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 1.4: The Bad Queen

LADY RIVERS: I would also like to call a witness to attest to my character.

WARWICK: Their name?

LADY RIVERS: Margaret of Anjou, your anointed queen.

WARWICK: What did you say?

LADY RIVERS: I think you heard me. I escorted Margaret to England to her wedding when she was just fifteen. I carried her train at her coronation. I was by her side when she gave birth to her son. I was her dearest friend. And if any harm comes to me, it will be your head she spikes on the city walls. I can promise you that.

The truism of civil wars—wars that are fought “brother against brother”—is finally beginning to ripple upwards in the aristocracy. The fourth episode of The White Queen is unsparing in its tearing apart of families, some by necessity and some for power. The plight of Margaret and her son is waylaid this week in the interest of a new Margaret and son, Margaret of Anjou and her terrifying son, Edward, the Black Prince of Wales. Now that his campaign with George has failed, Warwick the Kingmaker offers up his last political pawns, his daughter Anne, in marriage to Edward, and she is abandoned by her family and carried off on campaign with the deposed Lancastrians. This is precisely the fodder of her nightmares we saw back in episode two.

While the analogy of civil war may seem a worn point to make, it is significant to the genre theory of the period. When considering the ethics of loyalty and fidelity, the notion of resistance is immediately evoked. Civil resistance allows for the hazy notion of loyal dissent: an act of service that requires the vassal subject to disobey feudal leadership in order to fulfill his or her obligation of duty. Following this logic one could argue that adaptation is a kind of textual civil resistance, one that authorizes its source- or hypotext by the act of appropriation while simultaneously making changes to it. It is this disloyalty rather than any strict fidelity that supplies the women here with political piquancy. While Warwick and George deploy an overt royalist rhetoric of love, loyalty, and service (seemingly regardless of house), the disloyalty to their sources and the anxiety that infidelity produces gets freighted by the metaphorical language of civil war.

Back in London, Edward and Elizabeth are troubled by news of this new alliance, and are taken by surprise when Warwick leads an assault on London. Warwick, now in control of the country, has Jacquetta tried for witchcraft, but his plans are thwarted when she appeals to her friend Margaret of Anjou for a testimonial. Old bonds and the mystery of women’s domestic secrets swell to the surface. Jacquetta is able to martial her political clout against what the show posits to be a true accusation by adopting a character type indicative of late Renaissance drama: the contesting female servant. Fidelity figured as a central theme for those characters without blue blood. Shakespeare depended on the ambiguities inherent in the language of love, service, and civil strife to experiment with models of resistance. Think Emilia, Iago’s wife in Othello. While Shakespeare may have given us a variety of ways to define the female gender, the women of The White Queen suggest that the only possible model for female political service is one driven by an ethic of infidelity—the same ethic that inspired the first beheading of an English king by popular dissent. Here the language of fidelity dissimulates the victimization of female “servants to the crown” in an effect perhaps more ideologically unsettling than any overt subjection.

In the halls of power the  episode makes it seem as if these women are fighting a kind of trench warfare, moving into increasingly desperate territory. As Anne unwittingly makes for the war trail, Elizabeth seeks sanctuary at Westminster Abbey with her children, barely squeezing her belly through the back gates. Here she again takes up a Marian posture as servant to God and loyal to her husband, God’s anointed representative on Earth (although Margaret Beaufort would beg to differ). Jacquetta is freed and makes it to the catacombs just in time to help her daughter give birth to a baby boy (finally!) and clear heir to Edward’s throne. As good as political news as this is, portending a peace Edward has yet to cultivate in the country he continues to fight for, it is a re-instantiation of the gradual station Elizabeth and Jacquetta had cultivated for the bevy of daughters they both trail about them. Of her own process Phillipa Gregory has described herself as “reading the records…with a feminist perspective.” If the show is to continue in this direction, it would suggest that baby Prince Edward isn’t destined for a long life in order for the women to recapture some of their standing. In the ultimate act of fidelity as a wife, mother, and queen, Elizabeth has committed a kind of “unnatural revolt” (as Marlowe would describe it) against her own identity politics. Perhaps the cruelest war we’ve witnessed so far is in fact that civil war with one’s self.

  • CITATION: “The Bad Queen.” The White Queen. Television. Directed by Jamie Payne. Written by Lisa McGee. 7 September 2013. London: BBC One, 2013. STARz cable channel.
  • Check out the BBC One promo video for this episode below: