyrone. Essex is at the meeting and the men seem to be setting a trap for him. Even Elizabeth asks can't Essex see what the others are trying to do?

Cecil says Ireland is a dangerous mission. No wonder Essex doesn't want to go. Essex grabs the hook and is about to be reeled in. He says these men are challenging him and he won't back down. He asks the Queen for the money, ships and men.

Essex backs Elizabeth into a corner and she has to take Essex as the commander of the Irish mission. Council is dismissed! Essex says that he will go to Ireland. Elizabeth says: "Yes, go to Ireland. And go to the devil too!"

When Elizabeth and Essex are alone she says: "My court jester once said: 'All the best fools come from Ireland, but only a greater fool would go there.'" She tells Essex that he is a mere child at council. She does not want to part with Essex and worries that he will never come back alive. Essex assures her that he will return to England.

Ireland. "For Essex and his army, a nightmare of suffering disease and death. Apparently abandoned by their Queen, the English forces push hopelessly on in pursuit of an elusive enemy."

The Irish work in small bands that harass the English lines. They use their archery skills to bring down troops marching through the muddy marshes. Essex worries that they are getting too far away from their base. And they are low on all supplies.

At camp Essex receives a message. Essex is to return to London and give himself up. He is furious at the news. He makes a surprise move. His men will continue to march through the night and catch and defeat Tyrone and his men.

Francis Bacon overhears a conversation with Penelope on the one hand and Cecil and Raleigh on the other. Penelope says that they have used her through their trickery and she is going to tell the Queen that Cecil and Raleigh have been intercepting the Queen's letters to Essex and Essex's letters to the Queen. Cecil and Raleigh now threaten to behead young Penelope.

Bacon talks with the Queen She says that Essex is no longer in her favor. In fact: "All friends of Essex are going straightaway to the tower."

She is furious with Essex for not writing her back when she wrote to him so lovingly. She asks Bacon if he has received letters from Essex. Yes, he has. Then why doesn't Essex answer her? Bacon doesn't mention the interception of their correspondence. And so he lets the situation go on as it is, even with English lives at stake.

The English have caught up with the Irish and a battle takes place. After awhile, an Irish delegation is send to talk with Essex about a truce. Essex orders a ceasefire. The truce party arrives and says that Tyrone wants to talk about submission.

So Essex meets with the Earl of Tyrone, (aka Hugh O'Neill). He thinks that O'Neill is surrendering to him, when it's exactly the other way round. O'Neill expects Essex to surrender to him. Essex is flabbergasted when he hears he is expected to surrender. But O'Neill shows him how his entire camp and supplies are now burning up in a huge fire. Furthermore, the Irish are all around his forces now. O'Neill convinces Essex to surrender. After the agreement to surrender, O'Neill tells Essex that if England would have supported him properly, it would be the Irish surrendering today.

Essex is furious with the politicians back home. They did, indeed, set a trap for him. So what he does is go back to England and starts marching on the royal palace.

The clique is now in fear of their lives for if Essex reaches the Queen, she may come to know of the interception of her orders by traitors in the palace. The clique begs the Queen to let them gather an army together to fight Essex and his army. The Queen absolutely opposes any defensive moves against Essex. Essex will come to see her and she will speak with him. The clique can't believe their turn of misfortune.

Essex does talk with Elizabeth. He denies that he is leading a rebellious army. He is only leading his army home. Elizabeth says she ordered him to disband his army. He replies that an army disbanded becomes a mob of rabble-rousers. Who is paying his men? Essex is paying the men.

And what about Ireland? Essex says he would have beaten Tyrone if he was given the supplies and munitions he needed. Elizabeth answers that she had no idea at all of his progress or his plans. He never wrote her! Essex said he wrote her many letters telling her of everything that has happened. She asks if Essex got her many letters? No, none.

It suddenly dawns on Elizabeth that someone or someones have been intercepting her mail. She is rightfully furious and says that many a head will roll if her and Essex's mail was tampered with. She now sends everyone out of the room. She wants to speak with Essex alone.

Alone, the talk between Essex and Elizabeth becomes soft and lovely. She asks him what is it that he wrote to her? He says the first letter told her of his love for her, but when he received no answer, he became very angry and the letters reflected that anger. Nevertheless, he always ended with the statement that he loves Elizabeth.

Elizabeth says her story is much the same. She wrote of her love. "And God keep you safe." With no answer received from him, she thought him faithless and wrote all kinds of madness in her letters.

But now with the years still left to them, they must not part from each other. "Take me, my life, my world, my present and future in your dear hands. You shall stand behind my throne and together we shall build up an England that will make the old world wonder."

Essex spoils the nice words by his declaration that in Ireland he realized that he was also consumed with ambition to be powerful. He now wants Elizabeth to share some of her power with him. She says he doesn't love her. He says he wants her and some power. They could rule together. Hard to believe, but she says yes to this.

With that Essex opens the doors to the palace chamber and tells his officers to disband the army and let all prisoners go.

The Queen asks if he has truly sent his army away? Yes. And if she calls for her guard, will it be his guard that responds? No, it will be her guard that responds. So Elizabeth claps for her guard. They enter the room. She now tells the commander to arrest Essex and put him in the tower. Essex breaks his sword over his knee, throws the remnants down, wheels around and goes with the guard.

