We’ve now officially crossed the halfway point in The Spanish Princess and are gaining speed toward our conclusion. Having lost her first husband and her heart to Harry, Catherine’s fate still hangs in the balance after Henry VII announced he would marry her. Catherine prays to God and awaits a missive from her parents, as she struggles with whether she must follow her duty and seize this immediate chance to become queen or whether she might follow her heart and choose Harry.
Her ladies-in-waiting grapple with similar conflicts, as they wrestle with their obligations to Catherine and the crown, duties which often stand in direct opposition to the whims of their hearts. Meanwhile, Maggie Pole makes the best of her banishment until tragedy strikes. Here’s five historical observations from this week’s The Spanish Princess.
I’m Henry the Eighth, I am
One of the great joys of The Spanish Princess is getting a glimpse at a teenage Henry VIII, before the string of mistresses and marriages and the gout got the best of him. But a particular delight of this week’s episode was the strong sense of foreshadowing for the type of tyrannical king Henry will become.
As Maggie points out near the episode’s end, Harry was “mollycoddled” by his grandmother as a child — and consequently, he’s not used to not getting his way. Maggie warns Catherine about the tendencies this might foster in such a man, telling her, “A man with too much power and no discipline is dangerous.” A fact so many advisors (and wives!) would go on to learn the hard way.
Catherine also is warned of Harry’s dangerous ways in a dream where her mother visits her. Isabella proclaims, “The betrayal he will deal to you; it will break the world.” Considering how much of Europe had been Catholic for centuries until Henry VIII broke with the Church to procure his divorce from Catherine, she’s not wrong (and she’s Isabella of Castile, Catholicism is everything to her!). To hammer the point home, in her dream, we also witness an armored Catherine take a blow to the heart, delivered by none other than Harry himself.
But it’s not just these whispered words that give us the hints of who Harry will become — it’s his actions too. We see a passionate man, one who seduces the object of his affections and who throws temper tantrums when he doesn’t get what he wants. Though Harry would have been too young to sit at a privy council meeting and make a scene as he does here, this notion that he’s putting his heart and his desires above his country is one he would make time and again. For Harry, what is best for him is best for the country — it’s always justifiable in his mind — even if it tears apart the fabric of his country and their religious foundation.
In the heat of his anger at the privy council meeting, he challenges his father’s methods of raising an army. Henry VIII is best regarded for sweeping military reforms during his reign, including fostering military leadership among his nobles — something he insists upon at this meeting.
Harry is also presented with women to satisfy his lustful appetites, something he never had a shortage of in life (and it was not uncommon for aristocrats to feel the need to educate their sons in the ways of the bedroom with providing them access to prostitutes as his grandmother does here). He insists to his grandmother that his feelings are not lust, but love. But if we had a dollar for every time Henry VIII proclaimed himself to be in love, well, we’d have at least six more dollars.
Abortion in the Tudor era
This episode deals with one of the most dangerous possibilities for women of this era — the prospect of abortion. Rosa is carrying Lord Stafford’s illegitimate child (more on that below) and she considers terminating her pregnancy with Lina’s help. Lina goes to a brothel to procure what she needs, as that is absolutely a place likely to have the knowledge and tools necessary to assist with this request.
Abortion was not technically illegal in this era — the Western world did not declare it so until the Ellenborough Act of 1803 and the Catholic Church constantly was changing their stance on the issue, with no official doctrine being issued until 1588. However, it was still a moral gray area for many.
Regardless, for centuries, women have procured their own methods of ending an unwanted pregnancy — often through taking a potentially toxic substance (pennyroyal tea, which can be extremely poisonous, was one popular option) or through inducing physical harm, such as jumping up and down, falling down stairs, or being hit in the abdomen. But we see Lina bring Rosa a suppository in this instance — they don’t specifically list what it is, but there were several popular Tudor options for this: crocodile dung, which was widely believed to be both an effective contraceptive and abortifacient; a mix of a paste of ants, camel hair, and bear fat; and a blend of mouse dung, salt, resin, and honey. Most of these methods commonly caused a septic abortion by introducing bacteria into the womb, thus significantly risking the mother’s life as well.
Both Rosa and Lina’s marital fates also hang in the balance in this episode. Lady Margaret finally informs them of their options for husbands — Lina has been promised to Charles Brandon, while Rosa is available to both the Duke of Rochester and William Willoughby, the 11th Baron Willoughby de Eresby.
