Discussion Questions – ‘The White Princess’ by Philippa Gregory


Philippa Gregory's 'The White Princess' (2013).

  1. How would you describe the grief Elizabeth experiences in the aftermath of her uncle, Richard III’s death? What notable details about their relationship does her grief expose? How does Richard’s untimely demise imperil the future of the York line?
  • It’s not just the grief of a niece for her uncle but a young girl grieving for the loss of the man she loved, and whom she hoped to marry.
  • Her grief exposes just how close she and Richard were and her hopes for their relationship – she really doesn’t want to marry Henry VII because she knows she can’t love him as she did Richard.
  • Richard’s death imperils the York line because there are no more direct male descendents not touched by treason or bastardy – Warwick is the only notable survivor of Richard Duke of York’s line, and his father was executed for treason.
  • Elizabeth of York is the true heir to the Yorkist line, and it is this which underpins Henry VII’s claim to the throne and his ability to hold the throne in the face of so much opposition; people believed Elizabeth was on the throne as well and so the civil wars were at an end with the two houses united.
  1. “Henry Tudor has come to England, having spent his whole life in waiting…and now I am, like England itself, part of the spoils of war.” (3) Why does Elizabeth consider herself a war prize for Henry, rather than his sworn enemy for life? What role does politics play in the arrangement of royal marriages in fifteenth-century England?
  • Through his marriage to Elizabeth of York Henry VII gained the support of the Yorkists in his attempt to keep the throne – in that sense she is a prize for him, the rightful heir of the York to unite the two warring houses of York and Lancaster.
  • Elizabeth can’t realistically be Henry’s enemy while they are married, or the marriage would never be successful.
  • I don’t think Henry ever really saw Elizabeth of York as an enemy – she was a pawn in the games of others to an extent in the same way that he was.
  • Politics is really the sole reason for a royal marriage – it is used to create alliances and gain new titles and wealth, but Edward IV, Elizabeth’s father, was the exception and married for love, as would Elizabeth’s son, Henry VIII.

  1. Why are Maggie and Teddy of Warwick, the orphaned children of George, Duke of Clarence, in a uniquely dangerous position in the new court led by Henry Tudor? Why do Elizabeth and her family go to such great efforts to keep these York cousins away from Henry and his mother, Margaret, even though they know full well of their existence?
  • Teddy of Warwick is the closest legitimate male left from the House of York, assuming the Princes in the Tower are both dead – this makes him a threat to the Tudor throne.
  • It’s important to Elizabeth to keep Maggie and Teddy away from the notice of Henry VII and Margaret Beaufort because otherwise they could be locked up (as Teddy later is) or done away with as her brothers were when they were a threat to Richard III.
  • Margaret and Teddy are dangerous because their father, George Duke of Clarence, attempted to take the throne from his brother Edward IV and was executed for it, which suggests he posed a very real threat to the throne at that time – Teddy and Maggie could pose just as much of a threat as their father.
  • The Tudors took the throne by conquest on the battlefield at Bosworth and their claim comes through an illegitimate line so the remaining Yorks do have a better claim to the throne than the Tudors.
Elizabeth of York c.1500.
Elizabeth of York c.1500.
  1. The mysterious disappearance of the young York princes, Richard and Edward, during their captivity in the Tower of London haunts all of the figures in The White Princess. What does the curse that Elizabeth and her mother cast on the boys’ presumed murderer reveal about their family’s belief in mysticism and witchcraft? How does the fact of this curse complicate Elizabeth’s dreams for her own offspring and their Tudor inheritance?
  • It is said that Elizabeth Woodville through her mother, Jacquetta, was descended from the water goddess Melusina, and it was commonly believed at the time of her marriage to Edward IV and afterwards that the marriage was made by witchcraft.
  • Witchcraft was a real belief in the 15th century – people believed that witches could manipulate events, by calling up storms or cursing people. Whether Elizabeth really believed in it is unknown, but in this story it poses a real threat to her line.
  • The curse complicates Elizabeth’s own hopes and dreams because she comes to realise that it would have benefitted Henry VII for the Princes to have died as then his claim to the throne would be uncontested.
  • In Gregory’s telling of events Elizabeth comes to believe that the Princes were done away with on the orders of Henry’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, and so the curse would fall on her line, which means Elizabeth’s children by Margaret’s son, Henry VII.
