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The White Queen: Philippa Gregory on resurrecting history

Historian and Novelist

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Philippa Gregory is a historian and author of three novels on which the BBC One series The White Queen is based: The White Queen, The Red Queen and The Kingmaker's Daughter. She spoke to the BBC TV blog about translating history into novels and television.

Are there any scenes which were as you had pictured when you wrote the novels?
On the first day of filming they filmed the scene under the oak tree where Edward IV rides down the track on his white horse and sees Elizabeth Woodville and stops.

It looked exactly how I had imagined it would. It was a beautiful day, a fantastic oak tree and it was a lovely glade.

Edward IV (Max Irons) sets eyes on Elizabeth Grey née Woodville (Rebecca Ferguson) and her sons

I think anyone who really loves history, there’s always a sort of a hope that one day you’ll just slide through time, that it’s only a dimension and it’s not really substantial.

And there are moments on location, filming, that I felt before with previous films that you just go, “I feel like I’m there now.” It’s very powerful when it happens.

How do you bring the narrative from the novels to the screen?
It was really difficult because in the three books, the reader starts the page and steps into the mind of Elizabeth Woodville, or the mind of Margaret Beaufort, or the mind of Anne Neville.

So when you start combining these three stories you’re always having to go, how are we going to make Margaret really stand up as a character when you’ve got this fantastic character of Elizabeth?

How are we going to make Anne, when we first meet her, so much younger and naïve and not at all powerful?

In terms of the scripting, it was quite tricky and I think Emma Frost did a wonderful job of combining these three books back together.

I read the history and pulled the three stories out, and then she had to put them back together again.

What was most evocative for you when researching the period?
Discovering these women and particularly Elizabeth and her mother Jacquetta.

Daughters of Melusina the water goddess: Jacquetta Woodville (Janet McTeer) and Elizabeth

This extraordinary line of very powerful women, who clearly ruled their own domestic terrain. Who occupied a high status position in the world because of the connection to the Dukes of Burgundy and the witchcraft which they were clearly highly involved in.

Jacquetta was put on trial for witchcraft and they produced evidence against her, two little figures bound together with gold wire.

So I imagine she was, like a lot of women, doing a bit of herbalism, prayer, spells, magic.

We in the modern, post-Enlightenment era see that that can’t work. But of course for the medieval world this is the closest you get to being able to control your universe.

How do you blend the historical research of the battles with the witchcraft thread that runs through the novels?
Partly, the history does that for me. The famous Battle of Barnet, where Edward IV really disappears into the fog.

At the time people said it was a magic fog, witchcraft. Edward is extraordinarily lucky with his weather in battles.

It is partly that he is a very brilliant commander so he takes advantage of these things, but if you look at him in the mist in Barnet, and the snow at Towton there does come a point where it’s quite uncanny how often the weather suits him, with the floods as well.

If you weren’t post-Enlightenment, that’s three pieces of evidence. People at the time thought obviously someone is doing this for him.

‘You will have to wade through blood’: A war that won’t be won on the battlefield

What do you think about the ways in which women are characterised in history?
I think the medieval historians naturally incline to a stereotype of women because anybody who is writing at that time is going to be a man, all of them would have been educated by the church, most of them would probably be monks in a monastery, never meeting a woman.

The church itself is very ambivalent about women and has two stereotypes: Eve and Madonna.

Any account fits women into those categories so we see if they come across a really interesting, powerful, passionate, active woman like Margaret of Anjou she’s immediately cast as a bad woman who is unwomanly, and worse than that she’s a wolf.

Those historical works are almost universally translated by the Victorians who themselves have really stereotyped views of what women are.

So of course you get the Queen in sanctuary, a victim of male ambition, the whore with a heart of gold, trying to rescue her.

As a modern woman trained by historians who’ve been working since 1950, you come to the material with a totally different mind-set.

These are also rounded women-characters with a whole backstory and a life ahead of them which I want to know because I’m not interested in writing a novel about women who are just cartoon figures.

These Plantagenet characters are interesting in that they are totally obscure. On the plus side, I think we’ll find more.

I think people are becoming interested in women’s studies in a way they weren’t 50 years ago and if we look for their stories we’ll find them.

I always find they’ve done much, much more than one imagines.

