‘The White Queen’ by Philippa Gregory – Discussion Questions

'The White Queen' by Philippa Gregory (2009).
‘The White Queen’ by Philippa Gregory (2009).

I’ve read Philippa Gregory’s ‘The White Queen’ recently to coincide with the television show. The book was a bit of a disappointment for me. I didn’t feel that it was as engaging as some of her Tudor novels. Below are the discussion questions from the back of the book. You also get lists of questions in historical books by Philippa Gregory and Emily Purdy to help you understand the story. I have posted my answers to the ones from ‘The White Queen’ below, and I hope you’ll post what you think, and whether you disagree with any of my answers.

1. Discuss Elizabeth’s first few encounters with Edward and her motives for seeking him out. Do they marry for love? Did you find it surprising that Edward defied his mentor Warwick and upheld his secret marriage to Elizabeth? Why or why not?

I genuinely think that Elizabeth and Edward were in love. I don’t think that they were as in love as they would become over the years, but I think they were in love at the start, as their passionate arguments demonstrate. You can’t be passionate with someone if you don’t respect them, and even love them. I know this from personal experience. I think Elizabeth’s motives for seeking Edward out were completely honourable – she wanted to reclaim her sons’ inheritance. However, Edward’s motives for returning to Elizabeth in person were not so honourable. I think he fell in love with her when she held his dagger to her throat rather than lose her respect for herself. It’s like if you can’t have something you just want it more (note Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn). I don’t think it was very surprising that Edward defied Warwick and insisted that his marriage to Elizabeth was legitimate. This is because Edward was growing up – he was no longer a child, and could form his own opinions. However, I do think that Edward should have informed Warwick sooner, so that the French alliance didn’t progress so far before being destroyed. Perhaps then Warwick wouldn’t have been quite so annoyed and angry at his loss of face over the matter.

2. How does Elizabeth and Edward’s clandestine marriage change England’s political landscape?

The marriage of a King is normally state business, but Edward IV went completely against the grain in marrying a commoner, and also in secret, even when his advisors were negotiating his marriage with a French princess. This set a precedent for later monarchs marrying commoners, most notoriously Henry VIII, who married four times to his own subjects (Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Katherine Howard and Katherine Parr). At the time of the marriage in 1464 it alienated a lot of the population who wanted to celebrate a royal wedding and were denied it. In time, it also alienated a lot of the court because Elizabeth’s Woodville relatives were promoted to high positions and given land and wealth, and Elizabeth’s sisters were married off to the highest men in the land, leaving few suitors for other girls looking to find a husband, like the Neville heiresses, Isobel and Anne. The main reason Warwick rebelled against Edward was because of the influence of Elizabeth and her Woodville relatives. He had lost his hold over the King once Elizabeth had cemented hers, and Warwick didn’t like it. It even alienated the king’s own brother, the Duke of Clarence, and led to his downfall. It was the alienation of such important peers that changed England’s political landscape.

3. Anthony tells Elizabeth that she and Edward are creating enemies by distributing wealth to their ‘favourites, not the deserving’. What are your thoughts on Edward and Elizabeth as monarchs? How adept is Elizabeth at playing the political game, both before and after Edward’s death?

I think that distributing wealth to favourites is normal for monarchs to do, but it also pays to keep the ones onside who are powerful and have the resources to mount a rebellion, such as Lord Warwick and Buckingham. I think Edward and Elizabeth are fair monarchs, with Elizabeth perhaps being a little too vindictive. They believe that after Edward’s death they have secured the succession, a key role within a royal marriage, even if it does go wrong. Elizabeth finds it hard to forgive, however, and Edward does kill the old king in his sleep so that his position is secure. Everyone makes mistakes, but the problem is that I don’t think Edward or Elizabeth truly regret any of their actions. They see them as necessary in a time of war. I think Elizabeth has to become more acclimatised to the political situation after Edward’s death because she is fighting for her son who is too young to fully understand. I think she would have been more equipped to deal with it had she shared the work with Edward when he was alive rather than influencing him. I think that Elizabeth is often so focused on her enemies, and revenge, that she forgets the good that can be done with the right friends and influence. Under Edward, she was too complacent, thinking her position totally secure, which it was until Warwick rebelled, and then Richard usurped the throne from her son.

Romanticised image of the first meeting of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville.
Romanticised image of the first meeting of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville.

4. What is your view of Elizabeth as a daughter, a sister, and a mother? The younger Elizabeth says to her, ‘you love the crown more than your children’. Does Elizabeth, in fact, place her ambition ahead of her children’s wellbeing? How does she regard her daughters versus her sons?

