The Spanish Princess: 6 historical observations from episode 2
This week on The Spanish Princess, we conclude the wedding that began at the end of the premiere — we get just a taste of the days of feasting and pageantry their real wedding consisted of, celebrating the unification of two powers of Europe and their British ancestry.
But quickly. Catherine’s journey to fulfilling her destiny as Queen of England hits a significant roadblock when after finally getting Arthur to warm to her, he contracts the sweating sickness and dies. Her lady-in-waiting Lina also falls ill, but she is nursed back to health by hunky bowmaker Oviedo; other lady-in-waiting Rosa is busy making herself available to the men of the Tudor court, namely Lord Stafford. Meanwhile, court intrigue continues as Lady Margaret Beaufort and Henry VI scheme to marry off Princess Margaret, known affectionately as Meg, to James IV of Scotland.
Here are 6 historical observations from episode two of The Spanish Princess, “Fever Dream.”
Did they do it?
It’s one of the most enduring, unanswerable historical questions — did Prince Arthur of Wales and Catherine of Aragon ever consummate their marriage? The Spanish Princess falls somewhere in the middle, demonstrating Arthur’s initial reluctance and fear in the bedroom (I mean the kid is only 15!). But Catherine gradually melts that icy British exterior and seduces Arthur (which Maggie overhears)—she’s a woman unafraid of seeking her own pleasure in the bedroom (and fulfilling her role of providing an heir).
We will never truly know whether Arthur and Catherine got it on or whether he was somehow impotent as Catherine affirmed to the day she died. The exchange Arthur has with his brother and other men in the court the morning after his wedding night where he tells them, “Gentlemen, last night I was in Spain,” is a real historical quote. In 1529, Sir Anthony Willoughby testified at the divorce proceedings of Catherine and Henry that Arthur said something similar to him — but it sounds an awful lot like teenage boys boasting about sexual prowess they don’t actually have. That’s right, in the 16th century, 15-year-old boys still lied about having game.
Catherine and Arthur were married from November 14, 1501 to April 2, 1502, which is theoretically enough time for them to move past any initial physical discomfort in each other’s presence and general youthful inexperience. They were even publicly put to bed together in a “bedding ceremony,” which led many to assume they consummated their marriage. But years later, eyewitnesses to the Queen upheld her assertion that she remained a virgin at Arthur’s death and only shared his bed seven times in the course of their marriage. Was Arthur simply unable to satisfy his wife’s needs in the bedroom? Or did Catherine and her ladies-in-waiting uphold an enormous lie for most of their lives to protect her crown? This series opts for the latter, but there are accounts that support both arguments.
C’mon, if you were named Arthur and were the heir to the British throne, you would totally make jokes about your own Round Table too! Arthur imagines his reign as restoring Britain to the glory of the days of King Arthur, dubbing Catherine his Guinevere and having nightmares about his executed cousin sitting at the Round Table.
But this isn’t just some winking parallels thrown in for a modern audience. After the turmoil of the Wars of the Roses, Henry VII had royal genealogists trace his ancestry back to ancient rulers of Britain. He named his firstborn son Arthur to further strengthen this claim. Historians at the time deemed Camelot to be in present-day Winchester, so Lizzie was even sent to Saint Swithun’s Priory (what is now Winchester Cathedral Priory) to give birth. As the literal manifestation of the end of the Wars of the Roses, Arthur was set up to establish a new Camelot in Britain from birth.
One politically advantageous marriage is simply not enough for Lady Margaret Beaufort (it’s convenient that her name shortens to Lady M because that bitch has some Lady Macbeth-worthy scheming and ambition up her sleeve). Here, we see delegates from Scotland, including poet William Dunbar, brokering a marriage between Princess Margaret and James IV of Scotland via the 1502 Treaty of Perpetual Peace. Dunbar famously wrote poetry about the marriage and Margaret. James was 16 years Margaret’s senior, which accounts for her calling him “old” and trying to get the marriage called off because he will die soon.
This marriage is detailed more thoroughly in another Philippa Gregory novel, Three Sisters, Three Queens — maybe this will be Emma Frost and Matthew Graham’s next series? The early beats here of Meg’s objection to the marriage, her closeness with Catherine, and her attempts to get out of it are lost to history, but Meg was well-known for having a similar tempestuous nature as her brother Henry, so it seems probable. And Meg would later turn to Catherine for support when Henry sought to renew war with Scotland. As adamantly as she opposes the marriage here, Meg will eventually become more true to her adopted Scottish homeland than her noble Tudor blood.
Part of the fun of historical series of this nature is getting to see figures before they reach their best-known place in history. To an extent, we’re seeing that with Catherine and Henry VIII, getting to know their younger selves often not favored in popular history and its representations. But that also means some other famous faces will start popping up — one here is the royal chaplain, Wolsey. While standing by at a wedding feast, Henry makes a crack about Catherine sharing a bed with his “cadaverous” brother and Wolsey chides him for changing “little since his school days.” But Henry exchanging advice and some censure with Wolsey is a winking nod to the role the man will later play in his monarchy. Wolsey goes on to become Henry’s chief adviser as Lord Chancellor and will play a direct, though ultimately unsuccessful role, in Henry’s divorce from Catherine.
Spain vs. England
Catherine loves to complain about the weather and the light in England. And let me say as someone who once moved from Southern California, which is temperately similar to Spain, to England, she’s not wrong — it’s a huge culture shock (weather shock? Idk). But she also complains to Arthur of the coldness of the Tudor castles and speaks of the “rooms studded with jewels” in the Alhambra Palace. It’s not an exaggeration or the entitlement of a princess (well, it still sort of is that). For all the impressiveness of still-existing Tudor structures, they’re massive stone edifices, largely cold and uninviting. In contrast, the Alhambra, which was actually filmed and shown here, is covered with gold and precious stones.
The Sweat, or the “sweating sickness,” which takes young Arthur’s life by episode’s end was a devastating epidemic across 16th-century England. It was noted for inducing intense sweating, painful headaches, and a state of delirium, all of which are demonstrated when Arthur and Lina come down with it.
If you made it through 24 hours with the disease, you generally survived — as Lina does here — but death could be sudden and rapid within the first three to 18 hours of symptoms appearing. It has symptoms in common with hantavirus and a relapsing fever spread by lice and ticks today.
Historians don’t agree about what caused Arthur’s death — records suggest the “sweat” or some similar illness because Catherine also took ill at the time (though she doesn’t here). It is true that his heart was buried at Ludlow Castle, apparently at the prince’s own request before his death. Arthur’s grave was located below Worcester Cathedral in 2002 and historians and archaeologists planned to study it to attempt to pinpoint what killed him. Some believe Arthur had a genetic issue that also killed Henry VIII’s son Edward VI at a young age. No definitive answers have been reached though.
Philippa Gregory has a slightly more supernatural explanation, which is described here by both Maggie and Lizzie as “The Tudor Curse.” In The White Queen, Lizzie and her mother cursed the murderer of the princes in the Tower to lose all their male descendants. Gregory posits the murders were the work of Margaret Beaufort and Henry Tudor, which then bears out as the curse plagues both Henry VII and Henry VIII.