So, The Spanish Princess‘s first season has just ended. I recapped every episode, possibly because I am a saint, but really because I kept cackling knowing the horror you would all feel as the series unfolded. I kept my recaps pretty straightforward, but now, as the resident Frock Flicks Catherine of Aragon nerd, it’s time to look at just where and how The Spanish Princess fucked up the history — and fuck it up, it did! Some of the blame goes to our favorite author Philippa Fucking Gregory, some of it goes to Starz, which embellished Gregory’s ridiculous story.
The Spanish Princess fucks up a lot of the real history of Henry VII, Henry VIII, and Catherine of Aragon. Oh sure, there’s some reality to the story — yes, Catherine of Aragon did in fact marry Henry VIII’s older brother, who died; she then married Henry VIII, and their’s was a love match. But most of the details beyond that are wrongity wrong wrong. I don’t have it in me to list them all, let’s just focus on the top 5, most important facts of history that The Spanish Princess got completely ass backward.
And yes, we are leaving aside the giant problem of the historically inaccurate costuming, which I’ll tackle in another post.
5. Queen Isabella of Castile
“As would soon become their pattern, she [Isabella] handled logistics while he [Ferdinand] led the troops in the field… Back in Castile, Queen Isabella went into action once more. She continued to do what she did best — mobilize troops for war. She had perfected the logistics of battle, gathering troops, supplies, armor, horses, carts, foodstuffs, and hospital equipment and preparing it for transport” (Kirstin Downey, Isabella: The Warrior Queen).
Queen Isabella of Castile (part of modern-day Spain) was a badass. She and her husband Ferdinand of neighboring Aragon were instrumental in leading the reconquista, in which Catholic “Spain” reconquered lands that had been held by Muslim leaders for centuries. And, in fact, Isabella played a much more active role in these military campaigns than your usual 15th/16th century queen. She frequently traveled and camped with the troops. She put the war effort before her own comfort. She modeled herself on Joan of Arc. She gave inspirational speeches to her troops, encouraging them to get out there and fight.
What she didn’t do is fight. Queen Isabella of Castile never raised a sword, never got covered in blood, never led troops. Never, no how, didn’t happen. Once again, we’ve got a case where filmmakers seem to have thought, “Huh, how do we convey Isabella’s badass-ness to a modern audience? They won’t understand her doing all these badass-by-15th/16th-century-standards things! We need to make it Overly, Anachronistically obvious! I know! Let’s show her cutting a bitch!” Instead of showing us, through other characters’ reactions to her actions, that the things the real Isabella did were considered badass and on the cusp of appropriate-for-a-queen, The Spanish Princess gives us a literal butt-kicking, soldier-hacking warrior. Which, to be clear, never happened.
4. Margaret Beaufort
I guess Philippa Fucking Gregory felt she needed an antagonist in her books, but damn, the portrayal of Margaret Beaufort as a child-killing (she’s responsible for the deaths of the princes in the Tower in The White Princess), heroine-hating (she’s the prime opponent of Henry VIII’s and Catherine of Aragon’s marriage in The Spanish Princess) harpy is just wrong. In The Spanish Princess, she’s shown as the power behind Henry VII’s throne, and is almost pathologically opposed to the proposed marriage between the future Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon (“I know a schemer when I see one, and I see a Spanish schemer in a skirt”).
So what’s the real history? According to The Palgrave Macmillan Dictionary of Women’s Biography, after Henry VII took the throne, Margaret “retired from political life and devoted herself to religion, charity and scholarship. She translated several devotional books and encouraged the new printing presses of De Worde and Caxton, who called himself ‘Printer unto the most excellent princess my lady the King’s grandame’ in 1509. In 1501 she founded professorships of divinity at Oxford and Cambridge and in 1504 separated from her husband and took monastic vows, although she remained in her own palace at Woking rather than entering a convent. Greatly influenced by Bishop Fisher, she completed the endowment of Christ’s College, Cambridge, begun by Henry VII in 1505, and in 1508 agreed to endow St John’s College, leaving most of her fortune for this purpose when she died the following year. She also patronized several religious houses.”
