The Spanish Princess finale recap: Coups, Catherine's farewell, and other historical observations
It brings me no small amount of sadness knowing this is the last of these recaps I’ll write, and I hope you’ve found my attempts at sussing out the real history from the dramatization edifying and enjoyable.
The show ends with Catherine humbled, but still strong in spirit. She chooses to leave court and Henry on her own terms, declaring her love for him and her faith in her daughter. It gives her an emotional victory, if not a literal one.
Henry descends further into madness, surrounded by flattering courtiers and his new love interest, Anne Boleyn. Catherine’s true downfall comes at the hands of Maggie Pole, who reveals Catherine’s greatest secret (that she consummated her marriage with Arthur) to Henry. Maggie does it to secure her inheritance and her title, but it comes at the cost of her own integrity.
Meanwhile, Meg joins her brother in the Tudor madness, staging a coup to put her son on the throne and reclaim her own political power.
The only truly happy ending comes for Lina and Oviedo, who decide to ride off into the sunset to the Ottoman Empire at Rosa’s invitation.
But let’s take one last dive into the historical truths of The Spanish Princess.
Gods stand up for bastards
Henry FitzRoy may be a bastard, but that doesn’t stop Henry from raising him up as his only son. He invites Bessie and the child to come live with him at court. Then, he presents Henry to the court (where little Mary shows him up with her Latin skills), naming the child Duke of Somerset and Richmond, as well as granting him several other titles. It angers Catherine, fearing Henry will privilege this boy over their true royal daughter.
Henry really did do all of this. In fact, his son’s surname “FitzRoy” literally means “son of the king” so no one could forget the boy’s origins (and Henry’s ability to conceive a son). It’s also well-documented that while FitzRoy was a terrible student (particularly when it came to Latin), Princess Mary was the opposite, impressing courtiers with her intelligence and skill from the age of four.
In 1525, at only 6 years old, FitzRoy was presented at court in an elaborate ceremony and named the Duke of Richmond and Somerset. Indeed, Henry’s favoritism to the boy over his own daughter only worsened. In 1533, following his divorce from Catherine, Henry temporarily declared Mary illegitimate and reduced her title from princess to lady. No dad of the year awards for Henry.
Meg may be a she-wolf, but she’s spent much of the season being oppressed by the various men in her life. By the finale, she’s over it. She asks the men of clans Hamilton and Arran to help her put her son on the throne, which they do, seizing the boy and taking back her castle. She sends Albany back to France, declaring herself regent again. She then appears before parliament, naming her son officially king with herself and others as advisors. She won’t settle for unhappiness romantically either, promoting and kissing Hal Stuart, as she claims him for her own. Angus can’t let it go, deciding to storm her castle. So, she does what any wife who’s had enough would do and fires cannons on him, laughing maniacally.
Extraordinarily, this is all true, down to the cannonballs. Albany was already back in France when Meg staged her coup in 1524, with the assistance of the Hamilton and Arran men. Her son, James, was elevated to full kingly powers, and parliament named Meg his chief councilor. She truly did form a romantic attachment to Henry Stuart, promoting him to a senior office in her employ.
When parliament confirmed her new title, Angus stormed her castle — and Meg really did fire on him with cannons. Not from one, but two of her houses, Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood House. He got it from all sides, so to speak. Honestly, I find this hilarious comeuppance. Dude hardcore deserves it, sorry not sorry.
Meg’s life was dramatic right to the very end, beyond where we leave her here. She did eventually secure a divorce from Angus, only to turn around and marry Hal, who sadly turned out to be even more unfaithful and awful than Angus. As her son aged, she ultimately lost most of her political power (and even tried to run for the border more than once) — but that’s another story for another day.
At long last, The Spanish Princess formally introduced Catherine’s greatest rival, Anne Boleyn. In deference to his courtier Thomas, Henry appoints both of Thomas' daughters, Anne and Mary, to the queen’s household. Late one night, Catherine spies Anne and Henry in the gardens, where Anne strips away her robe to reveal that she’s completely naked — though she’ll only let Henry look, not touch.
The series understandably omits Henry’s affair with Anne’s sister, Mary. Perhaps because ultimately, it had little bearing on Catherine’s life, beyond being yet another example of Henry’s unfaithfulness. The series is true to Anne’s sudden rise in favor and appearance in court. After spending much of her youth in France, Anne debuted in court in 1522 and immediately established herself as a vivacious figure (though Henry wouldn’t become enamored of her until 1526). She was indeed a member of Catherine’s retinue (girl on girl crime to the max!)
