Based on Maxwell Anderson's play, an older queen has a love-hate relationship with a military hero but will not share power with him.
In 1596 Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex (Errol Flynn), returns to London in triumph after his naval victory over the Spanish at Cadiz. Sir Robert Cecil (Henry Daniell) resents Essex. Queen Elizabeth (Bette Davis) loves Essex but fears his ambition. Essex kneels before the Queen, who complains that he lost treasure. Elizabeth replaces Essex with Sir Walter Raleigh (Vincent Price) and promotes Howard. Essex angrily turns his back and stalks out. Francis Bacon (Donald Crisp) warns Essex, who admits he loves Elizabeth. Lady Penelope Gray (Olivia de Havilland) defeats Elizabeth in chess by taking her knight. Penelope and Margaret (Nanette Fabray) sing of love for a younger man until Elizabeth breaks her mirrors. Margaret cries and tells Elizabeth that she is in love. Elizabeth laments that a queen must put pride before desire. Elizabeth summons Bacon to bring Essex back but won't humble herself. An exhausted soldier tells of defeat in Ireland. Bacon advises Elizabeth to put Essex in command and tells Essex that Elizabeth needs him. Essex mocks Raleigh's silver armor. Penelope cautions Essex and kisses him. Essex and Elizabeth laugh at Raleigh and kiss. Essex says he can't love others. They play cards, chat, quarrel, and kiss again. Elizabeth's council discusses Ireland, urging Essex to go there. Elizabeth gives Essex a "forgiveness" ring that saved her life from her father's anger and lets him go to Ireland.
Essex's troops are being killed by Irish bowmen and need supplies. Essex gets a letter to return to London without his army but has not heard directly from Elizabeth. Penelope realizes that she helped Cecil and Raleigh intercept letters of Elizabeth and Essex to each other. Elizabeth tells Bacon not to be Essex's friend, and Bacon does not tell her about the letters. Essex's army attacks, but the Earl of Tyrone (Alan Hale) makes Essex submit. The court learns that Essex is marching on the palace. Lord Burghley (Henry Stephenson) tells Elizabeth he banned Shakespeare's Richard II, because it shows a king deposed. Elizabeth forbids posting of troops. Essex comes in with armed men and tells Elizabeth that he wrote her but got nothing from her. Alone Elizabeth and Essex realize each other wrote, and they are reconciled. Essex admits he is ambitious and asks for equal power. When Elizabeth says no, he says she is his prisoner. Elizabeth promises to share her realm, and he dismisses his troops. Then Elizabeth calls her guard and mercilessly has Essex arrested in the tower.
Penelope confesses to Elizabeth that she took the letters out of jealousy. Penelope pleads for the Queen to send for Essex. Cecil tells Elizabeth that people are protesting Essex's execution and asks for a guard. Elizabeth sends Cecil to summon Essex, who accepts death for his treason. Elizabeth says he flattered a queen, but he insists he loved her. Essex refuses to give her ring back, because he would take her power. Elizabeth says she loves England more, because he would cause turmoil. Essex kisses her good-bye and is executed as Elizabeth sits on her lonely throne.
Although the details of this drama are historically
inaccurate, its spirit is essentially true to the larger events
as it portrays an aging queen, who sacrifices personal love to
reign more responsibly than the rash young man. Ironically the
private quarrel between the imperious Davis and the wild Flynn
reflected their roles.