Since we don't have a host of primary sources on women of the era, little is known about the actual psychological motivations of the first Tudor queen. The White Princess portrays Elizabeth of York, or Lizzie, as she's called on the show, as cunning and manipulative, working in the early days of her marriage to usurp power from her husband, King Henry VII, who destroyed her family to unite the kingdom. Elizabeth was the daughter of King Edward IV of the House of York, who was overthrown by Henry's family, the House of Lancaster. In an effort to unite the Houses of York and Lancaster under the Tudor throne, Henry VII and Elizabeth married, ending the Wars of the Roses.
But in the midst of the fighting, Elizabeth's two brothers, who would have been princes with rightful claims to the throne, disappeared at the hands of the Lancasters. So, obviously, she wasn't exactly thrilled to be married to the guy whose family presumably ordered them dead.
(If this whole disappeared princes/bitterly united houses/competing claims to the throne thing sounds familiar, the Wars of the Roses is what Game of Thrones is based on.)
Insofar as it depicts the struggle for power between the Houses of York and Lancaster, and King Henry VII's tenuous grip on the kingdom after his marriage to Elizabeth, The White Princess is historically accurate. It also takes some creative liberties, however. For example, it imagines Elizabeth as the lover of her uncle, Richard III, and, while it was rumored that they might marry when Richard's wife was dying, there is no historical evidence that they ever had a romantic relationship. The White Princess depicts Lizzie as still being in love with her uncle while she's married to her husband, King Henry VII.
The White Princess does beef up the backstories of all the key female players in the Wars of the Roses, but it's still a useful dramatization to understand how the House of Tudor rose to power. And, if you're a Game of Thrones fan, it might be fun to see the source material play out.
How The White Princess Changed a Would-Be Rape Scene Into a Moment of Female Power
It's got posh English accents, lush Tudor-era sets, and elaborate dresses, but don't mistake Starz's new miniseries The White Princess—which premiered last night—for your standard costume drama. From the very first episode, it's clear this is a show that's hyper-relevant to the current socio-political climate, despite being set in the 16th century.
Adapted from Philippa Gregory's book of the same name—and also from history—Elizabeth of York must marry, to her great distaste, Henry VII, an outsider who wasn't trained to be king but is suddenly handed the crown, to everyone's surprise. He still has to prove his legitimacy as king, but almost immediately he passes new legislation that terrifies his subjects. Sounds kind of familiar, no?
But that's just scratching the surface. At its core, the series centers on the women behind the crown who wield the true political control. Or, as showrunner Emma Frost describes it, The White Princess is “a story about power, female power very specifically, and the ways in which women can forge their own destinies, have their own agency, and control the world that they’re in.”
There are two crucial scenes in episode one that explicitly exemplify that female power, and Frost—along with actress Jodie Comer who plays Princess Elizabeth—fills us in on the choice to include them, and more.
I want to talk about the "sex" scene between Elizabeth and Henry. They're dining together, she insults him, and he grabs her from the table. At first, it seems like he's going to rape her—he tells her "we will know that you are fertile"—but she pushes him off. But then, she says, "Let's get this over with" and takes control of the situation. After they have sex, she tells her mother, "He didn't take me. He hasn't won." Can you tell me more about the decisions behind that scene?
Emma Frost: In the novel, there’s an extended sequence where Henry very clearly rapes her, and I talked to Philippa about that during the process of adapting the book for the show. Her take is that we know Lizzie and Henry married and eight months later she gave birth. Given the morality of the time and their dislike for each other, it’s unlikely that sex pre-marriage was consensual or something Lizzie was happy to do. Philippa made a completely legitimate decision that, in the book, she wanted to characterize that as a situation of rape. She feels that’s historically accurate. But for me, that's untenable in a drama.
Frost: We know Lizzie and Henry [eventually] fell in love. He grieved terribly when she died. They really did have a great marriage. I don’t believe a man can rape a woman and then she can fall in love with him—that’s not something I’m willing to put on the screen. So, it left me with two choices. I could side step that altogether and ignore the fact that Lizzie gave birth eight months after marriage, but, for me, that would be cowardly and a missed opportunity. What I think is far more interesting is to say, “OK, how do we characterize this situation?” Rape is about power, not sex. So how can I portray the situation where Lizzie denies him any shred of power?
