This story contains spoilers for The Spanish Princess season 2 premiere, "Camelot."
The popular myth surrounding the marriage of Catherine of Aragon and King Henry VIII goes as follows: They fall in love; they marry; she can’t give him a male heir; he cheats on her with Anne Boleyn and creates an entirely new religion in order to get a divorce. Catherine goes on to die unhappy and alone while Henry goes on to marry four more times; the end. But if you’ve been watching The Spanish Princess, you know there’s way more to the story.
The first season of the Starz historical drama tracked the early days of the romance between then Prince Henry (Ruairi O’Connor), and Catherine (Charlotte Hope), who originally arrived in England to marry his brother, Arthur, Prince of Wales, who died soon after the wedding. After 10 episodes of twists and turns, the first installment of the two-part story ended with Catherine achieving her ambition of becoming Queen of England, ready to rule alongside her charming and handsome royal lover, Henry VIII.
Season 2, which premieres October 11, picks up soon after that triumph. Premiere episode “Camelot” finds Catherine and Henry presiding over their court, the succession now secure. The couple has had a son, also named Henry, and everything seems to be on track for an alliance with Catherine’s father, the King of Spain. But by the end of the hour, tragedy has struck: Henry and Catherine’s son dies at only seven weeks old, leaving England without a male heir as the country is on the brink of war with France, and the couple grieving and bereft.
The fact that Catherine actually did give birth to a son is a fact often lost in the historical retelling of her story — that’s precisely why showrunners and writers Emma Frost and Matthew Graham were so intent on highlighting it. In fact, the season as a whole focuses on the heavy toll Catherine’s multiple miscarriages takes both on her personal health and her marriage with Henry.
“It was very much part of what we wanted to do with this season,” Frost told Refinery29 ahead of the season premiere. “Issues around conception, fertility, and child mortality are still not discussed. They are still very much in the shadows.”
Frost speaks from personal experience. As she and Graham (who are partners in real life) were writing the show, Frost’s niece gave birth to a baby who tragically died 90 minutes later.
“I was astonished how many other women and couples have experienced that,” she said. “Even now in 2020, it’s not something that is seen in drama.”
The real Catherine experienced six pregnancies over the course of her 24-year marriage to Henry. Three of them ended in miscarriage, and two (both boys) died either immediately or soon after birth. Only one of her children survived: Princess Mary, known to history as Bloody Mary (not to be confused with Mary, Queen of Scots), who would inherit the throne after Henry VIII and her brother Edward VI’s deaths. When she died, her hated half sister Elizabeth I took the throne, leading to one of England’s most prosperous reigns.
Charlotte Hope, who reprises her role as Catherine this season, told Refinery29 to expect a much darker arc going forward.
“She's got her baby son. It's all worked out perfectly,” she said of the premiere’s early moments. “Yet also as the viewer, we know how this story is going to end, and we know she's going to end up divorced and without a male heir. So there is something kind of unnerving about watching a woman who’s high on her own supply, with knowledge of how far she's going to fall.”
Portraying Catherine’s loss even took a toll on her own state of mind. “I really needed to be able to access a lot of those dark places, and that made it quite like an intense experience,” she said. “It felt really important to me because I wanted that trauma to feel real. Catherine had six miscarriages, and yet she carried on getting out of bed every day. It’s incredible, and that's what I really do find so inspiring about Catherine: However hard it gets, she never stops fighting. She never gives up.”
In addition to grappling with the consequences of losing a child, at the end of the episode Catherine also finds herself in a precarious position with her husband. Historically, we know that Henry views her failure to give him a living son as God’s will, and starts to question whether he was right in marrying her in the first place. But Frost and Graham are careful to balance out that pain with some moments of light.
“We very much wanted to genuinely celebrate their love,” Frost said. “They were together for 24 years, there was real passion there.”
“It’s not an inevitable slide into misery,” Graham added. “We wanted to tell a story about how adversity and tragedy sometimes pulls a couple together, and sometimes it pulls them apart. They’re both fighting for this love and this marriage, and there’s a lot to savor in that before it starts to unravel.”
Likewise, Frost said she hopes the show’s message is ultimately one of hope, despite the solemn events of the season.
“It's extraordinary how little has changed in many ways, whether it’s 1520 or 2020,” she said. “This is a show where we have plague. We have unrest on the streets of London because everybody thinks foreigners are taking their jobs and their money — it's kind of a Tudor Brexit. So much of women's struggles are still the same, [including] attempts to control our destiny and agency and to navigate power in a very different way to men. So, I hope young women feel inspired by Catherine.”