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:

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: