History & Film: Women Doing What They Must: Female Strategizing in The White Princess
WRITTEN BY MISTY URBAN
Much of Philippa Gregory’s royal fiction explores the ways women survive challenges and claim power. In the TV mini-series The White Queen (2013), based on Gregory’s books set during the Wars of the Roses in 15th-century England, the BBC promised “a riveting tale of three different, yet equally relentless women who will scheme, manipulate and seduce their way onto the English throne.”1 (The women are Elizabeth Woodville, queen of Edward IV; Anne Neville, queen of Richard III; and Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII.) What interested me about the series was the arsenal of weapons the women used in waging their war: sexual manipulation, magic, and maternity.2 The Starz sequel The White Princess (2017) follows its predecessor in the same key aspects: it expands the stage to include the scheming of more women than just the titular princess, Elizabeth of York, and it imagines women’s power in the same terms — terms that, curiously, show how much the modern vocabulary for women’s agency inherits from the premodern stereotypes.
The fascination with women’s power relies, in the medieval period and now, on their limited access to public channels; forced to operate via subterfuge and manipulation, women are thus all the more dangerous. In the script written by Emma Frost, an executive producer of the Starz series, the plot pivots on secrets to which only the women are privy. One is that the pretender Perkin Warbeck is without question Prince Richard, the second son of Edward IV. Episode 1 shows the young boy, nicknamed Perkin, in hiding with the family at their estate in York. When Henry VII’s soldiers come, fast on the heels of his triumph at Bosworth, the Dowager Queen Elizabeth instructs her son to run away and seek refuge with Jan Warbeque, a boatman in Tournai. The return of Perkin/Richard — called, as he is in Gregory’s novel, “the boy” — provides the dramatic action for the last half of the series.3
The second secret is that Margaret Beaufort, My Lady the King’s Mother, ordered the death of the princes in the Tower in a ploy to bring Henry VII to the throne. When Henry learns what his mother did, it throws his sense of legitimacy into doubt: “I never had the right,” he realizes in episode 8. “She killed the rightful king and put me on the throne. It’s all been lies.”
This complicity directs the force of a curse that the Dowager Queen Elizabeth, with the help of Princess Elizabeth (“Lizzie”), put on the killer of Edward V: the murderer’s sons will die, one after another, until the male heirs are extinguished. The Dowager suspects My Lady Mother in episode 1. Lizzie makes the connection around episode 3, after she gives birth to Prince Arthur and realizes that by the logic of the curse, as she’s married Henry, her own boy will die.
The curse exerts a greater resonance when Perkin shows up at court. Whereas Gregory’s novel shifts the narrative tension to Lizzie brooding over her husband’s fascination with “the boy’s” comely wife, the Starz series keeps the dramatic focus on Lizzie’s dilemma: what will she do when confronted with her lost brother, who means to murder her husband and dethrone her and her sons? As Lizzie denies, then doubts, and then comes to fear that this boy is who he claims to be, she faces a horrifying realization: if Henry kills him as a traitor, the curse will fall like an axe upon their own young princes.
That women are the king-makers is illustrated in other compelling ways. In episode 1, My Lady the King’s Mother hands the throne over as Henry approaches it; she’s made him king through the sheer force of her will. That they are both pawns of aggressive mamas is a point over which Henry and Lizzie bond in episode 3. After the the series demonstrates she is just as ruthless as anyone in ensuring her power, a triumphal Lizzie, in episode 8, crowns Henry as they dress together for an audience. “And now we will rule, King Henry,” she tells him.
Moreso than Gregory’s book, the Starz series plays on the real historical tension that was the sum of my secondary schooling on the Wars of the Roses: by granting her hand in marriage, Lizzie, as the heir of Edward IV, unites the two warring factions of Lancaster and York into the house of Tudor. From episode 2 onward, Henry relies on Lizzie to legitimize his kingship. She bears the princes who will become his heirs, securing his dynasty. She advises him on how to rule generously and wisely, to the benefit of his people. Lizzie organizes the betrothal between Prince Arthur and the Spanish princess Catalina, ensuring the aid of a mighty ally. In an amusing moment in episode 6, as the English monarchs visit the Spanish court, Lizzie demonstrates, to Henry’s surprise, that she speaks Castilian Spanish (Henry does not). It is the fiery Queen Isabella of Castile who dictates the terms on which England may claim Spain’s daughter, and it’s understood that the charge of living up to these terms rests on Lizzie. Choosing rulers is women’s business.
