The White Queen: Trash, Tosh or Not?

The White QueenI have read quite a lot of reviews of the White Queen which started its ten-part run on BBC1 on Sunday, 16th June. I have also taken part in a number of forum discussions on the programme which have produced some widely polarised opinions but mainly negative waves of tsunami proportions.

The series is based on several of Philippa Gregory’s popular books set during the Wars of the Roses.

Two weeks before it screened I was firmly of the view that it would be utter tosh. This view was based on several factors: a sight of the preview clip, some reservations I already had about Philippa Gregory’s take on the history of the Wars of the Roses and the knowledge of the excessive liberties that were taken with the last “blockbuster” historical TV series, The Tudors.

If you visit many of the Facebook sites devoted to aspects of the later medieval period in England you will find shedloads of indignation about The White Queen. Why? Because the programme presents the viewer with two levels of historical inaccuracy.

Firstly, there is Ms Gregory’s somewhat mystical view of some of the characters and events of the period. The source books for the series are several of her historical novels including the White Queen [obviously] and the Red Queen. At the heart of these books are several of the prominent women of York and Lancaster and Gregory’s emphasis on these women colours her telling of the “story.”

Once the programme makers get hold of it they add another secondary set of misleading elements: inappropriate costumes and social etiquette as well as some eye watering time scale shifts and frightening omissions.

Well so far, without actually looking at the programme itself in any detail, it is not looking very clever. However, it all depends on what The White Queen is for. It does not claim to be fact – and just as well too – it does not claim to be historically accurate, nor does it set out to educate or inform. It sets out to entertain and really that is the only basis on which it can be fairly judged. It is mainstream Sunday night viewing; does it do what it says on the tin? Does it provide interest, intrigue and titillation?


It was almost a relief to actually watch the programme which had been talked about far too much for weeks beforehand. I found the casting for the most part quite encouraging. Max Irons is a charming and believable, if a little one-dimensional, Edward IV and James Frain is a sardonic, though quite entertaining, Earl of Warwick.

Rebecca Ferguson’s Elizabeth Woodville [aka the White Queen] is pitched somewhere between simpering and simmering and Janet McTeer, as Elizabeth’s mother, is impressive enough too.

The White Queen

Aside from that it’s pretty much random lords and ladies, though as the series continues other characters may well emerge more prominently.

The plot, though simplified to the point of emasculation, is best regarded as a fairy story: Elizabeth is a princess, she has a fairy godmother – well, witch, allegedly. The handsome prince [King Edward] secretly marries his princess. When Edward fails to bring a ring to his secret wedding, Elizabeth manages to find one at the end of a piece of string – as you do. A lot of heaving of bosoms and bobbing of buttocks then ensues – and heaving of stomachs on the part of students of history…

The King’s mother is not amused by the marriage and the new young queen is not amused by the King’s mother. What could possibly go wrong?

As a costume drama it’s a welcome relief from Downton Abbey – which is not much closer to reality in any case – and the Tudors, which oscillated erratically between sex and violence. It’s possibly a little fluffier than the Borgias which in theory takes place about thirty years later and manages to combine sex and violence in a seemingly endless variety of ways. Of course, it’s still early days and, given the Plantagenet penchant for self-destruction, I am confident that there’ll be quite a lot of violence to come in the White Queen.

So, is it trash, tosh or neither?

If you come to it with fear and loathing, expecting to find a conveyer belt of misdirected history, then that is exactly what you’ll find. That happened to me with the Tudors and I did not enjoy it at all: you will certainly regard it as trash.

If you watch it expecting to be captivated or uplifted, in your disappointment you will probably think it is lightweight tosh.

On the other hand, if you sit down on a Sunday evening with a glass of Merlot in your hand and let it wash over you, taking it at a superficial level, you might actually quite like it. Probably best to start watching after the third glass of wine though, just to be on the safe side…

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4 Responses to The White Queen: Trash, Tosh or Not?

  1. The events of the books and drama are actually not too bad for accuracy and the women in the series strong and determind, and I find it stimulating. It is dramatic and entertaining and well acted. The only complaint is the obsession with the witchery. Gregory has the women making spells and curses and every bad event, storms, miscarriages, deaths and conception of a son is due to these spells. Now Jaquetta, Lady Rivers was accused of witchcraft and was cleared. Elizabeth was not so connected with it as Gregory has in the series. She was accued by Richard III to show her marriage to Edward was not legal and back his own claim. It has no backing in fact but that does not mean that it does not make good drama. That is the whole idea. It is not meant to be fact: it is fiction and the sooner historians accept that the better. I love history, but I accept that novels take liberties! It has to be recalled that Gregory is a fiction writer and not a historian. She writes good fiction and it is fiction that makes great drama, The story itself makes for good drama, it is one of high intrigue, treason, murder, war, political game changing and ambition. What could be better for a Sunday night drama? Enjoyed very much.

    • Feud_writer says:

      I do agree with most of this, but there are a lot of completely unnecessary inaccuracies which don’t enhance the drama at all – some by Gregory and some gratuitously brought about by the programme makers. Most of the acting is up to scratch, though Margaret Beaufort is both dreadfully written and acted. The witchcraft is hopelessly overdone and I think detracts from the drama – especially in the case of poor Isabel’s channel crossing. I don’t think the White Queen is a disaster but it could have been so much better.

    • Medievaljo1 says:

      I am a historian (or at least a history graduate) and I am not anti historical fiction per se, though I have not read anything by this author, and I don’t like this series.
      I have encountered the argument ‘It’s just fiction and meant to entertain, its not meant to be fact or a documentary’ many times raised against those who object to historical inaccuracies, and whilst this may is true, it is a simple fact that many people do seem to base their knowledge of history on fiction, and I have seen more than one comment which says that Gregory’s fans do take her books ‘as fact’.

      This is my view is the fundamental problem with historical fiction- when a person who would not read a history book watches a show like this or reads a novel it comes to form the basis of their knowledge, and unless they are familiar with the period, or there is an author’s note, it may be harder to ‘filter’ fact from fiction.

      People say that fiction like this is not meant to be educational, and this is also true, but this does not mean people will not ‘learn’ their history from it, or think they can. Indeed, when Philippa Gregory appeared on the One Show a short while before this series started a fellow guest said if I recall that one of the things she wanted from this kind of show was to ‘learn’ about history from it.

      That is the main problem with historical fiction in my view- it can be very misleading when people ‘learn’ about the past from it because they are ‘learning’ something which is not true or correct.
      So I can accept that fiction is fiction, but as long as it forms the basis of people’s knowledge of history, I think pointing out how it is inaccurate has a place.

      • Feud_writer says:

        As an historical fiction writer of this period myself, I can’t entirely agree with your view, though I have a lot of sympathy with it. Having now heard Philippa Gregory discuss her “history” of the period, I certainly have even more doubts than I had before! However, my own historical fiction uses fictional characters in the main and meshes them into historical situations. I think historical fiction writers do have a responsibility to be as accurate as possible but remember that on some issues historians do not agree and in some cases, notably the fate of the princes, no-one knows so the writer has a degree of freedom in such areas.
        Overall, the fact that some readers do regard something billed as fiction as factual is rather worrying.

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