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:

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: