When you picture Henry VIII, you probably imagine a specific image: an overweight tyrant who gleefully made his way through six wives, chopping off plenty of heads along the way.
But Starz’s new series The Spanish Princess, drawn from the novels of Philippa Gregory, is here to show you a different side of the legendary king — a version of him as a lovesick teenager. As portrayed by Ruairi O’Connor, Henry VIII is the young Prince Harry, a spoiled Tudor who’s second in line to the throne when we first meet him.
The Spanish Princess follows his and first wife Catherine of Aragon’s grand romance, as she commits to what she believes is her destiny, becoming Queen of England. But even O’Connor admits that he had to get past the popular image of the marriage-happy monarch. “Henry VIII definitely conjured a certain image,” he tells EW. “[He] is seen by most people as being a tyrannical despot, cartoonish in his villainy and chopping off a couple of wives’ heads and breaking the Catholic Church. That’s his reputation.
“I got the opportunity to play him at a different time,” he adds. “It’s a teenage Henry VIII. He’s falling in love with his brother’s wife, he’s doing teenage-y things.” Granted, the whole falling-in-love-with-your-brother’s-wife bit is every inch the Henry we know and love (or love to hate), but it’s rare to Henry Tudor before the pressures of producing an heir and the dangers of the throne have corrupted him.
At its core, The Spanish Princess is a love story, and O’Connor says he was surprised by what a deeply romantic person Henry was. “It seems he really believed in love and romance,” the actor says. “He was maybe chasing that his entire life. With his relationship with Catherine, they were together 24 years.”
O’Connor also points to Henry’s own pursuits as a Renaissance man as another thing that caught him off guard. “He loved writing music,” he says. “Quite soppy music at times. Not particularly good music — that’s how they know it was actually him, because if he’d got someone else to write if for him, then they’d probably be better. He wrote poetry to many of his wives and to Catherine of Aragon. It’s all in his own hand. He’s the first king that we have written documentation from his own hand, [and] a lot of it is love poems.”
This love of music and poetry deeply informed O’Connor’s take on Henry, as he strove to set aside the stereotypes and find the heart of the young man. He points to the fact that Henry chose Catherine as his wife as one of the only decisions he had entire control over as evidence of the romanticism. For O’Connor, it was about layering in that love at the start to show the glimmers of the man Henry will become. “I presume if he had a male heir and it worked well, it could’ve worked out,” he muses. “It was important to play something that wasn’t the obvious choice of ‘He’s going to be a tyrannical despot later on.’ But he’s a romantic. Romantics can do awful things in the name of love.”
There was no shortage of material for O’Connor to draw inspiration from. They filmed on many historical locations throughout Britain, including Berkeley Castle, where Henry once stayed for several weeks. “There’s a big portrait of him I could go and look at in between scenes,” the actor recalls. “We were surrounded by the history.”
O’Connor says the fact that The Spanish Princess tells the story through the eyes of the women so often obscured from the historical record helped him tap into the role as well. “To tell Henry VIII’s story without going through his grandmother Margaret Beaufort and his mother, who was incredibly important to him, and his first early romance with Catherine of Aragon, there’s a lot left out that gives context to who he becomes,” he says. “He was raised by women much more so than most people back then, so to tell his story without the contribution of the women in his life is not to tell his story at all.”
There are many representations of Henry VIII out there in the world — from portraiture to A Man for All Seasons to more recent portrayals in The Tudors and Wolf Hall — but O’Connor avoided them all, choosing instead to immerse himself in the real man’s writings, music, and hobbies. He developed such a strong connection with his character that when he was watching Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding last year, he says he felt a particular pang of grief when the camera passed over Henry VIII’s tomb in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.
“I had detached from the older stuff — discovering he was really into jousting, his music, and really getting to know him and starting to like him and admire him as a person,” O’Connor says. “And then the cameras went over his tomb, and I just realized, ‘Oh my God, he’s dead.’”
In spite of all the historical immersion, there’s one representation of Henry VIII O’Connor can’t resist — and it’s the most unexpected of all. It’s the Earl of Lemongrab, the from animated series Adventure Time. “He’s based on Henry VIII, and he’s this incredible over-the-top character,” O’Connor says. “And I was like, ‘Do I play it like that?’”
The Spanish Princess premieres Sunday, May 5, at 8 p.m. ET on Starz.