However, the idea that she totally retired from political life is reductionist. Elizabeth Norton argues that she was “Henry’s most trusted supporter… and continued to assist him in his rule and the best interests of the dynasty they had founded,” serving as a judge and visiting the English possession of Calais in a royal capacity; as Henry VIII was a few months away from eighteen when he became king, she served as a kind of regent for him, “selecting his council for him out of the men that had been most trusted by his father” (Margaret Beaufort: Mother of the Tudor Dynasty). However, her own health was already failing as Henry VII was dying, and she died only a few months after him in 1509.
HOWEVER, she was not involved in the negotiations about the future Henry VIII and Catherine’s marriage. Check any biography of Margaret, Henry VII, Catherine of Aragon, or Henry VIII, and you’ll find that it all went down between Henry VII and Ferdinand of Aragon. Also, Margaret attended Henry and Catherine’s wedding, and left Catherine £202 10s in her will, which is not something you do for a schemer in a skirt.
3. Personal Agency in Marriage
The Spanish Princess treats a lot of its key characters as though they have all the personal agency in the world about who they marry. Catherine is shown being disappointed to learn that what she thought were letters she had received from her fiance Arthur were actually jokes written by his younger brother Henry; she’s sad because she thought that she and Arthur were In Love. Princess Margaret is shocked to discover her marriage has been arranged, and complains about not wanting to marry the older king of Scotland, implying that no one has ever explained the fact that she was destined from birth to make a dynastic marriage. Catherine’s husband Arthur dies, and she’s then shown making her own decisions to stay in England, and to marry the future Henry VIII. Yes, she writes to her parents asking for her dowry to be paid, and for their permission, and help getting a dispensation for the pope, but really, she’s shown making up her own mind without the input of her parents, and she resists her parents’ commands (to come home, to marry whoever).
ALL OF THIS IS BULLSHIT.
Sure, sometimes kings or queens regnant married someone they thought was hot (see: Henry VIII’s marriages to Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard). But a royal child would have been RAISED FROM BIRTH to know that their marriage would be planned for them, a matter of statecraft and politics, and NOT THEIR OWN DECISION.
Discussions about Arthur and Catherine’s marriage began when Catherine was three years old and Arthur was two and a half. The people involved in deciding these marriages were THEIR PARENTS, Henry VII of England and Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon. Ambassadors and other politicians played their roles, but no one ever went to Arthur to say, “Hey, what do you think of that Spanish Catherine chick? Do you think you could LIKE like her?” (or vice versa).
So when Arthur died, the idea of Catherine marrying the future Henry VIII was SUGGESTED and NEGOTIATED BY THEIR PARENTS. Isabella and Ferdinand almost immediately suggested the marriage after learning of Arthur’s death. Papal dispensations were arranged BY THEIR PARENTS. When it was suggested that Prince Henry marry Catherine’s niece Eleanor (which actually happened before any ideas were floated about Henry and Catherine), IT WAS HENRY VII WHO SUGGESTED IT. The future Henry VIII was 12 years old. NOBODY WENT TO HIM AND SAID, “Hey, go pray a lot and decide if you could handle marrying Eleanor!” IT WASN’T UP TO HIM. Royals didn’t meet their future spouse until shortly before the wedding, except in cases where a girl was sent to her future husband’s court to be raised there. Sure, the parents would consider lots of factors beyond just the politics — was the intended religious? healthy? — but POLITICS WAS THE MAIN MOTIVATION.
Oh, and then Ferdinand writing his daughter Catherine on the eve of her wedding to Henry, “just to tell her what kind of man she was marrying?” BULLSHIT. IF Juana had had sex with Prince Henry, 1. she never would have volunteered that information to her father, 2. her father would not have thought it was important, other than his daughter being slutty, 3. IF her father actually gave a shit about this (which he wouldn’t), he would have stopped the wedding.
2. The Timeline
This is a tie for #1, really, because the whole premise of the TV adaptation of The Spanish Princess gets the timeline completely, 1000% wrong in such a way that the entire show makes no sense.
