Classic Woman-centric Movie Review: “The Virgin Queen” (1955)

Women in power and the things that they may have to sacrifice to maintain that power are the focus of this week’s Classic Woman-centric Movie Review. This week’s pick is “The Virgin Queen,” made in 1955, and starring Bette Davis, Richard Todd, and Joan Collins. The film is a fictional take on the relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and Sir Walter Raleigh, and Raleigh’s secret love affair with and marriage to one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting, Elizabeth Throckmorton.

Still from The Virgin Queen of Queen Elizabeth and Raleigh.
Elizabeth and Raleigh. Image via

Young Sir Walter Raleigh makes the acquaintance of Sir Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, and one of the queen’s most trusted advisors. The Earl’s carriage gets stuck in the muddy street, and Walter and the other tavern patrons help to push it out of the mud. The Earl asks Walter what he can do in return, and Walter asks for an introduction to the Queen. Leicester arranges it, and when Elizabeth meets Walter, she is immediately charmed by him. Walter proves to be the gallant gentleman and drapes his expensive cloak over a mud puddle so that she doesn’t ruin her shoes, further winning his way into the Queen’s good graces. When Walter tells the Queen of his goal to sail to the New World in search of riches, the Queen senses much potential in him, much to the ire of her current favorite, Sir Christopher Hatton. Elizabeth makes Walter captain of her personal guard.

movie poster for The Virgin Queen
Poster from the film. Image via

During his time at court, Walter also meets the brilliant, beautiful Bess Throckmorton, one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting. Enamored of Bess and captivated by the Queen and what she can offer him, Walter treads dangerously, torn between his love for Bess and his own ambition, and conscious of each woman’s jealousy for the other.

Hatton eventually tells the Queen that Raleigh has let an Irishman, his friend Lord Derry, enlist in the guard. Incensed, Elizabeth revokes Walter’s rank of captain of the guard and banishes him from court. Walter and Bess secretly marry, but soon after, the Queen’s temper has cooled, and she invites him to return to court. Walter decides to take advantage of the restoration of the Queen’s favor, and he asks for three ships to sail to the New World. Elizabeth only gives him one, determined that he grow discouraged and remains in England. Bess, who hears of this, informs Raleigh, and at this point, Raleigh decides to sail to the New World with Bess at his side without the Queen’s permission.

Still from The Virgin Queen of Raleigh and Bess.
Raleigh and Bess. Image via

Once Elizabeth hears about the secret marriage from Hatton, she orders the arrest of Bess and Raleigh and is ready to sentence them to death. It’s the news of Bess’s pregnancy that stops her from having them excecuted, as she remembers her own childhood with a mother who was taken from her in such a way. She sets them free, and Walter and Bess happily sail away to the New World and a happy future together. Elizabeth is shown watching them from the window of her palace, and soon she returns to the business of running her country.

“The Virgin Queen” examines the choices that women have had to make for so long when it comes to pursuing a life as a wife and mother or to pursue some sort of occupation. Elizabeth Tudor didn’t really have much of a choice in this; she was born a princess and inherited the throne and queenship of England from her older sister. Perhaps having seen how many of the women in her life had suffered as a result of unhappy marriages, she chose to remain unmarried herself. She is committed to her calling in life, and she has chosen to pursue that above anything else. Even today, some women still do feel that pressure to choose between a family and a career if they find that they’re unable to juggle both. If anything, depictions of women in power like Elizabeth Tudor are a double-edged sword: they remind us that it’s perfectly okay to choose one thing over the other, yet they also remind us of a time when women had to choose one over the other because that was the path upon which their lives had led them.

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