It’s a bit tricky keeping track of all the Edwards, Henrys and Elizabeths around the time of the Wars of the Roses. “So many people have the same names in this period of history!” says Emma Frost, writer and executive producer of The White Princess. “We call her Lizzie to distinguish her from her mother.” She means, of course, Elizabeth of York, eldest daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, the girl whose marriage to newly crowned King Henry VII was meant to “be the peace that ends the Cousins’ War.”
This Lizzie, however, still loves the slain Richard III and was his lover before Henry’s army killed him at the Battle of Bosworth. Her younger brother, the rightful ruler—one of the “Princes in the Tower” everyone believes dead—was actually hidden away by their mother, leaving Lizzie with dangerously divided loyalties. “How big a price should a human being pay personally for the greater good?” asks Frost.
Based on the historical novel by bestselling author and historian Philippa Gregory, Princess picks up just where the 2013 miniseries The White Queen left off—with the first Tudor king, from a remote branch of the Lancastrian family tree, winning the crown—and Elizabeth of York’s hand in marriage, though he doesn’t want it. “They have good reasons to be enemies,” adds Frost. She spoke to BHT about historical accuracy, “excavating” the lives of women and one of the most dangerously complicated arranged marriages ever.
British Heritage Travel: The White Princess begins just after Richard III falls?
Emma Frost: A couple of days later. The armies are still spilling out across England—looting and pillaging. These mercenary armies, Henry Tudor’s army, were from the worst jails in Europe. These were quite brutal men who didn’t speak English, just looking for what they could get as they worked across England. The first thing that Henry does is backdate his reign to the day before the battle.
Everyone’s completely freaked out as it is. It’s a change of house. It’s a change of King. It’s a complete stranger—somebody they feel doesn’t know their customs and doesn’t have a right to the throne—and the very first thing he does is considered blasphemous against God. It’s considered that God is on the battlefield when two Kings fight for the crown—that God determines the outcome. To presume to be King the day before the battle, before God decided, is utterly shocking.
People who fought honestly for their King are now called traitors, which legitimizes Henry Tudor stripping them of lands and titles, property and money. Because, truthfully, he’s frightened. He’s got to find some way to exert control. England is reeling. This is unprecedented.
BHT: The White Queen opened in 1464, with young Lancastrian widow Elizabeth Woodville going from red to white rose as she’s romanced by Edward IV. Twenty years later, their daughter, Elizabeth of York, is being sent to Henry. These wars created a lot of back and forth, loyalty- and marriage-wise.
EF: Marriage was one of the key ways you could try to control the threats against you. We see that all of the York girls, all of Lizzie’s sisters and her cousin, Maggie, are very hurriedly rushed into marriages with prominent Tudors to ensure that none of them can be used to create a legitimate York heir. If they’re married to Tudors, you water down their line and they are made safe. Marriage is a very big piece of currency.
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BHT: I really love the rebranding: the Cousins’ War. It makes sense they would’ve called it that.
EF: I don’t think it was even known as the Wars of the Roses until considerably later. I think that was a moniker that was given to it much later by historians. I think at the time it was just the Cousins’ War.
BHT: Unlike her mother, Elizabeth of York’s loyalties don’t switch quite as fast. In this story, she and Richard were lovers. It’s a less promising start for her marriage to Henry than her mother’s to Edward IV.
EF: But very promising for a dramatist! The absolute contrast between the two is that her mother fell in love with the King and the royal house, and they caused a huge amount of unrest. They kicked off the Wars of the Roses again, when, actually, it had reached a certain stage of stability. Everyone was so outraged that Edward IV had married this woman. It was the wrong house. She’d been married, she had children. They actually destabilized the country, whereas for Lizzie—with Lizzie and Henry Tudor, neither of them wanted to marry the other. They hate each other, but they’re forced to marry to try for some kind of stability. The gambit is that, with this marriage, the Wars of the Roses will finally be over because finally we have this fusion between the two houses.
The burden placed upon them—the success or failure of their marriage will have the most gigantic implications for the country as a whole.
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BHT: Wasn’t there some historical document that suggested she was in love with Richard III? A lost letter?
EF: Philippa [Gregory] put forward a very compelling argument that Richard III did attempt to marry his niece, Lizzie, and that there was a relationship between them. Most of that is based upon a letter which no longer exists [supposedly written by Elizabeth of York to John Howard, Duke of Norfolk in late February 1485]. A lot of historians disagree with that, and indeed, there’s some other evidence that Richard III was in the process of trying to marry some prominent royal in Portugal and tried to also negotiate a marriage for Lizzie for someone else.
I think the difficulty is so much of this stuff, especially around marriages, is politics and, of course, these were real human beings, so who is to say which part of marriage negotiations is politicking and which part is real, genuine passion and romance and love? It’s very difficult to pin down what the precise truth is, and all you can do is look at what is there and decide which piece to respond to. The great thing, obviously, about this being a drama is we’re not attempting to do a history lesson or documentary. It is a drama, so the richness of all the facts that one can find can feed into it and inspire, rather than slavishly trying to dig down to some truth to represent.
BHT: Another major twist: Elizabeth Woodville actually saved her younger son, Richard. It’s a great take on the mystery of the Princes in the Tower [whose deaths still remain unsolved]. Tell us about Perkin Warbeck.
