Warning: This post contains spoilers for The Spanish Princess.
It seems a bit invasive, really, the amount of attention that's been devoted to speculating about two strangers' love lives. But these aren't everyday strangers. They're Catherine of Aragon and Arthur, Prince of Wales, and what did (or didn't) happen in marital chambers ended up altering the course of British history, as well as the show The Spanish Princess.
Here's the big, nosy question of grave importance: Did Catherine (Charlotte Hope) and Arthur (Angus Imrie) consummate their marriage? When Arthur died five months after their wedding, 18-year-old Catherine insisted she was still a virgin — and thus could still fulfill her destiny of becoming the Queen of England by marrying Arthur's younger brother, Henry (Rauiri O'Connor). Was Arthur indeed impotent as Catherine claimed, or was this an elaborate ruse constructed by Catherine and upheld by her entourage?
Historians still don't know whether Catherine consummated her marriage with Arthur — but The Spanish Princess had to decide. "We were telling Catherine's story," co-creator Matthew Graham told Refinery29 over the phone. "We couldn't be ambiguous. We had to come up with a story of what she does and why she does it."
Half an hour into the second episode of The Spanish Princess, we got our answer. After one botched attempt at love-making, a coltish Arthur leads Catherine to their bed. What follows is a session of happy, smooch-filled consensual sex, set to period-appropriate harp music. For pillow talk, Catherine and Arthur dream about ruling England side-by-side.
It's all lovely, and it all goes away when Arthur dies of the sweating sickness not long after. Not only does Catherine lose her husband — she also loses her place in the world. Catherine's life had been mapped out ever since her parents, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain, signed a treaty with Great Britain that included a marriage provision. Her life would proceed like this: Sail to England, marry Arthur, become Queen of England, have a few heirs. For the first time in her life, Catherine's completely unmoored — a woman without an obvious next step.
"There’s no Plan B. If she goes home without a husband and without a crown she’ll be a used wife, a third-rate royal in some godforsaken part of Transylvania. She’ll be forgotten about," Graham said.
To the bold Catherine depicted in The Spanish Princess, the fate of wasting away, black-clad and anonymous, was unacceptable. So, her next move was obvious to co-creators Graham and Emma Frost. Catherine would lie.
"For us, the idea that she’s lying in order to drive her own destiny is a million times over the more interesting story," Frost, who previously steered overlooked royal women's lives in Starz' The White Queen and The White Princess, told Refinery29.
The Spanish Princess eliminates one major historical ambiguity — and in doing so, opens up even more room for interpretation. The question is no longer whether Catherine lied about being a virgin, but why she lied. "You can read Catherine so many different ways," Frost said.
Is she motivated toward the throne out of personal ambition? Or does she feel responsible for her entourage, whose financial future is dependent on her? Further, Lina (Stephanie Levi-John) and Oviedo (Aaron Cobham) would be in danger in an Inquisition-era Spain that persecuted non-Catholics and converts.
Catherine's decision to lie seems different when viewed through either a modern or a Tudor-era lens. "Is it what we’d recognize in the 21st century ambition, or is that actually a 16th century woman believing in God so devoutly that everything she does is actually God’s will? And somehow God’s plans for her went a little bit wrong, but maybe she can get it on course?" Frost asked. So, depending on the perspective, Catherine toggles from being a Machiavellian maneuverer to woman with a white-knuckled grip on her supposedly God-given destiny.
After episode 2, The Spanish Princess becomes a story about a lie and its aftermath. At first, Catherine pulls off the scheme. She marries Henry right after he's crowned King of England. But what happens when their 24-year-long marriage is plagued by miscarriages and stillbirths? What happens when Henry blames their lack of a male heir on the fact that he married his brother's wife?
"After son after son died, Henry came to believe that God had cursed him. The only way he could make sense of that was to conclude that Catherine must’ve lied to him, and she must’ve slept with his brother," Frost said. "It would've been utterly terrifying after all those years of being married to Catherine to conclude that their marriage was based on a terrible single lie and that God despised him."
More than 20 years into their marriage, Henry tried to get his marriage to Catherine annulled by the Pope. At a trial in 1529, former bodyguards, confidants, and Queen Catherine gave contrasting eyewitness accounts about what took place in Catherine and Arthur's chambers. Catherine's Spanish entourage described a sickly prince whose "legs and other bits of his body were so small," and who was unable to perform. In contrast, Sir Anthony Willoughby testified that Arthur emerged from the bedchamber one morning saying, “Willoughby, bring me a cup of ale, for I have been this night in the midst of Spain.” Who was posturing? Who was covering up?
When Henry wasn't granted the annulment, he defied the Roman Catholic Church and divorced Catherine to marry her lady-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn. In splitting from the Catholic Church, Henry created the Church of England and sent the country into decades-long religious turmoil. He went through five wives after Catherine, forever in search of a son — but no male heirs survived into adulthood. Catherine died two years after their divorce, impoverished and separated from her daughter.
But all that grimness is far into the future, isn't it? In The Spanish Princess, Catherine and Henry are young, and her lie is even younger.
"This is what happens when you tell someone from the moment that they're born that God has got a plan for them," Graham said. "They believe it completely. Catherine's going to make that plan happen come Hell or high water."
Hell and high water do come. But not yet.