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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    Comment number 21.

    We do not know how Edward and Elizabeth came together in every detail. We have Shakespeare's dramatisation written much later but in the life time of people who could have spoken to people alive at the time. He was one for the ladies and he might very easily have tried to force Elizabeth if she'd agreed to meet him alone in a wood. I found the whole near rape scene very credible. Their grandson was Henry VIII. Look how he behaved.
    You have to remember they had Common law marriage back then, It was only abolished in 1753 in England. That gives an entirely new slant to all the stories about Edward IV the order in which his children were born and who their mother's may have been. If you realise that his first child a girl born in 1461 takes on great significance from a time when he was still only Earl of March a time when he wasn't married to anyone else in a formal sense required today. We do not understand Common law marriage now in Britain. The Canadians and Americans will probably understand it as they still have it.
    Some historians had him in a relationship with Lady Elizabeth Lucy at the time of his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville. Lady Elizabeth Lucy specifically denied she was ever married to Edward in a very firm public way or more importantly pre contracted ie engaged to him which might have been an impediment to his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville. Engagements were very important back then in a way we cannot really understand today either. The importance of engagements seems to have survived the reformation and was very much alive in Victorian times with people bringing breach of promise cases to court. Laurence Olivier and Katharine Hepburn made a very charming film about it once called I believe Love Among the Ruins. Dame Eleanor Butler was said to be engaged or pre contracted to Edward IV. Very few historians ever mention the son Dame Eleanor and Edward IV are supposed to have had together and I was very pleased to hear mention of the story last night in the first episode. Lady Elizabeth Lucy didn't have a son with Edward IV until much later in 1474. It has become a modern fashion to say all of Edward IV's illegitimate children were by Elizabeth Lucy . I think she was far too young to have given him his first daughter in 1461. Some have tried to get around that by saying Edward's first daughter was born circa 1464 but that is not confirmed in older writings. If you look at old books on the subject from Victorian times they state his first daughter was born in 1461. He had one son in 1474 possibly by Elizabeth Lucy. There is talk of other mistresses Elizabeth Waite for instance. Of Edward's daughter born in 1461; he was left holding the baby and gave her to Duchess Cecily to bring up. That suggests the mother may have died in child birth. It also suggests she was his heiress too until the birth of other children by Elizabeth Woodville. You have to remember no Queen established herself as a ruler until a hundred years later. That was Edward and Elizabeth's great grand daughter Mary Tudor. Edward wasn't supposed to be in a relationship with Jane Shore until at the earliest 1471 or some have it 1476 and others 1478. Jane who also had the first name Elizabeth and would have been Jane Lambert(her maiden name at this period) was old enough to have known him even before he met Elizabeth Woodville but no one ever said they did meet as early as 1464. They were nearly the same age. Jane was only three years Edward's junior. Shoreditch in London is named after her as that is the place she is said to be buried.

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    Comment number 22.

    Sad and disappointed that this magnificent piece of history has been treated as a Barbara Cartland novel. The lead actor Max Irons has not sufficient character, or ability, to convincingly play the part. James Frain is a competent actor, as shown in his role as Cromwell in Henry Tudor, however the little we have thus seen of him yesterday was quite awful and totally unconvincing. As Warwick he shows himself having a "hissy fit", not anger and a foul temper, more weasel than Machiavelli.

    Re the supposedly fabulous wardrobe of clothes, shows that not too much research has gone into the most simple garment of today's first show. As far as what they wear to court it is just not good enough in the clothes details. Many of the shots were like watching the Magnificent Henry Tudor without the magic. The magic affect is in fact opposite to this. It appears to be modelled on Henry Tudor, but sadly has been left lacking the magic.

    Woodville's mother is not convincing either. As for the awful blue dress she repeatedly wore, it is the wrong

    The setting chosen for the Palace was not well chosen. Henry Tudor was a lavish production with beautiful actresses and exciting to watch. You really felt you knew the characters.

    Hope next week will be better acting and far more convincing.

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    Comment number 23.

    I loved the first episode! It was lovely to see the sets in Bruges. a place I have recently visited. Great to see all the women involved in that scene, bringing them all together. All the characters have come to life and not disappointed in any of them!

