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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.

  • paulpriest


  • Guest

    Say what you like about the Plantagenets, they are a whole lot more intersting than the present bunch.

  • Marie Dean

    I hate anachronisms in historical plays and shows, as most people do not bother to look up the real deal. One of my favourite ladies is one to whom you allude, Blessed Margaret Pole, one, if not the last Plantagenet, who Henry got ride of out of his paranoia. And, she was the governess to Princess Mary and, of course, mother to Reginald Cardinal Pole, last Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury. I wrote about her on my blog more than once, as she was such a stalwart lady, and a martyr. I saw her famous portrait at Montacute House in Somerset just last year.

  • Marie Dean

    sorry for typos–I really need new glasses-but can still read this great blog!

  • Melanie Hale

    I actually read the books, and have a very keen interest in this history. The drama follows very closely to the book, written extremely well by Phillipa Gregory. The actors and actresses in this are fantastic.

    If it wasn’t for the books, I wouldn’t of studied further into this and the Tudor history. Plus saying that our royal family is boring. The fact that they aren’t plotting against each other, or trying to kill each other is a step up, and with the recent birth of HRH George of Cambridge, then it shows there is still a keen interest in our fantastic and historical Monarchy.

  • $63841295

    Bl. Margaret Pole, like her splendid son, was one of the great Saints and Martyrs who graced the English Church in her persecution, both under the tyrant Henry VIII and until the final, glorious restoration, ‘out of the Flaminian Gate’. She wears the crown of lilies and roses in Heaven now.

    I do not watch television, but I have heard ‘The White Queen’ is more than usually unpleasant – apparently the conjugal act is depicted, which is very unpleasant and hardly fit for a Catholic audience. Such works – no better than pornography – are plainly condemned by the Church and are gravely sinful in and as of themselves, as well as being proximate occasion of a second mortal sin. Certainly they ought not be praised by a priest in a ‘Catholic’ newspaper.

    It is surely indicative of a substantial decline that such a work, which would formerly have been condemned, should be praised by a priest! As ever, I am filled with dismay. What can we do? Write letters and complaints to the paper. Bloody lot of good that does.

  • waikatoanne

    Dear Patrick

    Take comfort! Do not be gloomy! Listen to the words of our Pope today at
    “Dear friends, if we walk in hope, allowing ourselves to be surprised by the new
    wine which Jesus offers us, we have joy in our hearts and we cannot fail to be
    witnesses of this joy. Christians are joyful, they are never gloomy. God is at
    our side. We have a Mother who always intercedes for the life of her children,
    for us, as Queen Esther did in the first reading (cf Est 5:3). Jesus has shown
    us that the face of God is that of a loving Father. Sin and death have been
    defeated. Christians cannot be pessimists! They do not look like someone in
    constant mourning. If we are truly in love with Christ and if we sense how much
    he loves us, our heart will “light up” with a joy that spreads to everyone
    around us.”


    o immaculate heart of mary pray for us now and at the hour of our death


    o sorrowful and immaculate heart of mary pray for us now and at the hour of our death

  • Kate

    The white queen is an exciting and fascinating true drama of how one courageous women became queen and what she had to go through in order to become that. She was an amazing women and this shows the ‘behind the scenes’ of what truly happened n the 15th century during the War of the Roses. If this does not interest you then simply do no each it but it is something that many people enjoy and find that they can learn from. I am 16 and I feel that I have learn a lot about what it was like to be her (the white queen), I also have learn who the kings and queens of England were them days and what their characters bed personalities were like.

  • Claire

    I disagree with nearly everything that is said in this article – what a load of rubbish. And how can you call her bid for power a spectacular failure when every single monarch that has ever reigned since Henry v11 is descended from her. What rot.

  • Lord Gobbleplenty

    The BEST of ALL colleges.

  • Katherine

    Bloody brilliant…a testimony to true female strength.

  • Etta Mae

    It is a pity, that Philippa Gregory doesn’t get her facts right. Richard was a much better man than Henry Tudor and pious and tried to help the common man with more enlightened laws. Elizabeth Woodville was greedy and grasping, so were her family. P.G. admires the wrong people and skews history. .I’m not a Catholic by the way, so I hope you don’t mind my commenting on your site.

  • Alice

    This is an interesting post. I don’t know a lot about that period of history, but I’m loving The White Queen and it’s got me interested in learning more, so thank you!

  • Etta Mae

    Being nasty is not a strength.

  • Etta Mae

    The drama may follow the book, It’s just a pity the book does not follow history.There are so many deviations from the truth, that I am surprised that P.G. calls herself an historian. Try the Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman and see Richard III Society and Richard III Foundation.The documentary was also inaccurate.

  • ju

    Never have I been more insulted by an article. This type of television program caters for the masses not the few people who are too educated, old or opinionated to enjoy it for what it is. Like many things (take that as an implication), history is not factual that far back, how can it be in terms of emotions, attitude, likes and dislikes? Do you not care that this program presents a form of history that we can all enjoy? Do you not care that it encourages people to find out more about history? I hope you realise that your article appears very high up when searching for the history behind The White Queen and that you are reaching many people. I hope this will enable you to reflect carefully on what is written on the internet in the future.

    As for the responses to this forum, as ever, if you don’t like it, nobody is forcing you to watch it, or indeed hear about it, or indeed read about it.

    If only all people lived in the real world.

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