Jan 022014

The White QueenThe series is based on The Cousins’ War, a series of books by Philippa Gregory, set during the War of the Roses.

What is the War of the Roses you ask?

Bear with me, it will take a bit of time to summarize thirty years of constant scheming and rebellion.

The two most powerful families in England, the House of York and the House of Lancaster, struggled for the English throne from 1455 to 1485. York used the white rose as its symbol while Lancaster used the red rose as its symbol, hence the name War of the Roses, although it only became known as the War of the Roses in the nineteenth century. At the time, it was known as The Cousins’ War because it was a civil war between different branches of the same family, rather than regions.

A weak king who suffered periods of mental illness, Henry VI (House of Lancaster) was unable to impose order, so his advisers and Margaret of Anjou, Henry’s wife, ruled in his name, while powerful families used private armies to settle scores. Armed conflict erupted between the supporters of Richard of York, who had a strong claim to the throne, and the Lancastrians in 1455, although York initially claimed that he only wanted to eliminate the bad advisers. Following a Yorkist victory in 1460, York declared himself king. Although York died in battle on December 30, 1460, his son Edward, aided by his mentor, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, won a decisive victory at Towton on March 1461, and became Edward IV.

Everything should have been fine, but Warwick believed that he was the kingmaker, who would rule through Edward, while Edward believed that he was the king. When Edward married Elizabeth Woodville in 1464, Warwick realized that Edward intended to raise her family at the expense of his. After an attempt to replace Edward with his more compliant brother George failed in 1469, Warwick swallowed his pride and bowed the knee to Margaret of Anjou, restoring Henry VI to the throne in 1471, while Edward fled to exile. However, Edward returned the following year, and defeated Warwick at Barnet and the Lancastrians at Tewkesbury, killing both Warwick and Prince Edward, Henry’s son. Henry VI died soon after, officially of grief.

The throne was secure but George’s continued plotting resulted in his execution in 1478, which drove a wedge between Edward and Richard, his younger brother. When Edward died in 1483, Richard imprisoned Edward’s two sons, Edward V and Richard, in the Tower, and made himself Richard III. Known as the Princes in the Tower, the two boys disappeared. Angered by Richard’s actions, the Duke of Buckingham rebelled, hoping to put Henry Tudor, the remaining Lancastrian heir, on the throne, but the rebellion failed and he was killed. Two years later, Henry Tudor sailed from France with an army and defeated Richard III at Bosworth Field. Having lived in exile for more than a decade, his position was weak, so he married Elizabeth of York, Edward IV’s eldest daughter, and became Henry VII, thus ending the War of the Roses.

The amount of betrayals, uprisings, executions, pardons and further betrayals during the thirty years is honestly overwhelming. The series covers the period 1464 to 1485, reducing the amount of material, but it is still twenty years. Two or three seasons would have probably been sufficient, but the twenty years were presented in a single season of ten episodes.

Twenty years in one season?!!?

I understand that the series has to cover roughly twenty years but I had expected that several years would pass between seasons, not between the first and second episode. I realized during episode seven that the entire three books will be covered in one season. This jaw-dropping discovery makes no sense, unless the producers were worried that the series would not be renewed for a second season, so they wanted to tell the whole story at once. Honestly, who approved this approach? Please tell me that mind-altering substances were involved in the decision, then it might make a warped kind of sense.

While the show is relatively accurate, Gregory romanticized the meeting between Elizabeth and Edward.
Elizabeth meeting Edward

Elizabeth meeting Edward

The marriage between Edward and Elizabeth was viewed as completely beneath his station, which sparked rumors that she had resorted to witchcraft, and Gregory used the idea that the Woodville women were witches as the basis of her story. Remaining faithful to the book, the series begins with a meeting between King Edward (Max Irons) and Elizabeth Woodville (Rebecca Ferguson). Aided by her mother, Jacquetta (Janet McTeer), Elizabeth bewitches Edward, who quickly marries her, derailing the Earl of Warwick’s (James Frain) carefully laid plans for a marriage to a French princess and an alliance with France. Formerly Lancastrians, the Woodvilles immediately switch sides and scheme to gain as many high positions as possible, which unsurprisingly makes them enemies, since the positions and estates were taken from powerful people, who resented the usurpers. In fact, in the books Elizabeth’s brother Anthony repeatedly warned that they had made too many enemies.

While Gregory correctly shows the Woodvilles struggled with Warwick for influence because both families wanted power, the real Edward had met Elizabeth through her father and brother Anthony who had become his close companions after they had changed sides.

Maybe a bit of background, just a little.
Warwick the Kingmaker

Warwick the Kingmaker

Warwick rebels in the second episode, so there is not enough time to understand his viewpoint. The break between the real Warwick and Edward was gradual, as Warwick grew older, seeing his vitality fade, while his young protege grew in power. While Gregory shows Edward’s decision to marry Elizabeth as a mixture of magic and love, it seems likely that Edward married Elizabeth to use her family to balance Warwick, who essentially ruled the nation, having placed his supporters in key positions. Five years of Warwick’s frustration of watching his carefully arranged network of supporters being replaced one-by-one by the Woodvilles was presented in one episode.

