History, as they say, is written by the winners. And those winners are almost always men. When we, as modern viewers and readers, learn the story behind the biggest events in our own history, nine times out of ten, the women are left out of it almost entirely. We follow the tales of kings, princes and conquerors, but spare barely a thought for the women who rule beside them, toil in the shadows behind them, or lose their lives and livelihoods to the whims of the very same men. Starz series THE WHITE PRINCESS does its best to change that. And while we can’t know how successful it will be in this endeavor, if premiere “In Bed with the Enemy” is anything to go by, then the show is going to make an extremely valiant effort.
The drama, which takes place in the aftermath of the Wars of the Roses in 15th century England, attempts to add a much-needed female perspective to this traditionally very male historical story. And perhaps it is this increased female focus that makes the series’ feel much more contemporary than it likely has any right to. Because for all its flaws, The White Princess offers an intriguing look at female power, ambition and ability in the world of the early Tudor court. Many of these women may not have been allowed to hold much power in their own rights. But that doesn’t mean they had no control over their own destinies, nor that they didn’t work tirelessly behind the scenes towards their own ends. As the episode progresses we see a variety of women all attempt to harness their own power in different ways, with varying degrees of success.
On the surface, the main story of The White Princess is the story of a man come to claim his crown. Henry Tudor defeated King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field and claimed his crown. With the crown comes another reward: Henry promised that, should his forces prove victorious, he would wed Princess Elizabeth (Lizzie) of York, join their two Houses and end nearly 100 years of inter-family feuding. But the thing is, is that even from the beginning Henry’s power cannot exist without Lizzie’s. The first bit of history you probably don’t know here? Henry needed Lizzie a lot more than she needed him. Her claim to the crown was not only stronger than his, but the country’s Northern residents were more loyal to her and her family, as well. So though Elizabeth came to this union unwillingly, she was not without her own strengths.
In this particular version of history, King Richard III’s death was devastating to Lizzie for more ways than one. Apparently the young princess was desperately in love with her uncle, and planned to marry him if he returned from Bosworth victorious. That he did not is the first and possibly greatest of many hatreds that the York princess bears toward her new Lancaster husband, and the show really leans into to the idea of her love story with Richard. The idea that the two of them slept together isn’t completely made up – incestuous rumors date back as far as 1483 – but there isn’t much in the way of evidence for it either. As this is, basically, a soap opera, facts are generally unnecessary, and so we see Lizzie not only mourning the loss of Richard’s love, but remembering their passionate nights together.
Lizzie, her mother and sisters are all taken to appear before the new King, where the princess is told that she will need to adopt a new motto (“Humble and penitent”) and submit to regular intercourse with her husband-to-be, because Henry has determined not to marry her until they know that she can give him an heir. Neither Lizzie nor Henry can stand each other, but she refuses to be cowed by his insistence that she has no power of her own. “I will not let him beat me,” she sobs against her mother’s chest afterward. In the novel this series is based on, Lizzie and Henry’s first time together is much more clearly depicted as a rape. Here, the White Princess showrunners decide to give Lizzie a bit more agency within this encounter, having her mock Henry’s sexual ability and ultimately consent to “get it over with” because she’s savvy enough to realize that she has to marry him no matter what happens or there is no future for her at all. Later, when she discovers she is pregnant, Lizzie debates terminating it. Ultimately – with a little advice from her mother – she decides that having the child will not only allow her to secure her own crown, but offer her an opportunity to resist from within her marriage. The York women decide that they will raise this new child to be one of them, and a Lancaster only in name.
The other two main women in this occasionally confusing story are Elizabeth Woodville, widow of King Edward IV, and Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry. Both these women are an interesting study in creating power and influence where probably none should exist. Though Elizabeth is a former queen of England, she and her family are now forced to swear allegiance to people they would have previously seen as their enemy. But though Elizabeth may bend, she is not broken – and she instructs her daughters in how to think similarly. She encourages them to survive, remember their own worth and wait for better times (which she is hoping to help engineer). Her brazen refusal to accept the idea of defeat appears to be one reason that her chief rival, Lady Margaret Beaufort, hates her so much. (Well, that and the fact that she’s really good at the art of subtle shade.)
And yet, it is Lady Margaret who is perhaps the most interesting woman in the series’ first episode. She’s educated, extremely religious and rather a fan of displaying her own piety. (She wears large, ostentatious crucifixes and insists that everything that has happened has been due to “God’s will”.) But in many moments, “God’s will” looks an awful lot like “Margaret’s will”. She is the true power behind the throne, having worked for most of her life to put her son on it. And, though she clearly chafes at the fact that Henry trusts his male advisers over her, she is equally determined that he should come to respect her opinion in her own right. (So much so, that she is willing to commit child murder to achieve it.) It is Margaret who decides how Henry’s court is to be run – from when and whether he will marry Elizabeth, to what everyone will wear when he does so. She has a favored seat at his council of advisors, and she is allowed to voice her opinion to him. And if she had been born a man, it’s as likely as not that she would have been ruling England by now.
Lady Margaret is a difficult character to like initially, let alone to root for. Through the “unquiet dreams” she is sent by Elizabeth (just go with it), we see that she feels guilty over things that she’s been forced to do to achieve power for her son. (And, by extension, herself.) She reminds Jasper, Henry’s uncle and her long-ago love interest, that she is the only person who has believed in her son from the very beginning, when no one would listen to her. (The implication being that she has earned the right for people to listen to her now) And she tells young Elizabeth that she has a “talent for loyalty”, signaling a bizarre hope that the two women might somehow become partners in this new endeavor of England that they are all creating for Henry. Elizabeth can’t really be faulted for rejecting a woman who has basically ruined her life, but Margaret’s dedicated search for affirmation, and for an outlet for her own ability, whether as a ruler, organizer or mother, is interesting.
As a historical story, The White Princess features several significant plot points that are either embellished, inaccurate or made up from whole cloth in the name of good drama. Besides Princess Elizabeth’s love affair with her uncle, the series also suggests that her mother Elizabeth dabbled in witchcraft. The series suggests that Lady Margaret is responsible for the murder of the two young sons of Edward IV who’d been kept prisoner in the Tower of London. And there’s also the idea that the supposedly murdered young Prince Richard didn’t die at all. According to this version of events, Queen Elizabeth managed to swap a servant boy into the Tower in place of her young Richard when the children were originally taken, and helped her son escape to France. It’s pretty wild. And though this too is probably something that didn’t actually happen in real life, it will doubtless make for a good story in the weeks ahead. But the real drama will inevitably found between and among these women as they attempt to make futures for themselves.
Season 1, Episode 1 (S01E01)
The White Princess airs Sundaysat 8PM on Starz
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Lacy is a digital strategist by day and a writer because it seemed like a good start to her supervillain origin story. Favorite things include: Sansa Stark, British period dramas, and that leather duster that Aeryn Sun wears in Farscape.
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Lacy Baugher | Contributor