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Should We Be Bothered by the Historical Inaccuracies of The Spanish Princess?

Catherine of Aragon, Margaret Beaufort and Maggie Pole: three women of exceptional character and strength whose stories are retold, with much artistic license, in “The Spanish Princess”.

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Henry Tudor (Ruairi O'Connor) and Catherine (Charlotte Hope) in "The Spanish Princess" | Image credit: Starz
Henry Tudor (Ruairi O'Connor), later Henry VIII, and Catherine (Charlotte Hope) in "The Spanish Princess" | Image credit: Starz

The Starz mini-series The Spanish Princess is an adaptation of two novels by Phillipa Gregory. And, if you’re familiar with Gregory’s biggest bestseller, The Other Boleyn Girl, you should know better than to expect a historically accurate drama. Think of it as a dramatization of history with plenty of artistic license. Historical fiction, the genre is called. It’s not really new. Alexandre Dumas, among others, has done it centuries earlier with his novels — the most notable, for me at least, being The Three Musketeers and The Queen’s Necklace.

That’s the way to enjoy The Spanish Princess. And, believe me, there’s so much to enjoy. From the sceneries to the detailed costumes to the political intrigues, binge-watching the eight-part mini-series is one hell of a ride. Literary snobs have been known to raise their eyebrows at Phillipa Greogory’s work but I like how she focuses on stories about lesser known and not-so-celebrated personalities. Women, most of all. She did it with Mary Boleyn in The Other Boleyn Girl. And, in The Spanish Princess, not only does she place the spotlight on Catherine but on Margaret Beaufort and Maggie Pole as well.

Catherine of Aragon

History and literature, and entertainment emanating from them have not exactly been kind to Catherine (born Catalina), daughter of King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella whose marriage unified Spain. Since birth, she has been bethrothed to Arthur, eldest son of England’s Henry VII, first Tudor king, who had captured the throne from Richard III.

Catherine is often portrayed as a dowdy aging woman desperate to win back her husband, Henry VIII, after he got tired of her and her inability to give birth to a son and heir to the throne, and who had set his eyes on the much younger Anne Boleyn. In fact, not many people know that Henry VIII was Catherine’s second husband because she was briefly married to his older brother, Arthur, until his death from the “sweating sickness”.

Arthur, Prince of Wales (Angus Imrie) marries Catherine of Aragon (Charlotte Hope) in "The Spanish Princess" | Image credit: Starz
Arthur, Prince of Wales (Angus Imrie) marries Catherine of Aragon (Charlotte Hope) in “The Spanish Princess” | Image credit: Starz

The Spanish Princess gives a new perspective on the life of the young Catherine who was beautiful, intelligent and, since childhood, had been tutored to take on the role of queen. These aspects of her personality, historians confirm.

What historians do not confirm and will outright deny was that the young Prince Henry, pretending to be Arthur, had been writing love letters to Catherine, to which she ardently replied, before she sailed for England. This exchange of passionate letters supposedly set the stage for the romance that eventually blossomed between Henry and Catherine. But Henry was only 10 years old when Catherine first set foot on English soil. So, we can definitely set that part aside as pure fiction.

Catherine arrived in England, married Arthur and became Princess of Wales. And then the already sickly Arthur died. And there she was. A widow at 16 with her future unknown. The angle of The Spanish Princess is that she was set on marrying Henry partly to secure her position in court and because she was genuinely in love with him.

Perhaps, she was genuinely in love with him but that could only have come years later because Henry was about 11 years old when Arthur died. But when exactly the “falling in love” part happened, if it happened at all, is secondary — historically anyway although that would have ruined the drama in The Spanish Princess.

Henry was set to marry his brother’s widow — a diplomatic match and, like the betrothal of Arthur and Catherine, a political alliance, according to historians. It was the medieval age and that was how kingdoms were secured. Catherine made it easier with the assurance that her marriage to Arthur was never consummated. In short, they didn’t have sex, not all the way anyway, and she was a virgin at the time of Arthur’s death. The marriage not having been consummated, it was void according to canon law and there were no obstacles to a marriage between her and Henry. They needed papal dispensation though.

Historical data say that the non-consummation of her marriage to Arthur was something that Catherine maintained throughout her life. Given her religious devoutness, it can be believed that she wouldn’t lie about something as significant as that. That the non-consummation was a tall tale, as it was portrayed in The Spanish Princess, seems more believable. Catherine was 16, she had lost stature and favor in court, and she was trying to survive without loss of dignity. If she was smart enough to serve as the Spanish ambassador to the English Court, the first woman to hold such an appointment, surely she was smart enough to make sure that she stayed on as Queen.

