I debated whether I was going to cover this series for a couple reasons: 1) it’s based on a book I haven’t read; 2) it’s most certainly not going to even attempt accuracy; and 3) it’s all a bit much. But there’s value in considering how history is being dramatized, if for no other reason than to be aware of what false bits are going to become lodged in the public consciousness. In this case that’s not really a huge concern as I don’t think most people are watching this show, but if it’s not a worthwhile exercise it’s at least an interesting one.
As some background, the White Princess is meant to follow a 2013 series called the White Queen, which covered the life of Elizabeth Woodville, consort of Edward IV, from 1464 to 1485. If you would like to know who that is then I would direct you here, here or here. The White Princess dramatizes the life of their eldest daughter, Elizabeth of York, who married Henry VII in 1485. For more on her actual background, you can read more here.
Now for the show: We open where the White Queen left off, in August 1485 in the aftermath of the Battle of Bosworth in which Henry Tudor defeated Richard III. As we covered in the EOY link above, there is some uncertainty around the exact nature of Richard’s relationship with his niece and there were contemporary rumors about whether he was planning on marrying her after the death of his wife, Anne Neville. In a recent biography of her, Alison Weir has gone so far as to claim there is enough evidence to make it plausible Elizabeth was planning on marrying him, thus solidifying the future security of her and her siblings.
Whatever the case was, in the White Princess, Elizabeth, known as “Lizzie,” went so far as to sleep with Richard prior to the battle. She is waiting somewhere in the country with her mother, Elizabeth Woodville, and her younger sisters, Cecily, Anne, Katherine and Bridget, to find out whether York or Tudor won. The quickly find out that it was Tudor which puts them in the position of 1) preparing Lizzie to marry the victor against her wishes and 2) hiding Richard, Duke of York.
So, let’s pause there and discuss that little point. According to the show (again, based on a series of books by Philippa Gregory), while Edward V was killed in the Tower of London during Richard III’s reign, his younger brother, Richard of York, wasn’t. Instead, Elizabeth had the forethought to hide him in case something nefarious was afoot and spirit him out of the country as needed. Oh, and to be clear, the show doesn’t posit that Richard killed his nephews (or nephew as the case may be), but that it was a plot masterminded by Margaret Beaufort (Henry Tudor’s mother).
The Tudor soldiers arrive, manhandle Elizabeth, Lizzie and the other girls, further underlining their apparent barbarity, and announce they are there to transport the women back to London on the orders of the new king. Elizabeth says quite coolly they have been waiting to be summoned – that they come willingly.
Next up we are introduced to the Earl of Warwick and his sister, Lady Margaret, known as “Maggie.” They are Lizzie’s first cousins, the orphaned children of George, Duke of Clarence and Isabel Neville. With England thinking that Lizzie’s brothers are dead, the young Earl of Warwick is the next York heir. The series, per the book presumably, follows the theory that Warwick was “simple-minded,” a line of thought that a number of historians have called out as plausible. Unfortunately, he is thus unable to truly grasp the sensitivity about calling himself the Earl or the future king, a situation that causes considerable stress to his older sister, who has appointed herself his caretaker.
In the show they are seen living with Cecily Neville, Duchess of York who briefly closes her eyes when told that her son, Richard, has lost, resigning herself to the death of another child.
Meanwhile, in London, Margaret Beaufort and Henry Tudor are having a much better time. To the extent that this version of Henry does. He is joyless, brusque and deeply uncomfortable with his kingship – oscillating between absolute authority and forgetting the palace is his.
His mother has no such insecurity. Which brings us to yet another fun layer added to this show – the romantic tension between Margaret and Jasper Tudor, Henry’s paternal uncle. In real life, Jasper was the younger brother of Edmund Tudor, Margaret’s first husband and Henry’s father. They were certainly allies, if not friends, once Edmund died and Jasper took over the care and protection of his brother’s widow and infant son. When the House of Lancaster fell in 1471, he spirited a 14-year-old Henry out of England to Brittany, where they lived under house arrest for another 14 years until the events of 1485.
