Historical observations from The Spanish Princess: Bastards, treason, and plague, oh my!
Welcome back to the decline of Catherine of Aragon on The Spanish Princess.
This week Catherine struggles to fight for not only herself but also her sisters in royalty, Meg and Mary. Plague sends the court out of London to Wolsey’s abode at Hampton Court, where it’s also discovered that Bessie Blount is pregnant with Henry’s bastard.
Maggie and Thomas More hole up back at the palace, just in case they were infected. The Tudors: practicing social distancing before it was cool. This gives them weeks alone in an empty castle, but that just means they get to give each other longing glances from five feet apart instead of 20. There’s so much repressed yearning here it should get a knighthood for being so British. Damn, I wish this was real (though with the historical record being what it is, I suppose it honestly could be).
Meanwhile, things get messy for Meg and Mary in Scotland and France — and shocker! Henry is not at all supportive of them.
Here are six historical observations from this week’s episode.
In case you needed a reminder that history is always relevant, this week’s episode hinged on an outbreak of the plague. Though illness was certainly less well understood and therefore perhaps more terrifying in Tudor England, it was also just a fact of life. Pandemics and plague outbreaks, whether it be the bubonic plague or the sweating sickness, known commonly as the “sweat,” were far more frequent in this era.
It was commonplace for the court to leave London during outbreaks, as we see in this episode. It’s difficult to peg this instance to a specific moment, but based on the other events in the episode, it’s likely it was a 1517 outbreak of the sweat in London.
Of course, though they thought the body was ruled by four humors and that bleeding someone was the height of medical care, the Tudors did appreciate the necessity of quarantine and isolation for reducing the spread of disease (somehow they could grasp a very basic fact we seem to be struggling with in 2020). It’s well-chronicled how Henry, Catherine, and others would hide out in palaces and various royal residences around the country during outbreaks.
In the episode, the court is invited by Thomas Wolsey to take refuge in his residence, Hampton Court. Now, if you’ve visited Hampton Court, you might be thinking, wait, isn’t that Henry’s palace? Isn’t it supposedly haunted by at least one of the wives he murdered? You would be correct. But in this era, the residence was owned by Wolsey. He would later give it to Henry in a last-ditch effort to save himself from disgrace. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Wolsey took over the site in 1514, as it was previously a property of the church, and immediately began renovations to convert it into a residence. But its most lavish staterooms for the king were not completed until 1525. In fact, Wolsey is largely credited for promoting the ideals and styles of the Italian Renaissance in England. He embarked on more lavish building projects than most kings (so Stafford and Catherine are right to look at him sideways for living in such an ostentatious pad).
Wolsey the Cardinal
Wolsey was indeed made Cardinal in 1515, a title he achieves early in this episode, and quickly sets to wearing the accompanying red robes (it’s how he’s most commonly depicted in portraiture and pop culture). He amassed money from numerous sources, including through questionable taxation processes and levying money through the church. And though it’s unclear if Wolsey did ever receive bribes from the French, it’s both true that Francis I of France tried to bribe numerous parties to elect him Holy Roman Emperor and that Wolsey was the main peace broker in that entire scenario. That’s not addressed here, but it’s possible that it could account for the French gold Stafford finds in the episode.
It really is impossible to overstate Wolsey's influence on Henry. Catherine bristles against it here, as he’s increasingly allowed to humiliate her and do whatever he likes. But that’s really the way it was. Henry might have been king, but he basically allowed Wolsey to control domestic and foreign policy so long as the Cardinal adhered to his whims.
Lastly, it’s brief, but Wolsey is accused in this episode of having a hidden mistress and two bastards. Technically, as a man of the Catholic church, Wolsey should not have a wife or children in adherence to celibacy. But he did live for many years in a “non-canonical” marriage with a woman named Joan Larke, and he had two children with her. Later, as he rose to power, he arranged for her to be married off to keep the stain of their relationship away from him.
