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Posted by aelarsen

To wrap up my comments on The White Queen, I’ll end with two small points about late medieval religion.


We’re Going to the Chapel and We’re Gonna Get Married

In the first episode, Edward IV (Max Irons) has a clandestine marriage to Elizabeth Woodville (Rebecca Ferguson) before a priest, with her mother as the only real witness. Elizabeth assumes this means they are married, but then her brother Anthony (Ben Lamb) warns her that the whole thing could have been a sham marriage with a fake priest. That allows the rest of the episode to milk drama out of whether Edward will acknowledge the marriage or not.

But it’s a serious misrepresentation of the way medieval marriage law worked. By the 9th century, it was becoming established that marriage was governed by canon law, the law of the Church, making religious officials the final arbiters of who was and wasn’t married. Initially, the emphasis was placed on two basic principles: only monogamous marriage was permitted and divorce was not. Other issues quickly got draw in as well, including the famous prohibition on consanguinity—medieval canon law defined a wide range of relationships as within the bounds of incest and therefore unacceptable as marriage partners (eventually, one could get a dispensation on this from high religious officials).


Edward and Elizabeth consummating their marriage

But it wasn’t until the 12th and 13th centuries that canon lawyers and theologians began to tackle one of the thorniest and most surprising questions. Was sex required for marriage? The obvious answer was ‘yes’. Since reproduction was seen as the purpose of marriage, it stood to reason that an unconsummated marriage was not a true one. But that ran smack up against one of the most celebrated pieces of medieval theology, the assertion that Jesus’ mother had remained a virgin her entire life. If sex was required for marriage, then Mary and Joseph were not married.

Such a conclusion was unacceptable, because it meant that Mary and Joseph were living together immorally and Jesus had been raised in sin. So by the 13th century, canon lawyers had figured out a work-around–there was more than one way to make a marriage, and it all depended on what vows were exchanged. If the wedding vows were phrased in the present tense, then they constituted a legitimate marriage regardless of whether sex happens or not. If, on the other hand, the vows were phrased in the future tense, they constituted a legal marriage only if consummation happens later. So if Edward said to Elizabeth something like “I marry you” (using words of the present tense), they were married, even if they never have sex. But if he said “I will marry you” (using words of the future tense), the marriage was not truly made until the couple has sex. So medieval theologians could be certain that Mary and Joseph had been legally married because they must have exchanged their vows in the present tense.

On the other hand, canon lawyers said that there was one thing that wasn’t required for a legitimate marriage, and that was the presence of a priest. Unlike any other sacrament (except emergency baptism), marriage did not require the presence of a priest, although the Church strongly recommended that one be present to bless the couple and to act as a witness. This meant that clandestine marriages (like the one Elizabeth and Edward had) was a huge issue in late medieval law courts. There were numerous cases in which a person came forward claiming that they had secretly married someone else years before. This was most common in matters of inheritance, but other issues could come up as well.


A medieval marriage (note the absence of a priest)

The fact that clandestine marriages were still valid ones is the main reason for that old cliché in Hollywood marriage scenes—the moment when the priest says “If anyone can show a good reason why these two should not be joined in marriage, let him speak now or forever hold his peace.” What it’s basically saying is “Does anyone know if either of these people has already participated in a clandestine marriage?” That’s also why the traditional wedding vow is “I do,” not “I will.” It’s words of the present tense, to eliminate any uncertainty about whether the marriage was legitimate.

I suspect that most 15th century nobles would have known this, since marriage was a huge issue politically and socially for them. So it’s likely that Anthony, Elizabeth, and Edward would probably all have understood that the language used at the ceremony was what mattered. So when Anthony is questioning his sister’s marriage, what he would have focused on is not whether Edward provided a fake priest, because a fake priest can still preside over a real marriage. What he would be asking is “what words did you use in the vow?” And if Elizabeth says “I will marry you,” he’d follow up with “have you had sex since then?”

The episode skips the actual ceremony but shows the couple in bed together soon afterward, so regardless of which vows they exchanged, by the time Anthony is talking to his sister, Edward and Elizabeth are husband and wife legally.


Shuffling Off This Mortal Coil

Several characters die in their beds in this series: Isabel Neville, Jacquetta, Edward IV, Lady Beauchamp, and Anne Neville. Isabel’s happens off-stage, but Anne shows up immediately afterward. and Margaret Beaufort (Amanda Hale) walks out of Lady Beauchamp’s before her mother dies. The other three all get to die on camera. But there’s something missing in all of these scenes. The priest.

Edward dying

Why is no one bleeding this man? He’s obviously dying!

Later medieval religion had a highly-developed body of rituals around the process of dying, because dying was one of the most spiritually-perilous things that could happen to a person. If the Devil tricked a dying person into abandoning their faith in a moment of despair, there was a strong chance that person would go to Hell. So it was assumed that the dying process was a moment when a person needed as much spiritual support and assistance as possible.