The writers of the TV series make several other changes to Gregory’s novel that serve the story’s focus on “the women waging the battle for power.”4 The most pleasing change, for this viewer, was the improvement in Lizzie’s agency. Gregory models Lizzie’s life on 15th and 16th century reports that Elizabeth of York was a miserable queen, hemmed in by her suspicious husband and ambitious mother-in-law. Gregory’s Lizzie is kept in the shadows by My Lady the King’s Mother, little trusted by her husband, and ignorant of her mother’s rebellions. She can’t even decide if “the boy” is her brother or not, and the theme of the book is how little Lizzie knows about anything.
Writer Emma Frost makes her White Princess a far more forceful character. Lizzie resists being forced into marriage with the man who murdered her lover, Richard III (also her uncle, but that’s beside the point, and there’s precedent for premodern avunculate marriages).5 In the scene where she meets Henry for the first time, far from being docile, Lizzie holds back as if considering whether to run. When Henry — at his mother’s prompting — insists that she prove her fertility before he wed her, Lizzie furiously hikes up her hem and challenges him to get it over with. “I hardly felt a thing,” she says after, delivering the insult along with a stinging slap. Later, Lizzie procures a mandrake root to try to “dislodge” the resulting baby. Her mother talks her out of it; to the Dowager Queen, this a York boy, a prince they will put on the throne. As does her counterpart in the novel, Lizzie dislikes the motto the King’s Mother chooses for her: “humble and penitent.” But in the TV series, she twists this into a motto of her own: “hidden and patient.” “I will fight them from within my marriage,” Lizzie vows as she is conducted under the marriage canopy to the church. “He will not beat me.”
Frost chooses the warmer interpretation taken by historian Alison Weir that Henry and Elizabeth’s marriage was affectionate and eventually happy, and that Elizabeth fulfilled both her public and private duties as a queen with quiet grace.6 The Starz Henry is not his mother’s puppet; he objects to her choosing his clothes for him, challenges her advice when it conflicts with Lizzie’s, and eventually kicks mummy dearest out of the queen’s rooms to give the palatial suite to his wife. And Lizzie, in episode 6, even has her own brief moment as military commander, rallying the Yorkist troops who are deserting Henry VII’s army. Far from trapped between her family loyalty and her husband’s control, as she is in the novel, this Lizzie throws her support behind her husband, helping him keep his hold on that fragile and contested crown.
This ability to act on her own makes Lizzie a worthy adversary to the King’s Mother, who is also a more dimensional character in the TV script. Where Gregory’s character is a mirthless woman, the King’s Mother of the Starz series harbors a lifelong love for her brother-in-law, Henry’s faithful guardian, Jasper Tudor. This adds a touching depth to her character (and opportunity for more shocking action, later). The way she speaks of Henry as “our boy” makes him a dramatic foil to “the boy,” the Dowager Queen’s darling Prince Richard, her lost jewel. But in the concluding scene of episode 8, as My Lady hints to Lizzie that they’re more alike than she wants to acknowledge, Lizzie snaps at her to “step back, Lady Mother.” This character arc shows Lizzie taking over the role of matriarch. Of course, she’s gained her role through the female strategies that premodern writers so fretted about — plotting and subterfuge, murdering rivals, bearing princes and having sex with the king — but that’s her crown, and she means to wear it. Lizzie has become the true Queen, the most powerful player in this dangerous game.
The choices to enlarge the roles of other women, changing both Gregory and the historical record, also deliver a dramatic payoff in the Starz series. Dowager Queen Elizabeth is defanged here, imprisoned in various sets of rooms as Henry learns she has been orchestrating revolts against his rule. From her deathbed, the dowager queen exhorts Lizzie to deny her husband and support Richard (Perkin’s) bid for the throne, but she must know that’s a silly request; no woman in this world gives up a crown until all her sons are cut out from beneath her. The mantle of York schemer is eventually picked up by Maggie (Margaret Plantagenet, daughter to George, Duke of Clarence, brother to Edward IV and Richard III). Lizzie’s cousin and lady-in-waiting is pushed past her limit by the heartless imprisonment of her brother, Teddy (Edward Plantagenet, the last York heir). The White Princess also makes room for Duchess Cecily, mother of York kings, who banishes herself to Burgundy, claiming “the England we once knew is gone.” Her dignified grief as the stricken York matriarch is a silent reminder of what these wars cost.
