The Spanish Princess
Credit: Nick Briggs/Starz

As we wind toward the end of the season (and the series) with only three episodes left including tonight’s, The Spanish Princess delved into two major events in Henry VIII’s reign: the Field of the Cloth of Gold and the Evil May Day riots.

Catherine and Henry travel to France for the extravagant Field of the Cloth of Gold, where it is Henry’s intention to betroth their daughter Mary to the dauphin of France. But tensions with France and the presence of Charles V cause Henry to question his choices. Particularly when Charles reminds Henry how much Wolsey is overstepping his bounds.

Catherine gets the chance to reunite with her old lady-in-waiting Rosa, who is now a happy mother of three. Rosa helps Catherine gain perspective, reminding her to find happiness in what she has rather than sorrow in yearning for things she does not. Rosa and Stafford also share a brief interaction, where it’s clear Stafford has never gotten over doing her dirty.

Meanwhile, back in London, civil unrest and xenophobia spark violence in response to economic troubles. Lina fears for her and Oviedo’s lives, but they seek refuge with Bessie, who turns out to be a secret Karen (but she betrayed her boss by sleeping with the boss’ husband, so, like, are we surprised?).

Let’s get into some historical truths. 

The Field of the Cloth of Gold

Meeting of Henry VIII and Francis I. at Ardres - The Field of the Cloth of Gold', 1520,
Credit: Print Collector/Getty Images

The Field of the Cloth of Gold was held in Calais in 1520, a royal summit meeting between Henry, Francis I of France, and Charles V of Spain. Here, it’s viewed as an opportunity for Henry to broker peace with France as he intends to betroth his very young daughter Mary to Francis’ son. But Catherine has her own plans, inviting Charles along as a potential match for her Mary. Because Catherine would rather have an alliance with Spain than France, duh. Oh, and that will stick it to Wolsey.

But Catherine and Charles have the last laugh when Charles reveals that Wolsey is widely referred to as the alter rex, the “other King.” Which, as you can imagine, pisses Henry off. That was indeed a real nickname for Wolsey, in reference to his tendency to control Henry’s affairs with an iron fist.

This was a real and extravagant event that was basically a pissing contest between France and England. Each nation invested in a lavish and expensive display of wealth in their tents and tournament proceedings. There was hope it would provide ground for an alliance, but the visible tension between Henry and Francis at the event, which was orchestrated by Wolsey, made it pretty obvious that was unlikely.

In the episode, Henry and Francis engage in a wrestling contest, here to defend Catherine’s honor. It turns sour fast when Henry loses. This is real! The King of France and England really got down in the mud and had a wrestling match. The mind reels. Though it is unclear whether it was from a place of hostility as it is here or just a good time gone bad involving two kings invested in proving their machismo.

Mary and Maggie

Princess Mary is a small child now, one watched closely and cared for by Maggie. Maggie tends to her, while Catherine and Henry have a battle of wills over who she’ll marry — the French dauphin or Charles. In actuality, Mary was first betrothed to the dauphin and then later to Charles V, all for political gain and matters of diplomacy. She ended up marrying neither.

Maggie is a pillar of support for the young girl here, and that’s true to real life. In 1520, she was even appointed Mary’s governess for a time. She also proved a fierce defender of the princess after Catherine and Henry’s divorce. When Henry had Mary declared a bastard in 1533, Maggie refused to return Mary’s jewels and gold to the king.

By episode’s end, and with the advice of Rosa, Catherine decides to become engaged in Mary’s life, even going to Henry and requesting permission to educate Mary in philosophy, Latin, etc. as if she were a boy. Her initial attempts at connection are met with shyness from Mary, but we see Catherine determined to change this.

It’s not unusual for a royal child to be detached from her parents in this era and largely reared by others. But it’s also true that Catherine was extremely invested in her daughter’s education with the aim of raising her to be the type of queen both she and her mother were. Catherine regularly consulted the famous Spanish humanist Juan Luis Vives for advice on Mary’s education and even commissioned him to write De Institutione Feminae Christianae, a treatise on the education of girls. Mary would ultimately go on to be queen just as her mother foresaw, and her education and statecraft were honed by her mother’s insistence that she be treated the same as a prince.


Things seem to only get worse for Meg in Scotland. She is now enjoying the protection of Albany, but he leaves to attend the Field of the Cloth of Gold. As soon as he’s gone, Angus shows up to claim the things he believes are rightfully his as Meg’s husband — including every tapestry, wall hanging, pot and pan in her house. Meg, desperate to end this, writes Henry and Catherine, begging them to plead her case for annulment to the pope. But they both refuse, fearing that it would be an insult to the institution of marriage (that won’t come back to bite you, Henry, not at all). But she’ll stop at nothing and even turns to Albany to lobby him to use his influence in Rome.

The real Margaret was also consumed with the idea of getting a divorce. Henry, as a then orthodox Catholic, was staunchly against it — not to mention, as this episode notes, he felt the Douglas family was an important ally. She truly did seek help in Rome via Albany and also tried to perpetuate the myth that James had survived the Battle of Flodden as a way to invalidate her second marriage. Girl wanted out.

Civil Blood Makes Civil Hands Unclean 

The other main thrust of this episode is civil unrest and riots in London. The uprising is in response to immigrants and an influx of “strangers,” as they were then called, taking jobs away from native-born English people (hmmm, where have we heard this before?). This frightens Lina, as she fears she, Oviedo, and their children are targets as Spanish Muslims. Oviedo, as a member of the king’s guard, tries to keep the peace in the city, but Reggie Pole kills an unarmed man, and all hell breaks loose. As the court returns to the city, little Mary gets lost in the fray, but they recover her unharmed.

Furious and poisoned by Wolsey into believing that these men are rebelling against Henry (instead of just lashing out because of high taxes and economic insecurity), Henry condemns a string of men to death. Catherine begs with him for mercy, also throwing in the fact that she’s pregnant, and Henry relents at the last possible moment, saving them from the gallows.

All of these events, except for Princess Mary’s involvement, really happened in a 1517 riot known as Evil May Day or Ill May Day. Then, May Day was not known as a worker’s day of activism, but a day of festivity. But spurred by xenophobic sentiment, a group of male apprentices formed a mob, attacking foreigners and sparking panic in the city. Their rhetoric was shockingly similar to modern-day arguments for Brexit, which is undoubtedly not lost on showrunners Matthew Graham and Emma Frost. But it is startling to see how much our capacity to mistrust the “other” is fueled by economic uncertainty over and over again across the centuries.

Thomas More, who was then under-sheriff of London, tried to quiet the mob but was unsuccessful. Here, in that function, he reads a list of charges to Henry, including some for John Lincoln, who was notably a real instigator of the events. In actuality, some rioters were executed for their actions. But in a weird bit of real history, Catherine really did beg for mercy for the lives of the rebels — and Henry spared them, literally in the nick of time, giving them cause to remove the nooses already around their necks.

One last point of interest: these events were fodder for dramatic material nearer Henry’s own time in the play Sir Thomas More written by Anthony Munday purportedly in collaboration with Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s most notable alleged contribution to the play was a speech More gives to the mob of this 1517 riot, trying to calm them and invite empathy for refugees and immigrants. “Would you be pleased/To find a nation of such barbarous temper/That, breaking out in hideous violence,/Would not afford you an abode on earth,/Whet their detested knives against your throats?” he asks.

In recent years, it’s found a new audience, used movingly to speak to the Syrian refugee crisis, Brexit, and more. Bet you didn’t think Tudor history was so relevant, huh?

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