The Spanish Princess historical observations: Adultery, betrayal, and baby Bloody Mary
Well, the moment has finally come. It’s been a season and a half of Catherine and Henry’s romance and we knew we’d get here eventually. Everybody please welcome, King Henry VIII, royal philandering a-hole.
This week’s episode of The Spanish Princess centers on the unfaithfulness and untrustworthiness of the men in our heroines' lives. While Catherine struggles through a difficult pregnancy and begins to fear Henry is stepping out with another woman, Meg defends her choice to marry (!!!) Archibald Douglas. But then he turns around and betrays her for power.
Lina is the only one who is truly happy, enjoying her time with her children and her adorable husband. She's still a devoted servant and friend to Catherine, even if Catherine is needlessly harsh on her to hold up her vision of her marriage.
Maggie Pole tries some of her own political machinations to finagle her way out of an unwanted marriage to William Compton. She convinces Compton to woo Anne Hastings, in an effort to calm Catherine and convince her Henry remained faithful. The oblivious Compton does it in an effort to please Maggie, only to have her turn around and use it to justify her plea to Henry that she be released from the betrothal. Maggie, you are still a scheming Plantagenet after all. Good for you.
Let’s take a look at some of the historical observations from this week.
The Case of Anne Hastings
This episode is all about Henry’s mistress, Anne. Not Boleyn, but Hastings. Sister to Edward Stafford and lady-in-waiting to the queen, Anne is unhappy in her marriage. We see her flirting with everyone in the court, and as the episode goes on, the rumor grows that she is sleeping with Henry. She was spotted going in and out of the king’s chambers, and why else would she be there? She’s a shameless flirt and Henry is hungry for attention, given that Catherine is pregnant (and Wolsey is advising him not to touch her).
Maggie devises a plan to help both her and Catherine, suggesting that Compton, as the king’s groom of the stool and the only other man in Henry’s chambers, make moves on Anne to make it look like she was really visiting him. The plot works, convincing Catherine that Henry was faithful and freeing Maggie from her unwanted betrothal.
The truth lies somewhere in the blurry middle. Some accounts note that Anne was allegedly the king’s mistress, but it's difficult to confirm. However, in 1510, Anne was the subject of a scandal involving William Compton. Her brother was so peeved at the idea his sister was committing adultery (either with the king or with Compton) that he made Compton swear on communion sacrament that he was not guilty. And for good measure, Edward sent for Anne’s husband George, who promptly sent her to a convent 60 miles from court. There’s also reports that Catherine ranted against Henry at this time, though they differ over whether it was because of his suspected affair with Anne or because one of her favorite ladies-in-waiting was sent so far away from her.
Regardless of whether Anne was ever really Henry’s mistress (which the episode also leaves ambiguous), there was clearly some tenderness on Compton’s part for her. He bequeathed land to her in his will.
A note about maidenhood
There is a key moment in this episode where a drunken Anne Hastings crows to Ursula Pole about the misery of one’s wedding night. “There will be blood,” she hisses, but Henry insists that’s not always the case. Anne pushes back, insisting that yes, every woman bleeds her first time. It’s only the slightest moment, but it’s enough to see the flicker of doubt enter Henry’s eyes. Thus, the seed is planted that perhaps Catherine was not the virgin he believed her to be when he married her.
This will ultimately become the crux of Henry’s case for divorce from Catherine, the reason he breaks from the Catholic Church. But it’s also, as a principle, total bollocks. And it’s one that was so stressful to women in this day and age that they would bring any measure of tricks into the wedding bed with them to help prove their virtue. It’s worth calling out because of its importance historically in Catherine's story, but also worth noting that as a measure of purity (itself a B.S. concept), it’s far from foolproof.