Both women struggle with this decree. Lina finally admits to herself that she’s in love with Oviedo and broaches the possibility of this with Catherine. Catherine initially tells her she must choose her duty or be exiled from her court, but after admitting the truth of her own heart, Catherine promises Lina a dowry should she choose Oviedo. This will undoubtedly leave Charles Brandon in the cold. But believe me, he’s fine — the guy married four times total and the third time was to Harry’s youngest sister, Mary, who by that time was the Dowager Queen of France. Like I said, he’s good.
While Lina is directly inspired by one of Catherine’s ladies who truly married a bowmaker named Oviedo, Rosa is an amalgam of historical figures, but she seems to be most clearly drawn from Maria de Salinas, who came with Catherine to England and was her closest confidante for decades. Maria actually did marry William Willoughby, the 11th Baron Willoughby de Eresby, but not until 1516, so it’s possible we won’t get that far in history with this series. One fun tidbit though — Maria and William’s daughter Catherine later married Charles Brandon. She was his fourth and final wife, making this one big lady-in-waiting circle of love.
On the show, Rosa chooses to keep her child and is determined to tell the father, Lord Edward Stafford. She does and asks only that he provide her with a tiny house, enough money for food, and that he visit from time to time. He seems to agree and promises to make arrangements, clearly nursing feelings for her. The real Lord Stafford was a favorite of Margaret Beaufort’s and he was married off to a member of the Percy family (the troublemaking rabble-rousers in Shakespeare’s Henry IV). He really did have somewhere between two to three illegitimate children, and seemed to decently provide for them, so Rosa’s request could end happily.
Sadly, Lord Stafford’s life will not. In 1523, Henry VIII executed him for treason (though this is a rare case of the court having a pretty airtight case against the accused).
Though Richard Pole yearns to be back in Margaret Beaufort’s good graces, Maggie is actually quite happy with this turn of events — he enjoys being out of the palace, free to spend time with the husband she loves and raise her children away from the poisonous vipers of the Tudor Court. Hearing of her exile, Catherine goes to visit her and even seeks advice from her. This lays the foundation for and foreshadows that Maggie would ultimately go on to be a great ally of Catherine’s during her marriage to Henry.
Maggie also briefly writes to Meg — she’s overjoyed to hear of Meg’s happiness in her marriage, but dismayed that she was greeted by a passel of the Scottish King’s bastard children (all of which is true). I want to take this moment to beg Emma Frost and Matthew Graham to please do Meg’s adult story next. It’s like Outlander meets The Tudors — and if that doesn’t sound hot to you, I don’t wanna know you.
But at the end of the episode, tragedy strikes for Maggie yet again. While fixing a wagon, their son Reggie knocks the jack free, causing the wagon to fall and crush Richard to death. Maggie rushes to try to save him while all their children look on, but it’s too late. It is true that Richard died during the period of Maggie’s exile from court, likely sometime between 1504 and 1505, but the cause of death and precise date is unknown. Leave it to this show to find the most heartbreaking, gut-wrenching way for him to go — in Maggie’s arms, another loved one cruelly snatched from her before their time.
Betrothed to Harry
By episode’s end, Catherine chooses her heart over her duty. And because she’s Catherine of freaking Aragon, she also finds a way to argue that it fulfills the needs of both those things. She tells Henry that if they marry it only promises an alliance with Spain as long as he live, but if she marries Harry, the alliance can continue down through their heirs. In her eyes, a betrothal to Harry will make good on Lizzie’s wish to keep her sons safe at any cost.
It’s a well-argued case and it works. Henry withdraws his proposal and announces his intention to seek papal dispensation for Harry and Catherine’s marriage. But one other requirement is necessary: Isabella must send the remainder of Catherine’s dowry.
Catherine and Henry were formally betrothed in 1503, and it officially marked the end of her mourning period. But the final resolution of the marriage did hinge greatly on the delivery of her dowry, a process which took so long, it deeply affected the possibility of the union.
While we cannot know how much Catherine might truly have advocated for herself as she does here, the historical record makes several things clear. Catherine was a fierce queen who believed in her own destiny, so it’s likely she opted to take control of it when the moment called for it. What’s more, the love between her and Harry was real. The early years of their marriage are described as ones full of public displays of affection and respect, something not all that common in royal marriages of this era. And despite what he would later put her through, Catherine loved Henry until her last breath, as one of her surviving letters makes abundantly clear. Her willingness to make her heart vulnerable to him, as she does here, is true in essence, if not in the exact details of their secret meetings and stolen kisses.
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