It's T-minus 5 1/2 days until The White Princess premieres, and I am PUMPED. The new Starz drama, which airs its first episode on April 16, has pretty much everything I need from a show: Royal intrigue, velvety costumes, and a steamy/it's complicated romance. But what sets this series apart is that, for once, history is written by the women. And that's pretty refreshing.
As a follow up to The White Queen, The White Princess takes place towards the end of the War of the Roses, the conflict which pitted the English royal families of York and Lancaster against each other for over 30 years. This time, events are told from the perspective of Elizabeth "Lizzie" of York (Jodie Comer). Promised to the new king, Henry Tudor (Jacob Collins-Levy), basically her family's sworn enemy and a man she's never met, Lizzie must find a way to unite their houses and end the war. As if that weren't enough drama, she also has to contend with Henry's domineering mother, Margaret (Michelle Fairley aka Catelyn Stark from Game of Thrones), and pressure from her own mother, former queen Elizabeth of York (Essie Davis). Basically, it's Romeo & Juliet for 15th century England, but with less pre-teen sex.
During a set visit to Bottle Yard Studios, the cavernous lot near Bristol where the show was filmed (certain scenes were also shot in historical locations Henry and Lizzie actually would have spent time in — Wells Cathedral, for example), I sat down with Jodie Comer and Jacob Collins-Levy to chat about what they really think about Lizzie and Henry's relationship status, the weirdest thing they learned about Tudor England, and Henry's outrageous spending habits.
So, tell me a bit about how both your characters enter into this marriage, and meet, because it happens in that order.
Jodie Comer: "Well, Lizzie has traveled with her mum and her sisters to meet Henry and his mother. And she’s never met Henry before, but she’s to be wed to him, and she kind of has no say on the matter, which she’s not very happy about. They’re both thrust into this circumstance that they both don’t really want to be a part of but they have to for the good of both the Tudor and York houses."
Jacob Collins-Levy: "Henry’s just come back from war. It’s literally the end of the Battle of Bosworth. He’s pledged that he’ll marry her for political reasons, and has come straight from the battlefield to Westminster with the crown — hasn’t met her yet, but is pledged to marry her for the joining of the two houses of York and Lancaster."
Clearly, your wedding starts as a very business-like transaction — but eventually it turns into something more. Did it surprise you that marriages at that time could evolve into these different kinds of relationships?
JC: "Actually I really struggled with that, especially with one particular scene in the episode, and I just didn’t understand how Lizzie could walk away from this and even contemplate loving this man. But in those days, these awful things that happened were the norm, and women were expected to do what they were told."
JCL: "I think the fascinating thing about the marriage of Henry VII is how close they were historically. I mean, they really loved each other. When she died, he really [became] the famous Winter King, paranoid king that he was. We get a sense of how truly in love and faithful they were. It was an arranged marriage, so we have to assume that there was a sort of pull — there’s tension."
JC: "And I think they both come to the realization that they are very much alike, especially with their mothers — so we’re not all that different. And also, they can’t get away from this marriage so they’re going to try their best for them, and their children, and for England, really."
Speaking of mothers, tell me about your in-laws.
JC: "Jodie LOVES her in-law. Lizzie… yeah. Margaret’s fierce, and she’s quite terrifying. Margaret doesn’t have to say a lot, Margaret can do it all with a look. But when Lizzie first meets Margaret she’s got a real defiance — she’s not shying away from making these people aware that she doesn’t want to be here. Lizzie makes them aware of the fact that she’s the key to it all, they need her. But towards the end of the series, she’s kind of like a little mini-Margaret, isn’t she? She learns a lot from Margaret about ruling and looking after your family."
JCL: "At the start there’s so much of this dichotomy between Elizabeth and Margaret. She represents this different way of ruling, that Margaret doesn’t represent. There’s a complete pull between 'which way do I rule, my wife’s way, or my mother’s way?' That’s when he really starts to fall in love with her. She gives him a heart in a way. She shows him how to rule by love and not by fear, which is I think his mother’s way of doing things."
"In those days, these awful things that happened were the norm, and women were expected to do what they were told."
History is often written by men. This is a story about powerful women. Were you surprised by the amount a power a woman could hold at that time?
JC: "I think what’s so amazing about these female characters [is that] their power comes from their failures and the way they pick themselves back up again. And the fact that they’re not strong all the time, sometimes they are weak. As an actress, I think that’s what’s most powerful to play, and that’s what so amazing them is that they’re not perfect all the time. Also, the females are a big support for Henry. I don’t know if I was surprised, but it was amazing to play it."
JCL: "[Henry’s] a fascinating king, with these two women on either side of him. And we really get a sense that Henry, he’s been the king, but there’s so much influence from Lizzie and Margaret. If it wasn’t for Lizzie, I think he’d spiral into paranoia, and not be able to do anything, and probably go mad. And if it wasn’t for his mother, he wouldn’t be [king] in the first place, so I think he owes most of his kingdom, and our story, to both of them."
What’s the weirdest thing you learned about this time period?
JC: "Lizzie, as a queen, would have ladies-in-waiting, and they basically follow you around 24/7, so they would sleep in your bedroom, they would go into the bathroom with you, so you were not left alone, you were followed pretty much everywhere. Which I think must have been so intense. So invasive! Especially when so much is going on, everyone is constantly whispering, and people are always there, kind of listening in."
JCL: "Henry was an interesting chap, historically. There’s notorious accounts of his where he spent so much money on clothes and jewelry. He was a bit of a shopaholic. Looking at it from an actor’s perspective you’ve got to see that there’s an insecurity maybe that he was covering up with wealth towards the end of his reign. And not necessarily spending all his life in courts, spending it in exile, I think he finally feels like he’s got all this wealth. I was fascinated by the records of things he used to spend his money on. Like, millions on rubies and precious stones."
Can you share an example?
JCL: "[For] the marriage of Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon, there was a huge procession that went through London, Catherine was brought in from Spain, and they’re going through to their wedding. And he set up these pageants every step of the journey, and the big massive feature at their wedding was this mountain that was completely encrusted in rubies, and it was a wine fountain. And it would have been groundbreaking technology at the time! But the whole thing was covered in jewels, and for people to see that — it would have been this incredible device, covered in thousands and thousands of pounds worth of jewelry. And it’s just such a statement to have that. Absolute show off."
Tune in to "The White Princess" when it premieres April 16 on Starz. And if you can't wait that long, I suggest getting a jump on the action by reading the book series by Philippa Gregory on which the show is based on. Those family trees can get pretty confusing.