Was there a romance between them? There’s no evidence of one. Margaret Beaufort married twice more after Edmund, she and Jasper were separated for well over a decade and, upon his return, Jasper actually went on to marry Elizabeth’s younger sister, Katherine Woodville. Is that incestuous enough for you? Yes, welcome to the Wars of the Roses.
As Lizzie makes her way to London she is mostly offended by the lack of respect with which Henry is treating her. She says nothing could be worse than him killing her “Sweet Richard” – a troubling way to describe one’s uncle, but let’s move on. Elizabeth reprimands her that she needs to dial back her romance with the slain king, not to mention a certain lack of virginity that it would not longer be politic to call attention to.
When they arrive at court – held at Westminster, which essentially served as the family home (or the closest thing to it) – they are greeted by the sight of the York standards being ripped down, a suite of rooms well below their standards and the complete disdain of their hosts. Maybe he doesn’t need me after all, says Lizzie, maybe he means to marry his mother.
Oh no, he needs you, Elizabeth answers, he based his claim to the throne on you.
So, let’s tackle that, shall we? Yes, Henry basically did have to marry EOY after he ascended the throne. Doing so merged the claims of Lancaster and York into one family, so it was not only the country’s best shot at peace, but he had promised to do so as far back as 1483. Marriage to EOY or one of her sisters had been on the table for Henry as far back as during the reign of their father, Edward IV, as a means of extraditing him from Brittany, a plan that obviously fell through. But Henry went out of his way to make it clear that he didn’t base his claim through his wife – hence the five-month gap between Bosworth and their wedding.
Anyway, the Yorks are summoned to the Great Hall where Henry is holding court – literally, in some respects. The de la Poles acknowledge him as king. The show provides no context for who these people are, but the woman (the redhead) is presumably meant to be yet another Elizabeth of York (Lizzie’s aunt), Duchess of Suffolk. Her husband was John de la Pole and they had a plethora of sons, including their eldest son, also John, who was unofficially acknowledged by King Richard as his heir.
Cecily Neville, however, refuses to bend a knee, citing her daughter, Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy. Henry reminds her that Burgundy’s trading liscences have been revoked, while Jasper tells her that if she doesn’t pledge fealty she’ll be thrown into the Tower….she is then taken away by guards, presumably to be taken to the Tower. This is all complete fiction, of course, though I do like the visual of Jasper standing up to Cecily and Cecily scoffing. In reality, Cecily was living in the household of his mother, Katherine of Valois, Queen of England, when she was secretly married to Owen Tudor and may well have been on hand at his birth.
Next up is the Earl of Warwick, or “Teddy,” and Maggie. Maggie vows loyalty, while Teddy doesn’t understand, saying that, “One day I’ll be king!” Shock! Maggie has to whisper to him, tricking him into saying, “Long live the King!” In response, Henry tells him their inheritance has been given away and they are thus dismissed.
In private, Henry expresses his distaste for the idea of marrying Lizzie. He calls her a whore who has “lain with my own enemy,” forcing Margaret to remind him she has already been brought to London and he’s already promised to marry her. Jasper calmly suggests that he at least meet her.
The York women, meanwhile, are focused on secretly delivering a letter to find out if Richard of York made is safely abroad. Coming back from the stables Elizabeth bumps into Margaret who reminds her that she receives a royal bow now. “Indeed,” Elizabeth responds, not moving. And good for her.
Then comes the meeting. Henry enters the York women’s chambers wearing his crown, Margaret by his side. Elizabeth is a gracious hostess. Lizzie glowers, having to be reminded to address Henry by his mother. “Your service as my mother’s lady-in-waiting will never be forgotten,” Lizzie says evenly.
“The meek shall inherit the earth,” responds Margaret.
