The White Queen 1.5: War At First Hand

WARWICK: The sons of York have united and plan to take back the throne.
JASPER TUDOR: London will rise up for Edward. He is much admired here.

The fifth episode of The White Queen miniseries struck me as one of scale and sacrifice. While the political allegiances of the highest echelon in England seem to have settled into a new realignment—King Edward and his brothers are reunited and reclaim the throne from a brief Lancastrian occupation, capturing Margaret of Anjou, killing her son and her husband, the mad King Henry VI, as well as seeing to the death of Warwick—it was the sub-plot of Margaret Beaufort and her husband Henry Stafford that carried the greatest emotional weight. In them we get both a sense of scale in terms of Stafford’s sacrifice for what he believes is morally right, as well as a snapshot of the realities of civil war for the middling aristocracy. Although the series struggles in that we get little of the classes other than bourgeoisie, it is in Henry Stafford that the interests of the common are expressed.

Lord Stafford demonstrates benevolence and fidelity despite Margaret’s threats.

Compared to the last two weeks when they had seemed to come to an accord as peers, this was a rocky episode for Margaret and Henry. With the glimmer of hope that her house might regain the throne, Margaret again began undermining her husband with some prodding from her brother-in-law (and seeming beloved), Jasper Tudor. Upon their return home from court just before Edward’s reclamation of London, Margaret discovers the house filled with tenants:

MARGARET: Why are there tenants in the house?
SERVANT: Getting their commissions, m’lady. M’lord’s takin’ them into battle.
MARGARET: Oh God. Oh God. Oh God! God bless you, God bless you!
STAFFORD: Margaret, Margaret please I’m afraid—
MARGARET: Don’t be! Don’t be! You are doing God’s work for the king he appointed.
STAFFORD: I’m afraid I am fighting for York. I’m leading the men to serve King Edward because I think he will win, put an end to war. I know this disappoints you.
MARGARET: My cousin…you spoke at length…?
STAFFORD: He spoke and I humored him. Don’t get others to beg on your behalf Margaret. It demeans you and you are far more compelling.

In the first half of this conversation I was struck by two things. First, Margaret’s disconnect and unconscious disdain for the her husband’s tenants, the commoners working their region, is disconcerting in light of her piety and desire to utilize them in battle to the service of her house. Second, no matter how disobedient she is as a wife—punishable by lawful violence in the period—Henry is consistently reinforcing his wife’s agency and conviction as admirable qualities. In censoring these qualities, she not only does a disservice to her cause but also to herself. The show seems invested in seeing men in high power as compassionate to women (mostly). Edward’s response to their first child being a girl is noticeably so, making Henry’s support of Margaret in the face of her derision somewhat less extraordinary. That compassion for her is only equaled with that concern he has for his tenants, marking the sharpest distinction between them.

Margaret is invested in a philosophy of divine right: her rightful king, the one that deserves her obeisance, is the man appointed by God. No other conditions or quality of rule factors into it for her. For Henry, policy, peace, and an ability to actually govern is what matters. While these convictions have simmered throughout the first half of the series, it is at this point (finally!) that Henry decides to make a decision that doesn’t include affordances for his wife’s family ties.

STAFFORD: The only time we have known peace was during King Edward’s reign. Now he has a son. It is my duty to ensure that his succession is peaceful.
MARGARET: His succession? His son?
STAFFORD: Look, your house does not deserve to rule. The king’s half mad. His wife’s a tyrant; she hates this country. Their son is vile.
MARGARET: You would defy a king appointed by God himself?
STAFFORD: Oh I don’t see God in these people. Look, what I am doing is right. I believe it is right and for the good of all.
MARGARET: Not for me. Not for my son. You would have me torn, husband on one side, family the other?
STAFFORD: Margaret this is not about you, your ambition! This is for the safety, for the future of this land!

As a minor noble, one engaged in the day-to-day maintenance of an expansive estate in the breadbasket of England, the nation is a spatial concept for Henry—ontological as opposed to Margaret’s metaphysics. If we were to think about it another way, Henry understands national stability as one garnered by collective action, while Margaret sees it as fidelity to the sovereign individual. For example, here Henry pits reason against Margaret’s beliefs. Her only responses are in the personal or as one of utter rejection to counter Henry’s three claims: the old king is incapable of leadership, his wife is cruel and spiteful towards the wellbeing of a people not her own, and their heir is morally bankrupt. (Oh right! Poor Anne!) This is not to say that Margaret doesn’t share a concern for the nation as such, but to her it is in God’s hands, and the noble classes merely act as instruments of his will. Their status is a mark of divinity as much as the king’s is. Margaret and Henry share values of national stewardship, but it is the mechanism by which that stewardship is enacted that tears them—as it has torn the country—apart.

Margaret braves the ruins of the battlefield, bringing a doctor and priest with her, to tend to Stafford’s wounds.

And it is on that very battlefield where Henry’s convictions are tested that we turn next. Margaret is empathetic to Henry’s mortal injuries, but she carries an air of “I told you so.” The sense is that God has punished her husband for his spite despite the fact that his aid helped Edward take the day. Alas, we seem to like our forward-thinkers massacred in period drama; they seem stuck-out-of-time, and the only way to right our notions of what, say late medieval England, looks like is to make them into martyrs for the revolution they portend. Henry Stafford has been pushed to confront his convictions gradually over these first five episodes to a point where he finally is able to openly adopt a position of what political theorists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri would call multitude:  an “active social subject, which acts on the basis of what the singularities share in common.” Henry is willing to unify those of disparate status and interest under one banner of political function and dismiss his own position to engender peace. To Margaret this is blasphemy on two counts: a) taking action against God’s anointed king, and b) rejecting his own status equally a part of God’s plan.

Henry isn’t alone in this kind of unifying politics. The episode closes with the three sons of York united as well. As soon as London is settled, the three young men together enter the Tower of London and kill the aged, mad king by smothering him with a pillow; compassionate considerations had only left room for quick resurgences of revolt while a mystical figurehead remained around which people might rally. A seemingly necessary move in order to get rid of the last direct Lancastrian heir, it is tainted with a kind of perversion. A sick old man is the sacrificial lamb to national stability, a man who did not choose to be born a king nor choose the symptoms of what we now recognize as Alzheimer’s. So while the episode seemed disjointed, splitting complicated political maneuvering down the middle with gorey, muddy battle landscapes, it did effectively combine sequences drawing our attention to questions of who gets to represent political groups, and by what mechanism—at least within a monarchical framework.

We are left in the hope that a deathbed conversation will mitigate Margaret’s aspirations for young Henry.
  • CITATION: “War At First Hand.” The White Queen. Television. Directed by Jamie Payne. Written by Malcolm Campbell. 14 September 2013. London: BBC One, 2013. STARz cable channel.
  • REFERENCE: Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. New York: Penguin Books, 2000. Print. 100.
  • Check out the BBC One promo video for this episode below:

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