The White Queen: Philippa Gregory on resurrecting history

Wednesday 12 June 2013, 09:54

Philippa Gregory Philippa Gregory 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.

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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.

Jacquetta Woodville (Janet McTeer) Elizabeth Woodville (Rebecca Ferguson) 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.

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‘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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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Wow, what an amazing first episode, can't wait until next week!!!!

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    Comment number 2.

    Brilliant. So close to the book. Really looking forward to future episodes. Well Done to Philippa Gregory. Read all her books, she is an amazing writer and brings history to life.

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    Comment number 3.

    A thrilling take on history.

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    Comment number 4.

    brill cant wait for next week

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    Comment number 5.

    Gosh, this was exactly as I envisaged as I read the book. Philippa Gregory really does get into your imagination, I cannot wait for the next episode. Brilliant

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    Comment number 6.

    Brilliant! Really enjoyed the first episode - though have to say am glad I read The White Queen, The Red Queen and The Kingmaker's Daughter otherwise I' d be very confused. Photography brilliant, though am slightly concerned that I thought I spotted a zip fastener on the back of a couple of gowns! Please tell me I'm wrong!

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    Comment number 7.

    Enjoyed this, very prettily done and the relationships, both genealogical and emotional, were made very clear. I didn't find Elizabeth quite as compelling to watch as the other characters, but it's early days, and the dusty pink gown didn't help ;) I'm sure freckles were seen as a flaw in those times but understandably the series is not going for historical exactitude.
    Other than that - Edward suitably dashing (though with a curiously un-battle-hardened bod); Dame Cecily suitably terrifying; Jacquetta believably fay & shrewd; and Margaret Beaufort looks promising too. That's my Sunday nights sewn up!

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    Comment number 8.

    Brilliant ! I am very distant descendant ( wife of grand uncle of second cousin14x times removed ! )so am thrilled to learn more about her .

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    Comment number 9.

    Wonderful first episode! Looking forward to the other 9 now! Well done, Philippa.

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    Comment number 10.

    Hello Philippa, great plot and themes. Great production and I can't wait for the next episode. One of my favourite plays is Shakespeare's Richard II and the history plays that follow. I am sure the plots will be of cunning, intrigue and back stabbing at court. Great stuff.

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    Comment number 11.

    I too enjoyed this first episode and am eagerly looking forward to the next installment!

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    Comment number 12.

    I would just like to say how very much I enjoyed this evenings performance of the White Queen. It was brilliant and I thought the different ideas such as Edward IVs alleged illegitimacy and the oblique references to the Dame Eleanor Butler story were handled in a truly inspired way. Some tricky ideas were brilliantly drmatised and explained in just s few words. Shakespeare took some liberties with history in his Henry VI plays. For dramatic effect Bona of Savoy appeared at the English court. I wasn't aware she ever crossed the Channel but seeing someone play her made everything more real some how and made the story really live. I did not know Warwick was there when Edward met Elizabeth. I just guessed he was in France negotiaitng the French marriage. Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville really were the Romeo and Juliet of the Wars of the Roses. Jacquetta Duchess of Bedford Baroness Rivers really was fascinating and rather stole the show. I wonder if Edward's first daughter from the days when he was Earl of March will appear in the story? I hope so. She was the ancestor of the Queen Mum.

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    Comment number 13.

    Wow!!!!Fantastic start ro the 1st episode of the White Queen, I'm almost at the end of the book as been unable to put it down. How great the television adaptation is so close to Pilippa's book, I hope this continues throughout the rest of the episodes, reall cannot wait ubtil next week, the actors chosen are perfect for there parts.

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    Comment number 14.

    Great story, actors, locations just a wonderful production well done bbc

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    Comment number 15.

    Fantastic!! Loved it and having read all 3 books it was amazing seeing imagination broughy to life! Phillipa you are an amazing and gifted writer.....through your vivid imagination we all feel a part of that long lost world. I cant wait for next episode! !

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    Comment number 16.

    That episode was amazing! Exactly how I saw it in the book. Its amazing that this is based on reality!

