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:

The White Queen 1.3: The Storm

KING EDWARD: I will return May Day morn with peaches and salt cod for you and my Prince Edward!

English history has a rich relationship to tempests. These storms for the small island nation seem to serve as tests, nature plumbing its resolve. The great storm of 1588 destroyed the Spanish Armada, a force that would have likely taken out the newly minted Queen Elizabeth Tudor’s meager military. Prospero’s storms have the power to suspend and displace time to give Shakespeare room to delve the human condition. This third episode of The White Queen takes centers around another storm on the English channel that buffets the rebelling Lord Warwick and his family, including George, Duke of Clarence, from reaching France, and causes Isabel Neville to lose her child on the rough seas—what would have been a male heir to George’s Plantagenet legitimacy. The Lancastrians are tested and come up wanting by episode’s end.

A view of the storm the Rivers women summon from a window in the Tower of London.

Rebellion and uprising, issues hinted at in the first episode, “In Love With the King,” are now beginning to take center stage again as the organizing plot forces at work. His rebellion to put George on the throne came up a poor bet for Warwick, resulting in the deaths of Elizabeth’s father and brother. Edward continues to demonstrate a sense of state-craft in brokering an uneasy peace with the Kingmaker, but it unsurprisingly lasts only a short time. He is willing to see beyond Warwick’s resistance as rather an act of fidelity to the idea of a “good king” for England rather than serving the interests of a particular faction. Elizabeth suspects otherwise but is unable to articulate that she sees a change in the root of Warwick’s virtue, and can only be merely suspect of him:

ELIZABETH: What do you mean, another uprising?
EDWARD: In favor of witless old Henry, with a leader who will not announce his name.
ELIZABETH: A leader with no name?
EDWARD: Maybe a herald to Margaret of Anjou, to test how much support she can raise before she can land her troops to free her husband. So, I will make quick work of it.
ELIZABETH: Send someone else to lead the army.
EDWARD: No, it is my crown. I must defend it. I must put my neck on the line for the men who love me.

The series continues to rely on scenes that juxtapose communal and personal motives of equal weight and virtue, especially for Edward who at times, like in this scene, seems to handle them a bit too well, a bit too calmly. He is driven by a need to reciprocate the fidelity—that kind of more-than-filial duty upon which the power structure of feudal England was built—to his subjects who fight to keep him managing the throne. It is in moments like these that indeed King Edward is made a hero before he sets foot on the battlefield and Elizabeth comes off a bit petulant:

ELIZABETH: Edward, please don’t go. I’m—I’m with child again. And this time I’m sure it’s a boy.
EDWARD: This is the best news you could give me! How do you know it is a boy?
ELIZABETH: Ah, would you pry into a woman’s mysteries?
EDWARD: No, I would not.
ELIZABETH: Then please stay this time to protect us both.
EDWARD: It’s all the more reason for me to defend my crown for my son to inherit. My prince we will call Edward.
ELIZABETH: Edward, hmm.

Edward rides off yet again to quash rebellion by an as-yet unnamed leader, promising Elizabeth he will return bearing peaches and salted fish for May Day. He has additional motive with the hope of a son after many daughters have been born to he and Elizabeth. What this show does so very differently than The Tudors is position the need for an heir as a widespread political necessity rather than as a single man’s narcissistic obsession. His return on May Day (a day for lovers) with bounty is also a symbolic reinforcement of his line’s fertility. Elizabeth as a character is becoming increasingly flat in that as a figure in the ensemble she is coming to be analogous with a virtuous, beautiful, and fertile England. This symbolic position reinforces the sense of Edward’s legitimacy; as he is married to his wife, so is he wedded to his nation.

Edward returns with cartfulls of fish and peaches as evidence of his victory and divine right as the countryside flourishes in seasonal bounty under his governance.

