Warning: If you consider history a spoiler, then this article has spoilers for The Spanish Princess.
Subtract the lavish costumes and the massive geopolitical stakes, and Starz’ new show The Spanish Princess actually just tells a classic fish-out-of-water story. Girl gets married; girl clashes with her in-laws; girl is perplexed by what her new family considers “normal.”
All in all, Catherine of Aragon (Game of Thrones' Charlotte Hope) of Spain is horrified by England. They don’t take siestas! They have something called "drizzle!" Unfortunately, Catherine will be marooned on that foggy island for the rest of her life. At the age of 17 (her character is aged up in the show), she arrives to marry 15-year-old Arthur Tudor (Angus Imrie), the Prince of Wales and first in line for the throne of England. Their union forges an alliance between Spain and England. Then, the unexpected happens: Arthur dies five months after their wedding, and Catherine marries his younger brother, Henry — soon to be King Henry VIII, notorious for marrying six women.
Without knowing any of the historical context, The Spanish Princess is still definitely entertaining — the show is teeming with palace intrigue. But knowing how the events of The Spanish Princess affect both English and world history makes said royal intrigue even more fascinating. The choices Catherine and the show's other characters make have potentially enormous consequences.
Such is the trouble when the human heart intersects with empires. The Spanish Princess is the third Starz show adapted from Philippa Gregory's beloved novels about royal women in England's history, following The White Queen and The White Princess.
Chronologically, The Spanish Princess begins in 1501, a few years after The White Princess ended with Elizabeth of York and Henry Tudor's marriage. The Spanish Princess focuses on their sons' (yes, plural) marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Let's get to know her, shall we?
Who was Catherine of Aragon?
Born in 1485 in Spain, Catherine of Aragon was the youngest surviving child of two of the most powerful people in the world at the time. In fact, her parents maintain their power posthumously: By funding most of Christopher Columbus’ voyages, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand II of Spain kicked off the so-called “age of exploration.” The Spanish monarchs shaped the world as we know it.
Ferdinand and Isabella's marriage changed Spain. At the time, Spain was a multi-cultural state with three major religions: Catholicism, Islam, and Judaism. When Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile got married, they united two large sections of Spain. Both devout Catholics, they made Catholicism the official religion of Spain — and thus began the Spanish Inquisition, which forced the country's huge Jewish population to either convert or leave. In 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella conquered Granada and put an end to Islamic Spain. Later that year, Christopher Columbus set sail in a journey funded by the Spanish monarchs.
In another usual twist, Isabella and Ferdinand ruled as equals. "Catherine would’ve grown up seeing her mother seeing more of the ruler as her father. She came to England assuming that this was also her right," Emma Frost, the show's creator, told Refinery29.
Why did Catherine marry Arthur, Prince of Wales?
Ferdinand and Isabella used their five daughters to build economic relationships with other European powers. Marriage wasn't for love — it was for utility. Case in point: The Anglo-Spanish treaty of Medina del Campo of March 1489 set up trade agreements, in addition to laying out the plan for Catherine to marry Prince Arthur.
The marriage agreement had a catch. In The Spanish Princess, Catherine learns that a provision of the marriage agreement was that all of Arthurs' rivals to the throne be put to death. So, 24-year-old Prince Edward Plantagenet was executed in 1499 on Tower Hill. Allegedly, Catherine felt guilty; she interpreted her life's ensuing trials as punishment for her role in his death.
But Catherine didn't know about that when, in October 1501, she landed in Southhampton to marry Prince Arthur in a spectacle of unprecedented proportions.
What was Catherine's marriage to Arthur like?
In a word: short. Catherine and Arthur were only married for five months before Arthur died of a mysterious illness in 1502.
But the actual events of those five months bore significance on Catherine's next marriage — which was to Arthur's brother, Henry. Years later, the subject of Catherine and Arthur's "marriage bed" was put up to intense debate. Catherine insists they never consummated their marriage. Dona Elvira, the head of Catherine's household, backed her up. Thus, the marriage was not legally binding under the rules of the Catholic Church. Therefore, her ensuing marriage to Henry was legal.
Why did Catherine marry Prince Henry?
When Arthur died, Henry was just 10 years old. But his father, Henry VII, wasn't going to let a good treaty go to waste. He arranged for Henry to marry Catherine one day. Six years later, on June 11, 1509, Henry VIII married his brother's widow. Henry was considered a catch: He was 6'3," handsome, spoke many languages, and was called "prudent" and "free from vice" by his contemporaries. His father, Henry VII, had died two months earlier, making him king.
It only took nine years, but Catherine of Aragon was finally queen.
What was Catherine's marriage to King Henry VIII like?
It was happy — at the start, at least. Henry decorated his armor and their house with her initials.
But relations soured because Catherine struggled to "produce an heir," and Henry grew impatient. During the first decade of their marriage, she had many miscarriages and stillborn children. They had one surviving child, Mary (Queen Elizabeth I's older half-sister).
That's when the trouble began. Henry VIII wanted to discard his 33-year-old wife, now considered too old to have children, for a younger woman. "The marriage only went wrong because of Henry’s increasing paranoia that God was judging him and not giving him a male heir because he’d married his brother’s wife," Frost said..
Citing Leviticus 20:19, which condemned a man marrying his brother's wife as the reason for their misfortune, Henry VIII petitioned the Pope to grant him an annulment. The Pope didn't want to, as it would disregard the petition that had allowed Henry VIII and Catherine to marry in the first place.
Henry VIII didn't care. He married the pregnant Anne Boleyn, Catherine's lady in waiting, anyway — and in doing so, split from the Catholic Church. This action threw England into decades of turmoil.
What happened to Catherine?
After 24 years of marriage, Henry VIII cast Catherine aside. In 1533, she was stripped of the title "queen" and became "Princess Dowager of Wales." She was expelled from the court. She could never see her daughter, Mary, again. Three years later, Catherine died.
In her final letter to Henry VIII, Catherine wrote: "For my part, I pardon you everything, and I wish to devoutly pray God that He will pardon you also. For the rest, I commend unto you our daughter Mary, beseeching you to be a good father unto her, as I have heretofore desired."
Incredibly, she seemed to still love him: "I make this vow, that mine eyes desire you above all things." She was 50 years old when she died.
The Spanish Princess is particularly bittersweet because it's a prelude to all this tragedy. The show catches Catherine back when she's young, fierce, and righteous, before she's broken by men and monarchies. It rewrites the narrative of Catherine's identity. She's more than the castaway wife.
Correction: This post has been updated to reflect that Anne Boleyn was Catherine's lady in waiting.