6 historical observations from The Spanish Princess premiere
Tonight, The Spanish Princess debuted on Starz, bringing viewers into the political and romantic intrigue of the Tudor court. Drawn from two books by Philippa Gregory, The King’s Curse and The Constant Princess, the series blends historical fiction with historical record to tell the story of Catherine of Aragon from her point-of-view.
Rather than a traditional recap, each week we’re going to bring you historical observations and musings from each episode, peeling back the pages of the history books on this lush, meticulously researched series. Yes, there have been some major changes for the sake of storytelling expediency — for instance, the boy who would become Henry VIII was only ten years old when Catherine married his brother, Prince Arthur — but he’s been aged up here to condense time (as has Catherine from 15 to 17 for that matter).
With my unending lust for all things Tudor, a lust that sent me to Oxford for a Master’s degree in British History, I’m here to delve into the true history of each episode as we recap its events.
This week’s episode follows Catherine as she makes her initial journey to England, first meets her future husband Prince Arthur (and another future husband, Prince Henry — oh hai, Harry). She briefly clashes with her in-laws and some culture shock before marrying Arthur at episode’s end — while walking down the aisle on Henry’s arm (which is true by the way). Here are our six historical observations from this week’s episode, The New World.
1. The Most Beautiful Creature in the World
With the title The Spanish Princess, you might be expecting Catherine to look more like modern conceptions of Spanish women — but in reality, she was every inch what actress Charlotte Hope lends the character — a fair-skinned, red-headed woman who possessed the coloring of her English ancestors. Catherine of Aragon was descended from John of Gaunt, and we see that in both her appearance and her bearing — this was a young woman raised knowing that her birthright was the English throne. So often, we see Catherine portrayed as a cast-off, aging, dowdy woman thrown over for the sexier, younger Anne Boleyn. But here, we see the Spanish princess who was once considered “the most beautiful creature in the world” by philosophers and courtiers in full possession of her entitlement and power.
It also bears noting that Catherine technically had a stronger claim to the English throne than the King of England himself, Henry VII. They were both descendants of John of Gaunt, but Henry VII, a.k.a. Henry Tudor, came from a line of children born out of wedlock and later declared legitimate. Thus, throughout the episode, when we see Catherine putting the King in his place, talking back to her crazy new in-laws, and refusing to take any British B.S., she’s capitalizing on a legacy she would have been reminded of since birth.
2. Prince Arthur and that haircut
We know, Prince Arthur is pretty unfortunate — he’s young, he’s shy, and as his brother Henry puts it, he’s afraid of girls. But worst of all, he has the most terrible haircut ever known to man. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of history is aware Catherine will go on to marry Henry eventually, so it doesn’t hurt to make Arthur the more unappealing option here. But I am so sad to tell you that this haircut was all the rage for teenage boys in Tudor England — and Arthur genuinely rocked this tragic bowl-cut look. For that matter, so did his brother Henry for a while, but here, he gets to have some dashing red curls while his brother looks like the hapless sidekick to a villain in a Disney animated film.
Arthur was perhaps not as hopeless as the show paints him to be — there’s no evidence to suggest Henry actually wrote Catherine love letters pretending to be Arthur as this episode purports. In fact, of the letters exchanged between Catherine and Arthur before their marriage, only one has survived, and it contains much of the language used here, lines about embracing and how love “may reap [its] proper fruit.” But the letters were in Latin and since the first was written when Arthur was 13, there’s a strong belief amongst historians that someone else likely wrote the letter or at least directed him on what to say.
Here, it’s Henry, because what is more of a Tudor flex than writing love letters pretending to be your brother and already making moves on his betrothed? Henry VIII might not have actually done this, but you know he totally wishes he did.
3. Who run the world? Girls.
When we first meet Catherine, she’s being accompanied across Spain by her mother Queen Isabella, who makes a pitstop to put down a Moorish rebellion in full battle armor. It’s no wonder with her mother as an example that Catherine never once thought she should hold her tongue — a fact we’re reminded of when she gets to England and refuses to land at the agreed upon port so she can get off the ocean as soon as possible.
But Catherine’s not the only fierce woman trying to run the show here. We meet three other Tudor women in this episode — Margaret Pole, born Plantagenet, one of the last of her line after the devastation of the Wars of the Roses; Queen Elizabeth of York; and Lady Margaret Beaufort, the King’s mother. Historically, these women were every inch the powerhouses they’re depicted as here.