  1. “Daughter mine, you have known for all your life that you would be married for the good of the country and the advancement of your family. You will do your duty like a princess…and I expect you to look happy as you do it.” (41) Why is Elizabeth’s betrothal to Henry Tudor, the future king of England, an especially advantageous marriage for the York family? What might their union represent to England in the aftermath of the War of the Roses? To what extent does Henry’s decision to refuse his future bride and her family at his coronation suggest about his true feelings for the Yorks?
  • Elizabeth’s betrothal to Henry Tudor is advantageous for the Yorks because it gives them another shot at the throne, and a chance to get their line back in power, assuming Tudor became king.
  • The union of Henry Tudor and Elizabeth of York was supposed to represent the joining of the two warring houses of York and Lancaster and an end to the civil war that had been ravaging the country for 30 years, but it took some further battles for this to prove true, such as the victory at Stoke in 1487.
  • In the end, the York line did return to the throne united with the Lancaster line, through Henry and Elizabeth’s daughter, Margaret, whose descendents are still on the English throne today.
  • I think Henry VII worried that, if the old royal family were present at his coronation, it would draw attention away from him and could possibly prompt people wondering why there is a usurper on the throne when the legitimate line is still here.
  1. How does King Henry VII justify his rape of his betrothed, Elizabeth of York? To what extent is their impending marriage a union that he desires as little as she? Why does Henry’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, demand proof of Elizabeth’s fertility prior to their actual wedding? Why isn’t Elizabeth’s mother, Elizabeth Woodville, able to do more to protect her daughter from such violation?
  • Henry claims that he needs to know whether Elizabeth is capable of bearing children, because there would be little point in him marrying her if she wasn’t – he needed an heir more than anything.
  • Because the Tudors are such a new dynasty Margaret and Henry need to be sure that there will be an heir as there is no one else, and otherwise the country could fall back into civil war.
  • I think Elizabeth Woodville understands the need to be sure – before her wedding to Edward IV she already had 2 sons so they knew she was fertile.
  • There were rumours that Elizabeth of York was having an affair with Richard III before Bosworth, but there was no sign of a child so perhaps this raised alarm bells with Henry and Margaret.
Henry VII holding a Tudor Rose, wearing collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece, 1505.
Henry VII holding a Tudor Rose, wearing collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece, 1505.
  1. “The king says he is only acting to protect Teddy. He says that Teddy might be seized by rebels and used by them as a figurehead. He says that Teddy is safer in the Tower for now.” (130) How does the rebellion against King Henry in the north of England endanger young Teddy? To what extent is King Henry justified in keeping Teddy confined to the Tower? Why does he keep him sequestered as long as he does?
  • The rebellion in the north of England uses the name of “Warwick” to engender support, which is Teddy’s family title. Warwick is also in the Neville and York heartlands of England.
  • I think Henry is right to keep Teddy close because others did use his name for their own ends, and this led directly to his execution as an alternative claimant to the throne.
  • However, I don’t think it was right to keep him in the Tower. It is said that Edward of Warwick was simple-minded, so being isolated for a long period of time wouldn’t have helped. He might have become a loyal supporter of the House of Tudor given the chance to grow up within the Tudor court.
  • At least he would have been able to make his own future, rather than being at the Tudor mercy.
  • I don’t think Henry wanted to kill Warwick – he felt sorry for him being used by others, but in the end appeared to have no choice as others were using him to ferment rebellion.
  1. In what ways does Elizabeth’s terror of confinement during her first pregnancy seem warranted? How have her various experiences of hiding in sanctuary and the crypt during her childhood and young adulthood affected her? How might her fears of what happened to her brothers in the Tower play into her concerns for her own confinement?
  • Elizabeth must have been aware of the amount of mothers who died as a result of childbirth – her aunt Isabel Neville had died from childbirth complications, and she would have experienced first hand her mother’s confinement in sanctuary when she gave birth to Edward V.
  • Elizabeth’s brothers vanished into the tower and were never seen again, because of their claim to the throne. Perhaps Elizabeth believed that, if the child was a girl or stillborn, that the same could happen to her and they would put it out that she died in childbed.
