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My first post about the BBC series The White Queen took a ‘So Close and Yet So Far’ approach. But a few people thought that it was more close than far. That’s mostly because I decided to save a couple of big things for separate posts. Here’s where we really get into the Far parts.

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Throughout the series the Rivers women, including Jacquetta (Janet McTeer), Queen Elizabeth (Rebecca Ferguson) and Elizabeth of York (Freya Mavor) all practice witchcraft. In the first couple episodes it’s entirely about predicting the future, and so I thought that the show was taking the approach that Jacquette was just engaging in a little folk magic that happened to give the right answer about whether her daughter was going to get married.

But no, the women are in fact witches. As the series goes on, not only do they occasionally use magic to predict or shape the future, such as ensuring that Elizabeth gives birth to a boy, but they also go for larger-scale things. Over the series they conjure a small hurricane that nearly sinks Warwick (James Frain) and George of Clarence (David Oakes), create a fog that covers Edward IV (Max Irons) as his army approaches Warwick’s at the Battle of Barnet in 1471, and produce a storm that prevents Henry Tudor from sailing from Brittany to join Buckingham’s Rebellion in 1483. (In all three cases, this weather did actually happen historically.) They also curse Warwick and George to die for killing Queen Elizabeth’s father and brother; that one takes a long time to play out, but the show suggests that the curse really did work. Elizabeth briefly curses Richard with a pain in his hand that he feels. The Elizabeths also curse whoever killed the princes in the Tower; the show suggests that Anne Neville’s death in 1485 was due to that curse. All three women ‘have the sight’ and periodically get visions that correctly predict the future.

And everyone around them knows they are witches. Lord Rivers jokingly asks “what spells are you two weaving this time?” Queen Elizabeth jokes that if they burn a portrait of Margaret of Anjou, she and her mother will both get hanged as witches. Clarence and Anne both repeatedly accuse them of witchcraft, blaming them for everything that goes wrong in their personal lives. Clarence hirers an astrology to protect himself from Woodville magic, but it get misunderstood as an attempt to kill Edward. The only person who doesn’t think the Woodville women are witches is Edward.

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Elizabeth and Jacquetta working a spell

 

So, to be clear about what the show does, it purports to be a historical narrative about the Wars of the Roses and it shows the Woodville women successfully using magic to manipulate the events. Their magic justifies many of the odd twists and turns the Wars took over the years. It never bothers to address why these magically powerful women didn’t just use their magic to directly kill their enemies like Clarence and Richard, so the narrative is just sort of ham-fisted about it.

There is an increasing trend in the past decade or so of ancient and medieval historical films and show throwing in magical elements. I have no problem with movies and shows depicting ancient and medieval magical practices; nearly all societies have magical practices of some sort, so it’s not unreasonable to show medieval women occasionally resorting to magic in hopes of achieving their ends. But I have a big problem with stories that claim to be historical showing those magical practices as producing real effects. At that point, a film or show crosses the line from history into fantasy.

 

The Basis for the Claims

Philippa Gregory’s idea that the Woodvilles were actual witches does have a small nugget of fact in it. In 1469, during the period when Warwick had taken control of Edward and was trying to run the government through him, Jacquetta was accused of witchcraft. A man named Thomas Wake gave Warwick “an image of lead made like a man of arms of the length of a man’s finger broken in the middle and mage fast with a wire, saying that it was made by [Jacquetta] to use with witchcraft and sorcery.” Wake got a parish priest to support this by claiming that Jacquetta had also made two figures of the king and the queen, presumably some form of love magic to ensure that Edward would marry her daughter.

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A drawing of Richard Neville, the earl of Warwick

 

The charges were obviously political. Wake’s son had died fighting for Warwick against Edward and he may have been involved in the death of Lord Rivers. Warwick had just arranged the execution of Lord Rivers and one of his sons, and was clearly now maneuvering against Jacquetta as part of a sustained attack on the Woodvilles.

Jacquetta pushed back by writing a letter to the mayor and aldermen of London, reminding them that back n 1461, she had save the city when Margaret of Anjou wanted to destroy it. Jacquetta had been a close friend and lady-in-waiting to Margaret, so her personal influence apparently helped sway the wrathful queen. The citizens of London repaid the favor by sending a letter supporting her to Warwick via George of Clarence.

