When we were just starting this blog, I wrote a post ranking screen portrayals of Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536), queen of England, first wife of Henry VIII … but that was early on, and I no way did my favorite of Henry’s six wives justice. I’ve meant to go back and do a proper overview, but was stymied by the fact that there were a few key portrayals I hadn’t seen. Well, editing our 16th-century video put me in the right frame of mind, so I went and watched the two 1970s productions that were really needed — so here we are!
As many are more aware these days due to the Philippa Fucking Gregory travesty The Spanish Princess, Catherine (Catalina) of Aragon was a daughter of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, ruling monarchs of those two countries that made up much of Spain. She was married to Henry VII’s heir, first son Arthur, Prince of Wales (1486-1502) in 1501 — but he died 5 months later. She was left in limbo for EIGHT years in England, with King Henry VII and her father, King Ferdinand, bickering about her dowry and prospects. When Henry VII finally died in 1509, new king Henry VIII married her.
Catherine and Henry had many children, but most were miscarried or stillborn. Only the future Queen Mary I lived to adulthood; their son Henry, Duke of Cornwall died just under two months old. Catherine was older than Henry, and when it was clear she was past childbearing age, and he fell in love with Anne Boleyn, Henry famously divorced Catherine, breaking with the Roman Catholic church in order to do so and founding the Church of England.
Catherine was a badass. She served as regent for Henry while he was fighting in France, and under her watch the English trounced the Scots in battle. She was super educated, charitable, and much beloved by her people. She also had a will of iron, refusing to divorce Henry because 1. she knew the idea that their marriage wasn’t valid was a lie, 2. because it would endanger both of their souls, and 3. because it might disadvantage her daughter Mary’s claim to the throne. I used to LOVE the fact that she dug in her heels with Henry; now that I’m older, there’s a part of me that wishes she would have been slightly more pragmatic, if only so that she and Mary could have had a relationship in her later years (Henry kept the two apart for the final years of Catherine’s life). But you can’t rewrite history, can you?
So, let’s look at Catherine on screen!
Anna Boleyn (1920)
Who played her? Hedwig Pauly-Winterstein, German stage and film actress
What’s it about? A silent film focusing on Anne Boleyn. Unfortunately I can’t find any images of Catherine/Hedwig!
Is it any good? I’m a good person, but not good enough to go watch an early silent movie that will only have a blip of Catherine.
The Sword and the Rose (1953)
Who played her? Rosalie Crutchley, British actress known for playing foreign and/or sinister roles
What’s it about? Henry VIII’s younger sister, Mary, who married (briefly) the French king before marrying Henry’s best friend, Charles Brandon.
Is it any good? Trystan says it’s pretty Disney-fied, and given that Catherine must be a minor character, we’re going with that.
Anne of the Thousand Days (1969)
Who played her? Irene Papas, Greek actress known for The Trojan Women among other films
What’s it about? Anne Boleyn’s rise and fall, told very sympathetically from Anne’s perspective. Catherine is regal but cold in this version.
Is it any good? It’s a great film, and quite gorgeous, although I wouldn’t go to it first if I was focused on Catherine.
The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970)
Who played her? Annette Crosbie, Scottish actress
What’s it about? A BBC TV series, with each episode focused on one of Henry’s six wives. This is probably the best production in terms of really focusing on Catherine’s perspective.
Is it any good? Yes and no. Story-wise – yes, very accurate to the real history, and the acting is great. Crosbie has the right look (pale skin, strawberry blonde hair), but even more so, she brings the right depth to the role. Unfortunately, this is an early TV production and so the sets/locations are limited, the lighting isn’t great, it’s on cheap video, Catherine only seems to own three dresses, and EVERYTHING in this episode is this weird brownish-green color.
Henry VIII and his Six Wives (1972)
Who played her? Frances Cuka, English actress known for TV work
What’s it about? A feature film version of The Six Wives of Henry VIII, with the same actor playing Henry VIII (Keith Mitchell), except this time there’s MONEY and things are told much more from Henry’s perspective.
Is it any good? A mixed bag. It’s beautiful, and it’s lovely to see so many SPOT ON historical costumes, but I much prefer the women’s perspective. Cuka does well as Catherine (she’s got the right look for sure), but because it’s a feature film she doesn’t get enough screen time to do her story justice. Look for a longer review very soon!
Henry VIII (1979)
Who played her? Claire Bloom, English stage and film actress
What’s it about? A TV film based on the Shakespeare play.
Is it any good? Ok, I found this available from my local library on Kanopy and was going to do it until I found out it was the Shakespeare play. Don’t hate me, but the stars have to align for me to enjoy Shakespeare (great acting, great production, etc.) — otherwise it just feels like work.
