The Spanish Princess creators on the series finale and giving Catherine a proper send-off
Warning: This article contains spoilers for the series finale of The Spanish Princess.
It's time to say adiós to Catherine of Aragon.
On Sunday night, Starz concluded The Spanish Princess. The two-season tale of Henry VIII's first wife ended, if not on a high note, at least on a tranquil one. As the Tudor court and Henry (Ruairi O'Connor) spun further into madness, Catherine (Charlotte Hope) began to consider her options: either allow herself to be dragged down with them or find peace.
Things came to a head when Catherine spied Anne Boleyn (Alice Nokes) brazenly getting naked with Henry in the gardens. But Catherine no longer had a bargaining chip because Maggie Pole (Laura Carmichael) finally revealed her secret to Henry — that Catherine was not a virgin on their wedding night and had consummated her marriage with his brother Arthur. Maggie divulged the truth to save her own hide, including her title and her possessions. But it left Catherine wondering what Henry might do to free himself from what he came to believe was a cursed marriage.
Meanwhile, the Tudor madness extended to Scotland, where Meg (Georgie Henley) staged a coup to claim the throne for her son, with herself as regent. When her husband, Angus (Andrew Rothney), attempted to storm her castle, she fired on him with cannonballs, laughing manically all the way.
The only people to escape the toxicity of the court were Lina (Stephanie Levi-John) and Oviedo (Aaron Cobham), who decided to seek a new life in the Ottoman Empire. But not before Lina imparted some advice to Catherine, convincing her to re-center her life around God and her daughter. Catherine left the court politically vanquished but on her own terms, going off into an uncertain future with Mary by her side.
Of course, Catherine's real tale had a far sadder ending. But creators Matthew Graham and Emma Frost were determined to give their heroine a more hopeful conclusion, one that would prove more satisfying to modern audiences. We called them up to get the details on why they decided to end Catherine and the Tudors' stories here, the reasoning behind that stirring (and familiar) final shot, and the one thing they regret.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Catherine's story is not over. There's still the divorce, the trial, and her seclusion, which you hint at pieces of through Henry and Catherine's argument and her final choice. How did you decide where to end?
EMMA FROST: What we felt was Catherine had been so maligned by history, it would be lazy, dramatically, and boring, historically, if we ended up in a place where she is a victim, where she's beaten down and defeated by this man who she loved turning into a brute. I don't think a 21st-century female audience wants to see a story where their heroine is vanquished by the end. What we felt was while the Tudors around her descend into madness, Catherine rises above it. She finds peace. She finds her own inner center through God, through her devotion to her daughter, and through love. That felt to us both truthful and a really important message of positivity.
Was it a challenge to balance giving your heroine a satisfactory conclusion on her own terms and the reality of her downfall?
MATTHEW GRAHAM: Politically, she's finished. She's out of court, and she's ostracized. But emotionally, she is centered. That's the only thing you can do. It's a very hard thing when you write a show like this because you're aware that some of your audience know the history, at least well enough to know it's not going to end well. And the other half don't know anything. You want to try and find a journey that has a conclusion. At the same time, you want to honor the reality of the history. We were actually going to end and run the final credit over Catherine's tomb. You see tourists walking by, and you just pull back and there she is. You want to say to the audience, "She really lived." This isn't Game of Thrones. She was a real person, and her body is in that stone sarcophagus. We just didn't do it in the end, which is a bit of a regret. That would have been the best coda. It could have contextualized everything. It puts a bow around them and says, "That was history, these people lived, and that's what happened to them."
Those last words, that letter to Mary, did you draw that from a particular historical document?
