Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. The first of Henry VIII’s six wives may not have lost her head, but history books have done her no favours, writing her off as the lacklustre Catholic wife who couldn’t give the king a male heir, ushering in Anne Boleyn and a colossal religious rift.
It’s difficult to square that with the vibrant, self-assured and devastatingly beautiful teenaged Catherine of Aragon featured in the new STARZPLAY drama, The Spanish Princess. Based on Philippa Gregory’s The Constant Princess and The King’s Curse, this sexy, spellbinding follow-up to The White Queen and The White Princess finally gives the charismatic and cunning Catherine her due and provides some much-needed royal herstory.
With the eight-episode series due to start streaming on Sunday 5th May on STARZPLAY, its leading ladies — Charlotte Hope, Laura Carmichael, Stephanie Levi-John and Nadia Parkes – and executive producers, Emma Frost and Matthew Graham, walk Refinery29 through the show’s biggest themes and boldest characters. In 1501, men may rule the world, but it’s these girls who are calling all the shots.
The Ultimate Teen Queen
Whether she’s telling off the king or rejecting royal norms, Catherine asserts her independence early on. It’s no wonder — she’s the daughter of Spain’s famously fearless Queen Isabella, who raised her with the expectation of one day being Queen of England, a title she sees as her destiny and right.
Catherine’s headstrong nature quickly disrupts the Tudor court, with one royal chastising her as a "tricky fox". She makes her ambition plain, and — just as the women who join today’s royal family are accused of social climbing — her determination rankles those around her.
"We call girls 'bossy' if they're really strong and Catherine’s story is about taking control," says the actress who plays her, Charlotte Hope. "It’s about owning being strong and that being a good thing. About being ambitious and being proud and relentless and those being attributes rather than criticisms. She's not bossy, she's not like a kind of ruthless careerist — she's just a woman who knows what she wants and goes after that, and that's amazing."
Strong Women Rule
Catherine’s just one of several female characters who dominate the series, from Tudor matriarchs to loyal ladies-in-waiting. Stephanie Levi-John calls her character Lina, the responsible, no-nonsense attendant who leads Catherine’s entourage, a "lioness". Nadia Parkes' Rosa, meanwhile, is more wide-eyed innocent, but grows in strength as she experiences more of the world.
King Henry VII’s (Elliot Cowan) court has its own share of formidable women, from his shrewd and calculating mother, Margaret Beaufort (Dame Harriet Walter), to his paranoid and prickly wife, Elizabeth of York (Alexandra Moen), who warns Catherine that "steel runs through [her] veins". Daughter Meg Tudor (Georgie Henley) admires her Spanish sister-in-law’s rebellious streak, and shows some mettle of her own when she’s due to be married off. And then there’s cousin Maggie Pole (Laura Carmichael), a woman who has been left grieving and aggrieved by royal plots. Maggie abhors the scheming and ambition around her, but the protective mother figure is far from a pushover.
"It's such a dangerous time to be so close to this power," explains Carmichael. "You're really close to having your head chopped off all the way… You see her with her children and she's just not willing to risk their safety for being close to the throne."
Diversity That Isn’t Just Skin Deep
People of colour often get short shrift in period dramas, which makes The Spanish Princess' inclusiveness so gratifying — and as it happens, historically accurate, too. "Catherine came in with a very diverse entourage," explains co-showrunner Emma Frost, sharing her excitement at being able to "tell the story of people of colour in this period".
The budding relationship between the two black leads, Lina — the daughter of Muslim converts to Christianity, known as Moriscos — and the Muslim Oviedo (Aaron Cobham), truly breathes new life into the format and steers clear of one-note narratives. As Catherine’s lady-in-waiting, Lina holds significant prestige, while Oviedo wrestles more with issues of class and religious persecution than the colour of his skin.
"Having a character like this in the forefront as a lead in a period drama ... was a hard undertaking," Levi-John says of playing Lina. "I really hope I’ve done it justice."
The show also highlights the cultural differences between the austere English and what Parkes calls the "vibrancy" and "colour" of Spain — right down to Catherine’s decadent scented baths and emotional keening.
Costumes Fit For A Queen
Long before Meghan and Kate’s outfits cleared out store shelves, Catherine was the reigning royal trendsetter. Her sculpted Spanish verdugado hoop skirts kickstarted the farthingale trend in her new homeland, and are just one of the breathtaking looks reimagined by costume designer Phoebe de Gaye for the series. Incorporating both Spanish and Moorish influences — "Spain had had 1,000 years of Islamic rule, so those cultural influences were so completely intermingled in terms of music, furniture, food, clothes, everything," notes Frost — Catherine’s beautiful brocades, high-drama black veil, ruffled sleeves and palette of powder blues and burnished coppers make the princess' presence amid her dour English in-laws even more singular and stark.
Who needs soap operas when Catherine gave the world one of the juiciest plots in all of history? After the death of Prince Arthur (Angus Imrie), the young widow — left without an heir or a claim to the English throne — insisted that her months-long marriage went unconsummated. As co-showrunner Matthew Graham notes, her late husband’s younger brother, Prince Harry (aka the future Henry VIII, played by Ruairi O’Connor) happily accepted that as fact, whether or not he believed it to be true, and royal wedding bells chimed again. Only Catherine knows for sure if the show’s steamy love scenes are historically accurate — but we sure hope so.