Catherine of Aragon is a badass and other The Spanish Princess historical observations
Catherine (Charlotte Hope) gets fiercer by the day it seems. In episode 2, she dons armor and takes to the battlefield (more on that below).
But before that, she wrestles with her relationship with Maggie (Laura Carmichael) after Henry (Ruairi O'Connor) finally orders the execution of Edmund de la Pole, Maggie’s cousin. Then, Henry leaves to go get his wartime kicks in France, leaving Catherine regent. The Scots think to take advantage of Henry’s absence, but Catherine easily shuts them down.
The episode is framed around two battlefields: childbirth for women and war for men. But instead, we see Catherine valiantly go to battle as Lina (Stephanie Levi-John) struggles to give birth at home. Ultimately, she has two healthy baby boys (twins!), and we can already see Catherine wrestling with joy for her friend and jealousy that Lina has the thing she wants most.
Let’s dive into the historical facts of this episode.
Let’s get one thing f---ing straight. This episode uses a lot of my personal favorite four-letter word. And I can already hear people clutching their pearls over historical accuracy. Well, let go of them. It’s difficult to pin down the exact first usage of the word and historians have pointed to anywhere from 1310 to 1503, but regardless, it was definitely a known swear word by the time Thomas Howard was advising Catherine of Aragon.
From the beginning of her marriage to Henry, Catherine was a fierce diplomat and wily political mind, so when it came time for him to lead men into France, there was no one he trusted to rule the country more than his wife. On the show, we see him inform both his most trusted advisors and a broader range of his subjects that Catherine is being named the captain of his forces and regent of England in his absence.
In the episode, Catherine’s main task is to deal with invading forces from Scotland and rally English troops and supplies to fight against them. Historical record bears out that Catherine was in her element when left in charge, appointing sheriffs, signing warrants, summoning troops, and ordering funds from the treasury. But most notably, she took a very active role in preparing for battle with the Scots, dispatching everything from funds to artillery to ships and supplies to those rallying against them. And she really did command Thomas Howard to take forces and lead them against the Scots, regardless of his wishes.
Battle of Flodden
The episode’s heart is the Battle of Flodden, a military skirmish precipitated by King James IV’s invasion of England. James really did choose to fight the war because of support and encouragement from France, honoring a long-standing treaty between the two nations. It’s also true that both James and his wife, Meg (Georgie Henley), were purportedly known to have encountered multiple supernatural signs and/or have nightmares of ill tiding warning against the fate of the battle. Just as Meg sees in a dream here.
On-screen, this battle is perhaps the most epic thing we’ve seen the show deliver. Catherine sits in full armor on horseback, having rallied her troops with a fierce speech, where she looks down on the fog-filled field below. At first, she is dismayed at the small size of her troop compared to Scotland, but as James rushes on them with all of his men, she surprises them with a rear advance. England easily defeats Scotland, and James is killed on the battlefield. Catherine herself even rides into battle, slamming her visor down and charging ahead. It’s like Wonder Woman striding across No Man’s Land, empowering and bold and emotional. I'll admit it, I cried a little.
The depiction of the battle is mostly factual, though Catherine’s role in it may or may not be exaggerated. The Scots did significantly outnumber the English, particularly because most of England’s official army was away with Henry in France. And the tactics shown here, including the Scots use of pikes in contrast to the English use of shorter weapons known as bills, were deciding factors in the English victory.
But though historical records indicate Catherine truly did ride north outfitted with proper armor for battle and she gave a rousing speech, she doesn't appear to have actually made it to the battlefield. She simply hadn’t made it far enough north by the time it happened. But we’re personally in favor of bending the facts a little for this epic sequence, which if nothing else, is true to the spirit of Catherine’s fierce defense of her country.
The king is dead
The Scots suffer heavy losses in the Battle of Flodden, but perhaps worst of them all is the death of King James IV. He was the last British monarch to die in battle and his death threw his country into almost a century of political turmoil.
Here, we see Meg mourn over her husband’s body while a solemn Catherine looks on, demanding only the King’s coat as proof of her victory. It grants Catherine a bit more grace than the reality of the situation. James’ body was not restored to Meg. Ever. Catherine did, in fact, take a piece of James’ coat to send to Henry along with a letter telling news of their victory. But she also notes in the same letter she considered sending James’ entire body but decided against it to spare the hearts (and let's be honest, the stomachs) of her fellow Englishman. The story of James’ body is a sad and mysterious one; after the battle, it was sent to London for burial, but apparently never was properly consecrated. Because of this, legends persisted for years that James survived or went into exile following the battle.
Henry in France
We don’t see much of Henry this episode because he’s off in France indulging in both his own bloodlust and his desire to conquer France. At episode’s close, however, he returns victorious after taking Thérouanne and Tournai. Privately with Catherine, he tells her of a conquest they’ve dubbed the Battle of the Spurs because of the speed with which the French fled, purportedly leaving their spurs behind. This is a fun, true little historical factoid — in actuality, the battle was a minor event historically, but the English spun it into extremely useful propaganda. Charles Brandon and Henry Pole were both knighted around this time, though in Pole’s case it’s unclear how much any events in France played a role. And Thomas Howard was eventually made Duke of Norfolk, even if Henry directly insults him at this victory feast on the show (though gotta love his rejoinder that he "still has his cock" — yes, Henry, we know where your priorities are).
When Henry returns home from war, Catherine is eager to take him to her bed, but he rejects her on the advice of Wolsey. He even tells her it is unclean for them to share a bed until after she is “churched” following the birth of their child. This is laying seeds for the undue influence Wolsey will have in Henry’s life, becoming one of his most influential and most despised ministers. Wolsey will become one of the primary ministers working to secure Henry’s divorce from Catherine, and in actuality, Catherine believed that Wolsey helped encourage Henry to seek an annulment because of his resentment toward her and her cousin Charles, the Holy Roman Emperor, for refusing to make him Pope.
At episode’s end, Catherine suffers another tragic loss, giving birth prematurely to a stillborn child. It’s in keeping with historical record — the Battle of Flodden was fought Sept. 9, 1513, and Catherine had a stillborn son on Sept. 17, 1513. The episode does continually raise the question as to whether Catherine endangers her unborn child by going into battle, and regardless of the true cause of his tragic death, she will likely blame herself. Though it does not seem she truly fought in battle, it is likely that Catherine might have felt similar guilt over her loss, given the stress of preparing for battle and her long journey to the north.