  • If I was Elizabeth I’m sure that hiding in a crypt and in sanctuary while I was still quite young and impressionable would have made me wary of small spaces, and the lying-in chamber would have seemed small with the tapestries across the windows.
  • Elizabeth would also have seen how devastated Anne Neville and Richard III were when their only son died, and it seems they had struggled to conceive in the first place. It’s understandable she was worried about her child’s life.
  1. “He once said to me that nobody could understand the boy but him—and that nobody could understand him but the boy.” (514) How does King Henry feel about the series of young men who emerge during his reign, claiming York blood and demanding recognition by him? How does Henry’s own status as an outsider and foreigner affect his feelings toward these pretenders?
  • Henry VII is scared more than anything, that these boys could have proof of their lineage and so overthrow him and his children.
  • Margaret Beaufort seems more aware of the danger and more willing to do whatever she has to in order to stop it, including pushing for executions of innocents which otherwise the king probably wouldn’t have carried out.
  • Henry doesn’t understand the English people in the same way that Elizabeth of York does, as she was raised in England and her father was a beloved king. She understands the furore around the throne as her brother was cast aside and probably murdered on the orders of her uncle who took the throne as Richard III.
  • Both Henry and “the boy” (assuming he is actually Prince Richard of York) understand what it is like to live in exile and be planning the return to the country of your birth to take what you see as your birthright. Those two were the only ones alive who could understand the other, as all other claimants to the throne were dead or imprisoned.
  • I also think Henry resents the fact that there are others who could claim the throne, and that his wife’s claim is actually stronger than his own, and these pretenders keep reminding him of that.
A portrait of Margaret Beaufort. None survive from the time, but she is always shown devoutly.
A portrait of Margaret Beaufort. None survive from the time, but she is always shown devoutly.
  1. Describe the images of maternity that appear throughout The White Princess. How does Margaret Beaufort’s unusually close attachment to her adult son, Henry, compare to the motherly love Elizabeth Woodville expresses for her daughter, Elizabeth of York? When Elizabeth is forbidden to feed her newborn son, Arthur, and must give him up to a wet nurse, how does she come to understand her maternal obligations as queen? How does the imperative to produce male heirs for the throne define royal motherhood?
  • I think Margaret Beaufort has such an unusually close attachment to her son Henry VII because she spent such a long time separated from him as a child, and he relies on her as she stood by him all his time in exile and helped to make him king, so he owes her his title and wealth. He is also her only child.
  • Because Elizabeth Woodville grew up in a large family, and had a big brood of children herself, I think she feels that she needs to support them less because they can support each other, and they were raised as royal children so Elizabeth had less to do with them than a normal mother because of her royal duties.
  • Elizabeth of York comes to understand that her children are pawns – born to be kings, bishops, or married off to benefit their family.
  • Women recovered faster from childbirth if they weren’t breastfeeding their children, which enabled royal women to pick up their duties faster after the birth.
  1. What does Elizabeth Woodville’s correspondence with old York families and former members of her household suggest about her fidelity to the reign of her new son-in-law, King Henry? Given that she has committed acts of treason against the king in fomenting and supporting rebellion, why does Henry allow her to live in Bermondsey Abbey? How does Elizabeth feel about her mother’s open betrayal of her husband?
  • Elizabeth Woodville doesn’t believe that her son-in-law is the true king of England, especially as she believes she has a live son out in the world who should be king instead, as the only surviving son of her husband, Edward IV.
  • I think Henry allows Elizabeth Woodville to live in Bermondsey Abbey because he respects and loves Elizabeth of York too much to accuse her mother of treason – she is also the former queen and as such has some immunity as the house of York was still popular and Henry wanted to avoid an uprising.
  • I think Elizabeth of York can understand her mother’s frustration as Elizabeth Woodville was Queen of England and now has no power at all, having to give way to a countess like Margaret Beaufort.
  • As much as Elizabeth understands her mother’s betrayal Henry VII is king and it was folly to think they could overthrow him with a pretender – the people didn’t rise for him because they were sick of civil war and didn’t really care who was king, as long as someone was ruling the country.
  1. “I have a spy in every port in England. Nobody can come or go without me knowing it within two days.” (197) How does Henry’s paranoia about treachery in his kingdom influence his governance? How does it impact his ability to lead his nation? Why does Elizabeth feel she ought to help Henry navigate the complex social expectations England has of its King?
