Saturday, 26 October 2013

Setting Some Facts Straight: My Review of "The White Queen"

I, like many for the last 10 weeks or so have been watching Starz "The White Queen.” At first, I struggled to get through the first episode due to drugged stupor from surgery but once I finally watched it, I was curious as to what the series had to offer.

The series is based off the book of similar title set during the War of The Roses in England in 1450s or so. It’s a medieval period themed series: my cup of tea basically. So me and my knowledge, biting my tongue many of times, and mind; ended up watching the show in its entirety. In the end I was amazed. I had read mixed reviews, and was actually quiet shocked of how the series was perceived by many audiences. In the end, I certainly did not follow the tone of the journalists who wrote the reviews. Still I wonder what was put in their drink that day. Did they forget that film is like any art form, it is interpretative and first and foremost it is art. Criticizing it won’t do you a bit of good. The overall consensus: the show left me wanting more, and a with a few sleepless nights with the vision of Richard III dead body on the ground….I got a little freaked out…. Shock factor achieved there Aneurin.

The acting. Words don’t even come close. We are introduced to Elizabeth and Edward first. The Anne and Richard, played by Faye Marsay and Aneurin Barnard. They stole the show. As well as Amanda Hale who plays Margaret Beauford and Stanely. I am uncertain of the actors name. The twists, the emotions, the technique, they all used, especially Aneurin, is just captivating. I remember watching the first episode where Richard III is really a main character and I was just floored. His performance just blew me away. Give him a prize someone. I have seen a ton of period movies and not, and"The White Queen" just blew it out of the park. Bravo! Now, the show is over and I miss my medieval fix!

With that being said, we get to my review of the series. I understand liberties were taken with some aspects of the filming, i.e. lack of armor, clothing, and other details, (red paint on the window frame) which being a trained medievalist, I didn’t complain and just let it slide. As far as critiquing, the only real problem I had was some of the themes addressed in the story line. There is just not even close or loose historical base to have made the claims. It is a little bewildering to me as a historian and a scholar, that they were even suggested. As a result, it created confusion amongst many viewers and their views of specific characters, especially of Richard III. Of note, I did have a blast helping my peers understand the period after the show was over that following night.

Now back to Richard. He is probably the most misunderstood of all the English Plantagenet kings. A lot of it traces back to what happened after and before his death.
Now my gripes. First, I had a slight issue with the relationship that was suggested in the show between Lizzy (Elisabeth of York) and Richard. This more than likely never happened, actually it didn’t. It was a result of gossip and rumor. Anne and Richard actually shared a bed up until she got ill. This wasn’t very common in that day. King’s and Queen’s had separate chambers. If he had had an affair, she would have been the first to know, since they shared a bed up until the end, when it was feared that he too would become ill.

Is there any evidence? No. There is only one letter in existence that Lizzy wrote that is more than likely a misinterpretation or a fake. It is also know, or it should be that if Lizzy was educated, she would have known about courtly romance and courtly love, introduced by Marie de France. This needs to be taken into consideration. It greatly impacted writing at the time, as well as composition. When looking at her writings, these are some of the aspects that pop out and yes, could be misinterpreted quite easily for “love” not “admiration,” which in fact it was. Richard was planning a wedding for her. As a responsible and thankful niece, of course he would be in admiration of her; he is helping her plan her future marriage. This is a big deal and an expensive one.
Some notes about the letter. The letter found by George Buck, who lived about 100 years after Richard’s death. It claimed to have “have seen a letter written by Elizabeth of York to John Howard, 1st Duke of Norfolk, shortly before the death of Queen Anne Neville, in which Elizabeth declared her love for Richard III and her hope of becoming his wife. In Buck’s words, the letter asks Norfolk “to be a mediator for her to the King, in behalf of the marriage propounded between them”, who, as she wrote, was her “onely joy and maker in this world”, and that she was his in heart and thought: “withall insinuating that the better part of February was past, and that she feared the Queen would never die.” The letter, if it ever existed, is now lost.” ( Now as a scholar, it is quite interesting that a letter oh 100 years later emerges, then disappears. Something in this is not right. Hence, why it is thought that the letter was a fake, or misinterpretation, and oh by the way.. it’s missing now too.

