The White Queen 1.7: Poison and Malmsey Wine

ANTHONY: Another war, and Edward promised us an end to bloodshed, and that our taxes wouldn’t rise again to pay for it…Well, they must have their war without me. I fought enough when there was reason enough for it but not for this. I am going on pilgrimage to Rome.
ELIZABETH: Edward needs you by his side in France. I don’t trust George—
ANTHONY: You cannot talk me out of it, Elizabeth. Take my advice. You’ve made your peace with Lady Margaret. Do the same with George.
ELIZABETH: Lady Margaret saved my son and earned her place as his nursemaid. And George killed our father and brother, and now he is taking Edward into danger. I’ll forgive George when he is dead.

Anthony Rivers, brother to the queen seems touched too with his mother’s gifts of mysticism: he foretells more than he could possibly know as he conveys to Elizabeth he will not go on campaign to France with the king, but on pilgrimage to Rome. Edward gambles with the secure peace he has established in England over the past fifteen years to secure France’s future and a huge fortune, but also alienate his brothers George and Richard when he makes peace for financial gain. By episode’s end Elizabeth does indeed make peace with Margaret and George, but only in bringing about his death and perhaps Isabel’s inadvertently as well. Power, peace, and port begin to tear the three sons of York asunder.

Richard continues to represent an utter self-lessness when it comes to the crown. Having always been behind Edward “heart and soul,” he is horrified that his brother seems to be loosing those virtues that had initially brought them together: honor and chivalry. Both George and Richard seem disgusted with Edward’s whoring, gluttony, and general wallowing in excess. But as the king who has brought about more than a decade of peace and prosperity, he is a hard figure to blame. Thus, it is easier to target Elizabeth with supposed allegations of witchcraft rather than face the disappointment that Edward has a soft-spot for cash. Ever the realist, when Edward is presented with the option to win without bloodshed, Richard reminds his king that a deal with the French cannot offer them “dignity or glory.” As an idealist in the purist sense, no ends could could ever justify a course of dishonorable means. He describes his heartbreak to Anne: “He laughed. He said I was a fool for chivalry, and then he stuck his own nose in the trough.” While Richard and Anne grow stronger together (despite being able to produce only one child, a boy), individually they both give up some ground in this episode: Richard to his convictions, and Anne to her mother.

Richard and Anne are reunited upon the king’s return from France.

Edward, while growing portly with food, children, and mistresses, still demonstrates an ability to rule by splitting the difference between the two extremes that are his brothers. Youngest Richard is noble and virtuous, but cannot negotiate or see the cost of common lives outside what they represent morally. No cost is too great, but his saving grace may be that he never takes those costs lightly either. George’s insatiable selfishness coupled with an incorrigible narcissism makes him entirely interested in the political wrangling with no regard for the larger stakes. Even the death of Izabel, during the birth of her third child and second son, he uses to political maneuver to attack the queen as the closest voice to the king’s heart. The masquerade sequence seems to suggest that Edward is slipping away from his priorities, interested more in financial and material stability rather than morality. The last time he returned home from campaign he brought his queen peaches and salt cod. Here, he brings her chests of gold and butts of malmsey wine, her favorite. The difference of material here suggests a change in priorities. It seems that the bevy of pursuant political deaths at his hand in this episode he is shocked out of his luxury for the moment.

The king and queen consider how to use life as a political tool rather than death.

But really this episode is about George. We find that no matter how much we hoped otherwise, he was a traitor from the first to the last. While in France to fight for Edward he brokered a special deal with the King of France to take down Edward after he had an heir. With the heir acquired and a morally challenging young wife out of the picture by way of puerperal fever, George goes on a campaign of his own to discredit Queen Elizabeth as a way to unseat Edward as a political favorite by the masses. Images of goblets and casks of wine are threaded throughout the episode, reinforcing early moderns’ dependence on wine as the safest form of drink. Water from the Thames was too unsanitary as a main artery through the island to be a drinkable resource. It is on every table and shapes every political ritual and occasion. The sorcerer George hires to counteract Elizabeth is hung off a butt of wine. As a visual motif wine hinges the episode together more than any of the plot elements in which George attempts to insert himself, whether it be for the Warwick fortune, the crown of England, or the regency of Burgundy. He is as absolute in his desires as he is disregarding in what they might mean for the commonwealth.

For his treason as a duke and as a brother, Richard is sentenced to death. He requests being drowned in a butt of malmsey wine to spite the queen.

Implicitly this episode takes up the image of kingship more explicitly than at any point in the season thus far. The series has been firmly anchored in questions of whom gets to represent the commonwealth and against whom is rebellion an act of fidelity. Now that Edward is settled and safe in his title, he seems to be at a crossroads of what kind of monarch he will choose to inhabit. Thus, the episode puts on display a variety of monarchical types that he might inhabit or that might lay claim to England: the tyrant, the pragmatists, the madman, the pledge-troth. As the political pragmatist Edward has seemed the best option for the throne. When he is faced with ordering the death of his brother, he is put in an Orwellian position: “He is serving his country, which has the power to absolve him from evil.” Yet his luxurious and wanton lifestyle is putting Edward desperately close to vein unsalvageable once he reaches the point where he isn’t perceived as serving his country. But the ruling family seems aware of this. At the celebratory masque the king and queen dress as the lion and the unicorn, the symbols of Scotland and England that unify to form Great Britain. While anachronistic, the symbolism works to present the performance of the unity the monarchs desire as well as the violence inherent to maintain that unity under feudal conditions. As the nursery rhyme portends:

The lion and the unicorn            Some gave them white bread,
Were fighting for the crown       And some gave them brown;
The lion beat the unicorn           Some gave them plum cake
All around the town.                    And drummed them out of town.

  • CITATION: “Poison and Malmsey Wine.” The White Queen. Television. Directed by Colin Teague. Written by Emma Frost. 28 September 2013. London: BBC One, 2013. STARz cable channel.
  • REFERENCE: Orwell, George. The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius. London: Searchlight Books, 1941.
  • Check out the BBC One promo video for this episode below:

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