FROST: We looked very deeply at what the material was toward the end of her life. There were a couple of things we found that we used as the basis for how we end the show. Particularly, they were her letters. One was her letter to Henry. Right to the very end, she had pride and dignity in saying, "I am still your wife. I am your wife in the eyes of God. Nothing will ever change that. And I love you, and I forgive you." She could see his demons. She had an emotional intelligence. She had an ability not to descend into bitterness and hatred and vindictiveness and spite. She just loves him. That is incredible strength, and I think it's strength that isn't recognized often enough. The other was her letters to her daughter. She championed her daughter, she tried to elevate her, and she tried to instill in her a sense of importance. That was another gigantic victory that Catherine's spirit wasn't vanquished. Catherine, as a person and as a spirit, wasn't vanquished.
Similarly for Meg, there's a lot more of her story to tell, so how did you hit on where to end her tale?
FROST: It was quite easy with Meg, because we knew we wanted to contrast the Tudor madness with Catherine finding acceptance. The whole idea that when Angus tried to storm the castle and Meg started firing cannonballs at him out the window — it felt like the perfect metaphor for Meg doing that in all eternity. We just leave her forever blasting a cannon at the unwanted husband and descending into madness. The contrast of that with Catherine finding acceptance and maturity came to us very early, and we stayed with it.
How did you balance making her a heroine with the fact that especially when it came to romance, this was a person who made chronically bad choices?
FROST: Meg's story is very identifiable. It feels very modern that she is a passionate, impetuous young woman who makes s----y choices in men. She's ruled by her heart or by lust, whatever it was that was driving those choices. She kept trusting the wrong men. I think she's a heroine because of that. We can all understand that. We enjoy watching her spirit as she fights for her sons and grows up. There's a lot of maturity that Meg finds before we leave her firing cannonballs at Angus.
For Maggie Pole, she too had a very tragic end. Here she wins out, but it costs her a lot on a personal level to the point where Henry compares to Margaret Beaufort, her former arch nemesis. Much of her narrative this season has been spun out of supposition, so how did you decide to make her be the one to betray Catherine and divulge this secret?
GRAHAM: There are so many different interpretations of Margaret Pole. In the end, she was the mother of one of the biggest contenders to overthrow Henry in his later reign. Her son Reggie grew up to try to raise an army in Europe to come back and march into England and reclaim the crown. We wanted to try and find a bit of that. So we loved the idea that she became Margaret Beaufort. In the last season, Margaret Beaufort had been her nemesis and such a figure of terror for Maggie. But basically life has beaten her down to the point now that she is cold, she's lost, and she has become Margaret Beaufort. Margaret Pole was a pretty tough and clinical woman. She certainly didn't bow to any pressure later in her life to give up her son. That was what really cost her head in the end, but we wanted to touch on some of that.
Where did the idea for her ultimately doomed emotional affair with Thomas More come from?
GRAHAM: We were researching and we read that when the king and court fled London to escape the new outbreak of plague, Thomas More was actually sick. He stayed behind, and he did get sick. It just started a little cog turning in our brains. We started talking about the idea of all the court leaving London, leaving Westminster Palace empty. Then we thought, "Wouldn't it be great if Maggie was the one who nursed him?" Originally, Thomas was going to get sick and Maggie was going to nurse him. We realized that we didn't want the nursing-back-to-health story; what we wanted was just this Remains of the Day-esque [thing] to have the two of them rattling around in this big empty palace. He felt like the closest to her spiritually and character-wise. [They're] both devout, both quiet and unassuming, but both filled with a kind of steel.
You've always had more leeway with Lina and Oviedo's story. Ultimately, they decide to leave for somewhere they feel is safer. Where did that choice come from and why?
GRAHAM: Well, Lina did stay with Catherine. I'm not entirely sure that Lina stayed with Catherine right until her death, but she certainly stayed with her for many, many years. We just wanted a happy ending, if I'm honest. We wanted one couple to go off into the sunset and be content. Lina and Oviedo are so close to our hearts, both the actors we love, and their characters. We didn't want to leave them stranded.