Reading the book, it’s notable how many people have the same few names. Why does Elizabeth name two of her sons Richard, for example?
You mostly get named for a saint, or you get named for the king or you get named for your godfather.

So you have this real continuity of names. I do absolutely everything I can, but it is horribly confusing.

At one stage I think we have three Edwards. We have Edward IV, the king, we have Prince Edward of Lancaster who is married to Anne Neville, and we have Edward’s son Edward.

There’s a nobility of about 300 families so they all intermarry. Pretty soon everybody is cousin to somebody else and that’s why it’s such a bloody war, because it is dynastic.

Philippa Gregory is a historian and author. She is also an executive producer on The White Queen.

The White Queen begins on Sunday, 16 June at 9pm on BBC One and BBC One HD. For further programme times please see the episode guide.

More on The White Queen
BBC Media Centre: Watch interviews with the cast and read more about the production
BBC News: Women in history rediscovered
BBC History: The White Queen: Who was she really?
BBC Arts & Culture: Discover paintings of key historial figures from The White Queen

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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  • Comment number 72. Posted by Ana Adela

    on 5 Sept 2013 19:26

    When does epidode 11 going to come? I am a big fan of the show, also my family. So we would like to know what's happening. I've just red that there is not going to be more seasons. Why is that? I understand that there are somethings in the show that are not the way they were in history but I don't care because I like the actors, and when I see them I believe everything they say so I don't care about the rest...

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  • Comment number 71. Posted by Joseph Georgia country

    on 5 Sept 2013 08:56

    I have watched these episodes and I did like it very much :) All of these episodes are so exciting that every week I have been waiting for Sunday 00:00 (Because when London it is 21:00 in in The republic of Georgia , here, is 00:00. The book is fantastic and the film too. I am worried due to these episodes are over. It will be great if you film the movie like it again :)

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  • Comment number 70. Posted by paquiri14

    on 20 Aug 2013 18:49

    Why are so many critics knocking the series in the press? It is so refreshing to see history (or her story) from the female perspective. Congrats at getting it so close to how the book is.
    Reading other books by Phillipa Gregory now.

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  • Comment number 69. Posted by Jackie

    on 19 Aug 2013 23:05

    I have to disagree with the previous comment. It's not that people want just historical facts when watching this kind of drama. It's the fact that some historical characters who were actually involved in the wars of the roses in quite a major way had somehow disappeared and characters who weren't in places at certain times were portrayed as being there ! I read a lot of historical fiction and most authors are very particular about research especially when using real historical figures. How would you feel if a dramatization about a great historical battle like Trafalger didn't have Nelson where he actually was just because it was more ' dramatic ' !! The fact is the wars of the roses has been researched by an awful lot of people and most agree that Richard and Anne were never at Edward's deathbed as they were up north. They also did not find out for several days if not weeks. How on earth do we expect our children to learn how to discern fact from fiction if they watch this programme. I loved the fact that they were dramatizing this as it has the perfect amount of intrigue, love scenes and battles to suit everyone but you can't change history just to suit a budget !! The problem is that a lot of people are taking this programme as fact. They often say the truth is out there and I definitely feel that with this programme the truth is even better than the fiction. I suggest to anyone who enjoyed this programme check out some other fiction authors who have written about this era in time and compare it with the programme. I'm sure you will really enjoy reading a more ' factual ' story.

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  • Comment number 68. Posted by Martha

    on 19 Aug 2013 18:50

    I wanted to say how much I've enjoyed the White Queen. I thought it was wonderfully set, great costumes and acting. I found myself on the edge of my seat numerous times, even when I knew what was going to happen next. I liked the fact it wasn't set in the dark which every tv programme, film etc set earlier than the 20th century seems to be, which comes across more as an excuse not to bother creating decent sets because no one can see them. And to the people who keep banging on about historical accuracy by your description the bbc would never be able to adapt any book ever again - let alone any shakespeare history plays (I mean there's the biggest load of historical tosh ever). Go and watch a documentary if you want a load of facts. This programme took a few facts and strung them together with a made up narrative from the perspective of certain characters - like any play, tv programme or film ever that was set in the past. Having studied history at university I distinctly remember being told - in this wonderful post-modern world- that there is no such thing as a fact in history, everything ever written (whether a primary or secondary source) was written from the perspective of someone and even dates can be disputed. So please don't patronise people with your "there is one historical truth" nonsense. And if you're going to get hung up on whether they used the right type of buttons or drinking utensils and other such you really should put down the notepad and get out more. Hurray to the BBC for dramatising this and in particular for chosing to depict this time period from the perspective of women characters - my favourite being Margaret Beaufort - and also thank you for showing this in the summer which always has a woeful amount of drama and is always dominated by sport.

