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The romantic but violent story of the real White Queen

Elizabeth Woodville was an extraordinary and beautiful woman whose descendents still rule us

By on Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Max Irons and Rebecca Ferguson, who play Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville (AP)

Max Irons and Rebecca Ferguson, who play Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville (AP)

Quite a few readers may have been watching The White Queen on BBC1, at 9pm on Sundays. That Sunday night slot is the traditional time for a good high quality programme – or was. The White Queen is absolutely rubbish, and the only reason I have stuck with it is because it is so bad as to be almost good. There is the joy of anachronism spotting, which is shares with the glorious Downton Abbey. And there is the unintentional hilarity of many scenes, some of which recall the rumbustious fun of Blackadder. The performance of the actress playing Lady Margaret Beaufort, who is portrayed as a religious nutcase, deserves the epithet ‘comedy gold’. Moreover, several of the cast, many of whom are towering thespians, seem to be fighting to suppress the giggles occasioned by the sheer awfulness of the script. Poor Rupert Graves, wearing a silly false beard, seems to know he is meant for something better; as for Rebecca Ferguson, who plays the eponymous White Queen, she is a very pretty girl, but even pretty girls have bills to pay, I suppose. May the Lord send them all something better and soon. And send us something better too.

Nevertheless, despite all this, Elizabeth Woodville, the White Queen in question, is a very interesting historical figure. Her portrait hangs in Queens’ College, Cambridge: the art of portraiture was then in its infancy in England, and there is nothing about the picture that conveys what must have been dazzling beauty. After all, it was because of her that Edward IV sacrificed the friendship of his greatest ally and cousin Warwick. Her grandson Henry VIII also sacrificed much for a beautiful woman, Anne Boleyn, but Anne’s pictures do convey her physical charms in a way that Elizabeth’s does not.

If Elizabeth was beautiful, and fertile too (she produced twelve children in all, two by her first husband, ten by the King) she had other less endearing qualities. She was one of a vast family, and all these people wanted lands and titles and heiresses to marry, which occasioned huge resentment. Moreover, she and her clan were remarkably stupid, one feels, in that they alienated virtually everyone they met, and when their only protector, Edward IV, was out of the way, they all suffered accordingly. It is hard to keep count, but Elizabeth’s father was executed, as were two of her brothers, as was one of her sons by her first marriage. Her two sons by the King were the Princes in the Tower, and that Richard III was able to get rid of them so easily is a sign perhaps that no one really wanted the Woodville progeny on the throne or anywhere near it. Even though Elizabeth did eventually secure Henry VII as a son-in-law, he soon bundled her off to Bermondsey Abbey, where she lived out her final years far from the corridors of power. The Woodville grab for control of the state was in the end a spectacular failure.

Nevertheless, every monarch that has sat on the throne from Henry VIII onwards has been her descendant. And one monarch, the ill-fated Jane Grey, the Nine Days’ Queen was descended from her twice over: she was a descendant of the Queen’s eldest son, a Grey of Groby in Leicestershire, and a descendant of Elizabeth of York, her eldest daughter.

It is often assumed that Elizabeth Woodville was disliked as a commoner and interloper. But she was far from being of undistinguished birth. The Grey of Groby family into which she first married were well known proprietors in Leicestershire and one can still see the ruins of their mansion in Bradgate Park. Her mother was Jacquetta of Luxembourg, the widow of John, Duke of Bedford, uncle of King Henry VI. Through her mother Elizabeth was related to almost everyone of consequence in Europe.  The idea that Elizabeth was a parvenu is simply not true; that it has had such currency is a sign of just how hated she and her family must have been. It is true that her father was a jumped up court chamberlain, but so was the grandfather of Henry VII, Owen Tudor,  another man who had married a royal widow, and who also ended up on the block.

In one respect, The White Queen is accurate: most of the male characters did end up murdered or executed, and most of those executions were judicial murders. They were living in tough times. Women of noble birth, however, were never executed then – that had to wait until the reign of the White Queen’s grandson, Henry VIII.