This was the penultimate film score written by Vaughan Williams, his Ten Blake Songs (for the Vision of William Blake) being his last effort in the genre. The England of Elizabeth was a documentary-style film dealing with characters and events in Elizabethan England, featuring a narrator (Alec Clunes) and showing many paintings, artifacts, and various images of the streets and buildings of London and other locales in Great Britain. The score is continuous but the composer divided it into 34 sections, providing music for Elizabeth, Henry VIII, Shakespeare (two sections), Sir Francis Drake, and numerous historical sites and events. Vaughan Williams composed the score in the latter part of 1955, and it was recorded for the film the following January, though the film itself was not released until 1957.
The opening music, which the composer called "Titles," is festive and colorful, serving well as an introduction to this splendid historical film. It is vigorous and regal in its outer sections, typical of the composer's late style. Its middle section has the kind of subdued exoticism associated with much of his Eighth Symphony (1953 - 1955; rev. 1956). The music he wrote for Shakespeare features the use of several Elizabethan-era tunes, including "It was a lover and his lass" and "The wind and the rain." While this is a film in title about Elizabeth, it may well be that Vaughan Williams lavished his best music here on Shakespeare. That said his treatment of the Queen in the score has considerable expressive depth and color, mixing the regal with the subtle, the triumphant with the gentle.
To twenty-first century listeners, this music score might sound too strong, even somewhat overpowering in places. Yet, audiences must take into account that it was written for a film that featured no action or characters, only a narrator and images. A three-movement suite was extracted from the film score by Muir Matheson and published in 1964. Its movements are: "Explorer" (referring to Sir Francis Drake), "Poet" (Shakespeare), and "Elizabeth." While this 16-minute suite has been recorded at least once, the entire film score, as of the beginning of the twenty-first century, was unavailable on disc and accessible only by viewing the film.