Henry then says, because he is ill-mannered and basically terrible, “Dance for me.” He requests Cecily instead of Lizzie. “The girls can dance together,” Elizabeth corrects.
What follows is, obviously, incredibly awkward. Cecily is making eyes at Henry, Lizzie looks grossed out and Elizabeth is watching for a reaction.
He then tells Lizzie his mother has decided on a motto for her: Humble & Penitent. Because who doesn’t want to live their life that?
And then that scene…in the show, Henry and Lizzie meet for dinner in Henry’s apartments. Neither of them want to be there. Henry attempts to shame Lizzie for having slept with Richard and Lizzie counters by saying she doesn’t regret it in the slightest and it was worth. Henry drags her into her bedchamber, locks the door and makes it quite clear he’s going to take her by force. Lizzie, however, meets him halfway by basically saying, let’s get this over with so I can conceive a son and make this legal. It’s…a weird scene, but one that allows the show to skirt portraying a rape.
A cursory Google search shows that, indeed, in the book Henry raped Lizzie, which explains why the show went there at all.
Ugh. I get what the plot was acknowledging from the historical record, which is that their eldest son, Prince Arthur, was born eight months after the wedding, indicating that he was either premature or that Henry and EOY consummated their relationship prior to their January 1486 wedding. But here’s the thing, if they had started sleeping together – the conception of a male heir of paramount importance – it would have been “fine” because they were already betrothed, a status that was more significant than how we use it or “engaged” today. In the eyes of the church, it was legally binding.
My point being, rape is being used for dramatic effect here, with little to no evidence (as with Lizzie sleeping with Richard) and I find that distasteful. There are few things I actually hate more, because it’s gotten to the point that female characters being raped is akin to a teenage soap opera featuring a pregnancy scare. It’s cheap and it’s deeply misogynistic because, let’s be clear here, the physical and emotional battering of women has been reduced to entertainment. If it was based in anything approaching reality then I would grant some grace here, so long as viewers (or, in this case, readers) were granted the same courtesy, but this is fiction based on a real person and it’s abhorrent.
Moving on. Lizzie returns to her rooms to be comforted by her mother and Cecily, that wily wench, goes to Henry to apologize for her sister and make a play for becoming queen. Henry, to his credit (I guess?), responds, “You should show more loyalty to your sister.” Cecily is thus shut down.
Margaret and Lizzie have an impromptu chat in the chapel. The older woman gives her her life story, attempting to explain why she has been hard on her, offering her loyalty and friendship as her future mother-in-law. Lizzie looks overwhelmed, though it is all made a bit gross when Margaret ends the meeting with, “You may now go to my son’s rooms and do your duty.”
This is shortly followed by Lizzie finding out she is pregnant and Elizabeth finding out the murder of her sons was ordered by none other than Margaret. Henry is crowned king (the York women aren’t invited) and Lizzie asks Maggie to fetch herbs from the garden which are secretly for a curse.
Yeah, so I guess I need to address that, too – in this version of history, Elizabeth and Lizzie are witches (as was Jacquetta in the White Queen) and curse their enemies with regularity. Of most relevance is the fact that they have already cursed the Princes in the Tower’s murderer so that all their male descendants die. Obviously not super helpful, then, that Lizzie has married into the family, though I suppose it’s meant to be poetic that her son, Henry VIII, would be incapable of producing a son that lived…so long as you ignore the fact that Henry VIII, himself, lived, or that Edward VI and Prince Arthur made it to adolescence. What is “lived,” I guess?
The episode ends with Henry and Lizzie’s wedding, meaning we’ve covered about five months. Because she is already pregnant, the bedding ceremony is a bit of a joke. Once they are alone, Henry takes a knife out and cuts her foot to cause a blood stain on the sheets. “It’s for your reputation, so my son isn’t born a bastard,” Henry says. “Sleep.” Then he leaves the room.
Good lord, this really puts the criticism that Victoria on PBS received for inaccuracies in context.