Four episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
History is the story of men: an unending chronological spiral of Kings, Emperors, Chieftans and Pharoahs all hellbent on spilling their rivals’ blood. This focus is understandable enough, but Phillipa Gregory, in her series of novels The Cousin’s War, shines light on the women behind the famous men: the various queens, dowagers and princesses who have their own vicious battles to fight.
The White Princess is the sequel to the BBC/Starz 2013 co-production The White Queen. Set during the War of the Roses, that miniseries followed Elizabeth Woodville, Margaret Beaufort and Anne Neville, three noblewomen with their eye on the English Crown. That series concluded with the Battle of Bosworth Field, in which Henry Tudor defeated King Richard III and claimed the throne of England by right of conquest.
This picks up immediately afterwards, with the victorious Tudor family consolidating their claim to the throne and the defeated Yorks trying to find a place in the new regime. It’s an unstable political situation, with the new Henry VII (Jacob Collins-Levy) paranoid that the people will consider him an illegitimate ruler. To cement his kingship, it’s decided that he will marry and produce an heir with Elizabeth of York (Jodie Comer), thus combining the red rose of the Tudors and the white rose of the Yorks.
Elizabeth is the titular White Princess, torn between her loyalty to her York blood relatives and her new Tudor in-laws. She’s subsequently press-ganged into marriage with a man she despises, unable to forgive him for killing Richard III. On top of that, she’s being openly used as a pawn in her mother’s (Essie Davis) political machinations, being utilized to undermine her husband and her new mother-in-law (Michelle Fairley). Most would prefer Elizabeth to be a meek, heir-producing trophy wife for the King, yet Elizabeth soon realizes that she can exercise ‘soft power’ and shape the destiny of the country.
Gregory’s writing offers us a decent overview of history, albeit with a couple of fictional nips and tucks to make a more satisfying story. The White Queen was widely criticized for straying from fact, which might be why each episode of this concludes with a disclaimer that “some historical events and characters have been altered for dramatic purposes.” Gregory defended herself at the time by saying “What [they] wanted was not a historical series based on the documents from the War of the Roses. They wanted my take on it, so that’s what they got.” I’m with her on this, though the constant suspicion that things didn’t quite do down this melodramatically occasionally gives the show a murmur of soap operatics.
Still, if it’s melodrama you want, The White Princess delivers – serving up a steamy soup of bitchy, backstabbing, corseted women plotting each other’s doom. Essie Davis and Caroline Goodall as the Yorkish bad losers are particularly fun to watch, fighting from a position of weakness and relying on hidden messages and subtle plans to manipulate their hated Tudor enemies (who they must pretend to swear fealty to).
But the cream of the crop has got to be Michelle Fairley (whose famous performance as Catelyn Stark makes her no stranger to games of thrones). As the new King’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, she revels in her hard-won power and status, swooping around with sinister glee and dressing in dominatrix-chic dresses that make her look like she’s cosplaying Maleficent. She’s dead fun to watch, Fairley managing to be pleasantly camp without ever overdoing it.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Jodie Comer’s protagonist. She’s dramatically hamstrung in early episodes on by being a character things are done to rather than someone who does things, though even when she does become more assertive in later episodes it’s not particularly convincing. It’s not that she’s particularly bad in the role, just that she doesn’t have quite the amount of gravitas to carry it, not to mention that she’s comprehensively overshadowed by just about everyone else around her.
But The White Princess is a compellingly tangled watch, casting light on figures often blotted out by the male-dominated historical spotlight. It even manages to conjure up a little dramatic tension on what will happen next – impressive given that this is one of the most famous Royal dynasties in history. Despite a couple of bumps along the way, I still found myself increasingly wrapped up in this tangle of byzantine plotting, royal intrigue, stunning period locations and very pretty frocks.
The White Princess premieres on STARZ and the STARZ app on Sunday, April 16th. It is an 8-episode STARZ Original limited series.
The White Princess is a bit frothy, sometimes kinda camp and there's an occasional whiff of Harlequin romance, but it's extremely watchable television.