Everyone knows about the Tudors, that over-exposed dynasty that gave us the monarchs Henry VIII and Elizabeth I and genius scriveners William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and Thomas More.
The era has inspired dozens of films and TV shows, including Showtime's over-sexed The Tudors.
Think of The White Queen as a Tudors prequel: It brings to screen the ultra-melodramatic, twisted, gnarled, bloody, circuitous, real-life, historical process that led to the rise of Henry VII and his lusty son, Henry VIII.
Unlike the Tudors, the Starz series focuses on the women behind the men who ruled England.
"I know [Philippa Gregory's] books, and they are really engaging," said executive producer Colin Callender. "And she takes a perspective I hadn't seen before: She tells history through the eyes of the women."
Three women, to be precise: Elizabeth Woodville, who became Edward IV's queen; Anne Neville, the unfortunate wife of Edward's brother Richard III, who seized the throne after Edward's death; and Margaret Beaufort, whose son established the Tudor dynasty as Henry VII.
The women are pitted against each other in a bitter struggle for power.
The first episode is about an event that puts a big spanner into the machinery of war between the two sides, the Yorkists (white rose) and the Lancastrians (red).
The triumphant Yorkist king, Edward IV (Jeremy Irons' comely son, Max), falls in love and marries in 1464 a particularly delectable young widow named Elizabeth Woodville (Ferguson).
Trouble is, she's a commoner, not of royal blood. Worse, her family are dyed-in-the-wool Lancastrians.
"This was unthought of," said Ferguson, 29, on the phone from Budapest, where she is shooting a new film. "Edward was supposed to make an alliance with France by marrying a French princess."
Born and raised in Stockholm to a Swedish father and an English mother, former soap-opera star Ferguson seems to channel Ingrid Bergman in her arresting grace and disarming sexuality.
Edward IV, who had a reputation for bedding beautiful women across the country - even going as far as staging a fake marriage ceremony with them - does the unthinkable when he actually falls in love with his latest conquest and marries her for real.
"That's the motor that gets the whole story going," Ferguson said. Plots are hatched to get rid of Elizabeth. "I'm a demon in everyone's eyes," Ferguson said.
Elizabeth retaliates: She uses her power to find rich spouses for her 13 brothers and sisters, encouraged by her Machiavellian mother, Jacquetta, played with cunning glee by Janet McTeer.
"Her mother is . . . more politically savvy, and she realizes very quickly how Elizabeth can survive," Ferguson explained.
One weapon in her arsenal: Have as many heirs with Edward as possible. She bore Edward 10 children.
Screenwriter Emma Frost said Elizabeth's contemporaries branded her a greedy schemer not worthy of her crown. The White Queen tries to correct that distortion, she said.
"History is what kind of gets written down by people who had the power to write it down," Frost said, "and any woman who received a modicum of power . . . was perceived as scheming."
Ferguson said Elizabeth had to make it in a man's world, play by men's rules: "When she becomes queen of England, she knows it'll take a lot to hold on to her status. It's a matter of survival."
Elizabeth pays a high price for her ambition: Two of her sons, the famous princes in the tower, are abducted and most likely killed; her father and one of her brothers are beheaded; and her mother is put on trial for witchcraft.
Scheming women, sexually voracious men jockeying for power and money? It's all very soap opera.
"There's a very strange attraction to these kinds of stories, the same attraction Dallas had in the 1980s," said Temple University English professor Lawrence Venuti. "Except, unlike Dallas this is much, much more bloodthirsty."
Venuti, a literary theoretician and translator, said The Tudors, Showtime's The Borgias, and The White Queen are about an era and class of people who barely bothered to disguise their lust for power with Christian piety.
"These are periods when people are pursuing their self-interest and where there is a tremendous - in the sense of terrible and fearful - and inextricable link between sex and politics," he said.
"There is this attraction, some kind of appeal in watching people driven entirely by greed."
Contact Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or email@example.com