When we read or hear about the medieval times, it is all about the men: when they reigned, whom they fought, what families they belonged to…
But, as Philippa Gregory's historical novel series The Cousins' War tells us, it was actually the women who pulled the strings of history in the background… and in 2013, their fascinating stories have been made into an epic TV series!
In 1464, a young widow meets the new king of England at the side of a road. She is asking him to return some of her fallen husband's lands to her. The king is immediately smitten with the "common woman" and this is the beginning of a great love story! But before the king and his new queen can live happily ever after, there is a lot of drama to unfold… and several opponents to overcome …
What's quite unique about this BBC One / Starz joint production is that all the events are told from the perspective of women. The series includes elements from Gregory's novel The White Queen, which is narrated from the perspective of Elizabeth Woodville, The Red Queen, told by Margaret Beaufort and The Kingmaker's Daughter, told by Anne Neville.
The domineering theme that all three women are faced with is the so-called Wars of the Roses, which was a conflict about which side of the family – either the House of York or the House of Lancaster – is the rightful heir to the throne of England.
The White Queen was not filmed in England, Wales, Scotland. Instead, the team headed to the continent: In Flanders, Belgium, they found many gems which looked exactly like medieval Britain. Many of them, like the Town Hall, were in Bruges, but places in Ypres, Ghent and Ursel also served as amazing medieval backdrops.
With so many figures, intrigues and plots going on, it's hard to keep an overview. But that's exactly how it was in real life! For a history freak like me, one of the things I like best about The White Queen is how all those historical figures come to life. But see for yourself… here are some of my favourites:
Elizabeth Woodville is the narrating character of the novel The White Queen. She was from a lower genteel family background and not at all a suitable match for the King of England. Nevertheless, Edward fell heads over heels for the famous beauty and married her in secret. British-Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson is a perfect Elizabeth match though! She looks just like I imaged her when I read the novel!
Elizabeth Woodville's husband was the oldest of the three York brothers and earned his crown on the battlefield. British-Irish actor Max Irons, son of Jeremy Irons (the pope in The Borgias) is almost on the day the same age as me. That's one reason to like him and then – well look at him! A hit with the ladies – just as much today as back then in the Middle Ages! 🙂
Another important figure is Edward IV's youngest brother Richard, who later became King Richard III until he lost his crown (and his life) on the battlefield near Leicester to Henry Tudor. It took an astonishing 500 years until his remains were found underneath a car park in Leicester, UK in 2012. DNA evidence confirmed the skeleton to be Richard III. A wax mask of his liking was also created. Surprisingly, the wax Richard aka the real Richard looked very similar to his contemporary portrait and Welsh actor Aneurin Barnard.
Richard's wife was Anne Neville, who tells her side of the story in The Kingmaker's Daughter. She had to endure a fate that was quite typical for women in those times: At 14 years old, she was given in marriage to the unlikeable Edward of Westminster in order for her father Richard Neville, called the Kingmaker, to launch a coup agains the ruling House of York. When she became a widow, a handsome Richard III came along on his horse and swept her off her feet. However, poor Anne died aged only 28 – grief-stricken by the death of her only son just months before.
When there is trouble, the middle son of York is never far away… George lusted for the crown, but after several attempts to conquer it, had to be killed by Edward for high treason – according to George's own choice in a butt of Malmsey wine. Who would have been better for such a role than British actor David Oakes? After all, he has a proven track record of the ultimate medieval bad ass. Just as in The Borgias or The Pillars of the Earth, his acting is once again spot-on and I really believed him when he went crazy!
Margaret is the narrator of The Red Queen and the most pious of all three female protagonists. In real life, Margaret Baufort gave birth to her only son Henry when she was just 13 years old! However, he was soon taken away from her to be raised by important men in Wales and France. Throughout the season, Margaret suffers from being separated from her son, but also keeps up the spirits (literally) that her son Henry will one day become King of England!
Even though not many believed her back then, Margaret was eventually right and received her title of "My Lady, the King's Mother". In 1485, Henry Tudor landed in England and with the help of Margaret's third husband, who only decided last-minute which side he was on, Henry won the epic battle against Richard III.
As one story ends, another begins: As of early 2016, it was confirmed that the sequel season The White Princess is officially in the making – the novel narrated by Elizabeth Woodville's daughter Elizabeth of York, who later became known as the mother of Henry VIII (the slightly crazy one with the eight queens) and grandmother of Queen Elizabeth I.
What's next: The White Princess
A famous beauty just like her mother, there were rumors that young Elizabeth had an affair with her uncle Richard III, by then king of England. After his only son with Anne Neville had died, Richard III was in desperate need of an heir. Richard, however, was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field and Henry Tudor became King of England – as well as the husband of Elizabeth, thus reuniting the House of York with the House of Lancester.
The Wars of the Roses were finally over… or were they not?
My verdict: After a great read of the books, the TV adaptation couldn't have been any better! The only slight downside was that they didn't stretch the story over several seasons.
**** 4 out of 5 stars
What did you like the most about The White Queen and what are you looking forward to in The White Princess? Let me know in the comments!