Samantha Morton’s dazzles as Catherine de’ Medici, the Serpent Queen.

The Serpent Queen

Bring on the Queens.

A table outlining the five queens covered in each of the Starz seriesThe White Queen (Elizabeth Woodville), The White Princess (Elizabeth of York), The Spanish Princess (Catherine of Aragon), Becoming Elizabeth (Elizabeth the I) and The Serpent Queen (Catherine de’ Medici)is present at the end of this post.

Essie Davis
Essie Davis as Elizabeth Woodville

Our first queen is Elizabeth Woodville (played first by Rebecca Ferguson and then by the marvelous Essie Davis) wife of Edward IV and the mother of the princes in the tower. Second is her daughter Elizabeth of York consort of Henry VII and mother of Henry VIII. She is played first by Jodie Comer and then by Alexandra Moen. Third, there is Catherine of Aragon (Charlotte Hope), wife of Arthur, Prince of Wales who, following his death in 1502, refused to leave England for what must have seemed like an endless seven years (all the while maintaining that her marriage was never consummated) until she finally got her wish and married his younger brother Henry VIII in 1509. Astonishingly, the thorn in the side of all three queens, although she was never queen herself, was the mother of Henry Tudor (Henry VII), the fanatical Margaret Beaufort who KNEW, from the moment of conception, that her son would, someday, ascend to the throne of England effectively ending the War of the Roses with House of Lancaster as the victor. Margaret is such a force of nature, such an essential piece of English/World history, that she is played across three series by three exceptional actress (Amanda Hale, Michelle Fairley and Harriet Walker) with Fairley taking up the bulk of the screen-time in season two (“The White Princess”) as the victorious “the king’s mother” following his victory at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 but with Hale making an indelible impression as the embodiment of maternal ambition and obsession in season one (“The White Queen”).

Alicia von Rittberg
Alicia von Rittberg (Elizabeth I) with Jessica Raine as Catherine Parr

As a companion piece, there is “Becoming Elizabeth” which examines the years of the Young Elizabeth I from the death of Henry VIII in 1547 to the death of her half-brother the protestant Edward VI and the ascending to the throne of her half-sister the Catholic Mary Tudor in 1553. The tone of this series is more sober. It sticks more closely to the historical record, and it is grounded by a fiercely intelligent performance by young German actress Alicia von Rittberg. Elizabeth was exceptionally vulnerable during this period of her life. She had to learn very quickly how to survive in a world with multiple warring factions and where the slightest misstep could end with her head on the block. Von Rittberg conveys all this and more. Kudos also to Romola Garai who manages to attain a modicum of sympathy for one of history’s most notorious villains, Mary Tudor.

Liv Hill
Liv Hill as Catherine de’ Medici

With “The Serpent Queen” Starz has returned to the more casual and cavalier attitude towards history as the first three series. Catherine was not of Royal blood, but she was a Medici, the banking family who were the de facto rulers of Florence which, of course, gave us the Renaissance in addition to numerous popes. In 1533, one of those popes, Catherine’s Uncle, Pope Clement (Charles Dance, excellent), decides to marry his niece to the younger son of the King of France (Colm Meaney). He’s had her portrait doctored and has consented to throw in a few islands here, a few duchies there for her fabulous dowry. When we first meet fourteen-year-old Catherine (a supremely cheeky Liv Hill) she immediately takes us into her confidence by breaking the fourth wall, letting us know that, although she knows she’s not a “looker”, she has learned to take care of herself, and it is this air of confidence that sways the French court at a crucial moment during their initial meeting. What’s more, the young couple (Henry is also fourteen) like each other – it’s virtually love at first sight. However, after the marriage is consummated (with an audience), he changes. He banishes Catherine, finding comfort, instead, in the arms of the woman who will become his mistress, Catherine’s distant cousin Diane de Poitiers (Ludivine Sagnier).

Samantha Morton
Samantha Morton as Catherine de’ Medici

All these opening scenes are told in flashback from 1560 by an older and wiser Catherine to a servant girl. Catherine is now played by Samantha Morton who seems to have waited her whole life for this role. Every word, every gesture is savored. This is a woman to be feared and with reason. With Henry’s older brother Francis dying unexpectedly from a chill shortly after their wedding and Henry himself dying in a jousting tournament in 1559, she will rule France for thirty years as three of her son’s become king while she outlives two of them. During her reign, the religious wars of the sixteenth century ravaged France. There was the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572 and the endless jostling for power between the houses of Valois, Bourbon, and Guise. It will be bloody. It will be fun.

Now Streaming on Starz

QueenLimited SeriesYearsPlayed by
Elizabeth WoodvilleThe White Queen/The White Princess1437-1492Rebecca Ferguson/Essie Davis
Elizabeth of YorkThe White Princess/The Spanish Princess1466-1503Jodie Comer /Alexandra Moen
Catherine of AragonThe Spanish Princess1485-1536Charlotte Hope
Elizabeth the IBecoming Elizabeth1533-1603Alicia von Rittberg
Catherine de ’MediciThe Serpent Queen1519-1589Liv Hill/Samantha Morton

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