Elizabeth appears to be a dutiful daughter, obeying her mother and father as far as she deems acceptable, given she has already been married once, and then becomes Queen, set far above them. I think she was particularly close to her mother because of the Melusina and witchcraft connection. Jacquetta was of a royal family (Burgundy) so is well-placed to help Elizabeth in her new position. Jacquetta married below her, and Elizabeth above, so their juxtaposed positions act as foils to each other. Elizabeth as a sister doesn’t seem to be very thoroughly explored, just her relationship with her older brother, which does appear to be affectionate but strained at times. As a mother Elizabeth seems to be affectionate, particularly at the start with her Grey sons, Richard and Thomas. I think later on it is the influence of royal protocol which makes her pull back a little. However, she is still a very hands-on mother for the times. I can also understand Elizabeth of York’s outburst that her mother seems to prefer power and the crown to her children. Particularly from sanctuary it appears that everything she does is to try and raise her son to the throne. Later on, all of her ambition is focused on her daughter, who will either marry Richard III or the future Henry VII, either way becoming Queen of England. She doesn’t appear to take in the wishes of her children, but that, again, was not unusual at the time, particularly in the royal family.

5. Compare the Plantagenets and the House of York with the Woodvilles. What are the most apparent differences between the two families? What similarities do they share?

What the Plantagenets and Woodvilles share is an ambition – they all go for exactly what they want, the Plantagenets more so than the Woodvilles because they are used to power and wealth. They also seem to have a strong family bond. Margaret of Anjou and her son, the three York brothers, and Elizabeth and her mother all seem to have special bonds that, no matter what is put in their way, they will always come back together. Margaret and her son, Edward, seem to be close because of the fraught circumstances in which they find themselves in exile. Edward has been brought up to believe that he will be King and his mother’s ambition has been instilled in him. He is almost a copy of her. The York brothers, Edward, George and Richard, have been united by the death of their father and older brother, and the determination that their family is destined to sit on the throne. Even when George deserts, he is welcomed back until it finally becomes too much. Elizabeth and her mother share a bond through Melusina, and through their shared power, supposedly passed on to Elizabeth of York. They are different in that the Woodvilles weren’t raised to rule and weren’t prepared for it, whereas the York brothers, and Margaret and Edward, were. The Woodvilles have to figure it out as they go along, but manage very well.

6. Elizabeth makes some questionable moral choices, such as standing silently by while her husband and his brothers murder Henry, the previous king, and knowingly putting a pageboy in harm’s way by sending him to the Tower in place of her son. Are her actions justifiable or not? How does she feel about the choices she made?

Elizabeth did make some very questionable choices, all of which had consequences. When Elizabeth and Jacquetta called up a storm to halt Warwick’s crossing the Channel, it resulted in the miscarriage of Isobel Neville’s baby, probably seen as a blessing by Elizabeth, but nevertheless it was the loss of an innocent child to an innocent woman, even if her husband was a rebel. The same storm also halted the progress of Edward across England. What impedes one also impedes the other. In the murder of Henry VI, Elizabeth could have said something to her husband, or one of his brothers, but it was not likely to have changed the outcome. The York brothers believed that Henry had to die and so he did. Her talking to one or all of them would only have caused an argument and was unlikely to have made her feel better. In sending a pageboy to the Tower in place of her son, Richard, she knowingly put an innocent child in danger. Although she no doubt wanted to save her son, she didn’t need to put in a doppelganger. If Elizabeth even suspected that the boys would be killed, she shouldn’t have done it. I think her ambition got in the way, and her love for her children. She wanted her son safe because he was her son, but also because he had a claim to the English throne. I think she did feel guilty for getting the boy killed, but this was overrun by relief that at least one of her boys was safe.

Rebecca Ferguson as Elizabeth Woodville in 'The White Queen' (2013).
Rebecca Ferguson as Elizabeth Woodville in ‘The White Queen’ (2013).

7. What is the significance of the legend of Melusina? Anthony dismisses Elizabeth’s belief in Melusina and in her own mystical abilities as ‘part fairy tale and part Bible and all women’s nonsense’. Is he right, or are she and Jacquetta really able to perform magic? With the penalty for witchcraft being death, why do they take the risk? What unintended consequences are there to some of their actions?

Melusina is seen as being a water goddess. Water is everywhere, and it means that Elizabeth and Jacquetta always have access to her when they want it. I think that there were, and are, people who could perform what might now be seen as magic, but was really just a belief in it. I think that a lot can be achieved simply by belief, and influencing the elements is probably one of them. I believe that they take the risk because they want to protect themselves and their families. They use the magic to protect those they love (Edward), and punish those who stray (Warwick and Clarence). When Elizabeth and Jacquetta called up a storm to halt Warwick’s crossing the Channel, it resulted in the miscarriage of Isobel Neville’s baby, probably seen as a blessing by Elizabeth, but nevertheless it was the loss of an innocent child to an innocent woman, even if her husband was a rebel. The same storm also halted the progress of Edward across England. What impedes one also impedes the other. I also, however, think that the belief in Melusina could be dangerous, which is why Anthony was so scornful of it. Melusina was believed to be a water-nymph, responsible for changelings, again a witchcraft connection. With the penalty being death you had to truly believe in it to risk everything you held dear. Elizabeth only began to believe in it when the predictions began coming true.

