About halfway through the premiere episode of The White Princess, something pretty shocking happens: An enraged Henry Tudor pulls his fiancée, Lizzie, into a bedroom and demands to sleep with her in order to prove her ability to bear children.
It could have been a lot worse.
There's a lot to unpack here, but first, some context is in order. The White Princess takes place towards the end of the the War of the Roses, a conflict which lasted over 30 years and pitted the royal families of York and Lancaster against each other for the ultimate prize: The British throne. (Think Game of Thrones, minus dragons.) Henry is the newly crowned King Henry VII, the Tudor heir who has just beat King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. Lizzie is Princess Elizabeth of York, daughter of former York King Edward VII and Richard's former lover. (Yes, you guessed right, he is her uncle, and yes, it's gross, but hey, fifteenth century!) Henry has pledged to marry Lizzie in order to unite the two houses, thereby putting an end to the war.
That's where the icky pre-wedding sex comes in. In the book by Philippa Gregory, Henry very openly rapes Lizzie almost daily in an effort to impregnate her and guarantee an heir before they wed. The show takes a much more nuanced approach. On his mother's orders, Henry agrees to have dinner with Lizzie, during which she provokes him by referring to her affair with Richard, his rival and predecessor. Angry, he drags her into the bedroom and makes very clear that he intends to rape her. So far, it's all the same as in the book. But the big change here is that Lizzie takes control of the situation, and makes him reckon with what he's about to do. "Your mother bid you to rape me!" she exclaims, which causes him to pause. Is that what he's doing?
While the sex is definitely not "good," it does appear to be consensual, if aggressive. We have writer Emma Frost to thank for that.
Marriage in the fifteenth century wasn't exactly an Insta-worthy barn chic wedding.
In writing this scene, Frost had to make a choice between accurately depicting horrifying historical facts, and adhering to more modern concepts of consent. She chose the latter.
"My very particular response to that is no twenty-first century woman will accept that a man rapes a woman and she falls in love with him," she explained. “Now, it’s possible and probable that it happened historically but it’s one of those moments where I don’t care if that’s what happened historically, we’re telling a love story and the whole audience would just go, ‘How can we like this guy?’ We’re in a world where rape is on the increase and there ain’t no way I’m reinforcing that."
Henry still goes into that room with the intention of forcing Lizzie to submit to him. The two still have sex, and pretty problematic sex at that, but the balance of power has shifted. Henry is no longer in charge, and Lizzie isn't just a passive victim.
Jamie Payne, who directed the episode, was also concerned with making sure there was a "responsible balance."
"We shot it, we edited it, and we looked at it — we said, 'emotionally have we achieved the balance that we wanted?'" he explained. " You know, it’s not like [Lizzie] swaggers down the corridor going, ‘Hey I got this.’ It just rips her apart to do it, but she basically says 'I am not going to let him beat me.' That’s who Lizzy is, she’s extraordinary."
Not to mention, marriage in the fifteenth century wasn't exactly an Insta-worthy barn chic wedding. It was a contract, sealed and consummated to benefit both families regardless of affection. And that goes double for royal marriages — in some cases, nobles and high ranking courtiers were actually invited to watch the couple have sex.
"They knew marriage wasn’t made out of love, it was a political arrangement and that was how it was in that day. The truth is you know, you go to bed on your married night as a king and a queen, and it’s a party because you’re there for one reason. You’re there to produce an heir and there’s a party in the bedroom and they go, ‘Go on, you go and do it now.’ We just needed to make sure that the emotional consequence of that for both those characters was properly dealt with because nobody [wanted] to someway portray that scene irresponsibly. We put a lot of thought into it.”
I have been pretty vocal in the past about how much I despise historical inaccuracy. But in this case, I think it's necessary. There is too much rape on TV — why add to the problem if there's another, more powerful way to tell the story? The White Princess is better for it. And given all Game of Thrones comparisons, I think Sansa Stark would agree.