From The Writers' Room Featuring Whitehall

Sarah Smith on writing Whitehall Episode 11: “A King and No King”

The consequences of inconception.

I have a friend who’s a history buff and a specialist in infertility. While I was working on this episode, I got together with him and we talked about what it means for a royal couple—emotionally and politically—to be suspected of being infertile.

WHITEHALL.EP11_600x960_300dpi_TXTRoyal heirs are actual magic. Back in folklore times, the potency of the king was the fertility of the land. If the king had sons, the land prospered. If he didn’t, he was sacrificed in favor of a new king.

Even now, in Restoration times, an heir has magic. An heir will keep the succession peaceful and himself quietly on the throne. Only Protestants can inherit the throne, so Charles needs a Protestant son.

The Stuarts have never been particularly lucky with heirs. Two generations back, the brilliant and politically astute Stuart heir, the Protestant Prince Henry, died from typhoid. (Old Nan remembers his death in this episode.) Prince Harry was succeeded by his younger brother, Charles I, our Charles’s father, who was not-so-secretly Catholic and no more flexible than a brick.

We know how that came out. Every day Charles walks past the spot where his father was beheaded. Blood sacrifice hangs over Whitehall. Charles himself must resist turning Catholic, though he’s under constant pressure from his family. He must stay Protestant, and he must get a son, who must be Protestant.

So far, Charles has no legitimate children.

His heir is his younger brother, James, the Duke of York. James is another Charles I. In a few years he’ll turn Catholic. Only one of his sons will survive to adulthood. The son will turn Catholic too and will be cut out of the succession, leaving no Stuart sons at all.  

But that’s legitimate children.

Our Charles has six illegitimate children so far (his lifetime total will be around 14). The oldest is Jamie Scott, the Duke of Monmouth. Jamie is teenaged, devastatingly handsome, and Protestant: the perfect heir, if he weren’t a bastard.

The royal bastards are part of Charles’s glamor. Charles is a media star. No one really knows what the king of England does any more—Charles is supposed to pay for the army himself, for instance, but he doesn’t have the cash. But he can entertain. The Merry Monarch flaunts it in brocade and lace and, since he’s already eight inches taller than most Englishmen, he starts a fashion for men’s shoes with heels. He turns the court into a spectacle. He surrounds himself with wits, playwrights, poets—and women. It’s Charles who not only opens the playhouses again, but decrees that women’s parts will be played by women. And Charles knows what to do with women.

What a sexy beast. Who’d get rid of Charles? No one.

But Charles must have his heir. His Cat is 24, old in a country where a woman can legally marry at 12. For over a year, England has been waiting to hear that “the Portugee” is pregnant—because Charles, after all—but there’s been no news.

Now, at last, she’s expecting, and the huge, old, powerful magic is gathering around them—the magic possibility of an heir.

But she’s having trouble with the pregnancy. Can she keep the child?

She must. Charles and Catherine’s future depends on it. They’ve fallen in love with each other, but if she can’t have a child, it won’t be Charles who pays the blood sacrifice. Catherine must be sacrificed in favor of another queen.

The stage is set for tragedy.

Welcome to Whitehall.

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