It’s never been easy to be a widow, but in the late Middle Ages, a mother left without a husband faced a future fraught with peril for herself and her children. And when that woman was in the middle of a national struggle, it took an extraordinary kind of courage and intelligence to not only survive but to rise.
Premiering Saturday, Aug. 10 (with an advance screening on Friday, Aug. 9) on Starz, the 10-episode limited series “The White Queen” is set in pre-Tudor Britain in 1464, as the nation is embroiled in the Wars of the Roses, a series of dynastic conflicts between the related Houses of Lancaster (symbolized by the red rose) and York (symbolized by the white rose).
The story focuses on British commoner Elizabeth Woodville (Rebecca Ferguson), the widow of a supporter of the House of York with two young sons. Through a twist of fate, she is introduced to King Edward IV (Max Irons), from the House of York. After a whirlwind courtship, they wed in secret, making Elizabeth the queen consort of England.
Because she was a commoner instead of a foreign princess, Elizabeth’s advancement angered Richard Neville (James Frain), the 16th Earl of Warwick, also known as “The Kingmaker.”
But Elizabeth is not the only woman who plays a major role in the story.
Amanda Hale stars as Margaret Beaufort, the cousin of deposed King Henry VI and the mother of Henry Tudor, who she believes is destined to be king. Faye Marsay plays Anne Neville, Warwick’s daughter, who becomes a pawn in her father’s bid for power.
Also starring are Janet McTeer, David Oakes, Eleanor Tomlinson, Aneurin Barnard, Ben Lamb and Tom McKay.
Executive producer Colin Callender tells Zap2it about seizing upon Philippa Gregory’s novel, “I had never seen history told quite this way before. So the idea that it could be told from the point of view of women, and yet told in a way that would make it completely captivating to men and women together, but this very specific perspective, I thought was a real sexy, fun thing to do.
“If you subscribe to the theory that the story behind the story is always much more interesting than the story itself – that’s what this drama does. It takes you to worlds where you expect the central characters to be the public figures, but what you really see here is what goes on behind the scenes.
“We’re pulling back the veil on the way in which power is exercised and history is determined.”
Says author Gregory, “One of the things that you really see clearly in the stories of these medieval women is how, if you’re denied political power, if you’re denied conventional power, that women have to exercise their authority in different ways. You see them really do that.
“If you’re a really, really determined, courageous woman, like Margaret Beaufort, say, that you can get absolutely to the top of the society, even though the society doesn’t allow women formal power, if you’re prepared to live and work in a very dependent way.”
Among these women, none challenges fate and convention more than commoner Elizabeth.
“She goes from relative prosperity,” says Gregory, “as a young woman, important in the House of Lancaster, and then a young bride. Then she’s widowed, and her house is defeated. Then she’s very, very poor. Then she becomes queen of England in this kind of Cinderella jump into power and wealth.”
During her research, Gregory found much to admire in Elizabeth, starting with, as she says, “her courage. She never, ever gives up. You can see that there are times she must have been in fear of her life.
“She loses sons to an enemy during the course of her life, and she loses other children to natural causes. She just seems to be absolutely redoubtable. She picks herself up and tries again.”
There may also be lessons for modern women.
“It would be presumptuous of me to say [what those might be],” Gregory says, “but if you insist, I would no doubt come up with an answer. Lesson one, do, for heaven’s sake, understand how far we’ve come, the extraordinary distance there is between our normal, everyday life and the life of even somebody who was a queen.
“The medieval woman’s life was very, very poor and harsh and difficult. Medical advances are extraordinary. The world that we live in now is so much better suited for the success and happiness of women.
“Also, that we didn’t get there by accident. The reason we have made so much progress is that women have really fought for it and held onto it. We have to, in our turn, make sure that we make society a fair and just place for men and women.
“It’s now a question about humanity.”