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    Comment number 24.

    I wasn’t sure that I would enjoy The White Queen, but being a keen history fan I wanted to at least see what it was like. Complete bilge! The script was very weak, the characterisation comic, (the Earl of Warwick had the personality of a City trader from Essex), and whoever was responsible for the sets clearly doesn’t have much of a clue about interiors of the period. Obviously it’s virtually impossible to find suitable locations, but to include exterior shots with decorative wrought iron gates and Victorian porches seems a little far fetched.

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    Comment number 25.

    Fantastic the casting and all scenes are so authentic that it follows the book almost as one. I am looking forward to the remaining episodes with great enthusiasm. The books of Philippa Gregary put the wars of the roses in a new context. As they say behind every great man ida woman is very correct in this case.

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    Comment number 26.

    Fantastic adaption or the book, am waiting too see the next Episode with exitement

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    Comment number 27.

    i watched the white queen as i loved the books only to be v disappointed Elizabeth woodville was an outstanding beauty but not rebecca ferguson the woodvilles were v well known at court as jacquetta was a friend of queen margaret of anjou Edward should of been a tall blonde name as he was supposed to be over 6ft tall and his emblem was the sun in splendor Anne neville at the time of elizabeths coranation was only 10 there are just to many mistakes to go on with come on phillipa how can you ok the script when you wrote the books and

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    Comment number 28.

    I found the first episode of the White Queen very true to the opening of the book. However I thought it all looked too pristine for the period it was depicting. Also it was surprising how fresh and clean Edward appeared even after battle.

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    Comment number 29.

    Utter drivel. For anyone who knows anything about fifteenth century England, this was a love romp masquerading as history. The two leads were utterly dire and were unable to convey the chemistry which must have existed between Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville (by now the widowed Lady Elizabeth Grey). The dialogue was banal despte the costumes and the use of Bruges to stand in for fifteenth century London.

    The king's two brothers were 15 and 12 years old at the time of their brother's marriage - not as they are portrayed in this version.

    There was no battle looming when Elizabeth and Edward met in 1464 - Edward had sealed his claim to the throne of England in 1461 at the battle of Towton. And since Edward and Elizabeth met in May 1464 why are we treated to a battle scene set in the snow? additionally, Bna of Savoy never came to England.

    As I said at the outset utter drivel and as dire as The Tudors.

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    Comment number 30.

    The Wars of the Roses were 19 battles between 1453 until 1487. Although Edward IV won a stunning and decisive victory for the House of York at Towton on 29th March 1461 there were battles throughout the decade and there were certainly battles in 1464. Marguerite of Anjou landed troops time and again on the Northumberland Coast capturing the castles of Alnwick Bamburgh and Dunstanburgh once in 1462 and again in 1464. The Battle of Hexham in 1464 put an end to Lancastrian resistance for a period of five years. So the dialogue
    "just one more battle to fight"
    was I think totally appropriate in all the circumstances as 1464 ushered in an era of relative calm and peace.

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    Comment number 31.

    A poor mans Game of Thrones knock off sadly

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    Comment number 32.

    Amazing how there's not a single negative comment so far, considering.on impartial sites.and forums there seems to be quite a few. So I'll add one now. This overpriced amateur.production. is a travesty in historical and entertainment.terms. if this is lauded as the best the beeb.can do as a period drama for adults then we are in a bad way. You might as well watch merlin. The dialogue was bad the costumes were terrible the story so dumbed.down there should have been a disclaimer before the opening.credits to disengage.brain before viewing .

    Terrible, terrible, terrible.

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    Comment number 33.

    Better than I thought it would be. Admittedly they are being too kind to Elizabeth and her mother -in fact they were both pushy unscrupulous **tches! But it was better than The Tudors, although it would be difficult to be worse lol, Well done!

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    Comment number 34.

    If the people who made The White Queen are reading this just a few more ideas for you to think about. Most historical novels are written by women. I know this is gonna sound sexist, but they do tend to focus on the sex, romance and soap opera of history.