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    Comment number 17.

    I just think it is really great that someone has shone a light on this very dark period of English history. People are very unfamiliar with Henry VI and Edward IV. Edward was really just as interesting as his grandson Henry VIII. They behaved in a very similar way. The dramatisation is excellent and you really identify with the characters. I thought Duchess Cecily would be a sympathetic character but I see now why the story has to be carried along from the perspective of Elizabeth Woodville. Her stepdaughter from Edward's time as Earl of March was very fairly treated after his death by Elizabeth Woodville. She cannot be called a wicked stepmother. Edward's first daughter was allowed to attend Edward's funeral in 1483 along with her five surviving half sisters the daughters of Elizabeth Woodville and Edward IV. She was by then a married mother 22 years old. Her husband was Sir Thomas Lumley. There daughter Anne became Baroness Ogle and is counted amongst the Queen Mum's ancestors. Interestingly no one knows who Lady Elizabeth Lumley's Mum was only that her father was Edward when he was Earl of March and briefly Duke of York.I hope we are going to see something of Jane Shore too who is the sort of Fairy Godmother of the Wars of the Roses.

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    Comment number 18.

    My favorite author and her captivating storytelling springs to life. Thank-you. I'm currently reading The kingmakers daughter and the excitement to see the characters of my last few weeks of reading appear before me - Anne and Isabel, even for just a moment. I so look forward to next week. Congratulations Phillipa and appreciation for the hours of reading and now viewing pleasure.

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    Comment number 19.

    Great drama, close to the books but as with all of Philippa Gregory's work, short on historical facts.
    Elizabeth Woodville was indeed a widow and needed to look out for her two young sons, but she did not meet Edward of York at the side of the road, she met him at one of the many receptions at court and at her family home. Her mother was the widowed Duchess of Bedford and married to Sir Richard Woodville, below her station, but as Burgundian royalty she was very rich. Elizabeth and her family wanted for nothing.

    The attempted rape scene was not needed and was not historical at all. But it is true that Edward and Elizabeth became enraptured and that they married in secret with few witnesses at Grafton. Actually canon law said that the couple making their vows to each other in the sight of God and then consumating the union was enough to constitute a marriage. So there was nothing apparently illegal about a private ceremony. In this case there may have been some family members as well as the priest to witness the union. Because of the fact it would shock the court, as the Woodville family had fought on the Lancastrian side, and the Greys hated the Neville family, Edward and Elizabeth kept their union secret for some time. The Earl of Warwick had made Edward King and he had a personal grudge against the Earl Rivers: he vowed to undo the marriage or at least the success of the union. He in fact changed sides because of it.

    In the drama Anthony Grey, the brother of Elizabeth mentioned that Edward had been married in similar circumstances before and that the lady had his son. This is only half correct. Eleanor Butler, a powerful noble woman had been betrothed to Edward and they had consumated the union. He had not un-betrothed himself and so he should not have married Elizabeth. However, she did not have any children by Edward.

    I loved the Dowager Duchess of York: Cecilly Neville, Edward's mother sitting on her throne denouncing the entire proceedings when the marriage was made publich and Elizabeth came to court. The entire court were shocked. It was a total scandal, but the couple were devoted to each other. Elizabeth bore Edward several children, two of them the future Princes in the Tower: Edward V, and Richard, Duke of York. Her eldest daughter, also called Elizabeth married Henry Tudor: Henry VII and was mother of Henry VIII. The White Queen is a fascinating character and I am looking forward to the drama to come. Over-all the book captures the spirit of the Cousins War and the charm and strength of the strong and beguiling Elizabeth Woodville. The sets and the costumes are stunning: the dialect could do with some improvement: but overall great story, great drama: just remember you cannot take these books as full history as this is fiction and that is why it is so great.

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    Comment number 20.

    I loved this first episode!!! I can't get my head round how light and colourful it all is. With period dramas set in this era they always seem to me to be very dark and muddy looking but this! Amazing :-D bring on next Sunday


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