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 41.

    Frankie & Case histories were terrific :-))

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.


    My understanding is that Margaret of Anjou had only one son, Edward of Lancaster who died at Tewksbury. Yet in last weeks (Sun 23rd) episode she was portrayed as calling him Henry several times. Can somebody enlighten me

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    I have to admit I am enjoying the White Queen. After watching the gripping "Game of Thrones" I was thinking that the BBC would match or even surpass the show as its based on real events.

    I found that although entertaining and extremely well acted the background for the characters is shallow and not gripping.

    I wanted to know who the White Queen was, why was she an outcast? What happened to her first husband and why did he rebel against Edward. I wanted to know more about the apparent which storyline apart from a line that she tugged at from time to time. What about her mother? Was she a real witch? What about her marrying a lower noble? Did this cause a scandal? Wheres the background to the stories???

    Also, and I know Im complaining but.. Warwick, what is his story, how is he related apart from cousin, who is George and why is he also called warwick? Yes I know the answers but everyone I watched it with asked the same question. These things should have been given more airtime, more indepth, more intrigue.

    The story is so much more than the show. And lets be honest, to deal with the overthrow of the king by his brother and warwick in five minutes with no real explanation aprt from the king sitting in Warwick Castle eating venison was a travesty.

    Look, its a good little show, but it isn't gripping or substantial, which is a huge shame when the BBC can produce, direct and act other broadcasters off the air. Why not take a leaf out of "Game of Thrones", and have some in depth characters and let the audience love or hate them rather than watch them. History should grip and hold us not be read and forgotten.

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    Comment number 44.

    It's interesting viewing and entertainment for me as I love English history. I've a different view about Elizabeth Woodville and it's not one born of romanticism. She was a Lancastrian supporter and I find it hard to believe both her and her family would have welcomed marriage to a Yorkist King when loyalty to the House Of Lancaster was so important. My view is the Rivers family saw it as an opportunity to put a son on the throne and when Edward IV died, they planned to bring up their son in the House of Lancaster and a Lancaster King. I think Richard, Edward's brother and a loyal Yorkist, saw through this but out of loyalty to his brother put his nephews in The Tower Of London for safekeeping. I think Margaret Beaufort was responsible for their death, not Richard.
    As for Henry Tudor? He was the grandson of Owen Tudor. Owen was a footsoldier who married Henry V's widow. Henry Tudor had no claim to the throne as he had no male royal lineage. He had a vague link through the Beaufort line but they were bastard offspring from John Of Gaunt and Catherine Swynford his mistress.
    Richard was our last true King, appointed by God, Plantagenet and of Royal lineage. Henry Tudor was the usurper.

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    Comment number 45.