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  • Comment number 67. Posted by SardonicBrit

    on 19 Aug 2013 15:09

    I am also very disappointed with the BBC. What awful and unrealistic Battle scenes. These days people expect to see some representation of the scale of battle and the size of the forces involved. For this it is quite acceptable to use good quality CGI as in The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. Instead we were treated to the Battle of Bosworth "Wood" with cavalry charging through a forest!! Laughable. The BBC should take more care and spend our money more wisely when it really matters. Also, I can't believe Phillipa Gregory was happy with t he distortion of our history or the obvious penny pinching by the BBC adaptation. However, considering the dumbed down BBC series Robin Hood, Merlin and The Tudors I suppose it should be no surprise.

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  • Comment number 66. Posted by Jackie

    on 19 Aug 2013 12:18

    I was really looking forward to this series as I love this period in history but what a disappointment. I know this was based on Phillipa Gregory's books so was expecting it to contain a lot of fiction re: dialogue between characters etc. but how could the BBC let so many historical facts be changed. Important characters missing, characters in places they weren't, amalgamated characters. The BBC had the opportunity to extend this drama to at least 3 series and make it as good as Elizabeth R with Glenda Jackson or Henry and his wives with Keith Mitchell. Instead what we got for our money was a romantic novel like those Barbara Cartland wrote. The Wars of the Roses or as it was known at the time the Cousins War ( it was only changed in Tudor times to War of the Roses) took place over a long period and it seemed a bit rushed, especially in the last 2 episodes. I put up with the mistakes such as costumes etc. but the deathbed scene was the beginning of the end. Richard and Anne were at Middleham Castle and Elizabeth Woodville was not allowed to see Edward IV as by this time he was with Jane Shore. Hastings wasn't even mentioned and Anthony Woodville was with the future Edward V at Ludlow. The other thing that really annoyed me was the timeline. Richard and Anne's son died in 1484 and they weren't with him but on their grand tour of the country. Why did the BBC put their name to this when they can produce such brilliant historical documentaries and had the opportunity to check facts before it was aired and put a disclaimer saying that ' this is a work of fiction based on a book and should not be taken for fact '. I definitely feel that this has been a lost opportunity and feel sorry for the actors who had to work with such a dismal script.

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  • Comment number 65. Posted by Scoggins

    on 19 Aug 2013 11:07

    I agree with Pete Kilby and Tyzot although the accuracy in the series relates to it's depiction of the books not actual history. Particularly galling battle scene - having just come back from the anniversary weekend re-enactment which was far more accurate with the right weapons and the right helmets! Very interesting to note that Phillipa Gregory was not in attendance for the first time in about four or so years! I was excited when I heard the BBC were finally going to produce a War of the Roses drama, but if you are going to go down the historical fiction route based on a novel then why oh why was Sunne in Splendour not chosen? I could go on but the BBC have let everybody down with this series - firstly by basing it on books that depict a fantasy version of what actually happened and secondly by getting the staging so horrifically wrong. It's not hard to do the research - we get it right and it's just a hobby for us. Having spent the last 10 years debunking the myths from 1940s Hollywood films we now have to start re-educating people all over again. Thank you BBC for wasting our licence fee.

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  • Comment number 64. Posted by Tyzot

    on 18 Aug 2013 21:48

    Agree with Pete Kilby, loved the series but really let down by the last episode. 10 men having a fight in the snowy forest was not the historically accurate ending the programme deserved (Bosworth in August, a snowy forest - really!).
    Throws into question the accuracy of the rest of the series, which is a shame.

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  • Comment number 63. Posted by Pete Kilby

    on 18 Aug 2013 21:19

    Just watched the final episode of the White Queen, how come the battle of Bosworth was filmed with snow on the ground and what looked like a forest? The battle took place at Bosworth Field in August of 1485. If you go to the battle field it is in open country not a forest and I very much doubt there was any snow in August of 1485. What a let down.

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