The dance of seduction we see between Henry and Anne is an accurate representation of how she managed to snare the king as a husband and not a mere fling. The real Anne allowed Henry to court her, but she virtually refused to take him to her bed until shortly before their assured marriage. Seemingly, she operated under the adage that Henry would not buy the cow if he could get the milk for free.
The King’s great matter
The secret that Catherine has held for so long, has built a life upon, is finally revealed — she was not a virgin when they married. Despite Catherine lying to Henry for their entire marriage, Maggie goes to Henry and tells him the truth. Though he’s suspected it for ages and already asked Wolsey to help him secure an end to his marriage, Henry is bowled over by the news. He takes Catherine “hunting,” where he flings the accusations at her, enraged that her choices have cast them both into the flames of hell. He quotes Leviticus; she volleys with some Deuteronomy. But in the end, he leaves Catherine shaken and alone, as he now possesses what he believes is fodder to annul their marriage.
In truth, no one will ever know what happened between Catherine and Arthur behind closed doors. Catherine insisted she was a maid when she married Henry until the day she died, while Henry used that previous marriage to seek dispensation from the Pope for an annulment. The show doesn’t get into the particulars of this years-long process, which included an actual ecclesial trial overseen by Wolsey and ended with Henry breaking from the Catholic Church to get what he wanted.
But it does winkingly point to many of these things in pieces of dialogue or asides. Wolsey would ultimately meet his downfall on this issue, demoted and cast from court (he died before Henry could decide to execute him). So, we get a taste of his arguments with Henry, as well as his struggle to honor both the church’s laws of marriage and Henry’s insistence that Wolsey find a way to get him what he wants. Catherine also stands by the fact that her nephew, the Holy Roman Emperor, has ties to the Pope, thus making Henry’s dispensation for an annulment a losing battle.
Before just blowing everything up by founding the Church of England, the fate of Henry and Catherine’s marriage rested on an argument of warring scripture. He demanded an annulment predicated on Leviticus 18:16, a Bible passage that says that if a man lies with his brother’s wife, they will be childless. Catherine and her supporters volleyed back with Deuteronomy 25:5, a passage stating that when a wife’s husband dies, his brother shall take her as a wife. These scripture-based arguments were presented at trial before Wolsey, as well as to the Pope, in a much more drawn-out process. But we still get at the heart of these arguments in the final lakeside exchange between Henry and Catherine, only The Spanish Princess renders it in a much more intimate and visceral way.
One last word on Maggie Pole — here, she uses this secret to get ahead. That didn't really happen, but by the end of her life, Maggie was a steely woman who would do what it took to protect her title and family. That extended to refusing to denounce her son Reggie when he challenged Henry's claim to the throne, ending in her own beheading. Whoops.
Catherine’s last words
Our last moments with Catherine showcase a more familiar version of the historical figure. She sports a black gown and gabled hood that fans of history will recognize from one of the most famous portraits of her (co-creator Matthew Graham elaborates more on that choice here). In voiceover, we hear Catherine’s letter to Henry, voluntarily leaving the palace. She’s already told Henry she’s leaving on her terms, reminding him that she will always be his wife and queen while wishing him peace.
Her final words are a letter to Mary, telling her daughter how she is Henry’s greatest treasure. “I love you as I love him,” Catherine tells her daughter. “I am his wife, Queen of England, and God’s obedient servant, but you are England’s future.” And that’s a wrap on Catherine’s story.
In truth, Catherine was forced out of the palace, banished by Henry. She ended her days in Kimbolton Castle, where she led an ascetic life, fasting nearly continuously. Catherine left court in 1531 and died in 1536. Rumors persisted that she’d been poisoned, but the modern consensus is that Catherine died from cancer.
To the end of her days, she called herself Queen of England and Henry’s wife. Her servants addressed her as the queen, and she told anyone who would listen she was Henry’s only lawful wedded wife.
She was forbidden from seeing her daughter Mary, but she continued to try to advocate for her child via letters. Her final letter to Henry mirrors her final words here, forgiving him, pledging her still undying love for him, and begging him to be a good father to Mary. She did, also, write Mary from her confinement offering comfort and a pledge to do everything in her power to raise her up.
Just as we see her here, living and breathing, at peace with her choices, Catherine of Aragon went out steadfast in her love for Henry and her right to call herself queen. Catherine, we bow down to you, a true queen if there ever was one.
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