Philippa Gregory’s work as a writer of historical fiction has drawn a great deal of criticism from historians, even though she has a bachelor’s in history and a doctorate in 18th-century literature. And the BBC series The White Queen, which is an adaptation of three of her Plantagenet novels (The White Queen, the Red Queen, and The Kingmaker’s Daughter), was not well-received by critics. But it’s something medieval, which I needed after my Fall of Eagles sojourn in the 19th century.
The series focuses on the middle and late phases of the Wars of the Roses, opening in 1461, a few years after the Battle of Towton in which Edward of York and his brothers George of Clarence and Richard of Gloucester have overthrown the Lancastrian Henry VI and established Edward as king. At the start of the first episode he meets, falls in love, and married Elizabeth Woodville .
Elizabeth came from the absolute bottom level of the English nobility. Her father, Sir Richard Woodville, was a mere knight (and technically therefore not actually nobility at all), while her mother was Jacquetta of Luxembourg, daughter of a Flemish count and widow of Henry VI’s uncle. He was only given a noble title in 1466, two years after becoming the king’s father-in-law (although the series calls him Lord Rivers all the way through).
This marriage was a problem for several reasons. First, as noted, Elizabeth was essentially a commoner, whereas Edward ought to have married a member of the high nobility. Second, the Woodville clan had been Lancastrians, and only accepted Edward in the wake of the marriage. Third, The Woodvilles were a large family; Elizabeth had two sons by her previous marriage to Sir John Grey and she had a staggering 14 brothers and sisters (although her oldest brother died when he was 12). This huge family had to be provided for out of Edward’s patronage simply to make them appropriate in-laws for the king, and that made them appear as grasping upstarts to the established English nobility. Fourth, Edward conducted the marriage in secret; he was known to be highly-sexed and had already had several flings with women.
Finally, the marriage was a problem because Edward’s chief supporter, Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, had been negotiating to marry Edward to a French princess. Edward allowed Warwick to keep negotiating for some time after his marriage, but finally revealed that he already had a wife, humiliating and infuriating Warwick. Warwick was the most wealthy and powerful man in the kingdom, and his role in the Yorkist revolt against Henry VI had earned him the nickname the Kingmaker. This incident began the fracturing of the alliance between Edward and Warwick that ultimately led to Warwick conspiring with Edward’s brother George and then with Henry VI’s wife, Margaret of Anjou. Had Edward done the proper thing and married the French princess, it’s quite possible that the Wars of the Roses would have ended in 1461 and perhaps the Plantagenets would still be ruling England. So a story that focuses on this marriage and its consequences is certainly a great idea.
As I watched the series, I found myself becoming impressed by it. The first half of it does a fairly good job of following the actual events. It opens with Elizabeth (Rebecca Ferguson) presenting herself to Edward (Max Irons) as he rides past her home, hoping to recover her late husband’s estate, which had been confiscated because he had been killed fighting for the Lancastrian cause three years earlier. Edward becomes attracted to her and she initially resists (because in romance novels, women who just give in and have sex are sluts, don’t you know) but accepts Edward’s marriage proposal. In the series, this is presented as Elizabeth being uncertain about her feelings until Edward proposes, but a more plausible scenario to my mind is that Elizabeth intentionally held out for marriage (much like Anne Boleyn did with Henry VIII two generations later) because she knew Edward had a reputation as a womanizer and saw the marriage as a way to advance her family. After all, Jacquetta had been a high noblewoman and certainly understood how the court worked, and that’s somewhat the way the show presents her mother as well. (Janet McTeer’s Jacquetta is one of the real bright spots in the show.)
The next several episodes trace the growing conflict between Warwick (James Frain) and Edward. It presents the Woodvilles as being the catalyst for this alienation, which is basically correct. Elizabeth seeks to find husbands and wives for her siblings and her two oldest sons. Traditionally, this has been seen as evidence that the Woodvilles were seeking to rise about their station, but the series does a nice job of looking at it from their point of view as a family suddenly thrust into the thick of English politics and needing to establish a genuine power base. And Edward begins giving the Woodvilles high offices, thus depriving Warwick’s family of a different source of wealth and power. But Elizabeth’s parents also manage to offend Warwick by insisting on their precedence at court over Warwick.
Warwick favors an alliance, or at least a peace, with France, but Edward begins to favor an alliance with the dukes of Burgundy, who in this period were rivals to France. Jacquetta was related to the royal house of Burgundy, so it’s unclear whether Edward is simply engaging in his own foreign policy or if the Woodvilles were pushing him toward Burgundy. Warwick is eventually revealed to have a secret deal with the king of France for land there, so the series put sthe focus more on why Warwick wants France rather than why Edward is favoring Burgundy.
