Seven Historical Inaccuracies in “The White Queen” Costumes and Sets

Admittedly, I love The White Queen. I’ve read the comments in The Guardian. I cringe at the sometimes <ahem> creative versions of some historical events. And, I often roll my eyes at the magic. But, I still love it.

Although some reviewers have criticized the show for its Disney-like cleanliness, it has significantly better sets than many period pieces. Some costumes are frankly stupendous and they really get them right. However, there are some historical inaccuracies in the costumes and set design – and frankly that’s okay.

If a show is telling us that a character is beautiful, it makes it tough for us to believe she is beautiful if she is partially bald or presented in a way we wouldn’t find attractive. Set designers need to recreate the period as well as translate it for us so we can feel the mood of the period.

At any rate, this list isn’t meant to be mean to The White Queen, because I do love it, but I thought it would be fun to explore some of the differences.

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Rebecca Ferguson in the White Queen (c) Starz

Young Edward IV

Edward IV wearing a jacket entirely out of cloth of gold.

1. Edward IV, Richard III, Queen Elizabeth Woodville and other royals all wore cloth-of-gold or velvets when they were at court. Queens did not wear comfy-looking wool dresses in pastel colors in the fifteenth century. The White Queen does use cloth of gold for Elizabeth’s coronation, but otherwise, understandably, it is rarely seen. The fifteenth century was the great age of cloth – and royals wore luxurious fabrics then the way we’d wear jewelry or carry flashy phones today. Black (and dark colors) were all the rage for fifteenth-century royals because black used more dye than any other color so it was more expensive. Dark fabric was considered a status symbol. (Incidentally, black was not the color of mourning for royalty, and the show gets this right but it is very subtle. The royal color of mourning was blue.) Nobody, however, wore corduroy or had zippers.

 

2. People didn’t eat raw fruit very often. Fruit and vegetables tended to be stewed or baked (in a pie). Medieval people were leery of raw fruit and vegetables. In fact, some people attributed Edward IV’s death to eating too much raw fruit! In The White Queen, however, it seems like every time I blink this show has somebody eating raw fruit – Elizabeth Woodville’s sons, Edward IV, Margaret Beaufort, and many others all eat raw fruit. Raw fruit is displayed as table decoration in still-life style bowls. The show seems to be trying to make the Middle Ages seem fresh  – no more of the dark, dusty, and dirty – so I understand why they use the fresh fruit.

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This publicity image released by Starz shows Rebecca Ferguson in “The White Queen.” (AP Photo/Starz, Ed Miller)

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From: Entrée de l’empereur Charles IV à Saint-DenisGrandes Chroniques de France, by Jean Fouquet. See Wikipedia

3. Elizabeth Woodville probably did not arrive in a carriage for her coronation. There were no carriages for regal travel – not really. In the Middle Ages, the roads were rough and good suspension on carriages hadn’t been invented yet. As a result, when nobles didn’t ride horses, they traveled in a litter.

 

 

 

 

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Margaret of York wearing a henin

4. Women always kept their hair covered. The only woman allowed to wear her hair uncovered was the Queen. But, even then, it only tended to be on coronations. Reporting on Margaret of York’s wedding – that is Edward IV’s sister who was only shown briefly  at the beginning of The White Queen – a chronicler noted that although she wore her hair down or uncovered, she had it uncovered “honorablement” (Honorably) – that’s how strict the expectation was that women would cover their hair. In fact, the French Hood that Anne Boleyn wore was considered racy because it showed a lot more hair than the Gable Hood Catherine of Argon wore.

 

 

 

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(c) Starz

5. Those funky looking medieval hats known as henins – that is, the princess hats – were all the rage. It seems doubtful women would have appeared without them. The White Queen only tends to show older dowager women, like Cecily Neville and Jacquetta, with the henins. But, as you can see from Elizabeth Woodville’s portrait, she wore them too – even when she was young.

 

 

 

 

6. Ladies of court never touched their skirts. In Episode 1, there is a scene where Elizabeth Woodville is walking through the tall grass and lifting her skirts. At least according to this blog, that never would have happened because ladies never touched their skirts, even when walking up and down stairs. Ladies used a sweeping step with their feet – swooping their foot in a small half circle along the floor and pushing the skirts as they moved the feet. The author of this blog writes, “That’s how you spotted a peasant in clothes too good for her: she either handled her skirts, or she tripped.”

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Elizabeth Woodville – note the missing hair on her forehead, the light gauzy fabric is her henin

7. Women plucked the hair above their forehead. This is how they got such high foreheads in their portraits. But, frankly, I’m glad they didn’t do that one in The White Queen. That’s one look that should have been on the “Medieval Don’t” list.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By

Jamie Adair is the editor of History Behind Game of Thrones, a website about the history behind George RR Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" novels and the hit TV show, "Game of Thrones."

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