The Lion's Cub - The fragile succession heralds dangerous times for the young Princess Elizabeth. Having narrowly avoided implication in Sir Thomas Seymour's attempted abduction of her sickly half-brother, the boy King Edward VI, she becomes an unintentional figurehead for a Protestant rebellion led by Thomas Wyatt the Younger when her half-sister Queen Mary I of England, a devout Roman Catholic, succeeds to the throne. Will the Princess Elizabeth survive her emotionally unstable half-sister's reign?
The Marriage Game - The new Queen Elizabeth I is 25 years old - and unmarried. Her council—particularly the man she trusts most, Sir William Cecil—urges her to marry quickly (to ensure the succession, among other valid reasons). Only Lord Robert Dudley, at first her Master of the Horse, and eventually the Earl of Leicester, seems to interest the queen. When Dudley's wife dies under mysterious circumstances, Elizabeth must decide if she really wants to marry; and if so, is Dudley the right choice?
Shadow in the Sun - Elizabeth meets her most eligible suitor yet: François, Duke of Alençon, the younger brother of the French king. A marriage will cement France's sought-for alliance with England. Both Sir William Cecil and Thomas Radclyffe, 3rd Earl of Sussex (especially the latter), eagerly support this marriage offer. Despite the Puritans' rousing opposition in the country (which her zealously anti-Catholic councillor Sir Francis Walsingham secretly approves of), Elizabeth seems taken with the witty and flower-tongued François. As her duties as queen clash with her feelings as a woman (and she discovers to her fury that Dudley has secretly married her cousin Lettice Knollys), Elizabeth faces her toughest decision. In the end, her good friend and councillor Sussex helps Elizabeth make her painfully honest, final decision. Elizabeth does not want to marry - ever!
Horrible Conspiracies - As long as the imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots lives, she is the focus of plotters and revolutionaries. Despite a harsh clampdown against conspiring Roman Catholics, Mary (in domestic exile and Elizabeth's prisoner for nearly twenty years), inspires an earnest attempt to overthrow Elizabeth. Is the execution of Mary the only way Elizabeth will remain on the throne? Sir Francis Walsingham definitely thinks so, and will use any means to convince Elizabeth to eliminate Mary. But Elizabeth fears Mary's death will condemn her in the eyes of God. In the end, Elizabeth makes a final choice.
The Enterprise of England - Whispers of war fill the air in Elizabeth's court and in Spain. The infirm King Philip II of Spain is eager to avenge the death of Mary, Queen of Scots, (and incidentally, make good on his inheritance from Mary as the Catholic claimant to the English throne - which Mary bequeathed to him). Philip urges an unprepared fleet, commanded by the incompetent Duke of Medina Sidonia, to sail on England. Even as Elizabeth rebukes the hawks (privateers) in her council (both Walsingham and Sir Francis Drake), with hopes of peace (encouraged by Cecil, who is now Lord Burghley), the Spanish Armada appears on the horizons of England. Her fate and the future of the country now lie in the hands of Drake, and the Navy. England triumphs, but Elizabeth pays a heavy emotional price with the death of her beloved Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester.
Sweet England's Pride - "He is the sun in splendour; he is all our pride." Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex (the stepson of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and the son-in-law of Francis Walsingham), is the people's champion. He and Charles Howard were successful in capturing and sacking the Spanish seaport of Cadiz. The queen tells her secretary Robert Cecil, son of William Cecil, "I am not Gloriana without the magic of his mirror." Essex is given a great opportunity to rise in power by being made Lord Deputy of Ireland and quelling the uprising led by O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, but he squanders his army, makes an inglorious truce with O'Neill, and returns to England without permission. After his unsuccessful uprising against the queen in London, he is executed. The old queen shines in her final address to Parliament, but dies soon afterward. Her last action is a nod to Robert Cecil to his query about her successor being King James VI of Scotland.
The first episode was broadcast on 19 February 1971, beginning on screen in the year 1549 with the then Princess Elizabeth's difficult ascent to the throne of England nine years later. The final episode was shown on 24 March, the 368th anniversary of the Queen's death.
In February 1972, Elizabeth R first aired in the United States on Masterpiece Theatre which was hosted by Alistair Cooke on PBS. In the summer of 1972, it was rebroadcast with commercials on the New York local station WOR-TV Channel 9.
Glenda Jackson's performance in the title role won her two Emmy Awards - for Best Actress in a Drama Series and Best Actress in a Movie/TV Special (for the episode "Shadow in the Sun"). The series itself won the Emmy for the Best Dramatic Series in 1972 (the first British TV series ever to win the American TV award, before Upstairs, Downstairs carried the award two years later). At around the same time, Jackson also played the part of Elizabeth in the film Mary, Queen of Scots (1971).
Costume designer Elizabeth Waller recreated many of the historical Elizabeth's actual gowns for Glenda Jackson, adapting them from a number of the Queen's famous, official portraits.