In three historical anthologies — The White Queen, The White Princess, and now The Spanish Princess — Starz has explored the lives of overlooked women in positions of power. The series has only gotten stronger with each new installment, linking together an important lineage of women who created their own agency within the constructs and traditions of the English throne, and changed history because of it. The series, each based on a variety of books written by Philippa Gregory, has also increasingly included outside materials to help contextualize the era and these fascinating women. Some liberties are taken for dramatic purposes, but the spirit of the stories is one that shows women bucking the expectation of being “humble and penitent” by taking control of their lives for family and country.
In that vein, The Spanish Princess is perhaps the most overt of the set. Catherine of Aragon (Charlotte Hope) is known to most as Henry VIII’s first wife who he divorced for Anne Boleyn (thus causing a religious schism that broke from Rome and led to the creation of the Church of England). But her story is far richer than that of forgotten wife. She was the Infanta of Spain, the daughter of two of the world’s most powerful and cunning monarchs (Ferdinand and Isabella), and promised in marriage to young Prince Arthur of England (Angus Imrie) when they were both children. As such, she believed it was her divine right to become Queen of England, which hit a major roadblock when Arthur dies shortly after their marriage. As Catherine sets her sights on his younger brother Henry (Ruairi O’Connor), one of history’s great mysteries was born: Did Arthur and Catherine consummate their marriage, or was he impotent and therefore she remained a virgin? If the latter was true, as Catherine claimed, then she was clear to marry Henry. Was that a convenient lie, or a helpful truth?
What The Spanish Princess wants to make clear is that it doesn’t really matter at this point in time (later it will haunt Henry and make him concerned that he is going against God). It was an obstacle to overcome based on a misunderstood religious tradition, and the fact was that Henry was truly in love with Catherine. They became powerful partners, and though in reality Henry was much younger than she was, the show has wisely aged him up into the handsome, boastful young man who was never meant to be king, and yet, became one of England’s most infamous monarchs.
But this is also (for once) not Henry’s story. One of The Spanish Princess’ greatest achievements is making Catherine’s journey to England and her early days with Arthur in the Tudor court one that feels intimate and personal in scope. The cinematography, particularly the early scenes at the Alhambra, is stunning to the point of arresting, as is the costuming by Phoebe De Gaye. Most of the conversations happen in small, close spaces, and there is time taken to show seemingly ordinary moments like taking a siesta, listening to the sound of birdsong, and Catherine’s daily baths (something the English are horrified by — to bathe more than once a week?!) Catherine’s lush, sweetened memories of Spain are never far, as she repeats to herself a mantra that reveals she has left her homeland in body but never in spirit: “Wife of Prince Arthur, daughter of Spain, and soon … Queen of England.”
The road to become queen is a twisty one, though, as those who are familiar with the history of the War of the Roses will know (or for those who have watched Game of Thrones, since George R. R. Martin took most of his political drama from this real saga). Familiar characters from The White Princess have returned in the form of new adult actors playing a generation up: Henry VII (Elliot Cowan), Lizzie (Alexandra Moen), and the fabulously devious Margaret Beaufort (Harriet Walter). But for as much scheming as Margaret gets up to (as always), it’s Maggie Pole (Laura Carmichael) who really represents the continued culture of paranoia that surrounds the royal family. The Tudors will never feel safe as long as there are York supporters looking to take back power, and Maggie represents both a connection to that faction and someone with the memories of those brutally sacrificed to secure the throne. Her staying alive is a feat unto itself, and it’s an important reminder (and contrast) to the life of the Infanta, who — even when she is on the outs with the Tudors — remains protected because of her status.
The series is, as it has always been, primarily a political drama, but there are also many romances afoot. One of the best (and likely most misunderstood) is the inclusion of two Moor characters, Catherine’s attendant and confidant Lina (Stephanie Levi-John) and the soldier Oviedo (Aaron Cobham). (Both are charismatic stand-outs in the series). As showrunners and writers Emma Frost and Matthew Graham have explained, these are real-life figures who also represent a larger population of black people living in Tudor England as historical fact. Their inclusion in the court is not only accurate, it establishes The Spanish Princess as a series that is absolutely about giving a voice to those who are typically ignored (the series also peppers its conversations with Spanish, with its leads speaking in surprisingly strong Spanish accents). That extends to Catherine, whose early life with Henry is almost always skipped over in fictional portrayals for the saucier Anne Boleyn. And yet, Catherine was just as clever and seductive, if not more so, and certainly someone with more agency than she is typically credited with.
Like the series’ former leads Rebecca Ferguson and Jodie Comer, Charlotte Hope gives a compelling performance, emanating both strength and nervous energy from behind a delicate exterior. Though Hope looks the part of a storybook heroine, it’s the layers she gives to Catherine that matter more. We see the wheels turning in Catherine’s mind as she plots her next move, but while duty is vital to her, she’s also honest about her true feelings — including her hopes for romance at a time when that was by no means a priority. “[My people] marry for love,” her Lady in Waiting Rosa (Nadia Parkes) says to defend her own liaison with married member of the court. “And here,” Lina corrects her, “we marry for our future and our safety.”
Marriages, heirs, and alliances are at the core of everything in the Tudor court, and as The Spanish Princess continues (in the four episodes available for review, out of an eventual eight), it widens its scope to include matters of taxation, the paltry state of the English coffers, and rebellions against the Tudors that are being sown across the country. Yes, there are scenes of a shirtless Henry playing a game on the lawn with an equally buff and historically significant friend, Charles Brandon (Jordan Renzo). But there are also scenes where Margaret Beaufort plans with the court’s counsel on how to split hairs about Catherine’s dowry to get more money from Spain while still levying taxes.
All of this adds up to a measured portrayal of a chaotic court, one that is quietly and deeply personal. The narrative doesn’t just stick to Catherine, but also gives insight into Henry’s struggles to claim his brother’s widow as his wife, against the wishes of the church and his family, as well as the choice of a life lived on one’s own terms or in service for Lina and Oviedo. If The Spanish Princess is like its predecessors, it will all play out too quickly in its short episode count. We are getting into The Tudors territory, but there is so much rich historical text to mine here that it would be a joy to return for more with this same cast and storytellers. Arthur and Catherine wanted to bring Camelot back to England, and while we know historically that Catherine won’t be able to achieve that halcyon desire in the Tudor court, The Spanish Princess wonderfully makes us want to follow her wherever she leads.
The Spanish Princess premieres Sunday, May 5th on Starz.