The real history behind ‘The White Princess’
The White Princess, a TV series based on Philippa Gregory's bestselling novel of the same name, dramatises the story of the women who battled for the English throne in the years following the Wars of the Roses. We take a look at the real figures portrayed in the historical drama…
Adapted from Philippa Gregory’s bestselling novel of the same name, The White Princess centres on the marriage of Elizabeth of York and King Henry VII. This union between the rival houses of York and Lancaster was seen to bring peace after the Wars of the Roses, a series of conflicts between 1450 and 1500 that saw England riven by revolts, murderous coups, financial collapse and full-scale battles.
However, the series suggests that despite the union between the two houses, personal and political rifts continued to run deep. In the drama, rumours circulate that Elizabeth of York’s long-lost brother Prince Richard, son of Edward IV and his queen Elizabeth Woodville, is alive and planning to take the throne. ‘Lizzie’ is forced to choose between her new husband and a boy who could be her own blood and the rightful Yorkist king.
The White Princess charts one of the most tumultuous times in British history from the point of view of the women waging the ongoing battle for the English throne. But who were the key players in this story? We explore the real characters behind the series…
Elizabeth of York
The White Princess dramatises ‘Lizzie’s’ marriage to the first Tudor king Henry VII, her relationship with her mother the Dowager Queen Elizabeth, and her new mother-in-law, Margaret Beaufort.
She may not have sought the limelight as much as some of her contemporaries, but Elizabeth of York was a Tudor of rare talent, writes Alison Weir. Portrayed by Jodie Comer in the series, Elizabeth of York played an important role in the Wars of the Roses and the early Tudor story.
Alison Weir: “Born in 1466, Elizabeth was the eldest daughter of the Yorkist king Edward IV, sister of the princes in the Tower, and niece of Richard III, who had her and her siblings declared bastards so that he could claim the throne. The probable murder of her brothers in the Tower of London in 1483 meant that, in the eyes of many, Elizabeth was the rightful queen of England. Richard III himself contemplated marrying her, but in 1485 Henry Tudor, who claimed to be the heir to the House of Lancaster and had sworn to marry Elizabeth, came from France with an army and defeated Richard at the battle of Bosworth. Thus was founded the Tudor dynasty.
Elizabeth was intelligent and beautiful. A Venetian report described her as “a very handsome woman of great ability, and in conduct very able,” beloved for her abundant “charity and humanity”. The humanist scholar Erasmus described her in one word: “brilliant”.
That there was affection and tenderness between Henry and Elizabeth cannot be doubted.”
Read more here.
She fell pregnant at 12, was widowed by the Wars of the Roses and almost died at the hands of Richard III. But, writes Michael Jones, nothing could prevent the indomitable Margaret Beaufort from engineering the rise of her son, Henry VII, to the English throne. Described by Jones as “truly one of history’s great survivors,” the mother of the first Tudor king is played by Game of Thrones' Michelle Fairley in the series, and she has spent her entire adult life setting the stage for her son to become king.
Michael Jones: “Margaret’s father had died shortly before her first birthday and so she was brought up by her mother, Margaret Beauchamp. Her mother instilled in her a strong sense of personal destiny and family pride. Despite her young age, Margaret was bright and remarkably self-assured. Above all, she was well aware of the opportunities beckoning her.
That she would go on to take full advantage of these opportunities is beyond doubt. For, in the face of huge obstacles and sometimes mortal peril, Margaret played the 15th-century game of power-politics with bravery and determination. And, on 22 August 1485, her perseverance was rewarded when her son, Henry Tudor, defeated Richard III at the battle of Bosworth to become king. Charting Margaret’s role in Henry’s rise to power – and the establishment of the Tudor dynasty – reveals the skill-set of one of the great political survivors of the late Middle Ages.”
Read more about Margaret Beaufort, mother of the Tudors
Dowager Queen Elizabeth
Essie Davis plays the Dowager Queen Elizabeth in the series. Once queen of England, having been married to King Edward IV, we meet Elizabeth Woodville in her later years as the dowager queen, following the premature death of her husband and two sons. The White Princess sees Lizzie's mother plotting continuously to put the House of York back on the throne.
