Fact & Fiction: The White Princess, Episode 1

Since Starz announced this production, I have waffled between anticipation and dread. The former because I appreciate new costume dramas centered on the lesser-known Tudors; and the latter, because I’ve read Philippa Gregory’s book series. She’s a talented enough writer that her “historical slander” passes for the truth – and she maligns reputations, turning decent historical figures into murderers, rapists, or abusers to spice up her plot.

It’s the same in this series, which leaves me torn: the reputation of some of my favorite historical figures are on the line, but it’s so well done it wants to seduce me with its pretty (but inaccurate) costumes, its moments of emotional rawness, and its historical accuracy.

I’ll spare you the twenty page rant on slander I save for my friends, and focus on what is real and what isn’t, in case you care.

FACTS:

  • Henry did take the throne from Richard Plantagenet at the Battle of Bosworth Field. His mother’s husband, Lord Stanley, turned against Richard’s forces and with the help of his Welsh and French army, Henry defeated Richard, who was killed in a final charge down the field’s center and died within yards of the new king.
  • He was “descended from a servant.” Henry’s legitimacy was tenuous, but he had royal blood on both sides, and a legitimate claim to the throne.
  • Henry cracked down on his enemies in his first years on the throne. The Plantagenets had tons of children, which meant potential usurpers, so he back-dated his reign to the day before the battle to keep the nobility in line. But unlike the series implies, Henry was reluctant to execute people and offered pardons to most of his “enemies.” (Others, like Thomas Howard, he kept in the Tower indefinitely, until they proved loyal.)
  • Margaret Beaufort took the queen’s apartments, and insisted on being called “Her Grace, the King’s Mother.” She thought it her due, and considering she gave birth to Henry at thirteen and nearly died in the process (it ruined her from any further children), I ain’t got a problem with that.
  • Elizabeth Woodville and Margaret Beaufort negotiated the “Lizzie” / Henry marriage to unite the houses of Tudor, York, and Plantagenet. Unlike the series, which infers this isn’t what Lizzie or her mother wanted, it was something both women pressed for, as a method to cease the war.
  • Margaret Beaufort was devout. Her speeches about God placing her son upon the throne, a greater destiny for Lizzie, and so on, are very in character and keeping with the real Margaret, who was so devout she took a vow of chastity within her marriage to Lord Stanley later in life.
  • Teddy. After Richard’s death and the princes’ disappearances, one of the last direct male descendants to the Plantagenet line was Edward, only son of George (brother to Kings Edward and Richard), and younger brother to “Maggie” (Margaret Plantagenet and later, Pole). In the series, she argues for her brother’s life because his mind is “off”; in real life, people commented that Teddy seemed mentally unstable during his fourteen-year stay in the Tower.

FICTION:

  • Lizzie and Richard were lovers. Though rumors circulated at the time, in an effort to disgrace and discredit Richard with incest, that he wanted to marry his niece, Richard adamantly denied it. And since incest was not favored by the Church, he could not have gained a Papal dispensation to marry her, so we have no reason to disbelieve him.
  • Prince Richard survives and becomes Perkin Warbeck. The series features Elizabeth Woodville saving her son and sending him overseas to live with the Warbeck family, in the hope he will return and take the throne one day. There’s no evidence Perkin was anything but an imposter. No one knows what happened to the Princes in the Tower, or the date they disappeared, but they were both likely murdered. (People have since found two sets of double child skeletons, either of which could be their bones.)
  • Margaret Beaufort murdered the Princes in the Tower. Margaret was nowhere near them when they disappeared, had no real reason to consider them a threat, and had no influence to get at them. She is not one of history’s suspects (the strongest theories, based on who immediately benefited, are the Duke of Buckingham and Richard III. In 1502, Sir James Tyrell also confessed to murdering them at his trial before his execution for treason).
  • Henry tests Lizzie’s fertility before he marries her. In the book, he rapes her multiple times over weeks until she becomes pregnant, and threatens to marry her sister if she doesn’t conceive. In the series, Lizzie “submits” (since she has no real choice, it’s still rape, sorry) but it still implies Arthur was conceived by rape by two people who hate one another. Excuse me while I puke. Arthur was born nine months after the wedding, but what’s wrong with a wedding night conception or lust a week beforehand?
  • “Humble & Penitent”; Lizzie’s real motto was “Humble & Reverent.” There is also some debate on how much Margaret controlled Lizzie; here, she’s an overbearing mother in law, but the real Lizzie was tight-lipped about how she felt toward Margaret, so we will never know how much Margaret actively bossed her around, and how much of that was anti-Beaufort propaganda by the York faction.

