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 1.5: 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: