At the University of Northampton we use all kinds of interesting methods to assess our students! This piece of work by Nicole Brack was submitted as part of last year’s assessments for the Wars of the Roses module, and Nicole has given permission for us to share it.
The relationship between Henry VII and Elizabeth of York has been one that has captured the attention of historians for years, perhaps not to the same extent as their son’s romantic endeavours has fascinated people over the centuries, but there has certainly been consideration drawn to the marriage of two individuals who were raised as enemies from different factions. With the rising popularity of the Wars of the Roses, the marriage has once again been re-examined, but this time by television viewers. Starz’s adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s novel The White Princess was released in 2017, and despite its outlandish character portrayals and deviation from historical truth, it received generally favourable reviews. The White Princess focuses on Elizabeth of York and her journey from bastardised princess to Henry Tudor’s Queen Consort and dramatizes the relationship between York and Tudor as fraught and destructive.
The first glimpses the viewers receive of Henry and Elizabeth’s relationship in The White Princess showcases a tempestuous and volatile one, with both Tudor and York warring with each other. Initially depicting Henry as detached and fickle, The White Princess examines the delay between Tudor’s reign beginning in August 1485 and his fulfilment of his pledge to marry Elizabeth of York in January 1486. While the show attempts to portray the postponement in marrying Elizabeth as Henry being unwilling to wed her as he found her intolerable, Breverton (2016) states that history tells us a different story. In order to honour the promise, he had made in Rennes Cathedral in 1483, Henry VII was required to acquire two things. First, he needed his parliament to repeal the Titulus Regius Act that Richard III had enacted that had bastardised Elizabeth of York and her siblings, thus legitimising her once more. Secondly, as Henry and Elizabeth were related, a papal dispensation was needed to validate the marriage between blood relations, and it should be noted that once the exemption arrived, the nuptials swiftly followed.
With a character that has been tarnished by intransigent Ricardians and his historical reputation as a miserable king charged with avarice, it is no wonder that Henry has been painted as a cruel and unsavoury husband who sought to control his vivacious and popular Yorkist wife. Gregory’s The White Princess (2014) plays into this long-standing image and has her fictional interpretation of Henry’s rape of Elizabeth to ‘test her fertility’, which is also the view presented in the book’s television counterpart. Lacking a historical basis for this disturbing act, those who have critically examined the fictional show and novel can only presume that this added scene is a plot device to allow for the justification of Yorkist plots against the villainy of Tudor. Although, the birth of Prince Arthur Tudor happens quickly after Henry and Elizabeth’s wedding, there is a lack of evidence to suggestion that Gregory’s interpretation has any truth in it. In fact, it prohibits the premise that Arthur may have been premature, nor does it allow for the idea that Henry and Elizabeth may have in fact had consensual pre-marital sex, an event that Cressy (1999) argues was often commonplace once a formalised betrothal was in place.
In the show, the arrival of their children seems to have tempered the fraught relationship between Elizabeth and Henry, softening them to each other. Licence (2012) states that there is a lack of contemporary sources on their relationship, but she argues that while the births of children do not shed information on the state of their marriage, the records document that Elizabeth and Henry sought comfort in each other after the untimely death of their heir, Arthur, in 1502. The White Princess’ timeline does not extend far enough into Henry VII’s reign to cover Arthur’s illness and demise, instead choosing to foreshadow his future passing by using a ‘curse’ set upon the murderer of the York Princes that means his own heir will die. Despite the television series showing Henry’s march to Taunton to face the pretender, Warbeck, it disregards the key primary sources historians have on Elizabeth’s personal feelings towards her husband. In penultimate episode of the series, Elizabeth rides out to join Henry on the battlefield and is shown rallying men to his cause, playing into Gregory’s narrative of strong women but ignoring the character of the actual historical figure in question. Instead of leading men to arms, Elizabeth of York, historically, spent her time hand-embellishing her husband’s helmet for battle and sending him letters to encourage and offer him comfort. Furthermore, the series ending in 1499 with the executions of Edward Plantagenet, 17th Earl of Warwick, and Perkin Warbeck means the close affiliation forged between Elizabeth and Henry is not represented, and scenes of evidenced historical romance (such as the comfort Henry and Elizabeth garnered from each other during their shared grief over the son’s death or Henry’s anguish and devastation over Elizabeth’s death following a post-partum infection at the mere age of thirty-seven) escaped public notice.
When assessing popular historical fiction, examination of academic text must be undertaken to successfully undress the relationship between Henry Tudor and Elizabeth of York. Although Pugh and Weisl (2012) declared that popular culture such as Starz’s The White Princess allows an accessible and fundamentally appealing entry into a world that is so different yet familiar to the viewers, the importance of historical accuracy is often lacking. Though The White Princess buys into popular imagination, viewers must be wary that the comfortable and entertaining scenes offered to them lack historical truthfulness and understand that although the immersion presented by popular culture is enjoyable, it does not change historical facts. With The White Princess exhibiting a difficult and unsteady marriage, historical evidence argues to the contrary with Gunn (2016) debating that although the relationship between the King and his consort started as a politically driven match, there is substantial indication that ‘Henry clearly grew to love, trust and respect’ his wife. Penn (2012) concurs with Gunn stating that ‘Henry and Elizabeth’s marriage had nevertheless blossomed throughout the uncertainty and upheaval of the previous eighteen years. This was a marriage of faithful love, of mutual attraction, affection and respect, from which the King seems to have drawn great strength’.
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