WHAT I LIKED:

  • I find the idea that Perkin Warbeck was one of the missing princes a fascinating and brilliant piece of fiction, especially due to the emotional dynamics and upheaval it will produce when his uprising fails and Henry ultimately puts him to death (along with Teddy) as a Pretender. (Though, to be honest, reading those chapters in the book made me sick. I hope I don’t have to see him brutalized beyond recognition, to disguise how much he resembles his sister the queen!)
  • I thought this was a fairer and more even-handed representation of Margaret Beaufort. She is still devout, and has her moments of sheer meanness, and there’s one instance where she tells Lizzie something the real Margaret, as a rape survivor, would never tell her (now get on with it, and do your duty), but overall I think she’s more empathetic than the representation in The White Queen, and less of a radical religious nutcase.
  • I love the relationship between Lizzie and Maggie; as first cousins they were very close, and it’s nice to see that dynamic represented on screen. Gregory has a habit of pitting women against one another, so it’s great to see females as friends. Maggie’s love and fear for her brother is also gut-wrenching.
  • I love seeing early Tudor history! Since we never get to see Henry’s early months on the throne, seeing him call traitors before him, hearing about him putting properties under attainder, and trying to figure out how to wrangle the politics of a changing regime make the little historian’s heart in me happy.
  • Elizabeth “the Witch” Woodville: I thought Gregory turning the Woodvilles into witches was one of her more brilliant ideas; it lends a supernatural twist to events, it allows for a lot of foreshadowing, and it resurfaces here, with Elizabeth questioning her own “powers” (do her curses work or not?). Since her mother, the fabulous Jacquetta of Luxembourg, is long dead, she has no one to turn to who has a strong sense of the magic in their bloodline. Nice touch.
  • It’s classier than its predecessor. The White Queen felt like lite-porn at times, but so far this series hasn’t shown any nudity (thank you for not exploiting your actresses… yet) and its sex scenes haven’t been gratuitous. I fully expect that to change, but thank you for a decent first episode.
  • The cast. Part of me wishes they had continued with the original cast (minus Lizzie), in part because the “other” Margaret Beaufort was so memorable, but this one is solid, and seems more serious going forward. Margaret is less of a psycho, either intentionally or due to a nuanced performance.

WHAT I HATE:

  • The rape. Despite the screen writer’s attempts to reverse it into “feminism,” the fact remains that Henry still drags Lizzie into his room, forces her onto a bed, and has sex with her. That she “consents” by telling him to get on with it does not make it okay. That she mocks how quick it was after, is not a feminist statement; since she had no choice but consent, she did not consent. He is still a rapist, she is still a rape victim, and to call it anything else is rape apologetic bullshit. I loathe this plot line. I hated it in the book, and I despise it here. Lizzie and Henry had one of the more loving marriages in British royal history. He was faithful to her, and her death devastated him. To reduce their love affair to rape is sick, repulsive, and slanderous. Henry was enough of a paranoid bastard on his own (and I say that with love); he doesn’t need to be a rapist too.
  • Richard and Lizzie. Incest is just nasty, and the thought of the beautiful, gracious queen whose likeness still appears as the Queen of Hearts on playing cards shagging her uncle before the Battle of Bosworth Field squicks me out.
  • Henry VII. He’s an ass here. He’s also an ass in the book. The writer is going to have to do a great deal to make him “likable” from here on out, if that’s her intention, but I have a feeling he’ll remain a repulsive, emotionally abusive “mommy’s boy” throughout the series, which isn’t fair to Henry VII. I won’t pretend he was anything other than a ruthless and intelligent monarch, who permitted grave financial atrocities during his rule, but he was also a loving father and husband, who pardoned far more people than, as it turns out, he should have, since he hated executing people. I doubt we’ll get to see that here.
  • The nonsensical plot: It makes no sense for Elizabeth Woodville to establish Lizzie as Henry’s wife, then plot against him to put “Perkin” Warbeck on the throne, since if “Perkin” won, it would endanger any children Lizzie had with Henry. Kings kill royal claimants to their throne to protect their offspring; it’s what Edward did, what Richard did, what Henry did, what his son did, and what Perkin would have done, so Elizabeth is essentially pitting her own future grandchildren against one another. Is she that stupid?
  • Minor annoyances. I appreciate that some of the silhouettes are correct, but the fabric choices, the Burger King crowns, and the beads strung through everyone’s hair, not to mention the enormous amount of “boobage” Lizzie is showing by the end, distract from an otherwise decent production. They also reused the score. The production seems small. Henry’s triumphant ride through London for his coronation looked like what it was – a one block back lot somewhere. And unless you know who some of these people are, you’ll be totally lost trying to keep secondary dukes, duchesses, cousins, and siblings straight.

It was not as bad as I feared, but the backlash has already started online toward Henry VII, which makes the historian in me cry.

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