The Spanish Princess finale recap: Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown
We have come to the final chapter in this history book. Season 1 of The Spanish Princess drew to a close this Sunday evening, finally delivering Catherine of Aragon what she had longed for — her marriage to Harry and the title of Queen of England.
But this is Tudor England after all, so she didn’t get there without drama along the way. Early in the episode, Henry VII dies, sending Lady Margaret into a grief spiral that includes covering the tracks of her involvement in an illegal taxation scheme and trying to send numerous people to their death. Most notably, she sentences her spy Oviedo to hang for stealing her prayer book (which she gave to him!) simply to spite Lina for lying about Catherine’s intact virginity.
But Harry isn’t Harry anymore. He’s Henry VIII and that means he can do what he wants. Which includes freeing Maggie Pole, imprisoned in the Tower for treason, and railing against his grandmother for concealing the papal dispensation she’s known about for a long time. Still, this isn’t a happy ending (anyone with a cursory knowledge of Henry VIII had to know that), because before Catherine and Harry can even walk down the aisle, they’re accusing each other of infidelity and lying about it. Catherine’s achieved her destiny, and now she has to face all that entails. Let’s take a look at the final historical footnotes of The Spanish Princess finale.
Henry VII bites the dust
The Spanish Princess split the difference here between the actual details of Henry’s death and the more dramatic option. As we’ve seen in the last few episodes, Henry was unwell for some time, essentially never fully recovering from the death of his wife. However, his ultimate moment of expiration was not as sudden as we see here. Reportedly, Henry knew he was dying and spent his last days alive praying and fearing retribution for his sins. At the hour of his death, he even called a confessor to his deathbed to administer his last rites.
On the show, Henry has a very bloody death, coughing up a lot of blood. There are conflicting reports as to what precise illness took the King’s life, but most historians agree it was tuberculosis, which is in keeping with this death scene.
Lastly, Lady Margaret’s fierce insistence on keeping Henry’s death a secret is quite true. There had not been a peaceful transition of power between monarchs in England in decades due to the upheaval of the Wars of the Roses, and Yorkist plots were still rampant at this time. They kept Henry’s death a secret until Harry could be safely accounted for and firmly declared King. This did involve many of Lady Margaret’s tactics seen here, including sending food to King Henry’s room and keeping guards outside round the clock, making it look like business as usual to unsuspecting observers.
Edmund Dudley’s demise and taxes
The Spanish Princess got bloody this week, hacking off Edmund Dudley’s head as Lady Margaret and her reluctant Privy Council members made him the scapegoat for their broader treasury misdeeds. His death is particularly gruesome. As Lady Margaret, Thomas Boleyn, and Wolsey stand by, Dudley bellows “F—k you all to hell” as a dull ax takes multiple blood-spurting blows to hack his head from his neck.
We do know Dudley was executed for the crime of “constructive treason,” as Lady Margaret cites here, in August 1510, but it’s unclear if his death was this badly handled by the executioner. It’s not far-fetched though — the guillotine was invented to make this form of death swift and “painless” after centuries of badly sharpened swords and axes taking multiple blows to chop off someone’s head. Some years after Dudley’s death it would take the executioner 15 tries to cut off the head of Mary, Queen of Scots. Indeed, some historians believe the practice of tipping for services originated with wealthy traitors condemned to death paying the executioner to deliver a clean blow.
Co-creator Matthew Graham tells EW they “truncated” the timeline of Dudley’s arrest for treason and execution. Here, he goes from accused to executed in barely 24 hours — an expedient plot point for indicating Lady Margaret’s desperate attempts to secure the throne and the Tudor legacy, as well as a fitting end for Dudley’s more blatantly villainous character. In reality, Dudley was imprisoned in the Tower for over a year. Long enough, in fact, to write The Tree of Commonwealth, ironically a work about Parliament, courtly duties, and how to avoid administrative abuses. When his death finally came, it was ordered by Henry VIII, likely as an attempt to separate himself from his father’s illegal taxation policies. Politically motivated executions quickly became a hobby for Harry.
Lastly, if you’re curious about Dudley’s charge of “constructive treason,” it was a real conviction first designated in 1351. It was a trumped-up charge suggesting Dudley intended to seize the government, as evidenced by his illegal financial policies. In reality, Henry likely condoned these taxation policies — and this charge was simply a way of covering tracks. Not to mention, Dudley was universally reviled for what some have called a career of “enthusiastic villainy.”
Lady Margaret Beaufort’s guilt
Lady Margaret attempts to take control of things before spinning out into a madness that claims her life. Here, we see her hell-bent on revenge and ensuring her son’s legacy. She oversteps her bounds by condemning Dudley to death, a course of action which angers Harry and other members of the Privy Council, including Thomas Boleyn and Wolsey. It’s a more dramatic rendering of the historical truth that Lady Margaret Beaufort acted as regent for the two months between her son’s death and Harry’s coming of age. He was 17 when his father died and thus unable to officially take the throne until his 18th birthday.
Margaret actually died immediately after Harry took the throne in his own right, having planned her son’s funeral, her grandson’s coronation, and overseen her final will. Here, we see a woman far more out of sorts. She’s racked by guilt, most particularly for the murder of the Princes in the Tower, which in essence cursed her own line. Shakespeare and popular history have pointed the finger at Richard III for centuries, but author Philippa Gregory and others have suggested it makes far more sense for Margaret Beaufort and her followers to be the true culprits. It not only cleared the path of succession for Henry Tudor to take the throne but allowed them to paint Richard III as a villain who needed to be deposed. The cold-case still remains a mystery despite many attempts to find answers, but it sure makes for intriguing dramatic supposition.
So, here we are, Catherine has won. She has Harry and the Crown. And she has her doubts.
We know where Catherine’s story ends. Though we’re going to get a lot more of her extraordinary life as we get there. The series chooses not to show us Catherine and Harry’s private wedding, nor their coronation, which occurred 12 days after their wedding. As Catherine says here, the wedding was a private affair at the Friar’s Church in Greenwich. The only witnesses were Lord Steward Shrewsbury and groom of the privy chamber, William Thomas. The wedding took place only a few months after Henry VII’s death and Harry maintained that it was his father’s dying wish to go through with the marriage (though that’s certainly not the truth of the matter here).
Their coronation was everything their wedding was not. It was a grand event, featuring a procession from the Tower to Westminster Abbey and Harry and Catherine were crowned side-by-side as King and Queen of England. By all accounts, including Catherine’s letters to her father, the occasion was marked by “continuous festival.” But we see the first seeds of doubt and infidelity in this finale, and it actuality wouldn’t even be a full year of marriage before Harry was linked romantically to one of Catherine’s household, Anne Hastings, during Catherine’s first pregnancy.
Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown after all….