EF: He’s a real historical figure who showed up in Burgundy and said that he was longlost Prince Richard [Lizzie’s younger brother]. Historically, I think it’s right to say that pretty much everybody in Europe accepted him as Prince Richard. The difficulty with that is it doesn’t prove that he was, because, A, nobody would’ve met him, and even if they had, he would’ve been a tiny child; and, B, people would’ve had a whole load of politically motivated reasons to support someone to come against Henry Tudor and potentially take the throne of England.
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Obviously, Henry Tudor himself did not accept Perkin Warbeck as the real Prince. He couldn’t, no matter who he was. The fates of the boys in the tower is still so shrouded in mystery. Nobody knows what really happened. Even much later, eventually two skeletons were found bricked up in one of the staircases in the tower. Those have never been DNA-tested.
As Elizabeth Woodville says, “If you had two rare jewels and you feared thieves, would you put both of them in the same box?” Her argument is that Prince Edward was already in Richard III’s keeping, was already in the tower, and Elizabeth did not trust him at that point. Why would she send her other son if she had any way to send a decoy?
I’m adapting a novel. Philippa has a relationship with the history, and then I have a relationship with her novels, and then go back to the history to augment what she’s written. That decision that she’s made makes my job and my life much more exciting because I love that story and that version of history: that Prince Richard did escape and was Perkin Warbeck.
BHT: And if we were going for total accuracy, it would be spoken in indecipherable Middle English. They’d all be covered in lice!
EF: Yeah, with rotten teeth!
BHT: Not very watchable. Back to the novels: They’re written in first person from the points of view of women. That obviously changes…
EF: It makes it ten times harder, of course, because the history that we do have is very male-dominated and tends to be wars, laws and property, especially from this period. It’s almost impossible to get into any kind of texture about the women’s lives, or have any detail about them—except for how many children they had and, if they were of noble class, who they married and when they died.
You’re starting from a place of trying to excavate these women’s lives, where you really do have to have a point of view. We’re not trying to take a photograph. We’re not trying to capture objective reality. We’re painting a portrait. You have to be inspired by the facts you can glean, and then you have to have a very subjective point of view and take on it. That also allows these women to live in real terms and live in a way that a 21st-century audience can relate to them and be excited by and engaged by their stories.
BHT: If Warbeck really was Prince Richard, his death is so much more tragic—and if Edward Plantagenet, Lizzie’s cousin who was executed with him, really was mentally deficient…
EF: I know. The idea that the rightful King of England—and that poor boy! I read a lot about Edward Plantagenet—we call him “Teddy"—and I think the main consensus is that he was never the brightest, but he wasn’t actually mentally disabled or had Down syndrome, as some have suggested. It was because he was locked up for so many years with no stimulation that he became mentally impaired—because of his very long-term imprisonment.
BHT: This period of history is so fraught with tension, when even your own family is potentially an enemy.
EF: It’s an interesting parallel to the party politics that we have today, where families are split into two different political allegiances. [Americans] have just seen it there with the election. Emotions and allegiances run incredibly high and incredibly deep, and people within one family fall out. I think in the Tudor world, that’s what the houses represent— two completely different ways of thinking about who should be in charge.
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BHT: As revenge for the Princes in the Tower, Elizabeth Woodville and Lizzie place a curse on the bloodline of the murderers.
EF: Belief in magic was simply one belief system, which existed alongside belief in God. Neither one was seen as more or less valid or ridiculous. If you have God on the right hand, it stands to reason you’ve got the devil and magic on the other. Elizabeth Woodville’s mother, Jacquetta, was tried as a witch, and Elizabeth Woodville herself was considered to be a witch simply because nobody could understand why Edward IV would have married her otherwise. Because it was such a disastrous marriage for him politically. Why would he do it unless she’d enchanted him?
As we move through the story, the central core of the story is the horrible legacy of this curse that Lizzie and her mother, Elizabeth, laid on whoever killed the Princes in the Tower. They have to believe in the power of their own magic for that to have any real power over their lives. That’s the central thread that just gets bigger and bigger as the show moves forward.
BHT: It seems like a great metaphor for British history at that time: Cursing your enemy could mean cursing your own house—because they’re all intermingled.
EF: Exactly. And very specifically, Lizzie thought she was going to marry Richard III. She ends up marrying Henry, the son of Margaret Beaufort: the woman she believes killed her brother. She’s lain a curse on the family of her own husband and, therefore, the children she has from him. She’s lain a curse on her own kids.
The White Princess premieres on Starz on April 16. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
FIND THE PRINCESS
Production designer Will Hughes-Jones and his team create the world in which the director and actors tell the stories. “We did a lot of location filming,” he says, “because of all the numerous cathedrals and castles to play with—such a rich environment.” Here are just some of the historical sites they used to create the settings of The White Princess.
When Henry goes to York, we used the exterior of Wells Cathedral. Henry VII actually was there; there are records of him going to Wells and staying in the old Deanery. That gives me quite a buzz, thinking these people, the subject matter, really happened there.”
“When Lizzie secretly leaves to visit her mother, she gets out of Westminster palace via a boat, and she goes down The Thames. We used the moat of Bishop’s Palace for those scenes.”
Dating back to the late 13th century, The Salisbury Cathedral’s cloisters act as the link between all the locations and the set build. The Cathedral’s Clerk of the Works, Gary Price, said the crew did such a great job “concealing the electricity box, making a cover that melded perfectly with medieval stone, that I asked them to leave it in place.”
Gloucester Cathedral: “Underneath the cathedral in the crypt, we built a set for the rooms the Woodville family were in when they first arrived. [Because] the King’s mother says, ‘I’m having the Queen’s room!’”—where the Queen would normally be.”