    Sometimes they do it very well -if ur gonna do soap, have lotsa supa-b**ches like Joan Collins in Dynasty. And there's plenty of them from english history; loved the scene where Queen Elizabeth and the Countess Rivers meet the dowager Duchess of York!

    Why not do Anya Seton's 'Katherine' next? about John of Gaunt's mistress Lady Swyford; b**ches galore! However, I wish someone could do a drama about the war and politics of the medieval. Politics can be its own soap opera, and can be just as bitchy funny and ironic. Take the way power and divinity went to Richard II's head (v relevant re modern-day dictators) or the way Charles II ran circles round his own ministers. Either would make a great drama.

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    Comment number 35.

    Watched 1st episode it was wonderful. Have not read the books, so I downloaded The White Queen onto my kindle, and have not been able to put it down all week. The second was just as good. Can't wait for Sunday nights now.

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    Comment number 36.

    Too many anachronisms. Victorian hatstands, Flemish script on the walls at the Coronation feast and on grave slabs in the chapel scene, not to mention Lord Rivers corduroy get up. The fabric wasn't invented until the 18th century. As so much cash has already been spent, surely CGI could have been used to get rid of this stuff, and the costume designers research was rubbish. One final point - Rebecca Ferguson and Sam Irons are more wooden then a whole Swedish forest. I'll watch to the end, but only to see how many bloopers I can spot......

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    Comment number 37.

    Anu calls it an thrilling take on history. Any resemblance between the actual history and real people is clearly by accident. This is an embarrassment and an insult to the people and events of one of the most exciting periods in English history. For someone who calls herself a historian to make so many factual mistakes amazes me. I gave up noting down the mistakes half way through episode one as I realised I would end with pages and pages. Not to mention the stuff she dreams up that makes no sense! As a lover of this period I got more an more upset and angry as the show continued. Costumes are wrong, characters ages wrong, events, locations, dates wrong. It doesn't need to be fictionalised as it is in itself one of the most exciting and colourful eras ever. Dreadful mess. Oh and it was never called the Cousins War!

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    Comment number 38.

    Afraid I have to echo Paul Trevor Bale's comments. It really is the most appallingly loose approximation of history. I could forgive that if there were any wit, passion or skill to the drama, but it's dreadfully anaemic and looks so squeaky clean it could have been sterilised. If you add to that the bizarre costume choices and anachronistic armour, suspension of disbelief becomes almost impossible. This is not the real 15th Century. It's not even convincing as a stylised re-interpretation. Instead, incoherently defined characters wander some never-never land of no time and no place. A talented cast of actors have no chance.

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    Comment number 39.

    Completely agree with Paul and Jonathan. This series should come with the disclaimer, "Caution: the following presentation is unsuitable viewing for educated, intelligent persons...any resemblance to historical truth is purely coincidental." The ages of historical persons (some characters shown as adult when, in fact, they would have been children) are so skewed, these people appear in places where they could never have possibly been in the years stated.

    And as a professional costumier for over 40 years, I am deeply embarrassed by the total disregard for accurate period research given to the costumes. Far from mere "eye candy," properly designed and constructed garments provide the actors with guides to accuracy in their physical portrayal of characters - how people walked, danced, bowed, etc., differently from the present. Budget is no excuse (in the 1970s, The Six Wives of Henry VIII was done on the proverbial shoestring, and its costumes were stellar).

    I, too, lost count - after about a dozen - of the historical and theatrical gaffes and inconsistencies. If these programmes do indeed follow the books closely, the books are presenting a very flawed history of a period that needed no embellishment to be thoroughly fascinating, and I am gravely disappointed the BBC chose these particular books to dramatize, when there exist far more meticulously researched novels and works of non-fiction, worthy of our precious time and attention.

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    Comment number 40.

    my few comments are.. where are the GROWN ups programs gone ? Silk....Stairs(french)Death in Paradise...Borgen... Ripper street... forget about silly shows.. no bite to it.. and as Waterloo road & Eastenders.. its time to call it quits!! and silly cooking programs.. please get serious this year... I hate adverst.. so you are stuck with my comments thanks :-))


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