    I have just seen a production of Shakespeare's Henry VI Part 3 in the theatre at York. Shakespeare always intended the play should be much longer. He took some liberties with history to make this a shorter play. Too much ended up on the cutting room floor. The great tragedy of the House of Lancaster is they usurped Richard II in 1399. Henry Bollingbroke Henry IV landed at Ravenspur a small port near Hull marched on the King and overthrew his cousin because he was gay. 72 years later after ten years of fighting Edward IV landed at Ravenspur and did exactly the same to Bolingbroke's grandson Henry VI probably for the same reason. There was something wrong with the Lancastrian men. They were sterile impotent or gay and in 72 years on the throne managed to produce only one legitimate male heir Henry VI himself. He poor man was trapped in a loveless marriage to a femme fatale she wolf who cheated on him once and produced a son. He went mad at the age of 32 when Joan of Arc deprived him of the throne of France. No one ever discusses the King Henry VI's sexuality. No one ever discusses the failure of his two Uncles Humphrey and Godfrey's to produce legitimate heirs. It is the elephant in the room of the Wars of the Roses. The Lancastrians were cursed by nature for the crime of usurping Richard II for being gay and 'the punishment fit the crime tra la.' as Gilbert and Sullivan once said. Bizarrely in the system of inheriting titles in England we had primogeniture between competing male heirs. The oldest always inherits first. However when a noble had two daughters like Warwick they both draw for the titles and neither inherits unless the committee of privileges of the House of Lords awards the title to one of them or the two different family lines of two of the daughters intermarry and ask to end this abeyance of their title. Warwick's wife was an only child and an only girl could inherit. After the murder of the Princes in the Tower Edward IV left 5 daughter by Elizabeth Woodville but he also had another when he was only Earl of March. That Lady Elizabeth Lumley is treated as a bastard by historians. He was single when he had her and we had Common Law Marriage in England until 1752 so she must have been at least the product of that. Her mother is unknown to history almost certainly because she died in child birth in 1461 and the Common Law marriage Edward had as Earl of March was no longer and impediment to further marriages. Edward was left holding the baby and his mother Cecily brought her up at Raby Castle in County Durham. She had a daughter Anne Baroness Ogle who was the ancestor of the Queen Mum. So Ironically when Bertie Duke of York (later King George VI he of the King's Speech) married Lady Elizabeth Bowes Lyon and they had a daughter Princess Elizabeth on 21st April 1926 (now our own dear Queen Elizabeth II) there ended an abeyance in the House of York which had lasted 444 years .Our own dear Queen has the best claim of anyone to be the heir of the King Edward IV and successor to the Princes in the Tower because of the rules of succession which apply to aristocratic titles where their are multiple female heirs. Lord Mountbatten had to have a special clause inserted in the Letters Patent which created his Earldom to ensure his eldest daughter inherited his title. Where the monarchy is concerned statute has over ruled the common law twice once when Henry VIII's Will was made into an Act of Parliament making Mary I inherit before Elizabeth I and again in 1689 when James II fled the county leaving two daughters Mary and Anne. Bizarrely none of these four Queens Mary I Elizabeth I Mary II and Anne left any heirs at all and their reigns did not alter the succession. Statute again put Queen Elizabeth II on the throne over and above her sister Princess Margaret but there was no such statute in 1483 at the death of Edward IV so the Common Law rules must apply awarding the title of heir of Edward IV to our own dear Queen and rather neatly circumventing at little local difficulty and controversy around the Hanoverian Succession. It has all worked out right in the end and the Queen has a better claim to the throne of England certainly than any Stuart, Wittelsbach Bourbon or Hapsburg.. As is so often the case with the Windsors the good old Queen Mum saves the day.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    I do worry that this programme is going the way of 'The Tudors' historically incorrect. I notice one reviewer commenting ‘that it exactly like the book’. As a historian I believe British history is exciting enough without stretching facts or being disingenuous to the truth. Because historians have been vague about the death of Henry VI. Historians have transcribed that Edward more than likely ordered the death of Henry, but there is no empirical evidence that Edward and his brothers undertook the task. Neither was Warwick killed in front of Edward in fact he was knifed running away from the scene of battle, Possible to regroup for another day. I think some writers of historiography can use the latest argument by Ian Duncan Smith “can you prove it did not happen that way?” Which the BBC support.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    I have never read the novels of Philippa Gregory and probably won't now if this drama is a true reflection of her take on the period known as the wars of the roses. I don't know how she can claim to be a historian, as she has done in a number of interviews, when she is clearly a writer of pure fiction only. I grant you that the setting is supposed to be C15th and she populates her stories with the names of people who actually lived during that time, but that's as far as she goes. Other people have posted about the numerous historical inaccuracies so I don't need to repeat them.
    A wonderful opportunity to depict this fascinating period of English history has been lost in this dumbing-down version of fantasy writing for the masses. Considering the positive views of many posters, unfortunately we'll have a section of the population actually believing all this tosh is true. All I can say to them, please go to other sources for an accurate account and discover reality. You'll probably be more surprised and entertained than suffering 10 weeks of this romantic fiction.
    Even on the romantic fiction level 'The White Queen' falls short. Poor script, weak and wooden acting, bizarre costumes, inconsistent settings...what a shambles. I pity the actors having to struggle with such shoddy material.
    Although 'The Tudors' was historically inaccurate there was a certain exuberance and extravagant quality about the series that was appealing, whereas this series is lack lustre by comparison. After so many productions about the Tudors I was really looking forward to something about my favourite period of history so am very disappointed and annoyed that my BBC licence money has been spent on such an awful depiction. In the year when the remains of Richard III have been discovered, surely the BBC could have provided a better tribute.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    Really enjoying The White Queen! It's getting better with each episode, and really brings alive the time, the savagery and the complexity of the lives of the families who shaped the Court and the wars. Don't want it to finish!