The ideal death, in the late medieval mind, was dying in bed surrounded by family and community and priest. This is not because it was a chance to say goodbye, but because these people would help the dying person to die well. In a full death-bed ritual, when it becomes clear (or seems likely) that someone will die soon, a priest is sent for and the local community and family of the person will gather at the death-bed. The priest will arrive and will do a variety of rituals: saying the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary with the dying person, anointing the person with consecrated oil, presenting the person with a crucifix and asking him or her to kiss it, asking the person to affirm their faith, and performing a final confession. Unlike the normal private confession, this confession is usually public, so the dying Edward will be asked about all his sins toward his loved ones gathered around him, and those gathered may well suggest things he ought to confess. Final reconciliations with those he has quarreled with may be sought, to reduce the time in Purgatory.

In the case of a king or queen, there’s an added political dimension. The king needs to make clear who is going to succeed him. This would already have been legally determined, but a death-bed statement helps strengthen the new king’s legitimacy. If the heir is a minor, the king needs to declare who ought to govern and have charge of his son. The death of a king or queen needs to be above reproach and clearly not a case of murder, so witnesses needed to be present who aren’t just the family, such as the Chancellor or the Treasurer.


Jacquetta’s death-bed

The White Queen mostly gets that part right. Edward is asked about who is going to governing for his son and so on. But for some reason, none of these important people die with a priest present, and the emphasis is entirely on the emotional reactions of their loved ones. There’s no hint these men and women lived in a society in which religion played a major role and that they probably had some concern for the state of their souls. The only character for whom religion seems to matter is Margaret Beaufort (Amanda Hale) and even she barely seems to interact with a priest; there’s no priest at her mother Lady Beauchamp’s death-bed and she spitefully quarrels with her mother, which medieval society would have seen as horrificially impious. Every high noble family would have had a chaplain on its staff, and kings and queens would have had personal confessors who functioned as spiritual advisors and guides, but none of these characters meet with a confessor.

Obviously, the religious elements have been largely stripped out of the story because modern audiences aren’t generally interested in such things, and elaborate death-bed rituals would get in the way of what modern audiences really want to see, which is lots of tearful goodbyes or final turns of the knife (in the case of Lady Beauchamp and her bitter daughter Margaret). But in a series that genuinely tried to get the basic historical facts right, it’s a damn shame that they didn’t include at least a few elements of the late medieval death ritual.

Also, because I doubt I’ll ever have a genuine reason to post it, I feel compelled to post what is, in my opinion, the greatest graphic for a scholarly book ever printed. It’s from James Brundage’s Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe, and it flowcharts the sexual decision-making process that early medieval penitential manuals theoretically expected a couple to go through when deciding whether to have sex. By the 10th century, these manuals were no longer being so fussy, so there was only a period of about 200 years when this model might have applied. But it’s too beautiful to pass up.



Want to Know More?

The White Queen is available on Starz, and on Amazon. The three novels it is based on are The White QueenThe Red Queen, and The Kingmaker’s DaughterThey are also available as a set with two other novels.

If you want to know more about medieval ideas about marriage, a good starting point is Frances and Joseph Gies, Marriage and Family in the Middle AgesTheir books are directed more at laymen than scholars, and this one does a pretty good job of surveying the evolution of medieval ideas about marraige and family structure.

If you really want to dig into the legal issues around marriage, there is no better book than James Brundage’s Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval EuropeI had the pleasure of having Brundage as my undergraduate advisor, and that flowchart is absolutely typical of his dry sense of humor. But don’t be fooled; this is a very scholarly book and not for the faint of heart.

If you’re curious about late medieval dying rituals, John Hatcher’s The Black Death: A Personal History might be a good place to go. Although it’s specifically about the Bubonic Plague hitting England in 1347-48, it has a very good chapter on the rituals of dying (which the Black Death proved a perfect storm against).

Purchasing any of these books through their links is a great way to support this blog, since I get a small percentage of the proceeds and you get to learn something.


The White Queen: Richard III

21 August 2017 15:05
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Posted by aelarsen

The last three episodes of The White Queen deal with Richard III’s seizure of power after his brother Edward IV dies in 1483. This portion of the series definitely falls on the ‘Yet So Far’ side of this series, and I figured it deserved a post of its own.


The show’s take on Richard is an interesting one. Shakespeare and the Tudors in general depicted him as a scheming villain who would stop at nothing to get the crown. But this Richard (Aneurin Bernard) is a basically decent man, who remains loyal to his brother until late in Edward’s reign, when frustrations with some of Edward’s choices and growing tensions with the Woodvilles lead him into betraying his nephew Edward. His wife Anne (Faye Marsay) hates Queen Elizabeth (Rebecca Ferguson) and thinks she is a literal witch who caused the death of Anne’s sister Isabel, and she urges her husband to take action against the Woodvilles. And while Richard and Elizabeth sincerely try to find a way to trust each other, Margaret Beaufort (Amanda Hale) and her husband Lord Stanley (Rupert Graves) actively lie to both sides to encourage distrust between them so that Margaret’s son Henry Tudor (Michael Marcus) can take the throne. So this Richard is a decent man simply unable to find a way to make peace and must therefore do evil instead.