BECAUSE CATHERINE WAS FIVE YEARS OLDER THAN THE FUTURE HENRY VIII, WHO WAS ALL OF TEN WHEN CATHERINE ARRIVED IN ENGLAND. Henry VIII was born in 1491. Catherine (age 15) married Arthur in 1501. Arthur died in 1502. That makes the future Henry VIII eleven years old at Arthur’s death.
HENRY WAS TEN. Think of your average 10 year old, and then consider whether s/he could write formal love letters on his/her sibling’s behalf or sexually harass their sibling’s intended. IT DOESN’T WORK.
The other problem, beyond the age gap, is that a lot of the show doesn’t make sense because of the timeline being off. Catherine and Arthur were FIFTEEN YEARS OLD when they married, which makes their lack of consummation (see below) make a whole lot more sense. Sure, a 15-year-old could have sex, but that’s still pretty young, and there was a definite sense that the two had many more years ahead of them to create a mature relationship.
Furthermore, all the political shenanigans were much worse than the TV show makes clear, because Arthur died in 1502, Catherine and Henry were engaged in 1503, and then Ferdinand and Henry VII left Catherine unsupported financially for SIX YEARS while her and Henry’s marriage was in question and the two kings dicked around about her dowry. Catherine and the future Henry VIII got to know each other over those years, and he finally became king in 1509 at age 17, making it make a whole lot more sense that he then decided to marry her.
By compressing the timeline (the show makes it seem like all these events happened over a few months or, at most, a year), the full impact of Henry VII’s and Ferdinand’s lack of support for Catherine loses its impact.
1. Catherine & Arthur’s Consummation (or lack thereof)
Did Arthur and Catherine have sex? No one will ever know. Most historians note the fact that Catherine swore multiple times on her immortal soul — a devoutly religious woman who literally feared hell and truly believed she would go there if she sinned — that they had not. Yes, there are conflicting reports. Arthur supposedly boasted about “having been in Spain” the morning after their marriage. Some courtiers swore that the two had slept together multiple times; Catherine said they only slept in the same bed seven times over the course of their four month marriage. The two were sent off to Wales, to Ludlow Castle, to run their own household, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t still have separate rooms and attendants. Both spouses were only fifteen, and everyone was quite sure they’d have decades to become sexually active with each other.
Amy Licence, author of the most recent and thorough biography of Catherine, offers this theory:
“Arthur may have mistakenly believed he had acted sufficiently to relieve his bride of her virginity… There may have been some form of foreplay, or else Arthur may have achieved some shallow degree of penetration that was not sufficient to rupture her hymen… It is also possible that on what must have been his first sexual encounter, Arthur experienced premature ejaculation upon, or soon after, penetration… In later years, when she was forced to defend her virgin state, she did so from a position of comparison with the robust lovemaking of her second husband. It is perfectly possible that Arthur thought he had experienced full sex, or at least taken his wife’s virginity, while she thought he had not” (Catherine of Aragon: An Intimate Life of Henry VIII’s True Wife).
Antonia Fraser points out that “what really stands against the notion of the consummation of the union, all subsequent allegations apart, is that the custom of the time was all against it,” pointing out “more care rather than less was taken over the timing of consummation” for aristocratic and royal marriages out of concern for the health of both individuals (The Wives of Henry VIII). And, in fact, Catherine’s older brother Juan was thought to have died (at age eighteen) from sexual over-exertion.
But the most compelling argument, to me, comes from Alison Weir, who writes,
“To the end of her [Katherine’s] life, she maintained that her marriage to Prince Arthur was never consummated… In 1529, she publicly affirmed that, when she married for the second time, ‘I was a true maid, without touch of man.’ She also swore as much on her deathbed, believing that she was about to meet her Maker. Although she had her own interests to protect, she was a religious woman of sound principles; it is far less likely therefore that she was guilty of deception than that she was telling the truth” (The Six Wives of Henry VIII).
Catherine never wavered from her position, and most importantly, she would have truly believed in every inch of her body and mind that if she lied under oath to her confessor, she would burn in eternal damnation. She nonetheless swore that her marriage to Arthur hadn’t been consummated. If that isn’t convincing, then not much is.
Which historical inaccuracies bugged you the most in The Spanish Princess?