Elizabeth of York married Henry Tudor in an alliance that ended the Wars of the Roses, uniting the houses of York and Lancaster. The war cost her several family members, including her father and her two brothers, the mysterious “Princes in the Tower.” This is why she seeks to protect her sons and husband against political scheming at any cost — and her pre-wedding showdown with Catherine is entirely plausible given that the two women spent an entire day together talking at Baynard’s Castle the day before Catherine’s wedding IRL.
Maggie Pole stands in opposition to her cousin, a Plantagenet woman who learned the best way to survive in this world was to keep her head down and maintain every appearance of loyalty. She was one of only two women in England in her time to hold a noble title, as Countess of Salisbury, when her husband was untitled. Maggie hates Catherine because one of the conditions of Spain’s alliance with England was that all rivals to the throne be eliminated, including Maggie Pole’s brother Edward Plantagenet, whom many historians believe was mentally disabled.
Elizabeth of York, known as Lizzie here, tells Catherine of this pressure from Spain to execute a seemingly innocent boy. It is true Catherine was unaware of this course of action until she came to Spain, and she held a great deal of guilt over it. In later life, she felt her marital troubles with Henry and her many miscarriages and dead children were punishment from God for this exact turn of events.
And then there’s the formidable Lady Margaret Beaufort, whom we see throughout this episode scheming to keep Catherine under her thumb. Lady Margaret Beaufort is one of the most intimidating figures from this period of history. She directly engaged in rebellion during the Wars of the Roses, helping to clear the way for her son Henry Tudor to take the throne. Some even believe she played a role in the murder of the Princes in the Tower. As the King’s Mother, she continually strove to exert her power, enjoying freedoms denied many other women and overseeing everything from legal proceedings to political alliances. She is presented as a match to Catherine’s stubbornness in this episode, and she’s a vociferous opponent who shouldn’t be underestimated.
Much has already been written about how The Spanish Princess is changing the game for period drama, introducing characters of color who are integral to the story and exist outside of a plot directly tied to slavery or tragedy. For years, series like this have tried to standby the line that they don’t feature people of color because they weren’t present in the era. Which is some straight-up historical horse manure. With Catherine’s lady-in-waiting Lina and soldier Oviedo, who were both real historical individuals (a footnote, but still they’re there), historical characters of color are key to the narrative. History notes that Catherine of Aragon’s retinue included the first Africans recorded to have arrived in London, and thanks to The Spanish Princess some of them are finally having their stories told.
5. I will bathe and then siesta
Catherine is really obsessed with her bath-time in this episode. Like really obsessed. It’s a sticking point between her and Lady Margaret Beaufort because Catherine insists she must bathe before doing, well, just about anything. And don’t forget a siesta! But Lady Margaret Beaufort thinks a bath once a week is more than enough. There’s a lot of conflicting reports about how frequently the Tudors bathed, and some historians suggest Catherine’s mother Queen Isabella of Castile only bathed twice in her entire life (which seems a tad extreme). Though it was a popularly held belief in the 16th century that bathing could be bad for your health, ultimately, it was a symbol of wealth; it was expensive and generally required servants to fill a tub with water. Thus, if you could afford it, you were very wealthy. Much is made in this episode of the general poverty of England at this time in contrast to Spain’s wealth, and Catherine’s love of a nice hot bath is a fair lynchpin to hang this disparity on while providing yet another source of culture clash for the young infanta of Spain.
6. In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…
Near episode’s end, Lina gives Catherine strength to face her wedding day by reminding her of a talk Catherine once shared with Christopher Columbus. Columbus’ expeditions were rather famously funded by Catherine’s parents, Ferdinand and Isabella. So it’s not all that far-fetched that a young Catherine would’ve met the Genoese explorer, even if historical record doesn’t specifically bear that out. In the show, Columbus gives Catherine a compass and urges her to remember her “beginning” and where she came from whenever she finds herself a stranger in a strange land. It is this memory and this compass that allow Catherine to make the journey down the aisle to her husband because she is thinking on her legacy as a princess of Spain and all that this means for her and her people. It’s her destiny — and one she’ll cling fiercely to.