The White Queen: romance, sex, magic, scowling, social snobbery and battles

The BBC's new Sunday night drama set in the Wars of the Roses might not quite tick all historical boxes, but it's likely to become required Sunday night viewing.

The forest floor is covered in snow. Into the clearing stumbles a lone soldier, his breath heavy as he drips a trail of blood. He pauses, panting and looking around nervously through the foliage. The camera descends from above, hot on his tail as he stumbles, shedding his helmet and clutching his wound. Then it begins; the music, low and discordant at first like a heartbeat, building to the rhythm of the rider in pursuit, becoming faster, louder. He falls and through the trees, his foe appears, helmeted astride a white horse, his sword drawn to his victim’s scream of terror. Elizabeth Woodville’s first husband is dead, killed by the man who would become her second.

Thus begins the story of The White Queen, which kicked off this Sunday on BBC1 and runs for ten episodes. Rarely has a series been so eagerly anticipated than this retelling of a Fifteenth Century romance that changed the course of a country’s politics. Fans of Philippa Gregory’s bestselling trilogy of novels, which tell the story of the Wars of the Roses through the eyes of its women, have been awaiting this day since plans were first announced to bring her characters to life. This lavish £25m collaboration between the BBC and STARZ, starring the enchanting Rebecca Ferguson as Elizabeth Woodville and Max Irons as her lusty King, should not disappoint them. Filmed in the medieval city of Bruges, it is as beautifully shot as it is located. Yet perhaps, as expected, it is a little more Romeo and Juliet than accurate medieval protocol.

The magnetism between Elizabeth and Edward is quickly established. Their first meeting, beneath the legendary Whittlebury oak, is touching and immediate. Small details add to the anticipation; her mother’s good luck charm, her son biting into a plum, the other waving on the King’s approach. Historical purists might object. It is unlikely to have happened like that in real life. Far from being a “way-side hussy”, Elizabeth had probably already encountered Edward in the Lancastrian court circles of their fathers, but this is an adaption of a novel for Sunday night viewing and the romantic legend makes for better television.

The on-screen attraction between the star-crossed lovers is real and believable. As Ferguson explained in a recent BBC interview, she and Irons “just clicked” with “amazing chemistry straight away”. Almost as convincing are the heavy-handed doubts of the Woodville men, whose early snarls and cynical warnings anticipate the image we have of Elizabeth “wading through blood” for this marriage, as her mother warns her. At the start, her male relations have the feeling of caricatures, deliberate created as foils for the new young king, but as the episode progressed, they were prevailed upon by the wisdom of women to wear white roses. Alongside Jacquetta, played by the impressive Janet McTeer, “commoner” Elizabeth states she is a match for any man and the audience believe her. Through this first episode, it was the pairing of mother and daughter which really stole the show. In a trilogy which presents an alternative perspective of the era through female eyes, these two were radiant.

Almost too radiant. Of course, it was partly the magic at work. In real life, accusations of witchcraft were made against Jacquetta at the instigation of the Earl of Warwick, depicted here in best shouty mode by the rugged James Frain. Yet Jacquetta was cleared by Parliament in January 1470 and no further evidence exists that she or her daughter attempted to practise the dark arts against their foes. However, the sorcery, and Jacquetta’s reputed descent from the goddess Melusine, adds another thread to the narrative which allows for the foreshadowing of future tragic events. Thus the first episode compounds the promise of future conflict, with Elizabeth’s vision of a woman in red with blood on her hands, and the need to protect her sleeping sons, whose future brothers would become known to history as the Princes in the Tower. The dark, misty scenes beside the river when the two women cast their threads, provides a balance to the romantic “boy fogged in lust” shots of the pair in the garden, or the domestic scenes of the family playing blind man’s buff.  Sorcery also gives the audience an alternative explanation of why Elizabeth is a “match for any man,” when, according to the standards of the day, she was not.

Charming as they are, Elizabeth and her mother as depicted in this episode are perhaps a little too clever, too confident and assured, for the reality of a protocol-conscious Fifteenth Century. Sometimes they even come across as a little smug. Initially, their cunning and womanly wisdom makes the Woodville men, Baron Rivers (Robert Pugh) and Anthony (Ben Lamb) a real life sophisticate, appear naïve, even a little crass. It is clear who wears the braies in the Woodville family. The capitulation of Rivers with the line “sometimes woman you even scare me” was rather a clumsy reinforcement of Jacquetta’s marriage to, as Warwick put it, a “grubby little squire”.

It was in the exchange with Duchess Cecily (Caroline Goodall) however, that Jacquetta, as her daughter’s mouthpiece, really overstepped the historical mark. The disapproving Duchess, who was known in real life as “proud Cis,” is too easily overcome by her social inferiors when they whip out her apparent “secret” affair with a French archer. Lost for words, she is silenced within minutes, almost cowed by them. While contemporary notions of “courtesy” dictated extreme forms of submission to the queen, this is a Cecily straight from the pages of a novel rather than the actual proud aristocrat who asserted her own right to rule.

But then again, there is nothing wrong with that. To attempt to map these fictional constructs on to their real counterparts is perhaps to miss the point. Novelists have no moral obligation to present the truth, it is their prerogative to exploit events for the purposes of entertainment. They are free to select and emphasise certain characteristics and ignore others, to merge and shape the past at will in order to structure a balanced narrative of highs and lows. They can even, horror of horrors for historians, alter the past if they wish to. If we get too hung up on playing a game of spot the inaccuracy, we may be in danger of missing out on a very enjoyable piece of Sunday night escapism. That is, so long as we can overlook the clanky old clichés such as “the wheel of fortune rises and it falls,” “the king has married from another house” and “the boy is fogged with lust”. Perhaps the charm of the episode might even allow us to embrace them.