With no help from Henry, Meg returns to Scotland. She’s received warmly by Lord Albany and allowed to see her sons, but she also goes to confront Angus after hearing he’s taking one Jean Stewart to his bed. Girl cannot catch a break.
It is true that Meg had a largely peaceful relationship with Albany himself, despite their conflict over the regency. In fact, they were so amicable toward each other that Angus ending up spreading rumors the two competing regents were an item.
When Meg finally meets up with Angus, there’s no love lost between them, despite his feeble attempts to win her back with poetry (bro, that only works if you didn’t betray her first). She also takes her fists to Jean Stewart and banishes both of them from her castle. It’s actually worse than we see here because Jean, also known as Jane, was an illegitimate daughter of Meg’s first husband King James. That makes her the half-sister of Meg’s sons. So her second husband is shacking up with her first husband’s daughter! I know! In real life, it seems Meg intended to reconcile with Angus until she found out he’d been living with Jean on Meg’s money, just as we see here with him mooching off her property at Holyrood. The nerve of this dude.
Mary and Charles
There’s no shortage of scandal in this court, much of it perpetuated by Henry himself. But episode 5 got down to one of the biggest of this era: the secret marriage between Princess Mary and Charles Brandon.
Mary’s husband, King Louis of France, dies from over-exertion in the bedchamber (that is literally what many historians credit as his cause of death; others say gout, but they’re no fun). She must enter a period of mourning, but afterward, she is determined to hold Henry to his promise and marry a man of her choosing. Only Henry doesn’t care about promises; he’s already plotting with Wolsey about which French dukes to marry her off to. So, Catherine writes Mary, warning her to make her own choices. Henry sends Charles Brandon to fetch his sister back from France. When he arrives, Mary admits her feelings for him and persuades him to marry her in secret, figuring it’s better to just write Henry and ask forgiveness later.
This sounds outlandish, like something off Tudor Love Island, but what makes it even more delicious is that it’s all true! Mary and Charles had a fondness for each other before she ever even left for her short-lived marriage to Louis. After King Louis' death, Mary was considered as a match for Antoine, Duke of Lorraine, or Charles III, Duke of Savoy, not only by Henry but by the new French king Francis I as well.
Henry wasn’t completely blind to the feelings there. In actuality, he didn’t just randomly send Charles Brandon off in a pique of annoyance as he does here. He even made his bestie promise not to propose to Mary (though this would actually mark Charles’ third marriage despite being previously unattached on the show). But Mary was very persuasive once Charlie got to France, or so Charles claimed in a letter to Henry where he said he’d “never seen a woman so weep.” Sure, sure, blame it on her tears. That's the source of moisture that propelled this marriage, riiiiight. Catherine’s support of her sister-in-law is invented here, but it’s not hard to imagine her taking Mary’s side for love when it was something she’d fought for herself.
Mary and Charles really did have a secret wedding at the Hotel de Clugny in Paris in March 1515. And because no one could marry a princess without the king’s consent, technically, it was treason. Henry VIII did indeed contemplate execution for his old pal. But we’ll have to wait until next week to see how it ends.
The affair with Bessie gets messier this week, as we learn she’s carrying Henry’s bastard. Wolsey wastes no time telling her that she’ll be sent away in disgrace if it’s not a son, while Catherine is forced to endure keeping her in her service. At the episode’s end, Bessie delivers a boy (with some help from Catherine) and Henry rejoices.
Bessie Blount is most famous in British history for providing Henry VIII with his first healthy, thriving son. She was perhaps the best treated of all of Henry’s mistresses, and this is why. Catherine would undoubtedly have had to endure a pregnant Bessie in her company, but she didn’t actually participate in the baby’s birth. Bessie was sent away to a priory in Essex to give birth, an event so secret no one is even certain of the boy’s real birth date. Though the ignominy Catherine must endure as Henry celebrates this child is very real. It was the only of his bastard children Henry formally recognized, and that was exactly for the reason shown here – to prove he was capable of fathering a son. Wolsey definitely played a shady role in all of this, being named the boy’s godfather. Perhaps he could make Henry an offer he couldn’t refuse.