Another source, that documents and discusses this letter as well as the information received from the Croyland Chronicles; the book Richard, Return of the King, by Patricia J. Collins, the same letter cited, and is also discussed. She also brings similar points about the letter, and the fact that Richard repeatedly publicly denied any such plans to marry his niece. Yet rumors circulated like wild fire after Anne’s death and did not help the situation. It was known is that he wished to remarry soon, as he had no heir to the throne at that time, he needed some job security. But it would make sense that the rumor mill went overboard, despite the good that Richard did. The game was to the defeated the one who is your opponent make them a victim of libel or slander, gossip and rumor and chip at them until they break. The rumors continued after his death under the rule of the new king, he had to establish power. And of course, they had to clean up the rumors of any public notion of what people once thought of Elizabeth of York when she married Henry Tudor. She had to be fit to marry a king. Place the blame on the dead king, he is dead so he can’t defend himself; easy scapegoat.

What do we take away from this? Just because it ends up in the daily newspaper, doesn’t mean it is fact or true. The educated public is a very small pool and most are the clergy, rumors are what makes the wheel and the power go around.
Finally, the princes in the tower. This is probably one of todays and in this time period, the biggest unsolved mystery to date. The show suggests that Elizabeth swapped young Richard out, with an imposter. That so did not happen. There are doctor records that show proof he was in the tower and he was ill. The gossip flew when they disappeared, again, who was unpopular? Richard III he was blamed for their disappearance. In defending Richard, it is questioned that Elisabeth’s loyalty eventually switched to him, but it was too late for obvious reasons, for him to save his throne. The simple fact that it did shift to him, is an indication that he was not responsible for their disappearance or why would she have changed loyalties if in fact he had something to do with the disappearances? It would not make sense, as what little evidence we have suggests.

The likely culprits? Margaret Beauford, and Stanley. They both wanted Tudor on that throne, and history shows that there is pile of bodies to that lead to that “iron throne”. Now, hypothetically, it is possible that she switched one of her children. But the biggest factual and theoretical problems that historians face today, is there is just no evidence anything that even suggests or supports who murdered the children, or in fact that they were even murdered in the first place. My personal theory; one died, the other more than likely died as well. From someone’s hand, no, from illness, yes. I vote tuberculosis; we already have a few dead of the disease currently in the show.

An article in The Guardian(, discusses the urn that was found in the tower with some bones of two children found at the bottom of a stair case during a renovation, that could possibly hold some clues to this mystery. Since the discovery of Richard III and DNA testing of his remains, a suggestion was made to have those bones DNA tested but the request was denied. This actually puts a very interesting twist on the plot. The Church of England, and the Queen were even consulted and supported the denial. Perhaps they really do know what happened, it’s some big secret? We might never know. Is this enough to prove Richard III responsible, no. He was a very loyal, and catholic and held the church in great esteem, why would he commit a mortal sin on a child, he had other problems to worry about, and they were great by far. He went to great lengths to deny public accusations, where the Croyland Chronicles suggests, as well as the York House Books, as the one responsible for their disappearance. Again, the blame landed on a king whose competition wanted power, and if they could break him down piece by piece, they would and to take what they wanted in the end, that being the throne.
History always seems to have a different picture, than its interpretation or artistic departure. This is why I enjoy film. Sometimes it is nice to take a departure from what we know and to let it go.

My overall opinion of the show was it was terrific, beautiful, and just wonderfully written from an artistic perspective. From a historical perspective, it leads a lot into much needed discussion. But this is good for people like me. I love to teach others about what I love and know. There are so many aspects of medieval life that just one show cannot even begin to understand its complexity. It’s a complex but fascinating period. My biggest advice to people wanting to learn about the period or the people in it? Do your research wisely, and really look at who your sources have been written by. If you are reading about Richard III, if it is later for example 1600’s, the opinion will be painted poorly. This is something we are discovering today and is unfortunately the case in so much of our documentation. Sometimes a little of rewriting the past has to take place.

Finally, take a step back and try to think like that medieval person who wrote the material especially if it’s a primary source. Many angles need to be thought of when you go read into that piece. Who are they in favor with, what is their position at court, what is their education level, and are they a man of importance. To look at the life and times of individuals of the past, some of our best sources are the actual legal documents and letters of that time. For example “The Paston Letters.” They give anyone a perfect window into that time. The world of the Middle Ages is a fascinating time period and that was clearly depicted in the show“The White Queen.” It is a show worth its weight in gold. I highly suggest it.

Starz “The White Queen” is currently up for a People’s Choice Award for 2014.

Also vote for Aneurin Barnard for his role of Richard III

~ Andrea C. S. McMillin, BA Medieval Studies w/ History U.C. Davis and current scholar
October 26, 2013

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