The Spanish Princess recap: The tragedy of Edward Stafford, heresy, and other historical observations
You gotta have faith-a-faith-a-faith this week on The Spanish Princess, but it better be Catholicism or it’s the pyre for you.
The penultimate episode delves into matters of faith, as Wolsey and Catherine brokered a temporary peace to go after heretics in the land. The two take particular relish in gathering pro-Protestant texts and burning them. This, of course, upsets Lina and Oviedo since they are Muslim and have already borne witness to the horrors of religious intolerance with the Spanish Inquisition.
Catherine struggles with maintaining Henry’s faith in her, grappling still with the secret of her great lie. It costs her again, as she loses yet another child.
As these questions rage, Maggie learns a horrifying truth about Thomas More that permanently turns her off of him. Meanwhile, Meg continues to test the boundaries of faith by pushing Henry ever harder to support her quest for an annulment and her owed inheritance.
The real horrors come as we start to see the madness of Henry, particularly as it comes against his once dear friend Edward Stafford. Stafford, a political enemy of Wolsey, is sent to the Tower on trumped up charges of treason and eventually executed despite Catherine’s pleas for his life.
Let’s dive into some bloody good historical observations.
When Martin Luther tacked his 95 Theses to the door of a Catholic Church in 1517, he ignited a religious schism. The resulting struggle between Protestantism and Catholicism fed strife throughout Europe, as leaders sought to exert their beliefs over their country and stamp out anything they viewed as heresy.
The episode showcases Catherine, Wolsey, and Thomas More as staunch defenders of the faith. They condone and lead raids on printing shops that dare to print texts that bear titles like “The Denunciation of the Pope.” They come together in court meetings to discuss the threat of heresy, with Wolsey even advocating for burning heretics to send a message. Catherine instead decides they will burn books, which still upsets Lina.
This episode does a great job of condensing the complex vagaries of heresy and religious persecution in England throughout the 16th-century. Henry is shown as engaged in upholding the faith and stamping out Protestantism, but it’s Catherine and Wolsey who are truly fervent. Catherine was incredibly devout, even zealous. She is, as Lina astutely points out, the daughter of the two monarchs who basically perfected religious persecution and torture with the Spanish Inquisition. Henry was perhaps more engaged than we see, enough that the Pope awarded him the title “Defender of the Faith” for his staunchly anti-Protestant writings and stances.
Interestingly, the statement here that they do not burn heretics in England is true. It was not a common practice at this time, with only 30 burnings taking place in the entire century prior to Thomas More becoming chancellor of England, after which it became more frequent. It didn’t become an extremely common practice for punishing heretics until Catherine’s daughter Mary took the throne.
The Spanish Princess tips its hand toward Mary’s eventual designation as “Bloody Mary,” as she became a ruler so determined on restoring Catholicism to her nation that she burned over 300 people at the stake. Little Mary is enamored of any talk of her father’s grisly punishment of political opponents and heretics. And while Catherine and Wolsey burn books, she solemnly but enthusiastically throws a book upon the pyre herself. Just a little religious zealot in the making.
More the torturer?
The ill-fated emotional affair between Maggie Pole and Sir Thomas More comes to an abrupt end this week. Maggie goes to visit Thomas at his house, perhaps expecting to finally steal a kiss. Instead, she finds a bloody torture device in his rooms, still fresh with the blood of his latest victim.
Maggie confronts him about this, wondering how he’s not racked by guilt (get it, get it?). He stands by his choices, truly believing he’s helping those he coerces into confession to salvation — but Maggie is not impressed that his conscience can drown out the screams of torture.
The historical record here is foggy. More did notably work with Wolsey to prevent the importation and printing of Protestant texts in England, as we see here. John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, which lists the stories of those who died or suffered torture for Protestantism, claimed More frequently used torture as an interrogation method. More himself claimed in his writings, 1533’s Apology, that he only used corporal punishment on two heretics personally. But, he also oversaw the burning of six heretics during his time as Chancellor, a previously dormant practice. While some historians see More as a product of the religious violence of his time, others align with Maggie and see these practices as a disillusioning rejection of his humanist values.
