‘The White Queen’: Seductive Saga of Lust, Betrayal and Murder

by | August 8, 2013 at 9:05 AM | Fall TV 2013, Interview, TCA 2013, TV News

Rebecca Ferguson in "The White Queen" (Photo: Starz)

Before the Tudors, there were the Plantagenets, who — despite being madder and badder than their successors — ruled the Kingdom of England for several hundred years. But when the dynasty was divided into the House of York and the House of Lancaster — each of which believed they were chosen to rule England — the battles for the throne began in earnest.

This Saturday, Starz will take viewers inside the Wars of the Roses when it premieres “The White Queen,” a dramatic, seductive saga full of murder and betrayal about the men who would be king — and the women behind the throne.

Based on the novels The White Queen, The Red Queen, and The Kingmaker’s Daughter by Philippa Gregory, the ten-episode costume drama tells the story from the point of view of three powerful, unyielding women, who would stop at nothing in their struggle for power: alleged witch and king seducer Elizabeth Woodville (Rebecca Ferguson); highly pious Margaret Beaufort (Amanda Hale), who believes God speaks to her; and teen-queen consort Anne Neville (Faye Marsay), daughter of Lord Warwick (James Frain), also known as The Kingmaker.

The series premiere opens in 1464 when the House of York’s young and handsome Edward IV (Max Irons) is crowned King of England … with the help of the master manipulator, Lord Warwick. But when Edward falls in love with beautiful commoner Elizabeth Woodville — whose allegiance is to the House of Lancaster, Warwick’s lust for power and control of the throne meets resistance.

The result is an incredibly high-stakes struggle between Elizabeth — now a member of the House of York; her adversary, Lancastrian Margaret Beaufort; and Anne Neville, the pawn in her father’s power game — with each woman vying for the crown.

In this exclusive xfinityTV interview with author/executive producer Philippa Gregory, she talks about bringing these long-dead, historical figures to life, sex in the 1400s, what makes this story appealing to modern audiences and more!

Author/executive producer Philippa Gregory on stage during the "The White Queen" panel at the 2013 Television Critics Association summer press tour in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

One of the things that I think that really modernizes this story for audiences is the fact that Edward did marry Elizabeth for love, not for politics. Do you think that will help people be able to relate to the story more– even though he constantly cheated on her? Then, when you said at the panel that she had 15 pregnancies and 12 live children, I thought, “When would she be able to have sex?”

I think it does make it very accessible to a modern audience to have this very, very beautiful, very, very young couple from opposing houses fall in love and marry despite everybody’s concerns and advice. It is Romeo and Juliet. I think that was really powerful. It’s a really romantic story.

Of course, they live in a world where love doesn’t matter, so it’s right that a lot of the other people around them reflect the fact that they’re in arranged marriages or, in the case of Warwick, he puts his daughters into wedlock and he has no interest in whether their husbands care for them or not, or if they’re even kind to them. He doesn’t care about that.

It’s a strange world in that sense, but I think that you can enter it. I think it’s OK for the modern viewer to see something that is unexpected.

How close are the actors to how you imagined the characters when you wrote the book?

Rebecca Ferguson, who plays the White Queen, actually has an uncanny resemblance to Elizabeth Woodville. We have one image of Elizabeth, which was made of her at the time. It’s a stained glass window and Rebecca looks so like her. It’s really powerful.

We’ve got a really bad portrait of Edward that makes him look a bit pudding-faced, but all the accounts say he’s extremely tall, unusually tall, and very, very handsome. Max Irons, I’m sure, is like him.

The others, actually, some we have pictures of and some we don’t. Margaret Beaufort, we have pictures for her in old age. They’re certainly similar.

Max Irons and Rebecca Ferguson in "The White Queen" (Photo: STARZ)

After you do all the research and get the historical facts, how do you bring the characters to life and know what personalities to give them?

In a way, it’s like: How do you know your friends? I look at what they do, and that’s all that the historical record will ever tell you: What they do. It never tells you what they’re like, because they’re not interested in that in the chronicles that they write. You look at what somebody does.