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    Now that Phillipa Gregory's new novel The White Princess will soon be published I'm hoping the series will extend on. Also Jacquetta was the most fascinating woman in history and I would hope that 'Lady of the Rivers' is also made as a prequel to The White Queen.
    I love Phillipa Gregory's books and once I start I can't put them down. If anyone gets the chance to read her Trilogy Wideacre, The Favoured Child and Meridon you will find another side to this talented Author, a real tension builder full of characters you will love and hate and they're not that obvious either, a real page turner.
    I became hooked on Phillipa Gregory books from the book The Other Boleyn Girl...I didn't rate the film all that much as it concentrated too much on Ann, but I have now read the whole series of the Tudor Court and The White Queen and the Cousins at War is so complex that having read all the books has helped me to enjoy the Drama so much moore.
    Lastly just to add that the characters look just as I imagined in my head especially Anne Neville and Margaret Beaufort. Loved the amusing touch this week as Margaret waits outside her bedroom on her wedding night only to be snubbed by her new York husband Lord Stanley as she intended (or not) it just left you wondering. Very enjoyable and no worries that the history is not exactly correct, it is close enough and a little brightening of the edges is acceptable.

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    Comment number 50.

    Very much enjoying the series, but in the accompanying documentary Professor Pollard is incorrect to state Towton is in South Yorkshire - not when I was at cchool in Leeds it wasn't!! I trust this was a slip of the tongue - North, South, easily done - and not some modern day Lancastrian or Tudor conspiracy. The Yorkists on the production team should have spotted it though!! Keep up the good work