8. In what ways are women especially vulnerable during this tumultuous time? What power do women have? How do Elizabeth, Jacquetta, Cecily, and other female characters in the novel use their intelligence and influence?

Women didn’t really have much power in the fifteenth century. Their power derived from that of their fathers or husbands or sons. Elizabeth only had power as long as Edward IV was alive. Once he died and Richard III took the throne, she had nothing except what she could do off her own back. There was nothing she could do to stop the deaths of her brother and sons. Women were particularly vulnerable because they were so reliant on men. A woman alone in the world had almost no hope. Jacquetta and Elizabeth both wield power through their magical abilities. They managed to help Edward in battle against Warwick by conjuring up a fog, and they delayed Warwick’s crossing to France. Cecily Neville wielded her power through her son, Edward IV. However, she did lose some of this power when Edward turned instead to the Woodvilles for support. This is a fine example of where a woman’s power is dependent on a man. Isobel Neville was entirely dependent on her husband, the Duke of Clarence. Without him she had nothing and had to follow his example in rebellion and pardons. Elizabeth of York tries to persuade her mother to allow a truce with Richard III but Elizabeth Woodville will not accept the terms. Elizabeth of York tries to use all of her intelligence to allow it, and resorts to accusations, which is all women could do.

9. Elizabeth is aware of and even tolerates the King’s adultery. Why then does she take an exception to his association with Elizabeth Shore? Why does Edward’s former mistress later come to the Queen’s aid while she is living in sanctuary?

I think Elizabeth takes exception to this particular mistress because she reminds her of herself; the idea of innocency when not entirely innocent, and Shore is definitely in love with the king where others probably weren’t, and Elizabeth can see that in his own way Edward loves her too. I think it is also to do with the longevity of the affair. Most of Edward’s mistresses barely last, but he had several children with Mistress Shore, over a number of years, and I think in a way Elizabeth was worried over her – worried that she would lose influence to her husband’s mistress. When Elizabeth Shore visits Elizabeth Woodville in sanctuary it is because they both shared Edward’s love, and they loved him in return. They are both in mourning for him, and Mistress Shore wants to help Elizabeth in any way she can, giving her news and keeping her up to date, carrying messages, and trying to help put Edward’s son on the throne. I also think that Mistress Shore did respect Elizabeth hugely for the way she dealt with the affair. I think Elizabeth understood that Edward would do what he wanted, and not care about the consequences, and Mistress Shore couldn’t help if it was her he wanted.

10. When the younger Elizabeth pleads with her mother to come to an agreement with Duke Richard, why does she refuse to even consider the idea? How does the relationship between mother and daughter change while they are in sanctuary for the second time?

What changes between Elizabeth Woodville and Elizabeth of York is that they both have very different ideas of right and wrong, and what is most important to them. The elder Elizabeth wants her son in his rightful place on the throne, to the detriment of everything else. This includes her life, the lives of her daughters, and the possibilities of betrothals for said daughters, as she would need the King’s permission to marry them off to the nobility. The younger Elizabeth, however, wants to be happy, like she believes she can be with Richard III after Anne Neville’s death. She also worries about the welfare of her brothers while her mother is merely worried about whether or not they are safe, or dead, and how that affects her plans. I think initially Elizabeth refuses to open up negotiations with Richard because she truly believes that he wants her and her children dead. It is only once everyone believes that the princes are dead that Elizabeth feels it safe enough to come out, and once she is convinced of Richard’s innocence in her sons’ death. I think she is also still in mourning for her husband, and doesn’t want to see where they’ve been together, and the court that he presided over with another in his place.

11. ‘Despite my own caution, despite my own fears, I start to hope’ muses Elizabeth. ‘I start to think that if King Richard marries Elizabeth and makes her his Queen I will be welcomed at court again, I will take up my place as My Lady, the Queen’s Mother.’ After all the bloodshed why is she willing to risk putting her daughter on the throne?

Elizabeth had gotten a taste for power during her reign as Queen and as the wife of Edward IV. She had struggled for her throne, and her husband for his, and she knew that her children were legitimate with a right to the throne. If her sons couldn’t inherit, why not her daughter? I think Elizabeth of York was right to say that ‘you love the crown more than your children’ as it certainly does come across that way, whether it is true or not. Perhaps it was because she loved her children so much that she wanted them to have their birthright – the throne of England, and position as princes and princesses of the blood. Her and Edward had fought so hard for the throne, and for peace, that Elizabeth possibly believed that it was only once the succession had been secured that the country would remain at peace. It was also possible that she had become so used to having power over Edward, the power to advance her own relatives and causes, that she hoped to be the power behind the throne again, with her son on it. I think Elizabeth Woodville had a lot more in common with Margaret of Anjou than she ever knew. Both were the power behind the throne, and hoped to continue to be through their sons.