The White Queen contained exactly what it promised; romance, sex, magic, scowling, social snobbery and battles. The opposing sides have been drawn up, of Lancaster and York, establishing a narrative we can anticipate unfolding to more of “Kingmaker” Warwick’s tight-lipped objections and Anthony Woodville’s bristling pity. James Frain, recently lauded for his performance as Thomas Cromwell in The Tudors, may well emerge to steal the show alongside Margaret Beaufort and the other York brothers, only briefly glimpsed in this first episode. Trouble clearly lies ahead. In author Philippa Gregory’s words, “these aren’t like normal family quarrels. If you move against somebody, its death for you or him – or her.” It is the Romeo and Juliet style of this first episode that was a particular strength and should ensure the continuing high viewing figures commanded by The Tudors and The Borgias, filling the old Downton Abbey slot as required Sunday night viewing. With this introduction giving us a glimpse of the other cast members waiting in the wings, The White Queen promises to develop into a more complex and satisfying drama.

Rebecca Ferguson as Elizabeth Woodville in the BBC's "The White Queen". Photograph: BBC/Company Pictures & ALL3MEDIA/Ed Miller

Amy Licence is a late medieval and early Tudor historian focusing on women's lives. She is the author of the forthcoming biography Anne Neville, Richard III’s Tragic Queen and her blog can be found here.

Ben Whishaw as Hamlet by Derry Moore, 2004 © Derry Moore
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The art of coming out: how the National Portrait Gallery depicts the big reveal

Portraits of gay celebrities, politicians and sports stars line the walls in a new exhibition called Speak Its Name!, marking 50 years of advances in gay rights.

I have a million questions for the doctor friend I’ve brought with me to the National Portrait Gallery. A million questions that, if I really think about it, boil down to: “Why were the Tudors so godforsakenly ugly?”

Inbreeding? Lead makeup? An all-peacock diet?

I don’t know why I assume she’ll know. She’s a neonatologist, not a historian. But I’m desperate for some of the science behind why these 500-year-old royals look, if these imposing paintings of them are anything to go by, like the sorts of creatures that – having spent millennia in pitch black caves – have evolved into off-white, scrotal blobs.

My friend talks about the importance of clean drinking water and the invention of hygiene. We move onto an extremely highbrow game I’ve invented, where – in rooms lined with paintings of bug-eyed, raw sausage-skinned men – we have to choose which one we’d bang. The fact we’re both gay women lends us a certain amount of objectivity, I think.


Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow by David LaChapelle, 1996 © David LaChapelle Courtesy Fred Torres Collaborations

Our gayness, weirdly, is also the reason we’re at the gallery in the first place. We’re here to see the NPG’s Speak its Name! display; photographic portraits of a selection of out-and-proud celebrities, accompanied by inspirational quotes about coming out as gay or bi. The kind of thing irritating people share on Facebook as a substitute for having an opinion.

Managing to tear ourselves away from walls and walls of TILFs (Tudors I’d… you know the rest), we arrive at the recently more Angela Eagle-ish part of the gallery. Eagle, the second ever British MP to come out as lesbian, occupies a wall in the NPG, along with Will Young, Tom Daley, Jackie Kay, Ben Whishaw, Saffron Burrows and Alexander McQueen.

Speak its Name!, referring to what was described by Oscar Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas as “the love that dare not speak its name”, commemorates 50 years (in 2017) since the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales.

“Exhibition” is maybe a grandiose term for a little queer wall in an old building full, for the most part, of paintings of probably bigoted straight white guys who are turning like skeletal rotisserie chickens in their graves at the thought of their portraits inhabiting the same space as known homosexual diver Tom Daley.


Tom Daley By Bettina von Zwehl, 2010 © Bettina von Zwehl

When you’re gay, or LBTQ, you make little pilgrimages to “exhibitions” like this. You probably don’t expect anything mind-blowing or world-changing, but you appreciate the effort. Unless you’re one of those “fuck The Establishment and literally everything to do with it” queers. In which case, fair. Don’t come to this exhibition. You’ll hate it. But you probably know that already.

But I think I like having Tudors and known homosexuals in the same hallowed space. Of course, Angela Eagle et al aren’t the NPG’s first queer inhabitants. Being non-hetero, you see, isn’t a modern invention. From David Hockney to Radclyffe Hall, the NPG’s collection is not entirely devoid of Gay. But sometimes context is important. Albeit one rather tiny wall dedicated to the bravery of coming out is – I hate to say it – sort of heart-warming.


Angela Eagle by Victoria Carew Hunt, 1998 © Victoria Carew Hunt / National Portrait Gallery, London

Plus, look at Eagle up there on the “yay for gay” wall. All smiley like that whole “running for Labour leader and getting called a treacherous dyke by zealots” thing never happened.

I can’t say I feel particularly inspired. The quotes are mostly the usual “coming out was scary”-type fare, which people like me have read, lived and continue to live almost every day. This is all quite mundane to queers, but you can pretty much guarantee that some straight visitors to the NPG will be scandalised by Speak its Name! And I guess that’s the whole point.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.