The series also does a nice job of milking tension out of the fact that the first three children after the marriage were all girls. On paper, the fact that Edward’s first son wasn’t born until 1470 seems like a minor detail. But the show explores the reality that until Edward had a son, his hold on the throne was tenuous, because his heir was his brother George (David Oakes). Since Henry VI was still alive, Edward’s opponents could choose to support either the old king or George. That made the Woodvilles all vulnerable as well.
Eventually, Warwick grows frustrated and begins to plot with George. Historically, George married Warwick’s daughter Isabel in defiance of the king’s wishes in 1469 and then he and Warwick rebelled and seized Edward. Rather than deposing him in favor of George (which is probably what George was hoping for), Warwick tried to rule through Edward, keeping him prisoner in Warwick castle, but the English nobility refused to accept this and since Warwick was unwilling to kill or depose Edward, eventually he had to release the king and seek a reconciliation.
But that collapsed quickly. Warwick and George fled the country, made an alliance with Margaret of Anjou to put Henry VI back on the throne, and invaded at the head of an army that successfully forced Edward and Richard of Gloucester to flee to Flanders. Warwick returned Henry (or more properly his wife Margaret) to power. But this realignment encouraged France to declare war on Burgundy, and Burgundy supplied Edward with an army with which he was able to return, defeat and kill Warwick at the Battle of Barnet, and reclaim the throne, deposing Henry for a second and final time.
As I was thinking about that rather complex sequence of events, I assumed that the series would simplify things the way most historical films do. I expected it to omit Warwick and George’s initial rebellion and attempt to rule through Edward and just jump to the rebellion that deposed Edward in favor of Henry. But much to my surprise, the series played out the events roughly as they happened. The only major details it omitted were things involving people outside the show’s main circle of characters. (For example, neither Louis XI or the duke of Burgundy ever appear in the show, and their actions are barely even mentioned. Likewise the actions of English nobles like the earl of Pembroke and the earl of Devon during the rebellions are glossed over.) That impressed me a lot and I started thinking that I might have to declare this one of the best historical productions I’ve seen. In general, down through the end of Edward’s life, the show hits most of the major events of the reign in the right order. When it simplifies, it usually doesn’t oversimplify.
…And Yet So Far
Sadly, as the series goes on, though, it starts going wrong. One major issue is that it starts employing speculation and gossip as fact. For example, after Edward recovers his throne, he and his brothers go to the Tower and smother Henry in his bed to remove the threat. Elizabeth somehow stumbles upon them and witnesses the murder. The fact that Henry conveniently died the night before Edward’s re-coronation was so suspicious that most people assumed at the time (and still do today) that Edward ordered Henry’s death. A generation later, Thomas More’s History of Richard III says that Richard did the deed, but since More was writing during the reign of Henry VIII, he would have had to write about Richard as a tyrant, and Richard is known to have not been in London at the time of Henry’s death. Edward must surely have ordered the killing; Henry was too important a political pawn for someone to kill him without at least the king’s tacit approval. But it’s absurd to suggest that Edward himself did the deed. That’s what low-level servants are for.
The historical Edward eventually had a falling out with George. After Isabel died in 1476, George began to harbor ambitions to marry the duchess of Burgundy, a move that would have made Edward quite uncomfortable because of its political implications. When Edward refused to consent to it, George left court permanently. Then in 1477, it was learned that George had employed an astrologer to forecast his brother’s death. Trying to predict the time of the king’s death was seen as temptingly close to trying to cause the king’s death. George compounded the mistake after the astrologer’s execution by having a former Lancastrian protest the execution in Parliament. That was the last straw, and Edward arrested George, tried him for treason (personally acting as the prosecutor), and then executed him. Rumor has it that he was drowned in a butt of Malmsey, but no one really thinks that’s how George was dispatched.
However, the series (which gets the basic facts mostly right, if a little simplified) shows him being drowned in wine. On its own, it’s a forgivable moment of melodrama, but by this point, the show is starting to go seriously wrong, including things that are either total speculation or else just plain wrong.
A major problem in the series is its depiction of Margaret Beaufort, the Countess of Richmond and mother of Henry Tudor, who becomes Henry VII after the Battle of Bosworth Field. Margaret was the great-great-granddaughter of Edward III through his fourth son John of Gaunt and Gaunt’s mistress Katherine Swynford. Although Gaunt eventually married Katherine and had his children with her legitimized, the act of legitimation explicitly declared them ineligible for the throne, But after the death of Henry VI and his son Edward, Henry Tudor was the last Lancastrian claimant to the throne.
