How The Spanish Princess Puts People Of Color Back In English History

Photo: Courtesy of Starz Entertainment/IMDb.
Tudor England is no place for a Spanish Princess. After landing in Plymouth in Starz’ The Spanish Princess, Catherine of Aragon (Charlotte Hope) could easily rattle off a list of complaints about English life: The drizzle, the lack of siestas, the Queen Mother. While navigating this landscape of damp castles and dastardly ministrations, Catherine relies on the support of her lady-in-waiting, Lina de Cardonnes (a captivating Stephanie Levi-John). Lina fights for her lady’s right to a spiced milk bath.
Like most of the other characters in The Spanish Princess, Catalina “Lina” de Cardonnes is based on a real person. Only three things are known about Lina. First, that she served as Catherine of Aragon's lady-in-waiting for 26 years, weathering the many years Catherine spent cast-aside and destitute. Second, that she Lina married a Moorish crossbow-maker man named Oviedo, who is played by another charismatic stand-out, Aaron Cobham. Third, that she was a Black woman.
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Using these fragments, Spanish Princess co-creators Emma Frost and Matthew Graham forged characters as rich as the ones history has preserved more fully, like Catherine and Henry VIII. “It was so important to bring these real people into the light and tell their story,” Frost told Refinery29.
Coming after The White Queen and The White Princess, The Spanish Princess is third in a series of Starz dramas that filter history through the eyes of overlooked royal women. Well, people of color — people like Lina and Oviedo — have historically been overlooked, too. Giving their stories nearly as much run-time as Catherine of Aragon’s aligns with the show's entire ethos.
“You can’t re-appropriate history for women and ignore other groups that have been discarded and eliminated. It’s part of the same issue. History isn’t just about white men. Women were there. People of color were there,” Frost said.
When Catherine of Aragon set foot in Plymouth, England in October 1501, she brought along a multinational encourage of Jews, Muslims, and Moors. This array was representative of her home country, Spain, where religions intermingled — until Catherine’s parents began the Inquisition, that is, and drove all non-Catholics to flee or convert.
Catherine’s diverse entourage joined the small population of people of color that had existed in England since Roman Times. But for so long, the presence of a Black population in England has been completely left out of period pieces. So when the trailer for The Spanish Princess dropped, Frost recalls being inundated with hateful messages from people claiming they the show's “liberal” creators were trying to “rewrite European history” by “pretending” there was diversity in that era.
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These commenters were mistaken. Historians have long established the presence of hundreds of Black individuals in Tudor England, and throughout British history. Some were servants, some were skilled professionals — and none of them were slaves.
“A cursory Google search will show you Black people in tapestries of the period. They're in our parish records. They’re buried in our graveyards. Their marriages are recorded. It’s just ridiculous at this stage for people to try to pretend they didn’t exist,” Frost said.
In the book Black Tudors: The Untold Story, Miranda Kauffman painted a picture of Tudor England as it was, not as it's been commonly depicted. Kauffman found evidence of Black individuals throughout England, from port towns to the inland villages of Dorset. In the book, Kauffman focuses on ten Black people, from a trumpeter in Henry VIII’s court to an independent “single woman” who lived in Gloucester. Lina and Oviedo of The Spanish Princess could easily be a part of Kauffman’s book.
For decades, historians like Kauffman have been excavating evidence of Africans living and working in Britain. And for decades, these authors have received the same pushback Frost received after unveiling The Spanish Princess. “In the 1990s, an assistant in a London bookshop informed the African American historian Gretchen Gerzina that there ‘were no Black people in England before 1945.’ Gerzina rather effectively disproved that assertion by going on to write the classic book on Black people in Georgian London, Black London,” David Olusoga wrote in The Guardian.
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In 2017, the so-called “debate” reached Twitter — and it got ugly. It began after BBC uploaded an old children’s cartoon about the Roman Empire in England on YouTube. One of the builders of Hadrian’s Wall was depicted as having dark skin. Commenters deemed the video historically inaccurate (but with harsher, more colorful language). Mary Beard, the esteemed expert of Roman history, fought back, saying the cartoon was “indeed accurate” and that “there's plenty of firm evidence for ethnic diversity in Roman Britain."
The fact is, while the presence of people of color in British history is accepted among academics, it has yet to penetrate pop culture on a grand scale. Until The Spanish Princess, most shows and movies about Tudor England were overwhelmingly white (there was no Moorish trumpeter playing for Henry VIII in The Other Boleyn Girl). And until that happens, inaccurate perceptions of England's history will persist.
Luckily, The Spanish Princess is one of a few recent works to depict a more diverse — and accurate — version of Britain's past. In a 2017 episode of Doctor Who, Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) walks around 1814 London and remarks that it's "a bit more black than they show in the movies." The Doctor responds, "History's a whitewash."
The 2018 movie Mary Queen of Scots took a slightly different approach to diversifying. Refusing to stage another all-white period drama, director Josie Rourke cast people of color, like Gemma Chan, to play figures who had historically been white. In an interview with Refinery29, Rourke compared Mary Queen of Scots to the musical Hamilton, which re-imagines America's Founding Fathers as people of color. "I think Hamilton was described as 'America then' played by 'America now.' This is 'England then' portrayed by 'England now.' It’s about time," Rourke said.
After the swarm of trolls subsided, Frost was overwhelmed by another response to The Spanish Princess' trailer: One of joy.
"There are people telling us that they’re crying because they’d never seen someone who looks like them in a show of this period before. They say, 'All anyone has ever done is tell me I don’t exist, and there I am on the screen. You’re telling me that I did exist," Frost said. "It’s one of the things I'm proudest of about the show."
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