  • Henry’s paranoia colours everything he does because he doesn’t trust anyone, he sees everyone as a threat to him and his rule, even if they aren’t.
  • However, Henry’s paranoia is sometimes justified as there are numerous plots against him, namely the Simnel and Warbeck conspiracies where they attempted to overthrow the king and put a pretender in his place.
  • I think Henry is too focused on the security of the dynasty and not enough on the wellbeing and happiness of his people – he spent most of his childhood out of the country so doesn’t really understand the people or their thoughts and feelings.
  • Elizabeth was raised in the royal family and in the palaces so she knows what people expect of the king and his family, and is determined to guide him because he is the king and he needs to behave like one – Elizabeth loves the people of England too much to let Henry fail.
  1. Describe the curious personage of “the boy”—the golden-haired young man who is known variously at court as Pero Osbeque, Perkin Warbeck, and Peter Warboys. What is his true identity? How does Elizabeth receive him? To what extent does she believe he is her long-lost brother, Richard? Why doesn’t Henry choose to have him put to death immediately?
  • I think Gregory means him to be the real Prince in the Tower and, from Elizabeth’s reaction, I can easily believe that it was her brother as she tries to save him.
  • In Gregory’s book ‘The White Queen’ the younger of the princes, Richard Duke of York, is spirited away from sanctuary in Westminster and an imposter is sent in his place to the Tower, where both Edward V and the imposter boy vanished, presumed murdered. Knowing this, it was easy to believe that Gregory intended this boy to be the real prince.
  • Elizabeth received him unsure of what to think, but hoping that it is her brother. I think some of what Elizabeth thinks is influenced by her desire to see her brother again, rather than what is in front of her.
  • Gregory has it so that Henry VII is aware of a curse against the Tudors – perhaps he doesn’t kill him because he is worried that he is actually Elizabeth’s brother and, if he kills him, his own dynasty will end.
  1. “I was once the girl that everyone watched as they turned their backs on the queen.” (p. 451) How does Elizabeth experience her husband’s infatuation with Lady Katherine Huntly, the beautiful wife of “the boy”? What does Elizabeth recognize about the pain that she caused to Queen Anne, Richard III’s wife, when she was the other woman? How would you characterize the nature of her feelings toward Lady Katherine?
  • Elizabeth begins to understand how much her relationship with Richard III affected Anne Neville.
  • Elizabeth felt powerless to resist Richard III, as Katherine feels powerful to resist Henry VII – I think Elizabeth can sympathise to an extent with her rival.
  • I think Elizabeth is jealous in some ways, because she was like Katherine Huntly, but is no longer, as she is the elder woman and wife rather than the young woman with everything to play for.
  • Elizabeth has mixed feelings towards Katherine as she can understand her, be jealous of her, and sympathise with her, while still hating the fact that Katherine is stealing her husband and resenting her for it.
Philippa Gregory
Philippa Gregory
  1. In the final scene of The White Princess, Henry begs Elizabeth of York to forgive him for the deaths of “the boy”—either her brother, Richard of York, or an exceptionally convincing pretender—and of her innocent cousin, Teddy of Warwick. Given all that Henry has done to her family, why does Elizabeth choose to forgive him? How does the image of a broken king begging his wife for forgiveness give a clearer picture of Elizabeth’s power in their marriage?
  • I think it works because Henry VII regrets having them put to death in the first place.
  • Both “the boy” and Teddy of Warwick were innocents who were used by others for power – they didn’t want power themselves, they were who they were made to be.
  • Elizabeth chooses to forgive him because she knows it was to save their dynasty and prevent civil war.
  • Elizabeth obviously has power in the marriage because Henry values her opinion and doesn’t want his wife to hate him, or for her to die without having forgiven him.
  • I think Elizabeth believes it wasn’t Henry himself who wanted their deaths but his mother, Margaret Beaufort, so she can’t blame him for them.

Author: Helene Harrison

I have an MA in History, with a thesis entitled 'The Many Faces of Anne Boleyn: Perceptions in History, Literature and Film'. I have an interest in the Tudors and the Wars of the Roses along with my love of reading and literature.

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