The paranoia and instability of the court of Henry VII of England drive the look of Starz’s limited series “The White Princess.” And while Henry Tudor’s marriage to Elizabeth of York (the titular “White Princess”) ended the War of the Roses, the era’s politics remained fraught with intrigue. The limited series’ production design and costumes reflect this turmoil.
Produced by Playground Entertainment and Company Pictures, the series was mostly shot on location around England and Wales, with sets built at the Bottle Yard Studios in Bristol, England. Production designer Will Hughes-Jones notes that the period straddling the 15th and 16th centuries is tricky. “They were coming out of the Dark Ages, Britain had just suffered a massive blow from the Black Death and a civil war had just ended.”
Costume designer Phoebe De Gaye echoes the need to depict the transitional period between medieval and Tudor England, adding, “The goal was to make it feel like it’s an authentic and coherent world.”
De Gaye studied paintings of the period, noting that portraits were hyperrealistic, giving her insight into the richness of fabrics and textures. “You really need a lot of texture with HD images; if you don’t have that, it all fades away on-screen,” she says.
Hughes-Jones worked closely with De Gaye on the color palette. “We were very careful with the locations,” he says. “And then when we built the sets, we wanted to have spaces where people could hide, such as deep window recesses and balconies.”
To note Henry’s early paranoia, De Gaye explains, “we tried to make him spidery, slender,” with shirts that have hanging sleeves. “It almost looks like he has an extra pair of arms.” But the centerpiece of the series are three women: Princess Elizabeth (or Lizzie, played by Jodie Comer); her mother, Dowager Queen Elizabeth Woodville (Essie Davis), often accused of being a witch; and the overly pious Margaret Beaufort (Michelle Fairley), mother of King Henry.
The relationships among the women are complex if dramatically well defined. “Margaret is coiled tight and very brittle,” De Gaye says. “Her clothes are very tight and almost nun-like. She never actually wears black, but dark greens and blues. Lizzie starts off as a girl and gradually becomes more and more encrusted and stiff by the end of the series. The witch — Elizabeth — wore blue colors; she’s associated with water. The color palettes were quite defining.”
The court of Burgundy in France, which plays a big part in the politics of Henry’s England, has a very different look from Henry’s court. “Burgundy was a place of courtly love, a sensuous place,” says De Gaye. So the men and women there wear brighter colors. Outdoor shots feature sunny gardens.
Says Hughes-Jones: “What we ultimately needed was a strong contrast to Henry’s England. It was pattern and color and reflective surfaces in Burgundy.”
In order to create the most authentic-looking lighting, much of the shooting took place in cathedrals, which had expansive windows.
“Windows were a sign of wealth and being closer to God,” Hughes-Jones notes. “We’re very lucky in that we had a lot of cathedrals within driving distance. Early on we decided to use cathedrals as the connective tissue of space. That dictated what our set builds would be. In every location, on every set, lighting was fundamental. We kept the candle factory happy.”