That didn’t stop the trial, though. Edward was forced to order an examination of the witnesses, but by the time came for the trial before the Great Council (in this case, essentially a session of the House of Lords), Edward was back in charge and the case against Jacquetta collapsed. The witnesses recanted their testimony, and Jacquetta asserted what was, at least in canon law, an entirely valid defense that Wake was a long-time enemy of hers; whether this particular canon law principle was carried over into English Common Law on witchcraft I’m unsure of, but if something similar applied, this would have disqualified Wake as an accuser by establishing that he had an obvious motive to lie.  The Council, clearly understanding where the king’s sympathies lay, acquitted Lady Rivers and agreed to her request to include the proceedings in the official records of the Council. Jacquetta was clearly a smart woman, and knew that having an official note of her acquittal might come in useful if the charges were revived later on.

And in fact the charges were revived in 1484 when Richard III asked Parliament to declare that Edward and Elizabeth had never been legally married because Elizabeth and Jacquetta had used magic to procure the marriage. By this point Lady Rivers was already dead, and Richard needed Parliament to make this declaration because it justified his seizure of the throne. Parliament did as it was told and declared the marriage invalid.

These two incidents, which were clearly motivated by politics, comprise the sum total of all the actual evidence that the Woodville women ever practiced witchcraft. It is out of these false charges that Gregory spun this entire subplot for her books. She worked within the framework of the known facts, which is commendable, but by blowing these details up into a major part of the story and inventing a host of facts that are literally impossible, such as controlling the weather, she took her story off into fantasyland. And Gregory has falsely claimed in an interview that Jacquetta was convicted and spared only by Margaret of Anjou’s intervention.

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Philippa Gregory

 

In the show, Warwick tries Jacquetta for witchcraft while he has control of Edward. He brings in a witness (not Thomas Wake) to make the same accusations; Jacquetta protests that she has never seen the man before, rather than trying to disqualify him as an enemy. Since Jacquetta is actually a witch, the whole scene represents very serious danger; although the accuser is making things up, what he’s inventing is somehow correct. She is saved by calling a witness of her own, Margaret of Anjou, who she was close friends with years ago. Her strategy is that Warwick is dependant on Margaret politically and militarily, so he won’t be able to oppose her in this trial. It works and Jacquetta is acquitted. But this all rests on the false assumption that medieval English courts worked like modern ones, a mistake that other tv shows have made as well.

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Jacquetta on trial

 

What is really frustrating to me about this is that the series had a perfect opportunity to explore the way that witchcraft accusations were generally motivated not by actual evidence of witchcraft but by political or personal motives. It was a charge that women were vulnerable to because this culture associated witchcraft with women rather than men. (Men were much more likely to be accused of learned magic, such as the malicious astrology charge brought against George of Clarence’s personal astrologer.)

In the later part of the Middle Ages, English society gradually began using accusations of magic for political reasons. In 1419, Henry V believed that he had been a target of a magical plot. In 1431, witchcraft was one of the charges against Joan of Arc. In 1441, Duchess Eleanor of Gloucester was accused of treasonous astrology when she had an astrologer forecast the death of Henry VI. She was convicted, forced to do public penance, divorce her husband and suffer life imprisonment. In 1450, Henry VI’s government accused the rebel Jack Cade of using sorcery. As already mentioned, in the 1470s, George of Clarence was implicated in treasonous astrology. Looking forward a generation of so, Anne Boleyn was accused of witchcraft by Catholic propagandists, although contrary to Internet claims, witchcraft was not one of the charges brought against her at her trial (although Henry VIII may have once made an off-hand claim that she had ensnared him through witchcraft).

So Gregory could easily have written a subplot in which the charges of witchcraft were entirely false and used that to explore the way that women were culturally vulnerable to ideas about witchcraft. Instead, she chose to actually reinforce the cultural bias around women as witchcraft by making them genuinely guilty. That really pisses me off, because in a way, it re-victimizes these two women.

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Want to Know More?

The White Queen is available on Starz, and on Amazon. The three novels it is based on are The White QueenThe Red Queen, and The Kingmaker’s DaughterThey are also available as a set with two other novels.

If you’re interested in this issue, you can read this blog post, which digs a bit further into the evidence for the Woodville women as witches (and explodes it). The author of the post, Susan Higgenbotham, is a novelist and author of The Woodvilles: The Wars of the Roses and England’s Most Infamous FamilyShe’s not a professional historian, but she’s clearly dug into the sources on this.





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