The biggest change from the novel, and most lavish embroidery of the historical record, is the role played by Duchess Margaret, the last of Duchess Cecily’s children. Widow of Charles the Bold, she was known to have funded various rebellions against Henry IV. Her court in Burgundy is here portrayed as a merry, musical paradise where courtiers stroll amid lush greenery beneath eternally sunny skies — a vivid contrast to the dark interiors and austere castles of Henry’s England. In the Starz narrative, Duchess Margaret, who is still grieving the deaths of her brothers, snaps when a Tudor envoy inadvertently causes the death of her beloved stepdaughter, Mary of Burgundy. (In fact Mary of Burgundy died in 1482.)
This final bereavement turns Duchess Margaret into a vengeful goddess who will stop at nothing to bring down Henry Tudor. She recruits Lambert Simnel and orchestrates his revolt, showing up on the battlefield in a custom-made breastplate and armor. When Richard/Perkin, “the boy” whom she’s cultivated and nurtured for seven long years, is taken prisoner by Henry and forced to work as a servant in the palace, Duchess Margaret sails to London with her money and her wrath and plots one last treason using Maggie and Richard/Perkin’s wife, Lady Cathy Gordon. The dramatic license makes sense in this world, where women are the strategists and boys are the pawns they move about. My Lady tells Lizzie in episode 8 that if she’s not appalled by what she would do for her children — those beings wrenched from her body while she screamed — then she’s “not a woman worthy of the name.” This, then, defines a woman: raw ambition, ruthlessness, agony, and blood.
“We are women; we do what we must do,” Margaret of Burgundy says to Maggie in episode 7. In the spirit of Gregory’s novels, it’s a declaration of challenge to the structures of authority that forced women’s power underground, leaving them to resort to the tools of intercession and barter, sex and patronage, maternity and murder. Medieval literature palpitates with this ever-present fear of women’s destructive capabilities, the inheritance of rebellious Eve. For a modern culture no less conflicted about the exercise of women’s power, the sight of highborn, headstrong premodern women doing whatever it takes to achieve their ambition makes for a riveting spectacle.
- “The White Queen.” StarzPlay. https://www.starz.com/gb/en/series/18124/episodes?season=1. The BBC script borrows from Gregory’s novels The White Princess, The Kingmaker’s Daughter, and The Red Queen.
- Urban, Misty. “Women’s Weapons in The White Queen.” Premodern Rulers and Postmodern Viewers: Gender, Sex, and Power in Popular Culture. Eds. Janice North, Karl C. Alvestad, and Elena Woodacre. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. 111-129.
- The identify of Perkin Warbeck, like the fate of the Princes in the Tower, is one of the period’s most fascinating unsolved mysteries. Ann Wroe explores this mystery fully in her terrific The Perfect Prince: The Mystery of Perkin Warbeck and his Quest for the Throne of England (Random House, 2007).
- “The White Princess.” StarzPlay. https://www.starz.com/gb/en/series/30887/episodes?season=1
- “Avunculate Marriage.” Wikipedia. Edited September 29, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avunculate_marriage
- Weir, Alison. “Elizabeth of York: a Tudor of Rare Talent.” HistoryExtra.com. March 25, 2020. https://www.historyextra.com/period/tudor/elizabeth-of-york-a-tudor-of-rare-talent/. See also Weir’s biography, Elizabeth of York: The First Tudor Queen (Ballantine Books, 2013)
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: Misty Urban is the author of two collections of short fiction and assorted scholarship on the theme of monstrous women and medieval romance. She is the Indie Reviews Editor for the HNR and also reviews for Publisher’s Weekly, Medieval Feminist Forum, and femmeliterate.net.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 94 (November 2020)