In the series, Margaret (Amanda Hale) has two major characteristics: a profound, if not obsessive, piety and an absolute conviction that her son will become king some day. Margaret’s piety, at least in later life, is well-established, so that’s a reasonable take on her. However the show depicts her as a hard-core Lancastrian, but it’s a little unlikely that Margaret was personally opposed to the Yorkists. Her second husband, Edmund Tudor, was a Lancastrian, but she was married to him at 12 and widowed at 13, barely having enough time to get a child with him. Her third and fourth husbands were both Yorkists whom she got along well with. She was close enough with Elizabeth Woodville to be chosen as the godmother of one of her younger daughters. And during Richard III’s reign, she was actively plotting with Elizabeth against him.
Any Lancastrian sympathies she had must have been because her son was the Lancastrian claimant, which means that while Henry VI and his son was alive, she probably had no serious expectation that her son might inherit; his claim was weak and the king had a son who had plenty of time to have children of his own. Even after 1471, it is improbable that she had high hopes, because Henry was a long way from the throne; he would only inherit if Edward; both his sons; Edward’s brother George; George’s son Edward; Richard; and Richard’s son Edward all died (and that’s ignoring all the daughters, who had claims as well). In fact, they did all die, but it probably wasn’t until Richard seized the throne that Margaret might have begun thinking her son had a good shot at the throne.
But Hale’s Amanda is insistent from the very first scene she’s in that the Yorkists are all illegitimate and that her son is destined to be king. She obsessively nags her third husband and Henry’s uncle Jasper about it, and after she marries Lord Stanley (Rupert Graves), the two of them begin to actively scheme for it. By Richard’s reign, the two of them are playing both Richard and Elizabeth in a hare-brained scheme to get rid of the princes in the Tower, engage Henry to Elizabeth’s daughter Elizabeth and then depose Richard. Historically, Margaret and Elizabeth Woodville did decide to unite their two families, but that was only after it became fairly clear that Elizabeth’s two sons were dead.
In my next post, I’ll talk about one the show’s HUGE problems.
I normally don’t say much about production issues, but for some reason the series’ production choices really caught my eye. Frock Flicks has a few pointed observations about the generally boring outfits the women were given (especially Anne Neville and Margaret Beaufort, both of whom are stuck wearing one dress for several years). But the show has a charming dearth of black leather and open doublets, so it deserves a little praise.
The show was filmed in Belgium, and they used a lot of historical sites to stand in for places like Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, and various royal and noble palaces. There are definitely a few issues, such as many of the staircases having metal railings, and some of the paintings in the background are clearly 16th century or later. A An enormous bath-tub Elizabeth uses in the second episode really stands out. And much of the architecture just screams that the show wasn’t filmed in England. The windows, for example, are all wrong.
Normally that sort of thing doesn’t bother me at all. The nature of historical filmmaking often requires compromises like that. The actual locations might not survive, or might not be open to film crews, or might just not be available. Appropriate buildings often have modern features like railings that make finding good shots tough. Production budgets can be tight, so using locations that are already furnished with quasi-medieval furniture and decorations helps save money. But for some reason, in this series, the locations were constantly knocking me out of the story-telling. It just doesn’t look like England, despite the frequent inserted shots of London’s White Tower.
More problematically, the show spans 21 years (1464-1485), but there is almost no effort made to age the actors appropriately. For the first five episodes or so, that’s not a problem, because only about 6 years pass, but in the last several episodes, it starts to become an issue. Several of the male characters grow beards, and some of them are giving a little grey at the temples, but that’s about as far as it goes.
Margaret Beaufort is a particular problem. The actress looks the same in 1485 as she does in 1464. When she’s playing scenes with the boy Henry Tudor, this isn’t a serious problem. But in the last episode, when she’s opposite Michael Marcus as the adult Henry she could plausibly be playing his girlfriend instead of his mother. A little bit of make-up would have gone a long way in this series.
Want to Know More?
The White Queen is available on Starz, and on Amazon. The three novels it is based on are The White Queen, The Red Queen, and The Kingmaker’s Daughter. They are also available as a set with two other novels.
If you’re looking to learn about Edward IV, for my money the best book is Charles Ross, Edward IV. His The Wars of the Roses is a very good introduction to the events. David Baldwin’s Elizabeth Woodville: Mother of the Princes in the Tower is a good look at Edward’s queen.