The White Queen 1.8: The King Is Dead

RICHARD: I vowed. We all swore to be as one. Care for the child. See him crowned.
ANNE: Then you must do what your heart tells you…with more authority. If the soldiers in the abbey didn’t scare Elizabeth into submission, then do something that will. Show them who is the real Lord Protector.

The King is dead, Richard (and Anne) are on the throne, the fate of Prince Edward is uncertain. It was a traumatic episode this week, whose centerpiece was the problem of troth. By troth I refer to that feudal concept of pledging more than one’s solemn loyalty to a leader, but rather staking all the one values on the fulfilling of that promise. The episode opens in a time of peace in the country and in the household of the king. The royal children are well into their teen years and the country is flourishing, able to fit their table with bounty caught by their own father. The king is taken by a sudden fever, making his entire court to swear to band together to put his heir on the throne in a smooth transition that will promote the continued peace and bounty in England. While the members of the court attempt to do so—at least as first—what it means to fulfill such a pledge to the King and their God varies by interpretation.

The king, unknowingly, shares a final bountiful meal with his family.

Elizabeth is now in mourning, and the virulence of her choices, the show implies, seem fueled by the trauma of her spouse’s death. For her, the problem is the two young princes, Edward and his younger brother Richard. Whomever has both boys has the power of the throne as they are both yet young. To mitigate this, she switches a body double named Geoffrey for her younger son Richard, sending him off into hiding. While there is no record of this, it is a popular English folk myth. And it is the “folk,” the commons who are the royal family’s only buoy now As the Lord Buckingham reminds us, “The Rivers are esteemed by the people but not by the Court.” Popular opinion is a powerful although underrepresented function in this series; it only influences the plot via dialogue or exposition but rarely gets visual representation. Jane Shore, the king’s favorite sport also falls from grace at the death of her lover. In his memory she dresses as a leek monger (leeks being associated with Wales, the traditional province of the heir to the throne) in order to get past guards and give Elizabeth warning of the plot against her sons. She was famously made to walk the entire route of London and sit in the stocks for days without feed or water for this betrayal. We get a brief glimpse of this only to drive home the point that the commons “pity her,” as Richard observes, reinforcing the precariousness of his popular legitimacy. So although popular opinion is Elizabeth’s best tool, although Margaret attempts to wield it against her. To ensure that Elizabeth and Richard never come to a point of trusting one another, she summons up “soldiers rumors” that stymie the widow monarch.

Councillors, spouses, and parents buzz in the newly-made Lord Protector’s ear.

Richard III has been much in the news of late: his body was recently found under a parking lot, buried with a horse and showing signs of deformity due to scoliosis. The show drastically downplays his physicality and paints him as a chivalrous victim of his political context. He is certainly the least villainous of the three Sons of York—according to Gregory—by this point in the series. He is painted as a victim of a traumatized court and too many voices attempting to council his actions:

ANNE: You must crown yourself as king. It is the safest option now.
RICHARD: I can’t be seen to be stealing the throne. The people will not allow it.
STANLEY: The people only want peace. They know how risky it is to have a young king.
CECILY: You wouldn’t be stealing anything!
RICHARD: Enough, mother.

The suggestion here seems to be that Anne would have made an excellent machiavel. She is able to look at the political situation as a chess board. Raised by elites and far from the commons, Anne does not account for the power of popular opinion and mass demonstration in the ways that Buckingham and Stanley do. Both these councillors caution the reality of the situation, but Anne and Richard have always been caught up in virtues and faith as the guides to action rather than the objective conditions. It is his mother that is the first to speak ill of the dead, her own son:

CECILY: They know Edward was wed before. His marriage to Elizabeth was never legitimate.
ANNE: I never thought there was any truth in those rumors.
RICHARD: I know of at least one ceremony performed in secret so he could bed a woman.
CECILY: He has bastards all over England.
ANNE: Then you must crown yourself! For those boys in the tower are not entitled.
RICHARD: Neither am I! I wouldn’t be king in the eyes of God.
ANNE: God knows you’d only be doing it to stop a commoner from being crowned…a witch from reigning. You’d be totally justified and sanctified.
RICHARD: Convene parliament.

It is a well-played card, enough to fire the convictions of Anne and send Richard searching for a solution with Parliament. But what strikes me most here is that the implicit motive lies in the fact that if his sons were illegitimate, their is something wrong with a commoner being crowned. (The problematics of a witch ruling are obvious enough.) In terms of the class consciousness of the show, there seems to be an awareness of the power of the popular. No single representative of such a multitude could effectively rule. There is tension in the necessity to curry the favor of and care for the commons, but not to let them have agency. As Oliver Arnold would describe it, the aristocracy believed that a commoners is “powerless to retain his power; he recognizes that his power is constituted precisely as-and only as-the power to yield his power to others.” It is an issue of “absorption”: the People is a singular entity, functioning as a singular political body as the sovereign would. But because of the masses contained by the position of the People, they must be absorbed by the sovereign in order to enact policy and protect the country on a national scale. So the threat to which Anne speaks is not merely an issue of elitism, but an issue of national security.

The heir-presumptive watches on as his mother’s kin are killed by his father’s brother.

Despite Edward II’s good intentions to ensure a smith transition after his death, his fault’s continue to haunt the court. His mistress, Anne Shore, seeks out Anthony Rivers for protection. Her status as mistress and aiding the widowed queen gets Anthony and the queen’s cousin, Thomas Grey, beheaded. Edward’s philandering before having met Elizabeth Rivers also cast doubt on the legitimacy of his own son. Both heirs (presumably) are locked in the Tower of London, given a perfect view to watch the beheading of their kin. Sight becomes a significant last-minute theme in this episode. After a sequence of dramatic eye-line matches, Elizabeth’s first born to Edward, Princess Elizabeth, is provided with the gift of mystical sight the Rivers women supposedly shared. She “sees” the death of her kin, and also her future of eventually being put on the throne as consort to Henry Tudor (you know, that exiled son of Margaret Beaufort). Is it the desire to rectify her husband’s good name, or the curse of motivation? We’ll have to wait till next week, which Richard and Anne hold the crown.


  • CITATION: “The King Is Dead.” The White Queen. Television. Directed by Colin Teague. Written by Malcolm Campbell. 5 October 2013. London: BBC One, 2013. STARz cable channel.
  • REFERENCE: Arnold, Oliver. The Third Citizen: Shakespeare’s Theatre and the Early Modern House of Commons. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007. 9; 75.
  • Check out the BBC One promo video for this episode below:

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