Bernard’s Richard in a very snappy outfit

The reality was somewhat more complex than that. The later 15th century was a harsh period politically. Over the previous century and a half, two kings were usurped (Edward II and Richard II), there were two royal minorities (Richard II and Henry VI) and one disastrously incompetent king (Henry VI); all of that made the power of the crown more unstable than it had been in the 12th or 13th century. At the same time, the wars in France had made several noble families far richer than in previous centuries, closing the gap between the monarch and his most powerful subjects. Parliament did not yet have institutional structures to enable it to resist the pressure of aggressive kings and nobles, and the law courts easily succumbed to pressure from nobles to give highly biased rulings. All that meant that politics during the last decades of the Plantagenet dynasty were characterized by a certain dog-eat-dog ruthlessness. In the 1470s, George of Clarence and Richard (who had married sisters) were eager to get their hands on the fortune of their mother-in-law, the Dowager Countess of Warwick, so they prevailed upon Edward and Parliament to have the countess declared legally dead so their wives could inherit her estates, despite the unfortunate woman being very much alive and in evidence.

Richard did not get along well with the Woodvilles during his brother’s reign. Like many other nobles, he resented them grabbing up marriage partners and important offices, and the Woodvilles likewise disliked him, at least in part because by the end of the reign, he was next in line should anything happen to Edward’s children.

When Edward died unexpectedly, leaving behind his 11-year old son Edward as his heir, it necessitated the appointment of a regent to govern for him for several years. Richard became Lord Protector, a title invented for his father the duke of York during Henry VI’s mental incapacity. That automatically created tension between the Dowager Queen Elizabeth, who as mother of the king could be expected to have a great deal of influence with young Edward, and Richard, who as Lord Protector was now the most important official in the country. For Richard, this created a dilemma. He might be politically ascendant for the next few years, but Elizabeth’s influence over Edward meant that the young king would probably absorb his mother’s dislike for Richard. Eventually, Edward would be old enough to assume power, and at that point he was likely to be hostile to Richard.

So Richard was in a bad position. It was probably just a matter of time before the Woodvilles found a way to use the young king against Richard, perhaps stripping him of his offices and honors, and perhaps even finding an excuse to execute him. It was either do or be done to eventually, and Richard decided to do.


Richard III’s skeleton shows he really did have a deformed spine

Right after the old Edward’s death, Richard intercepted young Edward’s maternal uncle, Earl Rivers, who was escorting their nephew to London. He arrested Rivers and took charge of the young king, claiming that there was a plot to deprive Richard his role as Lord Protector. Whether there was any truth to his claim is unknown, but it’s not entirely implausible. He had installed Edward in the Tower of London. The Dowager Queen took all her remaining children and sought sanctuary in Westminster Abbey. But several days later, she agreed to release her youngest son Richard (Edward’s full brother) to the Lord Protector in order to participate in Edward’s coronation, which was supposed to happen on June 22nd.

Robert Stillington, bishop of Bath and Wells (but not the baby-eating one), told Richard that he had performed a marriage ceremony for Edward to a different woman prior to his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, which meant that his marriage to Elizabeth was bigamous and therefore invalid, which in turn meant that young Edward and Richard were illegitimate and the Lord Protector was therefore the rightful king. Whether Stillington had any evidence to support this claim or if he was just giving Richard cover for what he had decided to do is unknown; given Edward’s amorousness, the claim is certainly not impossible, but most historians feel Stillington was lying.

Regardless, this gave Richard the ammunition he needed. On the 22nd, instead of a coronation, a sermon was preached outside Old St. Paul’s circulating Stllington’s claim and declaring the two boys bastards. On June 25th, Earl Rivers was found guilty of treason and executed and the next day Richard publicly agreed to become king. He was crowned on July 6th, completing the coup. After the summer of 1483, neither of the young princes were ever seen in public again.


The Princes in the Tower

What happened to Edward V and his younger brother Richard is unknown. It’s virtually certain they were murdered at some point (a pair of skeletons often thought to be them were discovered in a disused staircase of the Tower of London centuries later), but who actually killed them, we don’t know. Shakespeare and other Tudor authors put the blame on Richard, while people interested in defending Richard have offered a variety of other suspects. No serious scholar thinks that Richard personally stabbed or strangled them, but it is inconceivable that they were killed without Richard’s agreement; they were simply too important for some nobleman to sneak into the Tower and do them in without Richard’s knowledge.