Mad Love/Juana la Loca (2001)
Who played her? Nerea García, Spanish actress who doesn’t have much of a profile these days
What’s it about? Catherine’s older sister, Queen Juana of Castile, known as Juana la Loca (Juana the Crazy) – who is a fascinating figure, although I’m not sure this film really does her justice. Catherine is just in the background in one scene as a little girl.
Is it any good? Not if you’re focused on Catherine, but like I said, Juana’s story IS fascinating … but this film is a mixed bag. Read our full review!
The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2001)
Who played her? Annabelle Dowler, English theater actress
What’s it about? A David Starkey (British semi-pop historian) documentary.
Is it any good? Gah, it’s been too long since I watched it, and Starkey annoys me with his barely veiled sexism, so I can’t do it.
Henry VIII (2003)
Who played her? Assumpta Serna, Spanish actress and author
What’s it about? A two-part British TV miniseries starring Ray Winstone as a thug version of Henry VIII and Helena Bonham Carter as Anne Boleyn.
Is it any good? It’s not terrible, but the characterizations aren’t great and the costumes, while not horrible, are only about 60% acceptable. Catherine is older and bitchy and not given much depth here.
The Other Boleyn Girl (2003)
Who played her? Yolanda Vasquez, Spanish actress who works primarily in England
What’s it about? An early TV adaptation of the Philippa Fucking Gregory book. As I wrote in my review, I think it’s actually better than the feature film version in terms of understanding the characters…
Is it any good? … but there’s not much money involved. Catherine is a very minor figure, as the story is focused on Mary and Anne Boleyn.
The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)
Who played her? Ana Torrent, Spanish film actress
What’s it about? The big screen adaptation of the Philippa Fucking Gregory book about Mary and Anne Boleyn. Catherine registers a bit more here, but she’s once again cold and bitchy, and there’s no real understanding of her position.
Is it any good? Sure, in a shlocky big budget historical DRAMA way? Just, again, not really focused on Catherine.
The Tudors (2008)
Who played her? Maria Doyle Kennedy, Irish singer, songwriter, and actress
What’s it about? Oh god. Showtime’s attempt to sex up Henry VIII in a multi-year series. The first season gives a lot of time to the Henry/Catherine/Anne triangle, and I appreciated that they let Catherine be regal, beautiful, and have a spine-of-steel, even if the lovely Kennedy doesn’t have the right look and there’s nothing of her and Henry’s happy early years.
Is it any good? For the LOLZ? Sure! The costumes are mostly whack, with some aspects that work.
Wolf Hall (2015)
Who played her? Joanne Whalley, English TV and film actress
What’s it about? Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, from Thomas Cromwell’s perspective, adapted from a novel. SUCH A GOOD PRODUCTION even if author Hilary Mantel doesn’t always get the historical motivations right. They really worked HARD to make this HISTORICAL, including trying to get the costuming as accurate as possible, which is lovely. Unfortunately Catherine doesn’t get too much of a role given the focus on Anne and Cromwell, but her scene in her divorce trial is really well done.
Is it any good? YES YES YES! Although again, not focused on Catherine.
Carlos, rey emperador (2015-16)
Who played her? Mélida Molina, Spanish actress
What’s it about? A Spanish TV series from the makers of Isabel (about Isabella of Castile), focused on Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain.
Is it any good? I tried watching a few episodes of Isabel and they were so terrible that I can’t go back. I assume Catherine must come up in terms of her negotiations for support from Spain. These costumes don’t look too bad, but others I’ve seen are pretty dire.
Six Wives with Lucy Worsley (2016)
Who played her? Paola Bontempi, Spanish actress & TV host
What’s it about? A documentary by Lucy Worsley (historian and chief curator at the UK’s Historic Royal Palaces) about, natch, Henry’s six wives.
Is it any good? It’s REALLY well done. The history is spot on, the costumes are really well done, and I highly recommend this. I’ve watched it twice so far!
The Spanish Princess (2019- )
Who played her? Charlotte Hope, English actress best known before this for a supporting part on Game of Thrones
What’s it about? Catherine of Aragon, based on the Philippa Fucking Gregory book, starting with her arrival in England and marriage to Prince Arthur.
Is it any good? Oh dear god. SHE WEARS A WINDMILL DRESS. The timeline is all fucked up because Henry is too old. I don’t actually think they did a terrible job with Catherine’s character, but she’s surrounded by a whole lot of misinterpreted characters, the costuming is crazytown, the hair is a travesty, and the filmmakers just don’t seem to understand the historical context. That being said, those crazytown costumes are good for lolz!
Which is your favorite portrayal of Catherine of Aragon on screen?