The axe is sharpened for an execution. Her Majesty has taken the two apartments on the floor above Essex. She has had little or no sleep. And she is not happy.

Penelope comes to the Queen to tell her that it was she who intercepted the mail. Essex had nothing to do with it. Elizabeth asks if she realizes that if this is true, then she has signed her own death warrant? She says it only matters that Essex is freed.

Elizabeth asks Penelope to come close to her. She says Essex never loved her. Penelope says that's not true. He told her himself that he loved the Queen more than life. Elizabeth says it's too late. She will never send for him, but rather: "He must ask to come to me."

Cecil comes in to see the Queen. She tells him: "This is your day, Cecil.  The snake in the grass endures."  Now she tells him to go get Essex for her. She also sends Penelope away.

Essex arrives and Elizabeth tells him: "You must have known I never meant you to die." He says he committed treason and treason is punishable by death. Elizabeth says: "Be kind to me just this once. . . . Are you going to degrade me further?"

Essex basically admits that she must kill him, because he would try again to rule England. She says she can't let him rule England because he would ". . . drag your country down and drown her in a sea of debts and blood." Essex admits that she is right and says it's best that he die.

He finally turns and goes back to his cell with the Queen still begging him not to leave her.

Essex climbs up upon the scaffold and puts his head over the block. He says: "I'm ready!"  Boom!


Interesting story.  Elizabeth was involved with Robert Devereux, but from the Wikipedia biography below, we see that the man had a very checkered past.  And he was not that good of a general, either.  He did lead a rebellion against Elizabeth.  Elizabeth was very hurt by the execution of Robert, but he was guilty of treason.  Bette Davis was great as Elizabeth I.  Errol Flynn also did a good job.  

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.



Historical Background:



From Wikipedia


1587 --  Robert Devereux had become a favorite of Queen Elizabeth.  Essex underestimated the Queen, however, and his later behavior towards her lacked due respect and showed disdain for the influence of her principal secretary, Robert Cecil. On one occasion during a heated Privy Council debate on the problems in Ireland, the Queen reportedly cuffed an insolent Essex round the ear, prompting him to half draw his sword on her.

1589  --  Robert took part in Francis Drake's English Armada, which sailed to Spain in an unsuccessful attempt to press home the English advantage following the defeat of the Spanish Armada; the Queen had ordered him not to take part in the expedition, but he only returned upon the failure to take Lisbon.

1590  --  Robert Devereux marries Frances Walsingham, daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham and widow of Sir Philip Sidney, by whom he was to have several children, three of whom survived into adulthood.

1591 (July)  --  Elizabeth sent out another force under Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, to help French King Henry IV in besieging Rouen. The result was just as dismal. Elizabeth wrote of Essex:  "Where he is, or what he doth, or what he is to do, we are ignorant".

1592 (January)  --  Essex accomplishing nothing, returns home.

1594 to 1603  -- Elizabeth faced her most severe test in Ireland during the Nine Years War, a revolt that took place at the height of hostilities with Spain, who backed the rebel leader, Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone.

1596  --  Robert distinguished himself by the capture of Cadiz.

1597  --  during the Islands Voyage expedition to the Azores with Walter Raleigh as his second in command, he defied the Queen's orders, pursuing the treasure fleet without first defeating the Spanish battle fleet.

1598-1601   --  Robert was second Chancellor of Trinity College, Dublin.

Elizabeth became fond and indulgent of the charming but petulant young Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, who was Leicester's stepson and took liberties with her for which she forgave him. She repeatedly appointed him to military posts despite his growing record of irresponsibility.

1599 (spring)  --  Elizabeth sent Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, to put the Irish revolt down.  "Essex led the largest expeditionary force ever sent to Ireland 16,000 troops with orders to put an end to the rebellion. He departed London to the cheers of the Queen's subjects, and it was expected that the rebellion would be crushed instantly. But the limits of Crown resources and of the Irish campaigning season dictated another course. Essex had declared to the Privy Council that he would confront O'Neill in Ulster. But instead, Essex led his army into southern Ireland, fought a series of inconclusive engagements, wasted his funds, and dispersed his army into garrisons. The Irish forces then won several victories. Instead of facing O'Neill in battle, Essex had to make a truce with the rebel leader that was considered humiliating to the Crown and to the detriment of English authority."

To Elizabeth's frustration, he made little progress and returned to England in defiance of her orders.  Elizabeth had him placed under house arrest.

1600  --  Elizabeth deprives Essex of his monopolies.

1600  --  Essex is tried before a commission of 18 men. He had to hear the charges and evidence on his knees. Essex was convicted, was deprived of public office, and was returned to virtual confinement.

In February 1601, the earl tried to raise a rebellion in London. He intended to seize the queen but few rallied to his support.

February 25  --  Essex is beheaded. Elizabeth knew that her own misjudgments were partly to blame for this turn of events.   He was the last person to be beheaded in the Tower of London

An observer reported in 1602 that "Her delight is to sit in the dark, and sometimes with shedding tears to bewail Essex".



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