I was so excited for this blog series, I decided to start it a day early! That, and you guys are already talking about it, so why not! A big shout out to Christine for reaching out with this amazing idea! You can check her out at Untitled History Project on Facebook, and of course, she will be at TudorCon!
THIS WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS IF YOU HAVEN’T WATCHED IT YET
The Spanish Princess
Episode 1 “The New World”
By: Christine Morgan
Praise the history gods, a new Tudor series has begun! For audiences who have enjoyed similar shows such as The Tudors or The White Princess, the new Starz series, The Spanish Princess is a breath of familiar, but fresh air. What a treat to get acquainted with Katherine of Aragon, a queen often portrayed as a cumbersome obstacle to the great love affair of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. However, as this show will hopefully demonstrate, Katherine of Aragon was raised to be queen and, for decades, she was a force to be reckoned with. In fact, as a professional I have to ask, “why did people even keep trying to reckon?”
In the first episode, the show’s screenwriter, Emma Frost (credits include The White Queen and The White Princess) has infused Katherine of Aragon with plenty of personality, a sense of duty, and a belief in destiny, which may be a theme to keep an eye on. In this blog series, we will touch on some of the highlights, the tricky theories, and the purely fictional pieces of this new show, but we will do it with love and with the hope of uncovering more about this great woman and the story of her life.
The year is 1501 and the 15-year-old princess, Katherine of Aragon, is sent to England to marry Prince Arthur Tudor. Her parents, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, had found it difficult to part with their youngest daughter and the pair had stalled the marriage between Katherine and Arthur for nearly a year, making Henry VII and Elizabeth of York impatient and overly eager for Katherine’s arrival. We should keep in mind that once Katherine left Spain, she never returned. This is a reality her parents would have understood well.
In the show, the journey from Spain to England is depicted as being very rough and Katherine is seen becoming ill while the ship is tossed about in a horrific storm. Historically, travel between the Bay of Biscay and Southampton was treacherous and this depiction is completely accurate. In fact, Katherine’s ship was blown so far off course that it landed in Portsmouth, rather than Southampton. Because of the Bay of Biscay’s reputation and a series of storms that peppered the rest of Katherine’s journey, Henry VII grew concerned that the ship may have sunk! Katherine’s trip spanned 5 days, from September 27, 1501 through October 2, 1501.
England, At Last
Katherine’s arrival to England was a moment of true thanksgiving and before she did anything else, she requested to be escorted to church to pray before beginning the journey to her official destination, Dogmersfield House.
Over a month later, on November 6, 1501, Katherine arrived at Dogmersfield House where a small royal entourage greeted her. In the television series, Katherine speaks excellent English and she makes that clear immediately. This moment needs a fact check, unfortunately. To be clear, Katherine was one of the most educated women in Europe, but despite the fact that she had been betrothed to Prince Arthur since the age of 3, learning English never made the “To-Do list.” In fact, several years after her initial arrival in England, she wrote home to her father saying she still struggled with the language barrier. Obviously, the Starz series needs to be in English, so—it is.
Another surprising moment in the show was the initial meeting of Henry VII and Katherine of Aragon. While shocking in terms of courtly behavior and social norms, this scene did actually happen. Upon hearing of Katherine’s arrival, Henry and his son, Arthur took off right away to greet the princess. He insisted on meeting her, and so Katherine received her future father-in-law, in her outer rooms- not her actual bedroom as the show suggests. Henry likely communicated in French while Katherine relied on Spanish, and the event certainly required a translator. The records indicate that Katherine showed extreme grace and calm under pressure and Henry VII seemed to be pleased with his daughter-in-law.
Unfortunately the series depicts this scene as a very combative interaction with Katherine on the offensive, which is a little uncomfortable. The reality is that both parties communicated gratitude and excitement. Only a month earlier, Katherine had been on a dangerous journey and Henry VII was fearful for her life! Katherine and Henry VII exchanged joyful greetings, even if it was rushed and improper.
Money, Money, Money
In addition to this interpretation for the screen, Katherine’s dialogue includes the idea that England was bankrupt and needed her dowry for survival. This also gets a fact check. Henry VII is often maligned as a miser, which makes it hard to believe England’s financial state was in a dramatic decline. Historian and Tudor expert, Nathen Amin kindly exchanged thoughts with me about this plot point and mentioned that Henry VII was guilty of “avarice not miserliness. He tried to accumulate all the money he could, but spent just as quickly. He was an avid builder…and he was always seen (by other ambassadors) covered in jewels. Money was power and he made himself wealthier than his contenders… everything he did was to save and prolong his dynasty, and it worked.”
Some of Henry VII’s financial achievements were: imposing and collecting high taxes, making the city of London pay for big royal events (such as Katherine and Arthur’s wedding), and re-opening trade with countries like Burgundy, which was very profitable. In terms of the urgency to receive Katherine’s dowry, Amin clarifies, “…the dowry was traditional. The bride brought a dowry and it was paid. It’s not really a question of want, but right.” While Henry did spend a hefty sum to suppress uprisings and discourage pretenders such as Perkin Warbeck, it seems this is a dramatized storyline used to provide an audience with some extra urgency.
In comparison to the mountainous terrain and hot climate of Spain, England would have been cold, wet, and covered in dense, forested land. Katherine’s commentary on the weather in her first meeting with Arthur is likely reflective of her true feelings. This series paints Katherine as a strong-willed woman when, in reality, she was just a 15-year-old girl. Though Katherine became a strong, self-assured woman, as a young bride and a teen in a foreign land, she had not yet found her own voice. Take all the strong dialogue with a grain of salt, friends.