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    i am really enjoying the White Queen, as I had no idea about Elizabeth woodville and her history Phillipa Gregory really brings the history to life, i have orderd the white Queen in paper back as the story is so good its brilliant.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    I am really enjoying the White Queen. Shakespeare took some real liberties with history in his play Henry VI Part 3 to cut it down to size. Richard III was a boy of 9 when his brother Edward won the throne at the Battle of Towton in 1461 but Shakespeare has him in the thick of the battle. 3 meetings of 1462 1464 and 1470 were combined into 1 y Shakespeare. If we are to have a monarchy at all in this day and age then the argument has to be for a legitimate monarchy surely. The significance of Edward IV and the murder of the little Princes in the Tower cannot be over stated for us now today. Edward IV left six legitimate surviving daughters by two different women. He had 5 who survived him by Elizabeth Woodville. Only two had descendants past the fourth generation. His first daughter as a girl he had when he was very young and had been single. She must have been the product of a Common Law marriage if nothing else more formal had taken place and therefore legitimate. We had Common Law marriage in England until 1752. We do not know the identity of the girls mother. This child was brought up by Cecily Neville at Raby Castle and she became upon marriage Lady Elizabeth Lumley. Edward IV having two daughter's both called Elizabeth by 2 different woman has confused historians for centuries. This has caused many historians to simply not see Elizabeth Lumley when she appears in the record at the funeral of her father for instance in 1483. Although she is in plain sight to everyone Lady Elizabeth Lumley is simply overlooked by academics. The way she was brought up suggests strongly her own mother was already dead probably from childbirth in 1461 Under the rules of female succession the Queen Mum being descended fro Lady Elizabeth Lumley and the King George VI being descended from Elizabeth of York, her younger half sister, has great significance today as this gives Elizabeth II our own dear Queen the best claim to the title of heir of Edward IV.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    The rules of female succession say that an only daughter can inherit a father's title. But if a titled man has two or more daughters the oldest does not necessarily inherit happens with multiple sons. Lord Mountbatten had an amendment made to the Letters Patent of his Earldom so his oldest daughter could inherit. If he hadn't done so his title would have gone into abeyance a kind of suspension until rival family lines died out or intermarried.
    The Queen is a product of such an intermarriage. The Queen Mum was descended from Edward IV's first daughter Lady Elizabeth Lumley. Dismissed in ages past as a bastard I would argue Lady Elizabeth had to be legitimate as the product of a Common Law marriage at least between her mother and father. The only thing to prevent a Common Law marriage would be if Elizabeth Lumley's mother was already married to someone else in 1461. As we do not know the identity of Lady Elizabeth Lumley's mother no one can argue that. Common Law marriages remained legally proper enforceable marriages in England until 1752. If Lady Elizabeth Lumley's mother died in childbirth in 1461 Edward was free to marry again in 1464 to Elizabeth Woodville. The tales of a marriage to his other mistresses Eleanor Butler and Elizabeth Lucy have no merit to them I would argue. Eleanor Butler was not married or betrothed to Edward IV . Richard III cannot have believed they were at any rate or he would not have engaged his 10 year old son Edward of Middleham to Elizabeth of York, Edward's eldest daughter by Elizabeth Woodville. Lady Elizabeth Lucy denied being married or pre-contracted to Edward IV. In doing so she probably saved her own neck from the chopping block and that of her son Viscount Lisle Edward's bastard. Modern day attempts to make Lady Elizabeth Lucy the mother of Elizabeth Lumley rely on fudging the date of Lady Elizabeth Lumley's birth. She was born in 1461 according to the Victorian sources and recently published attempts to say she was born in 1464 seem to stand on their own with no provenance to them. Jane Shore was the mistress of Edward's later years. She is only associated with him after 1471. Shoreditch in London is named after her. She too may have gone through some kind of bogus wedding ceremony to Edward as a lark but only after he was married to Elizabeth Woodville already. She is not therefore a likely candidate to be Elizabeth Lumley's mother although oddly the right age. She could have met Edward in London as early as 1460 when she was 16 and he was 19 but historians insist they didn't meet until 1471 at the earliest. The way Elizabeth Lumley was brought up is conclusive evidence she was Edward's heiress and her mother must have been dead in child birth for Edward to be left holding the baby. The Queen therefore as a product of an intermarriage by descendants of different daughters of Edward emerges under the rules of female succession as the true heir to Edward's throne.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    The death of Clarence is a highly controversial subject. Historians in ages past have painted this as more over eager henchmen doing Clarence in than Edward having a hand in it . Edward certainly successfully prosecuted his brother in a trial. He was going to have to sign a death warrant and have him executed at some stage. Some historians are adamant Clarence drank himself to death upon conviction. Some say Clarence was merely carted away from the tower in a barrel which was commonly used to transport a corpse in those days. It is very strange for a man to kill his brother unless he does so in a rage. The close familial relationship makes this extremely unlikely to happen in cold blood.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    Amazing. Really enjoying the series and are reading the books. All the characters are very good choices and we are very interested in Richard, Duke of Gloucester and feel the actor Aneurin Barnard is a perfect choice and has an uncanny likeness to the real Richard. All the York brothers are gorgeous. Looking forward to tonights episode and will very disappointed when it finishes. We are members of the Richard the third society. We recommend more series associating the Plantagenet's because we hear lots about the Tudors, it would be a refreshing change.
    Thank you

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    Is it me, or did it appear that at the end of this weeks episode when they crowned Richard, that his wife was handed the Sceptre With the Cross? Certainly this sceptre is part of the current crown jewels however it didn't take the form depited inc. the Great Star of Africa until the early 19th century. They used a much simpler sceptre in an earlier episode which is what made it stand out to me...