12. The fate of the two princes in the Tower is a mystery historians have been trying to solve for centuries. What is your opinion of the way Philippa Gregory presents this aspect of the storyline? Richard, Duke of Gloucester, is suspected of being responsible for their deaths. Why is Elizabeth inclined to believe him when he says he did not order her sons to be killed?

I think Elizabeth is inclined to believe Richard when he says that he didn’t kill her sons, because if he did he would have wanted to show the bodies off so that his claim could not be disputed. Killing them in secret and hiding the bodies would have done Richard no good, because what would have happened is what did happen. The people suspected Richard had killed them off. On the other side of the argument, Richard could have killed them off in secret knowing that he would be blamed no matter what, but I don’t think this is likely. I think it is more likely that someone killed the Princes in the Tower on behalf of Margaret Beaufort who was so consumed with ambition for her son, the future Henry VII, she would have done anything for him. I think her inclination to believe Richard also comes from the fact that he always supported Edward, never strayed like Clarence did, and Elizabeth and Richard had gotten on rather well in my opinion, I think she rather liked him because of his loyalty and prowess in battle.

13. Elizabeth paid a high price for the throne, losing her father, brothers, and two of her sons. What, if anything, do you think she would do differently if given the chance? What would you have done in her situation?

I think Elizabeth would have been more protective of her family, but would also have understood that if they were determined she could do nothing to stop them. Death was a side-effect of war and battle, and her father, brothers, and sons would have understood the risk. I also think maybe Elizabeth shouldn’t have immediately summoned her son Edward from Ludlow, because it was too easy for Richard to get him in his power. In Elizabeth’s situation I would have put the safety of my children above all else, if necessary abdicating their claims to the throne in favour of Richard. After his wife and only son died, I would then have appealed to put my sons back in the line of succession. Family is more important than wealth and power to me, but apparently not to Elizabeth. I think, however, that was the nature of the times in which they were living. People fought for what they believed in, and for Elizabeth that was her son’s claim to the throne. I also think that she should have made terms with Richard earlier on, and then her sons may not have died, and she could have been received at court and kept her position, or even had her sons with her in the country.

14. When Edward is overthrown and flees to France, Elizabeth says ‘it is as he warned me: he could not spread out the wealth quickly enough, fairly enough, to enough people’. What does The White Queen reveal about human nature?

The White Queen reveals that human nature is very fickle – everything depends on wealth, power and estate. It did then and it still does. People will give anything for money, and people still go crazy for power. These are fickle things, but they are a central part of our society, and society would probably fall apart without them because we are so used to them. It also reveals just how changeable people are. If they can be paid to change their opinions then they never really believed in the first place. To be a true believer you have to be willing to sacrifice everything for that belief, as people did during the Reformation. Clarence is an example of someone who doesn’t really believe in anything. He is more seduced by wealth and power than any true belief in a cause or person. The idea that wealth should be spread to the ‘right people’ undermines what we understand government to be today – by the people for the people, but of course the people didn’t really get a say back then, they just had to obey. It also suggests that the general public, those not involved in court life, didn’t really care who ruled them so long as there was peace and prosperity and taxes weren’t too high. There was a power struggle going on but people didn’t really care who won it.

15. How does The White Queen compare to other works of historical fiction you have read, including books by Philippa Gregory? The novel has somewhat of a cliffhanger ending. Are you interested in reading the next book in the series? Why or why not?

I thought that The White Queen wasn’t as gripping as some of Gregory’s other books, like The Other Boleyn Girl and The Boleyn Inheritance. Nevertheless, I will persevere with the series as I have been told that it gets better, particularly with The Kingmaker’s Daughter. I comparison to other authors, nothing seems to compare with the rich historical detail in the works of Hilary Mantel, probably explaining just why she won the Man Booker Prize twice. I also enjoy the works of Emily Purdy, though they are not as rich in detail. However, they do explore some controversial issues like the role of Jane Boleyn in Anne Boleyn’s fall, the supposed relationship between Elizabeth and Thomas Seymour, and the death of Amy Robsart. It takes courage to deal with these kinds of issues, particularly in the fictionalised form. I also really enjoyed Birdsong by Sebatian Faulks, set in the First World War. That is a brilliant novel, and one of my all-time favourites. I’m not such a huge fan of Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, or of Suzannah Dunn, as these two authors seem to write dryly, and their characters don’t seem as real as some other writers.

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