Was Henry too young and inexperienced not to realize the deception? Season 1 of The Spanish Princess doesn’t tell because it ends before the wedding of Catherine and Henry.

Margaret Beaufort

Margaret Beaufort was the mother of Henry VII. Daughter and sole heiress of John Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, she was married four times but bore only one child, Henry, born when she was 13 and whose father was Edmund Tudor, Margaret’s second husband.

Margaret Beaufort, the king's mother (Harriet Walter) and Henry VII (Elliot Cowan) in "The Spanish Princess" | Image credit: Starz
Margaret Beaufort (Harriet Walter), the king’s mother, and Henry VII (Elliot Cowan) in “The Spanish Princess” | Image credit: Starz

History depicts Margaret as a strong and intelligent woman who was instrumental in placing the English crown on Henry’s head. It is not denied that despite her lack of any real official position in court, she was influential. She enjoyed legal and social rights, like owning property independently of her spouse, that married women did not have at the time. She was also a benefactress of educational institutions.

In The Spanish Princess, because every drama needs a villain, Margaret Beaufort was portrayed as a scheming woman who had eyes and ears on everything that went on and, on occasion, even wielded power that rightfully belonged to the king. An exaggeration of facts, it seemed to me, but not altogether fictitious. She was capable, she was fierce and she had a real grasp of politics. In one scene, Catherine, of whom Margaret was not enamored, admitted her admiration for the older woman when she said:

You have a stronger claim to the English throne than either your son or grandson. If only women were allowed to rule here as in Spain… I only observe that, given your intellect and ambition, were it not for your sex, you could have been the greatest queen of England.

Maggie Pole

The Spanish Princess is an adaption of Phillipa Gregory’s novels, The Constant Princess and The King’s Curse. The first novel is about Catherine; the second covers the adult life of Margaret “Maggie” Pole, Countess of Salisbury. It has already been announced that The Spanish Princess will have a second season where we’re likely to see more of Maggie Pole.

Who’s is Maggie Pole anyway and what’s her significance in English history?

If you’ve already seen (some episodes) of The Spanish Princess and you think that Maggie Pole is just THE VICTIM of court intrigue, given the treacherous history of her family and its role in at least two incidents of crown-grabbing, well…

Margaret “Maggie” Pole, the daughter of George Plantagenet, was born during The Wars of the Roses — the series of civil wars between The House of Lancaster and the House of York, the two branches of the House of Plantagenet. Maggie Pole’s family was from the House of York. George’s brother, Edward IV, had taken the crown from the mentally incapacitated Henry VI. When Edward IV died, per his wishes, his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, became Lord Protectorate while Edward’s 12-year-old son and heir was a minor. The son became Edward V but was never crowned but imprisoned instead with his younger brother, Richard, Duke of York. Neither were seen again. Richard, the Lord Protector, took the crown and became Richard III.

Right. Family. Middle Ages.

All that no one SEES in The Spanish Princess where Henry VII was king from the first episode until his death in the 8th episode. See, Henry VII did not inherit the crown from his father. He grabbed it from Richard III. Henry, descended from the House of Lancaster, defeated Richard in battle and ended The Wars of the Roses.

It was the end of the Plantagenet dynasty and the beginning of the Tudor Dynasty.

Although peace between the House of Lancaster and House of York was meant to have been achieved by the marriage of Henry VII to Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV, the Lancastrians were still suspicious of Yorkists.

Maggie was married to Henry VII’s cousin, Sir Richard Pole. She should have been safe but had that been the case, The Spanish Princess would have lost half of its story.

Margaret "Maggie" Pole (Laura Carmichael) in "The Spanish Princess" | Image credit: Starz
Margaret “Maggie” Pole (Laura Carmichael) in “The Spanish Princess” | Image credit: Starz

Although initially unfriendly toward Catherine, by the end of Season 1 of The Spanish Princess, they were confidantes.

We know from the TV series that Maggie had a beef with the Tudors who had executed her younger brother because he was “a threat” to the throne being a male descendant of the House of York. Maggie herself was treated mostly with suspicion.

After her husband died, she had five children to feed and they lived in poverty. According to The Spanish Princess, this was the time when Maggie joined the cause of her cousin, Edmund de la Pole, to seize the throne from Henry VII. The plot was discovered, and Maggie and her children were imprisoned until Henry VII died and Henry VIII pardoned her and she returned to court.

According to history, Maggie Pole was not imprisoned until much later when her son, Reginald, refused to support the divorce of Henry and Catherine, and his marriage to Anne Boleyn. Incensed that he couldn’t reach Reginald who had gone on self-imposed exile, Henry arrested members of his family, including his mother, Maggie.

How the story of Maggie Pole and her family will be played out in The Spanish Princess, I am curious to see. So, yes, I am eagerly awaiting the second season.