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    I've just watched the scene where Edward IV dies. There are sundry relatives and courtiers in the room. They then leave and the king dies in the arms of his queen. All very romantic, but this is not an accurate portrayal of a Christian deathbed in the late Middle Ages, least of all a royal one. The Church had lengthy rituals and prayers for the dying, which included placing a lighted candle in the hand of the dying person. The ritual extended to the moment of death, and past it; when it was clear that the soul had left the body the Subvenite was chanted and the bells tolled.

    I don't think this is just historical pedantry. No-one expects the characters to speak !5th century English, but imposing modern secular notions on a very different age turns historical drama into a soap opera with funny costumes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    fabulous program, the research, the writing, all excellent... But. your closing remarks on the "White Queen and her rivals" you appear to favour the actions, deeds and achievements of Margaret Beaufort. By today's standards, a religous zealot on a God given mission. A fundamentalist and a terrorist. You clearly ascribe the death of the "princes in the tower" to "hand", her manipulation led to the death of Jane Shore and, both, Anthony and James. Together with her machination in instigating all sorts of conflicts and even wars.
    using the badge of religion to excuse all these deeds in the name of Motherhood and ambition.
    Rishard lll may have been manipulated by his wife and circumstances but he never used religion to hide behind. The problem with the rekigous intellectual, they will always have a reason for their actions and clasping a bible as good measure.
    Henry Vll claim, the lovely phrase of "a tincture of royal blood" as bastard and strictly speaking, not eligible.

    "Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to device."

    "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned."

    niether by Shakespeare but most fitting.

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    What a lovely charming idea that the younger of the Princes in the Tower was smuggled away to safety to live to fight another day. Edward IV spent part of 1470 and 1471 in exile in Burgundy at the court of his sister Margaret Duchess of Burgundy . She was at that time married to the Duke. She financed the expedition which was his return to England to win back the throne. Whilst there he may have fathered a bastard or two which could explain the later appearance on the scene of Perkin Warbeck and Lambert Simnell the two pretenders who came forward to challenge Henry Tudor for the crown later. The idea that Warbeck might really have been Elizabeth Woodville's second son by Edward is a very charming one. I mention only in passing Jane Shore's maiden name was Lambert and draw no serious conclusions from that. Two skeletons dug up in the Tower which are thought to be the two Princes in the Tower could be dna tested and clear the controversy up for us and see if they were brothers? Now we have Richard III and Edward IV too the matter of Edward's paternity could also be cleared up by modern scientific techniques. They should all have the same Y chromosome. My understanding was Richard III had Westminster Abbey sealed up tighter than a drum and an escape by anyone was very unlikely to have occurred. Certainly Perkin Warbeck who claimed to be Richard Duke of York the younger of the Princes in the Tower was supposed to have an extraordinary resemblance to the Royal Family and Philippa Gregory's version of events might be right after all. I wonder if dna test ever will be carried out? Margaret Duchess of Burgundy might have been the mother of either of these two boys Perkin Warbeck or Lambert Simnel. When widowed and acting as Regent for her step daughter Margaret is supposed to have had a bastard herself by a lover.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    This is so so good got me and my 10 year old daughter really interested in history thow i did look up about kings an now know that henry tudor becomes king which has spoiled it a little for me but I just couldn't wate to see what happens please make another about Henry vlll or another king or queen we love it makes our evening rushing to settle down with a cuppa tea to watch the white queen. don't listen to all the mean comments they write there just losers who have nothing better to do than write comments bout the decor in the background the white queen is cool !


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