All that glitters is Meg's gold
This week Meg continues to staunchly plead her case for her annulment and her inheritance. She begs Henry and Catherine to help her seek the ruling from Rome, but they refuse. Instead, they side with Angus, who goes so far as to come to court to plead his own case. Catherine even suggests to him that he spread the rumor that Meg and Albany have a romance, so that the Pope will see Meg's request for annulment as having a personal motive and throw it out.
It was indeed rumored that Albany and Meg had a romantic relationship, their political closeness aroused the suspicions of many. However, there’s really no evidence that ever occurred, and given Meg’s propensity for bad romantic decisions, it seems likely if it had happened, we’d know about it. The rumor makes sense and as with many rumors, it’s unclear where it began — but it’s particularly delicious to imagine it coming from Catherine as a woman with a vested interest in upholding the sanctity of marriage. It’s also true that Angus fled to the English court for a time, seeking Henry’s support and protection. He would spend the rest of his life trying to forward English interests in Scotland to maintain Henry’s help.
Meg also returns to England, alongside Hal Stuart. When Henry and Catherine basically tell her to get lost, she storms into a treasury room and just steals the gold she is owed. But not before Hal Stuart tries to lay some moves on her, and she feebly rejects him, having already picked one s--ty husband.
In actuality, Meg fought with Henry over her inheritance her entire adult life. When their father died, Henry conveniently claimed the will was “lost,” putting Meg’s claims off by saying she wasn’t owed anything. This moment of her stealing some English gold is imagined, but Meg did have a perceived obsession with gold and part of why she was a volatile figure in Scotland was she was seen as greedy in her siding with whoever would give her gold (in actuality, it seemed to align more closely with those who would respect her position and power — but classic 16th-century men: "This woman wants power! She must be a greedy she-devil."). So, it’s certainly easy to suppose it could have happened. Oh, and Hal Stuart, yeah, he really was Meg’s bad choice number three. But I suspect we'll get more on that next week.
Both Catherine and audiences come to learn just how off the rails Henry has become this episode through the tragic case of Edward Stafford (which, he's notably hotter on TV right?). While Catherine loves and leans on Stafford, Henry’s other courtiers, including Wolsey and Warwick, close ranks against him.
After secretly helping Catherine to her bedchamber in the middle of a miscarriage, Edward is arrested for treason. He’s kept in the Tower, where Catherine visits him, calling the charges against him absurd. He stands trial, with two main charges against him — that he consulted false prophets and necromancers about the king’s death and he was seen in the queen’s private rooms.
Catherine laughs these charges off and accepts Stafford’s apology. She hopes Henry will too and grant Stafford a last minute reprieve the day of his execution. But when that day comes, Henry refuses to show up, simply sending a letter commending Edward's soul to God. So, Edward loses his head.
Edward Stafford, the Duke of Buckingham, was one of the earliest and most notable victims of Henry VIII, who had a predilection for executing anyone he perceived as a threat to getting his way. Stafford had a legitimate claim to the throne as a descendant of Edward III, which made the low-born Wolsey suspicious of him. It was true that Stafford was shocked by charges of treason against him, most likely trumped up by a jealous Wolsey and a paranoid Henry. He was genuinely charged with treason for consulting fortune tellers about Henry’s possible death; a fact which appears to be demonstrably false, if not at least impossible to prove. Stafford’s former disgruntled household servants testified against him.
He was also charged with purportedly inquiring with said prophets over the possibility of Henry having a male heir, which The Spanish Princess ingeniously spins off into a moment of connection and care between Stafford and the grief-stricken Catherine.
Stafford denied all charges while standing before a jury of 17 of his peers, but he was found guilty. It’s unclear if he was as close with Catherine as the series imagines, but she did genuinely beg her husband to show him mercy. Which he was not granted.
Life in Henry VIII’s court was dangerous, living with a mercurial king who used execution as readily as a slap on the wrist to punish his perceived enemies. The Spanish Princess captures this well, particularly because they’ve spent two seasons making us fall in love with the roguish but loyal and lovable Stafford. It easily proved the series’ hardest goodbye so far, but whether Henry ever regretted his actions, we’ll never know.