If you are the type of person who likes to pore over family trees, “The White Princess” is tailor-made for you: The Starz drama, based on the Philippa Gregory book, tells a fictionalized version of just a sliver of one of the most complicated moments in English monarchy. If you don’t know your Lancasters from your Yorks — your Plantagenets and your Tudors — “The White Princess” is a steep learning curve. If you do — or if you’re willing to learn — the drama is an enjoyable, ridiculous romp through the early days of the first Tudor king, Henry VII, and his marriage to Elizabeth of York, the titular white princess. (White, in this case, because York’s badge was a white rose, while the Lancasters’ was a red rose — like Starz’s “The White Queen,” a loose prequel to this, from 2013.)
The main thing to know is that Richard III, the “bloody dog” of Shakespeare’s imaginings, is in fact beloved to our lead Elizabeth (Jodie Comer). In the first episode, we’re shown a flashback to a night of passion she shared with him, intermingled with his death in battle — the death that signaled the end of the wars, more or less. Richard III was Elizabeth of York’s uncle, who may well have killed one of her young brothers — and for the daughter of a king to offer up her virginity to any man she wasn’t married to is itself quite extraordinary. In this case, the love affair just serves to cement her hatred for her betrothed, Henry (Jacob Collins-Levy), who in turn resents having to marry a woman who openly despises him. But England demands a reconciliation between the Lancasters and the Yorks, and this marriage seems to be the best way to do it. That does not mean anyone involved is going to like it very much.
“The White Princess” is not as clear or polished as say, “The Crown,” when it comes to creating a portrait of the monarchy. But it is at its best when it portrays the complex negotiation and manipulation between Henry and Lizzie. It’s a love story, but one that feels rather unfamiliar to a Western audience: The couple hardly knows each other, and sets about the hard work of having children and reconciling their in-laws without much enjoying each other’s company. Not every arranged marriage works out well, obviously. But history tells us that Henry and his queen grew to love each other, and inklings of that are obvious in even their most contentious meetings. Whether or not either is fully conscious of it, their marriage is setting the table for a long-awaited and much-desired era of peace in England — and despite diametrically opposed families, they have quite a bit in common. There is a refreshing kind of honesty in hate, anyway.
It means that everything in “The White Princess” is backwards, for a modern and more romantic audience. Because the Tudors want to ensure Lizzie is “fertile,” Henry won’t marry her until she can prove she’s pregnant. The two have brief, passionless intercourse months before they marry and years before they more romantically kiss. Quite despite either of their loyalties, they grow to respect each other — Henry admires his wife’s spirit and loyalty, and Lizzie grows to believe in his good intentions for the throne. When their first child Arthur is born, Henry has a badge drawn up that combines the Lancaster and York roses. It’s a peace offering, of sorts, but it takes Lizzie quite some time to be able to accept it as what it is.
Aside from Comer and Collins-Levy’s dynamic, “The White Princess” gets lost in the weeds of historical detail and soapy reinterpretation. There are lots and lots of characters; that’s where the family trees come out. Everyone is vaguely related to everyone else and squabbling over lineage; because of the tumult of the wars, a dozen different people were briefly kings, queens, or heirs to the throne.
The most interesting are the two warring queen mothers. Michelle Fairley (best known as Catelyn Stark from “Game of Thrones”) plays Henry’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, with icy, God-fearing, goth-queen stature — she might as well be Maleficent, with her rotating black headdresses. Essie Davis plays Lizzie’s mother, Elizabeth Woodville, with long fair tresses and cherubic cheeks like her daughter’s. (“The White Queen” was about her, and though share many of the same characters, they have no actors in common.) The two mothers, who made an alliance to marry their children, absolutely hate each other — and where Margaret indulges in a lot of chaste praying to soothe her anger, Elizabeth Woodville goes straight to witchcraft (!), which is bizarrely played as a totally real and reliable power. As figures in a drama, they are interesting at first, but too unchangeable over time. Lizzie and Henry are trying to create something for the future, but their mothers are both still stuck in a generations-old power struggle, and sometimes “The White Princess” feels stuck in telling a story that evolves only over years.
Still, as a female-centric history of this era, “The White Princess” is fascinating. In a patriarchy, every woman married to a man can identify with a princess in the thrall of a potentially merciless king; Lizzie’s skirmishes for power with her mother-in-law over her son and her husband is even today the stuff of soap opera.
Gregory has written many stories about the monarchy in this era — “The Other Boleyn Girl,” most famously — and all emphasize the women’s dramas and sexual politics that played out behind the throne. Throughout the Tudor era that followed the wars, extraordinary women nearly outnumbered the men. In this case, “The White Princess” observes cannily why that might be the case: After a hundred years of war and strife between the noble families, the women are nearly all that’s left. The Wars of the Roses were a great inspiration for George R.R. Martin in writing his “Game of Thrones” books — a fact “The White Princess” nods to by casting Fairley, including magic, and showcasing a plotline about boys pretending to long-lost heirs to thrones — and much like that series, too, by partway through only the women are left to rebuild. (Henry VII and Elizabeth of York are a much more functional Robert Baratheon and Cersei Lannister; mercifully, Lizzie doesn’t have a twin.)
“The White Princess” intercuts between a wedding and a battle at the end of the fourth episode with surprising facility — creating visual parallels between the vestments, the call to arms, and a ring on a finger to a knife at the throat. The emphasis raises the sphere of the domestic to be just as political, dangerous, and bloody as the battlefield. Except where war ends only in death, marriage, hopefully, brings forth life. In a sense, the full struggle of “The White Princess” is to move away from war towards peace, and that requires leaving behind a paradigm of rivalry. Of course this work is left to women; it’s women who tend to be able to put family over honor. A York woman, when pressed, blurts out: “I do not want my name… all it means is danger.” It is left to the viewer to interpret where Lizzie’s loyalties, duties, and love should lie — with her mother and their family legacy, or with her husband, their son, and a future ruled by another house.