Part of the problem is that the series starts part-way through a lengthy conflict, but there are only brief references to the complex back story. The books provided much more background, especially The Red Queen, which started a decade earlier than the series, showing how conflict between factions had led to civil war.

Aside from the absence of context, the different perspectives in the three books are missing from the series.
Anne Neville (Faye Marsay), the Kingmaker's Daughter, (when she is supposed to be eight-years-old)

Anne Neville (Faye Marsay), the Kingmaker’s Daughter, (when she is supposed to be eight-years-old)

The White Queen was told from the viewpoint of Elizabeth Woodville, who becomes queen when she marries Edward. The Red Queen tells the story of Margaret Beaufort (Amanda Hale), the mother of Henry Tudor, and The Kingmaker’s Daughter was narrated by Anne Neville (Faye Marsay), daughter of Lord Warwick.

Each of the three books presents roughly the same story but from the perspective of three different women who did not trust each other, and the various perspectives highlight the distrust that fuelled the endless strife. For example, Anne is convinced that Elizabeth had poisoned her older sister Isabel (Eleanor Tomlinson), but Elizabeth genuinely felt sad for Isabel, believing that she had had a tragic life. In particular, the books showed that the queen’s insatiable desire for wealthy matches to increase her family’s power had steadily weakened Richard and Anne to the point where Anne has given up any hope of arranging a favorable marriage for her son since the queen has already married her own sons to every rich heiress in England, while seizing the lands of George after he was executed as a traitor.

The series covers all of these events, but it moves at such a breakneck pace that there is no time to show how the distrust slowly grew, which defeats the purpose of adapting the books. Since the series is called The White Queen, Elizabeth Woodville’s perspective is given priority, leaving Margaret Beaufort and Anne Neville to receive sketchier portrayals. This lack of depth is especially unfair to Margaret Beaufort, whose disturbing religious fervor was explained in The Red Queen, but is simply a religious fanatic on the show.

Joan of Arc is not the healthiest role model for a thirteen-year-old girl.
Margaret Beaufort and her husband

Margaret Beaufort and her husband

Margaret Beaufort, The Red Queen, is the standout character on the show. A truly unlikable person, she either possesses great inner strength or is bat-sh*t crazy. Driven by a fervent belief that the Yorkist usurpation defies divine will, she is incapable of compromise. Unfortunately, the series ignores Margaret’s fixation with Joan of Arc, who had led French armies to victory against the English a generation earlier, claiming that God had told her to drive the English from France, which would have helped the viewers understand Margaret’s piety and belief that she has a destiny.

Sir Henry Stafford (Michael Maloney), her husband, is the sole voice of reason on the show, commenting that the legitimacy of the York king is irrelevant, he has brought peace and order, which is ended by the repeated uprisings and scheming. If the Lancasters win, then there will be peace until the next time and the next time. When Margaret protests that Henry is the anointed king, he replies that Edward is also anointed, perhaps God is confused. However, the writers were only interested in the tribulations of the rich and powerful, so the series does not explore the damage to society caused by the frequent revolts.

None of the characters age.
George (David Oakes)

George (David Oakes)

I don’t mind that the costumes all seem to be hand-me-downs from Merlin, the producers could not afford enough extras to actually create a court, and the sets are so clean that the horses must have their own toilets, but couldn’t any of the characters age? While the eternal youthfulness is fine for the adults, Richard (Aneurin Barnard) and Anne were both adolescents in episode one, but they look exactly the same by the end of the season, after twenty years have passed. Worse, George was a spoiled seventeen-year-old when he married Isabel as part of Warwick’s rebellion, but twenty-nine-year-old David Oakes was not believable as a teenager. I had the impression that the make-up department never knew which scene would be filmed on which day, so they just made up the actors the exact same way each time, like on a cartoon.

On a side note, did George have be such a two-dimensional villain? David Oakes has had a good career as a villain, playing Juan Borgia on The Borgias, but couldn’t the writers have given him a single redeeming characteristic? Just one, like he is good to his horse.

Where are the child-brides?

ConsumationIn fact, the refusal to show the characters’ correct ages weakens the dramatic effect of child-brides. Women (girls actually, Margaret Beaufort was twelve when she was married, and became pregnant when she was thirteen) were essentially raped by their husbands, who were driven to produce heirs as soon as possible. During the bedding scene between Anne Neville and Prince Edward, the Lancaster heir, instead of comforting a scared adolescent, Edward just tells her to do nothing, and the camera portrays the consummation of the marriage as rape. Anne Neville was married when she was fourteen, but because the actress is twenty-six, the viewers are spared the sight of the rape of a fourteen-year-old girl. It would have made more sense to have a much younger actress for the early episodes and then an older one for the period after Edward’s death.

I don’t know why they are in such an all-fired hurry, but it is a pity because when they slow down, like during the consumnation scene with Anne, the writing is given time to shine, and I actually learn something while I am entertained. Then it speeds up again, and I wonder why I am watching it.