The Spanish Ladies at Court
The series has introduced us to two of Katherine’s ladies, Lina de Cardonnes and Rosa de Vargas. Catalina, or “Lina” is based on a real woman with the same name who traveled with Katherine to England. Catalina was a Moorish slave who served as a lady of the bedchamber and fell in love with a Moorish man- a storyline the series is alluding to with the character Oviedo.
The second lady we see in the series is named Rosa, and is likely a fabricated character that is a combination of two very real women, Blanche and Isabel Vargas. The Vargas sisters were daughters of a wealthy Spanish elite family and served Katherine throughout her life in England. Both Catalina and the Vargas sisters played a critical role in this transition period of Katherine’s life and the series is setting up Lina and Rosa for a similar storyline. In addition to these women, three other ladies from Spain attended Katherine.
What’s with all the bathing? Spain has a rich history of Islamic world influences and one of those influences had to do with bathing, bathhouses, and even the use of scented water. The royal family in Spain would have certainly enjoyed frequent baths that left them smelling of oranges or mint, with soft skin from olive oil soaps. In a word: decadent. Katherine’s continual insistence in the series for a bath with herbs is in keeping with what she would have been accustomed to.
Trendsetters: Spanish Fashion Meets England
Notice how Katherine and her ladies are wearing hoop skirts under (or sometimes over) their dresses? This was the Spanish style. While the English ladies often had skirts with longer trains, which they had to carry or pin up, the Spanish princess flaunted a new aesthetic. Her hoops were most likely made of bamboo and she eventually set a future trend in English fashion. In addition to the wide base, the Spanish also had large, poufy sleeves that very often had slits or decorative features, not unlike the men’s apparel in England. In fact, Katherine’s sleeves on her wedding dress were so big that some records thought her dress resembled the clothing of a man. I bet those men didn’t wear hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of pearls and rubies, though. (Well, maybe Buckingham…)
Contrary to popular opinion, Prince Arthur was not a sickly young man. He was tall and enjoyed hunting and was recorded as a willing, if not reserved dancer at some of his pre-wedding festivities. I reached out to historian and archivist, Sean Cunningham for some further insight into Prince Arthur and he graciously filled in some of the historical blanks for us. Cunningham writes, “We know he (Arthur) rode well from an early age… His father gave him expensive bows before he was ten so we can assume he was well-practiced and a good shot. Like all elite people, he would have spent most of his free time hunting deer and boar, or with hawks. His domain around Ludlow had lots of dense forest so he would have taken good advantage – both for his personal leisure but also as a host to important visitors.”
Prince Arthur also spoke Latin and therefore, communicated with his fiancé better than other courtiers and even the royal family. In fact, he was one of the best-educated princes in Europe and a good intellectual match for someone equally smart, such as Katherine. Cunningham also weighed in on the intellectual strengths of Prince Arthur and writes, “Kings had to develop an ability to gauge the quality of the advice they received and the trustworthiness of the people that were giving it. There was a real intent in matching these intellectual skills against the practical experience of applying them as actual ruler… So while this doesn’t get us very close to Arthur’s personal interests it shows that he was capable of intense focus and effort to master this most complex of English Renaissance educations. For the first time since Henry V, a Prince of Wales seemed ready for all aspects of the role of king of England, and I think we can be bold and state that Arthur’s training had specifically looked to create a rounded king who would be the unifier to finally end the recrimination and vengeance of the Wars of the Roses.”
A Budding Romance
While the show suggests Arthur and Katherine never exchanged correspondence, the FACT is, they absolutely did exchange love letters leading up to their meeting. The 13-year-old lovebirds wrote sweet, simple letters, which are full of lovey-dovey language they may have been excited to try out. One line of Arthur’s letter to Katherine reads, “Truly those your letters…have so delighted me…that I fancied I beheld your highness and conversed with and embraced my dearest wife.” He also ended his letter with a suggestion of Katherine’s true role, motherhood. He wrote, “Let your coming to me be hastened…that the wished-for joys may reap their proper fruit.” In addition to writing letters to her fiancé, Katherine also exchanged letters with her future in-laws. Henry VII and Elizabeth of York were apparently so enchanted by her letters that they once had a fight over who got to keep the letter in their possession!
Let’s be honest, I’m really looking forward to seeing the very handsome and talented Ruairi O’Connor on screen as Prince Henry/Prince Harry, but this is another fact check moment. Sean Cunningham points out that at the time of Katherine’s arrival and wedding, Prince Henry would have only been 10 years old. In fact, his relationship with Arthur was almost non-existent. Both princes had their own households and, in light of the Perkin Warbeck unrest, Cunningham suggests it would be even more unlikely that both princes appeared together at major events. The ever-strategic Henry VII would have preferred to know at least one son was safe and protected at all times. In no world was Prince Henry a 6 ft. tall, swoon-worthy player in this love story/triangle in 1501. I’m SORRY, OK? But now that you know, we can all disregard this fictionalized part of the series and just enjoy it- I think it’s going to be great!
Christine is a historian and Tudor scholar based in the US. She creates history videos for her page “Untitled History Project” has recently been featured on The Medieval Podcast and in the current issue of Medieval Warfare Magazine. You can reach out to her at: firstname.lastname@example.org or on social media using the handle @mschristinemo.
Featured historians in this blog:
Nathen Amin: Author and historian. Most recent publication: The House of Beaufort. Other relevant publications: https://www.historyextra.com/period/tudor/nathen-amin-kings-queens-weekend-henry-vii/
Sean Cunningham: Author, archivist, and historian. Most recent publication: Prince Arthur.
**All screenshots and GIFs, courtesy of Starz official accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Giphy**