Ah, the Wars of the Roses.
Thank goodness the houses of York and Lancaster had corresponding heraldic emblems – that could alternately be compared and combined into the wonderful Tudor rose we all know and love – since otherwise they might well have been called the Wars of the Sun and all the various emblems the different Lancastrian forces had over the years.
For clarification: the Yorkists usually fought under the emblem of the Sun in Splendour -which often caused confusion on the battlefield, since it greatly resembled the Star of Oxford, an emblem on the other side of the conflict. Meanwhile, it’s doubtful that the Lancastrians even used their supposedly famous red rose as an emblem until after the Battle of Bosworth – when the said wars were pretty much done and dusted, save for a few uprisings and general purges/sewing with salt of the House of York.
So what to call this conflict, if not the Wars of the Roses? Philippa Gregory would have us call it the Cousins’ War, which isn’t nearly as snappy a title – but it makes a good enough arc name for her series of books about the women who have so long been over looked during this period of history. Still, the aforementioned lack of snappiness means this program is named after the first work in her series, ‘The White Queen’ – even as the trailers and opening credits hasten to remind us that these ten episodes concern themselves not only with Elizabeth Woodville but also with Anne Neville and Margaret Beaufort; two women who would become queen, and one woman who, unlike her rivals, would actually see her son crowned king.
One of these trailers has the three women shucking off armor and glaring at each other in an evident power play. Even if I highly doubt we will ever see such a thing in the actuality of the show, it’s a theme that Gregory has all but eloped with; women as the movers
and shakers of these civil wars, influencing the men folk and what not. This is a concept I find both interesting and problematic; while I can easily buy Elizabeth Woodville as a figure of influence – she who filled the ranks of the nobility and the government with her relatives – and possibly Margaret Beaufort as well, Anne Neville, while certainly having a good deal of wealth and support to her name, didn’t really fulfill that image of using what she had to influence what went on behind the scenes in her respective book. She chose her husband and her fate, yes, but it wasn’t so very remarkable when her other choice was being imprisoned and having her inheritance siphoned off.
Although, I must say her book at least didn’t suffer from the repetition of themes that seem to have crept in Gregory’s work as of late. We are constantly reminded that Elizabeth is supposedly descended from Melusina, a water goddess, and that Margaret is doing God’s will. It was annoying. Very annoying. I pray that this will not show up in the series too much. We can live in hope.
One might say that this show is England’s answer to Game of Thrones, except that, of course, the Wars of the Roses (I’ve been calling them that my whole life and I’m not going to stop now) came first and provided G.R.R. Martin with the inspiration for Westeros and many of the houses, characters and conflicts found therein. Robb Stark’s impetuous marriage – that in turn brought about a certain wedding associated with a certain colour that’s had new watchers of GOT in such an uproar recently – definitely has its roots in the lengths Edward IV goes to get Elizabeth Woodville into bed, as well as the repercussions of that match. While Edward and Elizabeth definitely come off better in the short and even medium run when compared to Robb and his queen, in the long run their secret marriage caused the destruction of the House of York.
But whether the series can live up to the historical facts, via Gregory’s elaborate and sometimes less than accurate interpretation, still remains somewhat to be seen.
There are, for instance, various suspensions of disbelief to be enforced. Along with other viewers and reviewers, I too marveled at the amazing advances of Platagenent England’s drainage systems – what with the modern drainpipes on a supposed 15th century palace – although my eyes missed the zips and handrails. The sparkling white teeth of the various characters, on the other hand, didn’t really bother me. When modern actors are doing period drama, teeth are generally only nasty if you’re playing a denizen of a seedy underworld, such as a pox raddled prostitute or a scummy thug. Up among the nobility where everything is bright and pretty, naturally the teeth are going to be white and the gowns equally glowing!
Really, I focused more on the fact that Richard Duke of Gloucester – yes, that Richard, the future King in the Car Park – is played by the twenty-six year old Aneurin Barnard, when the historical Richard was actually about twelve when his elder brother married Elizabeth. (And yes, I’ll get it out of the way now, he looks like a Hobbit. Not that I’m complaining.) Also Anne Neville, hurriedly introduced at the end of episode one and thankfully given much more screen time in episode two, was seven at this point in time.
I understand that they wanted to establish the characters right away (and oh, they do, albeit with some less than stellar dialogue, constantly reminding the audience who everyone is) and not bother with child actors, and if you’ve got good people for the parts and only ten episodes you might as well use both to best advantage – but it’s still irritating.
Still, Barnard and Faye Marsay do very well with what they’re given to work with, as is Amanda Hale as Margaret, mother of the future Henry VII. Hale really does a wonderful job portraying the devotion and desperation of a woman who is denied everything – access to her son, her son’s birthright, a husband she can love, even to be allowed to go to a nunnery and devote herself wholly to God – with a brilliant intensity. Her nervous body language had me fidgeting in my seat with discomfort. The scene where Margaret spends the night in the chapel asking to be given a sign from God, and then appearing to receive that sign in a burst of light, was really the best one out of the two episodes.
James Frain also performs well as Warwick, the ‘King Maker’, and Janet McTeer as Jacquetta Rivers. Even the main pair of the moment, Edward and Elizabeth (played by Max Irons and Rebecca Ferguson respectively) do a fine job of being royal, in love and defiant. But, aside from Margaret’s scenes, ‘The White Queen’ still fails to pack a real punch, as relatively quiet as it’s been for the first two episodes. Hopefully, now that war is starting up again between the roses, this series will get more interesting.