I am a huge fan of Tudor history. And I have read the novels by Philippa Gregory that explore the people of the Wars of the Roses and those who lived during the times of Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth I. I have also read the novels of Alison Weir that look at the lives of the same figures in history, and studied the history myself. So of course, I’m always drawn in by Tudor dramas—films and TV series—and have watched many over the years.
The Spanish Princess is a Starz series based on the novels of Philippa Gregory about life of Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife who he famously divorced after establishing the Church of England.
Catherine of Aragon was a woman I greatly admire and pity as well, for her life was fraught with loss, and hardship. And since fiction and drama tend to focus on Henry and his daughter Elizabeth, it’s always interesting to me to delve into the other lives and stories of other persons during this time, especially women.
And since I enjoyed both The White Queen and The White Princess television series by Starz, I was excited when The Spanish Princess came out. But honestly…I hated it. And I’m going to tell you why. Because I think it’s important we discuss history and fiction and how historical fiction can bring us closer to history.
Historical Fiction as a Genre
Historical fiction as a genre is a bit tricky. The time period should be reflected accurately, and yet historical details shouldn’t detract from the plot or storytelling. So, the novel itself shouldn’t be a textbook with a bit of storytelling about imagined people or even real figures in imagined situations. The story needs to be woven around history, and that’s both easy in that history is a story, but also difficult because you need to bring to life the people you are writing about and make them relevant and relatable to your readers.
I like the way Philippa Gregory does this. She does twist history a little in her storytelling in order to suggest conclusions that history itself does not provide (such as the fate of the Princes in the Tower) or adds elements to explain curiosities like why Henry VIII had so many misfortunes in procreation. However much you may or may not like her blending of fact and fiction, she certainly has taken the literary world by storm and helped to revive an interest in Tudor times.
The Spainsh Princess, Season 1
Based on the novels The Constant Princess and The King’s Curse, novels I really enjoyed, the series does a terrible job at the adaptation of novels and a terrible job in representing figures in history. Season one should have been an exploration of Catherine of Aragon as the Princess of Wales, wife to Prince Arthur. Instead, it jumps in time to her life as the dowager princess and does it poorly at that. While it shows some of her struggles during the nine years she was a widow in the court of Henry VII, (which is likely more relevant than the imagined love between her and Arthur) the show also spends much time exploring the romance of her lady in waiting Lina, who didn’t even exist in history. At least as far as I can discover. Catherine was very close to Maria de Salinas, who became Lady Willoughby, who isn’t even featured in this series.
In season one, Catherine is portrayed as a bit scheming and desperate, an inferior politican to her parents King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. She has to claw her way to Henry and there is the suggestion at the end of the series that Henry knows that Catherine slept with his brother and is pretending otherwise.
None of this occurs in The Constant Princess, which explored the love and marriage of Catherine and Arthur. While it’s well accepted that Catherine never slept with her first husband, due to their youth and Arthur’s ill health, this novel outlines their intense love and dreams of building an England like that of King Arthur’s Camelot.
So season one not only is poorly reconsturcted history but also poorly reconstructed fiction.
The Spainsh Princess, Season 2
And it only gets worse. From the outset, Henry is obsessed with having a son, and there is clear tension in the marriage because of the losses he and Catherine suffer as parents. In reality, Henry and Catherine spent many happy years together and were known to be in love. Henry is shown to be angered at the birth of Princess Mary, but he doted on his daughter and considered her the proof that he and Catherine could produce living children, trusting that a boy would come in time. Catherine is cold to her daughter in this series, refusing to hold her, which is absolutely not who Catherine of Aragon was as a mother. She took an active interest in her child and in Mary’s education.
On top of this, Catherine is constantly at odds with Wolsey, who seemingly hates her, and simply seems weak at times, even when she is trying to assert her might—and Catherine of Aragon was a mighty woman. It seems she has no sway with Henry, that she is constantly tense and bitter, and that she is even afraid of what it might mean if she does have a son, which was more of a problem for the later wives of Henry than Catherine, who believed that Mary could be queen. Their marriage seems broken from the beginning.
Worse, at the end, they finally decide to dress Catherine in a gable hood, choosing to adorn her in black as she learns to accept God’s will and stops trying to win Henry’s love and favour. The gable hood was the fashionable headwear of the day, but period drama rarely show women wearing costumes that include the headwear of the time because it would hide their hair and clashes with our idea of beauty. The fact that the show choses to adopt proper costume at the end, when Catherine turns pious, and choses black really gives her the look of a nun and I’m not sure why the series does this. Catherine of Aragon was a queen in her heart till the end of her life, and was always deeply devout so I’m not sure exactly what they were trying to say in the final episode’s final scene.
Reasons I Hated It
To sum it up, this was poor history. No one can walk away from this show knowing much actual truth about Catherine of Aragon. In fact, all you could possibly take away are errorenous facts such as she was manipulative and weak, and even over reaching. None of this was true. She was a huge prize for England, not only when she married Arthur, but also when she married Henry. The English people loved her, Henry loved her, and while he eventually wished to put her aside, he at first sought to do so amicably and never hated Catherine or accused her when they lost children. The history in this series is far too ignored for my taste and the fiction injected into gross and misleading. The fiction isn’t even Gregory’s, that’s how loosely based the series is on her novels.
Why the series choses to portray a strong woman like Catherine of Aragon in such a bad light, I cannot understand. They had the opportunity to really showcase a powerful woman in history, to demonstrate how she fought against the politics of her state and husband and held true to truth and justice to the end of her days, but instead beat her down into a sad little girl always trying to be big and brave—and failing. And then at the end, she garbs herself in a wimple and accepts the will of Henry, sins and all. I think not. I think Catherine of Aragon deserves better.
Are you a fan of Tudor history? Or history? Share your thoughts about historical retellings in the comments below.