FROST: Also, it would have been very difficult to end Catherine's story. It would have just limped to a close. If Lina's still with her, would they all leave court together? And what does that mean for Lina and Oviedo? It felt like we needed to punctuate a different fate. For Rosa to turn up at the end and give Lina and Oviedo a way for another new start, away from the toxicity of the Tudor world and London, it felt right. That Lina and Oviedo should go off into the sunset with Rosa to a better future. Catherine learns acceptance, and also, really importantly learns to let her best friend go. That was a really big part of the ending of Catherine's story, was Catherine learning the grace and maturity to allow Lina to do what was right and best for Lina and put Lina before herself.
I was so thrilled you brought Rosa back twice this season. What spurred that?
FROST: Oh my God, we wanted Rosa back right from the beginning. We had to work quite hard to think how we could do it. The truth of the matter was historically, Catherine's lady-in-waiting, Bessie Blount, bore Henry a son, so we had to have a new lady-in-waiting. When we conceived of the show originally as 16 episodes across two seasons, we always knew we were going to send Rosa away at the end of season 1. And then we fell in love with Nadia Parkes. What we wanted was for Rosa to be really pivotal in defining Catherine's journey. Catherine is at a crossroads when she sees Rosa in episode 6. Essentially, she could go to the dark side or she can go to the light. She can go into bitterness, into rejecting her daughter, and fall down the same rabbit hole that the Tudors do of madness and of fighting for something that she's already lost in terms of her relationship with Henry and her fight to have a son.
Rosa turns up at the right moment and says, "Don't be ridiculous. Forget all of that. You've got a daughter, and a daughter is worth just as much as a son. Bequeath her your legacy and turn her into the next ruler and pour all of your love and energy into your daughter." Rosa has this incredible effect on Catherine and sets her on the path to redemption and acceptance, which enables Catherine to have an ending that's not happy, but nor is it negative or destructive. Rosa almost comes back like the guardian angel and hands her the compass and says, "It's your turn now. You've got to find your way."
By this point in the story, Henry has gained weight and Catherine has aged substantially from when we first met her in season 1. I loved how you handled it ultimately, but were there debates about how far to go with all that?
FROST: Good Lord, yes. We did a lot of graying tests, we tried out aging to a lot of different degrees. We did all of that at the end of season 1. It felt a little at the extreme end, like the costumes and the aging effect were wearing the actors rather than the other way around. It can be quite distracting, but also in truth, because the story moves so fast, it's really hard to work out when you bring all that stuff in. Because we have had to conflate history in some ways. So there is a real danger that you just suddenly turn up in one episode and they look 10 years older, but the events on screen feel like they only happened last month. In terms of credibility and narrative flow and the demands of the production, we felt just a slightly more subtle aging was the right thing.
Catherine's final costume is the very famous gabled hood that appears in her portrait that hangs in the National Gallery. Why did you want this more recognizable image of her to be the last view we got of her?
GRAHAM: We just wanted to reach the point where you saw the figure from history that you would know from the Holbeins or from the portraits that you can see in that Salisbury wing of the National Gallery. Now you can understand the person behind the portrait. It was very emotional the day that Charlotte first appeared in that costume because suddenly she was Catherine of Aragon from history.
You've spent a lot of time with the Plantagenets and the Tudors now, but do you have a desire to continue any of these stories? Or pick up on a later wife, say give Catherine Parr her due or something?
GRAHAM: Starz are obviously doing Young Elizabeth, so they will be looking at the Elizabethan era presumably through the eyes of a very young future queen. We are looking at developing a show that will actually take place in the early medieval period and will also be a very strong woman from history, so we're not ruling out going back into one of those worlds and looking at history through a female prism.
FROST: I've made 34 hours of this from The White Queen to The White Princess to The Spanish Princess, and it's been brilliant and fun. You can run the risk of repeating yourself. There is a certain rhythm to the storytelling when you're dealing with true events. I am desperate to be writing contemporary stories. I have a lot of pride in the fact that The White Queen was the first show that really broke through and proved that there was a really big female audience on cable. The White Queen came out of the hatches and stormed it. I'm thrilled that there are now so many historical female shows in the world.