Writing on Elizabeth Woodville’s earlier years and relationship with Edward IV, late medieval and early Tudor historian Amy Licence says that at five years older than her royal husband, Elizabeth Woodville was an unlikely queen.
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Amy Licence: “While none could fault her personal charms, Elizabeth was considered an unacceptable choice for an English queen by most of Edward’s advisors. She was a widow, a mother already, born and married into Lancastrian families, the daughter of a mere knight, a man whom Edward had formerly held in contempt. She brought no dowry or international connections, no territories or promise of diplomatic support. What she did bring was her fertility, bearing the king 10 children in addition to the two sons from her first husband, Sir John Grey. Elizabeth also brought in a model of queenship that differed vastly from that of the woman she replaced, the Lancastrian Margaret of Anjou. Elizabeth may have begun her reign as unsuitable and unpopular but in fact, she was the perfect embodiment of the beautiful, submissive, fertile queen – an archetype of medieval literature.”
Read more about the marriage of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville
Played by Jacob Collins-Levy in The White Princess, we meet the dashing and handsome Henry VII as he has finally taken the crown for himself, after defeating Richard III at the bloody battle of Bosworth in 1485.
The first Tudor monarch may not win many popularity contests, writes Steven Gunn, but the king set the blueprint for a dynasty that was to make England a global power. In the series, he is resentful of the duty that requires having to marry a woman who openly despises him, and is heavily influenced by his powerful mother, Margaret Beaufort. Yet while Elizabeth and Henry’s marriage was a politically driven match, there’s evidence that “Henry clearly grew to love, trust and respect Elizabeth”.
Steven Gunn: “Henry VII is the inscrutable Tudor. Less charismatic than Henry VIII or Elizabeth, less tragic than Edward or Mary, he stands no realistic chance in a Most Famous Tudor competition. But that is no reason to forget him.
We should admire Henry first for his tenacity. When he was propelled from exile to the English throne in 1485 by the sudden death of Edward IV, Richard III’s seizure of the crown and the bloody battle of Bosworth, six of the last nine English kings had been deposed. And the average was getting worse: each of the last four had lost the crown; one of them, the hapless Henry VI, twice.
Henry was not just a survivor but a stabiliser. He was less trusting, less generous and less relaxed than many of his subjects might have liked: he is only recorded as laughing in public once.”
Read more about the rule of Henry VII
Although he died before the historical events depicted in The White Princess, Richard III still casts a significant shadow over the drama. In her original story, Gregory builds on the speculation that the king was the lover of Elizabeth of York before her marriage to Henry VII, and also suspected of murdering the two sons of the dowager queen. As such, Richard III features heavily in much of the show’s action. So, who was the king and how true are the accusations against him?
John Ashown Hill: “It has frequently been claimed (on the basis of reports of a letter, the original of which does not survive), that in 1485 Richard III planned to marry his niece, Elizabeth of York, eldest daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. There is no doubt that rumours to this effect were current in 1485, and we know for certain that Richard was concerned about them. That is not surprising, since his invitation to mount the throne had been based upon the conclusion that all of Edward IV’s children were bastards.
Obviously no logical monarch would have sought to marry a bastard niece. In fact, very clear evidence survives that proves beyond question that Richard did intend to remarry in 1485. However, his chosen bride was the Portuguese princess Joana. What’s more, his diplomats in Portugal were also seeking to arrange a second marriage there – between Richard’s illegitimate niece, Elizabeth, and a minor member of the Portuguese royal family!”
Elsewhere, Ashdown Hill also considers the charge that Richard III murdered the princes in the Tower: “There is no evidence that Edward of Westminster, Henry VI, the ‘princes in the Tower’ or Anne Neville were murdered by anyone. Edward of Westminster was killed at the battle of Tewkesbury, and Anne Neville almost certainly died naturally. Also, if Richard III really had been a serious killer in the interests of his own ambitions, why didn’t he kill Lord and Lady Stanley – and John Morton?”