BBC’s new series The White Queen starts next week. It is based on The Cousins’ War, a series of books by Philippa Gregory, set during the War of the Roses. The books cover a period of roughly thirty years, so it will be a bit tricky because the characters age, which was a similar problem faced by The Tudors, although it was less important since only two characters survived from the first season to the final season. Furthermore, the White Queen will stand out among the current crop of historical series since the lead characters are all women.
What is the War of the Roses you ask? Most people probably know it as the source material for George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, the basis for HBO’s series Game of Thrones. The two most powerful families in England, the House of York and the House of Lancaster, struggled for the English throne from 1455 to 1487. York used the white rose as its symbol while Lancaster used the red rose as its symbol, hence the name War of the Roses.
After reading a bit about the War of the Roses, I now know why Martin gave each house a motto, like “Winter is coming”; “A Lannister always pays his debts” and “We do not sow”, how else do you tell them apart? If people think that Game of Thrones is complicated, it is much, much simpler than the real War of the Roses, since there was a lot, really a lot of intermarriage between the major families. In theory, the arranged marriages between rival families was intended to bind them together, but in practice its main result was that cousins often faced each other on the battlefield and many daughters spent lonely lives among families who had killed their relatives. If the daughter married well, the whole family moved up in society. However, if they ended up on the wrong side of one of the surprisingly frequent rebellions, then it was the Tower, and possibly the headman’s axe, or a fast horse to the coast and a slow boat across the Channel. Entire families and their chief supporters would be disinherited, and then get everything back years later when the regime changed. The amount of betrayals, uprisings, executions, forgiveness and further betrayals during the thirty-plus years is honestly overwhelming, so hopefully the writers will provide a scorecard, preferably a better one than the current Meet the Characters on the BBC website, which is essentially a series of links to Wikipedia. (I make no criticism of Wikipedia, please donate, it is a very worthy cause.)
Despite the regrettable decision to not include dragons or white walkers, The White Queen offers a look at a tumultuous period of English history.