Pregnancy in the time before painkillers, Caesarean sections and ultrasounds was no fun.
The worst of the many pregnancies on the show-Anne (age thirteen) has to stick her hand inside Isabel to turn the baby around while they are on a ship that appears to be sinking.

The worst of the many pregnancies on the show-Anne (age thirteen) has to stick her hand inside Isabel to turn the baby around while they are on a ship that appears to be sinking.

I am not sure if Philippa Gregory has experienced a particularly severe pregnancy, but she sure does emphasize the pain and danger of pregnancy in the time of limited medical knowledge. Despite her astonishing piety, Margaret thought that Jesus Christ did not really suffer since he had never experienced childbirth. Having read the description of her pregnancy, I agree.

Characters in the series frequently referred to pregnant women going into confinement, but it was never shown. Described in detail in the books, it was literally confinement. Pregnant woman stayed in a room that was kept dark, night and day, surrounded only by women.

Battles are won by magic, not tactics, planning, numbers, fighting ability or even luck.

Elizabeth MoonlightWhile the series provided an eye-opening, if uncomfortable, look at the hazards of pregnancy, the writers stayed true to the source material and continued Gregory’s belief that magic, not tactics, planning, numbers, fighting ability or even luck, win battles.

According to Gregory, all of the key battles were won by the Rivers’ women, who would simply exhale, say what they wanted and pose in moonlight created by carefully positioned spotlights. And they still lost!!! What the hell?!? Elizabeth got Edward through magic, she ensured that he won at Barnet through magic, and she raised a storm to prevent Warwick from reaching safety at Calais after his first revolt. Magic apparently is easy and has no cost, so why didn’t the Woodville witches do it all of the time? During the battle of Barnet, where Warwick was killed, the witches blew up a mist to conceal Edward’s much smaller army, because England is famous for blazing, sunny weather. Actually, the real Edward kept a small force behind him to light fires, and then moved his army much closer to the enemy, spent a very cold night and took Warwick by surprise.

On the plus side, there is a lot of crying

CryingThese many problems aside, there is a lot of crying, so people who enjoy scenes of families mourning dead relatives and tearful reunions will be satisfied. Admittedly, life was hard, the odds of children dying in birth were depressingly high, and the constant revolts meant that many people were executed as traitors, so there were good reasons to cry, but lengthy sobbing competitions between actresses every single episode were not necessary.

Strangely for a show about women, the writers chose to focus on magic and crying, downplaying the feminist aspect of Gregory’s books.

The feminist aspect of the show is interesting, since all of the women depend on men for power, and will be married for their fortunes. The marriage contracts sound like prenuptial agreements between moguls and secretaries or actresses. Paranoia was always lurking in the books because the women feared that they would be poisoned by their husbands, who would then inherit their wealth and lands.

So, who killed the two princes in the Tower?

Richard IIIThe image of Richard III as a hunchbacked villain who ruthlessly murdered his nephews to win the throne is an invention of William Shakespeare, who undoubtedly wanted to win favor with Queen Elizabeth, the grand-daughter of Henry Tudor. Richard is treated relatively well, and is absolved of involvement in the murder of the princes in the tower. In fact, the murderer is never actually named since none of the potential suspects are sure if their orders were carried out.

However, Henry Lancaster’s fate is shown. The official explanation of his death is that he died of melancholy after receiving news of his son’s death, but having been betrayed by Warwick twice and his own brother George once, Edward probably wanted to eliminate another threat.

Rupert Graves is Lord Stanley
Lord Stanley

Lord Stanley

Amanda Hale and Rupert Graves are the best part of the show, and almost make it worth watching. The real Lord Stanley made a career of playing both sides and Graves captures his moral flexibility, while Hale, the master plotter, is furious to find that he has played her, and she ends up his prisoner in her own home, watching him drink away her stores of wine. It is also one of the most accurate parts of the show. As DI Lestrade, Graves is required to simply be earnest and confused on Sherlock, but he was given an opportunity to shine here, and he made Stanley one of the best characters on the show.

Since there are only ten episodes and they are largely filled with scenes of women crying, the series is unable to explore the rich mix of factors that makes the period so interesting. To be fair, the series is accurate, at least when it comes to names, dates and general chronology, it just fails to ignite. The Cousins’ War is fascinating, and I can understand George R.R. Martin’s obsession with the period. The king of the north, a mad king, dynastic marriages, constantly shifting alliances, and the ever-present threat of invasion from rival claimants to the throne who are living in exile, it’s all there in Game of Thrones. And it has dragons, freaking scary dragons. The White Queen has crying, lots of crying, and the sissiest magic I have ever seen.

  • the war movie buff

    You had me at lots of crying. LOL How does it compares to The Tudors?

    • historyonfilm

      No comparison. The Tudors faced religious strife head-on, while lightening the mood with steamy sex and bright costumes. White Queen has some good stuff, but it is drowned in the tears. It is a pity, the books were pretty good, and I learned a lot.