So, Henry’s mother has said, “Make sure you have sex. Find out she’s fertile.” When he finds himself in the room [alone with Lizzie], he blurts it out. Then Lizzie, of course, goes, “We?! Oh my God, this isn’t even your decision. You pathetic little man. You’re under your mother’s thumb!” Immediately, he’s emasculated. She exposes him in that scene so quickly in terms of saying that it’s not even his own idea; she makes him feel small. He backs off; he’s not going to do this. Suddenly, it’s like having a mirror held up. “I’m being called a rapist? Wow, that’s not me. That doesn’t fit. That’s not who I am; I’m not going to do this.”
Then Lizzie sees and smells his fear and his weakness. What happens in that moment—or certainly within the writing—is that she realizes, “Alright, I’ve got two choices. I can allow this to not happen now, but maybe it will be forced upon me later and I won’t have any control. Or I can take control of this situation and own it.” What she does is she basically attacks him with every weapon in her arsenal to reduce him. She gives him no power and basically says, “Sorry, is that a penis? Am I supposed to be scared of that pathetic little thing that I can’t even feel? Fuck you.” By the end of that scene, what I wanted it to be is that he comes away feeling utterly humiliated, utterly emasculated. She gives him no power.
Jodie Comer: I’ve got to say, we had a screening last night and it was so fascinating being in a room full of people who have never watched the episode and hearing their reaction. They were clapping. It was like, “Good for you for doing that!”
When we came to tackle the scene, I told the director, “If he rapes her, I don’t understand how a woman can come back from that.” People have to be able to forgive Henry and be open to listening to his side of the story and the reasons why he is what he is. To play, it was a very harrowing scene. Even though she takes control, to think about being in that situation…you know, she puts a face on when she’s doing that and then you see her sadness. Up until that point, she shows him nothing. It’s a strong scene.
And then, later in the episode, she realizes she’s pregnant. At first, she orders some mandrake as an attempt at an abortion or miscarriage. Can you talk about that?
Comer: Lizzie at the start of the series has such defiance, and this marriage is not something she wants to do. She thinks, “Well, if I’m going to do it then I’m going to do it the hard way.” She tries to go against people as much as she possibly can. [But after a] conversation with her mother, it’s a huge change for her. It makes her think about her pregnancy in a whole different light. With this child, she can ask for a lot more. She can use this to her advantage. In the last scene [of the first episode], she says, “I’ll have a wedding because I’m not going to be embarrassed in front of England.” That’s her again taking control. I think she gets that influence from her mother. Her mother’s the one who plants that seed. And then when she has the baby she’s just so in love with him, it’s a complete change again. That’s a huge change for her and Henry, too. She realizes whether she likes it or not, this her life. She can make it as easy for herself as possible and try to get what she wants out of it.
Frost: Lizzie is born royal. She’s entitled. She knows who she is, and she knows what her life is supposed to be. She’s not going to compromise that for anybody. And she finds herself in the first episode in this situation…I mean, for one she can’t believe that her mother actually expects her to go through with this wedding to this guy who is everything they both despise. That’s a huge shock to her. Her response is just denial. She’s angry, and I think in dramatic terms as well, it is rare and really special to have a female protagonist who is angry. Women aren’t usually allowed to own that anger. We are supposed to smile and be nice, and anger is a really powerful tool. It gives us boundaries, you know? If you’re angry you say, “No, this is not acceptable.”
Women so often have their boundaries compromised. In the first act of the whole show, Lizzie’s so angry. I think that’s very empowering to show her being entitled to that rage and saying, “I want control of my life.” When she gets pregnant, she’s at a crossroads. She can abort the child—and, of course, in the times that we’re in, only through herbs or the hope of something that will cause a miscarriage—or she can go through with it. What I wanted particularly to reach for was every possible way to dramatize her options, particularly from a female point of view. What are the choices that are open to her at every single opportunity? That question of whether or not to abort the child is not in the novel in any way, I don’t think from what I can remember, but of course that would be something that would cross her mind if there was even folklore about how you might abort a child. It was really important for me to go at every single stage of this journey to consider what are Lizzie’s choices and put them on the table.
Comer: In a time when women were so disposable—well, presumed so—she realizes they need her. She says it to Henry early on in the first episode, “They won’t have you for king without me." She’s very selfish early on about that.