The White Princess: From Arthur’s Court to Brian Zahnd’s theology.


I sat in my hammock two nights ago, the hooks hanging from two bases bolted into my bedroom wall and my eyes were glued to the television across the room, my stomach churning with grief as the Earl of Warwick, known as “Teddy,” in the recent period piece by STARZ, is shepherded by Richard to kneel before the ax wielding executioner. The show played heavily off speculation that the Earl of Warwick, Edward Plantagenet, had a mental disability and the screenwriters had him condemned to death based off a false confession he was tricked into signing. The thudding of his head hitting the platform was followed by Richard noticing only one coffin and realizing his body would disappear. He coolly calls out his sister’s callousness as Elizabeth of York stands, shrouded, alone before the execution.

Richard and Edward were both executed but I have no doubt that it was the artistic decisions made for that scene that moved my emotions and not the actual executions themselves. I was in tears, though. Sensationalized historical fiction or not, some might think that someone who vigorously studies history would be numb to those sorts of events. But there is no callous on my heart, it seems to grow softer. More often than not, I sit wide eyed in my history lectures with looks of remorse and sorrow than do I take in the knowledge stone-faced.

What I found so particularly offensive about the executions of Richard and Edward was that for all of time, it would seem, we humans have bought into the lie that human life is to be traded for security, wealth, and power. I would even argue that it cannot be traded, since security, wealth, and power are lost almost as easy as they are gained. There is no amount of human life that can be traded for eternal sovereignty and immortality. We are all going to die, whether by the sword of another man or by time itself. No amount of comfort on Earth is worth blood on the ground when we are all going to meet the very same end. Taking a life in order to prolong our own is nothing short of vanity.

But more so than the futility of trying to secure safety and prestige, violence only multiplies enemies. It does not rid us of them. This is a struggle that is played out in The White Princess, as Elizabeth turns from a young queen who thinks there is a right and a moral way to exist and govern into a callous monarch who will do anything to secure the throne for her children. But that struggle is a question to which the answer is a lie.

When I was in middle school, I read Nancy McKenzie’s Queen of Camelot, which has remained one of the most formative texts I ever read. Not only was Queen of Camelot the exact work of fiction that showed me how worthwhile books were, but there were positive lessons I learned from it. As per Arthurian tradition, Guinevere is abducted one day by a petty king who intends to rape her. Lancelot, through great peril, rescues her and the petty king accuses the two of adultery in Arthur’s court. Arthur, not buying it for one second, calls the king a liar. A duel ensues. Lancelot begs to fight for the Queen’s honor but in this retelling, Arthur simply asks: “On what grounds?”

While Lancelot, in both tradition and true to character, would have killed the man, Arthur spares his life and the petty king becomes a lifelong ally and friend. Also true to tradition, Arthur favored friend-making over death-bringing.

That left an impression on me.

There are compelling arguments for war, personal defense, and stepping in to defend those who are unable to defend themselves and my wish is not to demonize human beings who walk these roads where lives are traded for security and ways of life. That would be a monumental undertaking that I could not stand up under. I have simply never been in the position. I have not the time here to discuss the difference between innocent and guilty life. There is a larger point here to make than the moral dilemma of trying to decide if murdering the murderer is still murder.  This standard I am wrestling with is perhaps higher than the reach of all of humanity.

Realizing that Elizabeth of York really did stand by and let or order the execution of her brother struck a deep sadness in me. If we as humans have at times not even had the capacity to realize the nonnegotiable and priceless value in the lives of our own kin, how low we must perceive the value of others to be.

Cain attempted to trade his brother for favor but Abel’s blood wept and was not a sacrifice God was willing to accept. Cain bought the lie even against God’s warning that sin was crouching, licking its lips and desired to consume him. Cain’s question is equally as heartbreaking as Elizabeth’s silence on screen. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

And so the lie has devoured us since that tale has been told.

Are we to be our brother’s keeper?

We ought desire to be.

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