The Betrayal of Archibald Douglas
Things move fast for Meg and Angus this episode. They’re in bed together and when the Scottish lords try to hurt him for violating the queen, she’s forced to admit they were secretly married. This leads the lords to lose it, angry that Angus might try to rule alongside her as regent. She insists their marriage is a love match and that will not happen, but they don’t buy it, chasing her into the pantry of her castle where she holes up with her children, awaiting English aid from her brother. Ultimately, it comes via Catherine in the form of Thomas Howard and a small party focused on diplomacy. Meg hopes to go to Stirling to discuss it all, but before she can blink, Angus and the other lords seize her children and cast her out.
Let’s start by getting one thing straight, Archibald Douglas, the Earl of Angus, was a little s--- with a vested interest in grabbing power for himself. Margaret Tudor was very much in love with him and did secretly marry him. This immediately angered the lords, forcing her to submit to Albany’s regency and forfeit her own.
In short order, the Privy Council also decided she had forfeited the right to supervise her own children. But Meg wasn’t having any of it and went to Stirling Castle to hold them off (as she wishes to do in the show, but is prevented from). Eventually, she did surrender. So in actuality, Meg’s wait for English help and her attempts to fend off the lords stripping her of her power and her children were even more prolonged and covered a lot more ground geographically speaking.
In the episode, we also see that Angus is immediately angry that the English won’t fight for him and Meg. He may love her (and write her poetry, which is also true), but ultimately, he wants the crown. He hides with her here but then helps take her sons from her, claiming it will help the men show her mercy. In real life, when she fled to Stirling Castle with her boys, he hid out at his own estate. Brave, dude, real brave.
As soon as Thomas Howard comes to Meg’s rescue, he advises her to return to England and find her bearings. By episode’s end, she’s returned to court, demanding help from both her brother and Catherine. She’s disgusted to find Henry, via Wolsey, supports Albany’s claim to the regency and will not go to war with her. But as Thomas Howard says, she’s a “she-wolf” and will find her way forward.
Meg really did return to the English court in 1516. Henry had actually urged her by his letters to come home and live under English protection. But only after Albany had returned to Scotland and played a direct role in taking her sons from her. She hid out in the north of England for some time before returning to London, where Henry welcomed her warmly by lodging her at Scotland Yard. Additionally, Henry was not readily pro Albany’s regency. Though he was unimpressed with the Scottish Angus, particularly by his refusal to accompany his wife on her escape to England (who stayed in Scotland and made peace with Albany). On the show, it’s an effective way to convey how much Wolsey was overstepping his power and influencing the king in matters both domestic and foreign, even if it slightly bends the truth.
At last, Catherine has a successful pregnancy. Confined to her rooms out of an abundance of caution (and Wolsey’s desire to get her out of the way), she awaits the birth of her child. She fears the worst when she once again goes into early labor. But she is safely delivered of a child, a girl, whom she names Mary. But the child brings Catherine no joy, for Henry refuses to come visit, and she feels she has failed her husband and her country by not providing a son.
Mary Tudor would go on to become Queen of England, known colloquially to history as Bloody Mary. But her very earliest years were perhaps not quite this grim. The show, thankfully, skipped over a fourth miscarriage that came in between the loss of the child after Flodden and Mary’s birth. By the time Catherine was pregnant with Mary, the court was rife with rumors about the King’s cooling ardor and Catherine's own visible strain, both physical and emotional. But Mary’s birth was celebrated, and she was a well-loved child in her early days. At that time, Henry still hoped a son would follow. Still, the show expertly captures the pressure for Catherine to produce a male heir and how much damage that did to both her psyche and her marriage.
The final moments of the episode come with one final blow to Catherine’s happiness — proof that her husband is unfaithful. When following after her lady-in-waiting Bessie with a piece of laundry she dropped, she walks in on Bessie and Henry making the beast with two backs.
Though this moment is probably imagined, it’s quite true Henry had a prolonged affair with Bessie, who did come to court as Catherine’s lady-in-waiting. And in the second half of their marriage, Catherine was well aware of her husband’s infidelity. She regularly needled him and other members of the court about it. It seems likely we’ll get a lot more on Bessie and Henry's transgressions in episodes to come.