You look at somebody like Catherine of Aragon. You know her story. You go: She’s six years in London on her own. She’s a teenager. She is, in a sense, abandoned by her parents. Her father-in-law is trying to grind her down to agree to an arrangement that she can’t possibly do. Then she marries Henry VIII and she has 16 years of marriage — incredibly successful. Then, the divorce comes about and she’s rammed down again.

What you see in the way she behaves is this woman of incredible courage and tenacity who simply won’t take “no” for an answer. On her deathbed, she writes a letter where she says, “I regard you as my husband,” and that’s her last word on the matter, really her last word. You don’t have to go very far to go, “This is a tough, brave young woman, an inspiration in many ways.”

Then you look at her parents and you understand where she comes from: Isabella of Spain. I went to Spain. I went to the Alhambra palace, her home, and to Granada. You just start to put together an idea of what she would be like. Just like when you meet somebody, you ask them what they do, how they cope with various setbacks, and you get a part of what they’re like as a person.

I would never say that that’s the whole picture or even that’s the right picture, but it’s a picture that makes sense to me with what I know about her.

Click on the Photo Below to Watch the Premiere Episode of “The White Queen”:

Because I read The White Queen before I read The Red Queen, I wonder if I have a prejudice. Are we supposed to like Elizabeth better? Because I really didn’t like Margaret.

I wrote it before I wrote The Red Queen. In a way, I think it doesn’t matter. All I really want you to do is to be so interested in the character that you enjoy the novel. I think you can read The Red Queen and really say, “Margaret Beaufort sometimes is a bit of a monster.” Sometimes I find her, personally, quite endearing. The point of it is that you should still be turning page.

It seemed as if the people around her didn’t believe her certainty that her belief that her son should be king was a message from God.

She was an exceptional woman. She certainly believed in herself very, very powerfully. Whether you believe in her or not, is a decision for you as a reader.

In her last marriage, Margaret told her husband that she didn’t want to have sexual relations with him. Did you really find that out, or was that something you created for the story?

We know that she was infertile because she only had Henry. We know that her third marriage was what we call a “white marriage.” It was a marriage without sex and that was contractual, so I have the documentation on that. I think it very likely that she and her second husband had sex very infrequently. Actually, under the rule of the church, if you couldn’t have children, it would be a sin, so they would both be disinclined.

Seriously? I never knew that.

You only have sex for the procreation of children and only on days when it’s allowed. Forty days of Lent, no sex. Any saint’s day, no sex. Any holy day, no sex. Any Friday, no sex.

Even for the king?

Everybody.

Wow, because Edward was quite lusty!

Well, you know, he would do what he wanted, but those were the rules.

When you write the books, you can’t write the way they actually spoke during that time period, or we wouldn’t understand a lot of it, so how do you include a flavor of it so that we get that it’s not modern?

What I do is, I always try to exclude modern slang, and I try and exclude modern metaphor. You won’t find any examples … I hope … of anybody saying, “Their touch is electric,” because electricity isn’t invented or named by then. You won’t find anybody saying anything about circulation, like, “The blood rushes through their veins,” because they haven’t discovered the circulation of the blood by then.

There’s a lot of language that we use in modern terms without ever thinking about it, but is absolutely modern. I try to make sure that standards of innocent speech, which isn’t based in any time at all, that we have that kind of speech in the series, but I don’t use a lot of medieval words, because I think that’s an obstacle to the reader and the viewer to understanding what’s going on.

If someone’s strapping on their grieves, you know, their shoulder armor, if I used that word at all, I would explain it in the sentence so the reader knows exactly what we’re talking about. It’s not my job to show off that I know medieval words. That would be a waste of time for everybody.

How important was the fact that Elizabeth was allegedly descended from Melusine, who is considered to be a witch? Everybody thinks that she used her power to bewitch him.

I think the relationship to Melusine, which is documented, which they actually boasted about so when they had a parade, they used Melusine’s standard to show that they’re related to her. I think that was very, very powerful for them at the time, so we have to reflect it because we’re trying to be historically authentic.

“The White Queen” premieres Saturday, August 10 at 8/7c on Starz.