Becoming Elizabeth Brings Royal Drama to Crave

A new drama traces Elizabeth I's fraught, inspiring path to the throne—and the pages of history

A new drama traces Elizabeth I’s fraught, inspiring path to the throne—and the pages of history 

When British playwright Anya Reiss was approached by TV producer George Ormond about creating a historical drama series focusing on the early years of Elizabeth I, her first reaction was that whatever there was to say about this iconic monarch had already been said. “Then he told me the story and I realized it hadn’t been told, because I never knew what went on during her brother’s reign,” Reiss explains. “I never knew about the relationship she had with Thomas Seymour, which seemed to touch on such relevant things now, such as consent and gender imbalance and power imbalance within relationships.” 

Becoming ElizabethCraveThe story of young Elizabeth picks up in 1547, right after the death of Henry VIII when his three children, all born of different mothers, are faced with the matter of who will succeed their father. “They’re trapped in this family dynamic where they love each other but they’re rivals,” says Ormond. “And then politics drive them into situations where they have to make terrible decisions about each other.” Add to that the overall mood that looms over the nation, and the country’s collective trauma. “They have lived under the reign of a violent dictator. We start our story with the death of a tyrant and everyone trying to rearrange themselves after that,” Reiss explains. “I think even the political players are all quite traumatized by what they’ve been through, living under his reign.” 

When he was introduced to the monarch’s early history, Ormond was astonished by how contemporary the story of Elizabeth’s adolescent years felt. “It’s about a young, teenage girl who thinks she’s an adult and equipped to deal with adult things and is thrust into this world that’s dangerous,” the producer muses. “We couldn’t believe that this hadn’t been dramatized before, but it hasn’t. And it feels like it’s a definitive part of how she becomes who she becomes.” 

Becoming ElizabethCraveIn a tradition that continues to this day, the Royal Family has been a source of public fascination, spawning onscreen depictions that range from Oscar-nominated movies to Lifetime flicks. Becoming Elizabeth leading lady Alicia von Rittberg believes the numerous dramatizations speak to our need to understand these seemingly otherworldly beings. “The feeling that you want is making these untouchable figures from books and films palpable, making them so human that you understand how they grew up, how they were as children, how they were raised, how they became these icons,” she says. “We start when Elizabeth was 14. That is basically a coming-of-age story set in a political and family drama. It touches so many different nerves.” 

The series also delves deeper into Elizabeth’s relationship with Thomas Seymour, the brother of Henry VIII’s third wife, who while living under the same roof as Elizabeth I likely engaged in a sexual relationship with the teenager. “A lot of these characters have been passed by in history,” says Tom Cullen, who plays Seymour. “One of the most exciting things about this show is that it’s about characters that we don’t really hear about, and we don’t pass them by. We really learn about the influence that these people had on Elizabeth in her early life and what made her this extraordinary person. It really gets to the root of that. That is genuinely one of the big strengths of the show.”  

Becoming ElizabethCraveWhen writer Reiss delved deeper into the characters of the era, she soon realized how human and relatable they were. “One of the things that first made me want to do the show—other than the major story of Elizabeth and Thomas—was reading about Thomas’s brother, Lord Somerset. He wrote letters to his deputies saying, ‘Why do you keep asking me these stupid questions? Take some initiative,’ and then writing another letter the next week going, ‘Why do you keep on taking initiative? Aren’t I in charge?’ I kind of went, ‘Oh, I know who that person is.’ Suddenly, this world got colourful and real to me,” she says. “I don’t, as a rule, believe in villains. I believe in people doing very bad things, but I’m not really interested in anyone being villains or heroes in this. I’m just interested in those real people and trying to make a world of that.” 

Becoming Elizabeth airs Sundays at 1:20 a.m. on Starz 2; Crave (Stream)