The series takes an interesting approach to this question. It never resolves the issue. Someone enters the young king’s chamber in the Tower and he is startled awake, and that’s the last we see of him. For the remainder of the series, all the major characters wrestle with what happened to the boys. Elizabeth agonizes over the rumors that they are dead. Richard seems haunted by the question, and eventually goes to see Queen Elizabeth, asking her if her witchcraft stole them away, so it’s pretty clear that he didn’t do it. At different points both Margaret Beaufort and Anne Neville instruct underlings to kill the boys, so the viewer is left with the puzzle of whether one of the nobles or servants of Richard, Margaret, or Anne did the deed.

Queen Elizabeth and her daughter send a curse after whoever murdered the young king, and Anne eventually sickens and dies, so the show appears to point the finger at her. But she asks one of her lackeys if he did the deed and he denies it, absolving her of the guilt she is carrying. Margaret likewise wrestles with the issue of whether she can orchestrate the murder of Prince Richard, whom she literally brought into the world; her husband Lord Stanley (Rupert Graves) takes enormous pleasure at forcing her to say she wants the boy dead.


Bernard as Richard and Marsay as Anne


This approach has two virtues. First, it avoids passing judgment where historians have no definitive answer, and second, it dramatizes the widespread uncertainty felt at the time over what had happened to them. No one in 1485 knew the answer (except whoever did the deed), so the show leaves us hanging the way events left everyone at the time hanging.

However, ultimately, it’s a cop-out. As I noted, serious historians agree that Richard was responsible for their fate, even if he didn’t murder them with his own hands. The series is more than willing to show things that didn’t happen, such Edward, George, and Richard personally smothering Henry VI, or the Woodvilles conjuring hurricanes, so to suddenly demur at this point is just cheating. And Gregory is more than willing to give us her rather improbable take on a variety of issues, such as why Richard III was interested in his niece Elizabeth, so refusing to give us her solution to who done it feels cheap, like reading an Agatha Christie novel that ends with Poirot admitting he has no clue who the murderer is.

Furthermore, the series veers off wildly into La-La Land with this whole incident, because after Richard snatches young Edward, Queen Elizabeth manages to smuggle out her younger son Richard to Flanders under the name ‘Perkin Warbeck’, and somehow finds a lookalike boy to pretend to be him, so that King Richard mistakenly thinks he has Prince Richard in the Tower. This imposter somehow never gives the game away, nor does young Edward.

For those of you less familiar with the actual reign of Henry VII, one of the rebellions against him was in the name of a pretender named Perkin Warbeck. So Gregory is claiming that Perkin Warbeck actually was the man he claimed to be. It’s a cute twist, but utterly improbable.


The Battle of Bosworth Field

The show’s take on the battle that ended Richard III’s brief reign and life is pretty sad. The show clearly didn’t have a lot of money for battle scenes or even decent stuntmen or a good fight co-ordinator, because the two battles that are shown are both laughably bad. The most obvious problem is that the Battle of Bosworth Field takes place in a forest. The two sides have no formation, so as with so many other bad renditions of historical battles, the battle is depicted as a series of one-on-one fights with soldiers on both sides running in from both sides of the camera. There’s lots of sword-slapping-on-sword pseudo-fighting, and few of the men carry shields. There’s no sign of the cannons Richard used to harass Henry’s men as they maneuvered around a nearby marsh. There’s no cavalry, even though Richard’s charge straight at Henry’s position was one of the critical moments in the battle; had he succeeded he would have killed Henry and ended the battle right there, but instead he failed and wound up isolated and unhorsed, which led to his death. At least the men are wearing reasonable approximations of real period armor (although, as always, they go into battle mostly without helmets so the audience can see the actors’ faces).


Note the total absence of a field

I can totally appreciate that a miniseries doesn’t have the budget to realistically recreate a battle involving perhaps 15-20,000 men. Cavalry charges are expensive to stage. But it can’t have cost more to stage the fight in a field somewhere rather than a forest. It’s pretty clear they staged it in a forest because it made it easier to disguise the fact that they only had about 20 guys. Perhaps this might have worked for some other battle, but this particular battle is so famously set in a field, that’s its whole freaking name! Trying to dodge the issue here fails so badly it calls attention to how poorly the fight is staged. Given that it’s the climax of the whole series, it would have been nice if they had found another way to handle it.

Want to Know More?

The White Queen is available on Starz, and on Amazon. The three novels it is based on are The White QueenThe Red Queen, and The Kingmaker’s DaughterThey are also available as a set with two other novels.

The best book I know on Richard III is Charles Ross’ appropriately-named Richard IIIRoss was, until his tragic murder during a break-in, probably the leading historian of Edward IV and Richard III and his take on these two men and their era has strongly influenced my approach to the series. I can’t recommend his books on them highly enough.


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