The cod and peaches become a central visual motif in the episode before and after the storm. Debate between Lady Margaret Beaufort (Amanda Hale) and her husband Sir Henry Stafford (Michael Maloney) over what constitutes kingly legitimacy takes places in the estate kitchens, where bushels of peaches are being preserved and moved about by tenants. Margaret clings to a peach as she considers her divine vision that her son, Henry Tudor, will become king one day. These conversations are measured until Jasper Tudor enters the picture:

JASPER: There was an uprising. Our time has come at last.
HENRY: Queen Margaret is sailing?
JASPER: She is in Calais, and will sail once Edward is engaged in battle. Oxford brings ten thousand men from the south, and I have half of Wales.
MARGARET: So you must arm your tenants and go. The tide is turning. It is our moment.
HENRY: I won’t ride out and I shall send no one.
JASPER: What?!
HENRY: These wars have taken too many men; I have lost a brother and a father to this cause and still it is not won.
JASPER: I, too, have lost my kinsmen and that is exactly why we must fight on, so that their sacrifice is not for nothing.

It is Henry and Edward who seem to see the larger picture of what is at stake for England in this civil war: that it was once a war between factioning and equally-legitimate houses, a nobles brawl, now actually affecting the sustainability of the nation on a geopolitical scale. Jasper upholds feudal values, pledging his troth–a promise of his life and every thing he stands for in the service of a lord–to the Lancastrian house in the belief that faith and loyalty win out in the end. Henry, like Edward, is a voice that signals a changing tide, an adjustment away from feudal to pre-modern structures of governance where policy is a primary organizing feature of power. But in a culture with a strong spiritual backbone, it is difficult to discredit Margaret’s horror at her husband pitting the idea of a better king against God’s anointed:

MARGARET: If we rise up now we can unseat the usurper and return the throne to Lancaster.
HENRY: Until the next time and the next time. Does King Henry even know that this war ls being fought? He barely even knows his name! (Pause) And Edward is the better king. The roads are safe, the nobles’ private armies have been disbanded, and brigands have been brought to justice. Perhaps that is what matters.
MARGARET: What matters is God’s rightful king upon the throne! Or do you abandon the Lord as well as your house?!
HENRY: Oh no no no. Edward is also anointed by God, so how should we know which one to pick? Perhaps God is confused and does not know himself?!
MARGARET: And now you blaspheme and blame all mighty God for your own shame! You are a coward and you fear for your own neck like a child. And I ask God everyday why I must be married to such a man.
HENRY: Enough Margaret, enough.
MARGARET: No! No it is not enough! It is not. How can I live with such bitter shame!

Despite hustling about behind them and being directly discussed as fodder for the field, Henry Stafford’s tenant are utterly silent and their faces rarely even make it into the composition of a shot. If this show aims to continue in its feminist bent, the only way we can read them seriously is thinking about Elizabeth as a kind of representative voice for the material sustainability of England and its tenanted commons while Margaret is her counterpoint as a voice representing the values of the ennobled classes fighting for the spiritual well-being of England regardless of her material self.

The Roses of York and Lancaster.

The English Reformation is not too far in the future of these characters, so despite the her virtuous and earthy beauty, the materiality of Elizabeth—especially in her connection with the sea and earthly magics—is in its last throws. As I suggested of episode two, the Rivers women evoke a mythological idyllic English past reminiscent of Arthurian romances where the monarch’s relationship to the land reverberated in their political governance of it. Austere Margaret and her son Henry are England’s future, as unromantic as they are. Thus it seems fitting that in seeking vengeance for her father and brother’s deaths, Elizabeth and her mother Jacquetta turn to the occult and summon that fateful storm on the channel. The darkened shots and the worried expression on Jacquetta’s face suggest that the Rivers women may have perhaps gone a step too far to demonstrate their fidelity to the Sons of York. But, at only three episodes in, who has yet to go too far in defense of such loyalty?


  • CITATION: “The Sorm.” The White Queen. Television. Directed by James Kent. Written by Emma Frost. 24 August 2013. London: BBC One, 2013. STARz cable channel.
  • Check out the BBC One promo video for this episode below: