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The White Queen: Philippa Gregory on resurrecting history

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.

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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